The Revenge of Geography!

Kaplan has a whopping great piece in Foreign Policy titled The Revenge of Geography. The article is a featured piece and too long to post or even summarize here, but here’s the key section summarized:

If you want to understand the insights of geography, you need to seek out those thinkers who make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy—those authors who thought the map determined nearly everything, leaving little room for human agency.

One such person is the French historian Fernand Braudel, who in 1949 published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. By bringing demography and nature itself into history, Braudel helped restore geography to its proper place. In his narrative, permanent environmental forces lead to enduring historical trends that preordain political events and regional wars. To Braudel, for example, the poor, precarious soils along the Mediterranean, combined with an uncertain, drought-afflicted climate, spurred ancient Greek and Roman conquest. In other words, we delude ourselves by thinking that we control our own destinies. To understand the present challenges of climate change, warming Arctic seas, and the scarcity of resources such as oil and water, we must reclaim Braudel’s environmental interpretation of events.

So, too, must we reexamine the blue-water strategizing of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval captain and author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Viewing the sea as the great “commons” of civilization, Mahan thought that naval power had always been the decisive factor in global political struggles. It was Mahan who, in 1902, coined the term “Middle East” to denote the area between Arabia and India that held particular importance for naval strategy. [Curzon: Actually, we understood that it was Chirol who coined the term Middle East...] Indeed, Mahan saw the Indian and Pacific oceans as the hinges of geopolitical destiny, for they would allow a maritime nation to project power all around the Eurasian rim and thereby affect political developments deep into Central Asia. Mahan’s thinking helps to explain why the Indian Ocean will be the heart of geopolitical competition in the 21st century—and why his books are now all the rage among Chinese and Indian strategists.

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

But perhaps the most significant guide to the revenge of geography is the father of modern geopolitics himself—Sir Halford J. Mackinder—who is famous not for a book but a single article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which began as a 1904 lecture to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Mackinder’s work is the archetype of the geographical discipline, and he summarizes its theme nicely: “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.”

His thesis is that Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia are the “pivot” around which the fate of world empire revolves. He would refer to this area of Eurasia as the “heartland” in a later book. Surrounding it are four “marginal” regions of the Eurasian landmass that correspond, not coincidentally, to the four great religions, because faith, too, is merely a function of geography for Mackinder. There are two “monsoon lands”: one in the east generally facing the Pacific Ocean, the home of Buddhism; the other in the south facing the Indian Ocean, the home of Hinduism. The third marginal region is Europe, watered by the Atlantic to the west and the home of Christianity. But the most fragile of the four marginal regions is the Middle East, home of Islam, “deprived of moisture by the proximity of Africa” and for the most part “thinly peopled” (in 1904, that is).

The article speaks to geographical determinism — and a certain “geographic logic” — to world history, which should not be dismissed in considering foreign policy.

All this has me thinking — when will Kaplan’s next book be announced?

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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22 Responses to The Revenge of Geography!

  1. Joshua Foust says:

    “when will Kaplan’s next book be announced?”

    I read the first few graphs of that and thought the same thing, only without hope. The last thing we need right now is a really long undergrad thesis on geopolitics and geo-determinism.

  2. Curzon says:

    Ahh, more Kaplan-bashing from Registan. Don’t you guys have anyting else to do?

  3. Ralph Hitchens says:

    Again, isn’t this “old think?” Of what relevance are the geostrategists of yore? I submit that technology and transportation advances in the last half-century have greatly diminished the role of geography. None of Mahan’s or Spykman’s theories have any relevance today, and as for Mackinder’s quadradirectional religious theme, say what?

    Poor Kaplan keeps trying to find The Key To Everything but there are many keys, and they change over time.

  4. Eddie says:

    His next book is about the Indian Ocean.

  5. Dexter Trask says:

    I’ve long been intrigued with Mackinder’s thinking on control of the “World Island.” However, I wonder if he is, as are perforce any “big picture” thinkers, occasionally prey to the sloppiness of detail: it was the southern “monsoon land” that birthed both Hinduism and Buddhism. If anything, the eastern monsoon region was a temporary home for Buddhism, but the birthplace of Confucianism.

