Friday, August 31, 2012 3:13:16 PM
From the Sept-Oct 2012 issue
Robert W. Merry
August 22, 2012
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), 432 pp., $28.00.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has a problem. The land power he leads lies vulnerable to invasion. The unremitting grassy steppes of his nation, extending from Europe all the way to the Far East, with hardly a mountain range or seashore or major forest to hinder encroachment by army or horde, has fostered a national obsession with the need to control territory as a hedge against incursion. Putin shares this obsession, as indeed he must as leader of this inherently exposed country.
This fixation is hardly new. It was shared by the very first Russians, the Kievan Rus, beginning in the ninth century—until they were overrun in the mid-thirteenth century by Mongol hordes under Batu Khan, Genghis’s grandson. It was shared by medieval Muscovy, domain of that pitiless imperialist Ivan the Terrible and his successor, Boris Godunov—until it too succumbed to invading Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Cossacks in the early seventeenth century. It was shared by the Romanov dynasty during its three-hundred-year reign marked by one of the greatest land conquests in world history—until it also crumbled amid an awesome territorial contraction after World War I. It was even shared by the succeeding Bolsheviks, who turned out to be the greatest imperialists of all—until they saw their empire disintegrate and Russia shrink to its smallest dimension since before the emergence of Catherine the Great in the mid-eighteenth century.
It is little wonder that Putin should obsess over his nation’s territorial dominion. Yet many in the West argue he should resist such flights of national nostalgia, accept without protest the West’s eastward expansion and concentrate on improving his governmental structures so they could become more like those of the West.
You don’t get such sentiments from Robert D. Kaplan, the world-traveling reporter and intellectual whose fourteen books constitute a bedrock of penetrating exposition and analysis on the post–Cold War world. In this latest volume he strips away much of the cant that suffuses public discourse these days on global developments and gets to a fundamental reality: that geography remains today, as it has been throughout history, one of the most powerful drivers of world events.
“Geography,” writes Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, “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.” Indeed, Kaplan suggests that a state’s geographic position often influences its governing philosophy. He quotes historian G. Patrick March as saying Russia’s territorial vulnerability has spawned in that country a “greater tolerance for tyranny.” Britain, on the other hand, writes Kaplan, “secure in its borders, with an oceanic orientation, could develop a democratic system ahead of its neighbors.”
Kaplan has no illusions about the controversy his unsentimental realism will generate. “Maps,” he writes, “are 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.”
Indeed, even before publication, his book stirred an angry response in Publishers Weekly, whose thumbnail reviews sometimes seem as if they are crafted to enforce humanist thinking. The anonymous reviewer called Kaplan’s book an “overwrought map exercise” consisting mainly of “diverting but feckless snippets of history, cultural lore, and economics” as well as “a jumble of empty rotational metaphors.” Kaplan’s “pitiless ‘realism,’” writes the reviewer, amounts to “an unconvincing reprise of an obsolete worldview.”
Kaplan himself, with far more balance and perspective than his agitated critic, identifies the wellspring of such vituperation. The end of the Cold War, he writes, blinded Western thinkers to many harsh realities of the world. He elaborates:
For suddenly we were in a world in which the dismantling of a man-made boundary in Germany had led to the assumption that all human divisions were surmountable; that democracy would conquer Africa and the Middle East as easily as it had Eastern Europe; that globalization—soon to become a buzzword—was nothing less than a moral direction of history and a system of international security, rather than what it actually was, merely an economic and cultural stage of development.
Thus, the very term “realism” became a pejorative as American universalism embraced the U.S. military as “the hidden hand that allowed universalist ideas to matter so much more than terrain and the historical experience of people living on it.” The great historical lesson became “Munich”—the imperative that evil around the world must be nipped in the bud before it sprang up, Hitler-like, to threaten global stability and wreak havoc on innocents. This sensibility led first to America’s involvement in the Balkans in the 1990s, then to its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But U.S. difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, writes Kaplan, spawned an intellectual counterforce, reflected in the reemergence of the “Vietnam” analogy—the idea that ethnic and sectarian hatreds around the world, far from mere obstacles in the nation’s missionary calling, are warnings that American adventures abroad can be a loser’s game. Iraq, in Kaplan’s view, “undermined a key element in the mind-set of some: that the projection of American power always had a moral result.”
