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Was Geopolitics Born 60 Years Before Mahan and Mackinder? The Forgotten Contribution of Friedrich List

La géopolitique est-elle née 60 ans avant Mahan et Mackinder ? La contribution oubliée de Friedrich List
Juan Fernando Palacio


Cet article étudie la dimension géopolitique de la pensée de Friedrich List. Nous explorerons son intérêt pour la géographie, sa conception et ses prévisions quant à l’ordre mondial ainsi que ses propositions stratégiques applicables aux Nations dans leur quête d’indépendance, de richesse et de pouvoir. De plus, nous montrerons qu’au-delà de sa théorie économique, l’économiste allemand du milieu du XIXème siècle a également développé des idées d’ordre géopolitique. Ces idées peuvent être considérées comme partie intégrante de la tradition de la géopolitique impérialiste au côté des théories développées par Kjellén, Mahan, Ratzel, Mackinder et Haushofer. D’autre part, en raison de sa formation d’économiste, nous verrons comment List est parvenu à développer une pensée géopolitique originale qui se différencie alors des écrits des autres théoriciens de la géopolitique, dans leur majorité géographes.

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1It is commonly accepted that geopolitics emerged as an academic discipline around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. During this period, geographical societies in Europe and North America reached their peak, chiefly boosted by widespread colonialism and the subsequent need by imperialist nations for a better understanding of and control over their colonial possessions. Up until this period, moreover, new land discoveries were exhausted and most of the “available” territories had already been divided between the mightiest states. This meant that cautious strategizing—and not just sheer exploration—became the key to obtaining more territory, resources, and power. This specific context awakened intellectual interest in studying the relations between space and power, as well as in drawing geographic models of the state and of the world order that could guide national foreign policies and strategies.

2Alfred Mahan, Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder, and Rudolf Kjellén—who ultimately coined the term ‘geopolitics’—are those thinkers who have been commonly associated with early imperialist or classical geopolitics. Their main contributions on the subject were written between 1890 and 1917. Ó Tuathail (1996), Atkinson and Dodds (2000), Ó Tuathail et al. (2006), Dodds (2007), Lasserre and Gonon (2008), Black (2009), Criekemans (2009), Venier (2010), and Kaplan (2012), who have all explored the history of geopolitical thought, only cover this set of authors when discussing the earliest developments of the discipline. Just as in the former case, Grypsel (2006, pp. 6–7), Walton (2007), Larsen (2011, p. 39), Boniface (2011, pp. 19–27), and Chapman (2011, pp. 7–8) only consider Ratzel, Kjellén, and Mackinder when referring to the birth of geopolitics. Scholars have not sought to find earlier representatives of such thinking.

3Although several previous authors, including Machiavelli or Herodotus, have been considered forerunners of the discipline, none of them can be regarded as veritable geopolitical thinkers. Their approach and focus differ from those of the classical authors. Specifically, they neither sufficiently underscore the importance of geographical factors in understanding the nature of power, nor do they develop a vision of the world order and a national strategy oriented toward the controlling of space, and which could be materialized by both diplomacy and military action. Besides, most of them belonged to other historical periods and no clearer relationships exist between them and the classical authors.

4By contrast, Friedrich List, the mid-19th century German nationalist economist, presents a different case. Not only was he writing in a period and context that basically share all the characteristics of the classical geopolitical thinkers, but furthermore his thinking also seems to possess all the basic elements of geopolitical thought, as I attempt to show below. Probably one of the few exemptions of this generalized oblivion is the work by Martin Sicker (2010), in which he considers List as “[p]erhaps the earliest theorist of geopolitics, long before the term was concocted” (p. 47). In two paragraphs of his book, Sicker briefly refers to List’s life between Europe and the United States, the influence of American thinking on his ideas, List’s suggestions for German expansion on European soil, and the later misuse and misinterpretation that Nazi Germany made of his thought. Sicker’s indications are a good starting point, yet the label of “earliest theorist of geopolitics” deserves a more profound analysis of List’s oeuvre. That is the aim of this article. After briefly referring to his life, work, and contribution to political economy, I present here the geopolitical aspects of List’s thought, willing to contribute to a broader reconsideration of his work. This survey into List’s thought highlights the magnitude and reach of his geopolitical ideas, not only (1) offering useful geographical insight when analyzing global issues, but also (2) holding a broad view of the world order of his time, and (3) proposing what could be seen as a step-by-step plan for nations wanting to raise their roles in the international scene. I make the case that those three characteristics are the basic elements of geopolitical thought, and that the work of Friedrich List adequately fulfills these requirements.

List’s contribution

5Born in 1798 in the-then independent state of Württemberg, Friedrich List lived in a time when the whole of Europe was accommodating to the consequences of both the industrial and the French revolutions. Germany was but a collection of independent states, kingdoms and principalities, whereas the British Empire had become the mightiest military and economic power on the continent and worldwide. Realizing that economic power was a fundamental key for reaching national power and unity, List devoted himself to strengthening the German economy by way of his theoretical studies and policy recommendations. His premature political activism for promoting a German customs union forced him to live in exile for almost an entire decade, in several European countries, but mostly in the Unites States. After his return to Europe, he wrote his principal work, The National System of Political Economy (1909) [1841], in which he expounded all his economic and political thinking. Today, he is remembered as a rather liberal economist who nevertheless strongly supported protectionism and became one of the first champions of infant industry theory.

