Sunday, May 11, 2014

Geography: Bigger Splash than Godzilla

by Bill Doughty

Robert D. Kaplan's amazing "The Revenge of Geography" explores history, geopolitics and "the battle against fate" through his own ideas and by incorporating the ideas of other strategic thinkers like Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman and Braudel.

His work explains how and why the Navy balances power in oceans far from the continental United States, and his conclusion leads to a provocative proposal much closer to home.

Kaplan introduces us to Frenchman Fernand Braudel's broad history over time, "in which every detail of human existence is painted against the canvas of natural forces."

Braudel perceived history in three varying wavelengths of time: at the base, (1) landscape that is "slow, imperceptibly changing geological time." Next, (2) a faster wavelength with "systemic changes in demographics, economics, agriculture, society and politics." Finally, (3) the shortest-term  cycle, "the daily vicissitude of politics and diplomacy that are the stuff of media coverage." Kaplan writes:
"Braudel's analogy is the sea: in the deepest depths is the sluggish movement of water masses that bear everything; above that the tides and swells; and finally at the surface, in (Oxford archeologist Barry) Cunliffe's words, "the transient flecks of surf, whipped up and gone in a minute."
That puts into perspective Monica Lewinsky, Youtube cat videos, the Kardashians, Donald Sterling and most other popular culture -- even Godzilla. They're just sea spray in the wind.

Kaplan is instead concerned with the depths of geography and history over millennia -- the influence of mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans and natural resources, especially oil -- and the impact of population growth, urbanization, global climate change, democracy and overall human nature.

Published in 2012, two years before Putin took Crimea and threatened an invasion of Ukraine (which held faux elections this weekend), Kaplan explains why the Russian president had his sights on Ukraine, "suddenly challenging Europe." Russians were deprived of the benefits of the Renaissance because of invasions by Mongols. Russia was attacked on both sides in the previous century, by Japan and Germany. Because of their place in geography and history, Kaplan says, they continue to gravitate to autocratic leaders and blind nationalism.

"Truly, the Russian climate and landscape are miserably rugged and as such hold the keys to the Russians' character and to their history," Kaplan writes.

Writing more than a century ago, many years before the World Wars, creation of the Soviet Union and Cold War, Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan in "The Problem of Asia" discussed Russia's vulnerability, being so far from the Indian Ocean. Mahan predicted that Russia's dissatisfaction would readily take the form of aggression.

Writes Kaplan, "Mahan emphasized the importance of China, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. It is no coincidence that in 1900 he is able to identify the pivotal states of geopolitical significance in our own time: for geography is unchangeable."

However, Kaplan acknowledges that a warming Arctic is creating new sea power lanes, the widening of the Panama Canal will create significant changes in our hemisphere, and communication technology is changing geography virtually.

Cobra Gold opening ceremony in 2014, Photo by Spc. Tyler Meiester.
Naval War College professors James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, whose work is discussed in detail in Kaplan's "Monsoon," contribute their study of China's maritime perspective in "Revenge." Other NWC professors, Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, show how the politics in he South China Sea make it an Asian Mediterranean in the twenty-first century and where the future for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force may be as part of a "concert of power" with other nations.

Millions of mainland Chinese visit Taiwan in 270 flights per week, where they can visit book stores and see free-spirited political talk shows on TV.  According to Kaplan, "a more open China is certainly more of a possibility than a repressive one."
"Navies have multiple purposes beyond fighting, such as the protection of commerce. Sea power suits those nations intolerant of heavy casualties in fighting on land. China, which in the twenty-first century will project hard power primarily through its navy, should, therefore, be benevolent in the way of other maritime nations and empires in history, such as Venice, Great Britain, and the United States: that is, it should be concerned mainly with the free movement of trade and the preservation of a peaceful maritime system."
In "Revenge" Kaplan explores not just Russia and China in great detail but also India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. His is a sweeping description of migration, invasion, revolution, religion, peace and war.
France's Fernand Braudel, 1902-1985.
Among other thinkers and authors cited in "revenge" are Thucydides, Herodotus, Toynbee, Solzhenitsyn, Darwin, Jared Diamond, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Huntington, Nikolas Gogol, W. Bruce Lincoln and George Orwell.

In 2014's world of big ideas and big thinking, Thomas Piketty is the rage, with his bestselling "Capital In the Twenty-First Century" warning about the dangers of income inequality and wealth disparity.

But another Frenchman, Fernand Braudel (who wrote about the Mediterranean and North Africa's Sahara while a captive of the Nazis in World War II), is presented by Kaplan in the context of today's challenges.
"In an era of climate change, of warming Arctic seas opening up to commercial traffic, of potential sea-level rises that spell disaster for crowded, littoral countries in the tropical Third World, and of world politics being fundamentally shaped by the availability of oil and other commodities, Braudel's epic of geographical determinism is ripe for reading. In fact, Braudel with his writings about the Mediterranean establishes the literary mood-context for an era of scarcity and environmentally driven events in an increasingly water-starved, congested planet."
Kaplan brings his insights home in the final chapter, "Braudel, Mexico and Grand Strategy," where he says our country's destiny is north-south, not the "sea-to-shining-sea" east-west.
USS Independence (LCS 2) in Manzanillo, Mexico. Photo by PO2 Trevor Welsh
"While we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to affect historical outcomes in Eurasia, we are curiously passive about what is happening to a country with which we share a long land border, that verges on disorder, and whose population is close to double that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined." We should pay attention to Mexico in part because, "American GDP (is) nine times that of Mexico" -- the largest income gap of any tow countries next to each other in the world.

Kaplan's startling conclusion in "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflict and the Battle Against Fate" is that Mexico may be more important than China.