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Robert D. Kaplan


Random House, NY., 2012, 403 pgs., excellent maps, end-notes, index


Reviewer's Comments: The author is a much published world traveler. He was a foreign correspondent for many years, a Visiting Professor at the Naval Academy, a member of the Defense Policy Board, and fellow at the Center for a New American Security and currently a member of Stratfor.


Preface - Frontiers - in which Mr Kaplan opens his book in standard journalist fashion with a personal story of his visit to Iraq and 'Kurdistan'. There follows mentions of several other journeys, involving crossing borders. He has been to the places he describes. His book is about the significance of geographical reality on human responses. He does not focus only on physical geography - terrain, climate and the like - but more on geographical location. And throughout he focuses on history to show how geographical reality had an impact on human history.
He writes, "You do not have to be a geographical determinist to realize that geography is vitally importat.' And, "I am merely providing geographical and historical context to current events: the Arab revolt for democracy began in what in historical terms was the most advanced society in the Arab world - the one physically closest to Europe - yet it also began specifically in a part of that country which since antiquity had been ignored and suffered consequent under development."


Part I - Chapters 1 - 8 This section is a discussion about various famous authors of geopolitical theory.
In Chapter 1 Kaplan writes, "To recover our sense of geography we first must fix the moment in recent history when we most profoundly lost it, explain why we lost it, and elucidate how that affected our assumptions about the world. " He places that moment at the fall of the Berlin Wall. He notes the profound geographic difference between Bosnia and Baghdad was lost. "Indeed, an invasion of Iraq began to emerge as a cause in the 1990's when the U.S. military was seen as invincible against the forces of history and geography, ..."

In Chapter 2 he continues, "The debacle of the early years in Iraq has reinforced the realist dictum, disparaged by idealists in the 1990's that the legacies of geography, history and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place." "Human nature - the Thucydidean pantheon of fear, self-interest and honor - makes for a world of incessant conflict and coercion." "Geography is the backdrop of human history itself." "It is my contention that in embracing realism in the midst of the Iraq War, however, uneasily we did so - and for however short a time we did so - what we actually embraced without being aware of it was geography...."
"That is the aim of my study - to have an appreciation of the map so that, counterintuitively, we need not always be bounded by it. " " Take Iraq and Pakistan, which are in terms of geography arguably the two most illogically conceived states between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Subcontinent, even as the relief map decrees Afghanistan to be a weak state at best."
"I am aware that I am on dangerous ground in raising geography on a pedestal. I will, therefore, in the course of this study, try to keep in mind always Isaiah Berlin's admonition from his celebrated lecture ...... in which he condemns as immoral and cowardly the belief that vast impersonal forces such as geography, the environment, and ethnic characteristics determine our lives and the direction of world politics."
In Chapter 3 on Herodotus and his successors Kaplan cites William H. McNeill, Freya Stark, and Marshall G. S. Hodgson on the geography of Iraq. He continues with citation of McNeill, the Rise of the West in opposition to Spengler, Toynbee and Huntington. He then references Morgenthau. and devotes several pages to Herodotus.
In Chapter 4 he turns to some famous geopolitical thinkers. "Geography is the very basis for strategy and geopolitics, Strategy as defined by Napoleon is the art of using time and space in a miliary and diplomatic manner." But, Kaplan notes, "Morgenthau calls geopolitics a 'pseudoscience' because it erects 'the factor of geography into an absolute'". Kaplan describes Halford Mackinder's theory of the 'heartland'. "The implicit assumption on Mackinder's thesis is that Eurasia will dominate geopolitical calculations, even as Europe will be less and less of an entity separate from the rest of Eurasia and Africa."
In Chapter 5 Kaplan turns to Mackinder's distorter. This was German Major General Professor Doktor Karl Haushofer. Haushofer's theory was part of the Nazi idea of Lebensraum. Kaplan turns to Robert Strause-Hupe to demolish Haushofer.
In Chapter 6 Kaplan discusses Nicholas J. Spykman's theory of 'rimland'. While Mackinder stressed the dominant geopolitical power of the 'heartland' that is Russia and Central Asia, Spykman did something of the opposite by stressing the significance of the seaboard regions around Eurasia.
In Chapter 7 Kaplan turns to theory of sea power, and Alfred Thayer Mahan.
In Chapter 8 we find Paul Bracken, whose book Kaplan writes 'is very much in the spirit of Mackinder and Spykman. Kaplan writes that he has been much influenced by Prof. Bracken. He cites Bracken's concept "that technologies of war and wealth creation have always been closely connected." And that the 'rise' of Asia economically will mean its the rise of its military power as well. Kaplan quotes, "Disruptive technology changes the game. By upsetting existing advantages, it nurtures new skills and fosters different strategies. The resulting uncertainty shakes up the established order and changes the standards by which leadership is measured." Kaplan applies Bracken's theories to the future of Asia. He points out that "It is the freedom to concentrate military equipment in key locations around the world that has preserved American military might."
And, "we may be entering a world of multidimensional brinkmanship."
And, "The worries of Mackinder and Spykman will not only be inensified by the disruptive technologies that Bracken concentrates on, but by the sheer rise of urban populations themselves, which will make the map of Eurasia only more claustrophobic."
"The megacity will be at the heart of twenty-first century geography."
"Urbanization also accounts for the far more progressive demonstrators for democracy who overthrew various Arab regimes in 2011."
"Bracken warns that nationalism is 'dangerously underrated' by Western observers....."
"Understanding the map of the twenty-first century means accepting grave contradictions."
"The very burden of governing vast, poor urban concentrations has made statehood more onerous than at any previous time in history..."
"a state is a bad fit, he (Jakub Grygiel) goes on, for those with absolutist goals inspired by religious zeal or ideological extremism that can never be realized by statehood."
Phillip Bobbitt described the end of the nation-state in Shield of Achilles.
Kaplan explains that in the next section he will apply some of the theories mentioned to the specific geographical regions and will describe geography as it affects history.


