on September 11, 2012
I read this book from two perspectives. First, decades ago, I was given a copy of the Air Force War College's textbook on geography as a basis for global military strategy and therefore became familiar at an early age with some of the concepts this book explores. Secondly, my family is bi-national American/Colombian, with family and businesses in both countries, and therefore is attuned with author Robert Kaplan's future vision of the USA evolving to become the center of an Anglo-Hispanic "supra-state."
Although this book is supposedly focused in on the influence of geography in making and breaking nations, it is actually what we used to call "Social Studies" --- a combined analysis of all the factors of geography, demographics, history, economics, and politics that go into constituting a nation state.
PART III. AMERICA'S DESTINY is the 25% of the book that most interested me. The other 75% is just OK, because it is an agglomeration of themes that students of world history and current events will probably already be familiar with. I didn't care for the lack of focus among so many topics. The chapter on Mexico starts with a rambling history of the Roman Empire followed up by a digression into our wars in Iran and Afghanistan, the history of China, India, Venice and the 18th Century mutiny of Indian troops against British Colonialists. However, those who aren't already familiar with these topics of World History 101 and are looking for the widest possible introduction to the geography, demographics, history, economics, politics, and current events in all parts of the world may enjoy Kaplan's "stream of consciousness" approach.
Kaplan can also be a bit pedantic ("history and geography tell us") and prone to over-comparing motivations of current nation states to what their forebears did thousands of years ago ("Ancient history, too, offers up examples that cast doubt on whether Afghanistan and Iraq, in and of themselves, have doomed us"). He also says that he is "aware that I am on dangerous ground in raising geography on a pedestal" but actually covers so much material of a political, demographic, and economic nature that geography seems to be secondary. He might just as well have titled the book THE REVENGE OF (GEOGRAPHY, ECONOMICS, DEMOGRAPHICS, POLITICS, ETC. ETC.).
My interest perked up in PART III AMERICA'S DESTINY. This is the part that Kaplan put his heart into, as he explains:
As a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis some years back, I taught a course about future challenges in national security.
In fact the book becomes especially interesting because Kaplan expands on the topic of "future challenges in national security" to include the future composition of our country in the combination of ALL factors that make us the nation we are, including geography, demographics, politics, and economics.
Kaplan starts out by pointing out how fantastically blessed by geography we Americans are. We have 6% of the world's land area, but perhaps 25% to 30% of its arable farmland. Our entire country, except for the Desert Southwest, is drained by the Mississippi/Ohio/Missouri, and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence. Our East Coast ports were perfectly positioned at the head of navigable waters to facilitate settlement, commerce, and the extension of political sovereignty for hundreds of miles inland. We ARE the center of the world's trading routes, with our East Coast facing Europe, our West Coast facing Asia, and our Gulf Coast facing Latin America. Kaplan perhaps overplays the idea that the United States is a superpower PRIMARILY because of our geography (the ambitions of our people also had a lot to do with making us what we are) but he makes it clear that no country has been favored by geography as we are.
He then makes the point that in regard to the vision of what the United States wants to become as a nation, we are coming back to our starting point. Our country is named "The United States of AMERICA" (not NORTH AMERICA) because it wasn't until around 1900 that the word "America" stopped being used as a synonym for "Western Hemisphere" and the words NORTH AMERICA and SOUTH AMERICA began to be used to distinguish the continents. As late as the 1870s some prominent Americans continued to believe that the United States was destined to become coextensive with the entire hemisphere.
Something of the reverse has actually happened. Instead of Anglo Americans going forth to colonize Latin America and incorporating it into the United States, tens of millions of Latin Americans have been attracted by our free political system and vibrant economy to come live among us. Kaplan makes a point that I (an Anglo American) and my Latin American family talk about almost every day, that the elderly Anglo population is passing, and America is being repopulated by a younger, more Latin American generation.
