Book Review: The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan

In line with my current grad program pursuing an MA in International relations I have been reading a lot of books about current or semi current events. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert Kaplan is one of these books.  The book is an examination of geopolitics.  That is, it takes a look at politics through the lens of geography.  The thesis being that while regimes may change the places people live and the terrain of those places generally does not and thus to a large extent geography has a somewhat deterministic effect on politics.  This is actually a useful thesis and is very much grounded in historical actions.  The modern art of geopolitics had its origins in 19th century Germany and Britain.

The book itself is 346 pages of text separated into three parts with 30 pages of notes and an index.  The three parts are topical, Part I discusses the theoretical underpinnings of geopolitics and explains the theories of some of the great geopolitical thinkers.  Part II discusses the early 21st century world and who the great geopolitical players are while Part III discusses America’s role in the world and how it is influenced by geography.

By far part I is the most interesting part of the book as it examines and explains the impersonal geographic factors that have historically influenced states and empires and which still exert an influence today.  The North European Plain was just as much a strategic factor to medieval Russia, Poland and Germany as it is to those countries modern descendants. The Himalayas separate India from China today just as effectively as they have done for the past 3,000 years and have ensured that neither can dominate the other because of the simple logistics of projecting power through that forbidding mountain range.  Just as important is the notion that the great Eurasian landmass constitutes a global island with the lesser continents being affected by the happenings there much more than Eurasia is affected by happenings elsewhere.  Geography goes far in explaining the backwardness and isolation of sub-Saharan Africa despite its relative proximity to Eurasia.  Geography is just as adept t explaining why North America, and the United States dominate the world’s oceans and by extension the world outside of the interior of Eurasia.

Part II examines several regions in turn.  These are Russia, India, China, Iran, and Turkey.  This examination seeks to explain both the factors affecting these regions and how geography both helps and hinders them in achieving their geostrategic aims of either regional or global hegemony.  Of particular interest is the discussion of Russia and China and the factors that will shape tem in the coming decades.  I found the discussion of the impending demographic time bombs in both countries and what policies they are likely to follow to be extremely relevant especially in the case of Russia as Kaplan seems almost prescient with his insistence that Russia will seek to regain control of its neighbors in an attempt to reestablish the strategic depth it lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

America is the focus of Part III.  Specifically, what America should achieve in the 21st century.  Kaplan is not alone in predicting that the 21st century will be an American century even more so than was the 20th.  The idea here is apparently that America matured as a power in the 20th century but has not yet exercised its full potential.  Kaplan seems to be predicting that in the 21st century America will act as some kind of benevolent hegemon of the world.  Think ancient 1st century Rome on steroids here.  I am not certain that he is correct in this prediction.  I think that absent internal disruption America will remain a world power for the foreseeable future, but I also think that a rival bloc or blocs will arise to challenge American global hegemony regardless of how benign such hegemony is.

That being said, this is an excellent book and is well worth reading for part I alone.  Parts II and III are just icing on the cake.  Kaplan writes in a very readable style and goes out of his way to avoid bogging the narrative down in technical explanations.  Even if you don’t agree with the conclusion sin the book it provides plenty of food for thought and some insights into why world events happen the way they do.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in current vents and the way geography and history shape the present.  An excellent book.