Sunday, July 20, 2014

the revenge of geography

There are eight boarding passes in this book. That is how many flights it took me to finish it. But don't let that put you off. It is well worth the effort: Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012). One easily missable sentence captures his thesis neatly.
 I believe that while geography does not necessarily determine the future, it does set contours on what is achievable and what isn't (339).
Geography is more significant than I realised. It morphs into geopolitics: 'to know a nation's geography is to know its foreign policy' (Napoleon, 60). Kaplan calls on a host of scholar-witnesses - or, 'visionaries' - to prove his point. Mackinder, Spykman, McNeill, Hodgson, Mahan, Haushofer, Braudel. I knew none of these names before I took up this book. But someone else's blog can be bogged down by those guys. Let's keep it a bit lighter here. What does Kaplan include within 'geography'?
... everything from persistent national characteristics to the location of trade routes to the life-or-death requirement for natural resources - oil, water, strategic metals and minerals ... The global elite want to escape from geography ... to engineer reality based on the beauty of ideas and the power of new technology and financial mechanisms (347-348).
Uh-uh. Not so fast.
Geography will have its revenge in the twenty-first century.

Here is a taste. Let's accumulate some of Kaplan's observations about different countries/regions.

On Russia:
[After the Golden Horde of Mongols swept through in the 13th century]. The ultimate land-based empire, with no natural barriers against invasion..., Russia would know forevermore what it was like to be brutally conquered, and as a result would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory, or at least dominating its contiguous zones (65) ... For Russians, geography means simply that without expansion there is the danger of being overrun (79) ... Insecurity is the quintessential Russian national emotion (159).
On China:
China, as Eurasia's largest continental nation with a coastline in both the tropics and the temperate zone, occupies the globe's most advantageous position (189) ... Unlike Russia (China extends) its territorial influence much more through commerce than coercion (196) ... China has built advantageous power relationships both in contiguous territories and in distant locales rich in the very resources it requires to fuel its growth ... It seeks to develop an eerie, colonial-like presence throughout the parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are well-endowed with oil and minerals (199) ... [In contrast with the USA] Military deployments are ephemeral: roads, rail links, and pipelines can be virtually forever (205) ... A new Silk Road, built on natural resource exploitation, is quietly coming into being in Central Asia that could make China the pivotal Eurasia power of the twenty-first century (351).
On Mongolia:
[In Russia and Mongolia] it is not a question of an invading army or of formal annexation, but of creeping Chinese demographic and corporate control over a region (202).
On Tibet:
Tibet, with the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangzi, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej rivers, may constitute the world's most enormous storehouse of freshwater, even as China by 2030 is expected to fall short of its water demands by 25 per cent (204).
On Europe:
It is the delicious complexity of Europe's geography, with its multiplicity of seas, peninsulas, river valleys, and mountain masses that have assisted in the formation of separate language groups and nation-states, which will contribute to political and economic disunity in the years to come, despite pan-European institutions ... Europe has a deviating and shattered coastline, indented with many good natural harbors ... This very elaborate interface between land and water, and the fact that Europe is protected from - and yet accessible to - a vast ocean, has led to maritime dynamism and a mobility among Europe's peoples (136-137).
On Africa, answering the question, 'Why is Africa so poor?'
Though Africa is the second largest continent, with an area five times that of Europe, its coastline south of the Sahara is little more than a quarter as long. Moreover, this coastline lacks many good natural harbors ... Few of Africa's rivers are navigable from the sea, dropping as they do from interior tableland to coastal plains by a series of falls and rapids, so that inland Africa is particularly isolated from the coast. Moreover the Sahara Desert hindered human contact from the north for too many centuries... (31).

