Interview: Robert Kaplan, Author Of 'The Revenge Of Geography' | Maps And The Fate Of The World To understand many of the triumphs, tragedies and conflicts in the world, geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan says to look no further than a map. In his book The Revenge of Geography, Kaplan argues that geography is central to understanding the history and future of world affairs.
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How 'Geography' Informs The Fate Of The World

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How 'Geography' Informs The Fate Of The World

How 'Geography' Informs The Fate Of The World

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Culver City, California, at NPR West. Why is the United States the world's preeminent power? Why does China bully its neighbors in the South China Sea? Why does Russia's policy toward Eastern Europe look so much like the Soviets', or for that matter, the czars'?

In a new book, Robert Kaplan offers a way to find the answers to those questions. Look at a map, he says. Begin with the familiar Mercator projection that shows political borders, but then study relief maps that show mountains and deserts, rivers and coastlines. Of course, individuals and social movements are important, but geography drives history, too, and under the pressures of urbanization, technology and climate change, geography is changing.

We want to talk with students of history today. Call and tell us how geography drove history or didn't. Give us examples. 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West on poverty. But first, Robert Kaplan's new book is called "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate." He joins us from Studio 3A, and nice to have you back on the program.

ROBERT KAPLAN: It's a pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And if we begin with the crisis of the day in Libya, you argue that we see the countries along the southern coast of the Mediterranean incorrectly, that they're - it's not right to see them as really part of Africa. They're really part of Europe.

KAPLAN: Yes. Fernand Braudel, the great environmentalist and geographer in France in the middle and early part of the 20th century, wrote that Europe's real border is not the Mediterranean. Its real southern border is the Sahara Desert, and that North Africa - thinking back historically over millennia - is integrated into Europe. It's only been in recent decades that it hasn't been.

But with the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in North Africa, North Africa may be starting the slow, gradual process - however unwieldy and sometimes violent it may be - to integrate it back into Europe.

For instance, the Arab Spring began in the most Europeanized of all Arab countries, Tunisia, only eight hours by slow ferry to Sicily. For many centuries, Tunisia was as integrated with Italian politics, as was Sicily. But yet the revolt started south of a line dug by a Roman general, Scipio, in the second century BC, which demarcated the Roman zone, and south of that line, development, roads were always much, much less.

So we can sum up and say that the Arab revolts started - the Arab Spring, rather, started in the most Europeanized country in the Arab world, but in the part of that country that since antiquity, right up until today, has suffered unemployment and underdevelopment.

CONAN: And so then we go to the east and to Egypt, a country which has, for millennia, as we've studies its history, been under the iron grip of one man. Sometimes that grip slips.

KAPLAN: Yes. The thing to remember about Egypt - or about North Africa, I can say - is that Morocco, what is today - what is today Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt were age-old clusters of civilization. And what is today Algeria and Libya were but vague geographical expressions. As sprawling, vague geographical expressions, they've required intense, austere tyranny to hold them together and don't have many strong state structures at all, particularly in Libya's case. But Egypt is different.

Egypt has the desert on each side of the Nile to protect it. Everyone lives in the Nile Valley. It's protected from invasion from the Mediterranean because of the great Nile Delta. The winds blow south, so that you can travel along the Nile southward. But the river flows north, so historically, you could travel north along the river, as well.

In other words, Egypt was geographically a cohesive community, and thus the government in Egypt today is much more institutionalized and bureaucratized and is able to project power much better than the nascent, new government in Libya.

CONAN: And to move on to another crisis in the Middle East of the day, Syria and the geography of that country, what does it tell us about the prospects that a liberal democracy might emerge there?

KAPLAN: Well, I would say that geography teaches several stories in Syria. In this book, I'm very careful not to be deterministic, to say, number one, democracy - geography in many places tells many stories. And number two, there is such a thing as human agency, the decisions of men, our responsibility before history. Vast, impersonal forces can be overcome, but first by realizing how formidable they are.

And what I'm doing in this book is showing how formidable they are. Let's take Syria. Syria, too, is a vague, geographical expression that, in Ottoman times, had no real borders. It started in the southern ridge of the Anatolian Highlands and stretched down into the desert wastes of what is today Saudi Arabia. It included today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and western Iraq.

