The Revenge of Geography

By Blij, Harm de | The Geographical Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Revenge of Geography


Blij, Harm de, The Geographical Review


THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle of Fate. By ROBERT D. KAPLAN. xxii and 403 pp.; maps, notes, index. New York: Random House, 2012. $28.00 (Cloth), ISBN 9781400069835.

The title of Robert Kaplan's latest book suggests something ominous: a vengeful geography lurking somewhere on (or beneath) Thomas Friedman's flat world, ready to wreak its wrath on the spatially ignorant. The subtitle hints at something rather less dramatic: "What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate." But the contents range from the brilliant to the banal in ways that make it worth reading, for Mr. Kaplan knows as perhaps none other the maps and the places whereof he writes. Some of us remember a time when colleagues who allegedly did not do enough fieldwork were labeled "armchair geographers" Kaplan may not be a geographer, but geographers will be impressed by his global grasp and, at times, his analytical skills. Less compelling, despite occasional disclaimers, are his adherence to environmental determinism and his apparent ignorance of recent and contemporary scholarship in political geography.

The Revenge of Geography has its origins in an article under that title published in Foreign Policy in 2009. The book is divided into three parts, of which the first is an eight-chapter trek from Herodotus to the Heartland, from pre-Minoa to post-Mackinder. Part 2 describes past and future in six world realms or regions (Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey), and the final, single-chapter part focuses on Mexico and the United States' difficult relations with this crucial neighbor.

Contrasting his book against Friedman's, Kaplan says that he will "introduce readers to a group of decidedly unfashionable thinkers, who push up hard against the notion that 'geography no longer matters' (p. xix; italics in the original). Geographers who hope that this group may include come unfashionable thinkers in political geography are soon disappointed. To be sure: Kaplan cites a wide range of scholars and strategists--his skillful summations of the views of such authors as Hodgson, Bracken, Braudel and many others are highlights of the book--but few geographers, and no modern ones, make their appearance in his pages. This, of course, also reflects the state of the art. When the redoubtable Saul Cohen is by far the most cited political geographer in a 2012 book on political-geographical topics, it tells you as much about the fading of a once-prominent field of the discipline as it does about Cohen's formidable works. Nevertheless, the absence of such names as O'Loughlin, Agnew, Murphy, Fan, Nijman, Blaut, 0 Tuathail, Flint, and others is not only regrettable but also inexcusable and has a significant impact on the largely descriptive and weakly analytical part 2. How James Trapier Lowe's 700-page Geopolitics and War: Mackinder's Philosophy of War (1981) did not merit a mention in Kaplan's narrative or citation list is ... well, incredible.

These caveats notwithstanding, there is much to ponder in The Revenge of Geography. The regurgitation of the various Mackinder-Mahan-Spykman-Haushofer-Kjellen "theses" in part 1 is entertaining and takes some of us back to far duller classroom iterations decades ago. It is piquant to see Kaplan accord such gravitas to notions long consigned to the dustbin of geography and to follow him as he tries to accord current relevance to such old ideas (Is Kazakhstan really the new "Mackinder's Heartland" [p. …

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