On India:
The west-to-east flow of rivers in a sub-continent oriented from north to south has made it difficult for the north to govern the south until relatively late in history. Put simply: there are relatively few geographical connecting links between northern and southern India (239) ... In many ways, Greater India is like a map of early modern Europe, only worse because of nuclear weapons (248) ... It is the thundering invasions and infiltrations from West and Central Asia that have disrupted the quest for unity and stability in the subcontinent well into the modern era (232) ... He who sits in Delhi, with his back to Muslim Central Asia, must worry still about unrest up on the plateaus to the northwest (252) ... India is a blunt geographic wedge puncturing [the] grand sphere of Chinese influence ... [China and India] are destined by geography to be rivals (206).
On Pakistan:
Pakistan, right-angled to the course of invasions past, has, in the opinion of many, no geographic logic at all ... (it) can be viewed as an artificial puzzle piece of a territory, straddling the frontier between the Iranian-Afghan plateau and the lowlands of the sub-continent; encompassing the western half of Punjab, but not the eastern half; crazily uniting the Karakoram in the north (some of the highest mountains in the world) with the Makran Desert almost a thousand miles away in the south by the Arabian Sea. Whereas the Indus River should be a border of sorts, the Pakistani state sits on both of its banks. Pakistan is the home of four major ethnic groups, each harboring hostility to the others and each anchored to a specific region ... Pakistan was built on an ideological premise: that of a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent ... [and yet with many Muslims remaining in India] Pakistan's geographical contradictions rendered its ideology supremely imperfect (242-243) ... [Iraq and Pakistan] are, arguably, the two most illogically conceived states (35).
On Afghanistan:
Afghanistan is, in terms of geography, barely a country at all ... as comparatively little separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or Afghanistan from Iran (245) ... (and yet) as a geographical buffer between the Iranian plateau, the Central Asian steppes, and the Indian subcontinent, (it) is breathtakingly strategic, and thus coveted by not just Russians, but also by Iranians and Pakistanis, even as Indian policymakers are obsessed by it (247).
On the Middle East:
Devoid of forest, dominated by desert, and thus wide open to nomadic invasion and to subsequent upheavals and revolutions, the Middle East is - because of its [proximity] to gulfs, seas and oceans - particularly vulnerable to sea power .. [it] is the ultimate unstable transition zone, the sprawling way station between the Mediterranean world and Indian and Chinese civilizations, registering all the monumental shifts in power politics (66) ... it is a 'vast quadrilateral' where Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa intersect ... the Middle East is characterized by a disorderly and bewildering array of kingdoms, sultanates, theocracies, democracies and military-style autocracies, whose common borders look formed as if by an unsteady knife ... it is one densely packed axis of instability, where continents, historic road networks and sea lanes converge (259).
On Iran:
Though Iran is much smaller in size and population than [India and China], or Russia and Europe for that matter, Iran, because it is in possession of the key geography of the Middle East - in terms of location, population, and energy resources - is, therefore, fundamental to global geopolitics (269) ... Just as Iran straddles the rich energy fields of both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, it also straddles the Middle East proper and Central Asia. No Arab country can make that claim (267).
On Iraq:
Iraq has never been left alone ... [it has been] a constant victim of occupation (304) ... [and speaking of the mess today] Syria and Iraq continue to unravel. In their place are emerging a Sunnistan that stretches from central Syria to western Iraq; a Shiastan in central and southern Iraq...; and a sprawling Kurdistan ... Again, this is increasingly a geographer's world, where state borders erode and vaguer frontiers become more relevant (353).
On Turkey:
Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates: a terrific geographical advantage, giving it the ability to turn off the water supply to Syria and Iraq ... It is the fear that Turkey might reduce the water flow, through upriver diversions for its own agricultural development purposes, that can give Turkey considerable influence over Arab politics (285) ... Turkey is truly equidistant between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. The same with its foreign and national security policy (296) ... Turkey (is now) a water power to the same extent that Iran and Saudi Arabia are oil powers. These factors, seen and unseen, allow Turkey to compete with Iran for the locus of Islamic leadership and legitimacy. For years Turkey has almost been as lonely as Israel in the Middle East (298-299).
 On Greece:
... it is Germany, Russia, and, yes, Greece, with only eleven million people, that most perceptively reveal Europe's destiny (148) ... [Greece] will provide an insightful register of the health of the European project. Greece is the only part of the Balkans accessible on several seaboards to the Mediterranean, and thus the unifier of two European worlds. Greece is geographically equidistant between Brussels and Moscow, and is as close to Russia culturally as it is to Europe, by virtue of its Eastern Orthodox Christianity ... [in the days of the Cold War] imagine how much stronger the Kremlin's strategic position would have been with Greece inside the communist bloc, endangering Italy across the Adriatic Sea, to say nothing of the whole eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (152-153).
On North America:
How does America prepare itself for a prolonged and graceful exit from history as a dominant power? ... It can make sure it is not undermined from the south the way Rome was from the north. America is bordered by oceans to the east and west, and to the north by the Canadian Arctic, which provides for only a thin band of middle-class population on America's border. (The American-Canadian frontier is the most extraordinary of the world's frontiers because it it long, artificial, and yet has ceased to matter.) But it is the Southwest where America is vulnerable ... 'The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world' (Kennedy), with American GDP nine times that of Mexico (332) ... The destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west, sea-to-shining-sea of continental and patriotic myth (333) ... The blurring of America's Southwestern frontier is becoming a geographical fact that all the security devices on the actual border itself cannot invalidate (338) ... fixing Mexico is more important than fixing Afghanistan (340).
On the USA (the book is written for an American readership and while this bias is a little annoying, it is reasonable and to be respected):
[Europe and Eurasia is such a challenge because...] Competing states and empires adjoined one another on a crowded continent. European nations could never withdraw across an ocean in the even of military miscalculation (32) ...[according to Spykman] The United States was a great power less because of its ideas than because, with direct access to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it was 'the most favored state in the world from the point of view of location ... geography was the early sustainer of American freedom' (90-91) ... The United States, bounded by two oceans and the Canadian Arctic, is threatened only by the specter of Mexican demography to its south (189).
Eurocentricism (the perspective from which history is so easily told) - aided as it has been by the Mercator projection which made Europe bigger than it was - 'has always been wrong' (49). It is the space between Europe and China that is 'the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rest' (62, quoting Mackinder).