  6. Dexter Trask says:

    Ralph: I think that you miss one of the key purposes of this blog. The fundamental philosophical underpinning of it is that the tragedy of human nature is remarkably invariant over time and thus it is by seeking out the great currents of history do we chart a more reasonable course to the future.

    For example, Mahan’s dissection of the waning of Dutch sea power and the rise of the Royal Navy in the age of sail may seem remote, but focusing strategic thinking on choke points–be they the accidents of geography or the intricacies of infrastructure–is not just relevant, but vital.

  7. armchairanalyst says:

    Obviously “geography” is very important for understanding politics–including international politics. The problem is when “geography” is defined narrowly in terms of the physical attributes of terrain. Worse still is when physical geography is attributed causal primacy in theories of human behavior (as is all to often the case amongst ‘geostrategists’ especially geo-determinists) . Geography (as in the physical terrain and the availability/non-availability of certain resources amenable to human or social manipulation) forms the stage on which the human plot unfolds. Is it important for understanding the choices available to human agents yet it remains merely a necessary condition for explaining human behavior and political outcomes and should never be misconstrued as an efficient condition or causal variable. It has a powerful impact on the development of human societies–but primarily through the intervening variables of culture and industry.

    As to the continued relevance of such strategists as Mackinder and Mahan and of geostrategy in today’s world: Of course technology has changed the equation, but their arguments continue to have substantial relevance for foreign policy in our era. How else do explain, for example, the Cold War era disparity between the number of U.S. and Soviet aircraft carriers? Or the comparable difficulty of large scale U.S. or Russian troop deployments in Central Asia? The delivery of Caspian energy to various markets? Leaving aside the question of desirability, geography clearly has a substantial impact on the prospects of the U.S. becoming/remaining a “land power” in Asia.

    Sorry to try to play peacemaker and all, but I am pretty confident that the folks at Registan and CA understand this and I am pretty sure the Kaplans and Stratfors do too? Can we all agree that geography is important but isn’t destiny and that international politics, like so much else, is a matter of choice within the context of constraint?

  8. T. Greer says:

    While Kaplan’s thesis seems worthwhile, I find the article as a whole rather trite. Instead of taking the chance to offer true insight on the relationship between geography and conflict, Kaplan simply rattles off the current list of global hotspots and then describes these locals in travel-writer parlance.

    Ralph, it is my recommendation that you temper any effort to throw Mahan’s theories to the wayside with a trip to the Straights of Malacca. After you have spent a day counting the number of ships that pass through the straights, come back and attempt to say that geography does not matter. Extra points if you can do this and keep a straight face.

    Although I have not read the book, I have been told that Harm de Blij’s book, The Power of Place effectively outlines the important role geography still plays in world affairs. Perhaps someone who has read the book can tell us whether his view aligns with Kaplan’s?

  9. Nathan says:

    Curzon, I think a “those who live in glass houses in order” regarding your response to Josh. Four of your last five posts have been about Kaplan. Do you not have anything better to do than bow at his altar?

    Thta said, geogoraphical determinism is interesting. As an after-the-fact explanation for many events in human history, it seems hard to ignore the importance of geography; it really does appear that geography is destiny. The challenge for social scientists and policymakers is to turn the idea into something that has predictive power. So often, these predictions seem preposterous. For example, an author (whose name escapes me) published a paper in the early 80′s making a geographically deterministic argument predicting the collapse of the USSR. He almost nailed the specifics save the date. Perhaps we need to make a wide range of big, strategic predictions, accepting that many of them will be wrong and knowing that factors we can’t predict or anticipate like human agency and/or something like a drought can be catalysts, in order to clue ourselves in to long-range possibilities.

