“To know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy,” wrote Napoleon Bonaparte, who was nevertheless dealt a harsh lesson in that very subject during the bitter Russian winter of 1812. Kaplan analyzes this very concept in The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012) where he describes his belief that mankind must “never give in to geography, but we must be fundamentally aware of it in our quest for a better world.” To do so, understanding its effects throughout history is paramount. It is geography, perhaps more than any other factor, which contributes to the rise and fall of civilizations. For thousands of years, nations have fought to secure access to trade routes, strategic terrain, natural resources, and of course for “breathing room.” The link between geography and strategy has even spurred its own field of study: geopolitics.
And despite advances in satellite communications and air travel, the sources of competition and conflict continue to lie in the folds of the map. Even now, as the United States embarks upon an unprecedented “pivot” in its foreign policy, it is imperative to understand how geography will shape the strategic environment throughout the 21st century.
Kaplan offers a fresh and timely analysis on the historical impacts of geography by drawing on both his experience as foreign correspondent for The Atlantic and his thorough research for the book. In the book’s final chapter he warns America’s pivot to Asia may overlook its greatest foreign policy opportunity: building an enduring partnership with Mexico to safeguard our most vulnerable flank.
History of Geography
Revenge draws heavily upon two geopolitical writers of the early 20th century who would ultimately forecast the most significant power struggle of our age. Sir Halford Mackinder, often called the “father of modern day geopolitics,” proposed in 1904 that the mass of Europe, Asia, and Africa—which he termed the “World Island”—could be dominated by any power which controlled the “Heartland,” the central steppes in Asia which forms modern-day Mongolia and much of the former Soviet Union. Rich in mineral wealth and easily traversed by horse cavalry, the steppes were natural invasion routes for horse-borne incursions into Europe from the East, particularly the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. Heartland thus became the home of many of the world’s most formidable land-based powers.
During the Second World War, however, Yale professor Nicholas Spykman proposed the idea of a reciprocal to Heartland, known as “Rimland.” This Rimland was a seafaring, largely democratic periphery which currently surrounds the Heartland and generally runs through the Pacific rim, along the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and finally to the Atlantic.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Mackinder’s Heartland—roughly analogous to the Communist world—would find itself contained by Spykman’s Rimland—which would eventually consist of anti-Communist alliances such as NATO, CENTO, and SEATO. It should come as no surprise that the overlapping regions between Rimland and Heartland would be among the Cold War’s most notorious hot spots—Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Heartland and Rimland Today
Kaplan takes the reader on a modern-day tour of Heartland and Rimland with stops in Russia, China, Iran, India, and Turkey foreshadowing along the way future global tension points. Undoubtedly, these actors will compete with the United States throughout the 21st century for natural resources, secure borders, and access to key land and sea routes. As the United States “pivots” towards the Pacific, Kaplan warns, so too will these key actors continue to jockey for power.
Kaplan predicts Russia and China will continue to compete for influence within Mackinder’s Heartland, with Russia focusing its attention towards its eastern port of Vladivostok and China seeking resources from its western neighbors in Central Asia. China, moreover, will continue to spread its influence throughout Rimland as it builds its air and naval forces along its eastern coastline—a development not unnoticed by American observers.
Meanwhile, key regional powers such as Iran and India will also exert greater control of their own traditional spheres of influence. Kaplan suggests that Iran’s meddling in Iraq—of which American forces are painfully aware—is consistent with a tradition of Persian involvement in Mesopotamia dating back thousands of years.
Likewise, India—one of the world’s major Rimland powers—will attempt to spread its influence into Pakistan and Afghanistan, which it considers as part of its traditional geographic realm. This development could have profound implications for stability in that region, a fact which the United States should be mindful of as it begins to forge an enduring strategic partnership with New Dehli. Moreover, changing demographics will cause Turkey—another Rimland power—to pivot away from Europe and towards the greater Middle East, another development which may affect the United States and NATO.
Each of these developments is of great importance as the United States embarks upon a major rebalance of its foreign policy. Yet, as the U.S. disengages from its land wars in the Middle East and pivots to Asia, it potentially ignores its geographic Achilles’ heel—one which Kaplan argues will inevitably play a key role in American affairs in the next century: Mexico.
Geography: America’s Exceptionalism
Although Kaplan does not dedicate any specific section to discussing the geography of the U.S., he uses our geographic endowment as a reoccurring theme throughout. The United States is located in an area of prime real estate for a democratic superpower. Kaplan makes the connection that nations with extensive sea access—like Rimland—have traditionally been the most fertile grounds for commerce and democracy. The Anglosphere nations in particular—Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States—tended to rely on their coastlines for protection rather than standing armies and fortifications. Many believe that this made the Anglosphere less susceptible to the militarism and dictatorships which came to dominate parts of Continental Europe.
With little to fear from overland invasion, the United States’ rise to power lay on its ability to focus its energy on commerce. An abundance of warm-water ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean opened the United States to unprecedented trade and communication with the world. In addition, a vast network of inland waterways linked the agricultural and industrial heartland of the United States with the sea, allowing even the Upper Midwest access to the global commons.