A final observation - a beauty:
It was Braudel who helps us understand how the rich forest soils of northern Europe, which required little to make an individual peasant productive, led ultimately to freer and more dynamic societies compared to those along the Mediterranean, where poorer, more precarious soils meant there was a requirement for irrigation that led, in turn, to oligarchies. Such poverty-stricken soils, combined with an uncertain, drought-afflicted climate, spurred the Greeks and Romans in search of conquest (322).
Isn't that just incredible?! Yes, I did get a little carried away - but I didn't want to lose any of these references for myself and I thought that there might be others who are captivated by all this as much as I am.

Interestingly, the words 'New Zealand' cannot be found in the Index :).
Fascinated as I am by the geopolitical - it is the geomissional that intrigues me more. Hmmm...


not a wild hera said...

Yes, captivated. Love this stuff! (Thanks for reading it for me...) :)

Tim & Lizzy said...

Hi Paul

I hadn't heard of this title until I read your review, but it's now shot to the top of the wish list. Thanks for highlighting it. As a geography graduate I do think that everything is about geography really!

Paul said...

Again, apologies for the rather lengthy annotations :)

What I really want is a lingering conversation that moves from the geopolitical to the geomissional.

I'd be happy if you two were the first two to sign up :).

Jamie Bay said...

"The American-Canadian frontier is the most extraordinary of the world's frontiers because it it long, artificial, and yet has ceased to matter."

Ouch. As a Kiwi in the Canadian church I can imagine the uproar if Australia proclaimed the same about NZ.

In the eight years since moving to Canada geography has been one of the most helpful pieces of pastoral ministry, especially when thinking about mission within neighbourhoods and communities. Michael Adams book on Canadian social values is called "sex and the snow" (a great textbook for our M.Div course on gospel Church and culture) and was most helpful for understanding how geography shapes values, and thus mission.

Paul RW said...

Interesting, Jamie. I think the Canadian-American border 'ceasing to matter' has more to do with how porous it is - in contrast with what many would love to see happen with the Mexican border.

I should also add that the book anticipates the current troubles in Ukraine and Iraq with alarming accuracy - arguing the geography has plenty to do with it.