And so we have a powerful debate between the devotees of Munich and those of Vietnam. Kaplan presents his book as an effort to find a balance between the two. He writes, “Vietnam is about limits; Munich about overcoming them.” Each analogy, he adds, can be dangerous on its own:
It is only when both are given equal measure that the right policy has the best chance to emerge. For wise policymakers, while aware of their nation’s limitations, know that the art of statesmanship is about working as close to the edge as possible, without stepping over the brink.
For Kaplan, geography offers guidance for understanding the swirl of pressures, forces, passions and interests that direct the course of human events—and thus for understanding also the proximate location of that brink. To plumb those lessons, he offers an intellectual travelogue through the works of the great geopolitical thinkers of the last century, when such analysis was considered a worthy element of discourse, not to be dismissed reactively with the intolerance of today’s Publishers Weekly.
Thus does Kaplan quote Nicholas J. Spykman, the great Dutch American strategist of the early World War II era, as noting that much changed for the United States between George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, “but the Atlantic continues to separate Europe from the United States and the ports of the St. Lawrence River are still blocked by winter ice.” Alexander I and Joseph Stalin ruled Russia in far different eras, but both shared an “endless struggle for access to the sea.” France’s Georges Clemenceau and Andre Maginot, some two thousand years after Caesar’s Gallic adventures, shared his “anxiety over the open German frontier.”
Kaplan adds that it wasn’t merely two oceans that gave America the luxury of its idealism; “it was also that these two oceans gave America direct access to the two principal arteries of politics and commerce in the world: Europe across the Atlantic and East Asia across the Pacific.” That goes a long way toward explaining America’s rise upon the global scene. And it’s not only Russia that sees danger in open, unprotected land borders, for Germany “faces both east and west with no mountain ranges to protect it, providing it with pathologies from militarism to nascent pacifism, so as to cope with its dangerous location.” Though Britain’s island identity gave it a certain protection from invasion, its location so near the Continent posed sufficient danger that it developed “a particular strategic concern over the span of the centuries with the politics of France and the Low Countries on the opposite shore of the English Channel and the North Sea.”
Such examples abound in the book. Kaplan quotes British writer Freya Stark as noting that Egypt from its first stirrings lay “parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic,” and was thus well positioned to develop a high degree of civilization. Mesopotamia, by contrast, was always “right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of man.” Unprotected by any natural barriers, it found itself forever subject to the woes of plunder. Indeed, Kaplan even speculates that Mesopotamia’s modern tendency toward tyranny could be “geographically determined.” Every Iraqi dictator going back to the 1950s, he writes, “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 Shiite Arabs, seething with a well-articulated degree of ethnic and sectarian consciousness.”
KAPLAN CONCEDES that his emphasis on geography could pull him into the kind of determinist thinking that Isaiah Berlin rejected in his famous 1954 essay, “Historical Inevitability.” Kaplan opts for what French philosopher Raymond Aron called a “sober ethic rooted in the truth of ‘probabilistic determinism.’” Says Kaplan: “The key word is ‘probabilistic,’ that is, in now concentrating on geography we adhere to a partial or hesitant determinism which recognizes obvious differences between groups and terrain, but does not oversimplify, and leaves many possibilities open.” He cites the wisdom of America’s liberal interventionists who intuited geographic reality in supporting U.S. involvement in the Balkans but opposing it in Iraq:
Whereas the former Yugoslavia lay at the most advanced, western extremity of the former Ottoman Empire, adjacent to Central Europe, Mesopotamia lay at its most chaotic, eastern reaches. And because that fact has affected political development up through the present, intervention in Iraq would prove to be a stretch.
