The Revenege of Geography

Eoin Purcell

Robert Kaplan Strikes Again
Kaplan writes an elegant and persuasive article about how Geography affects the world! In many ways it is a plea for a realist view of the world:

Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom? And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

What I like about the piece is threefold
Firstly I enjoy his references to philosophers and historians. The philosophers are Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes, both with interesting and illuminating things to offer reader. And Google Books has plenty items in Full View for both though frustratingly in the case of Hobbes, not a Leviathan available for extract so instead you get a rather nice but non-downloadable Forgotten books edition! Which seems crazy when the base text is well out of copyright!

His historical references are numerous but Mahan and Braudel stand out! One eye opener was Nicholas Spykman (for more on his truly intriguing views here is a very nice overview) of whom I had never heard but of whom Kaplan say:

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

For another thing
Secondly I like his concept of:

geography in the most old-fashioned sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of political science as an academic specialty, geography was an honored, if not always formalized, discipline in which politics, culture, and economics were often conceived of in reference to the relief map. Thus, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.

And maybe I feel that way because I wish to justify my recent (and fabulously cheap) purchase of Keith Johnston’s A Sketch of Historical Geography which is a truly excellent text worth owning and you can read in the lovely Open Library edition here, but I think there is something to what Kaplan says. Something that informs the rest of the piece.

And finally
I like his closing exhorting for us all to:

learn to think like Victorians. That is what must guide and inform our newly rediscovered realism. Geographical determinists must be seated at the same honored table as liberal humanists, thereby merging the analogies of Vietnam and Munich. Embracing the dictates and limitations of geography will be especially hard for Americans, who like to think that no constraint, natural or otherwise, applies to them. But denying the facts of geography only invites disasters that, in turn, make us victims of geography.

I very much enjoy Kaplan but sometimes I’m left with as many questions as answers with him, not that that is a bad thing!

Pirates: not quite the swahsbuckling heroes our movies paint them

Sad Tidings From The East
I read two op-ed pieces today about Pirates and the internet news is full of stories too. One of the pieces is by Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times and hits the hot button pretty much on the head:

The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists. Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard. You can see how Al Qaeda would be studying this latest episode at sea, in which Somali pirates attacked a Maersk Line container ship and were fought off by the American crew, even as they have managed to take the captain hostage in one of the lifeboats.

So we end up with the spectacle of an American destroyer, the Bainbridge, with enough Tomahawk missiles and other weaponry to destroy a small city, facing off against a handful of Somali pirates in a tiny lifeboat. This is not an efficient use of American resources. It indicates how pirates, like terrorists, can attack us asymmetrically. The challenge ahead for the United States is not only dealing with the rise of Chinese naval power, but also in handling more unconventional risks that will require a more scrappy, street-fighting Navy.

The much shorter and less interesting piece in the Washington Post does at least suggest that:

Bringing partner countries into the fight would ease the burden on major military powers, including the United States. It’s not easy to sustain a major warship, especially in hostile waters. “Where do you get gas? Where do you buy fresh fruit?” Kraska asked. “You can only keep a single ship at sea for so long.”

More thoughts on it
It would be worthwhile putting the piracy into some perspective and in that regard the current issue of Foreign Affairs has an interesting article by the same Robert D. Kaplan that discusses naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean:

The greater Indian Ocean region encompasses the entire arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Although the Arabs and the Persians are known to Westerners primarily as desert peoples, they have also been great seafarers. In the Middle Ages, they sailed from Arabia to China; proselytizing along the way, they spread their faith through sea-based commerce. Today, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims — the legacy of those medieval conversions — live along the Indian Ocean’s eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And a nice Q&A with him, here.

The sad truth of these events is that eventually, the pirates will be defeated (as I wrote this, I got news of this story, detailing the freeing of their current captive and the killing of three of their number). They will eventually overstep the mark and a force will be roused to clear them from the waters they inhabit. That may be sooner than we think. Of copurse even swift action and a scouring of the sea, will not resolve the anarchy on land that allows them to operate, so there may be pirates for some time to come!


** UPDATE **
It is worth reading these posts over on Coming Anarchy Stop Calling Them Pirates and Kaplan’s Latest for more thoughts.
They also point to Political Warfare and Harpers. If you want some background try International Crisis Group of the BBC. The ICG links to a great article from the International Herald Tribune which leads of with:

Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.

War-ravaged Somalia is in the worst shape it has been in for years – which, for this devastated country that has not had a proper government for nearly a generation, is really saying something.