Review: The Revenge of Geography


“The present, as permanent and overwhelming as it can seem, is fleeting,” writes Robert Kaplan in the introduction to The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.   “The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map.”

As a country built with a spirit of self-reliance and an ideology of free will, Kaplan’s idea of “the map as a country’s destiny” might seem a little offensive to American readers.  But the United States is itself a case in point.  It is the United States’ isolation, bordered by two oceans, that allowed it to develop virtually unmolested for the first two centuries of its independence.

And as disappointing as it might be to American patriots who remember the Cold War, Kaplan’s colleagues at Stratfor has always maintained that the Soviet Union’s eventual defeat was inevitable.

Even if Ronald Reagan had never become president and escalated the arms build-up that led to the Soviets throwing in the towel, geography had already sealed their fate, at least according to Stratfor’s analysis.  Due to Russia’s lack of seaports—and the ease with which enemies could block access to the few that Russia has—it was always going to be easier for the United States or Britain to contain Russia than vice versa.  In an age of nuclear missiles and air power, geography may matter less than it once did.  But the world is still far from flat, and geography still very much matters.

Students of history no doubt remember that it was the Russian winter and bleak landscape that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion, not the Russian army.  As continental land powers, both Russia and Germany have an appreciation for geography that few other countries would appreciate.  As Kaplan writes,

As heirs to land power, Germans and Russians have over the centuries thought more in terms of geography than Americans or Britons, heirs to sea power.  For Russians, mindful of the devastation wrought by the Golden Horde of the Mongols, geography means simply that without expansion there is danger of being overrun.  Enough territory is never enough.  Russia’s need for an empire of Eastern European satellites during the Cold War, and its [more recent] use of military power, subversion, and the configuration of its energy pipeline routes all designed to gain back its near abroad…are the wages of a deep insecurity. 

But Germans, at least through the middle of the 20th century, were more conscious of geography still.  The shape of German-speaking territories on the map of Europe changed constantly from the Dark Ages through modern times…   Historically changeable on the map, lying between sea to the north and Alps to the south, with the plains the west and the east open to invasion and expansion both, Germans have literally lived geography.

Robert Kaplan has had a long and distinguished career as an analyst on geopolitical issues, and he currently writes for George Friedman’s global intelligence service Stratfor.

I reviewed Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, and his follow-up The Next Decade.  Though I have never fully forgiven Dr. Friedman for some of his more outlandish forecasts—such as a Japanese-Turkish military alliance attacking America from bases on the moon—I continue to recommend both books as two of the more thought-provoking long-term forecasts in print today.

If you liked The Next 100 Years or if you enjoy reading Stratfor geopolitical insights, then The Revenge of Geography is a book you will want to add to your reading list in 2013.

Readers might notice some similarities between Revenge and another book I reviewed, Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules—For Now. 

It was Morris’ contention that it was “maps, not chaps” that led to eventual dominance of the West over the globe.  In other words, it was the conditions of geography and the chain of events that followed it and not some innate cultural superiority  that eventually led to British warships shooting their way up the Yangzi River rather than Chinese warships shooting their way up the Thames.  (Adding credence to this view, Kaplan notes that Europe has a coastline that is 23,000 miles long—long enough to encircle the earth—full of natural harbors and that Europe has a higher ratio of coastline-to-landmass than any other continent or major region.)

Kaplan’s focus is very different—and tends to focus around the impact that major mountain ranges have had on the development of the peoples in and around them—but his conclusions are remarkably similar.  In situations where man-made borders based on politics and ideology (such as the former East and West Germany or the current North and South Korea) come into conflict with natural borders based on geography and culture, it is the map that determines the outcome.

Kaplan reserves some of his most controversial comments for North America, and particularly the relationship between the United States and Mexico—and the role that geography plays.

The United States has been overly fixated on the Middle East since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  The Obama Administration has since tried to “re-pivot” American policy towards East Asia and the Pacific.  But what about Latin America?

It would seem that the American attitude towards Latin America is best summarized by an off-the-cuff comment that President Nixon once made to a young Donald Rumsfeld: “Latin America doesn’t matter.”

Kaplan might beg to differ.  Paraphrasing the views of other policy experts, Kaplan writes,

While the United States was deeply focused on Afghanistan and other parts of the Greater Middle East, a massive state failure was developing right on America’s southern border, with far more profound implications for the near and distant future of America, its society, and American power than anything occurring half a world away.  What have we achieved in the Middle East with all of our interventions since the 1980s? … Why not fix Mexico instead?

Aside from the obvious point that Mexico might not want to be fixed by its northern neighbor or that the “fixing” might be better done by Mexican citizens themselves than by outsiders, Kaplan does have a valid point.  The United States shares a long border with Mexico, and the realities of geography mean that our destinies are linked—regardless of prevailing political views about immigration.   As Kaplan writes,

It is in the Southwest where the United States is vulnerable.  Here is the one area where America’s national and imperial boundaries are in some tension: where the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit can be questioned.  For the historical borderland between America and Mexico is broad and indistinct…

Why does this matter?

Mexico and Central America constitute a growing demographic powerhouse with which the United States has an inextricable relationship. Mexico’s population of 111 million people plus Central America’s of 40 million constitute half the population of the United States… 85 percent of all Mexico’s exports go to the United States, even as half of all Central America’s trade is with the U.S…

The destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west , sea-to-shining-sea of continental and patriotic myth.

Kaplan is not so much delving into mass-immigration scare statistics as he is emphasizing the growing importance of our southern neighbors to our own globalized economy.

Again returning to geography, Kaplan notes that Mexico has far more natural borders internally between its various regions than it does with the United States.  Baja California and the Yucatan Peninsula (home of Cancun, Cozumel and many of Mexico’s other famous beaches) are separated from the rest of the country  by sea and, in the case of the Yucatan, by jungle.  And northern Mexico is separated from Mexico City and the central highlands by desert and mountains.

Kaplan notes something that I have noticed in my own travels.  Northern Mexico is very different than southern Mexico.  The people are every bit as distinct as New Yorkers and Mississippians, and they don’t particularly like each other.

Northern Mexico, including the large business hub of Monterrey, is gritty and industrial with a strong “get it done” mentality.  It’s people, by and large, are rugged individualists and very entrepreneurial.  As Kaplan notes, Northern Mexico is responsible for 85% of all U.S.-Mexican trade.

If you can understand Spanish, watch how norteños from Monterrey are portrayed in Spanish-language television.  They’re generally hard-nosed, no-nonsense small businessmen who, in contrast to the urbane residents of Mexico City, have no interest in or time for cultural pursuits.  Oh, and they’re usually wearing an obnoxiously-large cowboy hat and flashy boots.

Kaplan sees a “borderland” culture along the Texas-Mexico border that is distinct from both the U.S. and Mexican heartlands.  It is a hybrid culture, mostly Spanish-speaking but with “American” attitudes towards business and commerce.  Both northern Mexico and the southwestern United States are subtly separating from the rest of their respective countries.

What is the potential result of the interaction between geography and demographics along the U.S.-Mexican border?

Kaplan cites University of New Mexico Professor Charles Truxillo’s prediction that, by 2080, the states of the American southwest and Mexican north will secede and form a new country of their own—La Republica del Norte.

We’ll see about that.  In any event, I agree with Kaplan that the realities of geography make some degree of melding between the countries inevitable.

All in all, The Revenge of Geography is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in geopolitics.  I don’t agree with all of Kaplan’s conclusions, but he gave me plenty of fodder for thought.  If reading a 350-page tome is not to your liking, check out Kaplan’s writings at Stratfor.

This article first appeared in the HS Dent Forecast.

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