Port Goss is slack-jawed.

Umm, gee, what did you really expect? That Pelosi is going to tell the truth?
I'm going to fisk this.

When rapturous Germans tore down the Berlin Wall 20 years ago it symbolized far more than the overcoming of an arbitrary boundary. It began an intellectual cycle that saw all divisions, geographic and otherwise, as surmountable; that referred to “realism” and “pragmatism” only as pejoratives; and that invoked the humanism of Isaiah Berlin or the appeasement of Hitler at Munich to launch one international intervention after the next. In this way, the armed liberalism and the democracy-promoting neoconservatism of the 1990s shared the same universalist aspirations. But alas, when a fear of Munich leads to overreach the result is Vietnam—or in the current case, Iraq.

--Ok, it's going to be the "imperial overreach" narrative. Sorry. Been done before. Anybody remember Paul Kennedy's "Rise and Fall of Great Powers"? And how exactly did that work out?

And thus began the rehabilitation of realism, and with it another intellectual cycle. “Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich. Thomas Hobbes, who extolled the moral benefits of fear and saw anarchy as the chief threat to society, has elbowed out Isaiah Berlin as the philosopher of the present cycle. The focus now is less on universal ideals than particular distinctions, from ethnicity to culture to religion. Those who pointed this out a decade ago were sneered at for being “fatalists” or “determinists.” Now they are applauded as “pragmatists.” And this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

--"neocon" was always an epithet. And over used. And notice this: Kaplan has just stated that he'd have rather that Saddam Hussien been left in power. Well. If there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, I don't know what that might be, and you know what? A fucktard like Kaplan doesn't either. It is a stupid construction and AT BEST, Kaplan is arguing for isolationism. And how did that work out in the past?

So now, chastened, we have all become realists. Or so we believe. But realism is about more than merely opposing a war in Iraq that we know from hindsight turned out badly. Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom? And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

--Who is this "we" white boy? And again. Look at words. Say them out loud: "...valuing order above freedom..." Just say it again. out loud. What a turd. Typical Us middle-class-liberal smug superiority. Obviously those WOGs can't govern themselves, can they? They're all stuck in a rut and will stay there forever, right? As I said, twaddle.

Indeed, what is at work in the recent return of realism is the revenge of geography in the most old-fashioned sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of political science as an academic specialty, geography was an honored, if not always formalized, discipline in which politics, culture, and economics were often conceived of in reference to the relief map. Thus, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.

--Geography was no such thing. I've dug through stuff on Mercator and his contemporaries, and the phrase "politics, culture, and economics were concieved of in reference to the relief map" is garbage. I'll say it again: GARBAGE. I could go into an essay on the mercantile economics of the age of exploration, but I would just bore people, (and I'd have to go look up a bunch of stuff, too) But make no mistake, Kaplan doesn't know what he's talking about here.

And yet, to embrace geography is not to accept it as an implacable force against which humankind is powerless. Rather, it serves to qualify human freedom and choice with a modest acceptance of fate. This is all the more important today, because rather than eliminating the relevance of geography, globalization is reinforcing it. Mass communications and economic integration are weakening many states, exposing a Hobbesian world of small, fractious regions. Within them, local, ethnic, and religious sources of identity are reasserting themselves, and because they are anchored to specific terrains, they are best explained by reference to geography. Like the faults that determine earthquakes, the political future will be defined by conflict and instability with a similar geographic logic. The upheaval spawned by the ongoing economic crisis is increasing the relevance of geography even further, by weakening social orders and other creations of humankind, leaving the natural frontiers of the globe as the only restraint.

--It's not globalization that is weakening states. It's crappy governments that can no longer deliver (if they ever could) the good governance that keeps people happy. Technology, mainly through communication, is an agent too, because if governments could control what people see and hear, you can bet they'd do it in a New York minute.

So we, too, need to return to the map, and particularly to what I call the “shatter zones” of Eurasia. We need to reclaim those thinkers who knew the landscape best. And we need to update their theories for the revenge of geography in our time.

--Nobody "knew" Eurasia.

If you want to understand the insights of geography, you need to seek out those thinkers who make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy—those authors who thought the map determined nearly everything, leaving little room for human agency.

One such person is the French historian Fernand Braudel, who in 1949 published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. By bringing demography and nature itself into history, Braudel helped restore geography to its proper place. In his narrative, permanent environmental forces lead to enduring historical trends that preordain political events and regional wars. To Braudel, for example, the poor, precarious soils along the Mediterranean, combined with an uncertain, drought-afflicted climate, spurred ancient Greek and Roman conquest. In other words, we delude ourselves by thinking that we control our own destinies. To understand the present challenges of climate change, warming Arctic seas, and the scarcity of resources such as oil and water, we must reclaim Braudel’s environmental interpretation of events.

