Destinations

Interview: Robert D. Kaplan on how geography defines destiny of nations

Sep 11, 2012 10:04 am

Skift Take

Robert D Kaplan is probably the best traveler+geopolitical writer of our generation, and this books delivers again. Our early choice for Book of 2012.

— Rafat Ali

Free Report: The State of Student Travel

From Iran’s glorious past as the ancient world’s first superpower to Russia’s present and continuing obsession with protecting its territory, acclaimed American journalist and author Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, “The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate” traces the history of the world’s hot spots through their geographic advantages and disadvantages.

Kaplan looks at how countries’ positions on a map have influenced their fate and explains how the lessons of the past can help prevent conflicts in the future. RFE/RL Washington correspondent Heather Maher interviewed Kaplan on the eve of the book’s September 11 publication.

RFE/RL: You write that “geography 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.” Why is geography so important in defining a state?

Robert Kaplan: Because it defines a state’s position on a map. It defines its constraints and its opportunities. For instance, Great Britain is an island, it’s a big island. So it didn’t have to fear land attacks on its borders. Therefore over hundreds of years, it could develop safely, internally, and that’s one of the reasons why democracy developed.

Look at the map of the United States – look how indented and shattered the east coast of the United States is.

The northeast is filled with many, many good natural harbors. That’s one of the reasons why the 13 colonies could take shape. You look at the whole coast of Africa – it’s so vast, but [has] relatively few natural harbors, which hindered development.

Look at Russia. Russia comprises half the lines of longitude of the world. Yet it has very few natural borders. It’s open to invasion from several points. This accounts for Russia’s insecurity and suspicious national character.

RFE/RL: But then you also call maps “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.” How can a map have so much power?

Kaplan: A map comprises a whole spate of generalizations. Maps can lie. The map of sub-Saharan Africa shows borders where maybe they should not be. Maps show the temperate zones slighter smaller in comparison to the northern latitudes, so that Greenland and Canada and even Europe look much bigger on a map than they actually are. Maps show us how every nation is in a different circumstance. It doesn’t have the same opportunities as every other nation.

Take the Benelux states of northwestern Europe. They have a shattered, protected coastline open to the trade routes of the Atlantic. They’re filled with very rich, loess soil. They have protected forest openings. All these things encouraged development in an age of technologies like movable type, and when you compare it, say, to a landlocked country in Central Africa, you can see why development was quicker in Europe than in this part of Africa. In other words, states are not all born with the same opportunities.

RFE/RL: And that’s one of the harsh realities you say that the end of the Cold War led some people to ignore?

Kaplan: The Cold War blinded Western thinkers to the realities of the map. It artificially divided Berlin. It artificially put Greece in with Western Europe, when in fact Greece was a poor Balkan and Mediterranean country with severe development problems stemming from Turkish and Byzantine despotism.

RFE/RL: You talk about the great historical lesson of “Munich” – what is that?
Kaplan: 

The Munich analogy goes back to the 1938 conference in Munich between [British Prime Minister] Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, where Chamberlain caved into Hitler’s demands. And that, of course, led to the overrunning of the Sudetenland, to World War II, etc. So the lesson of Munich is: “Stand up to dictators now, because if you don’t stand up to them today, they’ll take more territory and cause more havoc tomorrow.”

The Western media loves to
hate Putin because he doesn’t configure to their garden- variety liberal ruler who gets applauded at fancy conferences. But in Putin what they should really see is not a totalitarian – just a normal, run-of-the-mill Russian semi-dictator
.

In other words, intervene in Bosnia before it’s too late, overthrow Saddam Hussein before it’s too late, intervene in Syria before it’s too late.

The problem, as you’re probably aware, is the Munich analogy is one-dimensional.

It tries to fit every major decision into the decision that Chamberlain faced in Munich, and that cannot be correct.

That can only be part of the story.

RFE/RL: You write about how Russia’s lack of natural borders has fostered a national obsession with the need to control territory as a hedge against incursion. You quote historian G. Patrick March as saying Russia’s territorial vulnerability has given rise to a “greater tolerance for tyranny.” Does this help explain some of the hard-line policies of President Vladimir Putin?