6List’s contribution has been discussed in both economics and the political sciences. On the one hand, while he does not rank among the most influential economists, for instance alongside Smith, Ricardo or Say, he has nevertheless been regarded as an exponent of the classical school of economics, even though he did not consider himself as such. Indeed, contrary to the classical tradition, List advocated customs tariffs for manufacturing, since he considered this the only way to ripen the industrial “powers of production,” and as such a means of attaining the highest possible economic development.

7Roll (1992, pp. 204–208), for instance, praises List’s clarity and writing style in contrast with that of the German romantics (Gentz, Müller). He excuses List’s defense of protectionism, since it was derived from the “backward condition of Germany” at his time, and considers him a “representative of [the] nascent industrial capitalism” in his country. Schumpeter (1996, pp. 504–6), on the contrary, points out that the infant industry argument was not completely incoherent with classical economic thought and that it was even present in a major thinker such as John Stuart Mill. Like Roll, he also notes that List’s style is more systematic than that of the German romantics; also, while for Schumpeter his economic theory was not truly original, List was an “able economist who coordinated well” (p. 505). More recently, I have stated (Palacio, 2011) that even if his defense of protectionism was excessive, List deserves more recognition on account of his correct and comprehensive defense of the role of the state in economic development; furthermore, Boianovsky (2011) has contrasted his rather gloomy ideas about the development of tropical countries with the enthusiastic adoption of his thought by Latin American economists.

8On the other hand, List has also been considered a nationalist theoretician. Following Szporluk (1991), it is perhaps more accurate to say that List’s thought presented a real “material basis” for any nationalist movement. Szporluk draws a parallel between Marx’s socialism and List’s nationalism and, as a compliment to the latter, asserts that “List’s nationalism should be understood as ‘scientific’ in the same sense in which one speaks of Marx’s claim” (p. 150). His was a “scientific nationalism” just like Marx’s theory could be presented as “scientific socialism”; that is to say, it was a theoretical framework that offered to some ideologies a plan for existence and enhancement, as well as material support. None the less, as I show below, List’s writings also do indeed exhibit a rich geopolitical vein.

9List’s National System of Political Economy is divided into four books totaling thirty-six chapters: The History (chapters I-X), The Theory (chaps. XI-XXVII), The Systems (chaps. XXVIII-XXXII), and The Politics (chaps. XXXIII-XXXVI). Despite being chiefly a study on economic history and theory, it is also evident at first glance that his economic theory, as well as his aspirations as an economist, are subordinated to a large-scale plan for the rise of Germany as a noteworthy power; generally speaking, his theory and aspirations are subordinated to a strategic vision of the economy and of state power. While the book abounds in geopolitical insight everywhere, the most relevant chapters from a geopolitical perspective are those comprising book 1, as well as chapters XV, XXXV, and XXXVI.

10As said before, there are three reasons why Friedrich List, beyond his economic theory, could be considered a geopolitical thinker. First, List understands very well the economic and military implications of geographical factors, and explains them throughout his book. Second, he has a clear vision of the world order of his time, and uses this vision to make a coherent forecast of the future circumstances in world politics. Third, he proposes a reliable strategy for nations willing to increase their national power and wealth, in accordance with the context and ideas of a historical period lasting at least until the end of World War I. A description of these aspects will follow.

Geographical insight

11Geographical factors play a fundamental role in List’s work. They explain the advantages and disadvantages of every region or territory from economic and military perspectives, and they strongly determine the potential of as yet undeveloped areas. His work also evidences extreme sensitivity regarding boundaries and strategic positions. And, finally, he understands that political and economic power must be thought—and exercised—within a geographical framework.

12Geographical factors are thus fundamental, and feature throughout List’s analysis of both the past and his time. He recognizes, for instance, the role played by geography in the rise of the Italian maritime republics (Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa, Venice). Thus, he writes, “At the revival of civilization in Europe, no country was in so favorable a position as Italy in respect to commerce and industry” (para. I.I.1). He refers to the key characteristics of the Italian peninsula, such as “a genial climate and a fertile soil,” “prosperous coast fisheries,” and “navigation along Italy's extensive sea-coasts,” which “abundantly compensated her lack of internal means of transport.” Moreover, “her proximity to Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt” assured trade advantages for Italy (para. I.I.1).

  • 1 Another remarkable exemption of blending economic and geographical analysis in that time is made by (...)

13When he raises the question about the economic prosperity of countries such as Switzerland or Holland, he suggests, among other factors, their geographical position within Europe. Switzerland’s territory, on the one hand, “is most favorably situated for intermediate trade, and in this respect is in some measure privileged” due to its position at the very center of the European continent (para. II.XXVII.21). On the other hand, Holland (which was the name that List used for the Netherlands) profited from the fertility of the Rhine banks, and from the trade that its navigation permits with Central Europe (para. I.III.6). That is, his analyses never exclude the geographical, which is rather unprecedented in the economic tradition of his time1.

