Geographers from around the world gathered in Old Town Alexandria recently to attend "The Ridenour Symposium: Geopolitics at Virginia Tech," sponsored by the School of Public and International Affairs in Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Organized over the past six months by Gerry Kearns, professor of government and international affairs and director, School of Public and International Affairs; and Gerard Toal, professor and director of Virginia Tech's Government and International Affairs program in the National Capital Region, the Ridenour Symposium was held at the Lyceum Museum the day before the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) convened in Washington, D.C.

Earlier that same week, Government and International Affairs hosted a two-day meeting of the AAG’s Political Geography Study Group, held at the Virginia Tech Alexandria campus.

The one-day symposium was designed to bring together a diversity of speakers and stimulate conversations across disciplinary, theoretical, and political lines; reflect upon the history and practice of geographical reasoning in public affairs, and consider and review the geopolitical challenges of the present-day in a critical open minded manner.

“Because the AAG was holding its annual conference in D.C., we thought it was an excellent opportunity for Virginia Tech to link up visiting geographers with local political scientists to create a discussion about Geopolitics,” said Kearns. Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation; Christopher Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute; Charles Krupchan, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; Derek Gregory, author of works on the geography of colonialism and professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia, and David Harvey, professor, Anthropology, City University of New York, who has been central to the development of geographical perspectives within Marxism, were among the diverse speakers at the event.

“The term ‘geopolitics’ is an essentially contested concept associated with a variety of traditions of thought,” said Toal. “Recent works in academia and beyond have sharpened understanding of these traditions. To some, geopolitics is a tradition of thinking about the relationship between geographic setting, technology and forms of government, a tradition that dates back to classical times. For most beyond academia, geopolitics is simply shorthand for the management of competition between Great Powers, a meaning that Henry Kissinger first helped popularize in the 1970s.”

A wide range of relevant geopolitical topics discussed and debated in panel discussions throughout the day were: What is Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century?, Geopolitics and Empire, War Cultures, Geopolitics and Terror, and Geopolitics and Cosmopolitics. In the session on Geopolitics and Empire, Kearns presented on the arguments of his book, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford University Press, 2009), while in the session on Geopolitics and Terror, Toal described some early results from his work in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Chairing the panels from Virginia Tech (in addition to Kearns and Toal) were Joel Peters, associate professor, and Giselle Datz, assistant professor Government and International Affiars, National Capital Region. Symposium attendees were given an opportunity to participate in a question and answer session that followed each panel presentation.

In addition to the Ridenour Fellowship Fund, the School of Public and International Affairs and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the symposium was supported by the James Bohland Fund for Excellence, the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and Virginia Tech National Capital Region operations.

“The event was a great success with about 150 people attending at various times and never fewer than 80 people in any one session,” Kearns said. “The discussions were lively and several students from Virginia Tech have taken the time to tell me how much they learned by attending. Several students from other colleges and universities even said they wished they were studying at Virginia Tech.

“Geopolitics at Virginia Tech did everything that Gerard and I had hoped it would when we began planning it,” said Kearns.

“The Ridenour Symposium: Geopolitics at Virginia Tech,” is available on video.

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