Kaplan: The Western media loves to hate Putin because he doesn’t configure to their garden- variety liberal ruler who gets applauded at fancy conferences. But in Putin what they should really see is not a totalitarian – just a normal, run-of-the-mill Russian semi-dictator, whose cynical neo-imperialism are the wages of a deep, deep geographical insecurity.

Putin looks out in Europe and sees what the tsars and commissars saw before him: an invasion route against Russia, a history of invasion against Russia by the Swedes, the Poles, the French, the Germans, the Lithuanians, etc., and therefore, just like the communist rulers before him, he wants buffer states.

He wants overwhelming influence in the Baltic States. He wants buffer states in Eastern Europe; he doesn’t accept the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. He knows he cannot reconstitute the Warsaw Pact, he knows he cannot take over the Baltic States, which are members of NATO. But he will try. He will keep applying pressure in various ways through gas pipelines, crime groups, cyberattacks, etc.

The same applies to his need for buffer states in Belarus and Ukraine. The same reason why he invaded Georgia in 2008 or that he wants influence in Central Asia — although he lacks the military bandwidth to reconstitute the Russian empire there. Putin thinks like a traditional Russian ruler, because Russia is open at most sides to invasion. It is a great land power with no natural borders, and land powers are particularly insecure. They lack the security of sea powers, who are protected by oceans.

RFE/RL: You conclude something similar about Mesopotamia – that its modern tendency toward tyranny could be “geographically determined.” You note that every Iraqi dictator going back to the 1950s “had to be more repressive than the previous one in order to hold together a state with no natural borders composed of Kurds and Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, seething with a well-articulated degree of ethnic and sectarian consciousness.”

Kaplan: Mesopotamia stands athwart historical invasion routes, whereas Egypt was protected in the north from the Mediterranean by a vast delta, and by deserts on either side of the Nile, so it could develop a cohesive civilization more or less free from outside invasion.

Mesopotamia was on everyone’s invasion route. Because the course of human history flows across the greater Middle East and Mesopotamia is right angled to that – it’s not along that. So this history of invasion, of suppression, has given Mesopotamia — which is the basis for modern day Iraq — a very suspicious national attitude.

It’s given it a tendency to have dictators, harsh dictators, for the need of repression, because Mesopotamia encompasses several ethnic groups that have been in conflict with each other: Kurds in the Kurdish mountains to the north, Sunnis in central Mesopotamia, Shi’ites in South Mesopotamia.

These three warring groups, [and] the fact that it’s right angled to invasion routes, is one of the reasons why we’ve had a string of dictators in Mesopotamia, starting in 1958 [and] leading up to Saddam Hussein in the late 1960s, who have been particularly harsh.

RFE/RL: Explain what you mean when you say that Afghanistan and Pakistan’s geography binds them together?

Kaplan: Afghanistan and Pakistan share the same fate. That’s because there’s no real natural border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes, Afghanistan more or less sits on high desert tableland, Pakistan is home to the steamy lowland Indus River valley. But the descent from the high tableland to the Indus River is so gradual that there is no really hard and fast border.

So borders [are] artificial and because of their artificiality, it’s very hard to police them. And in addition, you have the Pashtuns, a great Indo-Islamic people who live in large numbers on both sides of the border, not just on one side of the border — making the border more artificial still. So the goal to kind of separate Afghanistan from Pakistan and create two well-functioning states has been and will be very hard to achieve.

RFE/RL: How hard? How does the course of events in their shared past inform what you see happening in their shared future, especially after the international forces withdraw from Afghanistan?

Kaplan: If you look at the map of Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, what you see is that there is a real border not on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier but in the middle of Afghanistan itself.

And that border is the Hindu Kush Mountains. To the north of the Hindu Kush are the Tajiks and Uzbeks. To the south are the Pashtuns.

In the north, in northern Afghanistan, among Tajiks and Uzbeks and Turkmen, you have more or less peace.  nYou have increasing trade and human contacts with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the north.

