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December 20, 2012 |  2 comments |  Print  Book Reviews  

Niklas  Anzinger

Robert D. Kaplan: The Revenge of Geography

Niklas Anzinger:

Stratfor's geopolitical chief-analyst Robert D. Kaplan was recently ranked 82nd place of Foreign Policy´s "Top 100 Global Thinkers". His ideas about the Balkans and Asia have significantly influenced the policies of US administrations. In 2010 ("Monsoon"), Kaplan highlighted the importance of the Indian Ocean in the future - a theme caught by the Obama administration´s "Asia-pivot"-strategy. In his new book, "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate", Kaplan surveys contemporary global politics to illustrate his thesis: geography matters. Kaplan´s tools to illustrate his point are relief maps, population studies, travelling experiences, a thorough research of history, geography and economics along with discussions of classical geopolitical thinkers.

Kaplan is sufficiently cautious about the limitations of his ideas that he is, in the end, able to make a convincing-if limited argument "for a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy". Rejecting determinism or historical inevitability, he emphasizes the limitations of human actions in order to show realistic options for deliberate action. While Kaplan used to be a supporter of the Iraq invasion, he recalls himself as an example of overconfidence in military superiority for humanitarian means. The main illustration for the "revenge" of geographical facts is the road from Bosnia to Baghdad: "The Balkan interventions [...] appeared to justify the idealistic approach to foreign policy", while "Iraq was a continuation of the passions of the 1990s", but "represented, however subconsciously, either the defeat for geography or the utter disregard of it". In Iraq, the misconception of the nature of the desert landscape and how "terrain-specific" militias operated lured the US military into a quagmire. The facts of the map, he goes, might seem harsh and uncompromising, or undermine faith in moral universalism - but if we are aware of them "counterintuitively, we need not always be bounded by it."

Kaplan discusses the classics H. Morgenthau, H. J. Mackinder, N. J. Spykman, A. T. Mahan, the concepts of landpower and seapower and the Nazi distortion of geopolitics (Lebensraumpolitik) in sufficient length and detail. The central chapter in this section is "The Crisis of Room", in which Kaplan develops his own argument in depth - and thereby makes clear that he does not see geography and geopolitics as an unchanging historical truth, but one that has assumed new qualities in the modern world. The relief map, he argues, had appeared less important because of technological advancements in communication and transportation. New phenomena remind us that geography is still important, but in new ways: he discusses, for example, new domains of conflict, like the cyberspace or new weapon technologies (e.g. longer missile ranges), the rise of megacities and other demographic hubs or youth bulges. He asserts that these spatial phenomena have a corresponding influence on people´s inner dispositions - most of all: fear.  By this, he is able to show the social appropriation of spatial facts in societies and thereby argues that ideology plays an important role. He concludes that "[Asia] is getting more claustrophobic because of the expansion of both populations and missile ranges; it is becoming more volatile, because of the accumulation of weaponry without concomitant alliance structures."

Kaplan´s treatment, in particular, of Russia, the US, China, India, and the Middle East may be applauded or criticized as necessary without deeming his central argument irrelevant. For example, his treatment of the "Iranian pivot" is an example of the strength of Kaplan´s analysis, whereas his grasp of the former Ottoman Empire is weaker. In his view, the Islamic Republic is no genuine expression of the historical heritage of Persian culture or its geographical position. Rather, he suggests hope in the Green Movement and the liberalism of Iran´s rich philosophical tradition to break through against the current theocratic zeal. On the other hand, he makes important observations about the contradictory character of the early Kemalist Turkish Republic, but lacks insight into the character of the contemporary clashes between religion and the nation-state paradigm, pluralism and pan-Turkism.  In the end he lends too much support to the ostensible logic of contemporary Turkish foreign policy. A more accurate portrait would compass the ad hoc, inconsistent nature of Turkey's recent policy, and note that the changes in this region were unanticipated by Turkish policy makers, who appeared unable to respond to them knowledgably or competently. Political Geography offers no real logic or shows inevitable developments, but rather, and this is Kaplan´s point, a good sense of the choices individuals and nations face.

