by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2012, 432 pp., $28
At the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, we read the circular Robert Kaplan e-mailed around with surprise and some apprehension. In it, he announced that he was saying good-bye to his career as a foreign correspondent in order to become chief geopolitical analyst for the private consulting firm STRATFOR. We wondered if someone so idiosyncratic, so used to being his own boss, could adjust to working for corporate clients under the direction of STRATFOR’s formidable founder George Friedman. But inasmuch as Kaplan had been globetrotting for 35 years and just turned sixty, who could fault him for choosing more regular employment, predictable income and more time spent at home in the Berkshires? This book, an armchair tour d’horizon as opposed to Kaplan’s trademark rugged travelogue, may well reflect the renowned author’s passage to a new phase of life.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to a friendly predisposition toward this review. One reason is my love for geography dating from early childhood. Indeed, a fascination with globes, atlases, maps, books, magazines and programs about far-away places initially stoked my interest in history. Over the course of a long teaching career I have sadly observed the decline of geographical knowledge among American youth and have done my small part to try to reverse that.1 I have observed even more sadly the ignorance or contempt of geographical and cultural realities by U.S. policymakers prone to believe either that “the world is flat” or else can be made so by American force. Hence my prejudice in favor of a book that loudly reminds liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike that they are but Shakespeare’s players on a stage that they did not build and that they cannot readily redesign.
A second source of my favorable predisposition is the book’s dedication to the late Harvey Sicherman, FPRI’s beloved president from 1993 to 2010. A disciple of Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, Harvey never pronounced on a foreign policy issue until he had “done the map” and recited Talleyrand’s motto, “above all, not too much zeal.”2
A third source of my favor is Kaplan’s track record over 14 previous books and eighty articles, all original and many prescient, warning of crises before they were on anyone’s radar screen. Moreover, unlike most foreign-policy pundits, he admits his mistakes (such as helping Paul Wolfowitz’s inner circle sell the 2003 invasion of Iraq).3 To judge by his subsequent trilogy about his experiences embedded with U.S. armed forces—Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002); Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005); and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, At Sea, and on the Ground (2007)—few civilians identify more closely with our military heroes and wounded warriors.
All that said, I don’t much like Kaplan’s title, The Revenge of Geography, because it commits the “pathetic fallacy” of endowing an abstraction with human purpose. Geography is far too mighty to stoop to mere vengeance. In the 1790s, Immanuel Kant defined it as the very “foundation of history.” His successors Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Ritter made geography an academic discipline based on the Zusammenhang (“hanging together”) of all human and physical nature. Americans first learned geopolitics from two émigré Central Europeans, Strausz-Hupé and Hans Weigert, who declared that geography “does not argue, it simply is”, and embodies “the way things are, not the way we imagine or wish them to be.” Thus, geography does not take vengeance on those who ignore it so much as it consumes them like the “sullen white surf” that swallowed Captain Ahab’s ship of state. Nor is Kaplan’s subtitle, Battle Against Fate, quite accurate, since he repeatedly insists that his real battle is against fatalism.
On the other hand, the book’s stated purpose draws no quarrel: to restore “a sensibility about time and space” that many Americans lost when a principal landmark of their lifetimes, the Berlin Wall, collapsed in 1989. Euphoric Americans and Europeans imagined all barriers were ephemeral and globalization “nothing less than a moral direction of history and a system of international security, rather than what it actually was, merely an economic and cultural stage of development.” To be sure, history, culture and geography played havoc in the failed states of what Kaplan called zones of chaos. But the first Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated the apparent invincibility of U.S. military power, while the Clinton Administration’s belated interventions in the Balkans, especially the lethal and bloodless (to us) 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, seemed to demonstrate American power and will to police a new world order. “The 1990s saw the map reduced to two dimensions because of air power”, writes Kaplan, which is why, following 9/11, the George W. Bush Administration forgot its initial doubts about nation-building and launched two utopian crusades in decidedly bumpy countries. By 2006, “the three-dimensional map would be restored: in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the treacherous alleyways of Iraq.” Kaplan assures us that the architects of the War on Terror meant well, but their ham-handed, “insanely expensive” wars betrayed their intentions and on the home front risked stoking the very isolationism they deplored. Kaplan means to navigate between these extremes, he tells us, in the hope that sober geopolitics may “curb excessive zeal in foreign policy” and enable future American interventions to succeed.
Kaplan then proceeds to guide his readers on two world tours that include, for those trained in history and strategy, visits to several old friends. First up is my own mentor, William H. McNeill, whose grand architecture of history treats clashes among and between civilizations and barbaric frontiers as episodes in a transcendent process of gradual fusion through spatial convergence and cultural exchange. But accelerating homogenization by no means implies some irenic teleology, Kaplan warns. If anything, competition for space will grow ever more fierce in a crowded world of finite land and resources.
Another University of Chicago historian, the Islamicist Marshall Hodgson, is Kaplan’s chosen expositor of what the ancient Greeks termed the oikoumene, that Levantine nexus “from the Nile to Jaxartes” where trade routes, empires and the cradles of monotheism formed the busy, grand stage of history’s tragic drama. Then enters the father of history himself, Herodotus, whose narrative of the Greek-Persian wars postulated the necessary variables of geography and culture, as well as contingent variables such as virtue and folly, exemplifying “the partial determinism we all need.”
Kaplan’s next batch of authorities, he suspects, may “make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy.” He’s right. These are the classic geopolitical theorists beginning with the Briton Halford Mackinder, who taught that, while man initiates, “nature in large measure controls.” Mackinder coined the terms “World Island” for the landmass of Eurasia-plus-Africa and “Heartland” for its core region of Eastern Europe. His (usually oversimplified) formula, that he who controls the Heartland controls the World Island and, by extension, the World, inspired the German geographer Karl Haushofer and the Nazi exponents of Lebensraum who twisted his theories to suit their own apocalyptic purposes.
Geopolitics might, as a result, have been permanently discredited in the United States but for European transplants Strausz-Hupé, Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger and Nicholas Spykman. The latter’s wartime publications (he died in 1943) analyzed the geopolitics of the Western Hemisphere to explain the U.S. rise to local hegemony and world power. It was Spykman, Dutch by birth, who first called the Caribbean basin “America’s Mediterranean”, and Spykman who identified the Rimlands of Japan, China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe as the real keys to power in Eurasia. Thus did he anticipate the geopolitical logic of Cold War Containment. Spykman even foresaw that a “modern, vitalized, and militarized China” and a united Europe would become serious rivals of the United States.
The last stop on Kaplan’s first tour reveals the scary contemporary panorama of an Asian “crisis of room”, as described in Paul Bracken’s seminal 1999 book Fire in the East. Simply put, power of all sorts—demographic, economic, military, informational—has been growing exponentially all around the physically fixed spaces on Asia’s littoral. The results already include an unbroken belt of nuclear and aspiring nuclear powers from Israel to North Korea, the proliferation of medium- and intermediate-range missiles, the spore-like spread of megacities whose alienated, penurious millions are overwhelmingly young, and fierce competition among authoritarian, democratizing and failing states. Projecting these trends into the onrushing future, Kaplan concludes:
A Eurasia and North Africa of vast, urban concentrations, overlapping missile ranges, and sensational global media will be one of constantly enraged crowds, fed by rumor and half-truths transported at the speed of light by satellite channels across the rimlands and heartland expanse, from one Third World city to another.
n that ominous note, the reader then embarks on Kaplan’s second intriguing tour, one that takes him around Eurasia’s great oval from Europe clockwise to Russia, China, India, Iran and the Middle East. What we get, in each case, is deep background on the region’s geography and history (if not always culture), followed by coolly objective prognoses of their likely trajectories in the 21st century.
Most of this tutorial concludes in a surprisingly sanguine manner. Kaplan thinks the European Union, its demographic stagnation and financial woes notwithstanding, will not dissolve, or morph into a new German empire, or be overrun by Muslims, but will remain “one of the world’s great postindustrial hubs” and “a truly ambitious work in progress.” Noting Mackinder’s vision of a Europe whose natural southern frontier is the Sahara Desert, he even endows the European Union with a mission “to encompass the Arab revolutions” (though what that means is unclear).4
Kaplan also thinks a threatening new Russian empire unlikely despite the revisionist ambitions of Vladimir Putin and the 26 million Russian irredenta in the Near Abroad. The present Muscovite state may possess the same potential to exploit its lack of natural frontiers and abundant natural resources as did its Czarist and Communist predecessors, but it also confronts new competitors for influence in Central Asia, especially China and the former, booming Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Kaplan also reports that Russia’s population of 141 million is just half that of the former USSR and may fall another 20 percent by mid-century. But he then drops the subject in the evident belief that demography is not destiny, or at least not so much as geography.
