Written By: HJdeblij - Sep• 11•13

THE LOST ART OF FINDING OUR WAY .  John Edward Huth.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2013. 544 pp., maps, diagrams, appendices, glossary, notes, index. $ 35.00 cloth. (ISBN 978-0-674-07282-4)

Reviewed by Harm de Blij

Stand on a city sidewalk near the exit stairs from the subway (for example in Manhattan at Penn Station) as the crowd emerges from the comparative darkness, and you can observe a phenomenon that would have Harvard Professor Huth shake his head in despair. A few arrivals look up and down the intersecting avenue and street, recognize and point to landmarks, and rubberneck their way into the city. Many more, though, have their eyes focused on an electronic gadget, navigating their route from directions on a screen, never checking just where they are in the urban landscape. “As informational technology has grown,” Huth writes, “our ability to perceive and think independently without help from devices may be compromised to the point where we, not our forebears, are the primitive ones”  (pp. 1 -2). This applies to fog-shrouded coastlines as well as tangled urban settings, and with this terrific book he seeks to reverse the trend.

     Professor Huth teaches at Harvard University, but The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is not the stuff of his career as Donner Professor of Science in the Physics Department. An outdoor enthusiast throughout his life, he taught himself navigational techniques and studied the voyaging skills of peoples such as the Netsilik Inuit and the Caroline Islanders. This book, a veritable encyclopedia of advice and instruction for adventurers who may find themselves having to rely on their intuitive skills for survival, had its origins in a dramatic incident in 2003. Kayaking in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod, Huth had taken note of wind and swell and, when a fog enveloped him, could steer toward the shore and follow the coast to safety. But less than a half mile away and unbeknown to him, two young women just offshore became disoriented in the same fog, turned toward the open sea , and perished. The book is dedicated to their memories, and aims to raise environmental awareness that can save lives.

     Even before the book appeared, Professor Huth was teaching a freshman seminar, Primitive Navigation, at Harvard University. He also offered a General Education course on broader topics that seems,  for many geographers, to  mirror the physical geography course that forms part of the core curriculum of geography departments nationwide (though not at Harvard).  Indeed, to scan The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way is to run across numerous familiar geographic topics and illustrations whose relevance to the “lost art” may not be immediately obvious – until the author’s skillful narrative points the way. From map projections to cloud formations and from  cold fronts to warm currents, the basics of physical geography are put in practical context.

     The book’s 18 chapters are divided – not formally – into two groups. The first eight address navigation as way-finding in historic and practical contexts while the last ten “focus on factors that might seem at first blush to be more subtle but that end up being critical to navigation before GPS” (p.  10).  The closing chapter retells the legendary story of Baintabu, a female navigator in the Gilbert Islands of the 1780s, who was thrown overboard from the lead canoe during the return from a raiding party and was rescued by the last canoe, which turned out to be the only one that made it home. The moral of the story takes some time to emerge, but it is a fitting finale to a book full of practical advice, anecdotal information, and sometimes fanciful  tales. The reader can almost hear Professor Huth lecturing as the narrative is in the first person, addresses its audience as “you”, and is, at times, in need of editorial condensation. So much the better: its breezy and conversational style has a way of easing some challenging technical hurdles.

     The crux of way-finding lies in the formation of mental maps, which is why Chapter 2, “Maps in the Mind”, is of special interest. This crucial chapter, not the most successful among the 18, opens with an engaging if not novel description of the way people in certain particular environmental settings “organize their space” (p. 13). Describing Inuit hunters, Norse explorers, and Caroline Island navigators, Huth details local strategies for mental-map formulation, orientation, and way-finding, speculating on the Norse from  strands of Viking navigational lore. Arriving at the key issue, he reports that “some part of the mind is able to assimilate, store, and recall what are effectively mental maps.  How does this work?” (p. 23). The next six pages refer to psychology’s route knowledge and survey knowledge distinction, address some (very few) of the advances neuroscientists are making, comment briefly on mammal territoriality and trail-marking habits, say nothing about non-mammal migration (marine navigators surely find seasonal bird migrations useful  in orientation, a topic not touched on until Chapter 17)  and ignore studies by geographers. A memorable article by C. Trowbridge in Science a century ago set the stage, but author and readers would also benefit from P. Gould and R. White’s 1974 classic, Mental Maps;  R. Kitchen and M. Blades’s Cognition of Geographic Space (2002);  and R. Downs and D. Stea’s Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (2005). This chapter also would have benefited from a more robust introduction to the concept of scale. Much of what follows in this book has to do with distance – from safe shorelines, from remote islands, from dangerous squalls – and chapter 4, titled “Dead Reckoning”, presents fascinating  and practical insights on this. But scale is a crucial factor in the formulation of mental maps, and its implications would seem to merit emphasis here.

     Reflecting on this chapter I was taken back to an incident following a May, 2013 public lecture in Oklahoma City where, as usual, I had made mention of mental maps and their cultural, age, gender, and other manifestations. Following that lecture a listener approached me and stated that he had what he called an infallible “sixth sense” of direction. I stuck out my arm and asked him to tell me where it was pointing, and he said, “just off WNW. “ In a subsequent interview (Smith, 2013) he reported that his “mental compass” was so accurate that he would know, for example, that a ship he was on had changed direction by a few degrees during an overnight sail. It made me think of the impact of perfect (absolute) pitch in the Western population – one in about 10,000 but with disproportionate impact on the evolution of Western music – and might such instilled directional knowledge have been more common in ancient times, and might seafarers possessing it have led some of those expeditions we now seek to understand?

