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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

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.

IN THE meantime, the world must grapple with a resurgent China, a geographically compact and densely populated expanse of real estate that faces the same steppe-land danger as Russia but from the opposite direction. Its geographic imperative throughout history has been to dominate the dry uplands “bordering it on three sides, from Manchuria counterclockwise around to Tibet”—the area through which it has faced a centuries-long threat from the hordes of the steppe. Thus today’s China must subdue the Tibetans, Uighur Turks and Inner Mongolians before it can contemplate any expansive foreign policy.

At present China has those crucial regions under control, which is why it is pursuing maritime ambitions. “Merely by going to sea in the manner that it is,” writes Kaplan, “China demonstrates its favorable position on the land in the heart of Asia.” Yet unlike Russia, China is seeking to extend its territorial influence “much more through commerce than coercion.”

Does this mean the United States can avoid military conflicts with China as the Asian power seeks to expand its naval influence in regions that America now dominates? Kaplan seems ambivalent about this. At one point he writes, “The possibility of a war between the United States and China is extremely remote.” But he also suggests that, if China’s economy keeps growing as it has, it “could constitute more embryonic power than any adversary the United States faced during the twentieth century.” He adds that the concept of “off-shore balancing”—marshaling other regional nations into networks of alliances designed to check Chinese power—“may not be completely sufficient.”

Averting war, suggests Kaplan, may require the United States to adjust its naval ambitions in East Asia and accept Chinese dominance over what it defiantly calls the “First Island Chain,” which encompasses Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, parts of the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia. This may be a tall order for the United States, but it may become inevitable as America sees its navy decline to 250 ships from the current 280 (and 556 in 1988, at the end of the Reagan presidency). Kaplan cites a RAND Corporation study indicating the United States will be unable to defend Taiwan against China by 2020, and loss of Taiwan—that “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” in the words of General Douglas MacArthur—would probably cede to China full dominance over that First Island Chain.

But America can maintain a powerful Pacific presence beyond that island chain and also could bolster its position in the Indian Ocean, which is rapidly emerging as the “vascular center of the world economy, with oil and natural gas transported across its width from the Middle East to the burgeoning middle classes of East Asia.” Meanwhile, a greater China will emerge in Central and East Asia as well as in the western Pacific, with a big naval presence in the East and South China Seas as well as port-building projects and arms transfers on the Indian Ocean littoral. Says Kaplan: “Only substantial political and economic turmoil inside China could alter this trend.”

KAPLAN’S OBSERVATIONS on Iran are particularly piquant. He sees the descendants of Persia as having a potent “locational advantage”—just to the south of Mackinder’s Heartland, inside Spykman’s Rimland, pivotal not just to shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf but also to pipelines from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, China and the Indian Ocean. Thus, Iran straddles both major energy-producing areas of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian region.

The other advantage is one of identity, given that Iran corresponds almost completely with the Iranian plateau and has a cultural consciousness that stretches back into ancient times. “Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower,” says Kaplan, adding it always has leveraged its geographic position as the Middle East’s “very own universal joint.” Though smaller than India, China, Russia or Europe, Iran, “because it is in possession of the key geography of the Middle East—in terms of location, population, and energy resources—is, therefore, fundamental to global geopolitics.”

Perhaps more interesting is Kaplan’s respect for the culture and political sensibility seen in Iran over the centuries—and even today, notwithstanding that many in the West are whipping up a resolve for war with Iran, seen widely as mindlessly radical, to thwart it from building a nuclear-weapons capacity. He laments the rise of the ayatollahs and the violence it has done to “the voluptuous, sophisticated, and intellectually stimulating traditions” of Iran’s history. But he adds:

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