Maps matter way beyond finding the nearest coffee shop

by Todd Neff

A Skype conversation skips across continents with no perceptible lag. The manufacturing economy cranks forth like a containerized, globally integrated, seamless, just-in-time wonder. Hollywood films are released simultaneously in Boston, Berlin and Beijing, often finding larger audiences in China than anywhere else.

It’s enough to make the world seem flat. Not so fast, says Robert Kaplan, speaker at this year’s Brain Bar Budapest.

Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Century, has studied the influence of geography on geopolitics for decades. Many of his 17 books have touched upon it to varying degrees, including the most recent, Earning the Rockies. But none of his works describes how geography influences the fate of nations as vividly as his 2012 work, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

Kaplan doesn’t say geography is everything. He does argue, though, that it was decisive in the evolution of all nations, and that while our fiber optic networks, communications satellites, smartphones, commercial aircraft and other world-shrinking technologies have indeed had their impact, geography still matters. Consider the case of Hungary after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Robert D. Kaplan, leading expert of Center for a New American Security

“If you looked at a map, you could predict how each former Warsaw Pact country would do economically over the next decade, under the first decade of independence from the Soviet Union, merely by its cartographic position,” says Kaplan. The countries that did the best were part of the more northerly, better-organized Prussian or Austro-Hungarian empires — the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The countries that had been part of the poorer, weaker Ottoman Empire and the central and southern parts of the former Yugoslavia, they “either fell into political paralysis like Romania, into periodic anarchy like Bulgaria and Albania, or into outright war like two-thirds of the former Yugoslavia.”

His analysis of the Middle East looks strikingly prescient five years hence. Egypt, he says, is populated along the Nile Valley, protected east and west by deserts and to the north by the vast pan of the Nile Delta. The Nile flows south to north enabling sea traffic; the prevailing winds blow north to south enabling sailboats to travel against the flow. It’s been invaded, but rarely, especially considering its longevity.

“So Egypt is an age-old polity that was always strongly governed because of geography, and therefore has strong institutions, strong bureaucracies, a real army, real police forces,” Kaplan said. “The problems of Egypt are political. Governance itself is almost taken for granted.”

Similarly, Libya, as Kaplan described it, “was never so much a country as a vast geographic expression,” with eastern Libya oriented toward Carthage/Tunis, but Tunisia and western Libya toward Alexandria, Egypt. It was difficult to govern because it wasn’t a geographical country to begin with, Kaplan said, so it took the vice-grip of a strongman in the form of Muammar Gaddafi to maintain order. When he fell in October 2011, the country splintered, and so it remains.

“Geography explains not all of this, but explains a good deal of it,” according to Kaplan.

Russian geography, too, helps explain Vladimir Putin, whom he has described as “your normal run-of-the-mill Russian autocratic Russian leader, much like the czars and the commissars before him.” Kaplan ascribes Putin’s “cynical neoimperialism” as an upshot of Russia’s shrinking population, the unhelpful north-south orientation of its rivers that divides rather than unites the country, the fragility of its regional dominance in natural gas, and its dearth of natural frontiers. This leaves the Russian leader “obsessed with creating buffers zones” in the Baltic States, Poland, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and, yes, Ukraine.

“I’m not saying geography determines reality,” Kaplan said. “I’m saying that geography adds a very forceful and powerful way to look at the world that gives you a new insight into reality.”

Robert D. Kaplan is brought to Brain Bar Budapest with the grant of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation.

Don’t forget to follow us!