     If this early chapter raises some unanswered questions, the next one, “On Being Lost”, sets the stage for an information-packed, awareness-raising traverse so intense and comprehensive that it defies summation. In “Urban Myths of Navigation” the topics range from the orientation of churches to that of satellite dishes; if you think there’s little that could be new in “Maps and Compasses”, think again. Professor Huth may not have intended it, but I am going to put a compass and a flashlight in the trunk of my decade-old sedan, just in case.  I now know how to use a compass for more than routine purposes.  And if there is much that would be familiar to geographers in the chapters on the stars, Sun and Moon, well, prepare to be surprised as well as entertained. There is an explanation for that Arab city my mother and I saw vividly, camels, palm trees and all, on the horizon from a beach on the Dutch island of Terschelling on July 17, 1947. Escape from a prison in Mogadishu, and you can walk your way to safety … if you can “read” the night sky.                                                                                                                                                                   

     But here is something  less surprising: in 1987 filmmakers interviewed a group of 23 graduating Harvard seniors and faculty members, asking them “why it’s cold in the winter and warm in the summer” (p.163). Twenty-one of the 23 gave the wrong answer, saying that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer.  The producers of the film suggested that this had to do with significant flaws in the way science is taught. More likely, it reflected the absence of physical geography from the Harvard College curriculum, an absence for which Professor Huth’s General Education course obviously was a welcome remedy.

     The second set of chapters ranges even farther afield. Anyone teaching a physical geography course will find marvelous nuggets of practical relevance to enliven topics that can so easily mire in technical detail, but there is much more: on the physics of watercraft and the speed and stability of hulls, historic and modern; on sailing against the wind and the evolving design and current near-extinction of sails; on aircraft, their prominent routes and navigation lights, revealing directional information to someone lost on the ground; on “glowing” planets and “twinkling” stars. Throughout, the message is: be aware of your environment! Pay attention to nature’s signals! Don’t rely solely on electronic gadgets and devices to guide you!

     To return to those New York subway stairs, the easy answer to Professor Huth would be that we no longer use the abacus but can still add and subtract, and that the calculator and computer have not extinguished knowledge of mathematics. I am not sure we can in fact still add and subtract, and international tests show that Americans’ knowledge of mathematics is somewhere near that of geography, in the dismal range. But a bigger issue arises from this book. Our dependence on power-based technology is not only individual and gadget-scale; it is also collective and universal.  We are creating a total dependence on power systems without backups and at times we are reminded of the risks when storms cause relatively brief and local power outages. But the greatest potential danger to the entire system (greater even than looming cyber attacks) is solar, not planetary. It’s not that we have had no warning; it’s just that life spans and memories are short. On August 28, 1859 the Sun smashed a billion-ton ball of protons through the Earth’s magnetic shield at several million kilometers per hour, a solar superstorm that repositioned the northern aurora over the Caribbean, created a fantastic light show, and disabled elementary telegraph systems worldwide. Were such an event to occur today, it would melt satellites, immobilize computers, neutralize cell phones, cancel GPS navigation, eliminate television, ground airliners, and generate worldwide blackouts. Cost estimates range into the tens of trillions; estimated recovery might take between four and ten years. It would be a good time to light a candle and re-read The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way.


De Blij, H. , 2013    “An Unusual Aptitude”.  Interview with Carl Michael Smith. AAG Newsletter, August (?).

Downs, R. and Stea, D. (eds), 2005.  Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Gould, P. and White, R.  1974.  Mental Maps.  Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Kitchen, R. and Blades, M.  2002.  The Cognition of Geographic Space.  New York: Tauris & Co.

Trowbridge, C.  1913.  “On Fundamental Methods of Orientation and ‘Imaginary’ Maps”. Science, 38 (990), 888-896.

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.

Review: Atlas of the Great Plains

Written By: HJdeblij - Jul• 03•12

Atlas of the Great Plains. By Stephen J. Lavin, Fred M. Shelley, and J. Clark Archer. Foreword by David J. Wishart. Introduction by John C. Hudson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. xvi + 335 pp. Maps, illustrations, bibliography. $ 39.95 cloth.

Reviewed in Great Plains Research Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 2012, pp. 203 – 206.

In New York earlier this year I found myself embroiled in a vigorous dinner-party debate over the supposedly declining prospects of printed books, journals, and newspapers. The majority view was that “electronic media” would consign such “products” to the dustbin of history; and as to maps and atlases, surely these would likewise disappear. Certainly the current The National Geographic Atlas of the World would be the Society’s last. Why would anyone need an unwieldy atlas when you can bring up any map on any topic at any scale on your computer screen?

This magnificent, magisterial, sumptuous volume would have silenced even the most ardent advocate of the demise of yet another intellectual symbol of Western civilization. It is an atlas, but it is far more than an assemblage of maps. It is a book, but the narrative is far more than an effective guide to the cartography. It is also unique, even daring in its conception.   

Atlases tend to cover familiar geographic ground: the world, or a continent, occasionally a region (such as Western Europe), often a country (many countries still publish “national” atlases), sometimes a subunit such as a province or a State. In the United States, several State atlases form excellent examples of the last: veritable coffee-table, multicolor, glossy promotion pieces for the State they represent.

But comparatively very few atlases focus on a geographic concept. This is a risky proposition: gone is the safety of an insular continent, an assembly of contiguous countries or the political boundary of a State or province. The regional concept of a Great Plains evokes countless interpretations. Give a hundred informed North Americans each an outline map of the continent and ask them all to draw their conception of the Great Plains region, and you will get one hundred different interpretations. Most would probably be aware that the Great Plains region extends from Texas into Canada. All would know that some States lie entirely within the Great Plains and that others are bisected by the region’s boundary, no matter where it is perceived to lie. That, however, is where the consensus ends. In his introduction, John C. Hudson presents a map showing fifty published versions of the Great Plains boundary (p. 2). Take the outer limits, and the Great Plains extend from Mexico to the Northwest Territories and from eastern Oregon to western Wisconsin. Thus the Great Plains Reference Map, the framework for the entire enterprise, is of special interest (p. 18). Who would know that Fort Worth lies within the Great Plains, but Dallas lies outside? Or that Cheyenne is in, but Laramie is out?

Conceptual regions, being mental constructs, tend to have smooth, sweeping outlines, as is the case with every one of Hudson’s fifty, and with the map of the Great Plains region originally drawn by the doyen of American Great Plains geographers, David J. Wishart (p. 12).  But the regional boundary on the Reference Map is jagged, reflecting one of the challenges the atlas-makers confronted: the problem of data. The atlas is replete with thematic maps, and county data were crucial in constructing these. So the regional boundary’s angular appearance reflects an inescapable quantitative imperative as image is translated into reality. As such, it delimits a region that includes the southern half of Saskatchewan and adjacent corners of Alberta and Manitoba, the eastern sectors of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, all of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and most of western Oklahoma and Texas. It is a vast region but, as the jacket blurb asserts, it is “a region that has been understudied and overlooked.”

