How geography shapes our history and our future

Author looks at how the map constrains people and nations

CorrespondentNovember 10, 2012 

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

As a historian, various pronouncements about the weight of the past on the present kept coming to mind while reading veteran journalist/policy strategist Robert D. Kaplan’s provocative new book, “The Revenge of Geography.” Not surprisingly, Santayana’s famous injunction – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – popped into my head, but so did the milder observation attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

What was it about Kaplan’s book that triggered these associations? The book’s title gives away the answer: The author’s commitment to the idea that the actions of human beings and states alike are similarly constrained by geography, and his disgruntlement over the fact that in recent decades many of our policymakers seem to have forgotten that this is the case.

It’s been a long time since any serious strategic thinker has taken geography as seriously as Kaplan. That said, the fact that he works so assiduously to resurrect largely discredited ideas associated with mothballed geographical determinists is troubling, suggesting that his own view of geography is a bit stale and musty as well.

“The Revenge of Geography” is organized into three parts. The first, entitled “Visionaries,” consists of eight chapters devoted to brief surveys of the ideas of a number of writers in the past who thought geographically, as it were. The thinkers treated comprise an odd grouping, running from Herodotus to American Navy Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan and British geographer Halford J. Mackinder, who wrote mainly in the 1890s and early 1900s, to pioneers of global history such as William H. McNeill and Marshall G.S. Hodgson, who worked in the second half of the 20th century. Although these figures and others treated by Kaplan differ in innumerable ways, he finds all of them useful in reinforcing his point that geographical factors matter a lot, particularly to those who would understand foreign policy.

In interpretive terms, Kaplan, the author of 14 books, mostly on foreign affairs, falls into what is known as the realist camp. Wary of abstract reasoning and excessive moralizing in setting foreign policy, realists are concerned first and foremost with the limitations of humans, historical precedents and the facts on the ground. And among the most fundamental of such facts is geography. Or, as Kaplan puts it: “The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map.”

The author attempts to demonstrate this point in Part II – “The Early-Twenty-First-Century Map” – a tour d’horizon of Eurasian geopolitics, focusing on six key arenas: Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran and the nation-states comprising the former Ottoman Empire. Not surprisingly, Kaplan sees historical and geographical factors as central to explaining and understanding the likely foreign-policy scenarios in these arenas. If each of the six chapters has a somewhat potted quality to it, Kaplan offers important insights throughout about the enduring, almost primordial factors influencing international relations.

Part III consists entirely of one rather bizarre and somewhat paranoic chapter on the profound (but allegedly still underappreciated) problems that Mexico and Central America will pose to the U.S. in the future. To Kaplan, the geographic area to our south is replete with failing states that threaten not just our borders, but our very identity. Stay tuned.

In “The Revenge of History,” Kaplan clearly takes up an important matter: The influence of geography on strategy. At the end of the day, however, the author runs a bit too far with it, coming perilously close at times to geographical determinism.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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