14England, as a very significant example of List’s analysis, largely derived its wealth and dominance over Europe from its territorial isolation. England “was always exempt from the effects of the rivalries, the prejudices, the selfishness, the passions, and the disasters of her Continental neighbors” (I.IV.65). Furthermore, its “isolated condition” permitted “the undisturbed consummation of the Reformation, […] the secularization of ecclesiastical property,” and had sown the seed of social peace needed for the birth of a market-oriented system (I.IV.65).

15Besides, List understands how clever British colonial strategy is as a means of taking control over the world’s oceans. He is highly cognizant of the intimate relation between geography and power:

England has got into her possession the keys of every sea, and placed a sentry over every nation: over the Germans, Heligoland; over the French, Guernsey and Jersey; over the inhabitants of North America, Nova Scotia and the Bermudas; over Central America, the island of Jamaica; over all countries bordering on the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, Malta, and the Ionian Islands. She possesses every important strategical position on both the routes to India with the exception of the Isthmus of Suez, which she is striving to acquire; she dominates the Mediterranean by means of Gibraltar, the Red Sea by Aden, and the Persian Gulf by Bushire and Karrack. She needs only the further acquisition of the Dardanelles, the Sound, and the Isthmuses of Suez and Panama, in order to be able to open and close at her pleasure every sea and every maritime highway. Her navy alone surpasses the combined maritime forces of all other countries, if not in number of vessels, at any rate in fighting strength. (I.IV.44)

16List knows that political borders and frontiers do not in themselves guarantee national security. Some are safer than others. For this reason, he discusses the classes of natural frontiers at some length. While great rivers are the best option as frontiers from a commercial point of view, “sea-coasts, mountains, language, and race, constitute better frontiers” regarding security (IV.XXXV.1). He finds that a nation ought to project its space as far as such natural barriers allow, in order to reach stability and relative security. As I show below, this is exactly his advice for the German nation. In addition, he claims that river-mouths and seacoasts are “indispensable” for nations seeking to develop their commerce and naval power.

17Linked therewith, List is not just interested in geography but in human intervention in geography. He is very concerned with how means of transport can increase the potential of different territorial settings. Mercantile marines, canals, and railroads not only help develop both internal and foreign commerce—and consequently the prosperity—of a nation, but naval power is also essential for acquiring colonies abroad, while canals and railroads help consolidate national unity at home. List missed no opportunity to propose these ideas.

18Climate is a decisive factor in List’s understanding of territory potentialities. For him, the world is divided into two different and distinctive regions: the torrid zone and the temperate zone. The countries of the temperate zone (basically those of Europe and North America) are “most favored by nature” regarding soil productivity and “bodily and mental exertion.” These countries, therefore, are the only ones to reach “the highest degree of mental and social development and of political power” (II.XIII.27). To some extent, torrid zone countries become tributary to those of the temperate zone. On the other hand, he sees colonization as an opportunity for the civilizing and economic development of torrid zone territories; that is to say, it is mutually beneficial in his eyes.

19Interestingly enough, List’s division of the world bears no trace of racism. First, he believes that migration is one crucial element that helps explain prosperity and backwardness in the Europe of his time. Those intolerant countries that ejected entire populations, like Catholic Spain did with the Jews, pay for their deeds with long-term economic stagnation (I.V.3). Liberal and tolerant countries that receive those populations in exile—as well as their capital—gain economic prosperity and dynamism, like England, Holland and Germany did at certain time. Second, List opposed against slavery, even though he believed that the emancipation of slaves was a long-term process to really accustom them to live in liberty and to gain prosperity, or else the outcome could be social chaos. England’s sole interest in propagating the liberation of American slaves was to sow internal strife, and not philanthropy; otherwise, he accuses, the Britons would have done something about the caste system in India (IV.XXXV.20). Third, and more importantly, List was strongly in favor of multi-directional miscegenation and saw in torrid zone countries a high potential for crossings. “It is undeniable that the mixing of two quite different races results, almost without exception, in a powerful and fine future progeny” (II.XVIII.20).

20Importantly, List’s theory includes no absolute geographical determinism. Although he believes that geographical factors play a significant role in domestic and world affairs, it is clear in his conception of history that human beings have room for action. Men and societies ultimately determine human destiny through their achievements and failures. Szporluk (1991, p. 124) points out the same idea. Contrary to Marxist theory, for List there are no inevitable “objective factors” guiding—let along steering—humanity and its history.

List and the world order

21List clearly recognized the motivations underlying state actions on the international stage. Notwithstanding natural miscalculations, his singular vision of the past and the present allowed him to develop an interesting long-term forecast of the world order. Although List’s idea of the future contains some degree of idealism, his approach is rather realistic since it shows an understanding of the nature of conflict among nations.

22Humanity is divided into nations, whose essential drive is, as in the case of individuals, the preservation instinct. In every nation

exists the impulse of self-preservation, the striving for improvement which is implanted by nature. It is the task of politics to civilize the barbarous nationalities, to make the small and weak ones great and strong, but, above all, to secure to them existence and continuance (II.XV.3).

23On the international stage, nations are moved by “interests and sympathies” (IV.XXXV.2-5). Interests could be related to territory, including colonial dominions, and to economic prosperity. Sympathies (as well as antipathies), on the other hand, can stem from issues such as religion, culture, language, “political condition,” which can be understood as the prevailing political regime, and finally from the degree of economic development.