Part II - Chapter 9 - Geography of European Divisions - It is a common mistake to leave Europe out of contemporary geopolitics. Geopolitical study should begin with Europe.
Kaplan writes,"Europe, as we know from Mackinder, has had its destiny shaped by the influx of Asian hordes."
Really, which hordes? I can think of the Magyars, who hardly shaped European destiny. The chapter describes European history largely in terms of the ways in which geography influenced actions and results. Kaplan repeats his thought that it was 'rich forest soils' that favored northern Europe, but I was taught it was rainfall enabling independent farmers without the need for organized irrigation systems.


Chapter 10 - Russia and independent heartland No question that geographical constants such as latitude, cold weather, short growing season and winter darkness, mostly flat steppe terrain and all greatly influenced the creation of Russia out of Muscovy. Interestingly it is obvious that the forest soil of Russia is not 'rich' at all but it is the grasslands of Ukraine and Kuban that provide productive agriculture, again without necessity of irrigation. Insecurity created by lack of defensible natural obstacles has dominated Russian mentality. Kaplan mentions Kievan Rus and Muscovite Tsar Ivan IV and Emperor Peter I. Kaplan's discussion of the geographical influence on Russian history is straight forward and routine. He points out that today Russia's power lies in its huge natural resources, for instance oil and natural gas, which it uses for political as well as economic objectives.


