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