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Importance of geography in world politics

Geography, not the clash of civilizations, is the basic reason for the world conflicts, insists Robert Kaplan in "The Revenge of Geography."

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The West has been chastened by the war in Iraq, argues Robert D. Kaplan in The Revenge of Geography, an article published in Foreign Policy Magazine in 2009. He says that, like the war in Vietnam, the Iraq war was provoked mainly by fear.

Today, we are more realists in contrast with the 1990s when the western world was very idealistic, says Kaplan. But idealism and fear were among the main causes for the break out of the war in Iraq.

Idealism, a feature of the last years of the 20th century, was a direct result of the fall of communism; and the fear that replaced idealism as a major "psyho-political" mood for the beginning of 21st century, was a direct result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. America was flushed with success in the end of the Cold War and it wanted to preserve this precious world of the 1990s. The surprise and disappointment that the terrorist attacks caused had turned into a rage and fear, and the world's most powerful nation reacted to the new threat in a way that can be described as a "panic." The reason and political prudence in American politics have returned uncertainly, but only after the sobering effect of the Iraq war.

Today's realism, says Kaplan, is more than mere opposing of the wars in Middle East. "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. 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."

Kaplan says that realism in international politics demands a better understanding of geography. The geography is one of the basic factors that determine the events on the international scene. The importance of geography has been forgotten by the politicians, who believed that globalization dilutes the differences caused by geography. Indeed, says Kaplan, globalization reinforced the significance of geography. Mass communications and economic integration has been weakening many states, exposing a Hobbesian world of small, fractious regions. Kaplan's advice is that Western politicians and strategists need to "return to the map," and particularly to what he calls the political geography of the "shattered zones" of Eurasia.

In The Revenge of Geography Robert Kaplan makes a synopsis of the most influential geopolitical theorists - the French historian Fernand Braudel (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II), the U.S. naval captain and author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 Alfred Thayer Mahan, Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman, and the father of modern geopolitics Sir Halford J. Mackinder ("The Geographical Pivot of History").

Writing his world history Fernand Braudel did not underestimate the importance of geography. Behind the historical trends and events he saw environmental forces. To Braudel, for example, the poor, precarious soils along the Mediterranean, combined with an uncertain, drought-afflicted climate, spurred ancient Greek and Roman conquest. This means that people and states often do not control their own destinies. There is something more than desires and rational plans, something that pushes their will in one or another direction... and it is geography - climate, terrain, soil, and neighbors.

Alfred Thayer Mahan thought that the naval power had always been the decisive factor in global political struggles.

Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia.

Mackinder's work, says Kaplan, is the archetype of the geographical discipline. His understanding of geopolitics was summarized in one sentence: "Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls." Mackinder looked at European history as "subordinate" to that of Asia, for he saw European civilization as merely the outcome of the struggle against Asiatic invasion. Key discoveries of the Columbian epoch, Mackinder writes, only reinforced the cruel facts of geography. In the Middle Ages, the peoples of Europe were largely confined to the land. But when the sea route to India was found around the Cape of Good Hope, Europeans suddenly had access to the entire rimland of southern Asia, to say nothing of strategic discoveries in the New World.

The wisdom of geographical determinism, says Kaplan, endures across the chasm of a century because it recognizes that the most profound struggles of humanity are not about ideas but about control over territory, specifically the heartland and rimlands of Eurasia. Of course, says Kaplan, ideas matter, and they span geography. And yet there is a certain geographic logic to where certain ideas take hold. Communist Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and North Korea were all contiguous to the great land power of the Soviet Union. Classic fascism was a predominantly European affair. And liberalism nurtured its deepest roots in the United States and Great Britain, essentially island nations and sea powers both. Such determinism is easy to hate but hard to dismiss.

In his article Kaplan depicts a kind of catastrophic future in which geography serves as a common base for numerous changes, conflicts and possible cooperation between states. He quotes Yale University professor Paul Bracken who in 1999 warned that there is no room anymore in the world and especially in Eurasia (Fire in the East). The lack of empty geographical space for expansion, combined with the population growth explosion, crowd psychology of impoverished masses, and technological development, the possession of weapons of mass destruction by countries such as North Korea, Pakistan and probably soon Iran, makes our world extremely dangerous place.

Kaplan supports his view of importance of geography with concrete examples of present and smolder conflicts in Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. He compares these zones of conflict with the earthquake faults that need attention and understanding in order to avert the devastation from future shocks.

Kaplan finishes with following: "In this century's fight for Eurasia, like that of the last century, Mackinder's axiom holds true: Man will initiate, but nature will control. Liberal universalism and the individualism of Isaiah Berlin aren't going away, but it is becoming clear that the success of these ideas is in large measure bound and determined by geography.Geographical determinists must be seated at the same honored table as liberal humanists. Embracing the dictates and limitations of geography will be especially hard for Americans, who like to think that no constraint, natural or otherwise, applies to them. But denying the facts of geography only invites disasters that, in turn, make us victims of geography." Montreal Review READ MORE

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