Top: Mercator projection, preserving direction and exaggerating the area of regions farther from the equator.
Bottom: Mollweide Projection, preserving relative area of landforms while distorting shape.

A Critique of “Geopolitics and the New World Order” by Robert D. Kaplan (Time magazine)

Russia looms huge on the two-page map that serves as the title page for Robert D. Kaplan’s article “Geopolitics and the New World Order,” published in the March 31st issue of Time.  The Mercator projection, which significantly exaggerates northern landmasses, is the same map chosen by Cold War propagandists to emphasize the “red menace”; the center of the map is, of course, Ukraine – the focus of the article, which recalls a century-old argument set forth by Halford Mackinder’s famous “Geographical Pivot of History” (1904). Kaplan begins by asserting that “Geography increasingly fuels endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st Century.” Kaplan proceeds, as he has many times before, to show how “geography” explains conflicts across the world. While Kaplan makes a number of good points, his typically dire predictions for a future dominated by chaos in which the bonds of blood and territory are apparently stronger than human reason, cultural development, and consensus should make us pause and consider what is really being said. Does “geography” – defined simply as the areal differentiation of the earth’s surface in terms of physical features, ecosystems, and human population and culture – necessarily mean endless conflict? Or is there more to the story that does not necessarily fall within Kaplan’s conception of geography?

Like the Mercator projection, Kaplan’s vision of geography creating chaos is a distortion of realities on the ground. Accepting geopolitical conflicts as an inevitable outcome of an unchangeable geography (focusing on human geography) – rather than emphasizing the confluence of identity politics, economic transitions, and particular historical circumstances with human geography – pushes us away from creative efforts at peacebuilding and cultural change, and towards a power politics in which governments, militaries and super-national organizations (the UN, the G8) are the only effective actors in determining the environment for development and peacemaking as they struggle against the anarchy of human diversity.

In “Geopolitics and the New World Order,” geography is personified – it takes “revenge”; it “will not be easily tamed”; it issues “dictates” that “make it nearly impossible for [Ukraine] to reorient itself entirely toward the West.” This type of geographical determinism masquerading as “geopolitics” paints conflict, state disintegration, and inter-state conflict as inevitable outcomes of “[t]erritory and the bonds of blood that go with it” and portrays non-Western governments as “highly territorial in their thinking,” focusing on “their nations or their ethnic groups only”, whereas Western leaders are more globally-minded, but apparently less geographically aware. Without going too deep into a historical analysis of the regions examined by Kaplan (I am admittedly no expert on Ukraine or East Asia), let us examine the background and broad implications of Kaplan’s argument to find the good and the bad.

Geographical Determinism and Geopolitics

“Geography establishes the broad parameters—only within its bounds does human agency have a chance to succeed.” Kaplan’s summary says, echoing Mackinder’s 1904 statement that “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls” (p. 422). Taken at face value, this argument is clearly true: I might well set out to walk from Atlanta to Casablanca, but the Atlantic Ocean will certainly establish some parameters. As Kaplan observes, the Himalayas provide an effective barrier that diverts direct territorial competition between India and China, diverting their contest for continental dominance to the lowlands of Southeast Asia. Yet when we extend this geographical determinism to include human geography, we should be careful not to treat human civilization and culture in the same manner as we do the immobility of the Atlantic or the Himalayas. With human geography, the picture grows infinitely more complex, and we must consider many other factors: mobility, arability, culture shifts and differentiation, the rise and fall of empires, political ideologies, religious movements, economic networks, cultural diffusion, etc., etc., etc….

Kaplan indeed brings the idea of peoples, ethnic groups, and territories into his concept of “geography”: “Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human” – again, an idea that makes a lot of sense and rings true to some degree. But let’s look at this one more closely and see where it takes us in light of some other arguments presented here. Is it really inevitable that people of different ethnic groups clash with each other? Or might this be more a function of the political machinations involved in carving the world into empires, and dividing people that might threaten those empires? As in his previous writing, Kaplan is putting forward his central idea that the Cold War suppressed the globe’s diversity, which is now emerging into chaos. He speaks of leaders who favor their ethnic groups; of the “peoples” of East Asia (perhaps my undergraduate English degree is speaking when I suggest that to refer to U.S. citizens of various ethnicities as “peoples” in conflict would ring somewhat offensive); “religious and tribal war” in the C.A.R. and South Sudan; of the problems of Kurdistan and religious diversity in Burma. This broad incorporation of human geography into a deterministic discourse raises four central issues in my mind that need to be addressed.