The magnificent Atlas of the Great Plains will do much to change this. If you think of an atlas as a place to look something up, think again. This is an atlas to be read from cover to cover. It constitutes a comprehensive prospectus of a vibrant region whose geographic diversity will surprise readers time and again.

Following the introduction, in which boundary and data issues are addressed and the Great Plains Reference Map is presented at two levels of scale, the atlas is topically divided into eight sections. If these sections seem routine (Land and Environment, History, Population, Rural Settlement and Agriculture, Urban Settlement and Economy, Politics and Government, Recreation and Settlement, and Social Indicators), their respective components are anything but. More than 300 maps, aptly described in David J. Wishart’s Foreword as “not only significant analytically but also works of art”, depict items such as tornado tracks, the diffusion of horses among Native American tribes, population ancestries, the diffusion of irrigation, the Wal-Mart invasion, political-party allegiance, symphony orchestras (paired with rodeos!), and crime rates. Many of these topics presented difficult cartographic challenges: how to show FM radio stations and their range? Or hospital accessibility? Or water loss (and gain) in aquifers?

Importantly, although more than 300 map pages are listed in the Table of Contents, this atlas contains about double that number of individual maps. For example, under the rubric of Population, the Table of Contents lists 24 maps, but many of these consist of sets of two or even four, showing historic or other comparative details. In fact, the Population rubric contains 61 discrete maps in addition to several diagrams. The Atlas of the Great Plains is a veritable mine of information, and there is more to it even than the front matter promises.

In some especially inventive maps, for example one showing daily newspaper circulation (p. 239), the Great Plains region is set in its wider spatial context. Regional newspapers published in the Great Plains region are also read beyond its borders, and some newspapers published outside the region have significant readership within. These maps display the region’s entire external periphery, not only in complete coverage of the States and provinces of which the Great Plains region forms a part, but also of neighboring States from Minnesota to Louisiana. By reflecting the region’s influences beyond its borders as well as external forces radiating inward, such maps yield valuable insights.

Readers will detect some variation in the effectiveness of the coverage under the eight major rubrics. Dramatic scenery may not, by some definitions, be one of the attributes of the Great Plains region, but the series of maps and instructive text describing the region’s physiography are superb, notably those of elevation, topography, drainage, ecology, and aquifers. The map of ecological provinces (p. 31) is one of those set in wider regional context, showing nearly 30 ecologies of which a dozen have a presence within the Great Plains border. The troubling fate of the High Plains Aquifer is dramatically depicted on a map that will give all readers pause (p. 32). If the section on climate lacks the Koppen regionalization that can be so effective in conveying prevailing regimes and misses an opportunity to depict air-mass synoptics in this infamous funnel between tundra and tropics, it is nevertheless enhanced by vivid displays of two of the Great Plains region’s major environmental challenges: tornadoes and hailstorms (p. 43).

Lucid and efficient narrative and splendid maps make Great Plains history come alive in unexpected ways. So much has happened in this vast expanse – Atlas coverage ends before the end of the nineteenth century – that this is of necessity a selective presentation, but there is a wealth of information. Maps of the diffusion of horses among Native American peoples (p. 50), the fragments of reservation (p. 52), the tragic decline and adulteration of the American Bison (pp. 55 and 56), the drama of exploration (pp. 60 – 64), and the advent of military forts and trading posts, railroads, and the beginnings of modern settlement are chronicled on maps one does not find in the usual atlas. The Population rubric follows logically, and in these nearly fifty pages authors and cartographers excel. Guided by engaging text, readers will trace two centuries of changes in regional population density, changing patterns of ethnicity, demographics, and European ancestries (the last on pp. 120 and 121) that will hold some surprises for many.

In this era of modernization and globalization, it can be difficult to render Rural Settlement and Agriculture as a fascinating topic, and in truth this is not the most arresting section of the atlas. While comprehensive on the large issues (wheat cultivation, as the authors say, for many people is synonymous with the Great Plains) and presenting some revealing cartography on the historic expansion of farmland and the spread of irrigation, there is little here about soil types and the particular difficulties Great Plains environments present to farmers. I was surprised to find a section on “miscellaneous crops” without any reference to my favorite: the wine grape. Every State in the Great Plains has a wine industry and the Texas wine industry in particular has achieved national recognition. This would have been a good way to enliven these pages.

Urban Settlement and Economy, the next section, is a treasure trove of information, starting with three memorable illustrations (two of them maps) and eight pages of productive text. A map of metropolitan and micropolitan areas reveals the inaccuracy of a Great Plains conceptualized as a vast, sparsely populated rural area (p. 158), but the regional border superimposed on a “North America at night” satellite image confirms that the major metropolitan areas in the region are located on its fringes (p. 159). And the map showing businesses and institutions using “Great Plains” in their names displays an interesting geographic asymmetry. This section naturally focuses on industry and employment, and pie charts dated a half century apart reveal a quite momentous economic transformation. Also featured under this rubric are income variations, retail giants, and energy production, all depicted on more than 40 (rather than 22 listed) maps. Again the atlas delivers far more than its Table of Contents promises.

The final three sections of the Atlas of the Great Plains constitute in many ways the volume’s apogee. Another stereotype of this region is that its politics are overwhelmingly conservative and dominantly Republican, but 16 maps of U.S. Presidential elections in the Great Plains States (1860 – 2008) and 14 maps of national legislative elections in the United States and Canada (1870 – 2000) indicate otherwise. No atlas of the Great Plains region would be complete without some reference to football, but the first four maps under the rubric of Recreation and Services address symphony orchestras, rodeos, historic landmarks of national import, and powwows. Football, baseball and basketball get their cartographic due, but only after women’s NCAA sports teams are mapped (p. 250). This section ends with three fascinating maps showing the Great Plains birthplaces of selected artists, performers, and writers. Prepare, again, to be surprised. Yet the section that will undoubtedly evoke more discussion than any other is titled Social Indicators, with a range of mapped topics as broad as it is contentious. Great Plains States do not rank high on the ladder of public-school teacher salaries, a circumstance with serious social consequences (p. 277). Canadian sectors of the Great Plains region display far higher rates of robbery and vehicle theft than the “lower” Great Plains. Prisoner incarceration rates in the Canadian sector are much lower than in the U.S. sector. (Is there a lesson here?). Violent crime rates in the U.S. Great Plains are much higher in the south than in the north. The three maps and an accompanying chart on capital punishment and its spatial manifestations will evoke much debate. So, undoubtedly, will the five maps that follow the series on religious adherence: abortions, infant mortality, births to teenage mothers, and the distribution of poverty for the general population and separately for those under age 18. Especially effective narrative explains what the maps display, but there remains plenty of scope for discussion and alternative assessment.

