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24 April 2019

Book Review: The Revenge of Geography

The Revenge Of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against FateThe Revenge Of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

But really two-and-a-half stars because the writing style was uber-annoying. Kaplan's favorite phrase seems to be "Let me explain." Well, duh. That's why I'm reading the book.

Kaplan's thesis is that geography still matters, even in a world where environmental possibilism seems to be changing how we relate to the spaces we are in and the spaces we desire. I'm not sure he proved his thesis, really, but along the way, I at least learned a lot.

Kaplan states that a "map is the spatial representation of humanity's divisions." The names in Africa and the border lines, created by European colonization, tell us the history of imperialism. To understand history, we have to look at maps. Mountains and plains divide civilizations; Ottomans from Austro-Hungarians, Kurds from Iraqis, Sunnis from Shia. Western Europe has dominated world history because of wide, fertile plains, indented coastlines providing deep-water harbors, navigable rivers flowing north, and an abundance of resources and despite its harsh climate. In history, transportation and communication outweigh comfort.

Looking at a northern polar map projections shows how close the continents of the northern hemisphere are to one another. A southern polar projection shows how far apart the southern hemisphere continents really are. This has been a driving factor to the dominance of the northern hemisphere in world history.

Geography, according to Kaplan, has always driven history. And perhaps always will.

One of the first pieces of evidence Kaplan cites is the fossia regia, a ditch dug in 202BC by the Romans to demarcate civilized territory (Roman) from uncivilized territory. In the 21st century, that line can still be felt, if not seen. Towns with fewer Roman remains tend to be poorer, less developed, and have higher rates of unemployment.

Then Kaplan sets out to justify Mackinder's Heartland theory, which basically states that whoever holds the "heartland" (basically Central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe) controls the world. He argues that WWII was basically about Germany wanting to control the heartland and that the Cold War was about the Soviet Union wanting to control Eastern Europe.

Russia, having been overtaken by Mongol Horde, has always valued the need for an empire; expand or die. Germany feels the same, with Raztel's theory of Lebensraum, or living space. The US, too, with the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. Land means power. And the where of the land matters.

One of the most fascinating discourses in the book falls in the chapter entitled "The Rimland Thesis" wherein Kaplan discusses the addition of Spykman's theory to Mackinder's. Spykman, and American, thought that control of the coastal edges of the heartland was as important as the heartland. Both Mackinder and Spykman's theories played out during World War II.

"Even as the Allies are losing and the utter destruction of Hitler's war machine is a priority, Spykman worries aloud about the implication of leaving Germany demilitarized. 'A Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea,' he explains (in 1942), 'can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals.' Russian airfields on the English Channel would be as dangerous as German airfields to the security of Great Britain. Therefore, a powerful Germany will be necessary following Hitler. Likewise, even as the United States has another three years of vicious island fighting with the Japanese military ahead of it, Spkyman is recommending a post-war alliance with Japan against the continental powers of Russia and particularly a rising China."

In 1942, Spykman predicted how it would play out. Or, perhaps, it played out that way because he predicted it and the powers-that-were thought his ideas were sound.

With the benefit of hindsight, you can always connect geography with history.

An author named Braudel apparently does this very well. "Braudel’s signal contribution to the
way in which history is perceived is his concept of “varying wavelengths of time.” At the base is the
longue duree: slow, imperceptibly changing geographical time, “of landscapes that enable and constrain.” Above this, at a faster wavelength, come the “medium-term cycles,” what Braudel
himself refers to as conjonctures, that is, systemic changes in demographics, economics, agriculture, society, and politics. Cunliffe explains that these are essentially “collective forces, impersonal and usually restricted in time to no more than a century.” Together the longue duree and conjonctures provide the largely hidden “basic structures” against which human life is played out. My very highlighting of geography has been designed to put emphasis on these basic structures. Braudel calls the shortest-term cycle l’histoire evenmentielle —the daily vicissitudes of politics and diplomacy that are the staple of media coverage. Braudel’s analogy is the sea: in the deepest depths is the sluggish movement of water masses that bear everything; above that the tides and swells; and finally at the surface, in Cunliffe’s words, “the transient flecks of surf, whipped up and gone in a minute."

So I guess I should just read Braudel, who Kaplan as a "historian whose narrative has a godlike quality in which every detail of human existence is painted against the canvas of natural forces." Once in a while, though, I think Kaplan approaches this kind of writing.

"Obviously, human agency in the persons of such men as Jan Hus, Martin Luther and John Calvin was pivotal to the Protestant Reformation and hence to the Enlightenment that would allow for northern Europe’s dynamic emergence as one of the cockpits of history in the modern era. Nevertheless, all that could not have happened without the immense river and ocean access and the loess earth, rich with coal and iron-ore deposits, which formed the foundation for such individual dynamism and industrialization. Great, eclectic and glittering empires certainly flowered along the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages—notably the Norman Roger II’s in twelfth-century Sicily, and, lest we forget, the Renaissance blossomed first in late-medieval Florence, with the art of Michelangelo and the secular realism of Machiavelli. But it was the pull of the colder Atlantic that opened up global shipping routes that ultimately won out against the enclosed Mediterranean. While Portugal and Spain were the early beneficiaries of this Atlantic trade—owing to their protruding peninsular position—their pre-Enlightenment societies, traumatized by the proximity of (and occupation by) North African Muslims, lost ground eventually in the oceanic competition to the Dutch, French and English. So just as Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire succeeded Rome, in modern times northern Europe succeeded southern Europe, with the mineral-rich Carolingian core winning out in the form of the European Union. All this is attributable, in some measure, to geography."

Boom. If this book had been winnowed to engaging large-picture, connective discourses like this, I would have been much happier with it. I love that stuff.

But Kaplan, predicting the critics, I suppose, over-writes in the attempt to premptively out-argue the arguments. And the reader grows weary.

Peppered throughout the book are little nuggets of "oh, of course!" connections. Like the word "Cossack" comes from the word kazak. So Kazakhstan is really Cossackstan.

Also, Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Now THAT is power.

And "the rich forest soil of Northern Europe, which allowed peasants to easily be productive, ultimately led to freer and more dynamic societies compared to those along the Mediterranean where poorer, more precarious soils meant there was a requirement for irrigation that led, in turn, to oligarchies." And also, precarious agriculture led the Greeks and Romans to expand their empires in search of for fertile land.

I don't think I would have enjoyed this book at all as someone completely new to the concepts Kaplan discusses. I am teaching Human Geography this year, though, so my brain is currently wired with a geographic bent and filled with geographic terms and trivia. That base knowledge certainly aided my overall enjoyment of the book.

And a note about the maps in the paperback edition; so much is hidden in the spine crease that they were more annoying than helpful.

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