BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Not the end of history but the return of history
, December 21, 2013
THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY:
What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate
by Robert D. Kaplan
(New York: Random House)
Hardcover: 432 pages
Reviewed by Warren Reed
Robert Kaplan, the renowned American author and commentator, was named among the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by ForeignPolicy magazine in 2011, and this latest book confirms why that should be so.
A glance through the titles of the 14 books he has written shows how The Revenge of Geography is not only part of a logical progression in thematic terms but yet another product of years of on-site observation and experience, coupled with a remarkable capacity for thought, extrapolation and analysis. Some of his best-known works, such as Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History and Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, illustrate this eminently well.
Many an expert on geopolitics paints on a broad canvas to provide a sweeping overview; but few can maintain their own focus on detail, let alone that of the reader, at the same time. Kaplan is a master of the art, which is why his books are such a delight to read.
In the way that a brief analogy can speak louder than a thousand words, Kaplan’s frequent on-the-ground and earthy anecdotes do the same. This is why, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, he offers us a revelatory new prism through which to view global upheavals and to understand what lies ahead for continents and countries around the world. And he does this in an informative and entertaining way.
Here’s one picture painted early on: “Travelling eastward, Europe had evaporated in stages before my eyes, and the natural border of the Caspian Sea had indicated the last stage, heralding the Kara Kum Desert. Of course, geography does not demonstrate Turkmenistan’s hopelessness. Rather, it signifies only the beginning of wisdom in the search for a historical pattern: one of repeated invasions by Parthians, Mongols, Persians, czarist Russians, Soviets, and a plethora of Turkic tribes against a naked and unprotected landscape. There was the barest existence of a civilisation because none was allowed to permanently sink deep roots, and this helps explain my first impression of the place.”
Moving on to one of the world’s worrying flashpoints, Kaplan describes his journey — and realisations — evocatively, some sentences resembling Japanese tanka: “Lifts of cooler air penetrated the bus — my first fresh taste of the mountains after the gauzy heat film of Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. By themselves, the dimensions of the Khyber Pass are not impressive. The highest peak is under seven thousand feet and the rise is rarely steep.
“Nevertheless, in under an hour in 1987, I was transported through a confined, volcanic netherworld of crags and winding canyons; from the lush, tropical floor of the Indian Subcontinent to the cool, tonsured wastes of middle Asia; from a world of black soil, bold fabrics, and rich, spicy cuisine to one of sand, coarse wool, and goat meat.”
Having provided the imagery, Kaplan typically continues, quickly focusing on the nub of today’s geopolitical issue: “But like the Carpathians, whose passes were penetrated by traders, geography on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has different lessons to offer: for what the British were first to call the ‘North-West Frontier’ was ‘historically no frontier at all’, according to Harvard professor Sugata Bose, ‘but the heart’ of an ‘Indo-Persian’ and ‘Indo-Islamic’ continuum, the reason why Afghanistan and Pakistan form an organic whole, contributing to their geographical incoherence as separate states.”
He returns to this region later in the book, highlighting the fact that Indian decision-makers are not anti-Muslim. After all, India is home to 154 million Muslims, the third largest such population after Indonesia and Pakistan itself. India has had three Muslim presidents and is a secular democracy by virtue of the fact that it has sought to escape from the politics of religion in order to heal the Hindu-Muslim divide in a predominantly Hindu state. Pakistan, as an Islamic republic, to say nothing of its radical elements, is in some ways an affront to the very liberal fundamentals on which India is based.
Kaplan continues: “The fact that India’s fear of Pakistan — and vice versa — is existential should not surprise anyone. Of course, India could defeat Pakistan in a conventional war. But in a nuclear exchange, or a war by terrorism, Pakistan could achieve a parity of sorts with India. And it goes beyond that: since it isn’t only Pakistan that encompasses, after a fashion, the threat of another Mughal onslaught without the Mughals’ redeeming cosmopolitanism; it is Afghanistan, too. For as we know, the border separating Pakistan and Afghanistan is largely a mirage, both today and in history … it is utterly porous. Of all the times I crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, I never did so legally.”
Kaplan’s engaging capacity to meld his own keen appreciation of history with the observations of other historians, and then to blend all this with geography is all through his book. This is no better so than when he turns to Germany. Occupying the heart of Europe between the North and Baltic seas and the Alps, the Germans, according to the historian Golo Mann, have always been a dynamic force locked up in a ‘big prison’, wanting to break out. But with the north and south blocked by water and mountains, outward meant east and west, where there was no geographical impediment. ‘What has characterised the German nature for a hundred years is its lack of form, its unreliability,’ writes Mann, referring to the turbulent period from the 1860s to the 1960s, marked by Otto von Bismarck’s expansion and the two world wars. But the same could also be said for Germany’s size and shape on the map throughout its history.”
Kaplan’s own point then drives home the message: “Indeed, the First Reich, founded by Charlemagne in 800, was a shifting blob of territory that, at one time or another, encompassed Austria and parts of Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Italy and Yugoslavia. Europe seemed destined to be ruled from what now corresponds with Germany. But then came Martin Luther, who split Western Christianity with the Reformation, which, in turn, ignited the Thirty Years’ War, fought primarily on German soil. Hence, Central Europe was ravished. The more I read — about the eighteenth-century dualism between Prussia and Habsburg Austria, about the early nineteenth-century tariff union between the various German states, and Bismarck’s late nineteenth-century Prussian-based unification — the more it became apparent that the Berlin Wall was just another stage in this continuing process of territorial transformation.”
This is followed by the defining observation that, “The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map. Thus, in times of upheaval maps rise in importance. With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map, though not determinative, is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next.”
Kishore Mahbubani, the prominent Singaporean analyst of global events, sums up this work in his cover blurb: “Geography is destiny. This is well known. History, too, is destiny. Sadly, few notice that the twenty-first century will not see the end of history but the return of history. Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography describes well how many old fault lines will once again reemerge. Kaplan bravely writes, ‘America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization’. Why, then, have American strategic thinkers failed to anticipate the real challenges America will face? Kaplan’s book provides a valuable wake-up call for them.”
Few books that cover the broad sweep of human history could do so in such a digestible and palatable way. Kaplan as ever, provides much food for thought.
Warren Reed spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), serving in Asia and the Middle East, following which he was chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA)