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How 'Geography' Informs The Fate Of The World

To understand many of the worlds triumphs, tragedies and conflicts, according to geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, look no further than a map.

In his book The Revenge of Geography, Kaplan argues that geography is not just important to understanding world affairs — it's central to understanding where we've been and where we're going.

Kaplan uses this framework to look ahead and speculate about how geography will inform the future development and relations of countries like the United States, China and Iran.

"I'm very careful not to be deterministic," Kaplan tells NPR's Neal Conan. "Geography in many places tells many stories. ... 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."

He explains what borders and demographics tell us about past, present and future of world affairs.

Interview Highlights

On how the geography of the United States contributes to its position as a world power

"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 ... where the United States really faces a geographical challenge. The average age of the average Mexican is in his mid-20s, late 20s. ... 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 natural border, per se. The Rio Grande is very narrow. ... 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."

On how geography informed the Arab Spring

Robert Kaplan is the author of numerous books on geopolitics and foreign affairs, including <em>Monsoon, Balkan Ghosts </em>and <em>Warrior Politics.</em>
/ Maryna Marston
Maryna Marston
Robert Kaplan is the author of numerous books on geopolitics and foreign affairs, including Monsoon, Balkan Ghosts and Warrior Politics.

"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.

"So we can sum up and say that ... 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."

On how Central Europe's geography influences foreign policy

"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."

On how geography influences technology

"There's a whole chapter in the book called 'The Crisis of Room,' where I talk about ... a concept first developed by Yale Professor Paul Bracken in 1999. ... 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 ... cannot expand but stays the same size means a more claustrophobic planet. ... Technology, rather than race geography, simply makes it more precious."

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