The Revenge of Geography

By Francis P. Sempa Joint Force Quarterly 73

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April 1, 2014 — By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2012
403 pp. $28
ISBN: 978-1400069835
Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa

Revenge of Geography Cover

Ever since the rise of Hitler and the Second World War, international events and circumstances have led to periodic revivals of interest in the ideas and concepts of classical geopolitical theorists. As the Wehrmacht surged into the vast expanses of Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan sought to carve out a greater East Asia and Pacific empire, Western strategists and even popular media outlets such as Time magazine “discovered” the “Heartland” theory first propounded by British geographer Halford Mackinder in his 1904 address to the Royal Geographical Society entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” revised and expanded in his 1919 masterpiece Democratic Ideals and Reality, and further revised and updated in a 1943 Foreign Affairs article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.”

Mackinder identified the northern-central core of the Eurasian landmass as the “Heartland” and “pivot” of world politics and the potential seat of a global empire. He viewed Germany’s two wars with Russia in the 20th century as struggles for command of the Heartland and preeminence in Eurasia. He also discerned a pattern to international politics that repeatedly pitted insular sea powers against continental-based land powers.

With the onset of the Cold War in the mid-to-late 1940s, some Western strategists perceived that the U.S.-Soviet struggle for the world could best be understood not solely as a conflict between competing ideologies, but more by reference to classical geopolitics. Indeed, George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, James Burnham, and Raymond Aron were among those who viewed the Cold War through Mackinderesque lenses. Containment’s intellectual origins can be traced back to “The Geopolitical Pivot of History.”

The advent of atomic weapons, however, convinced many in the West that classical geopolitics was outmoded and irrelevant. Nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems, it was argued, made geography less pertinent to international politics. After the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia and the Soviet offensive in the Third World during the 1970s, Western strategists such as Colin Gray resurrected classical geopolitics to explain the growing threat to the West posed by Soviet expansionism. In the 1970s Gray wrote a monograph entitled The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Erathat introduced a new generation of scholars and policymakers to the works of Halford Mackinder, Yale professor Nicholas Spykman, and American sea power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

The end of the Cold War, with its promise of a “peace dividend” and a “new world order,” once again seemed to consign classical geopolitics to the ash heap of history. Europe, the center of great power struggles for centuries, was at peace. There was no peer competitor to challenge America. Strategist Edward Luttwak argued that “geo-economics” was replacing geopolitics. Francis Fukuyama provocatively proclaimed the “end of history.” Thomas Friedman pointed to “globalization” as the key to understanding world politics.

Then, quite suddenly, the United States was fighting two wars in Asia (in Afghanistan and Iraq), conducting a global “war on terror,” attempting to prevent two Asian countries (North Korea and Iran) from getting nuclear weapons, and dealing with the rising Asian powers China and India. Geography, it seemed, mattered after all.

That is why the geopolitical writings of Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are front and center in Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography. Kaplan in the recent past has traveled to the world’s hot spots to observe up close and write about the difficult and brutal work performed by the U.S. military. With the end of the Cold War and the relative rise of great powers in Asia, Kaplan has taken a broader view of global events. This was first evidenced in his 2010 Monsoon, in which he identified the Indian Ocean and its surrounding landmasses as the pivot of world politics in the 21st century. Now, in The Revenge of Geography, he uses Mackinder, Spykman, Mahan, and lesser geopolitical thinkers to explain the global politics of today and tomorrow.

Kaplan’s is a realist’s view of the world that accepts human nature as the “Thucydidean pantheon of fear, self-interest, and honor,” resulting in a “world of incessant conflict and coercion” (p. 25) that forces strategists and policymakers to recognize “the most blunt, uncomfortable, and deterministic of truths: those of geography” (p. 28). “[G]eography,” he writes, “is the preface to the very track of human events” (p. 28).

Kaplan reviews what he calls “the grand pattern of world history” (p. 37) using the theories and concepts of the great classical geopolitical thinkers to establish a framework to understand the past, contextualize current world events, and foresee the emerging trends in global politics.

That framework—a synthesis of the ideas of Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan—posits the centrality of the Eurasian landmass to the global balance of power, the distinct and rival geographical power centers of Eurasia, and the historic rivalry between land powers and sea powers for regional and global preeminence.

Kaplan contends that power in Eurasia has shifted from Russia and Western Europe to what Spykman called the Asian “Rimland” and Mahan termed the “Debatable and Debated Ground.” This region includes the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the rising powers of China and India, five nuclear powers (China, India, Russia, Pakistan, and Israel), the volatile Korean peninsula, lands with vast reserves of oil and natural gas, and important maritime chokepoints. He reviews in separate chapters the geo-history of the key countries and power centers of Eurasia including Western Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, and Turkey and explains their relative importance to the geopolitics of the 21st century.

Kaplan writes that although the United States is in relative decline as a world power, it does not have to go the way of previous empires such as Rome, Venice, and Great Britain. He recommends that the United States avoid getting bogged down in small wars, prioritize its sea and air power assets, and become a “balancing power in Eurasia and a unifying power in North America” (p. 346).

While one can quibble with Kaplan’s specific recommendations, he deserves much praise for reintroducing and applying classical geopolitical analysis to the 21st-century world.JFQ