Review: “The Revenge of Geography”

Written By: HJdeblij - Sep• 04•12

Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House 2012.xxii and 403 pp, maps, notes; index.

Reviewed in The Geographical Review, Vol. 103, No. 2, April, 2013, pp. 304-305.

The title of Robert Kaplan’s latest book suggests something ominous: a vengeful geography lurking somewhere on (or beneath) Thomas Friedman’s flat world, ready to wreak its wrath on the spatially ignorant. The subtitle hints at something rather less dramatic: “What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate.” But the contents range from the brilliant to the banal in ways that make it worth reading, for Mr. Kaplan knows as perhaps none other the maps and the places whereof he writes. Some of us remember a time when colleagues who allegedly did not do enough fieldwork were labeled “armchair geographers.” Kaplan may not be a geographer, but geographers will be impressed by his global grasp and, at times, his analytical skills. Less compelling, despite occasional disclaimers, are his adherence to environmental determinism and his apparent ignorance of recent and contemporary scholarship in political geography.

The Revenge of Geography has its origins in an article under that title published in Foreign Policy in 2009. The book is divided into three parts of which the first is an eight-chapter trek from Herodotus to the Heartland, from pre-Minoa to post-Mackinder. Part II describes past and future in six world realms or regions (Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey), and the final, single-chapter part focuses on Mexico and the USA’s difficult relations with this crucial neighbor.

Contrasting his book against Friedman’s, Kaplan says that he will “introduce readers to a group of decidedly unfashionable thinkers, who push up hard against the notion that “geography no longer matters” (italics author’s). Geographers who hope that this group may include some unfashionable thinkers in political geography are soon disappointed. To be sure: Kaplan cites a wide range of scholars and strategists – his skillful summations of the views of such authors as Hodgson, Bracken, Braudel and many others are highlights of the book – but few geographers, and no modern ones, make their appearance in his pages. This, of course, also reflects the state of the art. When the redoubtable Saul Cohen is by far the most-cited political geographer in a 2012 book on political-geographical topics, it tells you as much about the fading of a once-prominent field of the discipline as it does about Cohen’s formidable works. Nevertheless, the absence of such names as O’Loughlin, Agnew, Murphy, Fan, Nijman, Blaut, O Tuathail, Flint, and others is not only regrettable but also inexcusable, and has a significant impact on the largely descriptive and weakly analytical Part Two. How James Trapier Lowe’s 700-page Geopolitics and War: Mackinder’s Philosophy of Power (1981) did not merit a mention in Kaplan’s narrative or citation list is – well, incredible.

These caveats notwithstanding, there is much to ponder in The Revenge of Geography. The regurgitation of the various Mackinder-Mahan-Spykman-Haushofer-Kjellen “theses” in Part One is entertaining and takes some of us back to far duller classroom iterations decades ago. It is piquant to see Kaplan accord such gravitas to notions long consigned to the dustbin of geography, and to follow him as he tries to accord current relevance to such old ideas (is Kazakhstan really the new “Mackinder’s Heartland”, p. 185?). This latest book again features Kaplan’s felicitous writing, quick analytical insight, casual references to personal adventures, and bull-in-the-china-shop candor that make the occasional banalities and platitudes consumable.

The book also sheds some light on Kaplan the activist. Early on he mentions having been part of a “group that urged the Bush administration to invade” Iraq (p. 18). He is a self-confessed interventionist: “My book Balkan Ghosts … was reportedly a factor in President Bill Clinton’s decision not to militarily intervene in 1993 (but) I urged intervention on the front page of The Washington Post’s Outlook Section on April 17, 1994 (p. 351)” … “Clinton’s hesitant way of waging war was complicit in large-scale suffering” (p. 16). Those words echo when we are told that “Haushofer’s life is a signal lesson in the dangers inherent for men of ideas who seek desperately to ingratiate themselves with those in power” (p. 86).

If readers are somewhat jaded by the regional descriptions that constitute Part Two, they will be rewarded if they persist and give Part Three, a mere 27 pages, a careful reading. Titled America’s Destiny, its single chapter (Braudel, Mexico, and Grand Strategy) is Kaplan at his most effective, especially when the reader gets past still another ode to an ancien determinist. Braudel’s relevance to the issue at hand may be contrived, but then Kaplan gets to the heart of the matter: United States policy in Eurasia has cost thousands of lives and perhaps a trillion dollars while virtually ignoring the troubles and growing disarray in a state on its southern border whose future will be far more consequential than Iraq or Afghanistan will ever be. “The destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west, sea-to-shining-sea of continental and patriotic myth” (p. 333, italics author’s). Mexico, Kaplan argues, “registers far less in the [East-Coast] elite imagination than does Israel or China, or India” (p. 334). We are, he writes, curiously passive about what is happening to a country with which we share a long land border, that verges on disorder, and whose population is close to double that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. He urges a new posture that will, over the long term, produce “a cohesive, bilingual super-state-of-sorts with Mexico and Canada” (p. 344), part of a process he refers to earlier as being “healthy for America … as it prepares the world for its own [superpower] obsolescence” (p. 332).

There was a time when political geographers dared address the general reader about the big picture, entering the fray with their own perspectives. It may be the case, as a colleague wrote me, that “no geographer could afford to publish” a book of this kind. Maybe so, but this means that non-geographers will be writing geography for the lay reader, as Paul Krugman has done in his New York Times columns, “discovering” long-dormant geographic concepts and heralding them as newfound truths. Geographers will at times find The Revenge of Geography excruciating, but the book is worth a read, if only as proof that the influential Robert Kaplan understands why geography matters.

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