With that in mind, he plunges into his subject with enthusiasm and élan, first expounding on the great geopolitical realities of the globe and then seeking to apply them to particular regions and nations of our time. He politely warns: “The men I am about to introduce should make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy.”
A key introduction is to Halford Mackinder, father of modern geopolitics and author of an influential 1904 article entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” Using geography as a kind of surveyor’s transit level, he peered deep into the future, seeing what few at the time could even envision. He wrote:
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.
Before that Columbian epoch, he explained, Europe was “pent into a narrow region and threatened by external barbarism.” But then Europe burst forth across the seas and conquered other continents, facing “negligible resistances.” Thus did the West become the dominant force upon the globe. But by Mackinder’s day that age of expansion had come to an end, and the West faced a “closed political system,” only this time one of “world-wide scope.” With no more room for European expansion, European wars now would unfold on a global scale, wrote Mackinder, essentially predicting World Wars I and II as well as Europe’s decline as the world’s preeminent civilization.
And with that development the world once again would be subject to Mackinder’s “Eurasia pivot theory”—the view that the world’s key geographic location was Eurasia, whence for centuries most of the threats emerged not just to Europe but also to Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, China and the northern reaches of the Arab Middle East. He was talking about not just the Mongols but also the Turks. His question: Who would be the modern Mongols or Turkish invaders? His answer: the Russians. As he said:
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?
Kaplan adds that, just as the Mongols had threatened and often conquered the outlying regions of Eurasia—Finland, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India and China—“so, too, now would Russia, sustained by the cohesiveness of its landmass, won by the recent development of its railways.” Thus, Mackinder predicted not only Europe’s decline and the world wars but also the outlines of the Cold War. As Kaplan explains, “Forget the czars and in 1904 the commissars-yet-to-be, they are but trivia compared to the deeper, tectonic forces of geography and technology.”
Mackinder saw the core of Eurasia as the global “Heartland” (roughly the lands encompassed by the postwar Soviet empire), with Eastern Europe as its pivot. And here’s where Kaplan brings in the Dutch American Spykman—born in 1893 in Amsterdam; widely traveled foreign correspondent; then a professor at Yale, where in 1935 he founded the Institute of International Studies. To Mackinder’s Heartland concept Spykman added the idea of the surrounding “Rimland”—Europe, the Middle East, India and China. Control of the Heartland positioned any power to take all or parts of the Rimland. Control of both the Heartland and Rimland positioned a power to go after what Mackinder called the “World-Island” of Eurasia and Africa. Control of the World-Island positioned a power to dominate the globe.
This may sound outlandish, but consider the drama of the twentieth century, which unfolded after Mackinder had fashioned his geopolitical paradigm and, in fashioning it, presaged the outlines of that drama. Germany conquered Poland, from which it promptly sought to conquer the Soviet Heartland. Had Hitler succeeded, he would have positioned himself to take huge elements of Spykman’s Rimland beyond all of continental Europe, which he already had conquered. Certainly the Middle East would have come under his domain and probably India. But the remaining forces of the West—Britain and the United States—mustered all their power to prevent this, understanding as they did that German conquest of the Heartland and Rimland would have given Hitler the ball game.
In defeating Germany with Soviet help, Britain and America ceded to Stalin full control of the Heartland, from which he promptly threatened Europe. It was a near thing, but Stalin failed in his ambition of European conquest, whereupon he sought to destabilize Western positions elsewhere in the Rimland. The West’s “containment” policy, writes Kaplan, was a defense of the Rimland as the great Heartland power probed and tested in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Says Kaplan: “The defense of Western Europe, Israel, moderate Arab states, the shah’s Iran and the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam all carried the notion of preventing a communist empire from extending control from the Heartland to the Rimland.” As Henry Kissinger put it in 1957, “Limited war represents the only means for preventing the Soviet bloc, at an acceptable cost, from overrunning the peripheral areas of Eurasia.”
