The Revenge of Geography – Robert D Kaplan

The Revenge of Geography

What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

By Robert D. Kaplan

This fourteenth book by Robert D Kaplan attempts to bend our views on political lines on the contours of relief maps of geography.

The book is spread over three parts.

The Revenge of GeographyIn the Part IVisionaries – of the book, Robert D Kaplan builds on the insights, discoveries and theories of the great geographers and geopolitical thinkers of the near and distant past to look back at the critical pivots in history and then builds the platform to look forward at the evolving global scene. Kaplan traces the history of world’s hot spots through the learning their climates, topographies and proximities to other embattled lands.

In the Part IIThe Early-Twenty First Century Map -, Kaplan then applies the lessons learned from the present crises in the Europe, Russia, China, The Indian Subcontinent, Turkey, Iran and The Arab Middle East.

The part IIIAmerica’s Destiny – is devoted to the past, present and the future of USA’s foreign policy w.r.t the North America.

We will also take a three-part look at the contents of the book here . In the first part we will delve into the Preface and Chapter II – The Revenge of Geography – of Part I (Visionaries) of the book. Our second part will take a look at Chapter XII – India’s Geopolitical Dilemma – of Part II (The Early Twenty First Century Map) of the book. Our concluding part will be based on Chapter XV – Draudel, Mexico and Grand Strategy- of Part III (America’s Destiny) of the book.

The PrefaceFrontiers – contains material from four earlier titles – Soldiers of God (1990), An Empire of Wilderness (1998), Eastward to Tartary (2000) and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (2007). The mountains are a conservative force, often protecting within their defiles indigenous cultures against the fierce modernizing ideologies that have too often plagued the flat ends, even as they have provided refuge to Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels in our own era. .. In the times of upheaval, maps rise in importance. With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next…When you look at the divided-country scenarios in the 20th century -Germany, Vietnam, Yemen – it is apparent that however long the division persisted. The forces of unity ultimately triumph, in an unplanned, sometimes violent and fast-moving fashion…

We all need to recover a sensibility about time and space that has been lost in the jet and information ages, when the elite moulders of public opinion dash across oceans and continents in hours, something that allows them to talk glibly about ‘flat world’….

Geography – the description of the Earth – has often been associated with fatalism and therefore stigmatized: for to think geographically is to limit human choice. However, study of relief maps and population studies add another layer of complexity to the conventional foreign policy analyses and finds a deeper and powerful way to look at the world. The more we look out over the span of centuries, the more the geography plays a role…Even as we send satellites into our outer solar system, and even as financial markets and cyberspace know no boundaries, the Hindu Kush still constitutes a formidable barrier.

In the Chapter II – The Revenge of Geography – Hans J Morgenthau (Politics Among Nations : The Struggle for Power and Peace) begins his argument by noting that the world is the result of forces inherent in human nature. And human nature is motivated by fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos) and honour (doxa). “To improve the world, one must work with these forces, not against them.” The human nature makes for a world of incessant conflict and coercion. The tendency to dominate is the natural element of all human interactions, especially those of the states. Power only limits power.

Realists value order above freedom – the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. Sovereignty and alliances rarely occur in a void; they arise out of differences with others.

The map is spatial representation of human divisions. Maps don’t always tell the truth. They are often as subjective as any fragment of prose. Maps are materialistic, and therefore, normally neutral. Maps, even though being dangerous tools, are crucial to any understandings of the world politics.

Nature imposes, man disposes. The man’s actions are limited by the physical parameters imposed by geography. But these contours are extremely broad, so that human tendency to has more than enough room to maneuver…. The higher proportion of world’s most feeble economies are observed to be land-locked. The tropical countries (between 450 North and south latitude) are generally poor. The most high-income countries are in middle and high latitudes. East-west oriented temperate zone of Eurasia is better off than north-south oriented sub-Saharan Africa, because technological diffusion works much better across common latitudes where climatic conditions are similar. It is no accident that 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 rail-heads.

America and Britain could champion freedom only because the sea separated them from ‘the landlord enemies of liberty’. The militarism and pragmatism of continental Europe through the mid-twentieth century was the result of geography, not of character. Competing states and empires adjoined one another on a crowded continent. European nations could never withdraw across an ocean in the event of a military miscalculation. Thus their policies could not be grounded by a universalist morality. The two oceans gave America not only the luxury of their idealism, it was also that these oceans gave America direct access to the two principal arteries of politics and commerce in the world – Europe across the Atlantic and East Asia across the Pacific.

Geography, history and ethnic characteristics influence but do not determine future events. Robert Kaplan certainly succeeds in provoking our thinking on the geography as it was yesterday and as it is going to be tomorrow. As Eric Kaufmann notes, the first-order geographical effects like lack of natural barrier as a security threat, strategic proximity to sea-lanes and resources or suitability for bases and pipelines have attained new meaning in the context of the present and future legacy issues in view of the rapidly changing hard and soft technology. The second-order effects like restive national identities or the third-order fundamentalist religion culture have become untethered from their geographical moorings. Kaplan implores us to be mindful of the limits, posed by dirt, rock, and distance to our Utopian desire to bring forth a better world.


Robert Kaplan discusses his book, The Revenge of Geography, which illustrates how timeless truths and natural facts can help prevent this century’s looming cataclysms.

In the  second part of our look at the The Revenge of Geography on 20th December 2015, we will take up India’s Geopolitical Dilemma.