“The Revenge of Geography” by Robert Kaplan – Impressive Work, Unfulfilled Promise?


Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the Prince of European diplomats, was famous for saying “speech was given to us to to conceal our thoughts“. Words can sound wonderful, they can promise so much, they can obfuscate and deceive. This is why a picture is judged better than a thousand words. In geostrategy, maps take the place of pictures. Maps are a pictorial representation of geography, the permanent shape of the world that determines history of nations.

Why is China ultimately more important than Brazil?

  • Because of geographical location: even supposing the same level of economic growth as China and a population of equal size, Brazil does not command the main sea lanes of communication connecting oceans and continents as China does…China fronts the Western Pacific and has depth on land reaching to oil-and natural-gas-rich Central Asia. Brazil..lies isolated in South America, geographically removed from other landmasses.”

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 tropical 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..

What about American exceptionalism?

  • For it is geography that has helped sustain American prosperity and which may be ultimately responsible for America’s pan-humanist altruism….It wasn’t only two oceans that gave Americans the luxury of their idealism, it was also that these oceans gave America direct access to the principal arteries of politics and commerce in the world: Europe across the Atlantic and East Asia across the Pacific with the riches of the American continent lying between them.
  • European nations could never withdraw across an ocean in the event of a military miscalculation. Thus, their foreign policies could not be grounded by a universal morality, and they remained well armed against one another until dominated by an American hegemon after World War II.

If these thoughts, the concepts that underlie these thoughts interest you, then reading the Revenge of Geography is a must for you. For the above questions and their answers are just a glimpse of what the book delivers.

The author Robert Kaplan is no stranger to readers of this Blog. We published three different reviews of his superb book, “Monsoon” and our review of his article about China-India rivalry in the Indian Ocean remains one of the most all-time popular articles of this Blog.

The Revenge of Geography

Mr. Kaplan’s approach to understanding the past and present has been to “travel on the ground, as slowly as possible“. His new book takes a different approach. As he writes,

  • I now wish to take another journey – of a radically different sort – through selected pages of history and political science that have survived…decades and, in some cases, centuries, and on account of their emphasis on geography…help us glimpse,…, the contours of future politics.

This book is also a rebuttal of celebrity thinkers who “dash across oceans and continents in hours, something which allows them to talk glibly about a flat world“, of “elite moulders of public opinion” who suggest that “globalism will trump geography“.

This is why Part I of the Revenge of Geography introduces us to a group of “decidedly unfashionable thinkers” and their works like,

  • the “Heartland” concept of British geographer Halford Mackinder,
  • the “Rimland” thesis of the Dutch American strategist Nicolas J. Spykman,
  • of the “Sea Power” doctrine of American Navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a thinker so influential that “Indian and Chinese strategists avidly read Mahan“, so much so that “they, much more than Americans, are the Mahanians now“.

Part II of the book is called the “The Early 21st Century Map” and discusses six important regions of the world:

  • The Geography of European Divisions
  • Russia and the Independent Heartland
  • The Geography of Chinese Power
  • India’s Geographical Dilemma
  • The Iranian Pivot
  • The Former Ottoman Empire.

Each chapter makes for riveting reading, especially for students of world events. Our intention is to briefly review some of these chapters in the weeks ahead.

Part III of the book makes a geography-influenced prediction of America’s destiny.  


Unfulfilled Promise?

We call the Revenge of Geography a must-read; we discuss it in detail and declare our intention to review its individual sections. So why do we talk of “unfulfilled promise”?

Because, despite its promise of a macro thesis, the book’s treatment is mainly micro. The discussion of the geography of each region is in a silo of its own, based on the history of that region. Kaplan’s book sets out to demonstrate the veracity of Spykman’s thesis about Geography being “the most important factor in foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent“. The book fails to do so because it ends up mixing the geographical factor of each region with its historical factor.

To fulfill its stated promise, Kaplan’s book should have analyzed the impact of the same geography on the history of different regions. A factor is only important if it has similar consequences on different data sets.

Allow us to explain with one of our own attempts. America is involved in a war with the Taliban, a group that wages guerrilla warfare from the shelter of the mountainous terrain of the Af-Pak line of control. That geography is found in other regions of the world. We would have liked to see a discussion of how similar conflicts have been fought, won or lost in similar geographical circumstances around the world.

We tried this approach ourselves with a discussion of a 18-year war
fought 300 years ago in a similar mountainous terrain against an occupying superpower by a people who exhibited the same ferocity, the same determination that we see in today’s Pushtun Taleban. That parallel, to us, is an example of how geography determines the mindset and characteristics of a people and how they react in the same way as people who lived in a similar geography in a different time period in a different region of the world. 

We expected such a series of discussions about similar impact of the same geography on different regions in the world with different history. We expected this from Robert Kaplan because of our respect for him and his scholarship. But we didn’t get it in his book. That is why we use the term “unfulfilled promise” for the Revenge of Geography.


America’s Destiny

This section is where the Revenge of Geography stands out. Looking back is easy; that is basic analytical intelligence. Using what you know to project your analysis into the future is hard; it is what we term Instinctive Intelligence. Celebrity thinkers don’t go near it but real strategists make it their passion. Robert Kaplan shows his true mettle in America’s Destiny, Part III of the Revenge of Geography.

What destiny does Kaplan see for America?

  • America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east to west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
  • America, in my vision, would become the globe’s preeminent duty-free hot zone for business transactions, a favorite place of residence for the global elite.
  • In the tradition of Rome, it will continue to use its immigration laws to asset-strip the world of its best and brightest, and to further diversify an immigrant population that, as Huntington fears, is defined too much by Mexicans.
  • In short, America is no longer an island, protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is brought closer to the rest of the world not only by technology, but by the pressures of Mexican and Central American demography.

What are the prerequisites for this vision? What will its implications be for other regions of the world? If these questions interest you, then reading the Revenge of Geography is a must for you.

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