From the Wall Street Journmal: Geography Strikes Back
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.
As a way of explaining world politics, geography has supposedly been
eclipsed by economics, globalization and electronic communications. It
has a decidedly musty aura, like a one-room schoolhouse. Indeed, those
who think of foreign policy as an opportunity to transform the world for
the better tend to equate any consideration of geography with fatalism,
a failure of imagination.
But this is nonsense. Elite molders of public opinion may be able to
dash across oceans and continents in hours, allowing them to talk glibly
of the "flat" world below. But while cyberspace and financial markets
know no boundaries, the Carpathian Mountains still separate Central
Europe from the Balkans, helping to create two vastly different patterns
of development, and the Himalayas still stand between India and China, a
towering reminder of two vastly different civilizations.
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: The Eurasian land
mass has become a string of overlapping missile ranges, with crowds in
megacities inflamed by mass media about patches of ground in Palestine
Counterintuitive though it may seem, the way to grasp what
is happening in this world of instantaneous news is to rediscover
something basic: the spatial representation of humanity's divisions,
possibilities and—most important—constraints. The map leads us to the
right sorts of questions.
Why, for example, are headlines screaming about the islands of the
South China Sea? As the Pacific antechamber to the Indian Ocean, this
sea connects the energy-rich Middle East and the emerging middle-class
fleshpots of East Asia. It is also thought to contain significant stores
of hydrocarbons. China thinks of the South China Sea much as the U.S.
thinks of the Caribbean: as a blue-water extension of its mainland.
Vietnam and the Philippines also abut this crucial body of water, which
is why we are seeing maritime brinkmanship on all sides. It is a battle
not of ideas but of physical space. The same can be said of the
continuing dispute between Japan and Russia over the South Kuril
Why does President Vladimir Putin covet buffer zones in Eastern
Europe and the Caucasus, just as the czars and commissars did before
him? Because Russia still constitutes a vast, continental space that is
unprotected by mountains and rivers. Putin's neo-imperialism is the
expression of a deep geographical insecurity.
Or consider the decade since 9/11, which can't be understood apart
from the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq. The mountains of
the Hindu Kush separate northern Afghanistan, populated by Tajiks and
Uzbeks, from southern and eastern Afghanistan, populated by Pushtuns.
The Taliban are Sunni extremists like al Qaeda, to whom they gave refuge
in the days before 9/11, but more than that, they are a Pushtun
national movement, a product of Afghanistan's harsh geographic divide.
Moving eastward, we descend from Afghanistan's high tableland to
Pakistan's steamy Indus River Valley. But the change of terrain is so
gradual that, rather than being effectively separated by an
international border, Afghanistan and Pakistan comprise the same
Indo-Islamic world. From a geographical view, it seems naive to think
that American diplomacy or military activity alone could divide these
long-interconnected lands into two well-functioning states.
As for Iraq, ever since antiquity, the mountainous north and the riverine south and center have usually been in pitched battle. It started in the ancient
world with conflict among Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians. Today the
antagonists are Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. The names of the groups have
changed but not the cartography of war.
The U.S. itself is no exception to this sort of analysis. Why are we
the world's pre-eminent power? Americans tend to think that it is
because of who we are. I would suggest that it is also because of where
we live: in the last resource-rich part of the temperate zone settled by
Europeans at the time of the Enlightenment, with more miles of
navigable, inland waterways than the rest of the world combined, and
protected by oceans and the Canadian Arctic.
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
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 for the strategic challenge posed to
the West by China, we 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
In no part of the world is it more
urgent for geography to inform American policy than in the Middle East,
where our various ideological reflexes have gotten the better of us in
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.
Finally, there is the problem of Iran,
which has vexed American policy makers since the Islamic Revolution of
1979. The U.S. tends to see Iranian power in ideological terms, but a
good deal can be learned from the country's formidable geographic
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. Moreover, from the western side of the Iranian plateau, all
roads are open to Iraq down below. And from the Iranian plateau's
eastern and northeastern sides, all roads are open to Central Asia,
where Iran is building roads and pipelines to several former Soviet
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.
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.
But before geography can be overcome,
it must be respected. Our own foreign-policy elites are too enamored of
beautiful ideas and too dismissive of physical facts-on-the-ground and
the cultural differences that emanate from them. Successfully navigating
today's world demands that we focus first on constraints, and that
means paying attention to maps. Only then can noble solutions follow.
The art of statesmanship is about working just at the edge of what is
possible, without ever stepping over the brink.
—Mr. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for
Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm. This article is adapted
from his book, "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About
Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate," which will be published
Tuesday by Random House.