BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Revenge of Geography’

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, $26, 403 pages

Robert Kaplan, a seasoned foreign correspondent, scholar and author, sets out to demonstrate that geography did and does play a major role in the behavior of nations. In much earlier times, for example, natural barriers such as mountains and rivers provided defense. Nowadays, geography that enhances a country’s economic importance can determine its geopolitical importance.

While he is not a historical determinist — one who follows the theory that geography is fate — he makes a convincing case that it is very important. He summarizes the arguments for the two prevailing schools of thought about world affairs, “realism” and “idealism.” For a description of the former, he cites the late University of Chicago professor, Hans J. Morgenthau, who wrote that the world “is the result of forces inherent in human nature,” and “one must work with these forces, not against them.” The idealist, on the other hand, thinks of attaining broad goals, such as democratization or the establishment of human rights in a country. Mr. Kaplan argues that elements of both approaches are needed, but that unalloyed idealism may lead to unexpected and undesirable consequences.

The author devotes probably too many pages to sharing the credentials and theories about history and geography of various scholars. For example, we meet Edwardian geographer Sir Halford J. Mackinder and his associate, James Fairgrieve, modern editor Leon Wieseltier, Yale professor Nicholas J. Spykman of the World War II era and University of Chicago history professors William H. McNeil and Marshall G.S. Hodgson, among others. They developed theories and names for various regions and forces, such as the Rimland of Eurasia, the World Island and the Heartland.

Mr. Kaplan then moves on to discuss in detail the significance of geography in the history and present life of Europe, Russia, China, the Indian subcontinent, Iran and the former Ottoman Empire (Turkey and nearby countries). Ultimately, he comes back to our own hemisphere and the importance of Mexico to our future. He argues that “land empires” — with vast space but lacking seaports and many rivers to the sea — are very hard to defend; whereas “naval empires,” such as Rome, modern Britain and the United States, can expand dynamically in both geopolitical strength and trade.

Mr. Kaplan cites Russia as the best example of a “land empire.” He notes that, lacking natural barriers, Russia in the 13th century was overrun by the Mongolian “Golden Horde.” He writes, “Thus would Russia be denied access to the European Renaissance, and branded forever with the bitterest feelings of inferiority and insecurity.” He adds, “as a result it would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory, or at least dominating its contiguous shadow zone.” Thus, in two sentences we have an insight into behavior both of Czarist and Soviet Russia, and Vladimir Putin’s highly defensive outlook on the world.

As for China, he says it was a “land empire,” but took a long time to consolidate various groups into a unified one. Because it had a long seacoast, it could have much interaction with the outside world. Today, with its dynamic economy it seeks to become a deep-water naval power. The author contends that China’s goal is not to acquire land, but to insure economic dominance over Asia.

Iran and Turkey, the author says, are geographically positioned to be major “pivots” economically when it comes to natural resources. Iran’s oil and gas pipelines radiate eastward and westward. Turkey’s oil pipelines do the same, and its control of the headwaters and storage of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers means that it determines the availability of water for several of its neighbors.

“The Revenge of Geography” is a book of many insights by a highly perceptive observer and analyst.

Peter Hannaford is a board member of The Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions, 2012).

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