Saturday, May 2, 2009

The New Old-Time Geography of Conflict

Robert D. Kaplan has a fascinating article in the new issue of Foreign Policy in which he makes the case for the preeminence of geography in determining the patterns of conquest and conflict throughout the world. He sees this view as a revival of a classical approach to world affairs which had taken a backseat in recent decades. The 20th Century had inaugurated a period of narratives of world affairs driven by broad ideologies - Communism! Fascism! Democracy! - rather than the literal global landscape; but Kaplan argues for returning geography to its erstwhile pride of place in describing world affairs:
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.

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.

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.
Kaplan describes a number of thinkers who had perceived the significance of geography in shaping global affairs. One was the French historian Fernand Braudel, who wrote The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949, which portrayed the ancient expansions of the Greek and Roman empires as a consequence of the marginal soils of the Mediterranean region. Another was Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US Naval Captain who "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." Yet another was the prescient Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman, who foresaw the necessity of America's protection of Japan and the rise of China before he died in 1943.

But Kaplan focuses particularly on Sir Halford J. Mackinder who, writing 1904, saw the global order as the inevitable product of the relations established across the vast expanses of Eurasia:
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).



Europe's history, in the context of this landscape, is the story of an appendage to the great Eurasian landmass, despite the anomalous "Columbian epoch" of European discovery and colonialism. And the history of Russia, in particular, can be read as the history of a nation thoroughly traumatized by its invasion by Mongol hordes, and a consequent obsession with territorial acquisitiveness. This would later lead, during the Cold War, to a recapitulation of the struggle for control over the marginal areas of Eurasia, with a US containment policy of Communism that "depended heavily on rimland bases across the greater Middle East and the Indian Ocean."

Kaplan sees the geostrategically most important regions of the world as spreading through the same arc of lands - from the Middle East through South Asia and East Asia - that Mackinder described as the marginal regions of Eurasia. But unlike in previous centuries, these areas are deeply integrated with each other - rubbing shoulders, thanks to technological change, rather than being separate by natural geographical buffers as they had been in the past. (For example, countries from Israel through Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea form a contiguous overlapping region in which one country's ballistic missile range infringes on that of its neighbors.) Within this zone of potential geopolitical turbulence, Kaplan describes four "shatter zones" that may be particularly prone to instability and conflict in the decades ahead.

One shatter zone is the Indian subcontinent, where Nepal and Bangladesh constitute alarmingly weak states and are home to tens of millions of people; but they are paragons of stability compared to Pakistan and Afghanistan:
Of course, the worst nightmare on the subcontinent is Pakistan, whose dysfunction is directly the result of its utter lack of geographic logic. The Indus should be a border of sorts, but Pakistan sits astride both its banks, just as the fertile and teeming Punjab plain is bisected by the India-Pakistan border. Only the Thar Desert and the swamps to its south act as natural frontiers between Pakistan and India. And though these are formidable barriers, they are insufficient to frame a state composed of disparate, geographically based, ethnic groups—Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pashtuns—for whom Islam has provided insufficient glue to hold them together. All the other groups in Pakistan hate the Punjabis and the army they control, just as the groups in the former Yugoslavia hated the Serbs and the army they controlled. Pakistan’s raison d’être is that it supposedly provides a homeland for subcontinental Muslims, but 154 million of them, almost the same number as the entire population of Pakistan, live over the border in India.
The Pashtuns occupy a swathe of land that sprawls across portions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Pakistan falls apart, "Pashtunistan" would likely arise to partially take its place, which in turn would lead to the total dissolution of Afghanistan.

A second shatter zone is the Arabian peninsula. Interestingly, Kaplan describes the threat in this region not as arising within the Saudi Kingdom itself, but across the porous Saudi border with Yemen. Kaplan describes Yemen, a chaotic country in the southwestern corner of the peninsula that has almost as many people as Saudi Arabia itself, as "crowded with pickup trucks filled with armed young men, loyal to this sheikh or that, while the presence of the Yemeni government was negligible...Estimates of the number of firearms in Yemen vary, but any Yemeni who wants a weapon can get one easily. Meanwhile, groundwater supplies will last no more than a generation or two." Yemen, by the way, has one of the highest birth rates in the world.