24Some causes of antipathy could also generate new sympathies on a different level:

The less powerful nations sympathize against the most powerful, those whose independence is endangered sympathize against the aggressors, territorial powers against naval supremacy, those whose industry and commerce are defective sympathize against those who are striving for an industrial and commercial monopoly, the half-civilized against the civilized, those who are subjects of a monarchy against those whose government is entirely or partially democratic. (IV.XXXV.4)

25The international system is, however, unstable and dynamic. If interests change, sympathies quickly follow suit. “Those nations who are friends today may be enemies tomorrow, and vice versa, as soon as ever some one of the great interests or principles is at stake by which they feel themselves repelled from or drawn towards one another” (IV.XXXV.5).

26Although every nation should ideally have its own political institutions, its own state, according to List, this is not always the case in reality. Some nations are divided into smaller independent states, such as Germany or Italy. Some others are dominated by foreign powers or, put differently, some nations subjugate “alien races” (I.VII.16), such as Prussia and Austria did with their eastern territories. List apparently disagrees with this practice of subjugation, partly because of his nationalistic idealism (for each nation, its own state), partly because he believes that a united Germany can become one of the most powerful nations in Europe without any eastern expansion.

27However, he very well understands the nation-building power that independent states impose on their territories and populations. A “nation” that does not exercise its independence through political institutions risks being subjugated by a foreign power, as in the case of Poland. On the other hand, independent territories that do not constitute “nations” in List’s sense, could achieve full and complete nationhood. Their cultural independence would derive from their total disconnection from their fatherlands. That was the case of Holland and Switzerland, which, according to List, were once part of the German nation but became unhappily separated from it with the passage of time.

28As mentioned, not all nations have reached the highest possible condition of development, nor do they have the same level of power and independence. “We observe among them giants and dwarfs, well-formed bodies and cripples, civilized, half-civilized, and barbarous” (II.XV.3). The world order is thus complex and asymmetric, far from just, ideal and peaceful.

29In List’s vision of the world order (The National System was published in 1841), the British Empire stands out as the mightiest international actor in the world. He praises without jealousy British control over the oceans, its colonial possessions, its advanced economy, and its political system. He suggests further that Great Britain achieved such dominance also on account of its market-oriented economy, some degree of industrial protectionism, and its liberal political institutions. Notwithstanding his praise, he laments the political and economic hegemony that Britain exercises over Continental Europe. England profits from the weaknesses and divisions of the continent, and strives to maintain the status quo to its own advantage.

30France and the United States are among List’s second category of nations. Those countries have good enough populations, territories, and possibilities of expansion. In addition, they are just behind England’s degree of economic development. And more importantly, they enjoy, each in its own way, political union and cohesion. Russia, on the other hand, is to become an important power and, as List affirms, has succeeded better at commercial policy-making than Germany. Nations such as Spain, Portugal, the Scandinavian countries, or even Holland, are backward, both in economic power and in political influence, although they still could change their course. Although nations such as Germany and Italy have high potential, they lack national unity.

31Finally, the remaining nations are not relevant in the world order. Most of them belong to the torrid zone, so they are—or will eventually fall—under European or US rule. “Wherever the moldering civilization of Asia comes into contact with the fresh atmosphere of Europe, it falls to atoms” (IV.XXXV.21). According to List, those “barbarous” or “semi-barbarous” nations in effect need European control to make any kind of progress.

32He observes Germany’s condition with sorrow. It is the nation with the greatest potential to become the most important economic and political power on the continent. “If any nation whatever is qualified for the establishment of a national manufacturing power, it is Germany” (IV.XXXVI.1). However, it is divided into many independent states. German states cannot reach the highest degree of industrialization and economic development on their own, and thus they cannot compete against British economic and military supremacy. A German union is therefore indispensable. In this sense, List praises the creation of the Zollverein as the embryo of the future German state. Let us not forget that he was one of the forerunners of this idea when he helped found the Union of German Merchants and Manufacturers in Frankfurt; his pioneering role was also the reason for his exile.

33Germany’s whole territory, according to List, was indeed larger than many other conceptions of the country. Naturally, it included Austria, but also Bohemia, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and even Denmark (II.XV.10), which perhaps was too strategically important to be excluded. His advice was to include step-by-step these territories in the German Zollverein, and eventually to turn the customs union into the German nation. German expansionism was not, however, one of conflict, but of arrangement. The Dutch, Swiss, and others would finally conclude that the best alternative for their prosperity was to be part of the unified Germany. For List, the rise of his country was not inevitable, but it was attainable.

34In List’s thinking, a stronger and larger Germany would appear on the European scene, to which his country would contribute peace and stability. Thereafter, Germany would lead a coalition of Continental Europe against the supremacy of England. According to List, this “Continental alliance” (IV.XXXV.15) was the only way of coping with both British industrial monopoly and naval superiority. Thus, the rise of Germany would be well received by the rest of Continental nations because this was the only way in which Continental Europe could match British power (IV.XXXV.16).

35Initially, of course, the British would not be pleased about these developments. “Nevertheless, a glance into the future ought sufficiently to console the Britons for these anticipated disadvantages” (IV.XXXV.30). For List, the greatest threat to any kind of European influence and power over the world was the imminent consolidation of the United States as the most powerful nation on Earth, a development that would happen “probably in the course of the next century” (IV.XXXV.31). The U.S. would not only attain indisputable industrial and naval supremacy, but it would also spread its influence over “immense territories” on the American continent (IV.XXXV.31). “Natural necessity” would therefore oblige the British to sympathize with the Continental alliance, and the European coalition would be established “against the supremacy of America” (IV.XXXV.32).

