- Here Be Dragons:Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography
Between the Islamic State’s efforts to erase the borders established by the World War I Sykes-Picot agreement, Russia’s annexation and aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, and China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, it has been a poor year for both political cartographers and those who suffer what they must. Such times were made for journalist Robert D. Kaplan, whose occasionally thought-provoking, but ultimately ponderous and equivocal The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (Random House, 2012) serves as a summation of the cultural and resource-driven tensions he has explored throughout his peripatetic career in books such as Balkan Ghosts (St. Martin’s, 1993), The Coming Anarchy (Random House, 2002), and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014).
A self-proclaimed realist, Kaplan’s book serves as a pointed rebuttal of what he sees as the tendency of global elites to casually dismiss the influence of physical boundaries and proclaim New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” as they flit between the Four Seasons’ Grill Room in New York City and the World Economic Forum at Davos. Kaplan argues that geography “could have served us well in anticipating the violence in both the Balkans, the Cold War, and in Iraq,” a mea culpa from a man who was a prominent supporter of the invasion in 2003.1 We need, he avers, “a modest acceptance of fate, secured in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy.”2
Kaplan, a proponent of the Grand Tour in intellectual as well as physical terms, begins with a survey of thinkers who developed the concept of modern “geopolitics,” beginning with Halford J. Mackinder, the British geographer who coined the term. Quoting liberally from Mackinder, naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, Dutch-American political scientist Nicholas Spykman, and French historian [End Page 201] Fernand Braudel, Kaplan analyzes various geographic areas that might hold the key to global political preeminence. Chief among these is the bulk of the Eurasian landmass, spanning from contemporary Russia to Central Asia, which formed the basis of Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory, which holds that any power that controls Eurasia’s well-resourced and defensible interior holds the key to global hegemony.
While Kaplan acknowledges that many of these thinkers’ ideas are reductive and offers a caveat that “it is in the interplay between human agency and determinism that history will be made,” he never completely extracts himself from their grip. This is not surprising given these theories’ origins and popularization in the Victorian era, which was characterized by enthusiastic amateurism, a casual acquaintance with history, and a tendency towards broad pronouncements—propensities to which Kaplan is a worthy heir. Such qualities, like Mercator’s projections, tend to distort while giving an impression of certitude. Expand time here or there, and evidence of what he identifies as “fate” abounds; compress, and find that it is completely absent.
Kaplan’s analysis of Europe is particularly revealing. Using truisms about soil quality, access to water, and mineral deposits, he argues that the dominance of Western and Northern Europe was essentially inevitable. The Roman Empire may have dominated the continent for a few hundred years, but it was “the pull of the colder Atlantic which opened up global shipping routes that ultimately won out against the enclosed Mediterranean,” permitting nations like France and Germany to win out “in the form of the European Union.”3 If that was the case, why aren’t Spain and Portugal—who dominated early exploration and trade—outperforming Germany and bailing out Greece? For that matter, why hasn’t Europe been governed from an ur-Berlin for centuries given its supposed natural geographic advantages?
In the first case, Kaplan assures us that while their “protruding peninsular position” gave them an edge, they lost out due to their pre-Enlightenment societies, which were traumatized by the threat posed by North...