And that is just one of the many dimensions of this spectacular achievement. This is an atlas that educates and informs, but it also is admirably objective and does not conceal flaws past or present, from the fates of Native American peoples to issues of abortion and capital punishment. Even as the Atlas of the Great Plains erases faulty and dated stereotypes about this region, it also focuses on real and current problems and their spatial manifestations.

Preparing for this review I began by scanning the volume and stopping to read several especially interesting maps, finding myself riveted and, it seemed, on a journey of discovery. It has often been said about books, but perhaps never about an atlas – I could not put it down once I had opened it. Nor has any atlas ever enhanced my knowledge of any region as greatly as this one has. There can be no doubt about it: no region, certainly in North America and perhaps in the world, is as well served as is the Great Plains region by this monumental work. Its nearly 30-page bibliography is an invaluable resource all by itself. Still, any atlas is an exercise in emphasis, and opinions may differ as to the balance of content in the Atlas of the Great Plains: gender contrasts (for example in the employment section) would have added significantly to the mix and could have strengthened the population section. Given the length and detail of the narrative section, consideration might have been given to the inclusion of an index.

But these are minor caveats. This matchless work should serve as a textbook for college and university courses on the Great Plains region not only in institutions within the Great Plains but, one hopes, elsewhere in North America as well. It will undoubtedly serve as a template for other projects of this kind elsewhere on the continent. The Acknowledgments section forms a reminder of the numerous contributors and talents required to ensure the success of a massive publishing project of this kind, and I congratulate the University of Nebraska Press not only on its superb production but specifically on its choice of the glossy, opaque paper without which the maps (often on back-to-back pages) could not have looked the way they do.

I only wish I had a copy of this volume that argumentative evening in New York.

Putinistan in Prospect

Written By: HJdeblij - Jan• 05•12

While U.S. policymakers and their advisers have been preoccupied with East Asian strategy, Arab-world tactics, Iranian threats and European options, another challenge to American interests percolates below the radar. Its chief protagonist is making no secret of it, and his time will come: in 2012, by prearranged fiat, he will reassume the presidency of Russia. Post-election street protests notwithstanding, Vladimir Putin continues to dominate Russia’s political scene and commands strong public support. To consolidate his revived presidency, Putin will rely on Russians’ aversion to disorder and appetite for nationalism to pursue his goals.

Chief among these objectives is a Greater Russia.Vladimir Putin’s big, not to say gigantic, plans for the Russia he deems to have rescued from disintegration in the post-Yeltsin years will, in his vision, transform the political and economic geography of Eurasia from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk and from the White Sea to the Caspian. Enabled by petrorubles and facilitated by state ineptitude throughout the Russian periphery, Putin’s project will not repeat the fiasco that was the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). As Russia’s autocratic ruler, Putin will have the power, the resources, and a blueprint for the resurrection in a new guise of the empire whose demise he publicly and habitually laments.

The evidence is accumulating in various forms. Russian troops began arriving in Kyrgyzstan in 2002, shortly after Putin’s first inauguration and ostensibly to counter Islamic terrorism – but more pertinently to offset the American military presence there. Although Russia’s armed intervention in, and dismemberment of, neighboring Georgia occurred in 2008 on President Dmitri Medvedev’s interim watch, it would not have happened without Putin’s authorization and sent shock waves through Russia’s “Near Abroad.” In 2009 Russia’s opposition to American plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe led to ugly threats to deploy tactical missiles in Kaliningrad, a threat repeated by Mr. Medvedev in November 2011 along with a warning that Russia might withdraw from the New Start arms reduction treaty. Also in late 2011, Moscow made the crucial U.S. military base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan an election issue there, urging its closure at a time when its role in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign remained crucial.

In the economic arena, Putin’s design envisages a new Common Economic Space (CES), initially a customs union that links Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan and touted as the forerunner of a wider alliance that will move toward deep economic integration including the adoption of a common currency envisioned as a future competitor for the troubled euro. This explains Putin’s long-term, lukewarm posture toward Russia’s WTO candidacy, an apparent crack in the Putin-Medvedev alliance as the latter has actively sought Russia’s membership.

Putin’s pursuit of a Greater Russia rising among world powers seeks to extend Moscow’s reach and expand on the formula that has brought Russia back from the brink: centralized power and authoritarian government, military intervention within and outside the state when necessary, the exploitation of energy resources not only for state revenues but also for coercive purposes, and the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and missile capacity as threats in strategic negotiations. The rewards of a wider CES will range from the reincorporation of Russian minorities (notably in northern Kazakhstan) and the reintegration of major energy reserves such as those in Turkmenistan to the compliance of governments and regimes in the Near Abroad still carrying the earmarks of their Soviet predecessors. A future Putinistan does not bode well for representative government in Central Asia.

But Putin’s grand design hinges on one cornerstone: fractured and fractious Ukraine. With its large and geographically clustered Russian minority, Black Sea frontage, oil and gas pipeline corridor, industrial and agricultural output, and with Russia as its dominant trading partner, Ukraine is as important to any future Moscow-dominated CES as it was to the communist empire of the past. Russia’s heavy-handed interference in Ukraine’s chaotic democracy and Moscow’s cutoff of natural gas supplies to (and through) Ukraine during a price dispute in the 2008/09 winter might suggest that Ukraine’s future should lie with the European Union, not with Russia, but with the installation of pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych in 2010 the tide seemed to have turned in Putin’s favor. Soon after this election, Ukraine’s government agreed to extend Russia’s lease on the naval base at Sevastopol for 25 years, for which Ukraine received a discount on the price of Russian natural gas. And before long, the habits of old resurfaced: the imposition of media restrictions, the reversal of democratic reforms instituted by the previous administration, the termination of discussion of the Great Famine of 1932-33 as Soviet genocide. With Europe in disarray and Putin back in charge in Moscow, it will not be difficult to envisage a new map of Eurasia.