In other words, a kind of greater Tajikistan, greater Uzbekistan may gradually form in the future, even as the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan intermingle increasingly with the Pashtuns on the other side of the border inside Pakistan.

So the Afghan and Pakistani states may fade in terms of their identity and we may see like overlapping regions take hold. As the United States leaves, there will have to be some sort of dialogue, or conflict, between India and Pakistan, because India requires a non-hostile Afghanistan. So this area will be in turbulence for many years to come.

RFE/RL: What about America’s geographic position – you say it has benefited immensely from its two oceans.

Kaplan: Americans like to think they’re a great people because of who they are, because they’re a great democracy. But I would argue that Americans are a great people also because of where they happen to live: in the last, large, resource-rich part of the temperate zone. Not only that, but it’s a large swath of the temperate zone, with great inland waterways that,  rather than the rivers in Russia — which divide Russia because they flow north to south, [or] north, rather than east to west.

The waterways in the United States unite the continent from east to west. To the north, the U.S. is protected by the Canadian Arctic. There’s of course, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which make the U.S. a virtual island, give it protection, but also clear pathways to trade with Europe and East Asia.

The only problem the U.S. has with its geography is the threat of Mexican demography to the south. The border with Mexico is fairly artificial. You’re dealing with a border between a First World country and a Third World country. You have Latinos on both sides of the border – many of the cities on the U.S. side of the border have large Hispanic populations — so it’s the future of Mexico, which on the one hand is one of the largest economies in the world, [and] on the other hand, is undermined by drug violence and drug cartels — it’s the future of Mexico that will help determine the future of the United States. The future of the United States may have a north-south orientation rather than the east-west, sea-to-shining-sea of patriotic myth orientation.

RFE/RL: You call Iran “the ancient world’s first super power” because of its locational advantage and its identity. What does that mean?

Kaplan: The Iranian state configures perfectly with the Iranian plateau. This sounds obvious, but actually, it’s not. It’s an unusual circumstance. Saudi Arabia does not configure with the Arabian Peninsula — there are many other states on the Arabian Peninsula, too. Syria is artificial, Libya is artificial. There is nothing artificial about Iran. It’s the state on the Iranian plateau. And that plateau has to its north the Caspian Basin with all the oil and natural gas, and to the south, the Persian Gulf, with all the oil. So that the Iranian state, with the plateau, straddles the two great oil producing regions of the greater Middle East. To Iran’s north and east, all the roads are open to Central Asia — no other Middle East state can say that. And to the west, all roads are open to Mesopotamia, to Iraq. So it’s a formidable geographical position.

And from that formidable and natural geographical position, Iran has developed, over the millennia, a great culture and great civilizations and empires. From the Medes, to the Parthians, to the Achaemenids, to the Sassanids, culminating presently with the Ayatollahs.

The problem with the Ayatollahs [is that] — whereas previous Iranian civilizations have been culturally rich, eclectic, open minded, voluptuous even – this is a very lowering, oppressive, violence-prone reincarnation of former Iranian empires of old. It rules by suicide bombers and terrorists from the Mediterranean to western Afghanistan, and as I write in my book, it’s this lowering quality of the present Iranian regime which both announces its limitations and will signal its eventual downfall.

RFE/RL: What do you want readers of your book to come away with – what should they think about the geographic location of nations and fate, what has already happened because of that, and what might happen next?

Kaplan: The reader should come away [from] reading this book with the idea that geography is extremely important. Geography imposes constraints. It imposes limits to our behavior.

But as formidable as these limits are, there is still more than enough room for self-willed individuals, for human agency, to improve the world, to settle crises. In other words, it’s only by recognizing the limits, and what is arrayed against you, that you can then take action to overcome it.

This book shows you everything we need to overcome, but leaves the reader with hope — that the lessons of geography should ultimately lead leaders to try to achieve a balance of power, and it’s from a proper balance of power that freedom and civil society can be extended.

Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. Originally posted here.

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