Kaplan thinks, as I do, that we're on our way to becoming an even more powerful Anglo/Hispanic Superpower whose economic perimeter includes not only Canada but also Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and much or even all of South America. He thinks our population will be browner, but we'll still be Americans living under the same Constitution, and a rising prosperity in Latin America will boost our own prosperity (I see this happening in the microcosm of my own family).
My takeaway from this book is that Mexico and Latin America REALLY are vital to our own well being. Before reading this book I leaned toward the view that America's free trade partnership shouldn't extend beyond Canada. Now I am wondering whether free trade with Mexico and most of the rest of Latin America may not after all be necessary for our security. These free trade agreements have put millions of Americans out of work, but they are accomplishing their purpose of helping to stabilize fragile countries like Colombia and Mexico. Eventually the trade agreements may serve their full purpose by boosting American exports, and therefore restoring employment, to the newly prosperous countries of Latin America.
You'll find this book a worthwhile read if:
1. You're looking for an education in Global Social Studies 101 (i.e. a basic literacy in global geography, demographics, politics, military strategic theory past and present, and current events). None of these subjects is covered deeply, but the reader will become away conversant in just about every factor that influences the world today.
2. You're interested in the part of the book I was, which is to glimpse ahead into the USA's future.
3. You want to acquire a more open-minded view of the cost/benefit analysis of U.S. free trade with Mexico and Latin America. It led me to wonder if perhaps the USA should include Mexico in its continental integration perimeter to the same degree as Canada (an objective that Mexico's former President asked for).
on September 13, 2012
Unlike most of Kaplan's earlier work (examples include Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea or Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Vintage Departures)) which relied on Kaplan's first-hand impressions and a lot of 'man in the street' perspectives, "The Revenge of Geography" takes a relatively detached and scholarly approach to illustrating Kaplan's view of the world we live in. Using a very broad definition of geography to include a lot of what might otherwise be called social science, Kaplan seeks to describe real constraints on how nations and populations can and will act in order to chart a middle course between an overly idealistic liberal internationalism (or its close cousin, neoconservatism) or an excessively pessimistic and ethnically/geographically deterministic IR realism. The net effect is an attempt to, as he approvingly quotes Braudel, make us more aware of our limits in order to have "more power to affect outcomes within them".
Divided into three parts, the first draws upon a range of mainly western thinkers (including Mackinder, Braudel, Spengler and Mahan) to explain various IR streams of thought with particular reference to the impact and constraints of (broadly defined) geography, while the second focuses on the history, geography and constraints of six key regions or powers (Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran and Turkey) and surrounding nations. A previous reviewer has pointed out that Kaplan tends to approach his subject in an eclectic manner and digress from his theme, but (while I don't agree with all of Kaplan's assertions) I consider this a strength rather than a weakness - if the number of 'clippings' I have made in my Kindle editions of unconventional or little-known observations to research and think about later is any guide, there is a lot here to interest the reader, provoke thought and look at the previously familiar from a slightly different perspective.
The final section of the book deals with Kaplan's assessment of the future prospects of the USA and the wider North/Central Americas - while Kaplan draws upon the views of Samuel P. Huntington's Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity to illustrate the way demography is likely to change the USA's sense of identity and role in the world, he is (while noting some real risks) far more optimistic and paints an interesting picture of a vibrant North/Central American community with a slightly reduced but still pivotal - and positive - role in the world. His perspective on this issue is one I had not considered in this way before and I will be very interested to see the views of US, Mexican and other Central American/Caribbean readers.
Overall, "The Revenge of Geography" offers an approachable, thought-provoking read that offers some interesting and unconventional - and largely optimistic - perspectives on the world we live in. While I doubt that every reader will agree with all of Kaplan's observations and arguments, this is a distinctly original look at our world and a book I highly recommend.
on April 4, 2013
Though I've read other Kaplan books, I cannot recommend this one.
