The Revenge of Geography

the-revenge-of-geography

This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.

Pros:

  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.

Cons:

  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

2 thoughts on “The Revenge of Geography

  1. I’ll do it chapter-by-chapter to keep with the organization of the book.

    Part 1: Visionaries

    Ch 1. From Bosnia to Baghdad

    The cultural idea of “Central Europe” arose in the 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But according to various geographical theories and according to history, Central Europe makes little political sense: it is frequently a mere cushion between Europe and Russia (or between Europe and the Mongols centuries earlier). Thus, the question is, “Will Central Europe, as an ideal of tolerance and high civilization, survive the onslaught of new great power struggles.” This kind of thinking sets up the framework for the rest of the book.

    Ch 2. The Revenge of Geography

    In addition to looking at other political theories, one should understand geography, “the backdrop to human history itself.” He gives a few simple examples for illustration, with more nuance later. E.g., Central Europe has no geographical impediment to either the west (with Germany and even France) or the east (with Russia), so it has not been able to stabilize for very long. Greece, the earliest point of European civilization, was the closest point in Europe to the Egypt. Great Britain as an island vs Germany as a continental power: Britain could secure its borders, develop democracy earlier, and take control of the seas. China has access to the Western Pacific and has land reaching to oil-rich Central Asia; even were Brazil to have China’s economic growth, it would be too geographically isolated to be as significant in world politics. And so on. However, one has to “not go too far in this line of argument.”

    Ch 3. Herodotus and His Successors

    Talks about William McNeill and Marshall Hodgson, then goes back in time to discuss Herodotus. Also Hans Morgenthau, who was discussed earlier as well.

    Ch 4. The Eurasian Map.

    Main focus on Halford Mackinder, whose 1904 article “The Geographical Pivot of History” became influential and who arguably founded the field of geopolitics. In particular, he argued that the Heartland (roughly Russia + Central Asia, or the USSR at one point) is the critical pivot. In addition, Eurasia is referred to as the “World Island,” which is important because is contains a majority of the world’s population and economy. This is why the discussion of Central Europe was important.

    Ch 5. The Nazi Distortion

    Spends a chapter on the misappropriation of Mackinder’s thesis by Nazi Germany. Karl Haushofer is discussed as the main hijacker, and Robert Strausz-Hupé as the rescuer of Mackinder’s theory.

    Ch 6. The Rimland Thesis

    Main focus on Nicholas Spykman. Talks about the geography of the Americas a bit, and then goes back to Eurasia to somewhat counter Mackinder’s thesis. Rather than the Heartland being the most important, it is the Rimland, roughly a ring of states near the seas, including Western Europe on one side and China, Korea, and Japan on the other, with the Middle East at a third barrier to the ocean. Spykman wrote, “For two hundred years, since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has attempted to break through the encircling ring of border states and reach the ocean. Geography and sea power have persistently thwarted her.”

    Ch 7. The Allure of Sea Power.

    Focus on Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” which argued the importance of controlling the seas. From Kaplan: “In a sign of how the power dynamics of the world are changing, Indian and Chinese strategists avidly read Mahan; they, much more than the Americans, are the Mahanians now: they are building fleets designed for armed encounters at sea, whereas European navies view sea power only in terms of constabulary action.”

    Ch 8. The Crisis of Room

    Notes the technological “collapse of time and distance,” leading to a small world with many big players. Kaplan notes, among other things, that because of the crisis of room, geography “no longer reigns supreme to the extent that it used to.”

    Part 2: The Early Twenty-First Century Map
    (Much of the discussion is on how geography affected the history, but I’m going to summarize the future predictions.)

    Ch 9. The Geography of European Divisions

    Europe’s center of mass will shift south, with its population becoming more African and Middle Eastern, and also with significantly increased immigration from the Third World. The Mediterranean will be the “connector, rather than the divider.” The Sahara Desert denotes Europe’s real southern boundary. Germany and Greece will be the key nations because of their locations.

    Ch 10. Russia and the Independent Heartland

    This chapter contains perhaps more geographic determinism than necessary: focuses on Russia’s status as a land power: “Without seas to protect them, they are forever dissatisfied and have to keep expanding or be conquered in turn themselves.” Also with the cold climate, Russia was more prone to communism in the first place, and is inherently more militarized. Anyway, the relevant idea is Russia’s back-and-forth oscillation between shifting to be closer to Western Europe (Peter the Great, or Yeltsin/capitalism) or focusing on its own Heartland. “Putin has opted for neo-czarist expansionism… yet even Putin has not altogether given up on the European dimension of Russian geography. To the contrary, his concentration on Ukraine as part of a larger effort to re-create a sphere of influence in the near-abroad is proof of his desire to anchor Russia in Europe, albeit on nondemocratic terms. Ukraine is the pivot state that in and of itself transforms Russia.” Also discusses the necessity of the Russia-Iran relationship.

    Ch 11. The Geography of Chinese Power

    Starts with Mackinder’s extraordinarily positive assessment of China’s geography. “Mackinder actually feared that China would one day conquer Russia. Furthermore, as Mackinder wrote in 1919 in Democratic Ideals and Reality, if Eurasia conjoined with African forms the “World-Island”… then China, as Eurasia’s largest continental nation with a coastline in both he tropics and the temperate zone, occupies the globe’s most advantageous position.” Also this: “The paramount American position in the Pacific is an outdated legacy of World War II, which left China, Japan, and the Philippines devastated; nor can the division of Korea, a product of fighting that ended six decades ago, and left the U.S. military with a dominant position on the peninsula, last forever.” The tension will be largely on the American side, trying to balance a declining hegemony in the Pacific with a way (the book talks about alliance with Japan, India, etc) to check the growing power of China.

    Ch 12. India’s Geographical Dilemma

    Probably the most clear writing in this book: “As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia in the twenty-first century. India, in other words, looms as the ultimate pivot state.” India’s location is critical for access to both East Asia and the Middle East. Also, “a stable and reasonably moderate Afghanistan becomes truly the hub of not just southern Central Asia, but of Eurasia in general…. But that is not the situation that currently obtains. For now, the Greater Indian Subcontinent features among the least stable geopolitics in the world.” Also, the lack of an equivalent of the Mediterranean sea and lack of islands made India historically a land power; with recent technology, however, India’s naval presence is swiftly increasing and will play a significant role in the region’s balance of power.

    Ch 13. The Iranian Pivot

    This chapter is about the Middle East in general and focuses on Iran as it is in the most geographically significant position. It also happens to be among the more technologically and culturally sophisticated countries in the Middle East. The writing is more vague and nonspecific here: “Geography dictates that Iran will be pivotal to the trend lines in the Greater Middle East and Eurasia, and it may dictate how it will be pivotal, but it cannot dictate for what purpose it will be pivotal. That is up to the decisions of men.”

    Ch 14. The Former Ottoman Empire.

    Particularly important was Turkey’s position with regards to NATO and the EU. Other Middle Eastern countries are discussed as well, esp about the recent uprisings.

    Part 3: America’s Destiny

    Ch 15. Braudel, Mexico, and the Grand Strategy

    Mexico is particularly important to America’s future. In particular, America needs an exit strategy from history as a world power. Surrounded on both sides by oceans and above by a border that doesn’t matter, the only vulnerability is its southwestern border. The population infusion from Mexico would “change the American character.” Kaplan: “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, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east to west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Finally, “we must be a balancing power in Eurasia and a unifying power in North America–doing both will be easier than doing just one.”

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