36Although this European coalition (or the European “Congress of Nations” (II.XI.15), as it is also called in a different passage) would naturally be led by Germany, List does not understand its leadership as oppression over the rest of the nations. Since the convergence of interests was obvious, reaching consensus would not be difficult. Any nation would renounce its particular interests on behalf of the envisaged communitarian ends. Great Britain, for instance, would be “only the first among equals” (IV.XXXV.33).

37Eventually, as List claims, all nations would become part of a world union. This union would not arise from the hegemony of one nation, as if it were an empire absorbing the rest, but from a perfect balance of power among political actors, along with the continuous and rapidly burgeoning intercourse between nations brought about by international commerce and technology. The world union is “an object which is only to be attained through the greatest possible equalization of the most important nations of the earth in civilization, prosperity, industry, and power” (IV.XXXV.1).

38Even if there is certain degree of idealism in List’s last forecast, the reason for his belief in an ultimate peaceful world order is not groundless. First, commerce and transport will increase interconnection and mutual understanding:

It may be already foreseen with certainty, that after a lapse of a few decades the civilized nations of the earth will, by the perfection of the means of conveyance, be united as respects both material and mental interchange in as close a manner as (or even closer than) that in which a century ago the various counties of England were connected (II.XI.15).

39Second, industrialization has increased the cost of war, not only in terms of offensive expenses, but also as regards destruction capacity. “Two nations equally well developed in industry could mutually inflict on one another more injury in one week than they would be able to make good in a whole generation” (II.XI.15). Thus, the net balance of wars becomes less lucrative day by day. Third, the more nations develop their economies and industrialize, and the more prosperous their populations become, the fewer incentives for aggression present themselves on the international stage.

Strategic proposal for nations

40List devised a whole strategy for nations willing to reach independence, wealth, and power. Whether right or wrong, his strategy was complete, consisting as it did of a step-by-step plan for how nations could increase their international relevance and prosperity. Although he focused his advice on the German nation, it is easy to extract a general plan, which could be applied by any other nation, even by ones not belonging to the temperate zone. Besides, his plan fully cohered with the ideas prevalent during the period of imperialist geopolitics. Below, I first consider List’s general plan, and subsequently his specific advice for Germany.

41For List, nations must always be active. Consequently, the best motto for a nation would be progress or perish. “Every nation which makes no forward progress sinks lower and lower, and must ultimately fall” (I.I.12). Every nation has the need of self-preservation, but it also has the mission to enhance human civilization. A nation, by improving itself, serves as a model to other nations and thereby contributes to human progress. Throughout history, some nations take the leading position from time to time, but later they also learn from others, in what constitutes an ongoing process.

42The first imperative of any nation is political unity. A divided nation becomes weak, making it easy to subjugate by foreign powers. No small state can defend its language and culture, nor can it acquire the highest degree of industrialization and therefore the highest degree of prosperity. A divided nation must first struggle against the foreign powers that subjugate it, or against the regionalist tendencies that separate it; thereafter, it can obtain independence and unity, thereby meeting the conditions to aspire to greatness.

43Although List is a liberal, he approves of transitory despotism if this is the only means of achieving political unity. He regards the future benefit as far greater than the cost of the sacrifice. Interestingly enough, List discusses Machiavelli’s The Prince (1998[1515]), as an example of the importance of political unity, even if this must be achieved by “means of usurpation” (III.XXVIII.6). The Italian model of small republics was not viable anymore. Machiavelli—a republican, one may note in passing—was thus a visionary who understood early on that preliminary despotism could be bearable if it entailed independence and national cohesion:

A spirit which even at the beginning of the sixteenth century recognized the advantage of the national arming of Italy, must also have seen that the time for small republics was past, that the period for great monarchies had arrived, that nationality could, under the circumstances then existing, be won only by means of usurpation, and maintained only by despotism, that the oligarchies as they then existed in the Italian republics constituted the greatest obstacle to national unity, that consequently they must be destroyed, and that national freedom would one day grow out of national unity. (III.XXVIII.6)

44Machiavelli’s influence on List was so strong that the function of the last chapter of the National System (“The commercial policy of the German Zollverein”) corresponds to that of the last chapter of The Prince: both are an exhortation for forging the political unity of the homeland.

45Thus, nations have to struggle not just for wealth, but also for “political power” (II.XII.14). Prosperity cannot be perpetually secured without the means for defending it. Both wealth and political power ought to exercise “reciprocal influence” (II.XII.14).

46List stresses certain factors throughout his book as fundamental to national power. As discussed, the first requirement is unity. The other master keys to national power are freedom and industrialization, population and territory, navigation and colonies. According to List, all these elements are necessary; lacking any of them would prevent a nation from attaining the desired power and international relevance. Therefore, List argues, nations need to patiently fulfill these conditions as if they were completing a checklist. On completion, a nation could become really relevant on the international stage.

