Geographer's Revenge

The Twentieth Century, Azim Azimzade

In an attempt to atone for his idealist support of the invasion of Iraq, Robert Kaplan has turned to geography, but in casting about for an explanation of what went wrong, Kaplan has stumbled into the shallows of geopolitics

“What did we do to geography to get it so mad?” quipped the cashier, eyeing the cover when I bought Robert Kaplan’s latest from a bookstore in my hometown. I have to admit that I laughed—as a geographer you get so used to the un-funny jokes (“you must get tired of coloring in maps all the time”) that when you hear something new it is a genuine pleasure. But the joke seems oddly prescient now that I have read the book. Indeed, there have been crimes against geography, with Kaplan the latest perpetrator. It may seem strange for a geographer like me to take umbrage with a book so devoted to the advocacy of my field. Kaplan passionately believes in the importance of geography, the problem being that he views it as an occulted knowledge, long since lost to humanity. Instead of treating geography as a living and evolving discipline, he derives his argument entirely from ideas that were popular at the turn of the 20th century and have been roundly discredited since.

Kaplan argues that liberal scholars and foreign policy elites have bought into the rhetoric of globalization such that they’ve begun to ignore geography. He wants to reintroduce geography, via notions of “natural borders” and of the limits imposed on human action by unchanging topographical features, into the production of foreign policy: “mountains and the men who grow out of them are the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting and fortifying, only the second.” This elevation of the material world over political ideals, while not dismissing the latter, is an intervention into the long-running debate among international relations theorists as to whether the world can be improved and conflict eradicated, or whether such idealistic notions only lead to more conflict—conflict that could be reduced if we accepted so-called realities about human nature. The notion that geography imposes limits on what states may accomplish therefore buttresses realists’ belief in the limits of human progress. Kaplan himself writes that The Revenge of Geography is a form of realist atonement for his idealist support of the invasion of Iraq. In casting about for an explanation of what went wrong, Kaplan stumbled into the shallows of geopolitics.

Geopolitics is a branch of geography that originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, Kaplan draws on the work of Sir Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, who created an Anglo-American geopolitical tradition that emphasized the role of Eurasia in world politics, with land-based powers from its interior (the “heartland”) competing with maritime powers from the margins of Eurasia (the “rimland”) or beyond (the “outer crescent”). Kaplan and his antecedents argue that this dynamic is visible throughout history, with Mongols, Huns, and later Russians striking out for the coastlines of Europe, the Middle East, South and East Asia, always to be beaten back but only after leaving their mark on those regions. However, as many scholars have noted over the past several decades, this is a West-centric understanding of history in which the peoples of the West are innocents seeking merely to contain (to use the Cold War term) the heartland’s land-based aggression. This is an odd reading of the modern era, during which a series of Western (maritime) powers have dominated most of the world. It’s history viewed from the perspective of first a British imperialist (Mackinder) and now an American foreign policy pundit (Kaplan), both uncertainly eyeing rising powers that may threaten their country’s preeminence.

That geopolitics is the tool of the powerful becomes most apparent when Kaplan engages with Nazi Geopolitik—the German tradition that, in the wake of the First World War, criticized the limits of “artificial” borders such as those hemming in post-Versailles Germany. Karl Haushofer—the leading proponent of Geopolitik—also drew heavily on Mackinder, but Kaplan faults Haushofer for what he did with those theories: “While Mackinder saw the future in terms of a balance of power that would protect freedom, Haushofer was determined to overthrow the balance of power altogether; thus he perverted geopolitics,” (emphasis mine). In other words, geopolitical thought is meant to legitimate and maintain the status quo.

Kaplan approvingly cites Arnold Toynbee’s argument that a tropical climate makes life too easy for civilizational advance, while the Arctic is too harsh for anything but survival. As in the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the climates of China and the United States, both in the mid-latitudes, are neither too hard nor too soft, but just right (apparently wealthy Singapore, at one degree north of the equator, didn’t get the memo). It is hard to see much room in this account for a political order other than the one we have, but it is relatively easy to see imperial racial clichés about the laziness of “the natives.”

