Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kaplan: The Revenge of Geography

Robert D. Kaplan in Foreign Policy: The Revenge of Geography, asserts that geography, as understood and practiced in the 18th and 19th century, will come to dominate 21st century political, diplomatic, social, and economic thought. He conludes:

In this century's fight for Eurasia, like that of the last century, Mackinder's axiom holds true: Man will initiate, but nature will control. Liberal universalism and the individualism of Isaiah Berlin aren't going away, but it is becoming clear that the success of these ideas is in large measure bound and determined by geography. This was always the case, and it is harder to deny now, as the ongoing recession will likely cause the global economy to contract for the first time in six decades. Not only wealth, but political and social order, will erode in many places, leaving only nature's frontiers and men's passions as the main arbiters of that age-old question: Who can coerce whom? We thought globalization had gotten rid of this antiquarian world of musty maps, but now it is returning with a vengeance.

We all must 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.

Kaplan, in his article, sets forth his vision of how geography is going to affect us. But what may be more interesting than Kaplan's particular thoughts are why geography now is emerging as so important.

Basiclly, it is emerging because land is now supplanting labor and capital as the primary economic determinant. According to economic theory, the three primary inputs are land, labor, and capital. In the post-WWII era, first labor then capital have failed as primary determinants.

Under Keynes, labor played the primary role. Boost labor by stimulating demand and supply will take care of itself, Keynesians argued. And this worked very well until the 1970's, when the Arab oil boycotts and the Japanese auto invasion demonstrated that supply would not necessarily take care of itself and, indeed, could come from Tokyo as well as from Detroit. Since then, American economic thought has been very concerned with "competitiveness," which basically means that labor must take the shaft.

Keynesianism was supplanted by Reagan's supply side, which - rather than taking supply for granted - sought to boost it. This favored capital over labor. Supply side worked well enough until outsourcing demonstrated that stimulating supply would benefit Bangalore but not necessarily the United States.

By process of elimination, this leaves land as the last man standing. Our current economic malaise results from our current inability to respond to this new situation. Since geography so obviously emphasizes land, Kaplan's writing represents one effort to respond to our new challenge.

There is nothing sacred about Kaplan's particular conclusions. Geography is an art, not a science. For example, Kaplan states:

These deepening connections are transforming the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian and Pacific oceans into a vast continuum, in which the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca will be the Fulda Gap of the 21st century

We should note that, if you like the Somali pirates, then you are going to love those off the straight of Malacca.

But Kaplan helps orient us toward important topics. That is where he is valuable.

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