Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kaplan's "The Revenge of Geography"


The above article appears in the May/June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy. It was written by Robert D. Kaplan and entitled “The Revenge of Geography.”

Reading this article gave me a headache. I should really read it twice before commenting, but my head can’t take it. I admire Kaplan. I read his The Arabists, The Romance of an American Elite back in June of 2004 and was impressed. One must call him a Journalist rather than an historian, I suppose – at least technically, but his grasp of American diplomacy impressed me when I read The Arabists and his grasp of geographical influences in the 21st century in this article is also impressive, albeit disjointed – or so it seems to me.

Many years ago, when I was in college, I took a course called “World Regional Geography” from a Professor Erickson. Kaplan reminds me of Erickson. Forget politics. Forget Religion. All you need to know is geography. Well, you do need to know demographics as well, but that can be seen as a subset of Geography. In order to graduate from his class you needed to know every major river, every major city, all the world’s borders and all the world’s natural resources. I recall his saying at the time that China could never compete as a great industrial power in the way that Germany did in WWII because “look here,” he would point to a map. Their Iron ore is here, but their coal is way over here and they have to get it up over these mountains. Now look at Germany and the Ruhr Valley. Everything is right there for them.

In this article Kaplan writes a lot about “natural borders,” and the only natural resources he writes about are water and oil. But there are gaps in his presentation. He writes about Braudel’s The Mediterranean which Braudel wrote in 1949 and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. He also invokes Nicholas Spykman who died in 1943. All that is good, by I miss mention of the more recent and influential Samuel P. Huntington who also considered geographical forces, which he called “fault zones” where Civilizations clash. Kaplan uses a similar term derived, I suppose, from an article Halford Mackinder wrote in 1904: “shatter zones.” All that is good, Mr. Kaplan, but bring it forward in time and integrate it with (or contrast it to) Huntington’s thesis.

I don’t mind that he doesn’t mention Fukuyama. Kaplan would not be sympathetic with Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, but then Huntington wasn’t either. Fukuyama, following Kojeve who followed Hegel believed in deterministic historical forces that would produce an end of history, that is a Social and economic structure, Liberal Democracy, that would prevail throughout the world. Huntington would say “nonsense.” Liberal democracy is a characteristic of the “Western Civilization.” Kaplan says the same thing but doesn’t credit Huntington as having said it before him.

This article is provocative rather than satisfying. I ordered Kaplan’s Warrior Politics: Why leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, 2003. This sounds as though it fleshes out Kaplan’s ideas in a more coherent fashion than the subject article does, but it may just give me a larger headache.

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