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The Revenge of Geography

In The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, author Robert Kaplan offers a new way in which to view the global upheavals and to understand what lies ahead for continents and countries around the world.

Here are some interesting excerpts:

Democracy and morality are not synonymous

Democracy and morality are simply not synonymous. “All nations are tempted—and few have been willing to resist the temptation for long—to clothe their own particular aspirations and actions in the moral purposes of the universe. To know that nations are subject to the moral law,” he (Hans J. Morgenthau) goes on, “is one thing, while to pretend to know with certainty what is good and evil in the relations among nations is quite another.”

The world’s most feeble economies

Check the list of the world’s most feeble economies and note the high proportion that are landlocked. Note how tropical countries (those located between 23.45 degrees north and south latitudes) are generally poor, even as most high-income countries are in the middle and high latitudes. Note how temperate zone, east–west oriented Eurasia is better off than north–south oriented sub-Saharan Africa, because technological diffusion works much better across a common latitude, where climatic conditions are similar, thus allowing for innovations in the tending of plants and the domestication of animals to spread rapidly. It is no accident that the world’s poorest regions tend to be where geography, by way of soil suitability, supports high population densities, but not economic growth—because of distance from ports and railheads. Central India and inland Africa are prime examples of this.

Champions of Freedom?
The historian John Keegan explains that America and Britain could champion freedom only because the sea protected them “from the landbound enemies of liberty.”

Geography Informs

Geography informs, rather than determines. Geography, therefore, is not synonymous with fatalism. But it is, like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on—and instigator of—the actions of states.

The most interesting part of the book for me was surprisingly not on geography but rather on disruptive technologies. Quoting Paul Braken’s Fire in the East, Kaplan writes:

As Asian industrial power becomes aligned with Asian military power, (Paul) Bracken writes, the continent is literally running out of room for mistakes and miscalculations, becoming, in effect, “the shrinking Eurasian chessboard.”

To this shrinking chessboard, Bracken adds the destabilizing factor of “disruptive technologies”: technologies that, rather than help sustain leadership and the current global power structure, “undermine it by disrupting the status quo.” Such technologies include computer viruses and weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and biological bombs.

Bracken writes:

Disruptive technology changes the game. By upsetting existing advantages, it nurtures new skills and fosters different strategies. The resulting uncertainty shakes up the established order and changes the standards by which leadership is measured.

The book, however, has been criticized for its historical generalizations as well as the lack of geographic logic applied to China and Iran.