47Historically speaking, individual freedom and free political institutions have been the key to the wealth and prosperity of nations. Freedom is somehow synonymous with social perfection. “We find the powers of production, and consequently the wealth of individuals, growing in proportion to the liberties enjoyed, to the degree of perfection of political and social institutions” (I.X.2). List verifies this principle in the history of European nations:

The real rise of the industry and power of England dates only from the days of the actual foundation of England’s national freedom, while the industry and power of Venice, of the Hanse Towns, of the Spanish and Portuguese, decayed concurrently with their loss of freedom. (I.X.2)

48And he continues on the important role of institutions:

However industrious, thrifty, inventive, and intelligent, individual citizens might be, they could not make up for the lack of free institutions. History also teaches that individuals derive the greater part of their productive powers from the social institutions and conditions under which they are placed. (I.X.2)

49Clearly, freedom is not just an end in itself, but also a means for fostering industrialization. According to List, the highest degree of economic development is reached when nations have a balanced presence of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures. No matter how significant a nation’s agricultural production or international commerce are, maximal prosperity cannot be attained without industry. Whether commercial protectionism is necessary to do so, as List strongly believes, is by far not as important as the fact that List claims for the industrialization of the economy so any nation can become relevant on the international stage.

50Although free markets and private initiative are necessary for economic prosperity, state intervention can foster the economy. However, such interventionism must be gradual and very carefully designed. Moreover, state intervention is crucial in sectors such as transport and education, and for the promotion of foreign investment and the development of productive chains. Hence, the state must play a role in the modernization of the economy (Palacio, 2011).

51Besides, industry is important to a nation, because wars are likely to happen. In this respect, List openly complains about the assumptions of the classical school of economics. “Although here and there [Smith] speaks of wars, this only occurs incidentally. The idea of a perpetual state of peace forms the foundation of all his arguments” (II.XI.3). On the contrary, he observes that conflicts are frequent among nations and, since foreign commerce risks to be blocked in such cases, a nation ought to pursue “industrial independence in case of war” (II.XII.24). Moreover, at war, industry seems to play a key role in the balance of power and in the ultimate outcome:

At a time where technical and mechanical science exercise such immense influence on the methods of warfare, where all warlike operations depend so much on the condition of the national revenue, where successful defense greatly depends on the questions, whether the mass of the nation is rich or poor, intelligent or stupid, energetic or sunk in apathy; whether its sympathies are given exclusively to the fatherland or partly to foreign countries; whether it can muster many or but few defenders of the country—at such a time, more than ever before, must the value of manufactures be estimated from a political point of view. (II.XVII.22)

52Still on economic issues, List warns of some of the dangers that foreign commerce has for coastal regions. In general terms, external trade is favorable to any nation, but if foreign commerce turns out to assume greater weight than domestic commerce for the border territories, sympathies could easily turn in such regions:

a nation the market of whose coasts belongs more to the foreigner than to itself, is a divided nation not merely in economical respects, but also in political ones. Indeed, there can be no more injurious position for a nation, whether in its economical or political aspect, than if its seaports sympathize more with the foreigner than with itself. (II.XV.33)

53For this reason, if a nation develops its own industry and thereby conducts healthier domestic commerce, it secures better the sympathies of both the border and the coastal territories.

54In addition, List observes the importance of population and territory. Here, size and magnitude are key. Thus, one cannot conceive of a nation as such, unless it exists on a considerable scale. “A large population, and an extensive territory endowed with manifold national resources, are essential requirements of the normal nationality” (II.XV.5). First, in List’s protective economic model, industry needs a large enough domestic market in order to blossom; second, a nation with colonialist ambitions needs a surplus population to spread over its colonies; and third and more importantly, a large nation is the first guarantee for political independence on an international stage such as that of the mid-19th century.

55Furthermore, the national territory must comprise seashores on the one hand, and strong geographical borders on the other. While the former is indispensable to developing a mercantile marine and naval power, and to establishing overseas colonies (II.XV.6), the latter is needed to guarantee national security, for “A nation not bounded by seas and chains of mountains lies open to the attacks of foreign nations” (II.XV.7).

56Precisely this is the key to understanding why List justifies expansionism. If a nation has “territorial deficiencies,” such deficiencies must be “remedied” (II.XV.8) by all means. He identifies four different means of expansion (II.XV.8-9): hereditary succession, “as in the case of England and Scotland”; purchase, “as in the case of Florida and Louisiana”; conquest, “as in the case of Great Britain and Ireland”. The fourth and last means, which would be “more in accordance with justice and with the prosperity of nations than conquest,” is “the union of the interests of various States by means of free conventions.” Although he does not state this openly, it is clear that if a state opposed these “free conventions,” conquest by war would remain a last and useful resort for acquiring a more secure territorial shape.

57Finally, List stresses the role of navigation and colonies. Developing navigation and acquiring colonies certainly make necessary seashores and a mercantile marine, but they also need freedom. “Of all industrial pursuits, navigation most demands energy, personal courage, enterprise, and endurance; qualifications that can only flourish in an atmosphere of freedom” (I.X.3). Wherever he looks for historical and modern examples, he finds that freer nations at the same time excelled at navigation (I.X.3-6). On the other hand, colonies are the cornerstones of economic prosperity, for they provide the raw materials needed for the development of industry back in the imperial nation, as well as a secured market for its own manufactures.

