The End of American Dominance in Robert Kaplan’s ‘The Revenge of Geography’

Robert Kaplan argues that geography predicts America's fall. Historian Ian Morris on why Kaplan is unfortunately right.

Jamey Stillings, Stockbyte / Getty Images

If you are as old as me, you may remember Sergeant Joe Friday from the classic detective show Dragnet and his trademark line “Just the facts, ma’am.” Shutting out all emotion, refusing just to believe what everyone around him believed, Friday always got the bad guy and brought him to justice.

Robert Kaplan’s outstanding new book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate is the Joe Friday view of the world. It serves the facts straight up; it is unvarnished, perhaps a little cold, and not very cheerful, but it is realistic. Kaplan concedes that compared to the apocalyptic, good vs. evil views that so many politicians spout, “Realism is not very exciting”; but while that may be true, realism does have the undeniable advantage of … well … being real.

So if you want to know what’s really going on in the world, The Revenge of Geography is the place to start. Kaplan seems to have been everywhere (“Of all the times I have crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” he tells us in passing, “I never did so legally”), met everyone, and worried about everything.

After the Berlin Wall came down, Kaplan suggests, too many Americans started to feel omnipotent, talking blithely about the end of history and the coming of a flat world. In the kind of mea culpa that we should perhaps expect from someone so committed to realism, Kaplan confesses he was among this intoxicated crew. His writings on the Balkans in the 1990s helped convince Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo, and he actively lobbied the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003.

But that, for Kaplan, was where things went wrong. It was in the backstreets of Baghdad, he says that he began to understand the revenge of geography.

Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, strategists had argued that a few basic facts about the planet drove the rise and fall of the great powers. One was the centrality of the Eurasian heartland, the great bands of steppe that runs from Hungary to Manchuria and acts as the geographical pivot of the Old World. Whoever dominates this, the strategists argued, can project power into the rich rimlands of Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. It was this insight that fueled the “Great Game,” the extraordinary cat-and-mouse contest between explorers, spies, and armies that Britain and Russia played out in the 19th century, with access to India as the prize.

The second secret of global strategy was control of the oceans. When Britain ruled the waves—thanks to its hugely advantageous geographical position as a large island off the western edge of Europe—it could strike at will anywhere around the rimland, and from there could, with due caution, push into the heartland. When the United States took over Britain’s job—thanks to its unique position with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—it inherited the same strategic hand.

Regardless of ideologies—the coming and going of the French Revolution, liberal democracy, fascism, communism, and Islamism—says Kaplan, these simple geographical facts have driven history. The World Wars were really about whether Germany would dominate the heartland; the Cold War was really about whether Russia could push out from the heartland to control the western rim. “Who rules East Europe,” says Kaplan (quoting the words of an Edwardian theorist), “rules the world.”

The problem with simple principles, of course, is that they get messy when translated into practice. It was this messiness that made America’s projections of rimland power into the heartland in Afghanistan and Iraq so difficult, and Kaplan devotes the bulk of his book to explaining how the current messiness works.

In the first few chapters, he summarizes the thinking of great but now largely forgotten strategists and historians who used to put geography front and center, as well as the distortions of their thinking in Nazi Germany. It is fascinating stuff, and Kaplan explains their occasionally rather complicated ideas in clear, concise prose. What makes it all the more interesting is his palpable frustration with the contemporary theorists who have contrived to forget these fundamental ideas.

The main part the book of is a grand tour, looking at how geography will shape the strategic options of Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran, the Middle East, and America in the 21st century. Regular readers of Kaplan’s columns in The Atlantic will recognize some of this material, and one of my very few grumbles with The Revenge of Geography is that in stitching together a decade’s worth of important ideas, Kaplan has left a few ragged edges of repetition. But read as a single, sustained essay, his global vision is compelling.

The big question this survey leads to, Kaplan says, is “How does America prepare itself for a prolonged and graceful exit from history as a dominant power?” As he sees it, three trends make such an exit likely: the chaos of the Middle East, the rising power of China, and the potential disintegration of Mexico. The first, he says, will push US power out of the Eurasian heartland; the second will shove it out of the West Pacific and perhaps the Indian Ocean, too; and the third will dissolve US control of the vital Caribbean Sea routes. In the last ten years, Kaplan says, America has done too much to try to control the first factor, not enough to control the second, and practically nothing to control the third.This is rather grim stuff, and it runs directly against the insistence in some circles that Western culture and values will ultimately triumph over all opposition, provided that Westerners stay true to their principles. But few of the self-satisfied pundits pushing this line have taken geography very seriously, either as a factor in America’s rise to global power or as a possible prime mover in its 21st-century troubles.

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Kaplan’s realism and willingness to face hard facts make The Revenge of Geography a valuable antidote to the feel-good manifestoes that often masquerade as strategic thought. But if I could have asked Kaplan to add just one more thing to this entertaining, informative, and troubling book, it would have been a request for a genuinely Joe Friday moment.

Friday did not give us just the facts; he also locked away the dangers, making for a safer tomorrow. But in the real world, Kaplan seems to suggest, we never get to do that.