The subtitle on the cover reads “What the map tells us about coming conflicts, and the battle against fate”, and the preface promises to restore geography, and further, geopolitics, to a proper place of respect. The argument put forth is that in the age of the internet, air travel, and sheer maritime economic dominion, the importance of mountain ranges, plateaus, seas, etc., has greatly shrunk, and the perception of that shrinkage as tangibly real is naive, exposing international policy planning to dire weaknesses.
I couldn’t agree more, which is why I bought the book in the first place.
The book is organized into 3 parts, but it reads like 2. The first sets out some of the defining ideas from the most influential geopolitical thinkers, like Mackinder, Hodgson, and other luminaries of the subject. It lays down the historicity of geography, along with the leading theories that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, and highlights how modern thinking has unjustly diminished the importance of these theories as they apply in modern times.
The argument set forth is that a shrinking world of communications, travel, and trade, has not at all served to diminish the importance of geography, but rather amplified it. One need only think of how vitally important the geographically fixed locations of oil, natural gas, copper, arable land, and any other number of fixed location commodities, framed by how easily accessible they are in each given region, to understand immediately that geography has defined, and still defines, human history. This has not changed in modern times, and though the internet has shrunk divisions of distance and culture, and technology sped and eased geographic constriction, these changes are often ephemeral in nature, or where physical, often weak.
The first section of the book, which lays this argument out quite thoroughly, albeit dryly (any proper examination of facts tends to be dry), was a wonderful read, leading me directly on to several areas of further study.
The second section then attempts to make a region by region, power by power, summation of the arbitrary, and false, nature of national borders when compared against the relief map, and does a very good job of it.
However, the dry examination of facts becomes moistened by the author’s own political views, which are globalist, yet still American centric.
His politics start to factor into the analysis and, I would argue, cloud a neutral judgement of the facts in favour of his own bias, starting around mid book, and coming to dominate more so as one nears the end. The authors’ high level involvement with organizations like the Center for a New American Security do much to demonstrate his proclivities.
For instance, in a chapter titled “The Former Ottoman Empire”, we begin to see a meshing of natural geopolitical expressions, and the authors’ ideological inclinations.
He describes Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime as “a vestige of Cold War, Soviet-style police states” which is a classic inversion of fact: Hussein was a western style dictator, of the type we have long helped cling to power the world over. A further, and related, departure from historic fact emerges a little further down the page when the author writes that “when U.S. President George W. Bush toppled the Iraqi dictatorship, it was thought at the time that he had set history in motion in the Arab world, roiling it to a greater degree than any Western figure since Napoleon. But then came the democratic rebellions of the Arab Spring, which had their own internal causes unrelated to what Bush had done.”
To be perfectly Canadian for a moment: If you’re gonna blow smoke, go have a dart.
To call the rebellions’ of the Arab Spring “democratic” and having “internal causes unrelated to what Bush had done” are very broad statements, and demonstrate a lack of respect, or knowledge of, or willingness to convey, what the West did in the middle east leading up to those rebellions that served to help foment them. The very foreign policy projects at work alongside of, and springing forth from, the Second Gulf War, served, and serve, to rock stability in the Arab world, and the final consequences are still a long way from full view.
This is where Kaplan’s ideology begins to merge with his analysis of geopolitics, and it becomes far more obvious in the 80 odd pages leading to the books’ end.
His own view that Iran is a force for evil rather than good, relegating the theocracy to a regime relying exclusively on coercion for survival, comes through vividly, even while he acknowledges that the Iranian revolution itself was, correctly, Made in Iran. It’s an interesting contradiction that is often in evidence in the later pages of the book.
His stated position on “Soviet-style dictatorships” doesn’t stop him from writing that the authoritarian regimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc., are “friendly”, and that democratic outbreaks in those places would likely be “our” enemy. This directly evidences a departure from strict, dry, geopolitical analysis, and brings into play his U.S. centric ideological perspective.
To his credit, he does somewhat allude to this when it comes to Iran. But the way he frames Persian influence in modern times highlights how his beliefs frame the facts where it is expedient to his bias, even as he, at the same time, does honor to the democratizing history of Persian epochs, which produced such liberal personalities as Rumi, to name but one.
This departure from the authors’ stated mission for the book comes into play to a greater extent as we progress through the last 100 pages.
In the Chapter titled “Braudel, Mexico, and Grand Strategy” he lays out briefly how the drought stricken climate of Rome and Greece drove their expansion into more fertile fields, and throughout the book, highlights how climate has affected peoples and nations over the ages. Yet, further on, we find allusions to the familiar political mantra of identifying climate change in the modern era as being entirely of mankind’s making.
It is entirely irrational to understand how weather and climate have often dictated the course of human history, as they shifted and changed naturally, yet at the same time, concluding those same shifts and change in the modern day are entirely of mankind’s making.
His politics come through most strongly near the end of the book applying specifically to Mexico, and the geopolitics of North, Central, and South America. Essentially, he argues that it is inevitable for the United States as we know it to be overrun by demographic changes and movements along its’ southern border, and precludes that there is any action the United States can take to preserve its’ national character.
In his summary, it is inevitable that Canada (which he refers to throughout as simply the “Canadian Arctic”), Mexico, and the United States merge to form a supranational grouping to counter what he says is an integrating East Asia.
This is obviously opinion, through and through. It ignores that East Asia is far from integrated, as old prejudices that pit Japanese against Chinese, Chinese against Vietnamese, Korean against Japanese and Chinese, etc., are alive, well, and thriving despite increasing economic integration: Asia is less united today than Europe is, in spite of organizations like ASEAN, etc., and Europe itself is a long way from forming a truly united federation or republic.
When it comes to his assertion that, inevitably, the United States will orient itself North to South as a rule of geopolitical expression, rather than in the East to West orientation that has defined it thus far, I will grant some understanding as Donald Trump hadn’t yet made mainstream the geopolitical alternative: Building a 1900 mile wall on the Mexican border to stop the influx of illegal immigrants, and thus, fundamentally, alter the southern borders’ geography in a physical way, halting the demographic destruction Kaplan writes is inevitable.
Much the way the Great Wall of China impeded the steppe nomadic conquest of China, the Great Wall of America can halt, in it’s tracks, the demographic conquest of the United States. Or, likewise, the fundamental character of the United States can change as a result of decreased immigration constraints, leading to increased hemispheric demographic homogenization. But, to advocate for one over the other marks a departure from analysis into the realm of opinion.
Kaplan leaves very little room for the survival of the national identities of Canada, the United States, and Mexico in his vision of global geopolitical inevitability, and this, in my summary, is the books’ greatest weakness.
Overall, this does not take away from the book as a whole. Kaplan is nothing if not thorough, providing ample foot notes, and making solid arguments. If this sort of thing is your bag, give it a shot.