Changing Geographies: The Domino “Theory” and the Arab “Spring”

Written By: HJdeblij - Jul• 28•11

War, it has often been said, has a way of teaching geography. Countries and provinces formerly obscure in the public eye suddenly become household names. Television news reports show maps of remote locales where conflict rages and lives are lost. ‘Embedded’ journalists familiarize viewers with the streets of Saigon and Sarajevo, Baghdad and Kabul. New geographic shorthand (remember the ‘Sunni Triangle’ of Iraq?) comes into vogue. Old ideas get resurrected. During the Indochina War, a heated debate centered on the so-called Domino Theory. A communist victory in Vietnam, according to this notion, would threaten and eventually topple governments in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, a contagion that would threaten the anti-communist containment policy that was at the heart of American Cold-War strategy.

While the Domino Theory may not deserve to be called ‘theory’ – it has more hypothetical than theoretical qualities – it was never difficult to cite examples of its apparent validity. Its simplest definition holds that destabilization from any cause in one country may result in the collapse of order in a neighboring country, triggering a chain of events that can affect a series of contiguous states in turn. The initial destabilization might be the result of external intervention or internal disarray, but its consequences spread beyond the affected state’s borders. A recent manifestation of it was the civil war in Rwanda, which spread into the neighboring Congo (with consequences for Angola) and also affected Burundi and Uganda. In the Congo, then named Zaire and ruled by a ruthless dictator, this led to a struggle for power that ended dictatorial rule but achieved only partial reform at a cost of millions – yes, millions – of lives.

A key geographic element of the Domino Theory is contiguity: a ‘spillover’ effect that crosses borders and infects neighbors. But today, dominoes can fall without this proximity factor. The current regional manifestation of disorder called the Arab Spring originated in Tunisia, wedged between Algeria and Libya on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. When the first massive and deadly protests erupted there in mid-December 2010 and the corrupt government was toppled a month later, it was easy to envisage a domino effect in always-tense Algeria and autocratic Libya. But no such thing happened – at least not immediately. Indeed, the next Arab state where significant public protests against the established order arose was Jordan, where King Abdullah II dismissed his cabinet, promised elections, and replaced his prime minister, managing (perhaps temporarily) to diffuse public anger.

Jordan is not a neighbor of Tunisia, and neither was the next domino to fall. The Arab Spring now reached the heart of the Arab world, Egypt, in late January 2011, making Cairo’s Tahrir Square a global symbol for Arab public protest. Between January 25 and the day the Mubarak government fell, on February 11, more than 800 people died. Egypt in many ways is the Arab world’s leading state, and the protests there galvanized the region. Massive and violent demonstrations began in Yemen on January 27, in Bahrain on February 14, in western Libya on February 16 and in Syria on March 15. Look at the map, and it is clear that something other than proximity was driving the process, which affected even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

That other factor, of course, is the Internet. True, television images broadcast by Al-Jazeera and other networks disseminated the realities of the seminal Tunisian uprising visually, but the involvement of millions of protesters and their organized and largely orderly demonstrations resulted from the capacities of Facebook and Twitter and other connective options to appeal to the young generation that drives the Arab Spring today. The Internet rendered the Domino Theory irrelevant – except to entrenched, sclerotic rulers who tried to support each other and even intervened on their mutual behalf, as the Saudi Arabian regime did by sending troops into (neighboring) Bahrain to help crush the protests. The Internet did what the domino effect could not: regionally disseminate public anger and civic energy and facilitate their coordinated expression.

Whether a new regional geography will emerge from the Arab Spring is as yet unclear. At the time of writing, the protesters are back in Tahrir Square, united in their disappointment with the pace of reform but divided by their diverse and sometimes conflicting objectives. But even if Tahrir Square becomes the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square, it will forever symbolize the power of technology to challenge the barriers of geography.

Yemen in the Crosshairs

Written By: HJdeblij - Oct• 18•10

International tensions have a way of thrusting small, faltering states into the global spotlight. When suicide bombers attacked, and very nearly sank, the American warship U.S.S. Cole in 2000 in Yemen’s south-coast port of Adan (Aden), this remote country on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula drew the world’s attention for the least desirable of reasons. Once seen as a promising if fragile experiment in Muslim-Arab democracy and as a destination for adventure tourism, Yemen suddenly found itself at the center of concern about the threat of Islamic militancy and terrorism.

Yemen occupies a small, peripheral sector of the Arabian Peninsula, but its population very nearly matches (and by some estimates exceeds) that of its vast neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The country as it is seen on the map today, its boundaries with Saudi Arabia still contentious, is the product of a 1989 merger between two neighbors, the populous, tribal Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) in the northwest, bordering the Red Sea, and the communist-inspired People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), facing the Gulf of Adan, in the south and east. This agreement, which took effect in 1990 to create the Republic of Yemen with its capital at Sana’a in the northern interior, soon collapsed in a political crisis that precipitated the civil war of 1994. South Yemen announced its secession, North Yemen’s forces advanced into the South and captured Adan, culpable politicians were killed or exiled, and the state was restored.

The physical geography of Yemen displays rugged, deeply incised mountains in the North, where ephemeral streams flow westward to the Red Sea coast and disappear eastward into interior deserts, and lower relief in the South, where coastal topography is also rugged but interior desert plains are more extensive. Much of the craggy, arid countryside lies remote from Yemen’s meager road system and effectively beyond the reach of its government, creating refuges for rebels and bandits who ambush officials, kidnap tourists for ransom, and, more recently, set up terrorist bases. As in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, relief, remoteness, and cultural traditions combine to protect jihadists.

