Will Geography Decide Our Destiny?

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/ Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting, circa 1666

When maps were introduced into Ottoman schools in the 1860s, conservative Muslims—people we would now call Salafists—were so outraged that they ripped them off classroom walls and threw them down the latrines. Though Muslim geographers such as Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1166) had produced serviceable maps, they were not widely available and for most of Ottoman history the spatial configuration of territory in two dimensions had been largely restricted to military specialists.

The images available to the sultan’s subjects and to others pondering his domains were for the most part verbal, with reference to imprecise formulas such as Memaliki Mahrusi Shahane—“divinely protected imperial possessions.” The imaginary—the different ways of conceiving the world—was human-centered rather than territorially based. Political power was not perceived as distributed spatially over a homogenous, two-dimensional field, but vertically through a hierarchy of human filters emanating from the sultan via his suzerains. As Albert Hourani pointed out in his History of the Arab Peoples, in the arid zones of North Africa and the Middle East where pastoralists ranged over frontierless deserts and steppes, power tended to radiate out of urban centers, weakening with distance.

For the most of the world, boundaries between states were not fixed until Europeans arranged treaties between themselves or with local rulers. From the late nineteenth century, however, the map was essential to this process. As Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, one of the map’s effects was to compel citizens to identify with a specific territorial entity. According to the historian Benjamin Fortna, the Ottoman rulers deliberately used schoolroom maps to promote loyalty to the state: “The map insists on the importance of the shape of the territory and this shape begins to assume tremendous political importance as emblematic for the territory in question.”1

Maps came to be used polemically to assert political sovereignty—or to deny political realities. Fortna notes that the “pink” of Ottoman sovereignty used in maps approved by the Ottoman ministry of education in 1906 showed Tunis—occupied by France since 1881—as still part of the Ottoman Empire while Bulgaria, independent from the 1870s, was still shown as an imperial province.

More recently, maps used throughout the Arab world routinely denied the existence of Israel, while Palestinian activists show the map of the whole of Palestine (to the exclusion of the Jewish state or “Zionist entity”) as their national logos. Yasser Arafat deliberately folded his headdress, or kaffiyeh, to resemble the whole of Palestine. In South Asia it would be hard to conceive of an Indian government ceding any part of the disputed territory of Kashmir (the only state with a Muslim majority) when every Indian schoolchild grows up with a diamond-shaped image of the country with its apex far in the Himalayan north. Maps have been agents of political homogenization, an essential part of what the anthropologist Ernest Gellner called the “universal conceptual currency” of the modern world.

The map, as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861–1947) explained in 1919, conveys “at one glance a whole series of generalizations,” some profoundly misleading. Intelligently read, as Robert Kaplan argues in his ambitious and challenging new book, The Revenge of Geography, maps can be “endlessly absorbing and fascinating.” Yet they also serve to “remind us of all the different environments of the earth that make men profoundly unequal and disunited in so many ways, leading to conflict….”

Kaplan’s book is in part an hommage to geographers such as Mackinder, a liberal imperialist MP, a founding director of the London School of Economics, and a now somewhat forgotten member of the progressive intellectual circle that included H.G. Wells and Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and to historians such as the medieval Arab writer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) and his latter-day admirer Marshall Hodgson (1922–1968), author of the magisterial three-volume Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (published posthumously in 1974).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest form of human society was that of the hardy people of the steppes, deserts, and mountains, where authority was based on ties of kinship and group cohesion—what he called ‘asabiya, variously translated as clannism, solidarity, or “group feeling.” A ruler with ‘asabiya was well placed to found a dynasty, since people in cities tended to lack this quality. When dynastic rule was stable and prosperous, city life would flourish. But every dynasty bore in itself the seeds of decline, as rulers degenerated into tyrants or became corrupted by luxurious living; and so, eventually, power would pass to a new group of men from the margins (a process that appears to be happening in Syria today, with the horrifying destruction caused by modern weapons). Thus, for Ibn Khaldun, the Greeks and Persians had been replaced by the Arabs; and the Arabs, having founded an empire that stretched from Spain to the Indus valley, were in due course replaced by Berbers in the west and Turks in the east.