--I've read Bruadel, in fact I have his "Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century" (in 3 volumes) on my bookshelf, and if there is one thing to take away from that, it is that people do stuff and it has consequences. People. Not mountains or rivers, people.

So, too, must we reexamine the blue-water strategizing of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval captain and author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Viewing the sea as the great “commons” of civilization, Mahan thought that naval power had always been the decisive factor in global political struggles. It was Mahan who, in 1902, coined the term “Middle East” to denote the area between Arabia and India that held particular importance for naval strategy. Indeed, Mahan saw the Indian and Pacific oceans as the hinges of geopolitical destiny, for they would allow a maritime nation to project power all around the Eurasian rim and thereby affect political developments deep into Central Asia. Mahan’s thinking helps to explain why the Indian Ocean will be the heart of geopolitical competition in the 21st century—and why his books are now all the rage among Chinese and Indian strategists.

--Mahan has to be read within the context of his time, is bordering on irrelevant in the present age.

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

--??? Well, first of all, there isn't any "integrated European power" that I'm aware of, and second, who says that the US and China are foredoomed to fight each other?

But perhaps the most significant guide to the revenge of geography is the father of modern geopolitics himself—Sir Halford J. Mackinder—who is famous not for a book but a single article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which began as a 1904 lecture to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Mackinder’s work is the archetype of the geographical discipline, and he summarizes its theme nicely: “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.”

His thesis is that Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia are the “pivot” around which the fate of world empire revolves. He would refer to this area of Eurasia as the “heartland” in a later book. Surrounding it are four “marginal” regions of the Eurasian landmass that correspond, not coincidentally, to the four great religions, because faith, too, is merely a function of geography for Mackinder. There are two “monsoon lands”: one in the east generally facing the Pacific Ocean, the home of Buddhism; the other in the south facing the Indian Ocean, the home of Hinduism. The third marginal region is Europe, watered by the Atlantic to the west and the home of Christianity. But the most fragile of the four marginal regions is the Middle East, home of Islam, “deprived of moisture by the proximity of Africa” and for the most part “thinly peopled” (in 1904, that is).

--Makinder is so "Great Game" it's not funny, and it is absolutely amazing to me that Kaplan misses the connection with the British Empire in 1904. This the "World Island" idea, that somehow everything revolves around central Asia, when in fact it's a big empty place where nobody wants to live. (or they'd be living there already).

This Eurasian relief map, and the events playing out on it at the dawn of the 20th century, are Mackinder’s subject, and the opening sentence presages its grand sweep:

When historians in the remote future come to look back on the group of centuries through which we are now passing, and see them fore-shortened, as we to-day see the Egyptian dynasties, it may well be that they will describe the last 400 years as the Columbian epoch, and will say that it ended soon after the year 1900.

Mackinder explains that, while medieval Christendom was “pent into a narrow region and threatened by external barbarism,” the Columbian age—the Age of Discovery—saw Europe expand across the oceans to new lands. Thus at the turn of the 20th century, “we shall again have to deal with a closed political system,” and this time one of “world-wide scope.”

Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will [henceforth] be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.

--So, the answer to this is to let "extreme tyranny" go on it's merry way? I'm not getting this now. If it's a closed system and so on, then constant management or intervention will be absolutely necessary to keep it from failing.

By perceiving that European empires had no more room to expand, thereby making their conflicts global, Mackinder foresaw, however vaguely, the scope of both world wars.

Mackinder looked at European history as “subordinate” to that of Asia, for he saw European civilization as merely the outcome of the struggle against Asiatic invasion. Europe, he writes, became the cultural phenomenon it is only because of its geography: an intricate array of mountains, valleys, and peninsulas; bounded by northern ice and a western ocean; blocked by seas and the Sahara to the south; and set against the immense, threatening flatland of Russia to the east. Into this confined landscape poured a succession of nomadic, Asian invaders from the naked steppe. The union of Franks, Goths, and Roman provincials against these invaders produced the basis for modern France. Likewise, other European powers originated, or at least matured, through their encounters with Asian nomads. Indeed, it was the Seljuk Turks’ supposed ill treatment of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem that ostensibly led to the Crusades, which Mackinder considers the beginning of Europe’s collective modern history.