Chapter 11 - Geography of Chinese Power- China is blessed by geography. It not only occupies a major portion of the central Asian heartland but also has a very long coastline with many good ports giving it the ability to extend power in both directions. China also is in favorable latitudes, mostly temperate but with some semi-tropical as well Kaplan's assessment of China's strengths and weaknesses is also 'standard', not as 'hawkish' as some nor 'dovish'. He summarizes the expansion of the Han thusly;
"A pattern had developed. China's settled agricultural civilization had to constantly strive to create a buffer against the nomadic peoples of the drier uplands bordering it on three sides, from Manchuria counter clockwise around to Tibet."
Today, "The question now becomes whether the dominant Hans, who comprise more than 90 percent of China's population and live mainly in the arable cradle of China, are able to permanently keep the Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians who live on the periphery under control, with a minimum degree of unrest."
"Geography indicates that while China's path toward ever greater global power may not be linear - its annual GDP growth rates of over 10 percent for the past thirty years simply cannot continue - China, even in socioeconomic disarray, will stand at the hub of geopolitics."
"China's internal dynamism, with all of its civil unrest and inefficiencies, to say nothing of an economic slowdown, creates external ambitions."
"China is also consolidating its land borders and beginning to focus outward."
:To accomplish this task, China has built advantageous power relationships both in contiguous territories and in distant locales rich in the very resources it requires to fuel its growth." "China does not pose an existential threat. The possibility of a war between the United States and China is extremely remote. There is a military threat from China, but as we will see, it is indirect."
"China's position on the map of Central-East Asia is, as I have indicated, advantageous."
Kaplan mentions possible Chinese demographic expansion into Siberia. He continues his optomism, "I would posit the emergence of a better regime in North Korea, leading to a dynamic Northeast Asian region of open borders centered around the Sea of Japan".
Well this one I will wait to see. He shifts location,
"China stretches too far into the heart of Eurasia, and yet doesn't stretch far enough."
Kaplan is wrong in writing that Chinese conquest of the Xinjiang region was only achieved by Qing emperor Qianlong. Both the Han and Tang dynasties had considerable control there and the Tang even across the Pamirs.
In Central Asia as Siberia China competes with Russia for influence. China is gaining economic as well as political advantages in Afghanistan in expectation of reaching the Indian Ocean as well as exploiting rich natural resources. China is also moving south on the other side of India. "China's most advantageous outlet for its ambitions is in the direction of the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia." Kaplan provides much statistical data on conditions from Burma to Singapore.
But, he writes, "This makes North Korea the true pivot of East Asia, whose unraveling could affect the destiny of the whole region for decades to come."
China has signed aggrements with its western neighbors and there is no longer a Russian military threat from Siberia. Kaplan writes, "The significance of this cannot be overstated."
"East Asia now pits Chinese land power against American sea power, with Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula as the main focal points."
Kaplan turns to Chinese activity at sea to discuss their maritime objectives. "China's solution has been notably aggressive."
"China, which in the twenty-first century will project hard power primarily through its navy, should ,therefore, be benevolent in the way of other maritime nations and empires in history, such as Venice, Great Britain, and the United States." "But China has not reached that stage of self-confidence yet. When it comes to the sea, it still thinks territorially, like an insecure land power, trying to expand in concentric circles in a manner suggested by Spykman." . Kaplan describes Chinese territorial policies toward the "First Island Chain" and "Second Island Chain" Kaplan discusses several specific Chinese naval actions against the U.S. Navy.
He continues. "China is developing asymmetric and anti-access niche capabilities, designed to deny the U. S. Navy easy entry to the East China Sea and other coastal waters.". He describes more Chinese military advances and concludes, "The strategic geography of he Western Pacific is changing thanks to Chinese arms production." He goes further, "The current security situation in Asia is fundamentally more complicated and , therefore, more unstable than the one that existed in the decades after World war II. "
"This all means that America's commitment to prolong the de facto independence of Taiwan has implications that go far beyond the defense of the island itself. For the future of Taiwan and North Korea constitute the hinges on which the balance of power in much of Eurasia rests."
Kaplan turns to American military capabilities in the Pacific from its bases on Guam, Palau, Solomon Marshall and Caroline islands and Northern Mariana.
An even stronger prediction about China's future is in Martin Jacques' When China Rules the World: The end of the western world and the birth of a new global order. But the author is very publicly anti- American and anti-British.


Chapter 12 - India's geographical dilemma - Kaplan believes that India is the ultimate pivot state due to its location relative to China, Africa, Middle east and United States. Ralph Peters several years ago pointed to Chinese penetration of the Indian Ocean. Kaplan writes that Americans do not understand the situation in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. Kaplan begins by noting that the Indian sub-continent was not united through much of historical times. On the other hand, at times its government control extended westward into parts of Iran and Central Asia and also the reverse such as the Mughal empire.
Kaplan comments: "And so the key to understanding India is the realization that while as a subcontinent India makes eminent geographical sense, its natural boundaries are, nevertheless, quite weak in places." He thinks back to Harappan civilization - 4th to 2nd millennia BC. which had the Indus at its center. He jumps to the Mauryan Buddhist kingdom circa 321BC a legacy of Alexander the Great. Then he jumps to the Kushan Empire which spread its power from Baktria north-east to Fergana and into north-east India. Next he mentions the Gupta Empire 320-550 AD. The Muslim invasion came next, first Arabs and then Turks. All this historical shifting applies as well to Afghanistan as to India. Mughals and others were followed by the British who unified the entire area from the mountains to the souther tip and from the western mountains to Bengal. And that western border now held by Pakistan today with Afghanistan is a mirage. So Kaplan discusses Pakistan and Afghanistan in this chapter as well. He writes: "As for Afghanistan itself - so central, as we have seen, to India's geopolitical fortunes over the course of history - let us consider it for moment." "Whereas Mesopotamia, with large urban clusters over a flat landscape, is conducive to military occupation forces, Afghanistan is, in terms of geography, barely a country at all."
"Afghanistan only emerged as a country of sorts in the mid-eighteenth century, when Ahmad Khan, leader of the Abdali contingent of the Persian army of Nader Shah the Great, carved out a buffer zone between Persia and the crumbling Mughal empire..."
"An Afghanistan that falls under Taliban sway threatens to create a success in of radicalized Islamic societies from the Indian-Pakistani border to Central Asia."
"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." To further complicate matters Kaplan reminds us of the wars China and India fought over pieces of the Himalayas and the continuous conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.


