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

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:

The truth is . . . everything about the Iranian past and present is of a high quality, whether it is the dynamism of its empires . . . or the political thought and writings of its Shiite clergy; or the complex efficiency of the bureaucracy and security services in cracking down on dissidents.

He notes that even the country’s revolutionary order constitutes “a richly developed governmental structure” with a diffusion of power centers and an ongoing aversion to the kind of “one-man thugocracy” seen until recently in neighboring Iraq.

But Iran is held back from exercising the kind of influence that, given its pivotal location and the power of its cultural tradition, would normally be its legacy—and has been in many eras of the past. Its problem is the “persistence of its suffocating clerical rule,” which has “dulled the linguistic and cosmopolitan appeal that throughout history has accounted for a Greater Iran in a cultural sense.” He adds, on the other hand, that a democratic or quasi-democratic Iran, “precisely because of the geographical power of the Iranian state, has the possibility to energize hundreds of millions of fellow Muslims in both the Arab world and Central Asia.” Such an Iran seems inevitable in the eyes of Kaplan, who writes that the tyranny of the current regime “both limits its power and signals its downfall.”

AS FOR the United States, Kaplan brings to bear his realist sensibility in noting that its geographic location renders it all but impregnable except from one direction—its border with Mexico. “Here is the one area where America’s national and imperial boundaries are in some tension: where the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit can be questioned.”

The historical borderland between the two countries not only is broad and indistinct but also separates two nations that, as Stanford’s David Kennedy has noted, have the widest income gap of any two contiguous countries in the world. Kaplan shows respect for the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, who warned about the threat to America’s cultural essence from the massive immigration flows from Mexico and other Latin American countries. But ultimately Kaplan rejects Huntington’s outlook and adopts a stance that declares the border meaningless in the face of this demographic wave. He suggests Americans should simply relax and accept it.

To those agitated about the porous border and the influx of illegals, Kaplan offers the vision of a new nation:

America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north-to-south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east-to-west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This multiracial assemblage will be one of sprawling suburban city-states, each in a visual sense progressively similar to the other, whether Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest or Omaha-Lincoln in Nebraska, each nurturing its own economic relationships with cities and trading networks throughout the world, as technology continues to collapse distances.

Here we come to the book’s underlying weakness—its de-emphasis on the role of culture, intertwined with geography, in driving history. Perhaps the border challenge will, as Kaplan avers, be resolved through the eradication of the border itself and a slow, peaceful intermingling of peoples until a new mestizo race quietly emerges to supplant the old. That process certainly is in progress. But it seems just naive—and contrary to much of the history outlined in Kaplan’s book—to suggest such a profound transformation will occur without attendant disruption, friction and violence. George Friedman, Kaplan’s new boss at Stratfor, more realistically spins out a scenario that envisions potent internal tensions in America over the border, secessionist movements in the country’s Southwest, mounting frictions between the United States and Mexico, and growing prospects of war. Friedman writes in The Next 100 Years that in this scenario, the “U.S. border with Mexico will now run through Mexico itself; its real, social border will be hundreds of miles north of the legal border.” Thus, he adds, the major question facing the United States will revert to the one it had to address at its founding: “What should be the capital of North America—Washington or Mexico City?” If that indeed becomes the question, the answer won’t emerge peacefully.

Kaplan brushes aside the cultural interpretations of such thinkers as Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Huntington in his enthusiasm for the role of climate and geography in shaping civilizations. He quotes University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill as noting that the Aryans developed a less warlike culture in India’s Gangetic plain than they did in Mediterranean Europe because the subcontinent’s forests and monsoonal cycle encouraged meditation and religious knowledge. No doubt there was such a correlation. But cultural sensibilities emerge from far stronger influences than climate or geography, and many were shared alike by Indian and Mediterranean Aryans.

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