A more significant point of critique is to be found elsewhere. The strength of Kaplan´s argument lies in its vicious but balanced down-to-earth reminder against academic blueprints of world affairs. Yet he plays "realism" as an IR theory against a weakly discussed "idealism". While all good theories should be explanatory as towards the real world, realism is not realistic by definition. A good reality-based account is measured by its explanatory power. The strength of the geography argument lies in its modesty and balance, but the placement of realism as an en passant attack on "idealistic" neoconservatives or liberal interventionists has weak support. What Kaplan attributes to these people is often a caricature and not developed in detail, let alone fixed by a name of who he means. If one is to make a case in the overall IR theory debate it would make for a more powerful argument to take on influential thinkers instead of attacking strawmen.

In the last part, he comes up with a central call for change in American foreign policy: "fixing Mexico is more important than fixing Afghanistan". Mexico´s demography and political instability is the most central and immediate challenge for the United States. In order to meet the future challenges in the Middle East or South- and Central-Asia from stable ground, the "grand strategy" Kaplan envisions is "Mexico first": "A stable and prosperous Mexico, working in organic concert with the United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics." The Mexico-claim builds flawless on the points he made about geographic realism in foreign policy.

Conclusively, while particular assessments or claims as towards specific regions are debatable, the central argument ("bring geography back in") is developed elegantly and vividly illustrated. The less developed critique of other disciplines does not account for a weakness in the argument. Rather, it could and would be more powerful and fruitful if it had followed from Kaplan´s balanced and at the same time snappy reassessment of the realistic choices people face in the future. In the end, Kaplan is far from declaring idealism pure ideology. History is made by people and ideals are a reality of human action. Or in his own words: "realism without a measure of idealism is unrealistic".

Niklas Anzinger is a student of Philosophy & Economics (B.A.) at the University of Bayreuth. He has worked as an Editorial Assistant for Turkish Policy Quarterly in Istanbul.

Stratfor's geopolitical chief-analyst Robert D. Kaplan was recently ranked 82nd place of Foreign Policy´s "Top 100 Global Thinkers". His ideas about the Balkans and Asia have significantly influenced the policies of US administrations. In 2010 ("Monsoon"), Kaplan highlighted the importance of the Indian Ocean in the future - a theme caught by the Obama administration´s "Asia-pivot"-strategy. In his new book, "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate", Kaplan surveys contemporary global politics to illustrate his thesis: geography matters. Kaplan´s tools to illustrate his point are relief maps, population studies, travelling experiences, a thorough research of history, geography and economics along with discussions of classical geopolitical thinkers.

Kaplan is sufficiently cautious about the limitations of his ideas that he is, in the end, able to make a convincing-if limited argument "for a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy". Rejecting determinism or historical inevitability, he emphasizes the limitations of human actions in order to show realistic options for deliberate action. While Kaplan used to be a supporter of the Iraq invasion, he recalls himself as an example of overconfidence in military superiority for humanitarian means. The main illustration for the "revenge" of geographical facts is the road from Bosnia to Baghdad: "The Balkan interventions [...] appeared to justify the idealistic approach to foreign policy", while "Iraq was a continuation of the passions of the 1990s", but "represented, however subconsciously, either the defeat for geography or the utter disregard of it". In Iraq, the misconception of the nature of the desert landscape and how "terrain-specific" militias operated lured the US military into a quagmire. The facts of the map, he goes, might seem harsh and uncompromising, or undermine faith in moral universalism - but if we are aware of them "counterintuitively, we need not always be bounded by it."

Kaplan discusses the classics H. Morgenthau, H. J. Mackinder, N. J. Spykman, A. T. Mahan, the concepts of landpower and seapower and the Nazi distortion of geopolitics (Lebensraumpolitik) in sufficient length and detail. The central chapter in this section is "The Crisis of Room", in which Kaplan develops his own argument in depth - and thereby makes clear that he does not see geography and geopolitics as an unchanging historical truth, but one that has assumed new qualities in the modern world. The relief map, he argues, had appeared less important because of technological advancements in communication and transportation. New phenomena remind us that geography is still important, but in new ways: he discusses, for example, new domains of conflict, like the cyberspace or new weapon technologies (e.g. longer missile ranges), the rise of megacities and other demographic hubs or youth bulges. He asserts that these spatial phenomena have a corresponding influence on people´s inner dispositions - most of all: fear.  By this, he is able to show the social appropriation of spatial facts in societies and thereby argues that ideology plays an important role. He concludes that "[Asia] is getting more claustrophobic because of the expansion of both populations and missile ranges; it is becoming more volatile, because of the accumulation of weaponry without concomitant alliance structures."

