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Dr. Chodakiewicz discusses Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography

Robert Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography, was the subject of a lecture with Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz on November 28. The event was part of an ongoing series of presentations on the Intermarium region, on which Dr. Chodakiewicz has just published a monograph.

The text of Dr. Chodakiewicz’s lecture appears below.

Mugged by Geography

An old saw has it that a neo-conservative is a liberal mugged by reality. And, to paraphrase, a neo-conservative becomes a realist because he is mugged by geography. When? It happens soon after “the end of history” in the wake of 1989, rendering geography allegedly obsolete with a little help from modern technology. And so the airpower of Gulf War One putatively liberates us from the shackles of distance and terrain. But then the Balkans blow up and the Twin Towers collapse. We are back in Iraq after 9/11 and “it is surely wrong to suggest that physical terrain no longer mattered” (p. 22). Suddenly, geography is back with a vengeance. “Geography constitutes the very facts about international affairs that are so basic we take them for granted” (p. 30). And it is our permanent thing in the battle for power. “Geopolitics and the competition for ‘space’ is eternal” (p. 88). The objective now is therefore “to have an appreciation of the map so that, counterintuitively, we need not always be bounded by it” (p. 29) for “I wish to argue for a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy, a zeal of which I myself have been guilty” (p. 36).

Thus, the newly minted realist develops a vision. A global “Mittleeuropa writ large” shall arise, “an ideal of tolerance and high civilization,” according to a liberal dream of Friedrich List and Timothy Garton Ash (p. 11). This will be apparently a worldwide community of liberal democracy triumphant, not to be confused with an artificial construct like “the super-state of the European Union [which] has only abstract meaning to all but the elite” (p. 48). Meanwhile, the United States shall continue to fade. No longer a hegemonic hyperpower, America can continue to dominate regionally, but only if it “fixes” Mexico. Yet, even if it avoids a calamitous ending, it shall dissolve into a federation of gargantuan city-states, horizontally integrating the union and, thus, maintaining the balance of power in Eurasia. “A world balanced is a world free” (p. 346). Yet, “the world will be both duller and more dangerous than ever before” (p. 128). This, at least, is the latest geopolitical vision of the globetrotting declineist Robert Kaplan. An aspiring master of a “closed system” (p. 73), the author conceptualizes the globe as a single cohesive unit. It is a tempting simplification, but no, thanks, in particular if it leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of America’s collapse.

Granted, all things human end. America will too. But its demise is far off. And so is Kaplan’s prediction. Or is it? Ultimately, the Lord only knows. But, perhaps, others can divine with some accuracy. Thus, the author treats us to Mackinder, Mahan, Ratzel, Spykman, Strausz-Hupé, and a whole parade of other strategic giants long forgotten, undeservedly, because of the association of their grand schemes with sexy intellectual fashions of yore, now recognized as noxious determinism, militarism, racism, social Darwinism, and so forth. Yet, let us remember that “geography informs, rather than determines. Geography, therefore, is not synonymous with fatalism. But it is, like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on – and instigator of – the actions of states” (p. 29). Both globalization and localism are the context. They influence one another, while the former also triggers both “conflict and cooperation” (p. 102). Further Kaplan ably marries the awesome geostrategists with the encyclopedic scholars of comparative civilizations like Toynbee, Hodgson, Lewis, and Huntington. By clinging fast to his belief in the individual’s free will, the author distills their teachings to stress that “of course, geography, history, and ethnic characteristics influence but do not determine future events” (p. 36). 

Qualifying his analysis thus, the modern-day neo-geostrategist makes a strong case for the utility of geopolitics in prognostication. This applies both to short and long term predictions. The former, of course, sound more plausible than the latter. It is the present and not the future that Kaplan describes when he paints vividly the menacing specter of global chaos as Third World countries, in Asia in particular, go nuclear and more nationalistic. They suffer from the “crisis of room” (p. 115). Thus, they are prone to push against each other. It is “a world of crowded megacities” and soon “a world of multidimensional brinkmanship” as nuclear crises proliferate profligately (p. 119). These areas already heave with underage males prone to radical ideologies and easily mobilized through the new media for transnational causes, religious (Islamic) fundamentalism in particular. In the future, Kaplan promises more of the same but even more intense. Asia will become a battlefield of the 21st century, just as Europe was until the mid-20th century. And “the megacity will be at the heart of twenty-first-century geography” (p. 120).

The predictions are vividly grim: “A Eurasia and North Africa of vast, urban concentrations, overlapping missile ranges, and sensational global media will be one of constantly enraged crowds, fed by rumors and half-truth transported at the speed of light by satellite channels across the rimlands and heartland expanse, from one Third World city to another. Conversely, the crowd, empowered by social media like Twitter and Facebook, will also be fed by the very truth that autocratic rulers have denied it… In other words, politics in the mass media age will be more intense than anything we have experienced, because the past and future will have been obliterated… It is in the megacities of Eurasia principally where crowd psychology will have its greatest geopolitical impact” (p. 122-123).  Crisis management will be a daily pursuit: “With civilizations densely packed one against the other, and the media a vehicle for constant verbal outrages, as well as for popular pressure from oppressed groups, the need for quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy will never be greater. One crisis will flow into the next, and there will be perennial need for everyone to calm down” (p. 127).