It isn’t surprising that America’s most stalwart Cold War hawks—columnist Joseph Alsop, for example, or the conservative geopolitical analyst James Burnham—viewed that great confrontation in Mackinderian terms and tended toward pessimism about the West’s fate. In a 1947 speech at Harvard, Alsop bemoaned the West’s “sickness of the soul—a loss of certainty—a failure of assurance.” He added, “We may in the end be defeated. . . . But it is better to be defeated after a hard struggle than simply to give in and die anyway.”
His pessimism was misplaced, but his understanding of the struggle was spot on. And with the West’s epic Cold War victory, the Heartland no longer posed a threat because Russia no longer dominated it sufficiently to do so. But, while the lines on the map may change, the contours don’t, and thus Kaplan bundles up the Mackinder thesis, which proved so potent in predicting events of the twentieth century, and applies it to the twenty-first century.
In predicting in 1904 that Russia would threaten Europe in the twentieth century, Mackinder advocated the emergence of buffer states between the two powers that could serve as a kind of geographic protection (he was, first and foremost, an advocate of balance of power). And such a buffer zone did in fact emerge after the collapse of the latest Russian empire. This could help stabilize that ancient fault line between the Russian Heartland and the European Rimland; it might even foster the emergence of a Central European entity—Mitteleuropa—with Germany at its core. Still, geopolitics offers no guarantees. Kaplan writes:
But what if, according to Mackinder, Europe’s destiny is still subordinate to Asiatic history, in the form of a resurgent Russia? Then there might be a threat. For what drove the Soviet Union to carve out an empire in Eastern Europe . . . still holds today: a legacy of depredations against Russia by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Frenchmen, and Germans, leading to the need for a cordon sanitaire of compliant regimes in the space between historic Russia and Central Europe.
Meanwhile, the very richness of Europe’s geography—the multiplicity of seas, harbors, peninsulas, rivers and mountains, which have spawned in turn a multiplicity of language groups and nation-states—will foster ongoing disunity, despite all the pan-European structures instituted to pull the Continent together. As Kaplan writes, “Europe, the map suggests, has a significant future in the headlines.”
As for Russia, Kaplan sees clearly that Putin’s “low-dose authoritarianism” is a rejection of the “cold turkey experiment with Western democracy and market capitalism” that proved so devastating in the 1990s, following the communist collapse. In that sense, it resembles Lenin’s rejection of Western ways after the Russian Revolution. But while Russia’s relief map spreads across Asia, its population map favors Europe. As Kaplan points out, “The ancien régime, with its heavily German czardom, its French-speaking nobles, and bourgeois parliament in the European capital of St. Petersburg, was oriented westward, even if the peasantry was not so.”
A western orientation is crucial for Putin if he wishes to restore his nation to an earlier glory and protect his nation from the kinds of incursions it has suffered since the Mongol arrival in the thirteenth century. The key is Ukraine. As former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a “predominantly Asian” one, focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Kaplan elaborates: “But with Ukraine back under Russian domination, Russia adds 46 million people to its own western-oriented demography, and suddenly challenges Europe, even as it is integrated into it.” This drama, spawned by geography and the imperatives of nationalism, will play out in coming decades just as it has through past centuries.
IN THE meantime, the world must grapple with a resurgent China, a geographically compact and densely populated expanse of real estate that faces the same steppe-land danger as Russia but from the opposite direction. Its geographic imperative throughout history has been to dominate the dry uplands “bordering it on three sides, from Manchuria counterclockwise around to Tibet”—the area through which it has faced a centuries-long threat from the hordes of the steppe. Thus today’s China must subdue the Tibetans, Uighur Turks and Inner Mongolians before it can contemplate any expansive foreign policy.
At present China has those crucial regions under control, which is why it is pursuing maritime ambitions. “Merely by going to sea in the manner that it is,” writes Kaplan, “China demonstrates its favorable position on the land in the heart of Asia.” Yet unlike Russia, China is seeking to extend its territorial influence “much more through commerce than coercion.”
