‘Reading History, Reading Geography’

Image of cadets and faculty listening to Robert Kaplan speak

Robert Kaplan addresses cadets, faculty, and the community in Cameron Hall. – VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.

LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 7, 2016 – “Technology has not defeated geography. It’s made it more intense.”

That’s what bestselling author and geopolitical scholar Robert D. Kaplan told Virginia Military Institute faculty members, cadets, and members of the local community at academic convocation, held earlier today in Cameron Hall as a ceremonial start to the 2016-17 year.

Kaplan, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, used the occasion of his speech at VMI to discuss how the world, for all of its technological advances, still has problems so deeply rooted in geography that they very well may be insoluble.

“A lot of the problems of the world have no solutions,” Kaplan declared. He explained that factors such as trade routes, mountains, ports, and other features of the landscape, whether natural or manmade, essentially determine a nation-state’s destiny.

To illustrate this point, Kaplan took his listeners on a virtual tour of the world and explained that the roots of many of today’s conflicts can be found either in the landscape itself or in national borders carelessly drawn by outsiders, who in many cases were colonial imperialists.

Europe, home to many of the most advanced civilizations on the planet, had forgotten just how close it was to North Africa – until waves upon waves of migrants began literally washing ashore, Kaplan explained.

“Geography was forgotten by European elites at their peril,” said Kaplan, who has written 16 books on foreign affairs and travel and is currently a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

The speaker went on to say that much of Europe’s current situation can be explained by looking at the ancient empires that once ruled the continent. Today’s European Union is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, which was once part of the Carolingian Empire ruled by Charlemagne, and, as Kaplan noted, has always been the wealthiest part of Europe and thus a center of power and influence.

The southern countries of Europe, especially those of the former Soviet bloc, have traditionally been poor. Those countries were first ruled by the Ottoman Empire and then the Warsaw Pact. “It’s no wonder that the Balkans were unstable after the Warsaw Pact collapsed,” Kaplan noted.

Russia, which Kaplan termed “the ultimate insecure land power,” can never let down its guard because its enormous land mass is unprotected from both the Europeans and the Chinese by natural borders such as mountains, Kaplan explained.

“Russia requires a buffer zone in central and eastern Europe,” Kaplan said. He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin knows what rulers centuries before him knew: invasion is always a threat. Putin’s strategies for creating that buffer zone – including intimidation, subversion, and bribery – have drawn much criticism from the West, Kaplan noted, but to Putin, they are vital defense maneuvers.

“He feels that this is the minimum he has to do in order to recreate that buffer zone, so that Russia will never again be threatened from the west, as it has throughout its history,” Kaplan remarked.

“There is much that’s reprehensible in Vladimir Putin’s policy, but simply because it’s reprehensible doesn’t mean it’s not understandable,” Kaplan commented, “and that understanding comes from reading history, reading geography in order to think about Russia from the point of view of the Russian leadership, not from our point of view.”

China, with a gigantic geographic reach that matches the span from Maine to the Florida Keys, has much potential for economic growth. “China is big and endowed, and it has the geographic capability to be a great power,” Kaplan remarked.

On the other hand, China, like Russia, is threatened by outsiders. In China’s case, those outsiders are the peoples of the plateaus, who were the traditional enemies of the Han Dynasty, which was the cradle of Chinese civilization. “China can never trust people on the periphery,” said Kaplan.

The speaker went on to say that China also faces an uphill climb as it tries to gain control of the South China Sea and the key shipping lanes through the Strait of Malacca – but a glance at U.S. history will explain why the Chinese value this area so highly.

The United States, Kaplan argued, rose to prominence because it established dominance in the Caribbean through the Panama Canal. To the Chinese, the Strait of Malacca is just as vital as the Panama Canal has been to the United States, because if China controlled the Strait of Malacca, it would then be a two-ocean superpower instead of a one-ocean regional power.

“The Chinese – we may see them as unreasonable, but that’s unreasonable from our point of view, not their point of view,” Kaplan said. Addressing the cadets, Kaplan added, “As future leaders, you need to be able to think from their point of view, and especially their history. The world is not an extension of America’s historical experience.”

As with Russia and China, problems of empire, especially empires that have crumbled, plague the Middle East and are the root cause of much of the region’s instability, Kaplan remarked. Kaplan drew a sharp distinction between what he termed “age-old clusters of civilization,” such as Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt, and “vague geographical expressions,” among them Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

Nations that are built around ancient civilizations tend to be more stable than those created artificially, Kaplan noted, and even more importantly, they don’t need harsh dictatorial regimes to hold them together and at relative peace.

Kaplan explained that the crumbling of both Libya and Iraq could be called “the collapse of states that were never states to begin with.” He added, “Syria is just a concept of the old Ottoman Empire.”

Iran, Kaplan noted, is not only an ancient civilization and thus a permanent player on the global stage, but also a key nation for U.S. foreign relations. “The United States will need to have some kind of a relationship with Iran in order to influence the Middle East,” Kaplan said.

In closing, Kaplan advised the cadets in the audience to be “geographers, in the 19th-century sense of the word.” He urged his listeners, “Use the map as a starting point to get very curious about history, culture, ethnicities. … That’s where real learning begins.”

–Mary Price



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