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

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.

Kaplan quotes a Stratfor document as noting that the U.S. Atlantic coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined and thus “the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.” This is fatuous on its face. It suggests the Anglo-Saxon and Spanish experiences in the New World would have been reversed had the Spaniards colonized the northern lands and left the southern regions to the English. This ignores the utterly different approaches to colonization adopted by the two peoples, reflected in their different sensibilities and approaches, all wrapped up in culture. The Anglo-Saxons were more successful because they came to build; the Spaniards came to conquer. The geography of Mexico didn’t turn them into conquistadors; rather it lured them because of who they were.

Or consider the different birthrates that fostered the Anglo-Saxon dominance over the Spanish as English Americans spread out over lands that Mexico couldn’t dominate for lack of sufficient population. Was this a product of geography or culture? If the former, how does a geographical determinist explain the reversal in birthrate differentials that has occurred in recent decades? Geography remained the same, while cultural attitudes and mores changed.

No, the role of culture—and particularly the stages of cultural development explored by Spengler and Toynbee—should not be de-emphasized unduly lest the historian miss the full richness in the story of mankind. Still, there’s plenty of richness to be found simply in the stark and powerful role that geography has played in shaping the political outlooks, and particularly the foreign-policy initiatives, of nations and peoples through world history. And no recent thinker has explored that role with the kind of depth, range, acuity and vibrancy that Kaplan brings to this consequential topic. This is one of those rare books that can change forever how one reads, probes and seeks to understand history.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

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