But yet the truncated modern state that goes by that name Syria includes all the ethnic groups - Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Christians, Sunni Muslims - all the differing ethnic and sectarian groups that existed also in that greater Syria of the Ottoman imagination, so that Syria, in a bad way of looking at geography, is a potential Yugoslavia in the making, with regionally based ethnic groups.

But there is another side to this that is more positive, which is Syria has a future as a congeries of sectarian and ethnic groups united by commerce along the Mediterranean, much like early-20th-century Beirut, Smyrna or Alexandria.

CONAN: Well, that explains the part of Syria that's along the border. That's the Alawite part of the - along the Mediterranean, rather, that's the Alawite part of the country. There's a lot of the rest of Syria.

KAPLAN: Yes, there is. But Syria's identity is still oriented in the Levant, the French for where the sun rises, on the eastern border of the Mediterranean. And Syria has been organically connected to Lebanon, which is an intensely Mediterranean society. The demographic map of Syria would show a cluster of black dots where everyone lives huddled near the border of Lebanon in the Damascus-Homs-Hama corridor.

That may not be on the Mediterranean, but it's in the vicinity of the Mediterranean, and it's a useful peg for looking at a positive outcome for the Syrian crisis.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor and the author of "The Revenge of Geography." We want those students of history out there to call and tell us how geography drives history or doesn't: 800-989-8255. Email: And we'll start with Shannon, Shannon with us from Charleston, South Carolina.

SHANNON: Hello. Thanks for having me on. I always love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

SHANNON: So the company that - actually, the country that came to mind for me was Poland. You know, they say the Polish people were born with a brick in one hand and a sword in the other, because they were attacked by everybody from the Mongols to the Swedes and the Germans and the Russians and...

KAPLAN: Yes...

SHANNON: No natural borders.

CONAN: Yeah, and it's not even existing from, what, 1920s till after the Second World War.

KAPLAN: Yes, Poland is lucky, in a way, now, because geography is also about natural resources. And Poland has significant amounts of shale gas underneath the ground that could make it a mini-energy power in the 21st century that can give it real leverage in terms of its relationship between both Russia and Germany.

Poland also is - it's now a member of NATO. It's - you know, I believe it's a member of the EU. Russia is not going to reconstitute the Warsaw Pact. It's going to try to establish buffer zones in Eastern Europe. We could get to that later. But Poland has advantages today that it did not have in centuries past.

Remember, geography is dynamic. It's always changing. We can talk later about how technology is changing it, but new energy discoveries are also changing it in the same way. I would say that Poland is the emerging pivot state of Europe, because if the Russians are able to reclaim - in a practical sense - Ukraine, which they seem to be on the way to doing, there's going to be a quiet battle over Poland between the EU and NATO, and Russia on the other hand.

SHANNON: Well, I'm sure Poland is used to that by now.


SHANNON: Thank you for your show.

CONAN: Indeed. Thanks very much for the phone call. And, of course, I misspoke. Poland was not a political entity before the First World War, not the Second World War. But the - as you look at the future of that part of Europe, indeed, Robert Kaplan, you say middle Europe, this idea that existed - well, sort of an ephemeral idea, but nevertheless - we need to make it less-than-ephemeral. We need to put it into practice.

KAPLAN: Yes. I start the book in my first chapter about the term Central Europe, or Mitteleuropa, which was rediscovered or re-energized, I would say, by intellectuals in the latter part of the Cold War, around the mid-1980s. In other words, the Cold War threw up two geographical concepts: Western Europe and Eastern Europe, with Germany divided in the middle, with all of that to the east being these gray, boring, repressed satellite states.

And what the intellectuals brought up is, no, much of what is occupied by the Soviet Union was a vibrant, romantic, liberal cafe culture redolent of good wines and great thinkers like Freud and great artists like Klimt, and we have to regain this sense of Central Europe between East and West.

And as I take people through the whole book and all the formidable challenges that geography presents to us, I can only end the book by coming back to that concept of Central Europe because it's the term of creating these liberal, humanist spaces that has to be the ultimate goal of American foreign policy, because policy has to have a purpose.

