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A fresh and thought-provoking view of world politics and current events

A review of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Geopolitics — the subject of this fascinating book — has literally been on my mind  almost throughout my life.

I had recently turned three when the Allies invaded Normandy, beginning the long, last phase of World War II in Europe. I have no active memory of the invasion, but I’ve been told that I learned to read by studying the news about the event and its aftermath. My father read the newspaper at dinner, and I sat opposite him, leaning over the table so I could see the headlines — upside down — and ask him to tell me what the words meant. I loved the maps, too, those sketches of Europe and the Pacific with broad arrows pointing this way and that to indicate the movements of troops and ships at sea. Geography was long my favorite subject in school, and it’s probably not a stretch to think that my life-long fascination with the world outside the USA began with that experience.

Through a geopolitical lens, Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as the Joint Chiefs of Staff must view it. Has to view it.

Understanding the globe from that perspective, current events become a lot easier to understand. Take, for example, the object of American preoccupation today: the Middle East.

The true geopolitical center of the Earth lies in the Middle East, a region consisting essentially of three sections: the Iranian Plateau, running from present-day Iraq to Afghanistan and dominated by a resurgent Iran, the latest incarnation of the Persian Empire; the Anatolian landbridge (Turkey) that connects Asia and Europe, successor to the Eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires; and the oil- and natural-gas-rich Arabian Peninsula, unsteadily governed by the extended Saud family and a congeries of coastal emirates. Nestled between them and extending westward along the North African Maghreb is a long line of generally flat, low-lying states that are experiencing various degrees of instability, only a handful of which have a solid historical and demographic basis for nationhood (Tunisia, Egypt, Israel). Given the geography of this region, its perennial instability is no surprise. Constant turmoil is practically guaranteed, with the dominating Iranian and Turkish highlands above, and virtually flat, featureless plains below, divided among mostly weak states with arbitrary borders inherited from British and French colonial masters. As Kaplan notes, “the supreme fact of twenty-first -century world politics is that the most geographically central area of the dry-land earth is also the most unstable.”

Of all the states in the Greater Middle East, the strongest of all, and most likely to dominate at some point in the decades ahead, is Iran, with a proud history (“Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower.”), a population of 75 million, a literacy rate of 80%, an industrial base, and an extensive network of universities. Iran is situated in an enviable position, straddling the region’s two principal oil-production areas (the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf), not to mention its own abundant hydrocarbon reserves. Is it any wonder, then, why Iran captures headlines with such frequency?

In this fashion, geopolitics yields important insight about how the world works. To cite another example, Kaplan asks “Why is China ultimately more important than Brazil? Because of geographical location: even supposing the same level of economic growth as China and a population of equal size, Brazil does not command the main sea lines of communication connecting oceans and continents as China does; nor does it mainly lie in the temperate zone like China, with a more disease-free and invigorating climate. China fronts the Western Pacific and has depth on land reaching to oil- and natural-gas-rich Central Asia. Brazil offers less of a comparative advantage. It lies isolated in South America, geographically removed from other landmasses.”

The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis — about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, about the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Oh, and do you remember Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical treatment of Kazakhstan? Kaplan informs us that “Kazakhstan is truly becoming an independent power in its own right” (and proves it). Who knew?

A word of warning, though: unless you’re familiar with both world history and ancient history, you may find The Revenge of Geography to be tough sledding through the innumerable mentions of long-lost empires and forgotten kings. Kaplan grounds his analysis not just in geography but also in history, and his knowledge of both clearly runs deep.

Kaplan begins wrapping up his book with a troubling discussion about recent U.S. foreign and military policy: “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?”

“America faces three primary geopolitical dilemmas,” Kaplan concludes. “[A] chaotic Eurasian heartland in the Middle East, a rising and assertive Chinese superpower, and a state in deep trouble in Mexico. And the challenges we face with China and Mexico are most efficiently dealt with by wariness of further military involvement in the Middle East. This is the only way that American power can sustain itself for the decades to come.”

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