Monday, September 10, 2012

The Revenge of Geography

What’s Going to Happen Next in the World?
Robert Kaplan has released a work entitled The Revenge of Geography, and he has provided a very helpful introduction in the Weekend WSJ:

If you want to know what Russia, China or Iran will do next, don't read their newspapers or ask what our spies have dug up—consult a map. Geography can reveal as much about a government's aims as its secret councils. More than ideology or domestic politics, what fundamentally defines a state is its place on the globe. Maps capture the key facts of history, culture and natural resources. With upheaval in the Middle East and a tumultuous political transition in China, look to geography to make sense of it all.

Here’s the key: “Technology has collapsed distance, but it has hardly negated geography. Rather, it has increased the preciousness of disputed territory. As the Yale scholar Paul Bracken observes, the "finite size of the earth" is now itself a force for instability”.

Briefly, then, Kaplan gives an overview of what he thinks we can look forward to in some of the coming regional struggles around the globe:

[W]e would do well not to focus too single-mindedly on economics and politics. Geography provides a wider lens. China is big in one sense: its population, its commercial and energy enterprises and its economy as a whole are creating zones of influence in contiguous parts of the Russian Far East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. But Chinese leaders themselves often see their country as relatively small and fragile: within its borders are sizable minority populations of Tibetans in the southwest, Uighur Turks in the west and ethnic-Mongolians in the north.

It is these minority areas—high plateaus virtually encircling the ethnic core of Han Chinese—where much of China's fresh water, hydrocarbons and other natural resources come from. The West blithely tells the Chinese leadership to liberalize their political system. But the Chinese leaders know their own geography. They know that democratization in even the mildest form threatens to unleash ethnic fury.

Because ethnic minorities in China live in specific regions, the prospect of China breaking apart is not out of the question. That is why Beijing pours Han immigrants into the big cities of Tibet and western Xinjiang province, even as it hands out small doses of autonomy to the periphery and continues to artificially stimulate the economies there. These policies may be unsustainable, but they emanate ultimately from a vast and varied continental geography, which extends into the Western Pacific, where China finds itself boxed in by a chain of U. S. naval allies from Japan to Australia. It is for reasons of geographic realpolitik that China is determined to incorporate Taiwan into its dominion.

Even so seemingly modern a crisis as Europe's financial woes is an expression of timeless geography. It is no accident that the capital cities of today's European Union (Brussels, Maastricht, Strasbourg, The Hague) helped to form the heart of Charlemagne's ninth-century empire. With the end of the classical world of Greece and Rome, history moved north. There, in the rich soils of protected forest clearings and along a shattered coastline open to the Atlantic, medieval Europe developed the informal power relations of feudalism and learned to take advantage of technologies like movable type.

Indeed, there are several Europes, each with different patterns of economic development that have been influenced by geography. In addition to Charlemagne's realm, there is also Mitteleuropa, now dominated by a united Germany, which boasts few physical barriers to the former communist east. The economic legacies of the Prussian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires still influence this Europe, and they, too, were shaped by a distinctive terrain.

Nor is it an accident that Greece, in Europe's southeastern corner, is the most troubled member of the EU. Greece is where the Balkans and the Mediterranean world overlap. It was an underprivileged stepchild of Byzantine and then Turkish despotism, and the consequences of this unhappy geographic fate echo to this day in the form of rampant tax evasion, a fundamental lack of competitiveness, and paternalistic coffeehouse politics.

As advocates continue to urge intervention in Syria, it is useful to recall that the modern state of that name is a geographic ghost of its post-Ottoman self, which included what are now Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Even that larger entity was less a well-defined place than a vague geographical expression. Still, the truncated modern state of Syria contains all the communal divides of the old Ottoman region. Its ethno-religious makeup since independence in 1944—Alawites in the northwest, Sunnis in the central corridor, Druze in the south—make it an Arab Yugoslavia in the making. These divisions are what long made Syria the throbbing heart of pan-Arabism and the ultimate rejectionist state vis-à-vis Israel. Only by appealing to a radical Arab identity beyond the call of sect could Syria assuage the forces that have always threatened to tear the country apart.

But this does not mean that Syria must now descend into anarchy, for geography has many stories to tell. Syria and Iraq both have deep roots in specific agricultural terrains that hark back millennia, making them less artificial than is supposed. Syria could yet survive as a 21st-century equivalent of early 20th-century Beirut, Alexandria and Smyrna: a Levantine world of multiple identities united by commerce and anchored to the Mediterranean. Ethnic divisions based on geography can be overcome, but only if we first recognize how formidable they are.

The state of Iran conforms with the Iranian plateau, an impregnable natural fortress that straddles both oil-producing regions of the Middle East: the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. …

Geography puts Iran in a favored position to dominate both Iraq and western Afghanistan, which it does nicely at the moment. Iran's coastline in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz is a vast 1,356 nautical miles long, with inlets perfect for hiding swarms of small suicide-attack boats. But for the presence of the U.S. Navy, this would allow Iran to rule the Persian Gulf. Iran also has 300 miles of Arabian Sea frontage, making it vital for Central Asia's future access to international waters. India has been helping Iran develop the port of Chah Bahar in Iranian Baluchistan, which will one day be linked to the gas and oil fields of the Caspian basin.

Iran is the geographic pivot state of the Greater Middle East, and it is essential for the United States to reach an accommodation with it. The regime of the ayatollahs descends from the Medes, Parthians, Achaemenids and Sassanids of yore—Iranian peoples all—whose sphere of influence from the Syrian desert to the Indian subcontinent was built on a clearly defined geography.

There is one crucial difference, however: Iran's current quasi-empire is built on fear and suffocating clerical rule, both of which greatly limit its appeal and point to its eventual downfall. Under this regime, the Technicolor has disappeared from the Iranian landscape, replaced by a grainy black-and-white. The West should be less concerned with stopping Iran's nuclear program than with developing a grand strategy for transforming the regime.

He closes with a caveat: “In this very brief survey of the world as seen from the standpoint of geography, I don't wish to be misunderstood: Geography is common sense, but it is not fate. Individual choice operates within a certain geographical and historical context, which affects decisions but leaves many possibilities open. The French philosopher Raymond Aron captured this spirit with his notion of "probabilistic determinism," which leaves ample room for human agency.”

Kaplan’s wiki reads:

Robert David Kaplan (born 23 June 1952 in New York, New York) is an American journalist, currently a National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a writer for Stratfor. His writings have also been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers and publications, and his more controversial essays about the nature of US power have spurred debate in academia, the media, and the highest levels of government. A frequent theme in his work is the reemergence of cultural and historical tensions temporarily suspended during the Cold War. …. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Kaplan as one of the world's "top 100 global thinkers."

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