There was an article a few months back by Robert D. Kaplan entitled The Revenge of Geography. As far as I could work out, though he would probably reject both terms, Kaplan is a sort of romantic reactionary, visiting places most people prudently airbrush off the mental map, then returning from the front line badly -perhaps predictably- bruised about the moral compass and coming over like an old testament prophet telling us that we're all doomed. Dressed up as pleas for lucidity and pragmatism in a world governed by starry-eyed sentimentalists, his polemics are, superficially at least, powerfully appealing to people of a pessimistic turn of mind like myself. But when you unpick them, they appear to imply conclusions that are sufficiently disturbing to have me delving into my bag of stardust and fast dwindling stock of happy, clappy, sappy optimism.
The Revenge of Geography was premised on the work of Halford J. Mackinder, an English geographer of the Imperial age who, in one short paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, more or less single-handedly created the discipline of geopolitics, which basically means looking at the physical realities of the world and shaping policy accordingly, regardless of ideology or, for that matter, idealism. Mackinder’s most famous dictum was, “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.” That seems fair enough, particularly since it's beginning to look like we're about to initiate ourselves out of existence, after which what's left of nature can resume business as usual. Somewhat more dubious was his big theory of everything, which held that whoever dominated what he deemed the ‘heartland’ of the globe (an analysis apparently premised on flat maps, not a globe, but never mind), that is Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia where most of the valuable resources were (and to a lesser extent still are) to be found, would dominate the world. Quite why anybody outside of a James Bond film should want to do this, I wouldn't know, but there are a lot of things I don't know and ignorance is a condition to which I became inured long ago.
Appealing to their cynical side rather than the movement’s perverse ideals, Mackinder's theories were hugely popular with the poisonous pack of inadequate creatures who peddled National Socialism back in 1930s Germany (hence the shindig at Stalingrad to grab the heartland from Uncle Joe, who really didn't deserve it), and also played an important part in shaping policy during the Cold War stand off between Communism and Capitalism. Of course, we can't blame Mackinder for two of the three most dismal histories to have marred the twentieth century, but it's fair enough to judge people by the company they keep, and if geopolitics is the game of the ism-men, I’m definitely going to be reaching for my rose-tinted glasses.
I read Kaplan’s article in French, so I may not have entirely got the hang of it, but if you feel so inclined (once was enough as far as I’m concerned), it can be studied in English here. As I understood it, though, the man appeared to be suggesting that we return to some sort of gung-ho, neo-imperialist cynicism . . . Eh? Did we ever leave it behind? Wasn’t there somebody called Kissinger? Rumsfeld? Cheney? And what was that nice Mr. Blair doing that time he got into such a tizzy when his shrubby friend across the Atlantic told him all those naughty untruths about Weapons of Mass Destruction? For God's sake, even Jimmy Carter, a big old softy if ever there was one, wafting his bleeding heart about all over the international conferences, even he wasn't above a little realpolitik. 1979, Saudi Arabia good, Iran bad. Why? Nothing to do with Mohammed's son-in-law and the legitimacy of the Rashidun caliphate, everything to do with the fact that one country accepted Western economic influence, the other rejected it.
To be fair to Kaplan, some of his points are indisputable: Iran is a coherent nation with natural frontiers that will last. Pakistan is a complete basket case. No contention there, except perhaps for a few tribal leaders down in Baluchistan who may beg to differ about the sempiternity of Iran. The Pakistanis might not be too pleased, either, I suppose. But underneath such apparently indisputable truths, there's the distressing implication that what we require is a little 'realism', which basically means we go and get our kit on for an activity I believe they used to call The Great Game. Yup, that’s it, we’re off to Afghanistan again (as if you didn't know), and anywhere else in the world that looks likely to fracture and we reckon we can get our foot in the door and prevent . . . er, prevent somebody else getting their foot in the door. Why do we want to do that? So we can give the injuns a damn good hiding, of course.
I'm putting the glasses on right now, I've had enough of this.
By the by, if you think talk of ‘games’ is inappropriate, here’s a quote from Mackinder countering the general geographic determinism of his theories, in which he pointed out that the actual balance of political power at any one time depends not merely on geography and who controls the heartland, but also on “the relative number, virility, equipment and organization of the competing peoples”.
