European Affairs

“The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate,” by Robert D. Kaplan     Print Email
Reviewed by William Marmon, Managing Editor of European Affairs

billmarmoneditIf you like maps, as I do, you will find interesting, and possibly compelling, Robert Kaplan’s new book, “The Revenge of Geography.”  Kaplan likes maps, a lot.

“Geography,” he writes, “is the backdrop to human history itself….It can be as revealing about a government’s long-range intentions as its secret councils.  A state’s position on the map is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophy, even.”

Kaplan, in this erudite and important book, claims he understands the dangers and limits of “geographical determinism,” but in most of the 400 pages you would not be aware of this restraint.   Kaplan writes lyrically about the lessons of geography, both in understanding the past and predicting the future.  And he goes beyond history to find cartographic lessons about the human condition:  “Maps are a rebuke to the very notions of equality and unity of humankind, since they remind us of all the different environments of the earth that make men profoundly unequal and disunited in so many ways, leading to conflict, on which realism almost exclusively dwells.”

Kaplan worries about the dangers of forgetting about geography.  And forgetting geography was one consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall, was to lead to the false conclusion that barriers could be torn down and ignored and made us blind to impediments that still divide and create conflict.  The map teaches that the end of the Cold War was not the End of History, not the end of the Hegelian conflict between geopolitical forces.   Tom Friedman notwithstanding, the world is not flat and policy makers who ignore geography will eventually rediscover it at their peril.  A proper attention to geography, thinks Kaplan, leads to realism and pragmatism, as opposed to idealism and optimism.

Kaplan has written fourteen books on foreign affairs and travel, including well received “Balkan Ghosts.”  “Revenge of Geography” was recently called out by Fareed Zakaria as his “book of the week.” Kaplan has traveled widely and deeply, particularly into obscure reaches of central Asia and Eastern Europe.  He served in the Israeli army in the 1970s , a fact he mentions in the book at page 313,  in an aside in  his chapter on the former Ottoman Empire.  He has been a foreign correspondent for “The Atlantic” and was named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by “Foreign Policy” magazine.  Recently he has joined the strategic advisory think-tank Stratfor as its chief geopolitical analyst.

Kaplan makes the case for taking the long view of history.  “The more we remain preoccupied with current events the more individuals and their choices matter, but the more we look out over the span of the centuries the more that geography plays a role.”

In the first couple of chapters Kaplan lays out the framework for his map-based world view and introduces several 19th and early 20th century thinkers, among whom Halford J. Mackinder, seems to have powerfully influenced Kaplan.  In 1904 Mackinder wrote an article “The Geographical Pivot of history,” arguing that control of the Eurasian “heartland” would determine the fate of competing empires.  And throughout the book Kaplan returns to Mackinder as well as to more recent  geopoliticians like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas J. Sprykman to support  describing  history in geographically based terms.

Kaplan follows with  a series of chapters that take a tour of considerable intellectual  force and far horizon around the globe,  showing in each area the critical and underlying importance of geography on the past and how it provides the basis for his predictions—some of them quite startling—about the future.  

On Europe, which Kaplan notes approvingly has been called “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia,” Kaplan says: “To understand geopolitics in the twenty-first century, we must start with the twentieth, and that means Europe.”  He says that Europe was shaped by the influx of Asian hordes and that in the 21st century Europe will continue to be influenced by relations with the East, particularly Russia.  History repeats itself in many spheres.  E.g.  German anger over the Greek debt crisis is merely a reprise of “timeless expressions of different development patterns” of northern Europe versus Mediterranean and Balkan Europe.

And furthermore, says Kaplan with characteristic flourish, “Europe will not be denied its variety within.  In other words, the very fact that Europe at the moment faces no conventional military threat could leave it prey to the narcissism of small differences.”

“Europe, the map suggests,” says Kaplan, “has significant future in the headlines.”   Why would this be?  Geography of course.  “It is the delicious complexity of Europe’s geography with its multiplicity of seas, peninsulas, river valleys and mountain masses that have assisted in the formation of separate language groups and nation states, which will continue to contribute to political and economic disunity in the years to come despite pan-European institutions.”

He notes that Europe is characterized with a deviating and shattered coastline that extends 23,000 miles—a length equal to the circumference of the earth and a higher ratio of coastline to landmass than any other continent or subcontinent—with the effect of creating a dynamism and mobility and has led to strikingly different communities, again contributing to the history of conflict.

Kaplan predicts that just as Europe has moved eastward to encompass the former states of the Soviet Union “Europe will now expand to the south to encompass the Arab revolutions.”  He concedes that Tunisia and Egypt are not likely to join the EU, “but they are about to become shadow zones of deepening EU involvement.  Thus the EU will become an even more ambitious and unwieldy project than ever before.”  Kaplan notes approvingly that Mackinder argued that the Sahara desert was Europe’s true southern boundary because it cut off equatorial Africa from the north.

Kaplan predicts the future of Europe will turn on the events in Germany, Russia and, improbably, Greece.  He poses the now familiar question about whether a debellicized  Germany will “partly succumb to Russian influence, leading to a somewhat Finlandized eastern Europe and an even more hollow North American Treaty Alliance” or will Germany “subtly stand up to Russia…even as its society remains immersed in a post-heroic quasi-pacifism.”

Greece will be important because it will provide “an insightful register on the health of the European project.”   Kaplan notes that while European history began in Greece, Greece is subject to the pull of the east because it is on the eastern fringe of Europe (or on the western fringe of Asia) and barely remained in the western camp at the beginning of the Cold War because of its own civil war and the fateful negotiations between Churchill and Stalin that made Greece a part of NATO although history could have gone the other way with Greece behind the Iron Curtain.  Ongoing concerns about whether Greece would remain in the Eurozone seem to support Kaplan’s idea of Greece as a register.

Kaplan goes on to discuss Russia, China, India, Iran, the former Ottoman Empire, as well as America.  His research is vast and his knowledge prodigious.  And just when the book appears to be bogged down in ancient details, Kaplan will surprise you with a zinger prediction.  E.g. “America, I believe will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a “Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south rather than as an east to west…”

Kaplan stretches his geographical world view to and past the breaking point, but one senses he knows that and is showing off his debating prowess.  And prowess there is.  Highly recommended.

“The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate,” by Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 403 pages.