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Is Geography Destiny?

By: Patrick J. Garrity
August 15, 2012

Is geography destiny? Robert D. Kaplan thinks that this is so, or at least that this assumption is close enough for government work. He likes to quote the British geographer Halford J. Mackinder: "Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls." Kaplan has a book coming out in September 2012, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, which will summarize his writings and research on this topic, including his 2010 assessment of the geopolitical competition in Asia, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

Kaplan, the Chief Geopolitical Analyst for STRATFOR, a private global intelligence firm, was for many years a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic. His much-discussed article, "The Coming Anarchy," in the February 1994 Atlantic Monthly, explained how population growth, urbanization, and resource depletion undermined governments. His December 1997 Atlantic essay, "Was Democracy Just A Moment?" contended that the spread of democracy would not necessarily lead to greater political stability.

Kaplan is a provocative Big Thinker, along the lines of the late Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, and Paul Kennedy. As with all Big Thinkers, he finds the keys to human history precisely beneath the lamppost under which he has decided to look. He is by trade a journalist and travel writer rather than a scholar and, like Thomas Friedman of theNew York Times (another journalist Big Thinker) he easily transforms particular impressions and anecdotes into universal truths. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That said, scholars have their own failings, and Kaplan is one of the more original and stimulating writers in business today. Therefore we note with interest previews of his book that he has published recently in the July/August issues of The National Interest (on the divided map of Europe), and Foreign Policy (on the geography of Pakistan). His first crack at the general argument about the revenge of geography appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy.

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Kaplan's argument is worth noting on two levels. First, he considers the degree to which human agency, in the form of political ideas or statecraft, can affect or overcome "necessity," that is, "forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization." Kaplan challenges the liberal (or modernist) argument that all such factors are surmountable through good will, benign economic forces, or great power intervention (whether of the enlightened or benighted sort).

Second, Kaplan seeks to revive the serious study of geopolitical thinking because he believes that geography (broadly defined, to include climate, soil, the distribution of resources, and the like) is the most elemental of these "forces beyond our control." Kaplan points to the classic geopolitical arguments of, among others, Mackinder, the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, Yale University geographer Nicholas Spykman, and the French historian Fernand Braudel.

The most basic struggles of humanity, Kaplan contends,

are not about ideas but about control over territory, specifically the heartland and rimlands of Eurasia. Of course, ideas matter, and they span geography. And yet there is a certain geographic logic to where certain ideas take hold. Communist Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and North Korea were all contiguous to the great land power of the Soviet Union. Classic fascism was a predominantly European affair. And liberalism nurtured its deepest roots in the United States and Great Britain, essentially island nations and sea powers both.


For Kaplan, geography is the elemental force that is ripping through the veneer of civilization, now that the political battle between liberal capitalism and totalitarian Marxism has receded to reveal more fundamental differences in the organization of human societies. Take, for instance, the current economic crisis in Europe and the debate over the future of the monetary union. At its most basic level, this is not a disagreement among obtuse politicians and central bankers; or a battle of economic theories or political ideologies; or even the cultural battle between the hard-working Germans and lazy Greeks. Rather, this reflects a deeply-rooted geographic conflict between the north and the south.

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Drawing on the arguments of Braudel, Kaplan argues that Mediterranean societies for millennia were largely defined by "traditionalism and rigidity" because the poor quality of Mediterranean soil favored large land holdings that were under the control of the wealthy. Meanwhile, northern Europe, with its richer soils, rivers and open-ocean access, and rich coal and iron-ore deposits, saw a freer civilization grow up, one better able to take advantage of technological innovations such as moveable type. There are other European divisions caused by geography which influence the current debate over the meaning of ‘Europe': those between east and west, and between the northwest and the center. This is a simplification of Kaplan's complete argument, but the bottom line is that we are indeed witnessing a clash of civilizations within Europe, per the late Samuel Huntington—but for Kaplan, culture is fundamentally a product of geography before all else.

This leads to one of Kaplan's major theses: political boundaries, which are often human artifices created to overcome the forces of necessity, are giving way, informally or formally, to the tectonic forces of geography. This reemergence of geography is occurring because of, rather than despite, globalization:

Mass communications and economic integration are weakening many states, exposing a Hobbesian world of small, fractious regions. Within them, local, ethnic, and religious sources of identity are reasserting themselves, and because they are anchored to specific terrains, they are best explained by reference to geography. Like the faults that determine earthquakes, the political future will be defined by conflict and instability with a similar geographic logic. The upheaval spawned by the ongoing economic crisis is increasing the relevance of geography even further, by weakening social orders and other creations of humankind, leaving the natural frontiers of the globe as the only restraint.


Kaplan's argument about the perverse effects of globalization is certainly not unique but his use of geography as an analytical explanation is distinctive.