Ibn Khaldun’s analysis was based on his native North Africa, but has a much wider application in world history. Kaplan explains, for example, that over the course of millennia the Chinese state was menaced by horse-riding nomads from the north and northwest, from the “same steppe-land that threatened Russia from the opposite direction: so that the interplay between the indigenous Chinese and the Manchurians, Mongols, and Turkic peoples of the high desert has formed one of the central themes of Chinese history.” China’s settled population, concentrated in the “cradle area” around the Wei and lower Yellow rivers,

had to constantly strive to create a buffer against the nomadic peoples of the drier uplands bordering it on three sides, from Manchuria counterclockwise around to Tibet. This historical dilemma was structurally similar to that of the Russians, who also required buffers.

“China’s sense of itself,” Kaplan argues, citing Harvard historian John King Fairbank,

is based on the cultural difference…between this surrounding belt of desert and the sown of China proper, that is, between the pastoral and the arable. China’s ethnic geography reflects this “core-periphery structure,” with the core being the arable “central plain” (zhongyuan) or “inner China” (neidi), and the periphery being the pastoral “frontiers” (bianjiang) or “outer China” (waidi).

Ibn Khaldun would have had no difficulty in grasping the dynamics of this interplay between settled agriculturalists and nomadic predators in an empire located six thousand miles to the east of his native Tunis. Unlike peasant cultivators, a portion of whose product may be extracted by priests in offerings or by rulers in taxes, the nomadic pastoralists who herded animals on the Central Asian steppelands and other sparsely populated regions of low rainfall avoided the confines of state power. Pastoralists tend to be organized into tribes or patrilineal kinship groups who see themselves as descended from a common male ancestor. Military prowess is encouraged because, where food resources are scarce, tribal or “segmentary” groups may have to compete with one another, or raid the agriculturalists in order to survive. (This time-honored pattern has been manifested in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where under pressure of drought and desertification, the Arabic-speaking pastoralists who make up the Janjaweed militias have preyed on more settled African villagers.)

The differences in lifestyle are perpetuated culturally and may lead to differences in financial and economic management. In pastoral societies property tends to be held communally, classically in the form of herds (which increase naturally through reproduction, as capital growth), rather than crop-yielding land where territory itself is the equity for which harvests produce the income. In pastoral societies property and territory are not the same (as happens in temperate zones or regions of high cultivation) because the land might be occupied by different groups of herders at different seasons.

In premodern Islamic history, before the European interventions, rulers came to protect themselves against the cycle of dynastic decline by recruiting or press-ganging tribes from the peripheral regions: as Gellner put it, “the wolves became sheep-dogs.” The Mamluks who held power in Egypt from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century were outsiders from Central Asia—technically slaves—before they became the actual rulers. A comparable pattern occurred in China where the Jin, Liao, and Yuan dynasties—all products of the northern grasslands—held power from 1115 to 1368, while the indigenous Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties failed to control the steppe-lands, despite their innovative military technology.

China’s last imperial dynasty, the Manchus, who ruled from 1644 to 1912, also began as outsiders in the uplands of Manchuria. Kaplan suggests that the problem facing the present Chinese leadership of containing the periphery—an ancient geopolitical challenge that was shelved, but never solved, by the construction of the Great Wall—remains vital to China’s future:

Indeed, the question now becomes whether the dominant Hans, who comprise more than 90 percent of China’s population and live mainly in the arable cradle of China, are able to permanently keep the Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians who live on the periphery under control, with the minimum degree of unrest. The ultimate fate of the Chinese state will hinge on this fact, especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.

Marshall Hodgson, despite his death in 1968 at the age of forty-six, must rank as America’s most impressive historian of Islamic peoples and cultures, and it is to Kaplan’s credit that he gives Hodgson the prominence he deserves. A student of both Ibn Khaldun and John Woolman, the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Quaker, as well as of the sociologist Max Weber, Hodgson was primarily concerned with the interaction of environmental forces on individual moral sensibilities: the subtitle of his magnum opus, Conscience and History in a World Civilization, indicates his approach. One of his primary concerns, as a world historian as well as a historian of Islam, was to rid the study of world history of its Eurocentric bias, a perspective he shared with his University of Chicago colleague W.H. McNeill, author of the immensely successful Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, who Kaplan also draws on widely in this study.