Access to both oceans also allowed the United States Navy to dominate the Atlantic and Pacific beginning with the Second World War, a luxury the U.S. Armed Forces enjoy to this day. As military geographer John Collins notes, sea-faring powers have the initiative to strike wherever and whenever they choose, because the sea gives them ample opportunity to break contact with the enemy (Collins, John. “Military Geography for Professionals and the Public”. National Defense University Press: Washington, DC., 1998, 278). For this reason, superpowers like the United States traditionally invested heavily in naval power.
Contrasting America’s geographic advantages with those of Mexico helps explain why the income disparity between our two nations—a three-fold difference—is the greatest of any two contiguous countries in the world.
Temperate zones, such as those in much of the United States, are conducive to agriculture. Additionally, the U.S.’ east-west orientation allowed for easier transportation and communication, and there were also fewer climate zones to traverse. Conversely, few countries in the tropics emerged as economic powerhouses, and roughly half of Mexico lies below the Tropic of Cancer. Mexico’s terrain is also mountainous and rugged, so much so that Kaplan points out that if flattened, it would be the size of Asia. These mountain ranges impeded Mexico’s efforts to solidify into a homogenous geographic and political unit. This issue was further exacerbated by Mexico’s predominant north-south orientation, as well as the relative isolation of Mexico’s Yucatan and Baja peninsulas. The result, Kaplan writes, was a compartmentalized country unable to distribute its resources.
“Mexico,” the author writes in the concluding chapter, “is a possible disaster that our concentration on the Greater Middle East has diverted us from.”
A Shared Fate: Mexico and the United States
Mutual interests and 2,000 miles of shared border mean Mexico’s problems are our problems as well. As Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, who leads the U.S. Army’s outreach program with the Mexican Army, recently wrote, “[S]imply put, Mexico matters to the United States.” Although Kaplan dedicates only one chapter to the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, this chapter is perhaps the most important of his book.
With a population of over 114 million—a figure which has doubled over the past twenty years—our southern neighbor is the 11th most populous nation in the world. According to the World Bank, Mexico’s gross domestic product at purchasing power parity exceeded $1.7 trillion in 2011, making it the 11th largest economy in the world as well. In fact, Mexico has become the U.S.’ third largest trading partner—only slightly behind China—with more than one billion dollars’ worth of goods crossing our border each day. Mexico also exerts a very powerful cultural influence within the United States: 30 million Americans are of Mexican descent and over one million Americans reside in Mexico. In contrast, Canada—one of America’s closest NATO allies—has a GDP roughly three-quarters that of Mexico and a population less than one-third as well. Highlighting this growing economic and cultural exchange, Kaplan argues the United States must partner with Mexico during the 21st century as closely as it did with Canada during the 20th.
Although most Americans consider Mexico distinct from the United States, geography is once again working to bring our nations together. Mexico’s divisive geography essentially separates its northern border states from their capital in Mexico City, as well as from the rest of the country. As a result, Kaplan describes, many northern Mexicans have their own identity, calling themselves norteño, and seeing themselves distinct from residents in Mexico City.
But just as geography separates the norteños from the rest of Mexico, it pushes norteños closer to the U.S. Many portions of the U.S.-Mexican border were the result of land treaties and purchases, with little thought to ethnography or geography. In fact, much of the American southwest was Mexican territory until the mid-19th century. As with many regions in which borders run through distinct ethnic and geographical boundaries, we find that Mexico’s norteños culturally align themselves with the United States. To reinforce this notion, Kaplan interviews a U.S. Customs official, who during extensive travel through Mexico’s northern border region had yet to meet a single Mexican with more than one degree of separation from the United States.
As the United States and Mexico become closer partners, Mexico’s problems will undoubtedly become our problems as well, and vice versa. While the United States has been fixated on the Middle East, it has lost sight of a dangerous situation emerging right on its very border: the ever-mounting death toll in the battle between the Mexican government and drug cartels. This battle is fueled in no small part by high demand for illicit drugs in the United States. Ciudad Juarez, located directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, has the grim distinction of perhaps being the most violent city in the world.
Revenge describes the historical effects of economic equilibriums between neighboring states that lack a major geographic separation. Historically speaking, borders between a highly developed society and a less developed one will cause the former to regress towards the latter.
Therefore, it is clear our future relations must focus on collaborating to tackle these issues and work to bridge our economic, cultural, moral, political, and military inequalities. Security cooperation, in particular, is not unprecedented between our nations—the U.S. and Mexico worked closely to combat banditry for nearly two centuries. Both the U.S. and Mexico have undergone a major resurgence in military-to-military relationships, including extensive engagements between senior military officials. To put these efforts in perspective, in fiscal year 2009, U.S. Army North—the U.S. military’s lead agency for military-to-military relations with Mexico—participated in just three partnered training exercises with its counterparts in Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA). By fiscal year 2012, that number had grown to nearly 100.
Though Kaplan’s vision of the U.S. in 2050—a “Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization” (or more simply, a super-state consisting of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico) is a little far-fetched, few can deny the important role Mexico will play in the 21st century. As the United States pivots to the east, writes Dr. Robert Bunker in a paper published by the U.S. Army War College, it must also “Half-Pivot” to the south.
And so geography—the physical reality of the terrain—will continue to drive communication, competition, and perhaps even conflict. Over a decade of warfighting in nations which bear the legacy of arbitrarily drawn borders has shown that the seas, steppes, and mountain ranges will continue to play just as large a role in the Information Age as they did in the era of Alexander.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.