It cannot just be self-interest of the nation. For a nation to have an identity, it requires an idealistic purpose of some sort. And I boil it down - after going all around the world from Europe to Mexico - as saying that it's the drive to expand Central Europe across Eurasia.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kaplan about his new book, "The Revenge of Geography." More to your calls in a moment. Call and tell us examples of how geography drove history or didn't: 800-989-8255. Email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, at NPR West. Why does President Vladimir Putin covet buffer zones in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses, just as the czars and commissars did before him? In "The Revenge of Geography," Robert Kaplan argues that the most important fact about Russia is that it's a flat plain that extends from Europe to the Far East, with few natural borders anywhere. That creates what he describes as a landscape of anarchy, in which every group is permanently insecure.

This feeling of defenselessness, in turn, inculcates the need for conquest. But because the land was flat and connected to the immensity of Asia and the Middle East, Russia itself has been conquered. While other empires rise, expand, collapse and are never heard from again, Kaplan concludes, history and geography demonstrate that we can never discount Russia.

Russia's partial resurgence in our own age following the dissolution of the Soviet Empire is part of an old story. You can read more from "The Revenge of Geography" in an excerpt at our website. That's at We want to talk with students of history today. Call with examples of how geography drove history or didn't. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email:

And let's see if we can go to Mitch, and Mitch is with us from Cincinnati.

MITCH: Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.


MITCH: I'd like to hear your opinion on the role geography played in English history. I think England has been particularly blessed with being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. It's never needed a standing army, and, in fact, an invading army hasn't succeeded in even putting one foot on English soil for hundreds and hundreds of years.

CONAN: I think since 1066. But anyway, go ahead.

KAPLAN: Yes. First of all, just one more thing about Russia: Russia's rivers flow north to south, not east and west. In other words, they don't unite the country. They divide it. So they make it even more and more vulnerable. Back to England: Yes, England, because it's an island, had geographical protection, which aided the development of an open parliamentary system over hundreds of years.

There was one writer - I think it was Alexander Hamilton, I'm not sure. But it is quoted in my book as saying that if England were a land power rather than a sea power, if England were a continental nation like Germany rather than an island nation like it is, England, rather than become democratic, probably throughout the medieval and early modern era, would have fallen under the despotism of one man.

John Keegan, the late military historian who just died recently, wrote that it's not an accident that democracy developed as vibrantly as it did both in England and in the United States, because the United States is a virtual island with the Atlantic and the Pacific on either side, with the Canadian Arctic to the north, and is threatened only by the prospect of Mexican demography to the south.

CONAN: And that answers - oh, thanks very much, Mitch.

MITCH: Thank you. Have a great day.

CONAN: OK. And that answers that question that we posed first, at least in broad strokes: Why is America, the United States, the predominant power in the world?

KAPLAN: Yes. America has more miles of inland waterways than almost anywhere else in the world. It's in the temperate zone. It was the last great swath of the temperate zone to be comprehensively settled during the European Enlightenment. To the north is Canada, but Canada only has a tenth of the population of the U.S. It's middle-class, same standard of living, and 90 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

So Canada, in geographic and demographic terms, is just a slight northern extension of the United States. It's in the south, in Mexico, that I write in the final chapter of the book where the United States really faces a geographical challenge.

CONAN: And that, you say, should be the focal point of American foreign policy.

KAPLAN: Well, I raised that idea by quoting a number of realist scholars. What I conclude is that there's really three fundamentally important areas in U.S. foreign - in U.S. international policy - not to put down the others, but three, really. The first two will surprise nobody: China and the Greater Middle East. But I put Mexico in the same category.

And I do because Latin history is moving north. The average age of the average Mexican is in his mid-20s, late 20s. The average age of the average Guatemalan or Honduran is 20. The average age of the average American is 37. We're a much older society. Like it or not, we're going to need a lot more people from south of the border to fill jobs and to work our economy so that the baby boomers and the aging society can retire.