Hodgson, however, went even further than McNeill in trying to shake off the European bias he saw distorting the study of the history of the world. Sadly, he never lived to sketch out more than a few notes for a world history he was planning.

There is no indication that Hodgson was familiar with Mackinder’s geography, nor does it appear that Mackinder was familiar with Hodgson’s medieval mentor, Ibn Khaldun. But as Kaplan ably demonstrates, Mackinder’s vision of physical geography as the overarching influence on history meshes neatly with the Arab savant’s ideas as well as with those of his latter-day American admirer. The wider setting that Hodgson sometimes found missing in McNeill—one that embraces the two contrasting historical trajectories of the Islamic world and China—is nothing less than the geophysical configuration of our planet with its vast continental landmass situated mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.

Mike King

In 1904, more than half a century before Hodgson, Mackinder published a celebrated article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which he later developed into his book Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, published in 1919. In these texts and his lectures at Reading and the LSE he formulated his concept of a single World Island comprising Eurasia and Africa:

There is one ocean covering nine-twelfths of the globe; there is one continent—the World Island—covering two-twelfths of the globe; and there are many smaller islands, whereof North America and South America are, for effective purposes, two, which together cover the remaining one-twelfth.

At its core the World Island contains a “heartland,” extending roughly from the Volga to the mountains of eastern Siberia, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Himalayas, surrounded by the much more populous “rimland” located on its periphery. Despite his apparent ignorance of the great Arab savant, Mackinder put forward an Ibn Khaldun–style theory that would doubtless have pleased Hodgson, who—like Mackinder—objected to the geographical convention designating Europe as a separate “continent” when it is actually a peninsula or appendage of the vast Eurasian landmass.

Following Mackinder, Kaplan argues that Europe developed its distinctive civilization mainly because of its geography—“an intricate array of mountains, valleys, and peninsulas” with a higher ratio of coast to landmass than any other continent or subcontinent, and a coastline some 23,000 miles long—equivalent to the circumference of the globe—with four enclosed or semienclosed seas and “an advantageous riverine topography blessed with cross-peninsula routes.” This was the peninsula of great ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity from which individual nations would emerge in the Roman aftermath. It was set against the “immense and threatening flatland of Russia to the east”—a territory divided between, on the one hand, vast northern regions, both forested and barren, stretching from Canada and the northern Pacific across Russia, and, on the other, the great southern grassland or southern steppe from which successive nomadic invaders, including Huns, Avers, Bulgarians, Magyars, Kalmuks, Cummins, Patzinaks, Mongols, and others, raided the fertile lands of the western peninsula.

Russia was itself the outcome of a complex interaction of human and geographic factors, whereby the original Kievan Rus created the first Russian empire in the most southerly of the great cities lying along the Dneiper River. What became the vast and, for Western Europe, the potentially menacing state of Russia resulted from the fusion of Scandinavian Vikings (the “people of the creeks” who had terrorized Europe’s Atlantic seaboard from their inaccessible mountain peninsula) and indigenous eastern Slavs, linking the forests of the Arctic north with the Mediterranean wealth of Byzantium.

These Russians, “originally a people huddled in the shielding enclosure of the forest,” had to seek out and conquer the incoming Asiatic nomads of the steppe. The humiliating presence of the Mongol hordes was partly responsible for denying Russians the experience of the Renaissance. Yet the Tartar yoke also gave these “victimized, Eastern Orthodox Slavs a commonality, energy, and sense of purpose that was crucial to them being able to eventually” break free from it, while instilling in them a “greater tolerance for tyranny” combined with a “paranoid fear of invasion.”

According to Mackinder’s thesis the Heartland of Central Asia is the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests, for the planet’s “very layout of natural arteries between mountain ranges and along river valleys encourages the rise of empires, declared or undeclared, rather than states.” As Kaplan glosses the British geographer:

On the Heartland steppe the land is unceasingly flat, the climate hard, and the vegetable production limited to grass, in turn destroyed by sand, driven by powerful winds. Such conditions bred hard and cruel races of men who had at once to destroy any adversaries they came across or be destroyed themselves, as there was no better means of defense in one spot than in another. It was the union of Franks, Goths, and Roman provincials against these Asiatics that produced the basis for modern France. Likewise, Venice, the Papacy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and other burgeoning European powers would all originate, or at least mature, through their threatening encounter with Asiatic steppe nomads.

