I just finished reading Robert Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” and it was awesome! It is long, but provides an interesting overview of how geographers think about geopolitics and history. Kaplan discusses a variety of arguments for why geography matters, but the basic position is that geography is critical for understanding tensions between nations throughout history and in the present. I would characterize the book as emphasizing a soft version of geographic determinism: geography is not destiny, but it damn sure matters! As you would expect, Kaplan emphasizes why geography is an important between-state or between-area variable. But, perhaps more interestingly, he discusses the permanence of geography in specific areas and the consequences for state-building. Basically, how the history of states is defined by repeated struggles with geography.
One of the more interesting topics (I thought), was a critique of American foreign policy in Afghanistan as a distraction from the real concern: a border dispute with Mexico. He begins this discussion by emphasizing scales of time, basically describing short-term and long-term consequences of particular actions by states. He argues (as have others) that the U.S. involvement in these areas is shortsighted because America does not have a great deal to gain from developing functioning institutions in this area. The countries that will gain the most are those that are contiguous and starting to make investments in Afghanistan. In particular, he argues that China has the most to gain, as it has been devoting resources to developing an infrastructure in Afghanistan (mostly roads apparently). Rather than focusing attention in countries that are not geographic threats, U.S. foreign policy should focus on dealing with a coming crisis with a contiguous geographic region: Central America.
The contiguous border aspect is central to Kaplan’s critique. He argues that the relatively isolationist policy of America (historically European countries have not had this option), is predominately a function of our geography: there is an ocean between the U.S. and the other, densely populated continents. Although the U.S. shares a contiguous border with Canada, the majority of the population lives on that border as there is little population development in the northern areas of Canada. This is fundamentally different than the border shared with Mexico. Kaplan argues that because Central America has a rapidly expanding population, there will be an extreme sovereignty dispute in the southwest over the next century.
An interesting part of Kaplan’s argument is that, despite the inclination to treat the new wave of immigration as similar to immigration in the past, the immigration of Mexican and Central Americans is not comparable to the immigration of Europeans for two reasons. First, there is a natural barrier between Europe and North America (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean). This natural barrier made it much easier to handle flows of populations because it was an uninhabitable physical space, preventing the development of contiguous populations. In other words, this is a barrier that is real (i.e. it exists due to geography). In contrast, there is no geographic barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Rather, it is an artificial/political barrier that is the consequence of historical contingencies. As Kaplan emphasizes throughout the book, the majority of world conflicts occur when there are borders without geographies (he spends a great deal of time explaining why Germany and Russia have long struggled with this issue). The second difference is that Mexican immigrations have greater solidarity. Although European immigrations developed enclaves in Northeastern and Western cities, these were relatively small. In addition, there was no collective identity of "European". Rather, there were strong ethnic conflicts based on the geographic regions of origin. Kaplan argues that, in contrast, there is a collective identity among immigrations from Mexico which is a consequence of geography. The ability to maintain social ties across the border facilitates the diffusion of capital and other resources between family members. This was very different from the disruption of social ties that occurred for European immigrants. Basically, immigration of Europeans and the immigration of Central Americans are not comparable due to a single difference: geography.
Overall, I found the book very refreshing. My training in sociology primarily focuses on the role of institutions in explaining the successes or failures of states. Why did dynasties in China fail? Because of bureaucracy and the lack of development of market capitalism. This is an argument about institutions. Kaplan’s book brings a different perspective, emphasizing that the geography of states is central to foreign policy and development.