"The Revenge of Geography"

Sep 26, 2012

In this age of instant worldwide cell-phone communication, pervasive and incessant Internet connectivity, and 24-7 airline transport, geographical borders and topographical boundaries don't really hold us back anymore. People with the appropriate financial and legal ways and means can basically go wherever their passports might lead them, and those who blog about revolution or social change in one country might well help to trigger the downfall of a government in another country. So, does the old notion or subject (or field of study, for that matter) called geography still matter today? Yes, indeed, says our guest on this edition of ST. We're joined by phone by Robert D. Kaplan, the noted scholar and author who's written more than a dozen books on foreign affairs, travel-related issues, and global politics. Kaplan has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for more than 25 years, and his new book is "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate" (Random House). As a reviewer of this volume has noted recently for Kirkus: "Kaplan sagely plots global territorial transformations from the United States to China. The overthrow of artificial borders imposed by the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, postwar treaties, and dictatorships has recalled this senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security back to some essential geopolitical truths. While not promoting geographical determinism, Kaplan reminds readers that to understand the role of geography is to understand a 'historical logic' lost to our age of instant information and travel. For example, the recent democratic upheavals in the Arab world seized Tunisia first partly because it was early on the North African hub under numerous civilizations from the Carthaginians and the Romans to the Turks, while Yemen, with its stubborn terrain of mountains and desert, remained isolated and ungovernable. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 'Central Europe' has now replaced 'Eastern Europe,' yet with the reunification of Germany, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Balkans, and massive military intervention in ethnic struggles for self-determination in the 1990s, geography has been ignored to great peril. Kaplan returns to hard lessons by 'realists' like Hans Morgenthau, who appealed to historical precedent rather than abstract moral principles in foreign policy; Nicholas J. Spykman, who reminded us that geography was permanent while dictators were not; and British geographer Halford J. Mackinder, who conceived the notion of the 'Eurasian Heartland' as the area on which human settlement (and power) would always 'pivot.' Kaplan extends his academic argument to the early-21st-century map and offers predictions on how the historical logic will play out in Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, and North America. [This book is] a solid work of acuity and breadth."