It's not clear what his intention was in moving to this slogging, plodding, at times incomprehensible writing style. It's also not clear what this book is supposed to be: is it history, geography, philosophy, political commentary, or simply (actually acutely, painfully, mind-numbing) his attempt to be all of the above in some fanciful mishmash of subject and style. Whatever his intention, the result is the worst I've experienced; and I've had my share of literary slogging. Where was his editor??
Through sheer force of will I sat down each day to plow through another chapter, finding each paragraph filled with unnecessary literary devices that added nothing to the subject, parsing sentences to try to discern his meaning (sometimes failing in frustration), shaking my in head in disbelief that I was spending more time unscrambling his writing than studying the subject. The book is more like a long research paper: collections of other historians' writings that are cut and pasted into narrative paragraphs. There is no new information, just a rephrasing of previous writings. Look at some maps, look in your college history book, and listen to the news: you'll know what's in this book. Throughout he references the writings of Mackinder, Morgenthau, Mahan, Spykman and numerous other historians, and even quotes other writers who have previously referred to those same historians. Historians quoting each other: quite the academic enterprise.
A personal nit I have with Kaplan's style is that he falls for one of the cheap, pedantic devices of turning a proper noun into an adjective; for example, he could refer to his own work as Kaplanesque. There must be a dozen more natural ways that Kaplan could have concocted this sentence: "Sea power, it emerges, provides the Mahanian means by which a distant United States can influence Eurasisia in a Mackinderesque "closed system." In a later chapter he alternates between Iraq and Mesopotamia a dozen times over a few pages; an unnecessary distraction.
Another irritating device Kaplan employs is using the words "even as" to link two concepts, both of which contain drawn out, overly stylistic descriptions which in some cases are difficult to relate to each other, nearly non sequiturs. Is this seven line sentence style really necessary: "Indeed, while the ..., with the ..., even as ..., especially in ..., leading to ..., the word 'Malthusian' will be heard more
often." You'll find one of these on every other page.
Unusual analogies can be found occasionally, too. Try this one: "Fourteen years elapsed from Athens's first foray into Sicily to its final disaster there in the naval battle of Syracuse in 413 B.C., the same number of years between the early forays of the John F. Kennedy administration in Vietnam and President Gerald Ford's final withdrawal after Saigon was overrun." That's simply hilarious. (Cue the Twilight Zone theme.)
There's plenty more where this came from, but I'm getting a stomach cramp reliving the experience.
On a positive note, the book highlights the extraordinary industrial and military developments underway by China, India and Turkey to prepare for their increased trade and natural resource movements in their parts of the world. While those countries are using technologies to overcome geography (maybe the book should be called "Surmounting Geography") and soon dominate commerce and sea power, the U.S. is doing nothing.
on December 17, 2012
One reviewer said Kaplan's writing can be a bit pedantic. That's the understatement of the year. I bought this book because I heard Mr. Kaplan interviewed on the radio and I was intrigued with the subject. I'm well educated and travel internationally every year. I always endeavor to study the history and cultures of the regions I travel to so this book seemed to be a great resource to add a geographical perspective to my travels. This is not a book that is for casual reading. It is much more like a graduate degree text book and you could take a full semester to really decipher the material included. While it contains a lot of interesting material it requires intense concentration and detailed companion map(s) to be able to fully grasp the concepts discussed. My biggest complaint however is the writing style Mr. Kaplan uses. It's so professorial and obtuse that it takes me back 40 years when I was in graduate school pouring over some arcane text. As an example, I just now opened the book and here's a sample paragraph on page 136, "Yet Europe, precisely because of it's quest for wider and deeper unity, will also continue to be bedeviled by its own internal divisions, which, despite the economic form that these rifts now exhibit on the surface--as with Germany anger over the Greek debt crisis--are in truth the timeless expressions of geography: that is to say, the different development patterns of Germany in northern Europe and Greece in Mediterranean and Balkan Europe." After reading this you might say well, it did take a bit of concentration but I understand what he was saying. That's true, but try to imagine a whole book written in this style. He also spends about half the book, at least it seems like half, quoting other writers and professors, many of whom are long deceased. The point being that he bases a lot of his conjecture on what other "experts" have already said. I rarely skim or skip sections in a book but after reading about a third of this book I skipped forward to read he section on China and the final section on "America's Destiny" which is a mere 24 pages long and utterly inadequate. I can't remember when I was so delighted to be "finished" with a book. I gave him two generous stars because the book is filled with interesting material if you're willing to cloister yourself in a dungeon with enough time and determination to decipher the meaning. If you're a tenured university professor you'll like this book but if you're looking for a less tedious and frustrating way to enjoy the impact on geography on world history and culture this is not the book for you.