    I’ll give Kaplan this: social scientists are uncomfortable with these arguments. Social science too often removes humans from geography. Geography, like culture, is a tough concept to theorize about, so all too often,the reaction is to just treat it like a non-factor.

  10. Joe Jones says:

    On a different note, I just took a glance at Wikipedia and it says:

    “Mahan first used the term in his article “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”, published in September 1902 in the National Review, a British journal. Mahan’s article was reprinted in The Times and followed in October by a 20-article series entitled “The Middle Eastern Question”, written by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol.”

  11. Jing says:

    The Malacca strait is the most overrated peice of geo-strategic turf known to strategerists around the world. Oft repeated shibboleth by people who couldn’t be bothered to actually take a look at a map but want to sound knowledgeable. If anyone bothered looking closely, they would recognize that there are a myriad number of other passages through the Indonesian peninsula that are relatively close and would only several days to the journey (Sunda being the nearest). The Malacca strait is popular because it is the most efficient and for shipping companies time is money and they want to squeeze every penny they can. The Suez and Panama canals are actually far more critical as without them, ships would have to sail across all of Africa and South America respectively which would add a delay of weeks.

  12. Curzon says:

    Nathan, one of this blog’s mandates is covering Kaplan (just look at the blog title) whereas Josh is getting all flustered and self-righteously outraged with Kaplan’s writings — not the type of content I expect on the Internet’s premier Central Asia blog. Josh’s opinions are fine, but his posts and comments are (1) amusing in the self-righteous outrage, (2) not backed by anything but contrary opinions and assertions, and (3) often fundamentally wrong in even understanding Kaplan’s points.

    See also:

  13. Jing says:

    Is Curzon secretly Kaplan? The level of fanboyism and defensiveness at having your intellectual idol challenged appears to be unwarranted unless there is a personal angle.

    Kaplan is a sophomoric thinker whose depth is approximately that of an oil slick floating on water. His problem is that he takes travel writer observations and spins them into a quixotic story that bears only passing resemblance to reality based on nothing more than “opinion and assertions” without any of the academic rigor expected of a specialist who is actually expected to defend his theories. Kaplan’s point is to tell stories based on the crisis du jour, raise his profile, and sell books. I am constantly flummoxed as to why certain people keep ascribing to him questionable wisdom and actually seek to find policy initiatives from undergraduate level work that takes itself far too seriously than what it merits.

    The French do not make good fighting men because of their love for Cheese which as anyone can tell you is not good for the liver, thus they will be overrun by the Germans. ~ Kaplan in a nutshell.

  14. Ralph Hitchens says:

    How important is geography? Once upon a time it was an article of faith in the policy community that Clark AFB and Subic Bay were keystones of the US strategic posture in the Pacific. Then Mt. Pinatubo blew, both bases were hastily evacuated, and lo and behold, it simply wasn’t worth the cost and effort to rebuild them! And I defy anyone to assert that our strategic posture in the Pacific has suffered. Things that used to matter simply don’t anymore.

  15. Nathan says:

    Curzon, I get all that. If this place is all about Kaplan, then it’s perfectly fine for Josh to come over and knock him for his shoddy work. He’s writing plenty of posts at Registan that aren’t about Kaplan.

    How about me? Am I failing to understand Kaplan’s points or back up my criticisms? If you’re going to level those criticisms our way, why do we so rarely see any serious examination of Kaplan’s work here beyond “He. Is. So. Right. Because of the anarchy?”

  16. T. Greer says:

    Jing- A shibboleth? Are you expecting us to take this seriously? Yes, the Suez and Panama canal play an integral role in the international economy. But then again, the most important commodity on the seas hardly utilizes the canals at all. Whereas 18% of the world’s oil demand travels through Malacca, only 4% passes through the Suez (most of that through the Sumed pipeline) and less than 2% passes through Panama.

    It is actually a rather simple matter to understand: most LNG and Oil tankers are simply too large for man-made canals.