Kaplan´s treatment, in particular, of Russia, the US, China, India, and the Middle East may be applauded or criticized as necessary without deeming his central argument irrelevant. For example, his treatment of the "Iranian pivot" is an example of the strength of Kaplan´s analysis, whereas his grasp of the former Ottoman Empire is weaker. In his view, the Islamic Republic is no genuine expression of the historical heritage of Persian culture or its geographical position. Rather, he suggests hope in the Green Movement and the liberalism of Iran´s rich philosophical tradition to break through against the current theocratic zeal. On the other hand, he makes important observations about the contradictory character of the early Kemalist Turkish Republic, but lacks insight into the character of the contemporary clashes between religion and the nation-state paradigm, pluralism and pan-Turkism.  In the end he lends too much support to the ostensible logic of contemporary Turkish foreign policy. A more accurate portrait would compass the ad hoc, inconsistent nature of Turkey's recent policy, and note that the changes in this region were unanticipated by Turkish policy makers, who appeared unable to respond to them knowledgably or competently. Political Geography offers no real logic or shows inevitable developments, but rather, and this is Kaplan´s point, a good sense of the choices individuals and nations face.

A more significant point of critique is to be found elsewhere. The strength of Kaplan´s argument lies in its vicious but balanced down-to-earth reminder against academic blueprints of world affairs. Yet he plays "realism" as an IR theory against a weakly discussed "idealism". While all good theories should be explanatory as towards the real world, realism is not realistic by definition. A good reality-based account is measured by its explanatory power. The strength of the geography argument lies in its modesty and balance, but the placement of realism as an en passant attack on "idealistic" neoconservatives or liberal interventionists has weak support. What Kaplan attributes to these people is often a caricature and not developed in detail, let alone fixed by a name of who he means. If one is to make a case in the overall IR theory debate it would make for a more powerful argument to take on influential thinkers instead of attacking strawmen.

In the last part, he comes up with a central call for change in American foreign policy: "fixing Mexico is more important than fixing Afghanistan". Mexico´s demography and political instability is the most central and immediate challenge for the United States. In order to meet the future challenges in the Middle East or South- and Central-Asia from stable ground, the "grand strategy" Kaplan envisions is "Mexico first": "A stable and prosperous Mexico, working in organic concert with the United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics." The Mexico-claim builds flawless on the points he made about geographic realism in foreign policy.

Conclusively, while particular assessments or claims as towards specific regions are debatable, the central argument ("bring geography back in") is developed elegantly and vividly illustrated. The less developed critique of other disciplines does not account for a weakness in the argument. Rather, it could and would be more powerful and fruitful if it had followed from Kaplan´s balanced and at the same time snappy reassessment of the realistic choices people face in the future. In the end, Kaplan is far from declaring idealism pure ideology. History is made by people and ideals are a reality of human action. Or in his own words: "realism without a measure of idealism is unrealistic".

Niklas Anzinger is a student of Philosophy & Economics (B.A.) at the University of Bayreuth. He has worked as an Editorial Assistant for Turkish Policy Quarterly in Istanbul.

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Olga  Papadopoulou

January 3, 2013

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Niklas.
First of all, congratulations for this excellent book review. Definitely, I will buy "The Revenge of Geography" .
Indeed "Geography matters" as D.Massey stated. Geography studies can give a more integrated approach of natural and social phenomena that take place in space and time,such as global environmental change and migration, urbanization and suburbanization, industrialization and deindustrialization, to name a few of them.
Additionally central concern of a Geographer is not only the analysis, understanding and interpretation of the spatial distribution of natural or social characteristics, but also the relationship between environment, economy and society.
Last but not least and since Kaplan is one of my favorites authors, I would like to recommend one of his books "Balkan Ghosts" for a better understanding of Balkan and its people.
 
Niklas  Anzinger

January 8, 2013

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Dear Olga,

thank you very much for the positive feedback. "Balkan Ghosts" is on my reading list likewise.
 

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