Every human action creates a certain degree of spatial impact.  Although their essential causes can be similar, outcomes of some actions are barely noticeable, whereas others can transform the course of humanity.  Conflict between rowdy Walmart shoppers on Black Friday has no different cause than wars between two or more countries—the actors fight for control over space, power, and resources.  What makes a difference between these two types of conflicts is their scale and magnitude of outcome.

A midnight brawl at Walmart is confined to a small area.  Its protagonists end up with some stitches and as the subject of a thirty-second report on the local news.  A war between two or more countries has much larger proportions, potentially a global impact, and can end with millions of casualties.  Yet wars are nothing but Walmart fights on a vastly greater dimension.  If we understand how personal conflicts over space originate, and how to solve them, then we can comfortably employ a similar approach to wars between states.

Individual and “Collective” Behavior in Personal Space

When we observe how contemporary humans utilize space, and what kind of conflicts stem from their behavior, it helps us to understand why countries behave in their particular ways.  Beware, however, that countries are concepts and cannot behave in any way; humans who run the countries do behave in their particular ways and each of their actions creates a measurable spatial impact.  It is the individual action, compounded through time, with those of their countrymen that forms cultural guidelines for behavior; i.e., the way countries behave in their particular ways.

An individual utilizes space according to his/her cultural guidelines.  Depending on their cultural background some people can be rather aggressive, others rather laid back. Some need plenty of personal space, while others feel uncomfortable if they are not standing close to each other.  Although personal space in different regions and cultures—whether Japan, India, Iceland, or Uruguay—is hardly identically utilized, all humans share a cultural trait of desire for dominance.  In that regard the individual’s immediate area of surrounding is of utmost importance. This is of particular significance for people who hold political power.

Persons in power can and do extrapolate their own spatial behavior into their countries’ actions on the global scene.  At the same time, this deeply-engraved cultural trait is very difficult to put aside when considering their equivalents in other countries.  Misunderstanding of how and why individuals from other countries behave in their own space is among the leading causes of conflicts when we act within their sphere of influence.  Test it personally by:

  1. Travelling to a distant foreign land and walking immediately upon arrival through a busy street during rush hour
  2. Conducting an official business meeting (on equal terms) in a room where you are the only foreigner among a large number of individuals from that country
  3. Trying to change people’s behavior in both instances without causing a conflict

In each instance a conflict will arise, because in the context of cultural interaction space equals power.  (S)he who controls the power over space has a stronger influence and greater control than others.  The others have to concede their own space, hence their power, to the more powerful one.  This seldom occurs on a voluntary basis, even when it seemingly appears that way.  Think about instance in which you have witnessed or experienced such an interaction and your role in that interaction (as a boss or an apprentice).  What were the outcomes?

Think Locally Act Globally

Avoidance of conflict, by appearing to gallantly allow an aggressive intrusion into one’s personal space, should not be mistaken for welcoming such an action.  It is simply a strategy in conflict management a) in hope that giving away some space will satisfy the other side, or b) buying time for more appropriate and stronger future reaction.  Both sides know that the ultimate purpose of their spatial interaction is to acquire an ultimate level of power.  Think, for example, how space/power strategies work in business environments and who gets to control what depending on spatial assertiveness.

[Need for large personal space does not necessarily relate to avoidance of conflict.  This may be true in one’s own country and cultural environment.  Americans, especially those residing in the country’s interior, tend to have a large personal space even compared to rest of their countrymen.  Yet in a different spatial environment it can be a significant contributor to conflict.  Many American servicepersons and civilians who spent time in Afghanistan or Iraq—myself included—have experienced serious problems in trying to navigate through local conditions.  Demand for personal space much greater than the ordinary in an area unaccustomed to it is a sure catalyst for conflict.  Many have paid with their lives for not grasping that fact.]

Figure 1.  An example of spatial interaction and the use of personal space to promote specific agendas.  (Photograph by the author.)

Finding a balance in the fight over space is extremely difficult.  For most individuals eager to acquire more power, space is like a box of chocolates—the process is not over until all resources are acquired, controlled, and consumed.  Leaving something for the others, even small pieces, is perceived as allowing them power they should not have.  When we employ this philosophy to study actions between the countries around the globe, friendly or adversarial to each other, we notice a methodological trend.

Individuals who run powerful countries and manage their foreign policy seem to perceive this planet as a box of chocolates.  The resources must be acquired, controlled, and unilaterally consumed.  Others have no choice other than to concede.  Yet even if such an attitude is not inappropriate in one’s own cultural geographic environment, the consequences can become dire when it is employed in a foreign cultural geographic environment.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of behavior we can currently observe throughout much of Eurasia.  Conflicts are arising in different areas, between various actors whose actions are bounded with a common denominator of continuous intrusions into each other’s space.  Fewer and fewer parties are gallantly willing to accept any type of aggressiveness. Their strategy of giving away some of their space in order to satisfy the other side is not working.  They are now buying time for a stronger reaction in the (near) future.  Individuals in power will make their countries behave in a manner that will result in a similar outcome to that at Walmart on Black Friday.  Except that nuclear weapons create infinitely greater damage than does a hit on the head with a 12-inch frying pan.

Act Locally, Too

Leonid Brezhnev, it has been said, had changed his official title in order to “fix” the diplomatic protocol and be the first to exit the plane and meet awaiting foreign dignitaries. Prior to that, the protocol would relegate him several spots toward the back of the line.  Despite being the most powerful person in the Soviet Union, Mr. Brezhnev had to adjust his personal space in order to reflect his status and power.

Decision makers can greatly benefit from learning about how their own personal spatial behavior influences conditions and interactions with others.  Such an understanding is among the most important factors in global conflict resolution, should they choose an option of peaceful coexistence rather than conflict.

Scale, Magnitude, and Power in Geography of Conflict
Tagged on: