The Revenge of Kaplan's Maps

August 22, 2012 Topics: HistoryIdeologyPolitical Theory

The Revenge of Kaplan's Maps

Mini Teaser: Kaplan explores the potent role of geography in shaping the survival instincts and geopolitical sensibilities of nations and peoples in The Revenge of Geography.

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

Whereas the former Yugoslavia lay at the most advanced, western extremity of the former Ottoman Empire, adjacent to Central Europe, Mesopotamia lay at its most chaotic, eastern reaches. And because that fact has affected political development up through the present, intervention in Iraq would prove to be a stretch.

With that in mind, he plunges into his subject with enthusiasm and élan, first expounding on the great geopolitical realities of the globe and then seeking to apply them to particular regions and nations of our time. He politely warns: “The men I am about to introduce should make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy.”

A key introduction is to Halford Mackinder, father of modern geopolitics and author of an influential 1904 article entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” Using geography as a kind of surveyor’s transit level, he peered deep into the future, seeing what few at the time could even envision. He wrote:

When historians in the remote future come to look back on the group of centuries through which we are now passing, and see them fore-shortened, as we to-day see the Egyptian dynasties, it may well be that they will describe the last 400 years as the Columbian epoch, and will say that it ended soon after the year 1900.

Before that Columbian epoch, he explained, Europe was “pent into a narrow region and threatened by external barbarism.” But then Europe burst forth across the seas and conquered other continents, facing “negligible resistances.” Thus did the West become the dominant force upon the globe. But by Mackinder’s day that age of expansion had come to an end, and the West faced a “closed political system,” only this time one of “world-wide scope.” With no more room for European expansion, European wars now would unfold on a global scale, wrote Mackinder, essentially predicting World Wars I and II as well as Europe’s decline as the world’s preeminent civilization.

And with that development the world once again would be subject to Mackinder’s “Eurasia pivot theory”—the view that the world’s key geographic location was Eurasia, whence for centuries most of the threats emerged not just to Europe but also to Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, China and the northern reaches of the Arab Middle East. He was talking about not just the Mongols but also the Turks. His question: Who would be the modern Mongols or Turkish invaders? His answer: the Russians. As he said:

As we consider this rapid review of the broader currents of history, does not a certain persistence of geographical relationship become evident? Is not the pivot region of the world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?

Kaplan adds that, just as the Mongols had threatened and often conquered the outlying regions of Eurasia—Finland, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India and China—“so, too, now would Russia, sustained by the cohesiveness of its landmass, won by the recent development of its railways.” Thus, Mackinder predicted not only Europe’s decline and the world wars but also the outlines of the Cold War. As Kaplan explains, “Forget the czars and in 1904 the commissars-yet-to-be, they are but trivia compared to the deeper, tectonic forces of geography and technology.”

Mackinder saw the core of Eurasia as the global “Heartland” (roughly the lands encompassed by the postwar Soviet empire), with Eastern Europe as its pivot. And here’s where Kaplan brings in the Dutch American Spykman—born in 1893 in Amsterdam; widely traveled foreign correspondent; then a professor at Yale, where in 1935 he founded the Institute of International Studies. To Mackinder’s Heartland concept Spykman added the idea of the surrounding “Rimland”—Europe, the Middle East, India and China. Control of the Heartland positioned any power to take all or parts of the Rimland. Control of both the Heartland and Rimland positioned a power to go after what Mackinder called the “World-Island” of Eurasia and Africa. Control of the World-Island positioned a power to dominate the globe.

This may sound outlandish, but consider the drama of the twentieth century, which unfolded after Mackinder had fashioned his geopolitical paradigm and, in fashioning it, presaged the outlines of that drama. Germany conquered Poland, from which it promptly sought to conquer the Soviet Heartland. Had Hitler succeeded, he would have positioned himself to take huge elements of Spykman’s Rimland beyond all of continental Europe, which he already had conquered. Certainly the Middle East would have come under his domain and probably India. But the remaining forces of the West—Britain and the United States—mustered all their power to prevent this, understanding as they did that German conquest of the Heartland and Rimland would have given Hitler the ball game.

In defeating Germany with Soviet help, Britain and America ceded to Stalin full control of the Heartland, from which he promptly threatened Europe. It was a near thing, but Stalin failed in his ambition of European conquest, whereupon he sought to destabilize Western positions elsewhere in the Rimland. The West’s “containment” policy, writes Kaplan, was a defense of the Rimland as the great Heartland power probed and tested in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Says Kaplan: “The defense of Western Europe, Israel, moderate Arab states, the shah’s Iran and the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam all carried the notion of preventing a communist empire from extending control from the Heartland to the Rimland.” As Henry Kissinger put it in 1957, “Limited war represents the only means for preventing the Soviet bloc, at an acceptable cost, from overrunning the peripheral areas of Eurasia.”

It isn’t surprising that America’s most stalwart Cold War hawks—columnist Joseph Alsop, for example, or the conservative geopolitical analyst James Burnham—viewed that great confrontation in Mackinderian terms and tended toward pessimism about the West’s fate. In a 1947 speech at Harvard, Alsop bemoaned the West’s “sickness of the soul—a loss of certainty—a failure of assurance.” He added, “We may in the end be defeated. . . . But it is better to be defeated after a hard struggle than simply to give in and die anyway.”

His pessimism was misplaced, but his understanding of the struggle was spot on. And with the West’s epic Cold War victory, the Heartland no longer posed a threat because Russia no longer dominated it sufficiently to do so. But, while the lines on the map may change, the contours don’t, and thus Kaplan bundles up the Mackinder thesis, which proved so potent in predicting events of the twentieth century, and applies it to the twenty-first century.

In predicting in 1904 that Russia would threaten Europe in the twentieth century, Mackinder advocated the emergence of buffer states between the two powers that could serve as a kind of geographic protection (he was, first and foremost, an advocate of balance of power). And such a buffer zone did in fact emerge after the collapse of the latest Russian empire. This could help stabilize that ancient fault line between the Russian Heartland and the European Rimland; it might even foster the emergence of a Central European entity—Mitteleuropa—with Germany at its core. Still, geopolitics offers no guarantees. Kaplan writes:

But what if, according to Mackinder, Europe’s destiny is still subordinate to Asiatic history, in the form of a resurgent Russia? Then there might be a threat. For what drove the Soviet Union to carve out an empire in Eastern Europe . . . still holds today: a legacy of depredations against Russia by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Frenchmen, and Germans, leading to the need for a cordon sanitaire of compliant regimes in the space between historic Russia and Central Europe.

Meanwhile, the very richness of Europe’s geography—the multiplicity of seas, harbors, peninsulas, rivers and mountains, which have spawned in turn a multiplicity of language groups and nation-states—will foster ongoing disunity, despite all the pan-European structures instituted to pull the Continent together. As Kaplan writes, “Europe, the map suggests, has a significant future in the headlines.”

As for Russia, Kaplan sees clearly that Putin’s “low-dose authoritarianism” is a rejection of the “cold turkey experiment with Western democracy and market capitalism” that proved so devastating in the 1990s, following the communist collapse. In that sense, it resembles Lenin’s rejection of Western ways after the Russian Revolution. But while Russia’s relief map spreads across Asia, its population map favors Europe. As Kaplan points out, “The ancien régime, with its heavily German czardom, its French-speaking nobles, and bourgeois parliament in the European capital of St. Petersburg, was oriented westward, even if the peasantry was not so.”

A western orientation is crucial for Putin if he wishes to restore his nation to an earlier glory and protect his nation from the kinds of incursions it has suffered since the Mongol arrival in the thirteenth century. The key is Ukraine. As former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a “predominantly Asian” one, focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Kaplan elaborates: “But with Ukraine back under Russian domination, Russia adds 46 million people to its own western-oriented demography, and suddenly challenges Europe, even as it is integrated into it.” This drama, spawned by geography and the imperatives of nationalism, will play out in coming decades just as it has through past centuries.

Pullquote: Geography remains today, as it has been throughout history, one of the most powerful drivers of world events. Image: Essay Types: Book Review