THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. By Robert D. Kaplan. Random House. 403 pages. $28.
‘Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is an oft-quoted variation of Santayana’s famous statement about the past. As geography is inextricably linked to history, a corollary might be “those that fail to learn from geography are doomed to be lost in it.”
This is the lesson that Robert D. Kaplan strives to explain in his new book, “The Revenge of Geography.” One could say that his central theme is a counterpoint to that of Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat.”
Despite how technology has brought us in close contact with others around the world, there remains the Earth with its geography: its continents, oceans, mountains, deserts, forests, climates, resources and, of course, its inhabitants, human and otherwise. As Kaplan writes, “Geography is the backdrop to human history itself.”
The author wants us to consider geography in all geopolitical matters. By having a better grasp of geography and how it has affected geopolitics throughout history, we can better understand why things are, and perhaps apprehend the forces that are driving conflicting powers forward.
Kaplan, a respected foreign affairs expert named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s top 100 global thinkers, is a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic, the chief political analyst for Stratfor, and the author of more than a dozen books. Kaplan also served on the Defense Policy Board from 2009 to 2011.
“The Revenge of Geography” begins by examining the ideas and writings of numerous geopolitical writers and historians from Herodotus to Braudel. Kaplan subsequently devotes chapters to Europe, Russia, China, India, Iraq and the former Ottoman Empire. He describes the importance of each area, and the impact that geography played in the flow of history, economics and politics of different countries.
Finally, he examines “America’s Destiny,” as he puts it, discussing the North American continent. Here, he focuses primarily on Mexico in relation to the U.S. as pivotal to how our future plays out.
This is provocative and interesting. Canada is essentially relegated to an American annex, which Canadians may take issue with, but his point is to focus on the volubility of Mexico and the importance of American policy with Mexico in the coming decades. He makes good points, and his possible scenarios of the future with Mexico merit to be taken seriously.
A major deficiency in Kaplan’s book is that he largely ignores two major continents: South America and Africa. This seems amazingly short-sighted because there is so much to consider in the very complex and diverse geographies and geopolitics of both continents. It is hard to imagine that we will not witness major influences on events and conditions originating from both of those areas.
While his history is sometimes sketchy, it is because Kaplan paints it with a broad brush. The breadth of history he references makes it impossible to go into great depth and is simply beyond the scope of the book. But from these broad strokes, juxtaposed against geography, are created patterns that Kaplan believes help us to more clearly see current events and have informed analyses of future ones. His is not a vision of geographical determinism, but he understands that geography is often given short shrift in geopolitical thought and planning. And he makes a compelling case.
If there is a historical context to human events, there is also a geographical one. The author writes, “geography is the preface to the very track of human events.” For anyone interested in global politics and geopolitical strategy, “The Revenge of Geography” is essential reading.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.