In his latest book, Robert D. Kaplan thankfully revives an appreciation of geography’s influence on foreign policy — and just as appropriately tempers this with an enduring optimism in human agency.
The Revenge of Geography is a particularly timely volume. As America’s euphoria, that characterized the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and informed its newfound liberal interventionism, wanes and Eurasian powers increasingly challenge its supremacy on what the geostrategist Halford Mackinder called the “world island,” policymakers ought to be reminded that geography — and the history it has shaped in such farflung places as Central Asia and Eastern Europe — can have far more of an impact on world events than noble American values and intentions.
Kaplan himself wasn’t immune to believing such abstracts could triumph over the unchangeable facts of the map. Indeed, a “revenge” of geography asserted itself in his own thinking. In the book, he comes close to making amends for his past support for American interventions in former Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq. It was the unfortunate expedition in that country that changed his perception of geopolitics, if the United States’ altogether. When, confronted with the intractable sectarian divides and unforgiving terrain of Mesopotamia, America uneasily embraced a semblance of realism, what it actually embraced, Kaplan writes, “without being aware of it, was geography.”
Yet Kaplan doesn’t swing to the extreme of arguing that geography predetermines history. Rather he goes out of his way to stress that he is not a determinist — to the point where the reader quite gets it. He gives several examples of human action overcoming the facts of the map, to China’s digging of the Grand Canal, which connected its coastal heartland with Manchuria and enabled a unified China to emerge, to Tsar Peter the Great’s moving of the Russian capital to the Baltic Sea coast, which symbolized his efforts to make Russia both a land and a sea power.
Kaplan doesn’t necessarily call for more such momentous challenges to geography, rather he recommends policymakers become more expert at simply reading the map in order for them to avoid being tragically trapped by it. What is needed, he believes, is “a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy, a zeal of which I myself have been guilty.”
Who can argue with that?