Robert Kaplan is no Luddite. “I accept the social media revolution – that technology has collapsed distance,” he says. “But the map still matters.” In fact, the national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly argues that modern communications “makes geography more precious, rather than irrelevant.”
He revoked his endorsement of the 2003 invasion of Iraq largely because he felt Washington failed to appreciate the impact of geography, and now has written The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.
Here he gives The Globe and Mail’s Michael Posner five examples of global flashpoints that make more sense when seen through the prism of geography.
1. Israel versus Iran
Well, if it weren’t for geography, Israel would not have the logistical challenge it faces in bombing Iran. It’s 800 or 1,000 miles away. If it were 200 miles, Israel might have attacked Iran months or years ago, as it did with Syria. Distance matters. It also matters that big states with many large cities, far apart, can absorb more than one nuclear attack. A tiny state like Israel, with one main urban corridor –Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem – cannot stand more than one nuclear attack. More than one would devastate the country, to say nothing of subsequent cancer rates. So, because of geography, it’s cruel to say, if St. Louis had been annihilated, the United States would have gone on.
What we call fundamentalism is an adaptation of Islam to badly urbanized environments – a marriage of modernity and religion that occurred as Persians and Arabs left their villages. In terms of Iran, I’d say the revolution is waning. We’re almost in a post-Islamic phase. Nobody is romantic about the Iranian revolution, because they have experienced it. It’s left them disillusioned. There’s a lower quality of life, a damaged middle class. Because Islam rules in the name of the regime, it’s associated with all the social ills. Elsewhere, as in northern Africa today, Islam can be viewed in more romantic terms, but we’ll see. This is a developing phenomenon. The Islamists who rule in Egypt are on a time clock. Can they liberalize the economy, get more investment, create jobs and soak up the legions of the unemployed? If they can’t, people may become disillusioned.
3. China rising
China faces a contradictory geographical scenario. On the one hand, it is big and placing its economic footprint well beyond its borders. On the other, it’s small and claustrophobic. Because while the cradle of civilization is in the centre and on the coast, the periphery is where the minorities live and where its resources are. So Chinese rulers look at the map and say, “We’re big because we are expanding our influence in Russia, Africa and southeast Asia, but on the other hand we are small and vulnerable.” If there were ever a profound socio-political crisis in China, it might lead to a sustained ethnic resurgence.
Pakistan encompasses the area where all the Muslim territorial invasions of northern India happened through history. So India sees not just Pakistan but Afghanistan as part of the conflict system of the subcontinent. The U.S. and its allies can walk way from Afghanistan and continue to prosper. India requires a friendly or neutral Afghanistan. It can’t deal with an Islamic protectorate. So India has a stake there that goes beyond the term of U.S. troops. The future is uncertain. It’s not clear the Taliban can seize significant territory and hold it. The U.S. may not be popular, but neither are the Taliban. The decisions about Afghanistan’s future have yet to be made.
5. Putin’s paranoia
Russian history is a millennium-old story of invasion, time after time after time, which affects the mindset of Russian rulers – czars, commissars and Vladimir Putin. He covets buffer zones, in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, in central Asia. He cannot reinvade. He can’t restore the Warsaw Pact. But he can use crime groups, energy pipelines, financial incentives, and intelligence operations to weaken the independence of these smaller states on Russia’s periphery. The West wants a Western ruler in Russia. They’re not going to get one. They’re going to get a Russian ruler in Russia, who carries the legacy of the loss of the Soviet Union, which encompassed buffer states to protect the ethnic Russian heartland. That remains Putin’s greatest insecurity.
Canada poses no threat. It’s an extension of middle-class culture. The real threat is Mexico, which is not a middle-class society. It’s a poor, developing society, though one with a huge economy ... But the differences in standard of living between America and Mexico are great and apparent, because there is no obvious, natural geographical border. It’s an arbitrary line. It’s the force of Mexican demography that will challenge the United States in the 21st century, which is why I say Mexico is as important to America as China or the Middle East.