Geopolitical analysis—the subject of this fascinating book—has been on my mind almost throughout my life.
I had recently turned three when the Allies invaded Normandy, beginning the long, last phase of World War II in Europe. I have no active memory of the invasion, but I learned to read by studying the news about the event and its aftermath. My father read the newspaper at dinner, and I sat opposite him, leaning over the table so I could see the headlines—upside down—and ask him to tell me what the words meant. I loved the maps, too, those sketches of Europe and the Pacific with broad arrows pointing this way and that to indicate the movements of troops and ships at sea. Geography was long my favorite subject in school, and it’s not a stretch to think that my life-long fascination with the world outside the USA began with that experience.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
A strange new perspective on the Earth
Through the lens of geopolitical analysis, Planet Earth and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as the Joint Chiefs of Staff views it. Has to view it.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (2012) 448 pages ★★★★★
Viewing the globe through geopolitical analysis
Understanding the globe from that perspective, current events become a lot easier to understand. Take, for example, the object of American preoccupation today: the Middle East.
The true geopolitical center of the Earth lies in the Middle East, a region consisting essentially of three sections:
- the Iranian Plateau, running from present-day Iraq to Afghanistan and dominated by a resurgent Iran, the latest incarnation of the Persian Empire;
- the Anatolian landbridge (Turkey) that connects Asia and Europe, successor to the Eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires; and
- the oil- and natural-gas-rich Arabian Peninsula, unsteadily governed by the extended Saud family and a congeries of coastal emirates.
Nestled between them and extending westward along the North African Maghreb is a long line of generally flat, low-lying states that are experiencing various degrees of instability, only a handful of which have a solid historical and demographic basis for nationhood (Tunisia, Egypt, Israel). Given the geography of this region, its perennial volatility is no surprise. Constant turmoil is practically guaranteed. The dominating Iranian and Turkish highlands lie above. Below, virtually flat, featureless plains are divided among mostly weak states with arbitrary borders inherited from British and French colonial masters. As Kaplan notes, “the supreme fact of twenty-first -century world politics is that the most geographically central area of the dry-land earth is also the most unstable.”
The central importance of Iran
Of all the states in the Greater Middle East, the strongest of all, and most likely to dominate at some point in the decades ahead, is Iran, with its proud history. “Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower,” Kaplan asserts. It houses a population of 83 million, sports a literacy rate of 85%, an industrial base, and an extensive network of universities. Iran is situated in an enviable position, straddling the region’s two principal oil-production areas (the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf), not to mention its own abundant hydrocarbon reserves. Is it any wonder, then, why Iran captures headlines with such frequency? Under geopolitical analysis, the question answers itself.
Comparing the potential of China and Brazil
In this fashion, geopolitical analysis yields important insight about how the world works. To cite another example, Kaplan asks “Why is China ultimately more important than Brazil?” The question is relevant because Brazil is so often spoken of as “the country of the future.” Kaplan explains that the key lies in “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 lines of communication connecting oceans and continents as China does; nor does it mainly lie in the temperate zone like China, with a more disease-free and invigorating climate. China fronts the Western Pacific and has depth on land reaching to oil- and natural-gas-rich Central Asia. Brazil offers less of a comparative advantage. It lies isolated in South America, geographically removed from other landmasses.”
Thought-provoking analysis in abundance
The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis. About the influence of geography on European history. The role of megacities in our future. And about changing demographic patterns and the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Oh, and do you remember Sacha Baron Cohen‘s satirical treatment of Kazakhstan? Kaplan informs us that “Kazakhstan is truly becoming an independent power in its own right” (and proves it). Who knew?
A word of warning, though: unless you’re familiar with both world history and ancient history, you may find The Revenge of Geography to be tough sledding. You’ll need to wend your way through the innumerable mentions of long-lost empires and forgotten kings. Kaplan grounds his analysis not just in geography but also in history, and his knowledge of both clearly runs deep. Geopolitical analysis is not for the faint of heart.
“Why not fix Mexico instead” of meddling in the Middle East?
Kaplan begins wrapping up his book with a troubling discussion about recent U.S. foreign and military policy. “While the United States was deeply focused on Afghanistan and other parts of the Greater Middle East,” he writes, “a massive state failure was developing right on America’s southern border, with far more profound implications for the near and distant future of America, its society, and American power than anything occurring half a world away. What have we achieved in the Middle East with all of our interventions since the 1980s? . . . Why not fix Mexico instead?”
“America faces three primary geopolitical dilemmas,” Kaplan concludes. “[A] chaotic Eurasian heartland in the Middle East, a rising and assertive Chinese superpower, and a state in deep trouble in Mexico. And the challenges we face with China and Mexico are most efficiently dealt with by wariness of further military involvement in the Middle East. This is the only way that American power can sustain itself for the decades to come.” Note, too, that Kaplan wrote this book nearly a decade ago. Since then, conditions in Mexico have only worsened, and many of the nations of Central America have disintegrated as well. The challenge to our south is enormous.
About the author
Robert D. Kaplan (1952-) has been writing about politics, foreign affairs, and travel since 1980—scores of books all told. As his Wikipedia entry reveals, “In addition to his journalism, Kaplan has been a consultant to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, the United States Marines, and the United States Air Force. He has lectured at military war colleges, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, major universities, the CIA, and business forums, and has appeared on PBS, NPR, C-SPAN, and Fox News.” Kaplan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. Geopolitical analysis seems to come naturally to him.
For related reading
I’ve also reviewed two other books by Robert D. Kaplan:
- Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (US-China competition through the lens of geopolitics)
- Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (The geopolitical reality behind the “pivot to Asia”)
This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.
Check out Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall (A thought-provoking look at how geography explains history).
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