The Revenge of Kaplan's Maps

By Merry, Robert W. | The National Interest, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Revenge of Kaplan's Maps

Merry, Robert W., The National Interest

Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), 432 pp., $28.00.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has a problem. The land power he leads lies vulnerable to invasion. The unremitting grassy steppes of his nation, extending from Europe all the way to the Far East, with hardly a mountain range or seashore or major forest to hinder encroachment by army or horde, has fostered a national obsession with the need to control territory as a hedge against incursion. Putin shares this obsession, as indeed he must as leader of this inherently exposed country.

This fixation is hardly new. It was shared by the very first Russians, the Kievan Rus, beginning in the ninth century--until they were overrun in the mid-thirteenth century by Mongol hordes under Batu Khan, Genghis's grandson. It was shared by medieval Muscovy, domain of that pitiless imperialist Ivan the Terrible and his successor, Boris Godunov--until it too succumbed to invading Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Cossacks in the early seventeenth century. It was shared by the Romanov dynasty during its three-hundred year reign marked by one of the greatest land conquests in world history--until it also crumbled amid an awesome territorial contraction after World War I. It was even shared by the succeeding Bolsheviks, who turned out to be the greatest imperialists of all--until they saw their empire disintegrate and Russia shrink to its smallest dimension since before the emergence of Catherine the Great in the mid-eighteenth century.

It is little wonder that Putin should obsess over his nation's territorial dominion. Yet many in the West argue he should resist such flights of national nostalgia, accept without protest the West's eastward expansion and concentrate on improving his governmental structures so they could become more like those of the West.

You don't get such sentiments from Robert D. Kaplan, the world-traveling reporter and intellectual whose fourteen books constitute a bedrock of penetrating exposition and analysis on the post-Cold War world. In this latest volume he strips away much of the cant that suffuses public discourse these days on global developments and gets to a fundamental reality: that geography remains today, as it has been throughout history, one of the most powerful drivers of world events.

"Geography," writes Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, "is the backdrop to human history itself.... A state's position on the map is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophy even." Indeed, Kaplan suggests that a state's geographic position often influences its governing philosophy. He quotes historian G. Patrick March as saying Russia's territorial vulnerability has spawned in that country a "greater tolerance for tyranny." Britain, on the other hand, writes Kaplan, "secure in its borders, with an oceanic orientation, could develop a democratic system ahead of its neighbors."

Kaplan has no illusions about the controversy his unsentimental realism will generate. "Maps," he writes, "are a rebuke to the very notions of the equality and unity of humankind, since they remind us of all the different environments of the earth that make men profoundly unequal and disunited in so many ways, leading to conflict, on which realism almost exclusively dwells."

Indeed, even before publication, his book stirred an angry response in Publishers Weekly, whose thumbnail reviews sometimes seem as if they are crafted to enforce humanist thinking. The anonymous reviewer called Kaplan's book an "overwrought map exercise" consisting mainly of "diverting but feckless snippets of history, cultural lore, and economics" as well as "a jumble of empty rotational metaphors." Kaplan's "pitiless 'realism,'" writes the reviewer, amounts to "an unconvincing reprise of an obsolete worldview."

Kaplan himself, with far more balance and perspective than his agitated critic, identifies the wellspring of such vituperation. …

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