  1. What Kaplan calls the “unpleasant facts on the ground” – ethnic and religious diversity (certainly not “unpleasant” in themselves), population growth and resource scarcity among them – have been exacerbated and sometimes created by modern political forces to which Kaplan pays scant attention. Conflict is a product of historical forces as well as geographical and political influences. For example, conflict in South Sudan is not simply a fight between two ethnic groups for territory: it involves a failure of democracy, caused at least in part by global power backing of autocratic leaders during and after the Cold War; the politicization of ethnic identity (that was traditionally somewhat fluid) due to a lack of commitment to true democracy by both power-hungry politicians and international development experts; and the militarization of society in connection with conflict diffusion and a global conflict/arms economy that often benefits Western businesses (think of Tiny Rowland). Economic development has been prioritized over creative thinking about true democracy in multi-ethnic scenarios, with the result of unevenly distributed development, and a huge development community often reaping more benefits than locals from the development economy. Writing off a conflict as an inevitable outcome of human geography occludes attempts at creative thinking about inclusive political structures and what is really needed to overcome animosity that has in some cases been heightened by colonial policies and post-independence politics.
  2. The 19th century “lives on and always will”. This argument reflects a theme of Kaplan’s writing over the years – that Cold War politics froze in place the underlying diversity of the globe, which is now reemerging in violent contestations that characterize the essential difference between “peoples”. As an example, human migrations (forced or otherwise) are reshaping the planet in ways that were only beginning to take effect during the 1800s – migration from Europe and Africa had completely re-written the demographic map of the Americas, although the political landscape would take another century to effectively change. Likewise, cultures undergo continual shifts, exemplified in political transformations such as equality movements (Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.) and in religious change (the erosion of religion in communist countries). Human choice – the choice to migrate, the choice to include migrants in the economic and political structures of the receiving countries, the choice to understand different cultures and see everyone as equally human, or to accept or challenge cultural dictates – plays as large a role as areal differentiation (geography) in this historical dynamic. Economic opportunity and networks also play a huge role.
  3. Kaplan suggests that “Western leaders often think in universal terms, while rulers in places like Russia, the Middle East and East Asia think in narrower terms: those that provide advantage to their ethnic groups only,” and that “Nationalism, especially that based on race and ethnicity, fired up by territorial claims, may be frowned upon in the modern West, but it is alive and well throughout prosperous East Asia.” The inconsistency is given away in the clarification, “especially that based on race and ethnicity”: our leaders speak of universal human rights and global development, and yet act primarily in the interest of their fellow citizens – that is nationalism. In the modern world, is pure nationalism very different in a moral sense from ethnocentrism? Both privilege the interests of one group of humans (most of whom, in both cases, had little or no control over their belonging to that group) over other groups of humans. We justify acting in the national interest by saying that our leaders are democratically elected and must protect their constituency. Especially given that Kaplan accepts the artificiality of international borders, on what grounds are we to accept that acting in the national interest is fundamentally better than acting in the interest of an ethnic majority? In contrast to some of Kaplan’s other arguments, the contrast implied in these two claims is overwrought. Have Western leaders been thinking in universal terms when they have supported autocrats who promoted American business and opposed communism while abusing human rights (Colombia’s Laureano Gomez and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, among numerous others) and sought privilege for themselves and their patrons, often on ethnic grounds?
  4. (Related to number 3) However, maybe Kaplan is suggesting that we are past that historical moment, and is referring to only the current leaders. If that is the case, it seems to suggest that our values have changed, and culture (even political culture within a government) is not such an immovable force after all. Furthermore, Kaplan’s contrast between stable democracy in the U.S. and instability and ethnic conflict elsewhere overlooks the history of the U.S., characterized itself by ethnic conflict (how many of us grew up playing “cowboys and Indians”?) in which one side clearly overpowered the other, followed by continued racial struggle in which a huge segment of the population was only given full de facto political rights fifty years ago. When one part of America tried to break away, no international rights organizations condemned the violence used by the American government in holding onto its southern territories. Certainly people at the time viewed this as a descent toward chaos and the fracturing of the existing world; yet we now see it as a historic moment to which a solution arose. Likewise, when the Scottish rebelled against autocrats in England, there was no UN to protect minority rights or to enforce territorial integrity. Certain countries in the West are at very different stages in political development than are many countries elsewhere in the world. Perhaps in attempting to promote peace without any conflict, we are in fact holding back essential developments that may lead to peace. This is not to suggest that war is good; it never is. Yet if violence is to be condemned as a means of nation-building, then other nations must either ignore the history of the development of Western countries or find a new model for broad-reaching peace and development based on specific elements of Western history, not the whole.