on April 26, 2013
This book could have been written with much clearer prose and made much shorter by it. As another reviewer wrote Kaplan is like the guy at the cocktail party trying to dazzle people with his word knowlege and triva.
I read Monsoon and while it was tedious at times I found it interesting and learned from it.
This... I could not get through, besides all the referencing to other writers in the main body, Kaplan uses phrasology that confounds one to comprehend.
Glad I borrowed it from the library and did not spend hard cash
Better editing and a more concise narrative next time Bob, please!!
As I read The Revenge of Geography I found myself wishing that it had been published a few years earlier, or that I had not retired from my job teaching high school Advanced Placement World History a couple of years ago, so that I could have used the rich material Robert D. Kaplan presents here in my classroom. That is high praise indeed, but it is no understatement to say that this book, alongside the works of Jared Diamond,Samuel Huntingdon, and a few other geographers/historians/researchers, is enormously valuable for those seeking a better understanding of our world and our future.
Kaplan's greatest achievement here is his ability to explain the effects of geography on our past, present, and future. In the first of three segments, he provides the historical background to his study, tracing the work of historians and geographers from Herodotus through the twentieth century. In the second section, he analyzes the early twenty first century map,describing the ways in which gogrpahy influences the development of Europe, Russia, China, India, and the Middle East. Finally, the third section examines the fate of the United States and Mexico, two nations inevitably bound together by the map and whose futures will inevitably see us growing more intertwined.
Throughout this meticulously researched work Kaplan provides "local color" through a series of fascinating anecdotes, many of them based on his own travels through the regions under discussion. These enhance what is already an impressive and scholarly account, one that I believe and hope will become essential reading for diplomats and strategists around the world.
on September 27, 2012
Geopolitics -- the subject of this fascinating book -- has literally 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've been told that 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 probably not a stretch to think that my life-long fascination with the world outside the USA began with that experience.
Through a geopolitical lens, 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 must view it. Has to view it.
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 instability is no surprise. Constant turmoil is practically guaranteed, with the dominating Iranian and Turkish highlands above, and virtually flat, featureless plains below, 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."
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 a proud history ("Iran was the ancient world's first superpower."), a population of 75 million, a literacy rate of 80%, 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?
In this fashion, geopolitics yields important insight about how the world works. To cite another example, Kaplan asks "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 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."
The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis -- about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, about 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 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.
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, 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."
on October 10, 2012
For at least the last decade, Robert Kaplan has been pushing an aggressive military strategy for the US. This is the man who wrote "imperial grunts" where he described the mission of the US military as being to bring civilization to what he called "injun country" outside the US. This is the man who seriously wrote articles suggesting that war with China was inevitable.
But times have changed and Kaplan is changing too. He tries to a degree in the book to weasle out of his fanatical views on the war in Iraq. But in doing so, he spins up new ideas that are just as odd as his previous ones. The Iraq war apparently showcased our weaknesses as an empire. So we now need to pull back for a time and re-group focusing on harnessing the power of the whole of North America to the American Imperial project. The expected analogies to the later Roman Empire have a high profile as do rather naive if not simplistic geopolitical ideas.
There are some really odd statements. He says that simply defeating the drug cartels in Mexico would be a greater victory than any potential american victory anywhere in the middle east. He compares the war in Iraq to the "Indian Mutiny" against the British Empire in the mid-1800s. There is the claim that the anglo-saxon work ethic will "transform" Mexicans.
