Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Interview with Robert Kaplan on the Revenge of Geography

I felt the mighty wrath of geography when I was in Afghanistan.  For three days the base where I was staying received non-stop snow.  The total amount of snow was over three feet (about one meter).  For those three days plus the next four flights in and out were cancelled due to the poor weather and visibility in the valley bowl we were in.  Meanwhile, the one main road was rendered impassable because of the snow drifts.  I repeatedly had to go on the roof of our building to clear the wind blown snow off the satellite dish in an attempt to keep our little base in contact with the outside world.

On a microscale I was a victim of geography.  The physical terrain and the climate made the base's location prime for being buried in snow.  Meanwhile on the macroscale I was victim yet again because I was in Afghanistan because of Pakistan's grand scheme to ensure geographical depth against India, control trade routes to Central Asia, and its desire to have a safe zone to train Islamist militants for its over war Kashmir.

Author Robert Kaplan wrote the Revenge of Geography as an examination of geography, past trends in geographical analysis, and to tackle today's geopolitical problems in a geographic perspective.  I am still reading the press review copy I received and will review it as soon as I am done.  However, in the meantime Mr. Kaplan was kind of enough to do a short interview with me.

Geographic Travels:  What inspired you to take a specifically geographical look the world's problems?

Robert Kaplan:  The media is obsessed with the power of ideas to the exclusion of all else. I decided to have a look at the power of physical forces that are so obvious that they go unmentioned.
Geographic Travels:  How has geography helped you better understand the world?

Robert Kaplan: 
Nothing is so insightful about world events as a map. It shows you why Iran can dominate Iraq, why Taiwan retains de facto independence from China, why America must be sea power, and so forth.
Geographic Travels:  The title of your book is "The Revenge of Geography".  What is this "revenge" you speak of? 

Robert Kaplan: 
In Bosnia and Kosovo the U. S. military, especially the Air Force, defeated geography. But in the next decade geography got its revenge against the U. S. military in the mountains, deserts, and alleyways of Afghanistan and Iraq. The humbling of the U. S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq is one of the starting points for my exploration.
Geographic Travels:  Did any previous works by geographers inspire you in your research (for your book)?

Robert Kaplan: 
The first half of the book constitutes long profiles of great geopoliticians and historians who were heavily influenced by geography.
Geographic Travels:  Some geographers have hit back at your ideas claiming you are a geographical determinist (example).  How do you respond to these claims?

Robert Kaplan: 
A reasonable person must be a partial determinist. That is because human choice operates against a backdrop of natural forces, especially geography. Without deterministic forces to struggle against, human agency would lose its moral significance. The French philosopher Raymond Aron and the British historian Norman Davies have both indicated that history is made up of both deterministic and non-deterministic forces, as well as of accident. In my book, I explain Aron's "probabilistic" determinism.
Geographic Travels:  If policy makers and the general public were to learn only one thing from your book, what would you want that lesson to be?

Robert Kaplan:  There are limits to what we can accomplish in the world. We can't do whatever we want whenever we want all the time. And those limits are best expressed through geography.

1 comment:

andreasmoser said...

Sorry, but this book is just full of incoherent nonsense: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/revenge-of-geography/ I could not go on reading it after detecting a handful of factual and logical flaws in the first couple of minutes of listening to Mr Kaplan.