Chapter 13 - The Iranian Pivot - Kaplan returns to Hodgson's description of the "Oikoumene" the land in between - The Greater Middle East. This region was always divided, split up, into a great variety of peoples and polities. - Egyptians, Sumerians, Semites, Akkadians, Amorites, Assyrians, Phoenicians. Hittites, Medes, Persians and others. Kaplan's view, from the map, sees three major regions - "The Arabian peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Anatolian land bridge." The divisions of the region into descendents of these ancient peoples remains as do the political divisions - many along arbitrary and artificial borders. He mentions also the demographic, educational, and unemployment problems. But the region has 70% of the world's oil and 40% of its natural gas reserves.
He discusses the Arabian Penninsula first, noting that Saudia Arabia has less than half the total population there. And he believes that the major threat to Saudia comes from Yemen. He shows that the core of Saudia Arabia is actually only a small area in the central Najd. Not only is there Yemen but also the Gulf states.
In contrast, the Iranian plateau contains only one country, Iran. He traces Iranian (Persian) history back to the Medes and then the Achaemenid Empire. he writes, "Iran, furthermore, is not some twentieth-century contrivance of family and religious ideology like Saudi Arabia, bracketed as it is by arbitrary borders." Iran's geographic position makes it a real 'pivot' as it borders both Anatolia (and by proxy the Mediterranean) on the west and effectively India on the east, plus Central Asia to the north and the Gulf and Indian Ocean on the south.
"Indeed, revolutionary Iran of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is a fitting expression of this powerful and singular legacy."
Kaplan believes the major struggle in the region is over the 'hearts and minds' of the Iranian people, who do not like their mullahs all that much. He poses a very optimistic potential should Iran become more liberal. "A more liberal Iran, given the large Kurdish, Azeri, Turkomen and other minorities in the north and elsewhere, may also be a far less centrally controlled Iran, with the ethnic peripheries drifting away from Tehran's orbit."


Chapter 14 - The Former Ottoman Empire - Kaplan writes that the Anatolian land bridge comes second to the Iranian plateau in importance.
"Turkey, like Iran, constitutes its own major region, influencing clockwise the Balkans, the Black Sea, Ukraine and southern Russia, the Caucuses, and the Arab Middle East." In this chapter Kaplan includes Israel, Syria and Iraq as well. He notes that Turkey suffered a shock at its rejection by Western Europe of membership in the EU. He describes the political policies of Turgot Ozal as making Turkey both more Islamist and more pro-American. But Ozal's early death brought major change.
"This had profound repercussions for the future of Turkey, another instance about how the lives and deaths of individual men and women affect the destiny of geopolitics as much as geography, which retains its primacy mainly because it is permanent." In late 2002 the secular elite was thrown out in an election that brought a majority to the Islamist Justice and Development Party.


