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Kaplan’s Map and the Disquieting of the Humanists

November 23, 2010

This post is probably a year too late, but in the midst of a continuing studies on Mahan, Mackinder and geopolitics, I thought some commentary on Robert Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” was worthwhile. Having recently read Monsoon, which Kaplan calls one of his more optimistic works, I revisited this paean to realism and geographic determinism.

I am certainly partial to realism and nobody would mistake me for a liberal optimist in the IR sense. But Kaplan seems to start on the wrong foot when he claims:

Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization.

While realism certainly does insinuate a darker future for interstate relations than domestic political arrangements, Kaplan here is defining realism on his own terms. This is the realism of geographic and cultural determinists, surely, but is it the realism of Morgenthau, Niebuhr, or even Hobbes? After all, Hobbes does not predicate his grim view of the “war of all against all” on differences – cultural, geographical or historical – he predicates it on the equality of human desires and wants, and the lack of authority to adjudicate competing claims over scarce resources and human passions. Indeed, classical realists, often to extremes, base their arguments on innate human wills to power, not cultural or geographic molding, just as neorealists, often to extremes, base their arguments on the innate features of anarchy.

Kaplan’s desire is to rehabilitate geographic determinism to balance the liberal humanism of Isiah Berlin and Cold War triumphalism. I can see the worth in such a project, but Kaplan’s piece distorts and even discredits the ideas of the very thinkers he is looking to promote. Kaplan explains his choice of intellectuals:

If you want to understand the insights of geography, you need to seek out those thinkers who make liberal
humanists profoundly uneasy—those authors who thought the map determined nearly everything, leaving little
room for human agency.

He goes on to list historian Fernand Braudel and naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. I cannot speak for Braudel, but Mahan, at least, does not belong in a list of geographic determinists. Despite Mahan’s belief in the decisive role of sea power, Mahan’s emphasis was on creating grand strategies and instructing leaders in principles of naval warfare. By virtue of this mission, Mahan was looking to create strategy, not prophecy. His Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 does open with a chapter on the factors affecting the development of sea power, which geography does strongly figure into. Yet taking this as a manifesto of geographic determinism misses the point. A large portion of the book detail’s France’s chance at seizing control of the seas, and how through strategic mismanagement or poor leadership, it failed to do so. Rather than condemning France to the dustbin of history on the basis of its chimerical position as both inherently a land and sea power, Mahan sought to show how political and military leadership could leverage sea power to decisively change history. Furthermore, given Mahan’s preference for a system of free trade and international commerce, along with his strong Christian beliefs, it is difficult to clearly categorize Mahan as an opponent of liberalism, humanism, or idealism.

The main show is Kaplan’s treatment of Mackinder, jazzing up his 1904 “The Geographical Pivot of History” for the pages of Foreign Policy. However, Kaplan chooses to present Mackinder as a geographic determinist, a distinction Mackinder himself sought to reject and a charge that followers of Mackinder have tried to rebut ever since. Indeed, Kaplan’s attempted popular rehabilitation of Mackinder recreates the figure that many geographers and strategists find so unsettling – the geographic determinist who inspired Karl Haushofer and other German theorists of geopolitik.

Kaplan’s Mackinder stems really only from his 1904 Pivot paper, which presents a highly misleading view of Mackinder himself. After all, Mackinder’s set out his general beliefs on geographic methods in an 1887 piece, and he wrote numerous works after the Pivot paper about concepts such as manpower and imperial education before writing his 1919 Democratic Ideals and Reality. The latter work updated Mackinder’s theories, and became so influential during WWII that he reprised his geopolitical model a third time in an essay for Foreign Affairs. Mackinder lived through the dawn of airpower and found it unimpressive, believing that air power would not alter fundamental strategic realities – a judgment that some modern strategists and IR theorists might agree with.

