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Know the Terrain

by Mackubin Thomas Owens

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 432 pp., $28)

Some 70 years ago, the Dutch-American geopolitical writer Nicholas Spykman observed that “geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent.” The physical setting of human activity, whether that activity is political, economic, or strategic, imposes distinctive constraints on a nation’s foreign policy and strategy while at the same time providing distinctive opportunities. At a minimum, geography defines the players in international relations, the stakes for which they contend, and the ways in which they measure their security relative to others.

In this remarkable new book, Robert Kaplan seeks to return this old-fashioned understanding of geography to its central place in foreign policy. With such books as Balkan Ghosts and Monsoon, Kaplan, an observer of world events who sees what others often do not, has already established himself as one of the most discerning geopolitical writers of our time. The Revenge of Geography cements his status. John Keegan, the recently deceased military historian, called geography the “Rosetta Stone of battles.” Kaplan shows that geography is the Rosetta Stone of world history.

Geography arguably fell from grace with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American victory against Iraq in 1991, which led far too many U.S. policymakers to accept a vision of the world that can only be described as “strategic happy talk.”

First, there was the “end of history” narrative, which argued that liberal democracy had triumphed as the universal ideology. While conflict might continue on the peripheries of the liberal world order, the trend was toward a more peaceful and prosperous world. The economic component of the end-of-history narrative was “globalization,” the triumph of liberal capitalism.

The end-of-history narrative was complemented by that of the “technological optimists,” who contended that the United States could maintain its dominant position in the international order by exploiting the “revolution in military affairs.” Colin Gray described the technological optimists as pursuing a technological El Dorado, a “golden city of guaranteed strategic riches” in which emerging technologies and “information dominance” would eliminate “friction” and the “fog of war,” providing American forces with perfect “situational awareness” and thereby promising (in the words of Admiral William Owens) “the capacity to use military force without the same risks as before.”

The combination of the end-of-history and technological-optimist story lines exerted a great deal of influence over the foreign and defense policies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of the Russian “reset,” the travails of Europe, China’s seemingly relentless military rise, and the failure of many Islamic states to embrace liberalism reveal that strategic happy talk continues to run up against geopolitical reality. Kaplan’s book makes it clear that a key element of this recalcitrant reality is geography.

Kaplan argues that makers of foreign policy and strategy must recover the sense of time and space that has been lost because of the view that technology trumps all other considerations and economic liberalism and globalization are unstoppable forces driving the world toward the end of history — that, in the words of the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. Kaplan shows that the world is not flat and that to believe it is is to entertain a conceit we can no longer afford.

The first part of The Revenge of Geography is a tour d’horizon of the works of earlier geographical thinkers, especially Marshall G. S. Hodgson and William H. McNeill, whom Kaplan calls the successors of Herodotus. While Herodotus is described as the first historian, the correct translation of the title of his work, The Histories, is “inquiries,” wherein Herodotus the Greek was inquiring into the ways of the other peoples with whom the Greeks were in contact, most notably the Persians, Scythians, and Egyptians. One result of his inquiries was the conviction that each of these peoples was shaped by its physical setting. Adopting Herodotus’s approach, Hodgson and McNeill challenged the viewpoint of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, which held that separate civilizations pursued their destinies independently of one another, and contended instead that cultures and civilizations continually interacted in time and space. In other words, cultures were shaped by the realities of geography.

Kaplan then turns to the adherents of the geopolitical view, who contended that the study of the international scene from a spatial viewpoint does permit one to better understand the whole. Geopolitical thinkers are often dismissed as geographical determinists who believe that geography is destiny. But Kaplan shows that, for the most part, the implication of such writers as Halford Mackinder (the “geographic pivot of history” and the Eurasian “Heartland”), Alfred Thayer Mahan (sea power), Nicholas Spykman (the Eurasian “Rimland”), and Robert Strausz-Hupé (the danger of the Nazis’ perverted Geopolitik) is far from deterministic: It is merely that the main directions of a state’s proper strategy for finding its place in the world may be deduced from its geographical situation. Thus the strategies of Athens, Great Britain, and the United States have differed from those of Sparta, Germany, and Russia.

Kaplan also examines the arguments of those who distorted geopolitics and thereby contributed to the low esteem in which it is often held: the German Friedrich Ratzel, the Swede Rudolf Kjellen, and, most notably, Karl Haushofer. It was Haushofer who tragically perverted Mackinder as a way of justifying murderous Nazi aggression.

The heart of The Revenge of Geography is the section in which Kaplan provides insightful descriptions of particular regions of the globe. In a cogent chapter on the geography of European divisions, he argues against the view that Europe is merely a financial construct, contending that it is instead a much broader cultural phenomenon, a “truly ambitious work in progress” that “will be influenced by trends and convulsions from the south and east in a world reeling from a crisis of room.” In light of his argument, the Obama administration might want to rethink its new strategy of “pivoting” to the Pacific: There will be history made in Europe, and there will continue to be significant threats and opportunities there for the U.S.

Kaplan then brings a geostrategist’s eye to Russia, the rise of China, and the geographical dilemma that India faces. His chapter on the Greater Middle East is titled, with a nod to Mackinder, “The Iranian Pivot.” He contends that although the Middle East is united on one level by Islam, “it is also deeply divided within by rivers, oases, and highlands, with great ramifications for political organization to this day.” In this setting, argues Kaplan, Iran possesses the advantage of a geographical unity and location that other states in the region lack. This chapter provides another reason to suggest that the Pacific pivot may be premature, since the geopolitical ripples from the region (specifically Iran and Israel) will continue to affect the United States. Those who believe the U.S. can simply pack up and leave the Middle East are obligated to grapple with the implications of his argument.

The book’s final chapter deals with “America’s Destiny.” Keying off the great French meta-historian Fernand Braudel, whose 1949 book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II broke new ground by examining history in the light of geography, demography, and the environment, Kaplan looks at the future of American power and grand strategy. He contends that much of what happens to the United States over the next decades will depend on Mexico, a “failed state” on our doorstep.

It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the grand sweep of this book. But whoever wins the election in November needs to take Kaplan’s work to heart. The Revenge of Geography provides a much-needed antidote to the strategic happy talk that has dominated American foreign policy over the past two decades. The fact is that geography persists, and policymakers who ignore this reality do so at the nation’s peril.

– Mr. Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., the editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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