--Right. 1904. "YELLOW PERIL" Oh noes! C'mon. (hey what else happened in 1904?)Hmm...No. Europe's 'collective' modern history starts with the age of exploration, and the conquering of the rest of the planet by Europeans. You know, the battle of Chalons wasn't a decisive battle, really because even if Aetius had lost it, Attila's empire would have come apart anyway when he dropped dead 3 years later. The battle of Tours is probably a bit more important.

Russia, meanwhile, though protected by forest glades against many a rampaging host, nevertheless fell prey in the 13th century to the Golden Horde of the Mongols. These invaders decimated and subsequently changed Russia. But because most of Europe knew no such level of destruction, it was able to emerge as the world’s political cockpit, while Russia was largely denied access to the European Renaissance. The ultimate land-based empire, with few natural barriers against invasion, Russia would know forevermore what it was like to be brutally conquered. As a result, it would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory.

--Again, "Great Game" thinking, which really doesn't apply anymore.

Key discoveries of the Columbian epoch, Mackinder writes, only reinforced the cruel facts of geography. In the Middle Ages, the peoples of Europe were largely confined to the land. But when the sea route to India was found around the Cape of Good Hope, Europeans suddenly had access to the entire rimland of southern Asia, to say nothing of strategic discoveries in the New World. While Western Europeans “covered the ocean with their fleets,” Mackinder tells us, Russia was expanding equally impressively on land, “emerging from her northern forests” to police the steppe with her Cossacks, sweeping into Siberia, and sending peasants to sow the southwestern steppe with wheat. It was an old story: Europe versus Russia, a liberal sea power (like Athens and Venice) against a reactionary land power (like Sparta and Prussia). For the sea, beyond the cosmopolitan influences it bestows by virtue of access to distant harbors, provides the inviolate border security that democracy needs to take root.

--"Police the steppes" that's actually pretty funny. Subjugate, maybe. Oh, this is funnier: "For the sea...inviolate border security that democracy needs to take root." Oh really? Really now? Explain the Dutch republic. Explain why South America didn't develop the same way North America did. Ask the Irish about the English Republic.

In the 19th century, Mackinder notes, the advent of steam engines and the creation of the Suez Canal increased the mobility of European sea power around the southern rim of Eurasia, just as railways were beginning to do the same for land power in the Eurasian heartland. So the struggle was set for the mastery of Eurasia, bringing Mackinder to his thesis:

As we consider this rapid review of the broader currents of history, does not a certain persistence of geographical relationship become evident? Is not the pivot region of the world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?

This is so wrong. The only reason anybody cares about the middle east right now is Oil. And while that is an accident of geography, Eurasia didn't get covered with a network of railways, and basically still considered "back of beyond".

Just as the Mongols banged at, and often broke down, the gates to the marginal regions surrounding Eurasia, Russia would now play the same conquering role, for as Mackinder writes, “the geographical quantities in the calculation are more measurable and more nearly constant than the human.” Forget the czars and the commissars-yet-to-be in 1904; they are but trivia compared with the deeper tectonic forces of geography.

Mackinder’s determinism prepared us for the rise of the Soviet Union and its vast zone of influence in the second half of the 20th century, as well as for the two world wars preceding it. After all, as historian Paul Kennedy notes, these conflicts were struggles over Mackinder’s “marginal” regions, running from Eastern Europe to the Himalayas and beyond. Cold War containment strategy, moreover, depended heavily on rimland bases across the greater Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the U.S. projection of power into Afghanistan and Iraq, and today’s tensions with Russia over the political fate of Central Asia and the Caucasus have only bolstered Mackinder’s thesis. In his article’s last paragraph, Mackinder even raises the specter of Chinese conquests of the “pivot” area, which would make China the dominant geopolitical power. Look at how Chinese migrants are now demographically claiming parts of Siberia as Russia’s political control of its eastern reaches is being strained. One can envision Mackinder’s being right yet again.

--Heh. Paul Kennedy. Heh. Again, this analysis fails. During the cold war, South Asia was one big hole with little or no presence by US forces. Hell, the base at Diego Garcia wasn't even started until after 1971. Think about that. And it basically had no influence on the outcome of the coldwar. And if Saddam Hussien hadn't been the extreme tyrant that he was, the US would still not be in the area. Think about that too.

The wisdom of geographical determinism endures across the chasm of a century because it recognizes that the most profound struggles of humanity are not about ideas but about control over territory, specifically the heartland and rimlands of Eurasia.

--(sound of buzzer) Thanks for playing. In a word, no. While the Pashtuns are still trying to coalesce into a nation, nobody else outside of the Palestinians and Israelis are active trying to take over anybody else's territory.

Of course, ideas matter,

No shit, Sherlock. Absent the idea of Islam, what would really be the issue in the middle east?

and they span geography. And yet there is a certain geographic logic to where certain ideas take hold. Communist Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and North Korea were all contiguous to the great land power of the Soviet Union. Classic fascism was a predominantly European affair. And liberalism nurtured its deepest roots in the United States and Great Britain, essentially island nations and sea powers both. Such determinism is easy to hate but hard to dismiss.

--Culture might have something to do with it, too! Stuff like this is easy to write, when one doesn't really understand history; it is, as I have said, twaddle.

To discern where the battle of ideas will lead, we must revise Mackinder for our time. After all, Mackinder could not foresee how a century’s worth of change would redefine—and enhance—the importance of geography in today’s world. One author who did is Yale University professor Paul Bracken, who in 1999 published Fire in the East. Bracken draws a conceptual map of Eurasia defined by the collapse of time and distance and the filling of empty spaces. This idea leads him to declare a “crisis of room.” In the past, sparsely populated geography acted as a safety mechanism. Yet this is no longer the case, Bracken argues, for as empty space increasingly disappears, the very “finite size of the earth” becomes a force for instability. And as I learned at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, “attrition of the same adds up to big change.”

--What? What spaces are filling up? Haven't people actually been talking about population decline recently? This is a problem in search of a problem.

One force that is shrinking the map of Eurasia is technology, particularly the military applications of it and the rising power it confers on states. In the early Cold War, Asian militaries were mostly lumbering, heavy forces whose primary purpose was national consolidation. They focused inward. But as national wealth accumulated and the computer revolution took hold, Asian militaries from the oil-rich Middle East to the tiger economies of the Pacific developed full-fledged, military-civilian postindustrial complexes, with missiles and fiber optics and satellite phones. These states also became bureaucratically more cohesive, allowing their militaries to focus outward, toward other states. Geography in Eurasia, rather than a cushion, was becoming a prison from which there was no escape.

--This really makes no sense. And despite the toys that everybody has bought, I have yet to see anybody (besides the USA) actually fight a war with them. I think people are going to be surprised at the ineffectiveness of these prestige weapon systems in the future.

Now there is an “unbroken belt of countries,” in Bracken’s words, from Israel to North Korea, which are developing ballistic missiles and destructive arsenals. A map of these countries’ missile ranges shows a series of overlapping circles: Not only is no one safe, but a 1914-style chain reaction leading to wider war is easily conceivable. “The spread of missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Asia is like the spread of the six-shooter in the American Old West,” Bracken writes—a cheap, deadly equalizer of states.

--If the technology works, which so far, has not really been the case. Boy them scuds really did a lot of damage didn't they?

The other force driving the revenge of geography is population growth, which makes the map of Eurasia more claustrophobic still. In the 1990s, many intellectuals viewed the 18th-century English philosopher Thomas Malthus as an overly deterministic thinker because he treated humankind as a species reacting to its physical environment, not a body of autonomous individuals. But as the years pass, and world food and energy prices fluctuate, Malthus is getting more respect. If you wander through the slums of Karachi or Gaza, which wall off multitudes of angry lumpen faithful—young men mostly—one can easily see the conflicts over scarce resources that Malthus predicted coming to pass. In three decades covering the Middle East, I have watched it evolve from a largely rural society to a realm of teeming megacities. In the next 20 years, the Arab world’s population will nearly double while supplies of groundwater will diminish.

--one word: desalinization. Yawn. And population 'doubling' in the next 20 years is problematic at best. We were all supposed to starve in the 1970's too.

A Eurasia of vast urban areas, overlapping missile ranges, and sensational media will be one of constantly enraged crowds, fed by rumors transported at the speed of light from one Third World megalopolis to another. So in addition to Malthus, we will also hear much about Elias Canetti, the 20th-century philosopher of crowd psychology: the phenomenon of a mass of people abandoning their individuality for an intoxicating collective symbol. It is in the cities of Eurasia principally where crowd psychology will have its greatest geopolitical impact. Alas, ideas do matter. And it is the very compression of geography that will provide optimum breeding grounds for dangerous ideologies and channels for them to spread.

--Oh, so the WOGs can't behave themselves eh? Better not let any immigrate here then, right?

All of this requires major revisions to Mackinder’s theories of geopolitics. For as the map of Eurasia shrinks and fills up with people, it not only obliterates the artificial regions of area studies; it also erases Mackinder’s division of Eurasia into a specific “pivot” and adjacent “marginal” zones. Military assistance from China and North Korea to Iran can cause Israel to take military actions. The U.S. Air Force can attack landlocked Afghanistan from Diego Garcia, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The Chinese and Indian navies can project power from the Gulf of Aden to the South China Sea—out of their own regions and along the whole rimland. In short, contra Mackinder, Eurasia has been reconfigured into an organic whole.

--Oh wait, so geography isn't that important after all? Ultimately, this is just another version of the "yellow peril" dressed up a bit for liberal sensibilities, but at the heart of it, Kaplan is of that ilk that thinks men have to ruled with an iron fist, because they don't know what's good for them.

The map’s new seamlessness can be seen in the Pakistani outpost of Gwadar. There, on the Indian Ocean, near the Iranian border, the Chinese have constructed a spanking new deep-water port. Land prices are booming, and people talk of this still sleepy fishing village as the next Dubai, which may one day link towns in Central Asia to the burgeoning middle-class fleshpots of India and China through pipelines, supertankers, and the Strait of Malacca. The Chinese also have plans for developing other Indian Ocean ports in order to transport oil by pipelines directly into western and central China, even as a canal and land bridge are possibly built across Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra. Afraid of being outflanked by the Chinese, the Indians are expanding their own naval ports and strengthening ties with both Iran and Burma, where the Indian-Chinese rivalry will be fiercest.

--This assumes that the Indians and the Chinese are going to confront each other militarily. Or confront each other at all. Which cannot be predicted. And nobody knows if the Chinese will wear out their welcome. If people hate the US, what do you think they are going to think of China?

These deepening connections are transforming the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian and Pacific oceans into a vast continuum, in which the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca will be the Fulda Gap of the 21st century. The fates of the Islamic Middle East and Islamic Indonesia are therefore becoming inextricable. But it is the geographic connections, not religious ones, that matter most.

--Boo-hiss. Really? Who's holding the straits against who? Pirates? C'mon.

This new map of Eurasia—tighter, more integrated, and more crowded—will be even less stable than Mackinder thought. Rather than heartlands and marginal zones that imply separateness, we will have a series of inner and outer cores that are fused together through mass politics and shared paranoia. In fact, much of Eurasia will eventually be as claustrophobic as Israel and the Palestinian territories, with geography controlling everything and no room to maneuver. Although Zionism shows the power of ideas, the battle over land between Israelis and Palestinians is a case of utter geographical determinism. This is Eurasia’s future as well.

--The Israeli-Palestinian issue isn't geographic, so much as cultural and political and historical tha impells both sides to be struggling over the same ground. Doesn't compute compared to the rest of Asia.

The ability of states to control events will be diluted, in some cases destroyed. Artificial borders will crumble and become more fissiparous,

Really? How so? What artifical borders are we talking about here, anyway? This is shockingly vague.

leaving only rivers, deserts, mountains, and other enduring facts of geography. Indeed, the physical features of the landscape may be the only reliable guides left to understanding the shape of future conflict. Like rifts in the Earth’s crust that produce physical instability, there are areas in Eurasia that are more prone to conflict than others. These “shatter zones” threaten to implode, explode, or maintain a fragile equilibrium. And not surprisingly, they fall within that unstable inner core of Eurasia: the greater Middle East, the vast way station between the Mediterranean world and the Indian subcontinent that registers all the primary shifts in global power politics.

This inner core, for Mackinder, was the ultimate unstable region. And yet, writing in an age before oil pipelines and ballistic missiles, he saw this region as inherently volatile, geographically speaking, but also somewhat of a secondary concern. A century’s worth of technological advancement and population explosion has rendered the greater Middle East no less volatile but dramatically more relevant, and where Eurasia is most prone to fall apart now is in the greater Middle East’s several shatter zones.

Makinder was a British imperial subject. His writing is colored by this, and as I said above this is all just the same old idea that anybody besides Europeans can't really rule themselves, and have to be ruled.

Ok, I've just lost patience with this thing. I think that Kaplan's real reason for writing this is that he wants to scare the ignorant reader into isolationism.

The Revenge of Geography

"The Revenge of Geography"

Robert Kaplan has a worthy piece in this month's Foreign Policy. There's quite a lot in it worth thinking about, quite a lot to agree with, and quite a lot with which to disagree. Read it, and let's discuss it.