Operating with bold strokes of a global brush, Kaplan is predictably and overly kind to the mighty. China grapples eternally with the dilemma of core vs. periphery; so does Russia.  Both are vulnerable to foreign attack.  In this telling, Chinese and Russian imperialisms are mere functions of self-defense. All those foreign invasions warrant expansion. Really? How many invasions has “Russia” experienced in the past 800 years in comparison to, say, Poland? A hundred times fewer, Moscow has. “A legacy of depredations against Russia” should be taken with a generous grain of salt, except by the Mongol Empire, Napoleonic France, and the Third Reich (p. 150). That is three serious incursions in 800 years. The same osmotic logic prompts the author to embrace other aspects of imperial propaganda. In particular, Kaplan accepts everything that Moscow dubs “Russia,” including historical places like Rus’. Ukraine anyone? It is pivotal only at present as an intended, and inevitable, victim of the reintegrating post-Soviet behemoth operating out of the Kremlin.  “Now Russia, greatly reduced in size, tries to reconsolidate that same Heartland – Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia” (p. 78). At least Kaplan got this reintegrating post-Soviet drive precisely right, despite the tendency to take at face value the standard trope of Russian imperialist apologetics.

Unlike Stratfor’s George Friedman, Kaplan strangely has no room for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Is it because it would undermine his Moscow-centric paradigm of Eurasia? The Commonwealth is arguably European history’s greatest secret and should be listed in the same breath with “the legacies of Prussian, Habsburg, and Byzantine and Ottoman rules [which] are still relevant” (p. 146). At least the author has a soft spot for the western post-Soviet zone. “The degree to which Central and Eastern Europe can develop a belt of prosperous and stable states from the ashes of communism will go a long way to protect Europe from Russia, and, in the process, convert the dream of a revived Mitteleuropa into reality: a dream that liberal intellectuals actually share with Mackinder” (p. 136).

Yet, the Mittleeuropa does not really exist in the Mackinderian scheme of things. Someone must control “the geographic pivot of history” so the barbarians from the East would not pour into Europe. Too bad it has to be Russia, but better the Muscovite state than “the yellow peril.” Albeit unattractive, Russia is thus indispensible in Mackinder’s geopolitical imagination. “In short, strategically speaking, there is ‘no space’ for Central Europe” (p. 9). It is an artificial construct, a springboard toward a Haushoferian Lebensraum or a causeway from Asia into Europe proper, which, in itself, is just an Asian peninsula jutting toward the Atlantic Ocean. What is Europe then? It is a map in flux. It is constructed on the basis of Charlemagne’s ancient realm in the West, encompassing the post-Soviet zone and even North Africa, with power increasingly shifting to Berlin. The mighty rule.

Yet, the dwarves of the world are not helpless. Kaplan rejects geographic determinism and fatalism with this valuable piece of advice: “A small state in the midst of adversaries, such as Israel, has to be particularly passive, or particularly aggressive, in order to survive. It is primarily a matter of geography” (p. 34). Anyone listening between Berlin and Moscow? The same applies to “the power of statelessness” (p. 126). According to the author, “small stateless groups are beneficiaries of this new age of technology” of death (p. 126-127).

Still, one rejoices that this influential neo-conservative realist restores geography to its rightful place of permanence in the global calculus of power. “Geography offers a way to make at least some sense of it all” (p. xxii). And: “Just as geography is not an explanation for everything, neither is it a solution. Geography is merely the unchanging backdrop against which the battle of ideas plays out” (p. 177). Those who ignore geography do so at their peril. But the journalist qualifies this common sense observation by allowing that “the revenge of geography” is balanced by “the defeat of geography” by technology (transport and communication revolutions in particular). Geography remains relevant but not omnipotent. Thus, in this telling, geography serves as a reality check on our designs and actions, rather than a fatalistic determinant. Impersonal forces of geography rule. But they do not rule supreme.

It is a pleasure to read Kaplan if only to revisit thinkers too long out of favor. Naturally, one cringes at some of his sentiments. For example, “there are things worse than communism,” he deadpans, “and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves” (p. 21). This was not the author’s preference of Stalin over Saddam, one should hope, but, rather, an awkwardly phrased confession of his appreciation for order over chaos. Yet, if chaos is counter-revolutionary, then it is better than any Communist totalitarian order which is an order of the prison, if not an outright order of the grave, as Angelo Codevilla would remark. This applies to all totalitarian regimes: For a Jew, chaos under Nazism meant hope of survival; order spelled death. One derives such knowledge from a posteriori inquiries, the essence of conservatism. We are delighted that Robert Kaplan’s experience has been a corrective on his original liberal ideology. Now that the neo-geopolitician has been mugged by geography, perhaps he can be encouraged to delve into First Things, which are at the root of our understanding of the universe, including geography.

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).

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 14 November 2012