Also, in the south, there is no - there is no natural border, per se. The Rio Grande is very narrow. There's a lot of - a lot of the border is arbitrary. The differences in the standard of living between Mexico and the United States might actually be the greatest difference in living standards of any two contiguous countries of the world, absent North and South Korea, or maybe one or two other examples like that.

Now, Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, wrote in the early 20th century that when you have a border, an arbitrary border between an underdeveloped society and a relatively developed society economically, the border, over time, does not stay stable. It moves in the direction of the underdeveloped society's favor.

CONAN: You talk about borders and how impermanent they are. The idea - at least in modern terms - was set by the Treaty of Westphalia and the broad idea that France for the French, Germany for the Germans, Italy for the Italians and Great Britain for the Britons, and too bad for the Scots and the Welsh and the Irish.

Anyway, but in any case, this sort of idea - which was then transposed on the rest of the world by colonialism and borders drawn sometimes willy-nilly in dividing ethnic and linguistic groups. But nevertheless, this idea of these borders predicated on the idea that people would not move. And, of course, people have always moved.

KAPLAN: Yes. One of - you know, I'm a fan of old and dead writers, because at some time, we're all going to be old and dead, and we hope that our ideas are not forgotten and they help ease the path in the future. One of the - one of the writers whose ideas I develop in the book is William Hardy McNeill, the great University of Chicago historian, whose basic theory of world history is not of civilizations fighting, but of civilizations interacting and flowing into each other through the migration that you speak of, Neal.

So we have constant migration, and yet we need borders merely for the sake of practical national organization. Most - many borders are arbitrary. What I try to do - for instance, in my section on Iran - is to look beyond borders and say that while Iran's actual borders may be arbitrary, the fact of a Persian people living on the Iranian Plateau has been a permanent feature of history since antiquity and gives a country like Iran a legitimacy and stability that many other countries in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa lack.

CONAN: Here's an email from Travis in Honolulu: Hello. It seems like Japan's long history as both an isolationist, then imperialist power was driven by geography.

KAPLAN: Yes. Japan was protected from the seas, but it was always part of the East Asian conflict system, particularly today. Remember, in 1998, the North Koreans fired a missile over Japan, landing in the Pacific Ocean to the east of it. That did more than any studies or white papers in the Japanese foreign and defense ministries to convince Japanese officials that despite their island status, they were now very much a part of the East Asian conflict and security system.

And what we see going on in Japan now is that its attitude towards its military is normalizing. It's no longer quasi-pacifistic. It's developing impressive niche capabilities in Special Forces, in submarines, in other things. And as China's sea power grows - and we can talk about how that's a function of geography - Japan is also remilitarizing.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Sean(ph), Sean with us from Fairbanks.

SEAN: Hi. I was going to comment on how history has actually shaped geography here in Alaska. The Russians occupied Alaska, and then sold it to the United States, but the Brits were offering much more money. The United States paid $7.2 million for Alaska, which was thought to be a stellar deal, even though we never made it back. But the reason the Russians sold to the Americans instead of the British was because of the war in the Crimea. They didn't want the British so close to Russia, and so they sold it to the United States for much less money. And so this is a reason why I am now living in the United States and why...

CONAN: And why you speak such good English.

SEAN: There you go.

KAPLAN: That is absolutely fascinating, and what that shows is geopolitics. The book is - my book, "The Revenge of Geography," is really about the influence of geography on geopolitics. Geopolitics is the battle of - is the struggle for space and power and how often nations that are next to each other can be enemies while a nation far away can be a friend balancing against the enemy.

The British and the Russians were in a struggle in the Crimea over the future of Turkey, over the future of - of the weakening of the Ottoman Empire. Britain was afraid of Russia - again, this is an old story - about Russia extending its influence into Eastern and Central Europe across Anatolia. That was one of the many reasons behind the Crimean War.

And so Britain, as the caller said, sold Alaska to the United States. And I can say that Alaska has been a great strategic instrument for the United States military, because when you look at a map closely, we see Alaska is far to the north, but it's also far to the west, with the Aleutian Islands stretching just over the international dateline.

It's a great jumping-off point for monitoring the Pacific, was a great jumping-off point - this is often forgotten - for Lend-Lease to Russia during World War II. Lend-Lease was not just about arming Britain. It was about arming the Soviets against the Nazis.