58Notwithstanding the-then advanced state of colonization over the globe, he offered several ideas about where to establish new colonies to nations willing to compete with the possessions of the British Empire. Although he discouraged settlements in North America, since the cultural power of the United States easily amalgamated any kind of European colonization attempt (IV.XXXVI.18-21), he saw fertile soil in Central and South America, in some dominions of the Turkish Empire, and along the upper Danube (II.XV.49, II.XXI.32, IV.XXXVI.24). Specially, he considered there was no reason why the British could claim total sovereignty over large territories such as New Zealand and Australia, for their real occupation only comprised relatively small spots; “it is not clear why the Germans and the French should not have the right to found colonies in those parts of the world at points which are distant from the English stations” (IV.XXXV.24).

59List did not hesitate to apply his strategy to the German case. Following his strategic plan, Germany’s enormous manufacturing potential could be used as a seed to create Europe’s most powerful nation, namely, a progression from guaranteeing national union over developing extensive maritime navigation to acquiring oversees colonies. Leading Europe when the rise of non-European powers would have marked the beginning of a new world order was, in List’s view, the final strategic mission of the German nation.

60First of all, Germany had to consolidate its national unity by using the Zollverein as the embryo of the German nation. On the one hand, the country’s aristocratic political institutions could, as in the case of England, accommodate themselves to the promotion of freedom and free institutions. On the other, levying duties on industrial products would, in his view, help boost industrialization. Then, the Zollverein would sign commercial agreements with Holland, Switzerland, and Austria with a view to persuading these countries to later become part of the German Zollverein. Denmark would finally be convinced of being part of the union. At that moment, Germany could feel content about its population and territorial extension.

61Additionally, Germany had to create a national mercantile marine, thereby increasing its commerce with the United States and with the free nations of Central and South America, and acquiring colonies precisely where List had suggested this was still possible. The British hegemony over the world could be then contested by means of the Continental Alliance. Thereafter, the European Coalition would maintain the global balance of power once the United States had achieved supremacy.

62It is important to observe that List never wanted the rise of Germany to result in domination over either Europe or the world. On the contrary, his broad strategies, and in particular his idea of the protective system, sought a peaceful and democratic world union. The development and rise of all nations, helped by his advice, was just “the most efficient means of furthering the final union of nations” (II.XI.18).

Rethinking List

63It is true that, in a large book chiefly devoted to economic history and theory, List’s scattered geopolitical ideas could be seen as marginal. List’s economic theory easily overshadowed his contribution to imperialist geopolitical thinking. However, this article has sought to reveal, following Sicker (2010)’s suggestion, the breadth and coherence of List’s geopolitical thinking. It seems that his work, which was written six decades before the appearance of the most important contributions to the field, deserves its place in the history of geopolitical thought.

64List’s thinking shares many of the characteristics of authors who belong to the period of imperialist geopolitics, as regards both their kind of analysis and their shortcomings. In retrospect, one of his greatest miscalculations was probably the fact that he underestimated the potential of nations beyond Europe and North America. Interestingly enough, however, if he had reconsidered his assumptions, he would have probably accepted not only that all his advice could have applied to those nations, but also this wider scenario would have reinforced his belief in the need of a future European Coalition, for a wilder and more complex international system was to appear and it had to be tackled with the strength that union brings.

  • 2 Although List was obviously Darwin’s contemporary, the latter’s most influential work, On the Origi (...)
  • 3 One might add, “just like List,” for he also held American citizenship during his exile.

65Not only List’s thinking resembles that of the exponents of imperialist geopolitics, but some of his ideas also coincide with theirs. First of all, List anticipates Mahan’s overwhelming emphasis on “sea power” as a key factor for strategic dominance, a revolutionary idea at the time. Naturally, Mahan substantiates his arguments better with his knowledge of history and strategy of naval warfare. Additionally, Ratzel’s and Kjellén’s organic conceptions of the state, widely understood as a Darwinian inheritance, broadly concur with List’s. All three thinkers considered the state as a living-like entity, that its boundaries are movable, and that its size and shape chiefly depend on its health. Never employing Ratzel’s concept of Lebensraum, List’s thinking was none the less identical. He was something of a pre-Darwinian Darwinian.2 With Mackinder he shares a comprehensive notion of the world order, although List did not commit two of Mackinder’s greatest mistakes: to underestimate the rise of the United States, and to overestimate the potential of railroads for the cohesion of a Eurasia beyond the reach of British naval power. Like Haushofer, List’s vision of the world order is less Eurocentric than Mackinder’s. Interestingly, both List and Haushofer share an absolute lack of interest in a German invasion of Russia, a recommendation not heeded by Nazi Germany. Finally, Isaiah Bowman and Nicholas Spykman, both American thinkers,3 share with List an accurate understanding of the central role to be played by the United States on the international stage.

66List’s geopolitical thinking was naturally impregnated with deep economic insight. His knowledge of economic practice and theory both enhanced his geopolitical ideas and prevented him from committing the mistakes made by some later geographers. For instance, List never doubted the strong interrelation between economic modernization, wealth, and national power; industrialization was therefore a compulsory and pressing strategic goal. In the same vein, List did not fear, as Haushofer did, that the urbanization resulting from industrialization, draining the countryside of peasants, would have negative consequences on territorial control. He knew perfectly well that the power and reach of the military might, along with the transformation of a country full of fluid commerce and a dense transport network, would by far outweigh the new population pattern, thereby guaranteeing more robust territorial control. Additionally, List turns out to be more pro-European than the other thinkers, widely trusting, among others, in the economic benefits of the creation of his so-called European Congress of Nations. His economic vein remains strong throughout.