Mackinder’s importance as a theorist does not come from his geographic determinism. They come from his ability to provide a conceptual map for policymakers and thinkers to prioritize and organize information. As Colin Gray has pointed out in his defense of Mackinder, Clausewitz did not “invent” friction, nor did Mahan invent sea power, but both provided theoretical constructs to make these ideas useful to strategists. Ibn Khaldun and Montesquieu came up with geographic determinations of culture and politics long before Mackinder. Even the Federalist Papers hint at the relationship between geographic insularity and republicanism that Kaplan notes. Jared Diamond today could give the average reader everything geographic determinism had to offer without any help from Mackinder’s theories. No, Mackinder’s theory rejected fatalism, and interpreted geography’s meaning in the light of changing demographic, technological, and political contexts, and then identified regions and methods that statesmen could use to confront these new conditions. Mahan and Spykman, at their geopolitical best, undertook similar enterprises. In emphasizing geographic determinism over these geostrategic aspects of these theories, Kaplan reinforces the attacks on geopolitical thought as pseudoscientific, fatalist and irrelevant.

As Joshua Foust at Registan noted, Kaplan ignores a wealth of latter-day geopolitical scholarship and lets his fascination with the idea of geographical determinism and Victorian so-called realism make confused judgments about particular regions. Kaplan is right in general to praise geopolitical thinkers, but the sort of geopolitical hypotheses that Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman produced were far more useful because they did not pretend to determine events at the individual level of history. Kaplan, riffing off of Paul Bracken’s Fire in the East and perhaps the unmentioned theories of Ratzel and Kjellen, argues that the distinctions Mackinder and Spykman identified between the heartland and rimland no longer exist. This characterization robs geopolitical theory of its usefulness for grand strategy, and leads Kaplan to instead play up geographical determinism as an explanation for any and every issue in the region. Instead of providing the strategic focus and geographic limits that geopolitical theorists did, Kaplan merely highlights threats everywhere and uses geographical determinism to argue that idealism cannot stop them. Geographical determinism, which Kaplan sometimes simply uses to describe the territorial aspect of political disputes, which seems a gross abuse of the term, thus becomes an open-ended justification for intervention and involvement everywhere.

Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman did not think the seafaring peripheral states needed to maintain an imperial presence everywhere, instead, they spoke of the need to balance geopolitical regions in Eurasia against each other. They were not concerned with issues of lebensraum, but with the potential of a Eurasian hegemon to challenge the strength of the sea powers. For all Kaplan’s desires to unsettle liberal humanists, he settles on a group of thinkers, who, in reality, are relatively amenable to their interests and world views. In distorting the views of the Anglo-American geopolitical thinkers, Kaplan sets up a dichotomy among Atlanticist idealists and realists. However, he leaves out the ideas of those thinkers who would truly upset liberal humanists – the German school of geopoliticians.

Kaplan’s opposition of realism and idealism neatly resolves itself in favor of the same old arguments Kaplan and other thinkers like him have advocated for years. Asia’s dissolution into “organic whole” eliminates the ability to set geopolitical priorities that make a realistic policy of balancing possible, and instead conceives of instability anywhere as a threat everywhere. Models are dissected, distorted, and re-applied. Kaplan compares the geographic logic of Iranian expansion to Russia’s – the logic is not at all similar to that of the Heartland. Iran, unlike Russia, has warm water sea access and does not have a relative power vacuüm to expand into that is impenetrable to rival states. Yet Kaplan sees enough similarities to return to a very conventional solution: containment.

Kaplan commands the reader to “seek out those thinkers who make liberal humanists profoundly uneasy” – yet Kaplan himself seems most wary of the company he might keep. I do not know whether Kaplan is familiar with Ratzel, Kjellen, and Haushofer, but a basic academic treatment of geopolitics would include their work and general principles (although the scarcity of English translations means the actual texts are relatively unknown to today’s Anglo-American politicians). One wonders if Kaplan himself was too uneasy to include the logical conclusion of his celebration of geographical determinism – the German school of geopolitik, the shadow of which formal geopolitical theorists have sought so strenuously to avoid. For all his talk of disquieting the humanists, Kaplan ultimately does not stray far into controversial territory – the quasi-imperial project of putting the “shatter zones” into order is palatable so long as it speaks Victorian, and not Wilhelmine or social Darwinist.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2010 10:44 pm

    I’ll come back and read this post fully sometime in the next few days. But for now just want to say that I don’t think Kaplan’s classification of Braudel as a geographical determinist is accurate. I’ve read some, not an enormous amount, of Braudel, but enough to be quite confident of this. Geography he thinks is important but not all-determinative: otherwise, to take a small example, Part III of Vol. I of his ‘The Identity of France’ probably would not be called “Was France invented by its geography?” but rather by some other title, one without a question mark.


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