To make sense of the current situation, Kaplan turns especially to Mackinder's view of political geography (again, to simplify things) in which "Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia are the ‘pivot' around which the fate of world empire revolves." Surrounding this "Heartland" are four "marginal" regions of the Eurasian landmass (corresponding, not by coincidence, to the four great religions). During the so-called Columbian epoch, the Europeans, particularly the British, dominated the entire rimland of southern Asia (and the New World) with sea power, while Russia expanded territorially on the land. The two great geopolitical forces were bound to clash over the "pivot" and the "marginal" regions, especially with the advent of the railroad, which threatened to cancel the advantages of strategic mobility that sea power once held. For a time Germany vied with Russia for control of the heartland, and with Britain for control of the rimlands, but Mackinder (writing his seminal essay in 1904) posited Russia as the dominant long-term threat to the West.

Kaplan acknowledges that Mackinder's theory must be revised in light of recent developments, including the possibility that China, rather than Russia, might aspire to dominant geopolitical status. The more basic change is the shrinking map—the fact that Eurasia is being reconfigured into an organic whole, no longer divided into heartlands and rimlands or marginal areas. The "crisis of room," noted by Yale University professor Paul Bracken, is driven to a first order by population growth and the diffusion of high technology. Population is increasing rapidly in the crisis-prone Middle East and Asia, which will lead to future conflicts over water and other scarce resources. The expanded and impoverished populations will crowd increasingly into mega-cities, with access to modern means of communication, all of which will exacerbate xenophobia and paranoia—the West Bank writ large.

Meanwhile, nations or sub-national groups will acquire ballistic missiles and devastating weapons (from nuclear to cybernetic) that can render horrific damage beyond the local theater. This is a world in which a 1914-style chain reaction, setting off a wider war, could easily occur. "The ability of states to control events will be diluted, in some cases destroyed," Kaplan writes.

Artificial borders will crumble and become more fissiparous, leaving only rivers, deserts, mountains, and other enduring facts of geography. Indeed, the physical features of the landscape may be the only reliable guides left to understanding the shape of future conflict. Like rifts in the Earth's crust that produce physical instability, there are areas in Eurasia that are more prone to conflict than others. These ‘shatter zones' threaten to implode, explode, or maintain a fragile equilibrium. And not surprisingly, they fall within that unstable inner core of Eurasia: the greater Middle East, the vast way station between the Mediterranean world and the Indian subcontinent that registers all the primary shifts in global power politics.

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This is not a pretty picture, and Kaplan provides us with good reason to study geography and the classic notions of geopolitics, even if only to enrich our thinking about strategy and national security. It also brings us back to the first point of our discussion about the role, if any, for human agency, especially statecraft and the role of ideas, in dealing with hard factors of international relations. Kaplan thinks that there is a role for politics, if only at the margin—"to look hard at the map for ingenious ways to stretch the limits it imposes, which will make any support for liberal principles in the world far more effective."

Kaplan himself, in his July/August 2012 National Interest article, "The Divided Map of Europe," suggests a concrete example of effective human agency, that of Churchill's 1944 negotiations with Stalin leading to the infamous "sphere of influence" agreement over southeastern Europe, including Greece. In Kaplan's way of thinking, Greece for millennia has been very much on the geographic/cultural divide between East and West, and North and South. Churchill maintained that his agreement with Stalin was to ensure an orderly transition from war to peace, and not to reflect a permanent division of the region, but Churchill clearly sought to secure what he could for the West in the face of Russia's military advance on the continent and the apparent American determination to withdraw from Europe at the war's end. In the event, Churchill obtained Stalin's agreement that Britain would have preeminence in Greece, in exchange for equal or Soviet provisional control over other nations in the region.

As things turned out, Greece stayed in the Western sphere. The non-Communist side, with British and later American assistance, outfought the Communists (whether or not actively aided by Stalin) in the Greek civil war. Greece was later incorporated into NATO. Kaplan writes:

It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened during the Cold War had the negotiations between Churchill and Stalin gone differently: imagine how much stronger the Kremlin's strategic position would have been with Greece inside the communist bloc, endangering Italy across the Adriatic Sea, to say nothing of the whole eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.


Yet it was a matter of judgment on Churchill's part, and later on the part of American officials, that Greece, unlike some other nations, was worth treasure and perhaps blood. Some thought this was a mistake: the Greek government was not always democratic and the Western commitment to Greece arguably represented a dangerous overextension beyond a defensible security perimeter. In the end, it is fair to say that Churchill and the Americans were vindicated; but the story of Greece's place in the strategic and political geography of Eurasia continues in today's headlines. It is easy to abandon oneself to the forces of history, geography, and culture, but statesmanship does matter, and not just at the margins.