67It is also remarkable that List’s ideas on world politics clearly integrated several disciplines. He adopted an interdisciplinary approach. It included economics, certainly, but also history, geography, and anthropology. He never deals with the notion of nation in abstract terms, which was all too common in the economic theory that preceded him. His analyses of nations were always linked to their history, their context, and their potentialities. He was consistently clear about the difference between the concepts of state and nation, and was highly sensitive to cultural matters as factors capable of explaining their real or potential degree of cohesion.

68His thinking also reveals traces of both idealism and realism (authors on geopolitics were undoubtedly realists). List’s devotion to the ideas of nationhood and freedom, as well as his certainty about a coming world union in which nations could pursue their interests harmoniously, were undoubted signs of idealism. However, his was a rather controlled idealism. His understanding of the nature of conflict and of the reasons and uses of war among nations were signs of a more realistic approach to world politics. Yet he thought that ensuring the balance of power sufficed to repel individual excesses or abuses, and to promote world empathy and integration.

69Many questions remain open that could be dealt with in further studies. First, it is highly probable that other 19th-century authors, from various different disciplines, have geopolitical ideas of their own, just as List did. Future undertakings could help trace their ideas and relate them to geopolitics. Second, List’s contribution still needs to be more profoundly appraised and compared with the contributions of the classical authors, namely Mahan, Ratzel, Kjellén, Mackinder, and Haushofer, among others. Finally, as his work largely precedes theirs, it would be valuable to investigate to what extent List influenced their ideas, either directly or indirectly.


70This article has explored the geopolitical aspects of Friedrich List’s thinking, the mid-19th century German economist. His most important book, The National System of Political Economy, published 60 years before the classical contributions on geopolitics appeared, contains a wealth of ideas about the role of geography for power and about the state and evolution of the world order. It also devises a consistent strategy for nations willing to attain independence, wealth, and power.

71Geographical factors play a fundamental role in List’s work. They explain the advantages and disadvantages of every region or territory from both an economic and a military perspective, and reveal the potential of certain territories. His work also shows extreme sensitivity toward boundaries and strategic positions. Finally, he understands that political and economic power ought to be thought—and exercised—within a geographical framework.

72List took a broad view of the world order. He recognized the motivations underlying state actions on the international stage. Notwithstanding some miscalculations, he demonstrated a singular vision of the past and the present, from which he developed an attractive long-term forecast of the world order. Although his thought shows some degree of idealism, his approach is rather realistic, since it reveals an understanding of the nature of conflict among nations.

73Moreover, List devised a whole strategy for nations willing to attain independence, wealth, and power. Although he focused his advice on Germany, his strategy could easily be extended to any other nation. The key elements of his strategy were achieving national unity, developing free political institutions, promoting industrialization by state action, ensuring large populations and territories, guaranteeing seashores and strong natural boundaries, developing maritime navigation, and acquiring overseas colonies.

74This article has shown that List can thus be considered an exponent of the discipline of geopolitics, in its classical or imperialist period. It has briefly compared his ideas with those of the classical authors, such as Mahan and Mackinder, tracing some similarities and differences between their approaches and highlighting that a more complete comparison is needed. Finally, it has recommended further research, to establish more clearly List’s influence on other exponents of classical geopolitics, as well as to determine if other 19th-century authors exhibit geopolitical insight similar to his.

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1 Another remarkable exemption of blending economic and geographical analysis in that time is made by List’s compatriot Johann H. von Thünen in his 1826 work The Isolated State. Yet both draw on quite different approaches. While the latter makes abstract assumptions on geographic characteristics (e.g.: flat lands, no communication pathways, etc.) so to detect geometrical patterns in the distribution of the rural use of land (Méndez, 1997; Wheeler, Muller, Thrall, & Fik, 1998), List takes an opposite perspective, highlighting how geographical accidents, climatic factors and means of transport influence the economy. It is also worth of mentioning that even if von Thünen’s work precedes List’s, the National System never refers to it.

2 Although List was obviously Darwin’s contemporary, the latter’s most influential work, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, thirteen years after List’s death. This shows that the single comment Kaplan (2012) makes on List bears an inaccuracy. Kaplan states that Ratzel’s concept of Lebensraum “owes its origin to” List, who, as Ratzel, was “much influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin, and thus developed an organic, somewhat biological sense of geography in which borders were constantly evolving depending upon the size and makeup of the human populations in the vicinity” (p. 80). Indeed, List did develop a biological or organic-like conception of the state regarding geography, but his conception could not have been influenced by Darwin.

3 One might add, “just like List,” for he also held American citizenship during his exile.

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Juan Fernando Palacio, « Was Geopolitics Born 60 Years Before Mahan and Mackinder? The Forgotten Contribution of Friedrich List »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 21 | 2013-3, mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2013, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Juan Fernando Palacio

Ph.D. student and researcher
University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, Universidad EAFIT, Medellín, Colombia

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