China, by contrast, will “stand at the hub of geopolitics” even if its stormy economic growth subsides. Free of the ideological agenda and moral scruples that constrain American statecraft, China is “an über-realist power” whose demographic and economic weight make Central and Southeast Asia its natural spheres of influence. But China will not try to change formal boundaries by force, hence a big Asian war is unlikely. Its maritime frontier is another matter entirely because the Yellow, East and South China Seas comprise an Asian “Mediterranean” the domination of which is a prerequisite for Chinese world power. Kaplan explains that, while Chinese projection of hard power in this century will be primarily maritime, they “still think territorially” inasmuch as their goal is control over what they call the First and Second Island Chains.
That makes Taiwan, Douglas MacArthur’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and the buckle on the first island chain, a geographical pivot. One sure sign of a truly multipolar world order, Kaplan declares, will be the “fusing” of Taiwan with mainland China. But another such sign, in his shrewd estimation, may be the development Americans devoutly wish for: the liberalization of China. For unlike the Soviet Union, which was undone by perestroika and glasnost, a more democratic but still fiercely nationalist China could become even more dynamic. In any event, the U.S. Navy’s anomalous domination of China’s coastal seas is finally ending, which means Oceania recovers the geopolitical significance it possessed for American strategy during the Pacific War.5
India, the quintessential Rimland power, is Kaplan’s “ultimate pivot state” because of its status as an emerging Great Power whose core region on the Gangetic plain is inextricably linked by history to the Punjab of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan (the old Northwest Frontier of the British Raj), and Persia (Iran). Suffice it to say that the aristocracy of India’s Mughal Empire of the 16th to 18th centuries was a mix of Rajputs, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Uzbeks and Turks, in addition to India’s Hindus and Shi‘a and Sunni Muslims. The unhappy partition of the British Raj in 1947 turned India and the artificial nation of Pakistan into existential threats and implacable rivals for control over Kashmir and Afghanistan, while the Cold War tempted Russia and China to make mischief in the Indian subcontinent. But in the fullness of time, Kaplan argues, India has no tradition of rivalry with the distant Chinese civilization across the world’s highest mountains. So even as the swelling Indian navy patrols Southeast Asian choke points soon to be contested by China, New Delhi’s abiding focus will be the Af-Pak frontier, where the departing Americans will soon leave behind the same “Pushtun nationalism, Islamic fervor, drug money, corrupt warlords, and hatred” they encountered 14 years before.
Predictably, the most unstable stop on Kaplan’s tour is a Middle East defined by, as he puts it, a “disorderly and bewildering array of kingdoms, sultanates, theocracies, democracies, and military-style autocracies, whose common borders look formed as if by an unsteady knife”, and where, not at all incidentally, 65 percent of the region’s populations are under thirty years of age. Indeed, in a tossed-off sentence sure to raise hackles, Kaplan predicts the greater Middle East in the near future “will make the recent era of Arab-Israeli state conflict seem almost like a romantic, sepia-toned chapter of the Cold War.”
Moreover, the one state that stands out in this region for its relative homogeneity, permanence, coherence, imperial vision and cultural sway is…Iran. Its population, 75 million in 2012, is equal to Turkey’s and dwarfs those of its other neighbors. Its place on the map is the intersection of Eurasia’s Heartlands and Rimlands. Iran alone borders both the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, whose basins contain more than half the world’s oil reserves. The great Persian plateau has been a seat of empire for 2,700 years (the suffix “-istan” attached to surrounding provinces is Persian for “place”). We learn that even a foreign dynasty, such as the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad, was permeated with “Persian titles, Persian wines and wives, Persian mistresses, Persian songs, as well as Persian ideas.”