Geopolitics is all about the maintenance of “our” place at the top of the global food chain. Mackinder, Spykman, and Kaplan all update the original heartland thesis to reflect whatever the current perceived threat to their worldleading state is: Russia, Germany, the Soviet Union, and now whoever dominates Central Asia (Russia? China? Iran? Kaplan is here admirably noncommittal). For a quasi-permanent feature of the earth’s surface, geography sure seems vibrant enough to require lots of new editions of geopolitical texts. A common thread in all these revisions is that they locate the new “pivot” of geopolitics somewhere in Eurasia. Proponents of geopolitics see this constant revision as evidence of suppleness of thought and the recognition that geography is not fate. An alternate, more coherent, interpretation is that the geopolitical analyst reads geography through the lens of her or his own shifting imperial anxieties, meaning that an objective understanding of geography is always doomed to fail. Eurasia is both home to “the Orient” (the tacit opponent of “the West,” the oft-used synonym for NATO) and just happens to be big enough that you can always find evidence of a geopolitical hotspot somewhere to legitimate Mackinder’s theory.

Kaplan is clearly concerned with the criticism of Mackinder and other early geopolitical analysts as geographical determinists (i.e., believers that human agency is entirely subordinate to environmental influence). He is at pains to express belief that technology, ideas, and effort can make a difference in the unfolding of history. However, the words he uses to describe the relationship between human agency and geography (probabilistic determinism, hesitant determinism) prioritize the static quality of geography while offering a possibility of transcending it, especially through knowledge of the terrain. However, Kaplan never precisely explains how geography can be transcended, or under what circumstances it is futile to try. Rather than any specific theory, Kaplan invokes geography as a kind of vector that it is easier to flow with than against, e.g. “Mountains are a conservative force.”

The metaphor’s limits become apparent when Kaplan tries to attribute historical outcomes to geography. For instance, his belief that Russia is fundamentally a land-based power leads to this explanation of the tension between its two historic capitals: “So in the short run Peter triumphed [in creating St. Petersburg as his new capital.] But in the end land-bound Moscow—and geography—again won out. Human volition has its limits.” What exactly is being argued here? Did the mystical power of geography move the government to Moscow? Or are human decisions always already rooted in geographical circumstances, even as people work to change those circumstances? At times the metaphor of geography as a vector seems to substitute for any kind of explanation, mystical or otherwise, such as when Kaplan argues for the coming dominance of China over Southeast Asia: “For it is here in Southeast Asia, with its 568 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people.” The verb ‘converge’ connotes a coming together of forces, a recognizably Kaplan-esque turn of phrase. But what does it mean in this case, when presumably he does not mean migration of everyone in China and India to Southeast Asia? The mere statement of demographic numbers is no substitute for explanation.

And so we arrive at the main charge against Kaplan: his fundamental misunderstanding of geography. “Geography is the backdrop to human history itself,” he says. Geography, in Kaplan’s hands, is everything quasi-permanent: physical landforms, macro-scaled cultural patterns, and so on. Further, geography is opposed to the dynamism of human action. In short, Kaplan constructs a binary in which geography is to history as nature is to nurture, or as realist theories of international relations are to idealist theories of the same. Debates about these binaries go on forever because they are essentially unsolvable, being ultimately manifestations of the analyst’s pessimism or optimism. And in a complex world, pessimists and optimists can always find evidence.

Contemporary geographers, however, have tried to move past such dated structures of thought. We see geography as neither static nor overwhelming; rather geographies are lively and always in flux—simultaneously shaping our actions and being produced through them.

Kaplan’s attempt to inject the environment into otherwise abstract foreign policy discussions is to be applauded, as attention to such matters is crucial for many contemporary debates, such as climate change. But if he thinks geography is limited to the physical environment, and that our best theorization of the relationship between geography and politics comes from long-dead Victorian thinkers like Mackinder, he is mistaken.