Yemen’s relative location creates additional challenges. Its territory (about the size of France) includes the sizeable island of Socotra in the Gulf of Adan and more than 100 islands in the Red Sea, some of which have also been claimed by Eritrea, resulting in armed clashes. Only the Bab-al-Mandeb (Gate of Grief), one of the world’s narrowest maritime choke points, separates the southern tip of Yemen from the landmass of Africa. And across this hourglass-shaped waterway lie the malfunctioning state of Eritrea, the impoverished ministate of Djibouti, and the failed state of Somalia. In the seas that, by virtue of UNCLOS maritime boundary rules, consist largely of Yemeni territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone waters, piracy has become a way of life for thousands of African buccaneers. Few of the world’s neighborhoods present more daunting challenges.

In the more than two decades since its enforced restitution, Yemen has been torn by centrifugal forces powerful enough to marginalize the modern legal and political system that outsiders sought to sustain and locals tend to dismiss as impractical and irrelevant. The country has taken on, in Western perspective, the features of a failed state. In the south, a renewed independence movement is reviving notions of a new South Yemen with the currently moribund port of Adan as its capital. Although the South contains only about one-fifth of the country’s population of 25 million, it also has the bulk of what remains of Yemen’s oil reserves. Southerners complain that the North has effectively colonized their domain, installing its friends in powerful places, sidelining locals, and stifling initiatives of all kinds. And in the bulge that marks northwest Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, the Houthi clan has been waging its own war against the Sana’a government. The Houthis, Shia Muslims in a country that is nearly 60 percent Sunni, have received support (including smuggled weapons) from Iran; Yemen’s government alleges that Houthi rebels were trained in Eritrea by Lebanese members of Iran-supported Hizbullah. The Houthi, in turn, claim that Saudi Arabia has helped the Sana’a regime by allowing Yemen’s forces to cross the border and attack them from the north. Once again, as so often in Yemen’s history, outsiders are fueling local conflict. As a result of this latest war, more than 250,000 people, most of them Houthis, were internal refugees in mid-2010, and this northern frontier was a hotbed of anti-Sana’a sentiment.

But the key issue in the far north appears to have strong economic as well as religious and political dimensions. The Houthi domain is economically depressed even by this country’s standards, and the locals demand a better share of government assistance in the form of roads, wells, schools, and utilities. Whatever stokes the Houthi rebellion, it contributes to the further destabilization of an already weak state. The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is running out of its leading export commodity, oil; it is facing a crisis of water supply, suffers from severe electricity shortages, has a badly damaged infrastructure, and is buffeted by high unemployment and endemic corruption. Regional frictions and strong local loyalties, coupled with external pressures and involvements, erode the authority of government. In the modern world of terrorist cells and jihadist movements, Yemen’s weakness spells opportunity. As terrorists and their religious and logistical supporters become established and international concern rises over their presence in Yemen, Western efforts to shore up the country’s army and police carry growing risk. The newfound power of the government to intervene, through raids on terrorist bases and arrests of militants, is perceived by many citizens as proof of foreign interference and carries a cost in terms of loyalty and allegiance. Al Qaeda, already well established in Yemen, is the beneficiary of such perceptions. An American-born Yemeni Muslim preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, has become a prominent figure in Yemen’s militant circles. The scion of a prominent family from a powerful southern tribe, he is accused of training jihadists in the arts of terrorism, including the attempt by a Nigerian passenger to blow up a civilian airliner approaching Detroit in December 2009. When the United States authorized his elimination, Anwar al-Awlaki’s stature soared even as loyal followers tightened his protection.

Obscured by all the attention this country’s political geography now attracts is a Yemen that might have been: a prosperous kingdom more than two thousand years ago whose economy was based on irrigated frankincense and spices; an era of Rasulid rulers who brought Yemen a golden age during the fourteenth century when architecture, science, literature and agriculture flourished; the promise of the 1993 election, the first free, multiparty election ever conducted on the Arabian Peninsula, the first in which women participated, and the first to result in the appointment of a woman at ministerial level in an Arab government. But always, Yemen’s corner of the world turned violent, set progress back, and, from Egyptians to Ottomans to European colonizers to Marxist ideologues – and now, Muslim militants – imposed outside interests on local customs and traditions. Yemen’s cultural landscape bears the marks of both triumph and disaster.

North Korea’s Menace, China’s Collusion

Written By: HJdeblij - May• 28•10

In the tealeaves left by North Korea’s latest international outrage we can read a future we may not like but will have to live with: an increasingly Sinocentric world in which Western ambitions are thwarted by Chinese self-interest.

On the face of it, there’s nothing new in this. Powerful states and successful societies put their own priorities first when it comes to international competition for influence, resources or markets. In the process they sometimes align themselves with unsavory regimes or dreadful peoples. During the Cold War the Soviets backed Castro and Mengistu. The Americans made allies of Somoza and Mobutu. During the Nixon administration, you may recall, the phrase was “well, he’s an sob, but he’s our sob. The end justified the means. The Politburo saw it the same way. Many Soviets loathed Honecker. Still, he ran East Germany as their sob.

But Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, or East Germany never could endanger the world the way North Korea can. Even as the American government was hyping Saddam’s Iraq as the WMD threat of the post-9/11 era, North Korea was embarked on a program of nuclear-weapons technology diffusion that had already empowered unstable, Islamic Pakistan and had reached all the way to Libya. China knew of it. Japan fretted about it. South Korea had existential concerns about it. But while Saddam cowered in what the media ridiculously called his “spiderhole,” Kim Jong-Il and his communist clique were busy with their WMD program (no Iran-style energy-need excuse here), alternately threatening with it and cajoling over it in pursuit of power and concessions.

On the face of it, one might conclude that communist China would wish to constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as a matter of self-interest. It would also appear that Chinese and Western interests coincide here: South Korean trade and Japanese capital play major roles in the near-miraculous growth of the Chinese economy. But it is worth remembering that China, too, is ruled by a Politburo. And Kim Jong-Il is China’s – well, bad guy. For all the soft-pedaled criticism by the West, the truth is that China has obstructed international efforts to constrain Pyongyang’s misdeeds. Is it a coincidence that Kim’s much-publicized train ride into China a few weeks ago was followed by the latest outrage on North Korea’s part – the unprovoked sinking by torpedo of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 sailors?

