Attempt to decipher geography’s Delphic oracles proves misplaced

Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-25 22:10:04

Grand geographical explanations for history were once wildly popular in Europe. Unsurprisingly, they tended either to predict the inevitability of European dominance, or to conjure up threats from elsewhere that Europe had to be vigilant against.

Robert D. Kaplan's new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, makes bold claims about how the validity of such explanations has been ignored by recent scholars. Unfortunately for Kaplan, his book is just as intellectually incoherent as any of the past theorists.

Geo-history is a fascinating topic, and has produced brilliant and provocative works, such as the arguments of Karl August Wittfogel on hydraulic empires, or William MacNeill's studies of disease and urbanization. Kaplan, despite some interesting passages, is nowhere near this league.

There's little clarity to Kaplan's arguments, which are a ragbag of geo-historical claims. Kaplan blithely skips over entire eras to make his tendentious points.

History shows Europe was geographically "destined" to be ruled from Germany, he tells us. Apart, that is, from the centuries of Iberian dominance, or the centuries of French dominance, and so on. Russia's space and size, he tells us, makes it destined to authoritarianism. As Adam Gopnik pointed out in the New Yorker, Russia's geography is essentially the same as stalwartly democratic Canada's. 

Kaplan has form for mistaken, but unfortunately influential, history. His account of the collapse of Yugoslavia, Balkan Ghosts, perpetuated fictions about "ancient conflicts" that allowed US and European policymakers to pretend the region was doomed to warfare and abrogate their responsibilities.

He was a relentless hawk on Iraq, and in part, this book seems to be an apology for that. But it's an apology that puts the blame on the convenient scapegoat of geography, allowing him to easily skip out of dealing with US arrogance, strategic blunders, or misplaced ideologies.

His blunder on Iraq doesn't deter Kaplan from being hawkish in other regions.

Geography demands a greater US role in the South China Sea. It demands a greater US role in Mexico. Kaplan exalts the map to almost divine status. There's no role for the subtleties of culture, ideology, or diplomacy here, only a crude and reductive vision of history.  His vision of Chinese influence is relentlessly conspiratorial; every Chinese project he sees on his flying tours of the globe is another step in the creeping reach of the dragon.

Big, semi-populist US theories of history and international relations are sometimes adopted by Chinese thinkers, partially because they're unaware of the context and criticism in which they're produced.

One persistent example is Samuel Huntingdon's The Clash of Civilizations, which puts an arbitrarily-determined set of "civilizations" above all else, and which proved worryingly popular with Chinese. Let's hope Kaplan doesn't prove equally popular.

Posted in: Viewpoint, Fresh off the Shelf

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