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