To be sure, Shi‘ism was a 16th-century import, but Iranian clerics domesticated it according to Persia’s bureaucratic traditions, thereby adding religious sanction to its pretensions of empire. Indeed, Kaplan’s account (based on specialists such as Olivier Roy) implies that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s royal reign was the true aberration in modern history, whereas “the regime ushered in by the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution was striking in its élan and modernity.” Kaplan provocatively declares that “everything about the Iranian past and present is of a high quality”, including its “postmodern military empire” based on a network of proxies, asymmetrical weapons and jihadist appeals. He does harbor hope that Iranian genius may yet serve the cause of moderate reform, perhaps via a Green Party revolution inspired by a democratic Iraq. Too bad the next chapter argues that no country is more burdened by history than Mesopotamia, and that a Lebanese-style civil war is more likely in Iraq than stable democracy.
Which brings us at last to Israel, in whose military Kaplan briefly served back in the 1970s and whose geopolitical dilemma worries him deeply. “While Zionism shows the power of ideas, the battle over land between Israelis and Palestinians—between Jews and Muslims, as both the Turks and the Iranians would have it—is a case of utter geographical determinism.” But here again Kaplan appears to subsume demography into geography, because what immediately follows that sentence is a chilling paragraph of population statistics. So wildly differential are the birth rates of Israelis and Arabs that Jews may soon be reduced to 42 percent in the lands they currently occupy, undermining their legitimacy and eventually their power to govern the sullen Palestinians. The latter, in turn, have no incentive to drop their “right of return” even for the territorial concessions Kaplan hopes the Israelis will offer. He resorts, in the end, to prayer.
hroughout my career, I have tried to avoid the herd instinct”, Kaplan justifiably boasts on his web site. In The Revenge of Geography, four idiosyncrasies, in particular, demonstrate that claim.
First, Kaplan seems highly self-conscious, even conflicted, over questions of historical causation and the roles of structure versus agency. Thus, while his method is to demonstrate the fundamental importance of spatial relationships and physical features to the distribution of power among human groups over time (the historian’s fancy way of saying “geography matters”), Kaplan insists he is not a determinist and that “geography is merely the unchanging backdrop against which the battle of ideas plays out.” But it seemed to me that the more compelling his structural analysis (for example, “the ultimate geographical truth of the Cold War”), the more urgent his insistence on free will. I cannot resolve this conundrum for him. Life has its mysteries precisely because history has no fixed epistemology. I can only hold up the example of Abraham Lincoln, who famously said, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
It also seems idiosyncratic that a book on geopolitical theory by an American author, written after two damaging land wars in Asia, has so little to say about maritime strategy. Kaplan’s chapter on “The Allure of Sea Power” treats it as just that: alluring, like the siren’s call. He is certainly right to warn that Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “command of the seas” doctrine could prove as risky for China as it did for Imperial Germany. He is also right to suggest the best model for the U.S. Navy today is probably that of Mahan’s contemporary Sir Julian Corbett, whose Royal Navy had to adjust to relative decline amidst peer competitors. But readers hoping for a “takeaway” relevant to the current debate about offshore balancing may be frustrated.
Indeed, the book’s surprise ending goes someplace else altogether—idiosyncrasy number three. For 314 pages, Kaplan’s readers have scaled mountains, crossed deserts, traced rivers to their sources, galloped over steppes and marked the spread of pipelines and railroads as well as religions and empires, from one end of Eurasia to another. But on page 321, after a briefing on Fernand Braudel’s theory that the truly meaningful forces in history operate imperceptibly over la longue durée, we suddenly learn that the crisis most in need of urgent U.S. attention is the threat of a failed state in Mexico! In fact, Kaplan lists three principal challenges: Mexico, a chaotic Middle East and an assertive China. But he suggests that the United States will be far more able to promote its interests in Asia if it first puts its North American house in order.
Mexico’s current disorder would appear once again to be a potent mix of geography and demography. And yes, it is true that Mexico’s population bomb, grinding poverty, corruption, drug violence, anarchy and illegal immigration threaten to subvert American law, order and culture. Kaplan even imagines the United States shedding its Southwestern states (like a glacier calving under global warming?). Yet he notes that in our Northeastern states “Mexico registers far less in the elite imagination than does Israel or China, or India even.” Citing Andrew Bacevich, he asks what Americans might have accomplished had they spent a trillion dollars on fixing Mexico rather than failing to fix Iraq and Afghanistan. One way or another, Kaplan prophesies, Mexico and the United States will be conjoined.6 If Mexico can be raised over time to First World status the United States will be immensely empowered. If it cannot, then the United States will go the way of the Roman Empire—only the barbarians will come from the south.
