Page 42 - Foreign Service Journal - December 2012

This is a SEO version of Foreign Service Journal - December 2012. Click here to view full version

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »
Kaplan foresees a future
shaped by the emergence of
China as a would-be regional
hegemon, competing with
an insecure and revanchist
The Physical Is
the Political
Te Revenge of Geography: What the
Map Tells Us about Coming Conficts
and the Battle Against Fate
Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 2012,
$28, hardcover, 433 pages.
Reviewed by Gordon S. Brown
When did the sad level of instruction in
our schools make it necessary for us to
be reminded how crucial geography is
to forming cultures and cultural inter-
changes—and that those, in turn, are
important in forming politics?
And yet it is not Americans’ poor
understanding of geographical facts that
Robert Kaplan is critiquing in this fasci-
nating book. (I trust that Foreign Service
employees, at least, would be exempted
from his disdain in that regard.
Rather, Kaplan has in his sights the
recent proclivity among political analysts
to argue that modern communications
technology and globalization have made
the world a place where markets, as well
as international grounds for intervention,
have become all but universal. Not so,
Kaplan argues: the world most decid-
edly is not fat. Nor are the factors that
drive policy in the diferent regions of our
After making that broad point, he then
moves on to the particulars. He frst takes
the reader through a crash course on the
theories of the great Western geopoliti-
cal strategists, in which he tries to set
the frames of reference for the detailed,
analysis that follows.
Taking as his start-
ing point the idea
that states (even non-
states) act in the long
term on the basis
of their geographic
determinants, he
concentrates his
analysis on the Eurasian land mass, that
historical generator of struggle and war.
He foresees a future shaped by the
emergence of China as a would-be
regional hegemon, competing with an
insecure and revanchist Russia seeking to
regain its sphere of predominance.
Tis competition, inevitable because
of the two countries’ geographic require-
ments, will be played out indirectly in the
Eurasian “rimland”—that great swath of
restless states and people between Egypt
and Bangladesh, extending into Central
Asia. Tere, Kaplan argues, Turkey, India
and, especially, the “pivot” state of Iran
will play key roles. Tese will be based on
their own geopolitical needs but none-
theless not predetermined.
And what of America? Wealthy and
secure as we are on our continental
island, Kaplan broods, we nonetheless
are vulnerable. Tis is both because of
the overextension of our strategic deploy-
ments, and because we ignore the hidden
threat arising from the possible failure of
our southern neighbor.
Kaplan’s extensive travels through
the areas he discusses are evident in
this sometimes absorbing, occasionally
wandering exposition. He brings a wealth
of detail to the analysis, and while the
reader may occasionally question specifc
connections or conclusions, his presen-
tation is consistently thought-provoking
and persuasive.
Although this reviewer missed some
of the highly entertaining descriptions
and local color found in Kaplan’s other
books, his purpose here is diferent: to
get us to focus on the physical determi-
nants of national policy, in addition to
global factors or local sociopolitical ones.
He has succeeded well in that mis-
sion, and
Te Revenge of Geography
a thoughtful and valuable addition to
foreign policy literature.
Gordon Brown capped a 35-year Foreign
Service career by serving as ambassador to
Mauritania. Since retiring from the Service
in 1996, he has written fve books:
tion, Coercion and Compromise
town University Press, 1997),
Te Norman
Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily
(McFarland, 2003),
Toussaint’s Clause: Te
Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolu-
(University of Mississippi Press, 2005),
ncidental Architect: WilliamTornton and
the Cultural Life of Early Washington
versity of Ohio Press, 2009), and
Te Captain
Who Burned His Ships
(Naval Institute
Press, 2012). He is a member of the Foreign
Service Journal Editorial Board.