In Mackinder’s view the key to the Heartland was Eastern Europe and he summarized his thought with an oft-quoted dictum: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

In his 1919 book, after the defeat of Germany and the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia, Mackinder extended his Heartland thesis “for the purposes of strategical thinking” to include the Baltic, the navigable parts of the Danube, the Black Sea, Anatolia, Armenia, Persia, Tibet, and Mongolia, an enlarged region embracing Germany and Austria-Hungary containing a “vast triple base of man-power, which was lacking to the horse-riders of history.”2

Under this broader definition, the Heartland became “the region to which, under modern conditions, sea-power can be refused access.” The victory of the allies in the Great War had been a victory for the sea power of Britain and the United States over the land power of Germany. But such a victory, in Mackinder’s view, was not inevitable. He who controls the Heartland is in the best position to capture the Rimland, which then provides, through sea power, the key to world domination. “Had Germany conquered she would have established her sea-power on a wider base than any in history…. If we would take the long view,” Mackinder warned, “must we not still reckon with the possibility that a large part of the Great Continent might someday be united under a single sway, and that an invincible sea-power might be based upon it?” As Kaplan comments:

This, of course, was the dream of the Soviet Union, to advance to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through the invasion of Afghanistan and the attempted destablization of Pakistan in the 1980s, and thus combine sea power and land power.

A vestige of this agenda lies in Russia’s continuing support for the Syrian Assad regime, which allows it to use the port of Tartous as its only Mediterranean base.

The failure of Mackinder’s proposed buffer zone of independent ethnically based states between Germany and Russia after World War I (as mandated under the Wilsonian principles adopted in the Treaty of Versailles) did not invalidate his larger geostrategic point. From the 1930s to the time of his death in 1947 the Heartland would be contested between the two land-based powers of “Jacobin Czardom” (the term he used for Bolshevik Russia) and Nazi Germany. Hitler’s leading geographer, Karl Haushofer (1869–1946), was an admirer of Mackinder, and a bowdlerized version of his ideas evidently influenced the Führer’s decision to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. After the war the Soviet Union’s domination of the Heartland was contested by the sea power of the United States.

The point—a vindication of Mackinder’s thesis—was acknowledged by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at his meeting with Richard Nixon, then vice-president, in Moscow in 1959. Nixon reportedly said that whether missiles could best be launched from land or sea depended on the strategic situation of the nation involved. Khrushchev replied that the USSR would concentrate on the ports and navy of the enemy “because the Soviet Union’s potential enemy would be highly dependent on sea communications.”3 Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall Kaplan notes that “only in the last generation has hope arisen that a spiritual Central Europe can survive between the two land powers of Russia and Germany.”

However commendable, “spiritual” hopes are no guarantee of long-term survival in a world dominated by the brutal realities of geographically-based realpolitik. As Kaplan explains:

Communism may have collapsed, but Europeans still need natural gas from Russia, 80 percent of which comes via Ukraine. The victory in the Cold War changed much, to be sure, but it did not altogether mitigate the facts of geography.

Since 1991 the new Russia has been reflexing its geopolitical muscle. Impelled by the loss of Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Central Asia, and reduced—despite its continued vastness—to its smallest size since before the reign of Catherine the Great, it is rediscovering Mackinder’s Heartland theory, with even the Nazi Haushofer now in fashion. Within a month of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev stated that geopolitics—previously denounced as a tool of capitalist militarism—was replacing ideology as the driver of policy.

As Kaplan puts it, “Russia had no choice but to become a revisionist power, intent on regaining—in some subtle or not so subtle form—its near-abroad in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus and Central Asia,” with the nineteenth-century doctrine of Eurasianism replacing communism as a means of luring back the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet empire. “Putin and Medvedev,” he comments, “have no uplifting ideas to offer, no ideology of any kind, in fact: what they do have in their favor is only geography.” Drawing on Mackinder, Kaplan suggests that the absence of natural boundaries other than the Arctic and Pacific oceans has enabled Russians to accept the “deep-seated militarization” of their society alongside the “endless search for security through the creation of a land-based empire” which Putin’s “energy caliphate” has given them.