A final idiosyncrasy of Kaplan’s Weltanschauung is his abiding conviction that the purpose of American empire is to prepare its own demise. As early as 2003, when triumphalists were enjoying their heyday, Kaplan cautioned: “In many ways the few decades immediately ahead will be the trickiest ones that our policymakers have ever faced: they are charged with the job of running an empire that looks forward to its own obsolescence.”7 In 2007, while discussing the prospects of reform in China, he wrote: “My point is only that an age of democracy will give free rein to an array of vibrant new forces that make it unlikely America’s global role will be as dominant as it is now. That could turn out to be a good thing. . . . There may be nothing healthier for running an empire-of-sorts than to look forward to its own obsolescence.”8 And now in 2012: “Rome’s real failure in its final phase of grand strategy was that it did not provide a mechanism for a graceful retreat, even as it rotted from within. But it is precisely—and counterintuitively—by planning for such a deft exit from an hegemony of sorts that a state or empire can actually prolong its position of strength. There is nothing healthier for America than to prepare the world for its own obsolescence.”
Kaplan does not mean by this trope a United States as impotent as Britain following its imperial sunset. He means a vigorous United States engaged as “a balancing power in Eurasia and a unifying power in North America”, but guided by Hans Morgenthau’s wisdom that the way to improve the world is to work with geography and human nature, not against them. Does that imply that Kaplan is a member of the offshore-balancing school after all? If so, then perhaps his new tasks as geopolitician for STRATFOR will include drawing a map to show us how to move U.S. grand strategy safely from where it has been to where it needs to be. Such operational wisdom would, in the American context, be idiosyncratic indeed.
1See, for example, my essay “The Best of Both Worlds: Blending History and Geography in the K-12 Curriculum”, published as “Geography, History and True Education” in the 2001 Yearbook of the Middle States Council for the Social Studies, Pennsylvania State University College of Education. An abridged version is “Why Geography Matters…But Is So Little Learned”, Orbis (Spring 2003).
2For celebrations (including my own) and selections of Sicherman’s work, see the special issue of Orbis (Summer 2011).
3Robert D. Kaplan, “Iraq: The Counterfactual Game”, The Atlantic (October 2008), and “The Wounded Home Front”, The American Interest (January/February 2011).
4For a decidedly pessimistic prognosis, see my “Will Europe Survive the Twenty-First Century? A Meditation on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome”, Foreign Policy Research Institute (August 2007). I conclude with a winsome speculation that while Charlemagne would bless Europe’s unity, he would surely wonder how long it can survive “without arms, without faith, without children.”
5The unlikely decisiveness of Oceania, or Australasia, as the southwestern Pacific lands and seas are often labeled, became obvious within months after Pearl Harbor, when maintaining secure links to Australia and New Zealand became the top priority of Admiral Ernest King. The urgency of control over those islands and seas will become equally obvious as the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force draft the logistical and operational parameters of their “Air-Sea Battle” concept meant to contain Chinese maritime power. When I mentioned this to my colleague David Eisenhower he quipped that the (otherwise crude) board game “Risk” taught him long ago that the best strategy for victory in a war for the world is to seize uncontested control of North America and Australia while the other players fight over the World Island.
6David Eisenhower and I also foresaw such conjoining as the natural, if unspoken, historical logic of the NAFTA. In retrospect that is sadly ironic. During 2000–01 we fantasized that George W. Bush’s hidden agenda was to effect the annexation of Mexico (call it a “friendly takeover”) in cahoots with his good friend, Mexican President Vicente Fox. Alas, that whole agenda, including a deeper NAFTA, immigration reform, suppression of drug traffic and cross-border economic development got lost after 9/11, with the result that Kaplan’s Third World “zone of chaos” and “coming anarchy” now cross our own borders.
7Kaplan, “Supremacy by Stealth”, The Atlantic (July/August 2003).
8Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (Vintage 2008), pp. 386–7.