SEAN: Catherine the Great referred to Alaska as the Crown of the Pacific.


CONAN: Nice phrase.

KAPLAN: Nice phrase.

CONAN: Thanks, Sean.

SEAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kaplan about his new book, "The Revenge of Geography." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email question from Mary in Binghamton, New York: You said, in reference to Russia, that rivers that run north and south divide a country. Rivers that run east and west unite a country. Why is that so?

KAPLAN: Well, it's so in Russia's case because Russia extends over half the longitudes in the world. So it is desperately in need of something that unites European Russia and Far Eastern Russia. The rivers might have served that purpose had they run east and west, but because they don't, they infernally divide the country.

For instance, the Yenisei, which I believe divides Western Siberia from the area east of the Urals, can be three miles wide at some points. So imagine what an impediment that was in earlier ages of technology.

You have the Lena dividing Eastern Siberia from the Russian Far East. Then you have all the mountain ranges in the Russian Far East. I believe there are seven of them that make it infernally difficult for Moscow to project its power. And Russia's real problem is that Russia has only 141 or 144 million people. Russia's population for this half the longitudes of the Earth is less than the population of Bangladesh.

CONAN: And let me ask you about a concept you introduce in this book, the idea that many people - takes them aback for just a second, the idea that geography is changing. Wait a minute. There isn't any more or less land unless the sea rises much more rapidly than we think it is. Geography, you say, is changing on the basis of technology and urbanization and, of course, climate change.

KAPLAN: Yes. There's a whole chapter in the book called "The Crisis of Room," where I talk about how - and this was a concept first developed by Yale Professor Paul Bracken in 1999, where Professor Bracken said that the very finite size of the Earth is an instrument of instability, because as the population grows, as megacities get bigger and bigger, as missile ranges overlap, as the media can travel the speed of light, almost, the fact that the Earth can no longer - cannot expand, but stays the same size means a more claustrophobic planet, so that technology, rather than race geography, simply makes it more precious.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in and go to Eric(ph), and Eric with us from Moses Lake in Washington.

ERIC: Hi. I was wondering about Konigsberg. There were talks 10 years ago that Germany might buy back Konigsberg from Russia because I guess Konigsberg had been part of the German people there, the tribes there since the 1200s.

KAPLAN: I believe you're referring to East Prussia, which is to the north of Poland, I believe - I don't have a map in front of me - to the west of Lithuania.

ERIC: It was - they call it Kaliningrad now. They renamed it after...

KAPLAN: Yeah, exactly. It's Kaliningrad, and Kaliningrad is part of Russia even though it is an island of Russian sovereignty surrounded by Poland and, I believe, Lithuania and perhaps Latvia. And, you know, this is very strategic for Russia. Russia's put more troops there. It's - you know, it's got naval base possibilities. It gives Russia a frontage on the Baltic, which it would not have as much without it. And it's part - and it helps Russia project power into the Baltic States.

The Baltic States frustrate Vladimir Putin to no end because he would like to send troops in there and conquer them, but of course he can't. The Baltic states are now part of NATO, which means the United States and NATO members would come to their defense if attacked. You have Swedish banks buying up banks throughout the Baltic states. You have German investment. So there's all this pushback against Russian influence.

Russia has minorities in Latvia and Estonia of 25 and 30 percent ethnic Russian minorities. But it can't use them against the native Estonians and Latvians because these ethnic Russians actually would rather live in the Baltics than in Russia itself because in the Baltics, as members of the EU, despite all the problems with the EU, the standard of living is higher and the quality of life is better than in Russia itself.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call.

ERIC: The 30 billion pounds...

KAPLAN: I don't know.

ERIC: ...Germany was going to sell - Russia was going to sell to Germany for 30 billion pounds, to pay off (unintelligible) Berlin.

CONAN: Well, that was at a different time. Russia's in a very different situation now. Robert Kaplan, thank you very much for your time today.

KAPLAN: It was my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Kaplan, senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, author of "The Revenge of Geography." He joined us from Studio 3A in Washington. You can find an excerpt from "The Revenge of Geography" on our website. Just go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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