Come on, lads! Let’s get the big shorts on and start duffing up the natives.
See what I mean about the sort of things that interest Kaplan and the conclusions he draws from them? "We're all doomed!"
I wouldn't mind betting we'll be getting Herbert Spencer back soon. All those feckless poor people, they just didn't try hard enough.
I’m going to digress a bit here now, not for any particular reason, but because I can. I like digressing. It’s one of the few things I do really well, even when I don’t intend to. Chrétien de Troyes, author of Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and the man who popularized all the tropes that subsequent mythmakers reworked to make up the corpus of Arthurian legend. You see, not bad for a digression, is it? I'll be going completely off the rails shortly.
There’s a word at the start of Perceval that has lead to the spilling of so much ink that it makes Mr. Kaplan’s attempts to come over as an in-yer-face controversialist look positively feeble. I won’t trouble going into all the theories engendered by the possible interpretations of the legend, but the word at the root of the debate is ‘count’, which in its reduced, medieval French spelling, could mean a title (i.e. the chappy who slaps pudendum with a countess), a tale (as, for example, in Eric Rohmer’s seasonal series of films, Conte d’Hiver, Conte d’Été and so forth), or a tally (calculate, amount, etcetera). You would not believe the multiplicity and complexity of the competing interpretations that have sprung up around this simple ambiguity. I certainly don’t and I’m writing about the things for my next novel.
It is as a consequence of this that, I confess, I’ve got counts on the mind at the moment, so when I was reading Kaplan’s article (you see, I knew where I was going - vaguely) it wasn’t all that surprising that, though feeling a little uneasy about it (I'm a liberal humanist and Kaplan says his theory ought to make me feel uneasy, so I did as I was told before he kicked my door down and started instilling a little order round my place), I thought, “He is right, though. Geography does count.”
Whether the impact of geography is the fundamental truth of politics, I wouldn’t know (again), nor would I care to know. I don’t believe in fundamental truths, since their promulgation always seems to entail some fairly unpleasant consequences for other people, basically variations on the theme of: “You don’t believe my fundamental truth. I’m going to kill you” . . . usually because God or some similarly nebulous authority has dispensed the necessary instructions, often as not via a distressingly unreliable medium like a dream. But that notwithstanding, geography does count.
Geography does not count because we are all participating in a great game and, bugger the participating, it’s the winning that matters, and look how big my gun is. No. No. No!
Geography counts because looking at the world around us, we learn our place in it and the place of other people and how we relate to one another.
Geography counts, because when we see what it entails for people less privileged than ourselves, the idea that we can cut ourselves off from them and pretend that their place is over there and only over there and certainly not over here, is patently risible. If it rains on one side of the street and shines on the other, people are going to cross the road.
Geography counts because, in responding to it and being a part of it, we learn to observe, we learn to appreciate what is outside of ourselves, we learn a little humility in respect of our own paltriness, and perhaps, if we are lucky, we may learn some empathy, too.
Geography counts because the more we enter into our world, the more precious it seems, the more we acquire the love and the respect and the selflessness that are the only treasures really worth having.
Geography counts because, with the possible and questionable exception of connecting with other people, appreciating a landscape is one of the most delicious, timeless, and life-enhancing pleasures afforded to us.
Geography counts because there are few things more lovely than the line of a mountain, the play of light on water, the antic chatter of a torrent, the curl of a wave breaking against a beach, the vaulting of a woodland canopy.
Geography counts because etymologically it comes from Greek words for the 'earth' and 'to write', and for anyone of a literary bent, there can surely be no finer way of engaging with life than 'earth-writing', describing the what and the why and how of the marvellous gallimaufry that is gathered around us.
Finally, geography counts because the world is not a flat map with a heartland, but a globe and we’re all part of the same thing, and any puffed up prick who spends their time fretting about control and competition and power has completely missed the point of this little adventure.
So there you go, Messrs. Mackinder, Kaplan & Co.
You really are a bunch of counts.
I think I could get used to these new glasses . . . the only thing is, rather than simply giving me la vie en rose, they seem to be making me see red, too.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace