Kaplan’s myopic geographic determinism


Kaplan’s Foreign Policy piece titled The Revenge of Geography stirred up some controversy resulting in pages of criticism on the FP website prompting Kaplan himself to respond.

Though I have no problem with the facts in the essay, and enjoyed the tour of the “shatter zones” of Eurasia, I do have a problem with his underlying thesis: geographic determinism.

Kaplan quotes Mackinder’s query “[D]oes not a certain persistence of geographical relationship become evident?” and often alludes to “a certain geographic logic” in giving examples. This muddled logic sounds more like wishful thinking rather than hard analysis. It is an understandable wish. International relations itself is a muddled business, and geography is a rare tangible, unlike the abstract approaches of economics or other high-minded theoretical frameworks of political science.

Kaplan positions himself:

The wisdom of geographical determinism endures across the chasm of a century because it recognizes that the most profound struggles of humanity are not about ideas but about control over territory …

Geography is important. It is one of those “brute” facts that the constructivists are always going on about. Humans are social beings, and politics a social endeavour, but we do operate in three dimensional space. However, states do not covet territory for territory’s sake. They do so for reasons that ultimately reside in the realm of “social” facts, such as political power. Territory is sought for access to resources, or trade routes, or yes even for defensive purposes. This is evident even in the simplistic game of Risk, where captured territories result in gaining more military resources in the next round.

I think Kaplan’s focus on geographic determinism is myopic in that he is arguing from the position that geography is static. True, mountain ranges don’t shift very quickly, but the social reasons for the geostrategy change over a much shorter time scale. That is why geography keeps coming back. Take for example Saudi Arabia, which was just a sandbox until the Oil Age finally discovered it in 1938. For a more contemporary example just look north. Climate change has inflated the importance of the Arctic, a region that was once just a frozen afterthought.

Dirt is where the politics are played out, not the why.

Even in his own writing Kaplan undoes himself. He discusses a number of “geographically illogical countries”. That phrase alone should invalidate the determinism of geography. If geography was the be all an end all, those “illogical” countries would simply not exist. Statehood is a human endeavour, and it is ultimately social forces that maintain the integrity of those states.

Any analysis of foreign policy should ultimately lie in the realm of social interaction. Geostrategy is only part of the story. In The Revenge of Geography Kaplan comes off like a football commentator who is concerned more about the quality of the pitch than the players playing the game. That kind of commentary hinders rather than helps.

PS. I know I am two months and one issue of FP late to the game, and missed out on the “lively” commentary from the community when Curzon first posted this piece back in April, but I felt I needed to air my thoughts.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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