On The Revenge of Geography

FiveThirtyEight’s logo is the pointy-eared head of a fox. Editor-in-chief Nate Silver explains why in his book The Signal and the Noise. He says that, over the course of developing his skills as a statistician, he grew infatuated with a verse by Greek poet Archilochus:

“The fox knows many things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The phrase was co-opted by Isaiah Berlin in an essay describing writers and thinkers as either “foxes” or “hedgehogs.” Foxes gather varied information and perspectives and use them to revise a diverse and evolving world view. Hedgehogs view the world by way of one all-encompassing idea. Where the original verse is opaque, Berlin assigns greater value to foxes. Silver dispenses with the pretense: hedgehogs are blinkered and stubborn, foxes are nuanced. His most straightforward examples of hedgehoggery are Malcolm Gladwell’s sweeping theories for organizing the entire world.

Silver laments the way the world rewards hedgehoggery by forgetting failures when success comes along, and by the natural ease with which splashy theories-of-everything are marketed to audiences. The “current affairs” section of any Barnes & Noble suggests that he’s likely right. The shelves are stuffed full of books: [Title] : How [rephrased title] revolutionized [field in which title in relevant] and changed the world. Or some such nonsense.

When I pick up books with titles like Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, I’m immediately skeptical.

An old college professor recommended the book to me. Dr. Paul is a poet, creative writing professor, honors program coordinator, avid reader, teacher of seminars on South Asia, and architect of a capstone course comprised of an ever-changing survey of “Problems in the Modern World.” A fox if ever there was one. In my first exchange with Dr. Paul he recommended Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos about the American campaign in Afghanistan. I still ask for book recommendations and they’re always heavy on geopolitics. The Revenge of Geography is exactly the sort of book I expect to be on the list.

Robert Kaplan’s argument is simple, but unfashionable. He argues that political conflict is always driven by the parties’ physical position in the world and the limitations and advantages thereof. He makes obvious arguments: America’s advantage in the twentieth-century boils down to the distance between London and the Rhine River being roughly equivalent to the distance between Richmond and New York. He makes less obvious arguments: Europe’s advantage in its post-Renaissance years of economic growth and imperial domination lies in its climatic sweet spot and the extraordinary length of its coastline. He makes obscure arguments: there is timeless importance to “Eurasia” and the great landlocked steppe between the Black Sea and Himalayas.

For Kaplan, everything comes back to geography, but he narrows the world to this one concept as a sort of exercise. He recognizes that the world is far more complicated than a Risk board, but considers geography a starting point – a mean to which we revert, gravity against which events pull in one direction or another. His argument is against a modernism that discounts the map entirely. It’s fashionable to write that the map is collapsing; technology, telecommunications, internet make thousands of miles irrelevant. Kaplan argues that people still drink water, grow food, and project physical power. He states that even “liberalism ultimately rests on power: a benign power, but power nonetheless.” Such power requires proximity: aircraft carriers, landing strips, carefully positioned garrisons, roads and highways.

The world is indeed shrinking, but that shrinking makes geography more relevant rather than less. When the walls start closing in, the positions of people and objects become ever more important:

“The present, as permanent and overwhelming as it can seem, is fleeting. The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map.”

Kaplan is a useful hedgehog, self-aware, pushing with all his might against conventional wisdom. Grand ideas are usually reserved for radicals who wish to redefine the way their readers look at the world, but Kaplan is a conservative hedgehog. He resists the ways in which twenty-first century thinkers are throwing out lessons of the past and is reinterpreting those lessons, making them more relevant.