Can man conquer geography?

by | Sep 16, 2013 | Book Reviews

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate
Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2012
403 pages, $28.00
ISBN 978-1-4000-6983-5

Those familiar with the work of journalist/scholar Robert Kaplan are accustomed to his rich reportage, combining boots on the ground subject intimacy with intellectual support and analysis. He has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for more than a quarter of a century and Foreign Policy magazine considers him among the top global thinkers in the world.

The 2002 Balkan Ghosts, detailing Kaplan’s idiosyncratic tour through the area during the 1980s, provided an analysis of the issues based on an understanding of the regional history, geography, and culture exhibited by few western reporters. The Revenge of Geography is another entity altogether. This is not a book for the beach. Kaplan has not merely revisited old territory; he has embarked on an intellectual tour de force with mind-boggling attribution to learned works, both well-known and arcane.

Beginning with reference to the Thucididean pantheon of fear, self interest, and honor (phobus, kerdes, and doxa) which make for a world of incessant conflict and coercion, the author asserts that there is created a legacy of geography, history, and culture that sets limits on what can be accomplished in any given time. Ultimately, he continues, only the existence of a universal moral conscience, one which sees war as a “natural catastrophe” not as a mere extension of foreign policy, limits war’s occurrence.

According to Kaplan, the most significant events in the second millennium of the Common Era were the “geography-determined” invasions by the Mongols of southern Asia which decimated Russia. “Geographydetermined” simply because the horse-borne army couldn’t function in the arid middle eastern deserts and, therefore, ravaged the more environmentally friendly eastern Europe: Anatolia, northern Mesopotamia, Iran, central Asia, India, and China.

Again, the union of Franks, Goths, and Roman provincials against Asiatics (Huns, Bulgarians, Magyars, and Mongols), which produced modern France, Venice, Germany, Austria, and Hungary was geographically driven.

The Revenge of Geography escorts the reader through history, showing where the existence of mountains, rivers, steppes, plains, and harbors influenced the actions of tribes and states in their quest for commerce, protection, and lebensraum.

Thus geography which has blessed nations such as the United States, with its largely temperate climate, and its ability to feed its people and use its great harbors to facilitate trade is likewise working to create a greater modern China. Virtually all of Russia is north of 50 degrees latitude. China, on the other hand, is roughly the same as the U.S. Harbin is on a par with Maine; Beijing with New York City; Shanghai with New Orleans. The Tropic of Cancer passes through south China and Key West.

Kaplan agrees that individual acts of man (building a canal) can prove more historically crucial than the simple fact of geography. One thinks of the Panama and Suez canals in an international context, but the Chinese Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangzi rivers in the 7th Century did for China what the transcontinental railroad did for the U.S. in the 19th Century. This is because the major rivers in China flow east-west and in the U.S. north-south.

A current example of how mankind can defeat geography is the apparent climate change that may yet open Russia’s only oceanic frontage, now largely blocked by ice. In the end, Kaplan agrees that events like “the Arab Spring” result in the defeat of geography through the power of communications, but as time passes, he maintains, the geographics tend to reassert themselves.

To support that thesis, Kaplan provides an extended meditation on our relationship with Mexico. America, bordered by oceans to the east and west, and to the north by the Canadian Arctic, which provides for a thin band of population on the border is vulnerable only in the Southwest. American GDPO is nine times that of Mexico, the largest gap between any two contiguous countries in the world. With half the length of America’s southern frontier being an artificial boundary line established by treaties following the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, the fact of northern Mexico’s population doubling since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, portends a continuation of the tensions which have existed along the border.

As Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington writes, “Mexican immigration is heading toward the demographic reconquista of these areas, Mexicanizing them in a manner comparable to, although different from, the Cubanization that has occurred in southern Florida.

It appears that we have foolishly wasted our resources fighting wars in the Middle East for the past two decades instead of spending them to help solve Mexico’s problems in our own hemisphere.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.