Does this mean the United States can avoid military conflicts with China as the Asian power seeks to expand its naval influence in regions that America now dominates? Kaplan seems ambivalent about this. At one point he writes, “The possibility of a war between the United States and China is extremely remote.” But he also suggests that, if China’s economy keeps growing as it has, it “could constitute more embryonic power than any adversary the United States faced during the twentieth century.” He adds that the concept of “off-shore balancing”—marshaling other regional nations into networks of alliances designed to check Chinese power—“may not be completely sufficient.”
Averting war, suggests Kaplan, may require the United States to adjust its naval ambitions in East Asia and accept Chinese dominance over what it defiantly calls the “First Island Chain,” which encompasses Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, parts of the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia. This may be a tall order for the United States, but it may become inevitable as America sees its navy decline to 250 ships from the current 280 (and 556 in 1988, at the end of the Reagan presidency). Kaplan cites a RAND Corporation study indicating the United States will be unable to defend Taiwan against China by 2020, and loss of Taiwan—that “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” in the words of General Douglas MacArthur—would probably cede to China full dominance over that First Island Chain.
But America can maintain a powerful Pacific presence beyond that island chain and also could bolster its position in the Indian Ocean, which is rapidly emerging as the “vascular center of the world economy, with oil and natural gas transported across its width from the Middle East to the burgeoning middle classes of East Asia.” Meanwhile, a greater China will emerge in Central and East Asia as well as in the western Pacific, with a big naval presence in the East and South China Seas as well as port-building projects and arms transfers on the Indian Ocean littoral. Says Kaplan: “Only substantial political and economic turmoil inside China could alter this trend.”
KAPLAN’S OBSERVATIONS on Iran are particularly piquant. He sees the descendants of Persia as having a potent “locational advantage”—just to the south of Mackinder’s Heartland, inside Spykman’s Rimland, pivotal not just to shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf but also to pipelines from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, China and the Indian Ocean. Thus, Iran straddles both major energy-producing areas of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian region.
The other advantage is one of identity, given that Iran corresponds almost completely with the Iranian plateau and has a cultural consciousness that stretches back into ancient times. “Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower,” says Kaplan, adding it always has leveraged its geographic position as the Middle East’s “very own universal joint.” Though smaller than India, China, Russia or Europe, Iran, “because it is in possession of the key geography of the Middle East—in terms of location, population, and energy resources—is, therefore, fundamental to global geopolitics.”
Perhaps more interesting is Kaplan’s respect for the culture and political sensibility seen in Iran over the centuries—and even today, notwithstanding that many in the West are whipping up a resolve for war with Iran, seen widely as mindlessly radical, to thwart it from building a nuclear-weapons capacity. He laments the rise of the ayatollahs and the violence it has done to “the voluptuous, sophisticated, and intellectually stimulating traditions” of Iran’s history. But he adds:
The truth is . . . everything about the Iranian past and present is of a high quality, whether it is the dynamism of its empires . . . or the political thought and writings of its Shiite clergy; or the complex efficiency of the bureaucracy and security services in cracking down on dissidents.
He notes that even the country’s revolutionary order constitutes “a richly developed governmental structure” with a diffusion of power centers and an ongoing aversion to the kind of “one-man thugocracy” seen until recently in neighboring Iraq.
But Iran is held back from exercising the kind of influence that, given its pivotal location and the power of its cultural tradition, would normally be its legacy—and has been in many eras of the past. Its problem is the “persistence of its suffocating clerical rule,” which has “dulled the linguistic and cosmopolitan appeal that throughout history has accounted for a Greater Iran in a cultural sense.” He adds, on the other hand, that a democratic or quasi-democratic Iran, “precisely because of the geographical power of the Iranian state, has the possibility to energize hundreds of millions of fellow Muslims in both the Arab world and Central Asia.” Such an Iran seems inevitable in the eyes of Kaplan, who writes that the tyranny of the current regime “both limits its power and signals its downfall.”
AS FOR the United States, Kaplan brings to bear his realist sensibility in noting that its geographic location renders it all but impregnable except from one direction—its border with Mexico. “Here is the one area where America’s national and imperial boundaries are in some tension: where the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit can be questioned.”
