The Revenge of Geography – Geopolitics and the New World Order

Robert D. Kaplan, Stratfor’s former geopolitical analyst and the author of several books including The Revenge of Geography, argues that geography holds the key to understanding the drivers of the world, and specifically of geopolitical and foreign policy conflicts. In his acclaimed book, Kaplan shows why the Western elite’s belief that the impact of geographic factors on human societies and the course of history have become obsolete is flawed, and that it underestimates and fails to take into account these factors when understanding and resolving conflicts. Although we may forget about the power of geographic factors, they do exist, Kaplan argues. Not even technological progress is capable of eliminating them, despite the fact that many believed so. In fact, not only has technological progress failed to result in the “end of geography”, it has lent greater significance to certain territorial aspects. The same applies to international relations and foreign policy. While the Western world sees international relations as a mere collection of laws and international treaties, the majority of the world thinks in terms of deserts, mountains, ports and fresh water. No matter how obsolete this may seem, territory and the associated blood ties play a pivotal role in defining who (what) we are.

Many were perplexed when Kaplan presented his theory in the context of our current global political setting, and attempted to outline the expected trends by factoring in geographic aspects in the March 20, 2014 issue of Time magazine. The surprise was even greater when Vladimir Putin occupied the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, driven by exactly the same considerations. Russia took advantage of the fact that Europe had been weakened by the protracted economic recession and internal conflicts when annexing the peninsula in an effort to maintain its influence over Ukraine, playing the “geographic card” multiple times. It then infiltrated (using indirect tools) the territories of Eastern Ukraine inhabited by a large Russian minority, which “happened to” constitute a link between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula.

Figure 3 Conflicts on Earth

Source: Limes Geopolitica

A significant portion of the problems in the Middle East also stem from a geographically representable battle between the Shiites of the Iranian Plateau and the Sunnis of the Arabian Peninsula. The Eastern Saudi and Bahraini political oppression (Western Iraq and Western Syria) is fueled by the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When Iran undertook to lay the technological and scientific foundations for building a nuclear bomb, Israel entered into a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia. Israel currently fears the consequences of a zero-sum game in the event of a potential confrontation, and despite its formidable military power, taking unilateral military action against Iran would exceed its capacities.

The most important territory for the United States in the 21st century is Asia, which has become far more unstable compared to the early 21st century. This is partly due to geographic reasons. The countries of East Asia had stabilized by the late 20th century, many of them establishing stable institutional systems, successful and thriving, world-standard economies that have allowed and, in many regards, compelled them to open up toward the rest of the world. Rising military ambitions began as early as in the 1990s. Asia’s share of global military imports has risen from 15% to 41% since 1990, and its share of global military spending has swelled from 11% to 20%. Most conflicts have occurred due to the strategically located islands in the East and South China Sea, rich in natural gas and oil.

Although these disputes are often placed in a context of racial and ethnicity-based nationalism, they are not driven by moral or ideological motives, they are quite simply about territory. The tension between China and Japan or the many conflicts between China and Vietnam and the Philippines are so complex that although they could theoretically be resolved through negotiations, they will in fact be held in check by the balance between the Chinese and American navy and air force. The military ships stationed in the Pacific Ocean form a map similar to that of Europe in earlier centuries, enmeshed in a variety of conflicts. Although there is little chance of a war breaking out in the classic sense, East and Southeast Asia is shaping an increasingly troubled and complex world order characterized by territorial disputes and the fight for controlling natural resources and trade routes.

The huge mountain ranges of the Himalayas have enabled India and China to live close to each other in relative peace. However, shrinking distances over the past 50 years have made them strategic competitors in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi may mark a more aggressive turn for Indian foreign policy, particularly with regard to Japan and China. China is expected to react with more pronounced and regime-centric nationalism to its economic struggles, disputes regarding maritime territories and growing internal ethnic conflict. It remains to be seen how long the Han Chinese, who account for 90% of China’s population and inhabit its prosperous regions, will be able to maintain control over the distant minority-populated peripheries showing economic and social dissatisfaction. The greatest existential challenge facing China will not be controlling its currency, but rather its borders and certain regions, warns Kaplan.

According to Kaplan’s vision, Western methods such as the reinforcement of civil society and the rule of law, coupled with decentralization could prove efficient in resolving these conflicts, as they have proven effective in both Europe and the US, but only if geographic aspects are duly factored in. Although a thriving civil society may emerge in Ukraine, its geographic position will compel it to maintain a continuously strong and sound relationship with Russia. The Arab world is also set to stabilize sooner or later, but Western powers will be unable to impose their model on the complex and extremely populous Islamic societies, or only at a great expense. Meanwhile, there is also little likelihood of war breaking out in East Asia, however, ethnic nationalism will have to be addressed within the region (Figure 3).

The good news is that most redrawn boundaries affected by conflict are located within and not among states. For this reason, the cataclysms of the 20th century are not likely to repeat themselves. At the same time, continues Kaplan, civil society can only be reinforced by factoring in geographic attributes, and foreign policy must implement the strategic lessons of the underlying analysis in practice calmly, without sacrificing principles, and with a focus on geography.