The book is organized in three sections. The first section sets an idelogical and historical framework in terms of thinkers and ideas that Kaplan cherry-picks. He leans alot on Mackinder. The second section is a quick spin around most of the world including Europe, India, China, Iran and Turkey. Kaplan mostly gives his summary opinion of these places with little depth provided. Then in the final section, its the turn of the United States.
In some sense, the entire bloated book is nothing more than a run-up to the presentation of the idea that the geography of North America makes a contenental combination inevitable. The sources quoted in support of these imperial ideas are rather eccentric to say the least. He turns to people like Toynbee and the French Annales movement. His understanding of these sources is mostly superficial. Only enough is presented to backstop his arguments and his use of these sources is as interesting for what it does not include from their arguments as what it does.
In summary, Kaplan has been so wrong about so many things for so long now that I really wonder how he has any credibility left on these issues. He ultimately can't disown his opinions on the Iraq war or his fanatical imperial ideas any more than he could disown his call for conventional morality to be abandoned in American politics in favor of a roman-style moralty of the "ends" (with no consideration of the morality of the "means") in his book "warrior politics".
The problem with empires historically is that they were run by elites who put the interests of the empire before the interests of its population. One really has to ask if Kaplan's strategy is really in the interests of either Mexicans or the population of the United States. Or if its in the interests of a man who wants to play Napoleon and lacks enough toy soldiers in his U.S. toybox to do it properly.
on July 3, 2013
Having enjoyed, and learned from, Robert Kaplan's book Balkan Ghosts, I enthusiastically pick up this book (thankfully at the library!) Honestly, I don't understand how this book got published. It is in dire need of an editor and a central idea (which I expected to be geography.) It reads like a verbose thesis, where the author is trying to prove to his professors how smart he is by constantly referencing other thinkers/authors who vaguely support his ideas. The writing is convoluted and dense. In my view, if someone can't explain his/her idea in a clear + concise manner, they don't really know what they are talking about. As evidenced by Kaplan's glowing bio, he has enourmous credibility in the world of think-tanks and that is deeply frightening. I believe Kaplan likely has a sharp intellect, but has fallen into a bubble and lost his perspective, and desire to enlighten. I thought and thought about what motivated him to write this pointless 600 page book. My conclusion is that he feels a psychological burden of his cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq. He brings up the topic repeatedly and usually in a defensive way, especially when discussing the view the neo-cons, who aggressively supported invading Iraq, where motivated by their allegience to Israel. In summary, the book just doesn't smell right. Sadly, I will have to put Robert Kaplan in the Tom Friedman category of highly paid, intellectually dishonest hack with significant communication challenges.
on September 21, 2012
In recent times, advances in transportation have eroded physical distance and the Internet has abolished informational distance altogether. As a result, many around the world think that the role geography will play in the future will be greatly diminished. But in "The Revenge of Geography," author Robert Kaplan argues that geography is very much a factor in relations between nations in the second decade of the twenty-first century and will continue to be a factor in the future.
Kaplan shows that geography sets down limits on nations and discusses how mountains, rivers, and harbors shape national development--he even goes so far as to assert that "a state's position on the map is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophy even." The author examines realism and idealism in foreign policy, and how they related to geography in recent events such as the 1990s Balkan conflicts and the Iraq War. Navies and control of sea lanes are of course an integral part of geopolitics and Kaplan cites many instances in which sea power came into play in the past and may do so in the future.
There are sections in the book on Europe, Russia, China, India, the Middle East, and North America--Kaplan looks at the influence of geography on relations between nations past and present in these areas. Border disputes are at the heart of geopolitical brinksmanship and some of the most interesting passages in the book concern possible future border tensions between China and Russia and between Mexico and the United States.
Regardless of whether you consider yourself a realist or idealist in foreign policy or whether you agree with all of Kaplan's conclusions, anyone with a serious interest in world geography would find "The Revenge of Geography" a worthy read.