Book Review: Il Caspio

Marco Valigi (editor), Il Caspio. Sicurezza, conflitti e risorse energetiche (Bari-Roma, Italy: Laterza, 2014). 214 pp., €20,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788858114643.

Is a “new” Cold War in progress? This is a question on which an intense debate is being developed in the political and academic fields, in the light of the many areas of friction growing between the interests of Western countries, led by the United States on the one hand, and Russia on the other. The use of some past categories, however, may prevent a real understanding of the ongoing dynamics of the many areas of the growing friction. The Moscow attempt to revise the international political order, which emerged between 1989 and 1991, neither had global ambition nor could have the restoration of the bipolar system as a final outcome. This challenge primarily takes place in the Post-Soviet Space, due to the Moscow’s fear that its “near abroad” would be overwhelmed by that of “shared abroad” or “Western abroad.”

This is not the main research question of Il Caspio. Sicurezza, conflitti e risorse energetiche, edited by Marco Valigi. It is within this wider debate, however, that this volume could be placed, arousing the interest of scholars whose surveys are not limited to the Post-Soviet Space. Furthermore, it enhances the debate with the hypothesis of a more complex geopolitical chessboard in the area, involving Iran’s regional ambitions of greatness and the Chinese race for the Caspian hydrocarbon reserves.

Indeed, an explanatory effort shapes the entire work. The main and explicit aim of Il Caspio is to pinpoint and interpret the origins and the evolution of the main power dynamics in an area that had already been the preferred subject of analysis of the classical geopolitics theories, which identified it as the “heartland” of the political world affairs. The effectiveness of this attempt—as outlined by the editor in his opening chapter—is connected to the first pillar of the study, namely the attention for the role played by geographical factors in modeling power relations. A well-established tradition—whose starting point were the works of Halford Mackinder, Ludwig Dehio, and Carl Schmitt, including the contemporary studies of Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Alessandro Colombo—confirms the subject matter choice of the volume. According to this framework, the influence of geography is not confined to defining the two dimensions of hard power, the political-strategic and the economic-strategic, but contributes also in molding the geopolitically-steeped definition of soft power operating as a source of legitimacy, or as a tool of steering political forces.

From the attention conferred on the relation between geography and politics, springs one of the elements of the volume’s originality. Indeed, also in the light of the political developments that occurred in the twenty-first century, stands out the will to overcome the consolidated regional and sub-regional subdivisions, advancing the idea of the necessity to consider the Caspian-Caucasian area as an autonomous regional security complex. Due to the role of “connector” played by the inner sea, this area appears more as a new geopolitical space with the function of crossroads amidst at least two regions—the Post-Soviet Space and the Greater Middle East. The Caspian-Caucasian area’s extension develops both in the longitudinal and latitudinal direction, unifying several territories: the Caucasus, a portion of Central Asia, Russia, and Iran. The current balance of power is not the result of an equation determined exclusively by the interests of the States bordering—or next to—the inner sea, but, as highlighted in the book, also due to the exogenous variable of the American offshore superpower. At the same time, the balance of power is distinguished by political formulas, alliances and actors—with the exception of the United States—not present in more than two regional security complexes.

The second pillar of the volume concerns the concept of security, which represents the starting point of all the chapters. As in the more recent tradition of security studies, this perspective, while finding a crucial issue in the use of force, also embraces other dimensions. To develop a multi-dimensional concept of security in a better way, Marco Valigi shaped a multi-institutional group of research scholars from universities, think tanks, and international oil companies, with various—but complementary—scientific experts in political science, international law, and political economy. In this perspective, along with the political and military features, Il Caspio illustrates the extent to which the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and the energy issues take on a special meaning for the geopolitical dynamics of this security complex.

As evidence in the various chapters suggests, the Caspian area indeed presents several features which, according to a well-grounded literature, could constitute a source of multiplication for the possibilities of regional disorder. Il Caspio especially highlights some conditions which interrogate the security of the individual states, increasing the chances that the region could become a theatre of confrontation among the great powers. In particular, the geographical proximity of Russia and Iran to the area is already triggering the competition with the United States and its allies for the primacy over the Caspian region (Stephen Blank and Ernur Sultanov). Moreover, the current study examines the presence of some unconsolidated regimes and de facto States lacking international recognition, as a consequence of ethnic and cultural cleavages crosscutting the boundaries of several countries and durable frozen conflicts related to disputed sovereignty and of the cyclical outbreaks of violence (R. Craig Nation). In addition, the progressive consolidation of some energy-based economies is examined in the presence of the incomplete processes of marketization and States ravaged by international sanctions (Indra Overland, Maria Sangermano and Matteo Verda). Lastly, it observes the legal disputes between States for the sovereignty over the Caspian Sea, and the arms race linked to it (Cristiana Carletti and Azad Garibov).

From a combination of the geopolitical perimeter, the theoretical pillars, and the intended target of the work, finally comes an unintentional, but not less important, aim of the volume; which is its significant contribution to the recently formed research area in Italy on the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Gabriele Natalizia, Link Campus University, Rome

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