The Revenge of Geography

There are things worse than communism, it turned out, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this as someone who supported regime change.

I wasn't certain, when I began Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate , just who Kaplan was or if I would have to do intellectual battle throughout this book with a point of view too contrary to my own. The above statement relieved my mind. Here, I suspected, might be someone worth listening to. Here might be someone from whom I can learn.

Throughout Part I, he summarizes and expands upon a group of writers he calls Visionaries, chief among them Halford Makinder.

For Makinder, Kaplan says, geography is

…an old story…Europe versus Russia: a liberal sea power—as were Athens and Venice—against a reactionary land power—as was Sparta and Prussia. For the sea, in addition to the cosmopolitan influences it bestows by virtue of access to distant harbors, provides the sort of inviolate border security necessary for liberalism and democracy to take root. (The United States is virtually an island nation …)

He makes clear that Russia, which he considered the heart of Mackinder’s “World Island,” has suffered since its beginning, from borders that are easily traduced, from a landmass that crosses 170 degrees of longitude (almost halfway around the globe), but lies almost entirely north of the 50th parallel (the northern border of the U.S. lies at 49 degrees north), and that historically has gone to great lengths to procure open ports for trade. The United States, on the other hand, is protected on two sides by large oceans, by treaty with a friendly power on a third, and threatened only by the demographics of population and economics on the fourth. We lie in the largest expanse of temperate zone productivity in the world, rivaled only by China. And we have two seaboards indented with year-round harbor facilities.

And yet we jeered (this is my take, not necessarily Kaplan’s) for decades about Russia’s paranoia and the inability of Russian communism to make a living for its people, much less produce affluence. We have had, from the beginning, the right geography in which liberalism and democracy could take hold. Our history has, however, proven, time and again, Kaplan’s bald statement that Democracy and morality are simply not synonymous.

Part II
goes deeper into the specifics of Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, and the countries of the former Ottoman Empire.

Speaking of the relatively new fundamentalism in Iran (but I would extend it to the possibilities inherent through the U.S. as well), he posits that in an increasingly urbanized world, the city, which once fostered creativity and innovation impossible back in the village, now accounts for much

intensified religious feeling. For in the village of old, religion was a natural extension of the daily traditions and routine of life among the extended family; but migrations to the city brought Muslims into the anonymity of slum existence, and to keep the family together and the young from drifting into crime, religion has had to be reinvented in starker, more ideological form.

Traveling from Saddam’s Iraq to Assad’s Syria, as I did on occasion, was like coming up for liberal humanist air. At this time, Kaplan regards Syria as having a better chance post-Assad than Iraq did post-Saddam because Syria seemed, at the time, to be a less damaged society.

Published in 2012 (2013 in paperback), Kaplan writes, with almost eerie foreshadowing, …following Iraq and Afghanistan, the next target of Sunni jihadists could be Syria itself…

In Part III, America's Destiny, his final argument, vis a vis the U.S., is one I didn't expect. He paraphrases, and then expands favorably upon, Andrew Bacevich's "impolite observation," at a 2009 conference. What have we achieved in the Middle East with all of our interventions since the 1980's?...Why not fix Mexico instead?

...human beings operate under constraints imposed by geography and the vast and varied phenomena that emanate from it: everything from persistent, albeit changeable, national characteristics to the location of trade routes to the life-or-death requirement for natural resources...And while the advance of electronic communications may make the world smaller, rather than negate geography, the Internet and other new media only make geography more precious, more contested, more claustrophobic

.There are no grand conclusions to The Revenge of Geography. No thrilling climax. No Walking Dead. No Sharknados. But there is a lot of food for thought for long winter evenings, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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