It is noteworthy how the rest of the world is rushing to explain China’s collusion. China has limited influence in Pyongyang, is one refrain. China does not want social instability in its neighbor, is another. China worries about economic collapse and mass migration across its border. China wants evolutionary change in its hard-line communist ally, not collapse. It almost seems – almost – as though Beijing rather enjoys the immediate region’s (and the world’s) discomfiture. The May 24, 2010 pronouncement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry was telling: “We hope,” it said, “[that] all relevant parties will exercise restraint and remain cool-headed.”

That certainly will be in China’s interest. After all, China has not been the target of North Korea’s actions. North Korea has not shot down any Chinese civilian airliners. North Korea has not sunk Chinese naval vessels. North Korea has not sent missiles across Chinese airspace. North Korea has not abducted Chinese citizens. North Korea is not known to send spies into its communist neighbor.

And so this latest act of state terrorism is likely to fade from view, the bereaved families of the South Korean sailors joining an ever-lengthening list of the North Korean regime’s victims at home and abroad. In this divergence of principle between the international community and China, China’s short-term priorities prevail, whatever the evidence.

Ahmedinejad and the clerical zealots of Iran must surely be taking notes.

Climate Change Forever: Truth and Consequences

Written By: HJdeblij - Dec• 07•09

Stopping Climate Change, shouts the cover of the 28 November 2009 Economist. Its accompanying editorial ‘leader’ states that “we do not believe that climate change is a certainty … there are no certainties in science” (so much for plate tectonics and evolution). As a preface to such nonsense, the same highly respected newsmagazine, in a leader several years ago, asserted that, after anthropogenic emissions into the atmosphere are brought under control, “climate change will be with us for at least another century.” One supposes that, after billions of years of it, we should all heave a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, the quip is claptrap.

Here is the real inconvenient truth: climate change will shadow humanity’s future whether or not the global campaign to limit greenhouse-gas emissions achieves even its most comprehensive goals. If we were indeed able to eliminate all anthropogenic emissions immediately, climate change would not end. What would happen is that, over millennia, the complex, interlocked natural cycles that have always driven planetary climate change would again prevail, and all life on Earth would once more be subject to nature’s long- as well as short-term variations that have always been part of evolutionary processes.

These variations range from slow and inexorable transitions to abrupt and even violent reversals. A global warmup of almost unimaginable intensity drove back the great sheet glaciers, products of the most recent glaciation that covered the heart of North America as far south as the Ohio River less than 20,000 years ago. Then, just when it would have seemed that such warming was irreversible, the Northern Hemisphere was plunged back into glacial cold some 12,000 years ago, a catastrophic cooling that lasted more than a millennium. This episode, known as the Younger Dryas, seemed to presage a return of the glaciers – but nature had other plans. The warmup resumed, and subsequent variations (such as the misnamed “Little Ice Age” starting around AD 1300) were nothing like the Younger Dryas. For nearly nine thousand years since, global climate has varied, but within far narrower limits.

None of this means that climate has stabilized or that future events such as the Younger Dryas (or, for that matter, a return to full-scale glaciation) are inconceivable. One lesson of the geologically recent past is that even comparatively minor climatic fluctuations can have enormous impact on regional environments, shifting biomes, threatening species, desiccating farmlands, generating weather extremes. On this basis alone, mitigating humanity’s prodigious pollution of the planetary atmosphere is a sound objective. Should current anthropogenic greenhouse-enhancement coincide with a natural warming phase, the combined effect could indeed be calamitous, a Younger Dryas in reverse.

However, we do not know enough as yet about the periodicity of planetary climate change, except in the most general terms. Planet Earth today is experiencing an ice age; ice ages last tens of millions of years and display alternating periods of cooler and warmer climate, the cooler glaciations lasting much longer than the warmer interglacials. The cooler glaciations are not uniformly cold, and the warmer interglacials are not invariably toasty. That’s why Neanderthals and modern humans managed to survive and compete in Europe during the most recent, 100,000-year-long glaciation: time and again bitter cold gave way to milder interludes. But then, just before the warm interglacial we are experiencing today, this most recent glaciation got serious and pushed huge continental glaciers southward into the heart of North America and Eurasia. The boreal forests of present-day Canada and Scandinavia shifted southward into Iberia and Mexico. Ice covered the Midwest north of the Ohio River. Between the ice and the forests lay the Siberia of America, a tundra of mosses and lichens.

The surge of global warming that melted those glaciers almost as fast as they had appeared heralded the warm interglacial that witnessed the rise of human civilizations and the population explosion that followed. Except for the inconvenience of the Younger Dryas, we have been living the good life in the warmth of an interglacial that already has endured – depending on where we start counting – for longer than average.

So might the greenhouse-effect-enhancing gases we are pouring into the atmosphere counter a cooling trend rather than exacerbate a warming swing? No doubt about it: the numerous cycles – axial, solar, orbital, oceanic, atmospheric – that generate nature’s environmental seesaws continue even as humanity has become a major factor in the process through massive modification of the planetary atmosphere. But supercomputer models and IPCC projections notwithstanding, no one knows the proportional contribution to the current phase of climate change from natural and human sources. Contrary to what some scientists are asserting, we do not know with any satisfactory level of confidence what form climate change would be taking today in the absence of human interference. What is clear is that humans have become an additional factor driving climate change, and that reducing the rate of pollution of the atmosphere should have priority as a public health as well as environmental matter. But don’t expect a reward in the form of “stopping climate change.” Ice ages will continue to come and go. Glaciers will wax and wane. Sea levels will fall and rise. Species, cultures, and civilizations will flourish and fail. Nature’s power will prevail.

Afghanistan and Vietnam: On Presidents and Pitfalls

Written By: HJdeblij - Oct• 10•09

Hamid Karzai’s victory in Afghanistan’s disputed presidential election has created a diplomatic and strategic dilemma that is producing some troubling commentary by American officials and much strident criticism in the media. The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, in an interview from Kabul on Face the Nation on October 19, stated that the U.S. is facing strategic decisions “without an adequate government in place.” Vice President Joe Biden has been unsparing in his disparagement of Karzai, whose government and family are linked to corruption and drug dealing. In an October 14 column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman laments the “tainted government” of Afghanistan and the “massive fraud” engaged in by President Karzai to secure his re-election, arguing for a runoff to secure a more “acceptable” government to replace the one now in power, so as “to stabilize Afghanistan without tipping America into a Vietnam.”

Comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are frequently drawn these days, but the two contingencies are starkly different. Yet what happened in Vietnam in 1963 suggests caution in Afghanistan today. At that time, South Vietnam was in turmoil as the Viet Cong were gaining in remote northern rural areas; 12,000 American “advisors” were supposedly training South Vietnamese forces to shore up the South’s defenses. South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem, facing growing Buddhist resistance marked gruesomely by public self-immolations by numerous monks, was unpopular with American policymakers. His autocratic methods, reputation for corruption, and harsh response to his religious opponents elicited severe criticism from American leaders and pundits. When President Diem asked the United States government to reduce the number of American advisors in his country, he lost what little support he retained in Washington – and found his political base weakened at home.

On November 1, 1963 a military coup carried out by soldiers, some of whom had benefited from the presence of American advisors, overthrew President Diem, who was summarily executed. In official and media commentary in the United States afterward, Diem got little obituary solace. In South Vietnam, a so-called revolutionary council took power and inaugurated a fateful period of more compliant association with American policymakers.

American insistence on an electoral runoff in Afghanistan and Washington’s apparent belief that President Karzai’s opponent, if victorious, would form a less corrupt government may be misplaced. The rules of political, social, and economic engagement in Afghanistan that have prevailed for centuries will not be changed by an electoral runoff that may not only fail to alter the outcome but could risk chaos arising from the rekindling of hopes dashed and buried by Karzai’s victory. Afghanistan remains a deeply-divided country in which warlords, tribal chiefs, insurgents, brazen criminals, and a small cadre of courageous Kabul-based progressives are just some of the parties looking for their piece of the action; not for nothing do international monitors rank this as one of the world’s most corrupt societies. Karzai, with his merits as well as faults, has come to symbolize and stabilize the state; foreigners forcing a runoff may leave him either victorious but severely weakened or defeated with no guarantee of a superior successor. Add to this the alternate prospect of an adversarial “power-sharing” government and an ongoing political crisis, and it appears that one lesson of Vietnam, at least, is going unheeded.

Flat Wrong. Despite Globalization, Geography and Place Exert Formidable Power.

Written By: HJdeblij - Oct• 12•08

In recent years, the notion that the world, if not flat, is rapidly flattening as a result of the forces of globalization has gained currency to the point of becoming a platitude. So mobile, so interconnected, so integrated is this new world that historic barriers are no more, interaction is global, ever-freer trade rules the globe, the flow of ideas (and money and jobs) accelerates by the day, and choice, not constraint, is the canon of the converted. Join the “forces of flattening” and you will reap the benefits, say Thomas Friedman and others who advance this point of view. Don’t, and you will fall off the edge. The option is yours.

But is it? In truth, though the world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, we are still parachuted into places so different that the common ground of globalization has just the thinnest of topsoil. One of some 7,000 languages will become our “mother tongue”; only a small minority of us will have the good fortune of being raised in a version of English, the primary language of globalization. One of tens of thousands of religious denominations is likely to transmit the indoctrination most of us will carry for life. A combination of genetic and environmental conditions defines health prospects that still vary widely around the planet.

Some of us will be born in places of long-term peace and stability, while others will face endemic conflict in our homelands. Hundreds of millions never in their lives escape the threat of mayhem. The horizons of a life that starts in a village of a low-income tropical country differ vastly from those of an infant in a modern city of a rich country. And in every locale on this planet, even in the most favored, the combined powers of place mean something very different for women than they do for men. The rising tide of globalization may lift all boats, but most of the crews are male.

If it is obvious that the world is not flat, the question is: For whom does it appear flat? Countless world-flattening globalizers move every day from hotel lobbies to airport limos to first-class lounges to business-class seats on intercontinental airliners, laptops in hand, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring as they travel, adjusting the air conditioning as they go. They are changing the world, these modern nomads, and they are, in many ways, improving it – depending on one’s definition of progress.

But are these “globals” invariably agents of access and integration? Are they lowering the barriers to worldwide participation or raising the stakes against it? Have their influence and effect overpowered the imperatives of place, so that their very mobility symbolizes a growing irrelevance of location – and geography, in the view of more than one observer, is history?

Not yet. Even as the powers of economic globalization homogenize urban skylines from Berlin to Bangkok, another force is transforming the world, dividing it into a core of haves and a periphery of have-less or have-nots. It is not difficult to visualize this global core, even without a map: It is anchored by North America and flanked by Europe across the Atlantic to the east and Japan and Australia across the Pacific to the west. It contains the vast majority of the urban nodes of globalization, including the three dominant “world cities” of London, New York and Tokyo; its economic power is defined by data such as this: With about 15% of the world’s population, the core earns some 75% of all annual income. Population growth in the global core is far below the world average; the national populations of many countries of the periphery continue to burgeon. Over the remainder of this century, the world may add more than 3 billion to its present numbers (of about 7 billion); 90% of this natural growth will occur in the periphery.

Small wonder that the global core is the coveted destination for millions who seek ways, legally or otherwise, to leave their abodes in the hope of finding a better future. But the core itself is taking on the worldwide manifestation of one of globalization’s uglier local manifestations: the gated community. From the “security fence” between Mexico and the United States to Israel’s 490 miles of walls, and from maritime patrols off northern Australia and southern Spain, and for reasons ranging from economics to safety, the global core is ringed by barricades.

Coupled with the difficulties that would-be migrants encounter when they do try to secure visas or work permits to enter globalization’s fortress, these constraints are remarkably effective. United Nations data indicate that, worldwide, only 3% of all citizens live in a jurisdiction other than that of their birth. The overwhelming majority of the passengers of Cruise Ship Earth still die in, or very close to, the cabin in which they were born.

This means that geography and place still exert formidable power over the huge majority of the world’s people, whose mobility remains constrained, their cultural baggage commonly unadaptable, their resources limited, their health imperiled, their hopes dimmed. More than a billion of these people are the poorest of the world’s poor, the sickest of the sick. Another billion live on the edge of penury. At a time of reviving ideological (this time religious) extremism and dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, this is a ticket to catastrophe. Proclamations of a flat or flattening world may cheer the literati in the core, but not many beyond the barricades.