Robert Kaplan’s cover story in the latest issue of Foreign Policy — their “Big Think” issue — centers on “The Return of Geography.” The premise is that this is the era of realism, which brings with it the “revenge of geography in the most old-fashioned sense.” Indeed, Kaplan argues, realism is based on geography, the “bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic” of all realities. And that is a good thing, for the time has come for a return to the Victorian era when “mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.”
As a description of the Victorian era, this leaves a good deal to be desired: Marx, the issue’s cover boy and for many years a resident of the Victorian British Library, would not have agreed that geography was destiny. But once you get past Kaplan’s 2007-era fixation with how badly the Iraq War is going, and if you ignore his bizarre claims that, for instance, “local, ethnic, and religious sources of identity . . . are best explained by reference to geography,” the essay settles down. After passing by Fernand Braudel, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Nicholas Spykman in quick review, Kaplan lays the crown of modern realism on the head of Sir Halford Mackinder, the great British scholar of geopolitics and author of, among other works, an influential 1904 essay on “The Geographical Pivot of History.”
Mackinder divided the world — in 1904 — into three areas: the pivot (the landlocked portions of Russia), the inner circle (Britain, Europe, the Middle East, India, South East Asia, and Japan), and the outer circle (the Americas). The story of history was the pressure the pivot brought to bear on the inner circle, and the efforts of the inner circle — aided by the outer — to resist. For Mackinder, the crucial geopolitical development was the rise of railways, and industrialization more generally, which were reducing the historic advantage of sea-power, and, specifically, of Britain’s hegemony over the inner circle. The flash point, he believed, was the border of India, for it was there that Britain and Russia would meet.
Kaplan is trying to update Mackinder for the modern age, while retaining his emphasis on the controlling role of geography. As he puts it, today we need the “authors who thought the map determined nearly everything, leaving little room for human agency.” Understandably, Kaplan points to Eurasia — extending from Japan through the Middle East, and north into Russia — as the zone of destiny. It might be objected that including everything except Europe, the Americas, and Africa does not provide much focus, but, for Kaplan, that is the problem: “contra Mackinder, Eurasia has been reconfigured into an organic whole.” The division between the pivot and the inner circle has been erased, and “A Eurasia of vast urban areas, overlapping missile ranges, and sensational media . . .[with] constantly enraged crowds” constitutes the “shatter zone” of the future, with the familiar array of problems — from Syrian meddling in Lebanon to the rise of the Chinese navy — all fitting into it.
These problems do exist. But Kaplan’s thesis that Eurasia is now an organic whole sorts ill with his claim that geography matters more than ever. Just because something happens in physical space does not make it geography, and all Kaplan’s supposedly unifying developments — urbanization, religious radicalism, and bad governments here, there, and everywhere — are very much driven by people and ideas. His praise for Mackinder is therefore curiously appropriate, because Mackinder was one of those rare authors who combined great sense and tremendous nonsense in very close proximity. His insight into the declining advantage of sea power, and the advantages of industrialization, were keen — much keener than those of his contemporary, the great navalist Mahan. But when it came right down to it, he was simply reiterating the conventional wisdom of his day: that Britain’s greatest strategic challenge was the Russian threat to India, enabled by the expansion of the Russian railway system.
This was entirely wrong. The greatest threat to Britain turned out to lie on the Franco-German border, a location to which Mackinder devoted no attention whatsoever. When in 1919, in a book on Democratic Ideals and Reality, which still repays reading, he turned to the question of what should be done to secure Europe after the Great War, Mackinder tacitly recognized his earlier failure. In 1904, what mattered to him was the pivot area. By 1919, Mackinder evolved an entirely new thesis, which he presented as a logical development of his old one: as he put it, who controlled Eastern Europe controlled the pivot, who controlled the pivot controlled Eurasia, and who controlled Eurasia controlled the world. In other words, the key to world power lay in Poland and the Balkans, and in the rivalry between the German and Slav, the rivalry that had sparked the Great War.
In 1919, that — again — was conventional wisdom, dressed up as insight derived from careful study of the enduring features of geography. In fifteen years, Mackinder moved from emphasizing the centrality of controlling Siberia and the threat to India to emphasizing the centrality of German-Russian rivalry and the importance of Poland. Any theory supposedly based on immutable realities that can jump around so rapidly, and so obviously in response to the concerns of the day, is not worth very much. Mackinder was not wrong about everything — the emphasis on Poland looked pretty good in 1939 — but that simply goes to show that, like Kaplan, he was intelligent, well-informed, and wrote about a lot of problems. Anyone with those qualifications who does the same is likely to get similar results, even if they are mostly dispensing the verities of the day.
Mackinder made real and enduring contributions in a few areas — centrally, the creation of the British institutional emphasis on geography — and he did advance a few insights of enduring value. But in essence, he was a fairly standard-issue late Victorian imperialist of the Joseph Chamberlain school of imperial unity through protectionism. His recommendations were, mostly, the conventional wisdom of that school, though enlivened by a sweep and authority of presentation that few contemporaries matched. He is still read today, and that, too, is a real achievement: not many from that school can say the same. And it’s a good thing that he’s read: he is no more irrelevant to our day than many of the other great Victorian thinkers. But to place him the pillar as the key to his age and ours is more than he, or any other single thinker, deserves.