    The size and unwieldiness of these tankers undermines your argument regarding the Sunda Straight as well. ULCCs that wish to avoid the traffic of Malacca do not travel through Sunda- the straight is notorious for the difficulty (and in the case of super-ships, impossibility) of navigating its waters. Instead the tankers pass through Lombok- a voyage that adds an extra 1,800 miles to the journey.

    Are you truly suggesting that this extra mileage would not throw world energy prices into dissaray? Do you think that the ports on the straights Lombok and Sunda are prepared for the volume of shipping that would stream their way if Malacca shut down? Do you think the Chinese and Japanese ministries of commerce would agree with your assessment?

  17. DJ says:

    I agree with T.Greer on all points, also he makes grammar challenged jing look like a light weight in terms of writing, geography and economics.

    As to the Kaplan criticism, he stated in the article that this is a controversial topic for “liberal humanist”. I read this as meaing, academics who study something so much that they end up with answers to nothing and end up with just a bunch of questions in their head. This leads them to frustration when someone else comes along with a new model or idea about the topic.

  18. Curzon says:

    Nathan: “why do we so rarely see any serious examination of Kaplan’s work here”

    You must only be a pretend reader. See as one example the last Kaplan post here:

  19. Joshua Foust says:

    Curzon, from your own post:

    “Kaplan’s warnings about the “emotional wellsprings” have turned out to be like much of what he writes—prophetic. Five years later, Russia and Ukraine are vigorously fighting over which country has claim to the heritage of the violent tale.”

    I’m almost certain Kaplan wasn’t talking about two countries bickering over “ownership” of a piece of literature in his introduction to that very piece of literature. You also note that Kaplan predicts that “emotional wellsprings” might form the basis of conflict… well, okay. Like September 11? That’s not really a meaningful point to make.

    While the post is a serious discussion of Taras Bulba itself, it doesn’t seriously discuss Kaplan, aside from—again—OMG HE’S SO SMART. Which is perfectly reasonable to mock.

    Also, it’s okay to be fans of Kaplan. Just as it’s okay to point out when he has silly or obvious ideas. Which I think is what Nathan meant. Then again, it could be worse—you could have renamed this blog

  20. Joe Jones says:

    This reminds me of my college days in Gainesville. It was usual to see one out of our local pack of fundamentalist wingnut irregulars show up in the plaza outside the main liberal arts building, wearing a breadboard proclaiming that “evolution is murder” or “Jesus hates Mormons” or some equally illogical idea(s). They would always draw a circle of gawkers after a while (even among students who were used to them), and one or two nerds who would decide to reason with them at the top of their lungs, which would only encourage the irregulars to come back.

    Anyway, we are in the First Episcopal Church of Kaplan here. If you want to shout insults from the rafters, go ahead, but they are likely to fall upon deaf ears at the pulpit. I only come because the sermons are entertaining…

  21. Jing says:

    Oil and LNG do not need to use the Suez and Panama canals because the primary producers are generally on the side closer to the end user and more importantly, overland pipelines are generally even more cost effective than ships.

    You are contradicting yourself Greer. Sunda may be too shallow for the VLCC and ULCC crude carriers, but so is Malacca at being less than 5 meters deeper. As you yourself pointed out, they tend to already use Lombok. As to what such an extra distance would mean to cost, it’s obviously not much as it is already commercially feasible to do so. Even back during the BDI peak in 2006-2007 I could get a 40-footer from Tianjin to Port Everglades for less than 10 cents per pound through an NVOCC. A breakdown would list fuel charges as a rather small fraction of the total cost, with much of it eaten up by paperwork and maritime insurance. For a customer who ships massive bulk freight regularly and charters whole hulls, the cost is going to be literally pennies. Yes, these pennies do add for the shipper up when you are shipping a several hundred thousand tons, but the end consumer will likely never realize the cost difference.

    Singapore already has severe overcapacity in terms of ship handling facilities and it’s not like such capabilities cannot be expanded elsewhere.

    As for DJ, I am left unimpressed by your criticism especially considering your “novel” interpretation of what a liberal humanist is.

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