How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.