The historical borderland between the two countries not only is broad and indistinct but also separates two nations that, as Stanford’s David Kennedy has noted, have the widest income gap of any two contiguous countries in the world. Kaplan shows respect for the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, who warned about the threat to America’s cultural essence from the massive immigration flows from Mexico and other Latin American countries. But ultimately Kaplan rejects Huntington’s outlook and adopts a stance that declares the border meaningless in the face of this demographic wave. He suggests Americans should simply relax and accept it.
To those agitated about the porous border and the influx of illegals, Kaplan offers the vision of a new nation:
America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north-to-south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east-to-west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This multiracial assemblage will be one of sprawling suburban city-states, each in a visual sense progressively similar to the other, whether Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest or Omaha-Lincoln in Nebraska, each nurturing its own economic relationships with cities and trading networks throughout the world, as technology continues to collapse distances.
Here we come to the book’s underlying weakness—its de-emphasis on the role of culture, intertwined with geography, in driving history. Perhaps the border challenge will, as Kaplan avers, be resolved through the eradication of the border itself and a slow, peaceful intermingling of peoples until a new mestizo race quietly emerges to supplant the old. That process certainly is in progress. But it seems just naive—and contrary to much of the history outlined in Kaplan’s book—to suggest such a profound transformation will occur without attendant disruption, friction and violence. George Friedman, Kaplan’s new boss at Stratfor, more realistically spins out a scenario that envisions potent internal tensions in America over the border, secessionist movements in the country’s Southwest, mounting frictions between the United States and Mexico, and growing prospects of war. Friedman writes in The Next 100 Years that in this scenario, the “U.S. border with Mexico will now run through Mexico itself; its real, social border will be hundreds of miles north of the legal border.” Thus, he adds, the major question facing the United States will revert to the one it had to address at its founding: “What should be the capital of North America—Washington or Mexico City?” If that indeed becomes the question, the answer won’t emerge peacefully.
Kaplan brushes aside the cultural interpretations of such thinkers as Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Huntington in his enthusiasm for the role of climate and geography in shaping civilizations. He quotes University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill as noting that the Aryans developed a less warlike culture in India’s Gangetic plain than they did in Mediterranean Europe because the subcontinent’s forests and monsoonal cycle encouraged meditation and religious knowledge. No doubt there was such a correlation. But cultural sensibilities emerge from far stronger influences than climate or geography, and many were shared alike by Indian and Mediterranean Aryans.
Kaplan quotes a Stratfor document as noting that the U.S. Atlantic coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined and thus “the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.” This is fatuous on its face. It suggests the Anglo-Saxon and Spanish experiences in the New World would have been reversed had the Spaniards colonized the northern lands and left the southern regions to the English. This ignores the utterly different approaches to colonization adopted by the two peoples, reflected in their different sensibilities and approaches, all wrapped up in culture. The Anglo-Saxons were more successful because they came to build; the Spaniards came to conquer. The geography of Mexico didn’t turn them into conquistadors; rather it lured them because of who they were.
Or consider the different birthrates that fostered the Anglo-Saxon dominance over the Spanish as English Americans spread out over lands that Mexico couldn’t dominate for lack of sufficient population. Was this a product of geography or culture? If the former, how does a geographical determinist explain the reversal in birthrate differentials that has occurred in recent decades? Geography remained the same, while cultural attitudes and mores changed.
No, the role of culture—and particularly the stages of cultural development explored by Spengler and Toynbee—should not be de-emphasized unduly lest the historian miss the full richness in the story of mankind. Still, there’s plenty of richness to be found simply in the stark and powerful role that geography has played in shaping the political outlooks, and particularly the foreign-policy initiatives, of nations and peoples through world history. And no recent thinker has explored that role with the kind of depth, range, acuity and vibrancy that Kaplan brings to this consequential topic. This is one of those rare books that can change forever how one reads, probes and seeks to understand history.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2012).