Kaplan’s strategic ruminations take him beyond Mackinder’s World Island, and into the two lesser “islands” of the Western Hemisphere, which he sees as being geographically divided, not by the Panama isthmus, but by the Amazon rain forest:

Globalization—the Information Age, the collapsing of distance, the explosion of labor migration from demographically young countries to demographically graying countries—has brought the US into an uncomfortably closer relationship with an unstable Latin America around the Caribbean.

This is exemplified by the trail of cocaine, marijuana, and drug wars that threaten the US in its own hemispheric backyard. The challenge facing the US in the coming century will be to avoid repeating the pattern of the Roman Empire, which failed to provide itself with “a mechanism for a graceful retreat, even as it rotted from within.”

Above all America needs to ensure it is not undermined from the south the way Rome was from the north. The signals are not good, given that the American GDP is nine times that of Mexico, the largest income gap prevailing between two contiguous countries, with the possible exception of the divided Koreas. Nothing will affect American society more, Kaplan suggests, than the northward movement of Latin history, as Mexicans resettle areas in the US lost to them in the nineteenth century, enabling them to “enjoy a sense of being on their own turf” that other immigrants do not share, making them less susceptible to the pressures of assimilation.

Kaplan’s vision of a prosperous and stable twenty-first-century America requires that Mexico becomes a first-world country—a challenging prospect given the way that drug cartels are currently morphing from simple criminal organizations to full-blown insurgencies armed with military-caliber weapons. In the long term, Kaplan warns, the peaceful coexistence of a “functional” America built on Anglo-Protestant values alongside a “dysfunctional and chaotic Mexico” cannot be guaranteed by “Herculean border controls.” As the historian Arnold Toynbee noted with regard to Rome:

The erection of a limes [boundary] sets in motion a play of social forces which is bound to end disastrously for the builders…. Whatever the imperial government may decide, the interests of traders, pioneers, adventurers, and so forth will inevitably draw them beyond the frontier.

Unfortunately the US has been diverted from addressing its hemispheric priorities by concentrating on the Greater Middle East: “fixing Mexico,” Kaplan concludes, “is more important than fixing Afghanistan.”

A pragmatist at heart, Kaplan believes that “while geography does not necessarily determine the future, it does set contours on what is achievable and what isn’t.” This is a lesson that is being painfully learned in the highlands of Afghanistan. The Revenge of Geography—with its debt to Ibn Khaldun, Mackinder, and other writers who understood the weight of geographical factors in the scales of history—displays a formidable grasp of contemporary world politics and serves as a powerful reminder that it has been the planet’s geophysical configurations, as much as the flow of competing religions and ideologies, that have shaped human conflicts, past and present. In a persuasive modern take on the medieval writer’s analysis, Kaplan argues that what might be called the “Khaldunian paradigm” is now operating on a global scale.

In the past, state-forming dynasties from the margins enabled cities to flourish by providing security before succumbing to the inevitable processes of decadence and decay. Today

vast cities and megacities have formed as rural dwellers throughout Eurasia, Africa, and South America migrate toward urban centers from the underdeveloped countryside. As a consequence the mayors and governors of these conurbations can less and less govern them effectively from a central dispatch point: so that these sprawling concentrations informally break up into suburbs and neighbourhood self-help units, whose local leaders are often motivated by ideals and ideologies originating from afar, by way of electronic communications technology. Radical Islam is, in part, the story of urbanization over the past half-century across North Africa and the Greater Middle East…. It is the very impersonal quality of urban life, which is lived among strangers, that accounts for intensified religious feeling.

This striking conclusion suggests that in some manner the world may be returning to where it was before the era of imperial mapping. In these sprawling conurbations, power and ambition now radiate from multiple human centers, as they did in premodern times before the era of universal cartography. As guides to political and ethnographic realities, conventional maps with their mosaics of colored spaces marking political boundaries may soon be as irrelevant as they seemed before being attached to those nineteenth-century Ottoman classroom walls.


Warm Water Russians May 9, 2013

  1. 1

    Benjamin Fortna, Imperial Classroom: Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 187. 

  2. 2

    Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: London 1919–1944 (Penguin, 1944; originally published London: Constable, 1922), p. 86. 

  3. 3

    Earl Mazo and Stephen Hess, Nixon: A Political Portrait (Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 194–195, cited in W.H. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1982).