REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"The megacity will be at the heart of twenty-first century
"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
"Understanding the map of the twenty-first century means accepting grave
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"China is also consolidating its land borders and beginning to focus
: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
"China's position on the map of Central-East Asia is, as I have indicated,
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."