Goodbye Axis of Evil…

100616_COVER_FP_180Hello Committee to Destroy the World. You’ve got to hand it to FP Magazine for their relentless push to sell foreign policy as a chic and hip subject to a popular audience with a limited attention span. CA readers won’t be surprised to read that the suspects in this latest FP piece are the usual ones, but the magazine’s endless need for “top ten” lists (or top 24 in this case) will have you bored by the time you get to Iran (ranked #8!), and the meaningless designation of dictators as “coconuts.”

I comment on the article — their “Bad Guys” issue — because our patron saint has an article, and it’s on geography, specifically how geography is linked to countries that can’t seem to shed dictatatorial rule.

Actually, It’s Mountains

Consider Africa, where nearly half of the top 60 countries in the Failed States Index are located, in most cases south of — or at least at the southern extremity of — the Sahara. Although Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, with an area three times that of Europe, its coastline south of the Sahara is about a fifth as long and lacks many good natural harbors. Few of tropical Africa’s rivers are navigable from the ocean, dropping as they do from interior tableland to coastal plains by a series of falls and rapids. The Sahara hindered human contact with the north for too many centuries, so that Africa was little exposed to the great Mediterranean civilizations. All this has combined to afflict Africa with the burden of geographic isolation…

None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism. But we should not be naive either: Geography is one more strike against them.

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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11 Responses to Goodbye Axis of Evil…

  1. Joe Jones says:

    I saw that. My initial response was: “Whoa, does Jared Diamond have a new pseudonym?”

  2. I love Kaplan’s reporting but he has to stop playing geographer. Environmental determinism was rightly abandoned long ago because it didn’t hold up after examining in. If mountains lead to dictatorship then what about New Zealand or Switzerland? Northern Africa was deeply exposed to Mediterranean civilizations (Carthage nearly overran Rome in fact), a cultural shift occurred when a more distant power, the Arabs, arrived and changed the landscape.

  3. Bud says:

    It always irritates the hell out of me when someone refers to Europe as a ‘continent.’ What exactly makes it a continent? Mountains? If that is the criteria Chile, India, China, the Western US and probably a whole lot of places I can’t think of should be ‘continents.’ I think it is high time Europe were referred to as a ‘region.’ Sorry to get off the subject…

  4. Master Cook says:

    Jared Diamond’s explanation for why Africa has tended to run last in the civilization race, though fairly complex, is pretty convincing. Its pretty similar to Kaplan’s, emphasizing geographic isolation (not just between sub-Saharan Africa and other places, but within the continent), and also the animals are difficult or impossible to domesticate.

    The Western Hemisphere had some of the same problems, plus humans migrated there relatively late, but produced two civilizations. But these were about two thousand years behind the Eurasian civilizations in most areas of development.

    Some places have overcome geographical difficulties because people from more advanced places have settled there, as was the case with New Zealand, and Carthage as well come to think of it. When people talk about “Africa” in this context they usually mean sub-Saharan Africa, not Egypt or the Magheb, the latter is part of Africa only in a very technical sense.

    However, none of this has anything to do with psycopaths and sociopaths getting into positions of power in various countries. I don’t think geography gives much guidance there, after all the most famous example of this phenomenon is Germany in the early twentieth century. Germany at this time was one of the two most advanced nations in the world in terms of technology and economic development, and also near the top of the league culturally. Even history doesn’t give much guidance, its not like the place was constantly being ruled by bloodthirsty dictators before or after Hitler.

    Also, a minor point, but Kaplan cites Venice as “a champion of liberty” “in its own way”. Its either a very unique way or Kaplan doesn’t know much about the history of Venice.

  5. Curzon says:

    CG, I thought that geographic determinism was still very much in vogue, thanks a lot to Jared Diamond.

  6. spandrell says:

    guys there´s this thing called HBD

  7. Michael says:

    CG: My take is that it isn’t mountains, per se, that produces tyranny so much as their relation with the rest of the country when the place is already politically rickety. Start with one observation; living in mountainous terrain (difficult movement, extreme weather), historically, forces people to become fairly self-reliant. Add the observation that self-reliant people don’t always take well to strangers (or even friends or relatives, sometimes) telling them what to do.

    In Switzerland’s case, you have a country that’s nothing but mountains and valleys. Even if it wasn’t further divided by language and religion, no sane Swiss person is going try to put the entire country under a strong central government. A weak central government (if not a lack of central government) is inevitable, and democratic traditions more common–remember that Greece was fairly mountainous itself, as is Norway and Italy.

    Now consider a mountainous region inside a larger country dominated by one of its plains regions (i.e. the norm). Those self-reliant mountain dwellers aren’t going to take to kindly to the plains dwellers (easier to dominate from a central location) telling them what to do. This isn’t a big deal in the developed world; force is seldom used to maintain control over regions and modern transport infrastructure reduces the need for self reliance. It’s even less of an issue in the US where most of the mountain dwellers are just a generation or two removed from plains dwellers and have yet to develop strong separate cultures.

    In the rest of the world, though? Low-lander used to dominating by force meets high-lander of different culture, things get bloody. Even if those highlanders aren’t so obstinant (or have been subdued by sheer force), a lack of infrastructure makes it hard to get large numbers of troops to any plains regions on the other side. The result of all this being a country whose central authority doesn’t control more than a fraction of its claimed territory.

  8. Arcane says:

    +1 for Spandrell’s comment. HBD plays a *huge* role. Just read anything by Richard Lynn.

  9. Michael says:

    Take one part back; I forgot about Appalachia (Colorado-centric point of view stricks again:P).

  10. Mrs. Davis says:

    HBD, which one?

    HBD Happy Birthday
    HBD Homebrew Digest
    HBD Here Be Dragons
    HBD Hydrogen Bond Donor
    HBD Has Been Drinking (police communications)
    HBD Holden by Design (car enhancement company; Australia)
    HBD Hadron Blind Detector
    HBD Human Biodiversity
    HBD Hypophosphatemic Bone Disease
    HBD Hemoglobin–Delta Locus
    HBD Hot Bearing Detector (trains)
    HBD Half Board
    HBD Honored By Death (gaming clan, Battlefield 2)
    HBD Honored By Death (gaming clan)
    HBD Hybrid Booster Drive (Electric Vehicle Institute)
    HBD Handheld Business Device
    HBD Hydraulic Bottom Detector
    HBD Hierarchical Block Design
    HBD Highest Benefit Density
    HBD Hot Bus Driver

  11. tdaxp says:

    HBD = human biodiversity

    Consider that the average Neanderthal is closer to the typical ‘human’ than the average Bushman.

    Of course, talk of HBD is always shrouded (by all sides) in racism. Even today we have people who think that Neanderthals were not fully human.