Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Battle for "Eurasia"

Robert D. Kaplan has a new bibliography for American imperialism. Lately he has been reading Victorian geographical determinists, and he finds much to support the premise of the War on Terror.

Kaplan believes that the new globalized world has eroded the power of the nation-state and brought to the fore the all-powerful forces of geography. You wouldn't think he put much stock in information technology or stateless economic forces. Apparently, as in an endlessly repeating game of Risk, the battles for world domination keep happening in the same spots.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel, who along with Claude Levi-Strauss helped found Brazil's first university, is cited for his emphasis on the influence of the physical environment on history. Poor soils in southern Europe lead to Greek and Roman conquests. (Kaplan neglects to mention that Braudel's masterpiece was written from memory in a German POW camp, perhaps because Germany/France doesn't fit into his list of Eurasian "shatter zones").

In the same vein, Jose Vasconcelos has pointed out that the internal combustion engine never would have been hit upon by the Ancient Egyptians due to their warm climate--it took the shivering German obsession with fuel-gathering.

Halford Mackinder is the thinker that Kaplan is most attracted to. To Mackinder the game of Risk is won or lost in the Central Asian steppe (Here the metaphor breaks down. Experienced players know that Australia is the key to the game). Resources dwindle and factionalism grows and there's your Eurasian tinderbox. Kaplan slyly shifts his overarching metaphor from Vietnam to the Cold War, realigning his view of the future with what Bush 43 sometimes called "the global struggle against violent extremism."

The conclusion of Kaplan's paper, that geography still matters, is unimpressive. It's refreshing to survey a period when historians had a vision with grand sweep. Redressing injustices or adhering to politically correct guidelines meant nothing to Mackinder or Braudel. But let's keep this former Israeli soldier away from America's foreign policy.