Part III - Chapter 15 - Braudel, Mexico and Grand Strategy - In my opinion this is the most interesting and important chapter in the book. Mr Kaplan presents views about US. Mexican relations that one does not read often. But the chapter opens with comments about the French 'Annales' historians, Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, and especially Fernand Braudel. He mentions the significance of Braudel's book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which he writes , "broke new ground in historical writing by its emphasis on geography, demography, materialism and the environment. I do not have this book, but I do have Braudel's three volume Civilization and Capitalism 15th -18th centuries.
It has always seemed to me that he was concerned about and writing about much more than geography - but rather as he wrote about "the elementary basic activity which went on everywhere" a rich zone he called 'material life or material civilization'. Which is not the same as 'materialism'. And I have Bloch's The Historian's Craft. Among other comments, Bloch wrote, "For in the last analysis it is human consciousness which is the subject-matter of history. The interrelations, confusions, and infections of human consciousness are, for history, reality itself." Kaplan continues, "Braudel's epic of geographical determinism is ripe for reading." I thought the French 'annales' school was most renowned for its bringing to life the social history of the everyday person, in which geographical reality certainly played a major part, but not the deciding part. But this is tangential to the significance of Kaplan's thought in the chapter. Another tangent: He claims that Braudel and others considered northern Europe's 'rich forest soils' as the key to its agricultural and hence general success. But I was taught long ago that it was the excellent rainfall regime, not soil, that enabled northen Europe to escape an agriculture based on irrigation.
But on to the main subject. Kaplan begins this section at a conference in Washington DC during which Andrew Bacevich pointed out that the USG was wasting effort in Iraq and Afghanistan when the real geopolitical threat to America is next door, in Mexico. Kaplan mentions other analysts of a like conviction such as Mark Helprin, Ted Carpenter, Michael Lind, and John Mearsheimer.
Most interesting is the insight of David Kennedy whom Kaplan quotes, "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world, with American GDP nine times that of Mexico". Kaplan jumps around with various examples intended to prove his points, from Ming China versus Mongols, to Iraq and the Indian Mutiny against the British, to Thucydides on the Athenian adventure in Sicily, to Edward Luttwak's thoughts on Roman strategy. A tie-in similar to Max Boot's way of thinking: "Just as Roman power stabilized the Mediterranean littoral, the American Navy and Air Force patrol the global commons to the benefit of all, even as this every service - as with Rome's - is taken for granted.... " His thought, "How does America prepare itself for a prolonged and graceful exit from history as a dominant power? - partial answer - do something about the problem with Mexico.
He expands on this thought with pages of valuable detail on the economic - demographic - social situation in Mexico. He so rightly points out that the immigration situation with respect to Mexicans is entirely different from the immigration of Europeans over several centuries. None of them came from a contiguous state from which the US and conquered and annexed the very territory into which the Mexicans are moving. None of the previous immigrants had any notion of remaining also citizens of their homelands. Kaplan provides another citation, from professor Charles Truxillo, who predicts that by 2080 the Southwestern states of the U.S. and the northern states of Mexico will band together to form a new country.. Kaplan himself writes, "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." Kaplan expands on this concept with more references to historians and trends.
I don't catch the "Polynesian' bit, but have long accepted Philip Bobbitt's predictions about the developing 'market states' that replace the 'nation-state" and specifically the expectation that we will soon have a North American Union like the EU with the extension of the NAFTA free trade in goods to include free movement of citizens as well.
Now I come to a very different book whose authors take a much different approach, but one in which they also use the U.S. Mexican border as an example. This is Why Nations Fail: The origins of Powser, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Darfon Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The authors specifically claim that geography is not important and they open with "The Economics of the Rio Grande" to show that the vast difference in all aspects of living between the two sides of the Rio Grande cannot be a result of geography, since there is no geographical difference between the two sides. They continue with many more examples of regions of Central and South American that do not differ geographically from the United States yet have evolved into greatly different societies. The differences on the two sides of the North-South Korea border and between the former East and West German borders are other examples.Their thesis is that political institutions are the dominant factor. They write, "it is the political institutions of a nation that determine the ability of citizens to control politicians and influence how they behave." "As institutions influence behavior and incentives in real life, they forge the success or failure of nations." They continue, "This book will show that while economic institutions are critical for determining whether a country is poor or prosperous, it is politics and political institutions that determine what economic institutions a country has." They add, "One widely accepted theory of the causes of world inequality is the geography hypothesis, which claims that the great divide between rich and poor countries is created by geographical differences. " They likewise dispute the 'culture hypothesis" and the 'ignorance hypothesis' . The book contains many examples to refute these ideas.
They coin two words to capture the essential characteristics of the institutions they claim make all the difference - 'extractive and inclusive economic institutions' based on political institutions that support and enable these different economic regimes. "All economic institutions are created by society." "Politics is the process by which a society chooses the rules that will govern it." "The political institutions of a society are a key determinant of the outcome of this game."


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