Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

Fire in the Mojave Desert. Flickr/Creative Commons/Rennett Stowe

An excerpt from Robert D. Kaplan's new book.

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Earning the Rockies, by Robert D. Kaplan. Copyright © 2017 by Robert D. Kaplan. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The unceasing jungle in the Nevada desert of absurd, crooked, corroded, pulsing neon signs advertising gambling and related entertainments stops suddenly, as another sign announces, “Welcome to California.” The desert is once again pristine, something further enhanced by the mirrored, futuristic magnificence of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, built only a few years ago and in its own way almost as visually stunning as the Hoover Dam—as though the creation of a more advanced, alien civilization. The Hoover Dam, evidently, already has its successors, testimony to American ingenuity, and yes, an extension of the frontier ethos.

Barstow, California, is in the midst of the Mojave Desert, a cindery wilderness bleak beyond imagining. My father used to reminisce about crossing the southwestern desert, while looking at the walls of the bedroom in our apartment as if still blinded by the sun. The hotel here is bordered by the bus station and dusty outlet stores. The one-story tract homes and low-end chains generate the aura of an archaeological site, as if the town will one day soon be abandoned. Dining out gets no better than Chili’s. Some of the clientele, I can tell from the conversations—so banal and technical—are contractors at the nearby Fort Irwin National Training Center, where the U.S. Army prepares for present and future battles, from set-piece engagements to counterinsurgency: the landscape here is conducive to imagining the Middle East. In the restaurant, there are families and extended families, too, and young people. Everyone is naturally polite and speaks in low voices despite the music. As flimsy as the surroundings are, the social glue appears firm and wholesome even. The lack of aesthetics fits with America’s inherent practicality, which culminates in the strip mall, the defining urban design of Barstow.

I am almost at the Pacific now, yet I am still in the midst of a tenuous desert culture. The landscape here is no friend to nationhood. The nation has been created farther back, earlier in my journey, where the prairie meets the Great Plains, and has had enough force to extend itself here, and then only by later working backward from the Pacific. Even so, the spaces between have not been filled in: rather, linear arteries of civilization have been forged from one point to another. The social glue at Chili’s is the culmination of this entire process.

Indeed, Barstow was the southwestern outpost of the Mormon Corridor, a stop on the Old Spanish Trail, a place where the army encountered the Paiutes, and where the Union Pacific Railroad first met up with several interstates at the halfway point between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. This makes Barstow a transport hub for the Greater Los Angeles suburban sprawl stretching east into the desert, which is otherwise known as the Inland Empire. Of course, these are ready-made, disparate facts available from any encyclopedia. What unites them is that they all—the trail, the railways, the roads—have to do with the final imperial occupation, settlement, and development of the temperate-zone continent. Here is where, for the first time in my journey, I feel the immediacy of the Mexican border at the country’s southwestern extremity. Though conquest is not pretty, power is relative. Whatever moral and geopolitical contradictions there are in America’s cartographic situation and how it came to be, America’s domestic condition is far more advantageous and, yes, moral compared to those of Europe, Russia, China, or India in the early twenty-first century.

In Barstow, a half-day’s drive from the Pacific and from the Mexican border, I thought about America’s competitors.

Europe, seventy years after the beginning of the postwar unification project, is bedeviled by internal contradictions based, at root, on geography, history, language, and ethnicity. The development patterns of northern Europe, Mediterranean Europe, and Balkan Europe are still very much distinct, no matter the excep- tions. European Union members Greece and Bulgaria, for example, are destitute third world countries in comparison to Germany and France. Because of these vast differences, European states still make decisions overwhelmingly on national interest rather than on any pan-European interest. The Eurocrats in Brussels may think in terms of Europe, but the European street thinks otherwise. Meanwhile, to the east, Europe is threatened by Russian aggression abroad and Russian weakness at home, with all of its disintegrative tendencies; to the southeast Europe is threatened by a chaotic and radicalized Middle East; and to the south by migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa both, as Europe’s southern border is not the Mediterranean—which is really a connector—but the Sahara Desert. Europe’s era of internal cohesion may already be past.

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