Mackinder concluded his 1904 piece by writing that the “actual balance of political power at any time is, of course, the product, on the one hand, of geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and, on the other hand, of the relative number, virility, equipment, and organization of the competing peoples” (437). Kaplan’s prior writings about “The Coming Anarchy” that is inevitable with the explosion of the developing world’s population (the “competing peoples” and their “organization” and “virility”) should give us cause to hesitate in accepting the extension of this type of thinking into his recent Time cover article. The ties of blood to territory – the human geography of our planet – are only part of the puzzle of international relations, conflict and development. While politics should always be analyzed from a geographic frame of reference, among others, “geography” (the areal differentiation of the earth’s surface in physical and human terms) must be analyzed alongside political development, cultural change, imperialism and the decline of empires, economic interconnectedness, and the particular historical moment in which we now live. It must also be recognized that different parts of the world may be at different stages in terms of political development and institution-building – Fukuyama’s “end of history” has not arrived. While there may always be some Scots hostile to England, the neighbors overcame historic warfare and have gotten along fairly well for quite a while now; why cannot the Dinka and the Nuer in South Sudan do the same, given appropriate conditions and support?

In focusing exclusively on a seemingly unchangeable “geography”, Kaplan’s “Geopolitics and the New World Order” largely overlooks the significance of the historical moment in which state disintegration, identity conflicts, and annexations of “homelands” are taking place. I don’t think many would suggest that Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland in 1938 was simply an inevitable outcome of geography. While it clearly had a large and important human geographical component, it stemmed from a combination of imperial ambitions, ideology, and a particular moment of history in which power politics paved the way for a degree of German expansion while the Allies were in large part prepared to acquiesce for the moment. Likewise, overlooking the local dynamics and popular perceptions of ideologies being espoused by governments and conflicts waged by them presents difficulties when we attempt to apply this deterministic approach to specific areas. For example, Djibouti is ethnically diverse, comprised of two main ethnic groups with different languages, and yet this small country has managed diversity fairly successfully. Likewise, while Somalia fell apart through the 1990s, Somaliland turned a corner and was able to build among the most stable democracies on the continent; meanwhile writers focused on the inevitability of conflict in Somali society given the weight of clan identities and the aggressive and freedom-loving nature of Somali culture.

It is not simply an enduring geography of ethnicities and cultures that increasingly fuels conflict. Conflict and state disintegration or annexation of ethnic areas also involves the dynamics of political history; economic influences such as the expansion of markets; promotion of a culture of human rights and democracy coupled with de facto support for undemocratic approaches to economic development; and the postcolonial carving up of the globe into political units that make little sense – all of these work together to exacerbate and politicize ethnicity and identity conflicts. These dynamics are best analyzed through a local, more nuanced lens, rather than through sweeping generalizations about the conflicts between “peoples” of the world outside of the West. Granted, as Kaplan points out, certain physical features determine the landscape for relations between countries, as they always have (see any of Jared Diamond’s interesting books, which are fairly deterministic in themselves). Yet to extend this geographical landscape of politics into the field of human geography and define the world’s ills as an outcome of this geography – “endless chaos and old-school conflicts” – is going a bit far.