A third shatter zone is in the area of the Fertile Crescent. In this case, it is due to the fact that the state borders of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are almost totally divorced from the realities of natural geography that the potential for conflict exists. This is particularly true in the case of Iraq. Since there is nothing "natural" about the borders of Iraq - either in terms of natural borders or the distribution of ethnic and religious groups - a succession of strongmen has arisen in the country to hold the disparate pieces of the national fabric together. Saddam Hussein was the most recent, though not necessarily the last, of these. Some American intelligence experts tried to envision a more "rational" ordering of states in the Middle East - one that would reflect the realities of physical and cultural geography in the region:



(Though just a thought experiment, this map, which was posted at Strange Maps, caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the Middle East, where some people, understandably suspicious of American intentions in the region, saw it as arrogant and colonialist; of course, it was colonialism that led to the capricious carving of borders in the Middle East in the first place.)

The Persian Core, stretching from the Persian Gulf through the interior of Iran to the Caspian Sea, constitutes a final shatter zone. This region contains a huge amount of oil and natural gas wealth, both in the Persian Gulf and Caspian regions, and Iran has a hand in each of those regions. And Iran controls most of the Persian Gulf, including its entrance to the Indian Ocean at the Strait of Hormuz. According to Kaplan, its not accidental that Persia has played a prominent role throughout history. Unlike the other nations of the Middle East, its territorial borders follow the patterns of its natural geography.
Its border roughly traces and conforms to the natural contours of the landscape—plateaus to the west, mountains and seas to the north and south, and desert expanse in the east toward Afghanistan. For this reason, Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike the geographically illogical countries of that adjacent region, there is nothing artificial about Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran is now being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century.
The threat in Iran is not, as in the other shatter zones, in its potential for dissolution; rather, its that a geographically unified and strong Persian state might erupt out of its own borders to create instability in the surrounding regions.

Kaplan concludes by noting that "we all must learn to think like Victorians." That is, we have to be open to the insights of geographical determinism: the view that geography and climate, more than ideology, will drive the important events and conflicts of the next century. Kaplan uses another word to describe this attitude - a word that had lost some of its currency in the years after September 11th, but which now is enjoying something of a revival: realism.

UPDATE
: For an interesting and skeptical take on Kaplan's article, go here.

87 comments:

ebleyes said...

The middle east map from strange maps is unrealistic, Saudi Arabia is the strongest military after Israel and Iran, it will not lose territory to Yemen and Jordan of all countries!! or separate into silly regions as illustrated in the map. Pakistan on the other hand could collapse and form these regions.

Ben said...

I was really taken by this article as well and I posted a response to it on my blog at shultzgeography.blogspot.com

I think we have to be careful not to fall back into geographical determinism. It nearly brought the discipline down in the early 1900s. We've made so much theoretical progress and overcome so many of the imperialist ideals that determinism fostered since then. It would be a shame to let that creep back in. The FP article was well-researched, but ideologically misguided (IMO).

Chachy said...

Ben - very interesting response. My off-the-cuff take on your response to Kaplan is that I'm not sure that it's fair to tar him for talking about geographical determinism just because others, sometime in the past, used related concepts to make racist arguments. This would be akin to those who reject out of hand that there are genetic differences between groups of people, just because the hypothesis that genetic differences between races exists has been used to justify racist beliefs. I mean, geographical determinism - isn't this just the stuff Jared Diamond's been going on about?

As for your observations on Bangladesh: I think explanations that attribute the threat to Bangladesh from global warming to either human activity or geography can be compatible, as more proximate and less proximate causes. Global warming is a man-made problem; the existence of a state with Bangladesh's borders is, to some extent, a function of the contingencies of politics (though I think Kaplan would argue it was at least partially determined by the distribution of religious groups on the subcontinent). But the fact that there's a very large population there, and that many of them live within a few feet of sea level, is just a function of the regions topography, climate, and maybe carrying capacity. It's not that it's a pre-ordained problem; it's that, given the realities of the world we live in, the contours of the problem will be dictated, to some extent, by geography.

You also say "Nothing about Iraq's geography leads to tyranny. It's people making decisions that directly endanger the lives of civilians that leads to tyranny or anarchy." Again, I think there has to be a distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Yes, proximately, tyranny is the product of the decisions made by individuals. But ultimately, the reality of the borders of Iraq has made it more probable that tyrannous regimes would arise there.

As for the Congo counter-example - that seems like a good point. It's not something I know much about, but it sounds plausible at the very least. But I don't think Kaplan is making what would be the implausible claim that the actions of individuals don't matter to the course of world events. His point is that - especially at the level of the broadest narratives - geography is useful to understand global events, the arrangements of power, and areas of conflict.

Anonymous said...

Brian - First, Cam gave me your post. I've enjoyed your blog, and your interest in maps/mapping.

Incredibly dense information/pictures,maps.

As for geography, definitely making a comeback. Rain - where it falls, and where it does NOT: Likely to dominate politics and economics for the next 100 years.

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Gus said...

Of course, while he rails against "unrealistic borders" and claims MacKinder as inspiration, we must remember the prominent role of MacKinder in drawing those unrealistic borders in the first place.

Ultimately, it is foolhardy to ignore physical geography, but it is at least as foolhardy to claim that everything is determined by physical geography.

Gus said...

Also, it is important to note that even physical geography must be interpreted to give any insight, and any two persons will have different interpretations. Interestingly, the interpretation presented here can conveniently be used to justify continued U.S. military involvement in the middle east.

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A court in Moscow has found escort bayan late Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky guilty of tax fraud.Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 after accusing officials of tax fraud but was later himself accused of those crimes.His death in custody a year escortlater led to a major diplomatic dispute between Russia and the United States.William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which Magnitsky represented, was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to nine years.

Browder, a US-born British citizen, is in London, where the firm is based.He has denied the charges and says the trial was politically motivated. His defence team have escort istanbulsaid they will appeal against the verdict.No sentence will be passed for Magnitsky, whose relatives regard the case as illegal.A lawyer for the family told Russia's escort Rapsi news agency: "I did not doubt that the decision would look like this."

Instead of Putin bringing justice escort istanbul he exonerated all the officials involved and prosecuted the whistle blowers”

Employed as an auditor for Hermitage, Magnitsky uncovered what he described as a web of corruption bayan escort involving Russian tax officials, including the alleged theft of more than $200m (£125m).After reporting the allegations to the authorities, he was himself detained on suspicion of helping Hermitage evade $17.4m in taxes.

He had pancreatitis and died in custody escort in 2009, but an investigation by Russia's presidential council on human rights concluded that he had been severely beaten and denied medical treatment.

Last December, a Russian court escort bayan acquitted a prison doctor accused of negligence over Mr Magnitsky's death. And in March this year the investigation into his death was dropped altogether due to "lack of evidence of a crime".

Browder has described the charges filed escort against him as an "absurdity" and revenge for his campaign to put pressure on Russia over the Magnitsky case.
Hermitage Fund manager William escort Browder William Browder has spearheaded efforts in the US to put pressure on Russia over the Magnitsky escort beylikduzu case

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, he said the trial was "proof" that President Vladimir Putin "will use escort the courts in order to cover up his economic crimes".

"This entire process has been done escort sisli because Sergei Magnitsky discovered a vast $230m fraud by the Russian state, and blew the whistle on the officials who orchestrated the crime, and for that he was tortured escort atasehir and killed in police custody and then prosecuted afterwards," he said.

"Instead of Putin bringing justice, escort maltepe he exonerated all the officials involved and prosecuted the whistle blowers.

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