Geography will lead to a rapprochement between the US and Iran, and other ignored truths in the age of globalization

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Commerce connects the world, but geography still matters intensely. That’s the message of Robert D. Kaplan’s 14th book, The Revenge of Geography: What  the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and The Battle Against Fate. Kaplan argues that men and women make history, but the basic—and much-ignored—geography of countries such as Iran and China signals much of what to watch for in the coming decades.

“There are formidable obstacles to human choice such as geography,” Kaplan told Quartz’s Steve LeVine (full transcript of interview follows). “And in order to overcome them, you have to have respect for them in the first place.”

The author of the 1990s classic Balkan Ghosts (which President Clinton read as his primer on Yugoslavia) and chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor said geography suggests that the US and Iran will ultimately reconcile, although after possible diversions including the potential for war. The reason is Iran’s central role in the Middle East, one grounded in the millennia-old existence of a Persian-speaking state on the Iranian Plateau. Unlike Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran was not created by foreign cartographers, and it will continue to be a permanent fixture in a region of primary geostrategic interest to the US. “So you have to assume that at some point there will be a US rapprochement with Iran that will change the whole Middle East,” Kaplan said.

China’s geography suggests that it will challenge the US-led West’s dominance of the global seas, Kaplan said. Ordinarily a massive land-based state such as China, surrounded by rivals such as Russia, India and, across the sea, Japan, would be tied down defending its borders. And so it was for a long time.

Now, however, for the first time in two centuries, China’s borders are secure, lending it the luxury of venturing out as a seaborne power. “The only thing that could stop Chinese expansion in the western Pacific is a profound internal crisis in China,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Kaplan discussed the world’s hot zones, literally (Iran) and figuratively (Africa), the Afghan strategy uniting the US and China, and his take on book sales. Edited transcript:

Quartz: In your last book, Monsoon, you wrote about a confined geography—the Indian Ocean. Had you already figured out at the time that there was a lot more to say about the neglected power of geography? Geography is the one immovably fixed object in geopolitics, war and economics, correct?

Robert Kaplan: The book started with an article for Foreign Policy magazine. Christian Brose, who is now an adviser to John McCain, said, “I’ve got this great title, ‘The Revenge of Geography.’ Think about Harold Mackinder and others and take it wherever you want to go.” This was in December 2008. I just got terribly inspired and I did a 6,000-word article. But once I got into the subject, I realized how superficial the article was and how I could expand it into a book.

Now, is geography the immovable fixed object in geopolitics? No it’s not. One thing I’m careful to do in this book is not to put geography completely on a pedestal. I recognize that there is such a thing as human agency. Individual choices matter, men and personalities determine history, and we all have a responsibility before history. But geography seems to have been relegated. I’m saying that there are formidable obstacles to human choice such as geography. And in order to overcome them, you have to have respect for them in the first place. So this book is an attempt to give you respect for it.

Q: You write that the force of geographical unity, such as that pulling the two Germanys back together in the late 1980s, is inexorable. But the destructive centrifugal forces of artificial unity—such as the Czarist empire and the Soviet Union—are powerful, too.

The Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, were multi-ethnic empires. But the reason they broke up was not just because of geographical and cultural contradictions. It was because Communism did not engender a civil society and community. In other words, the decades in which different ethnic groups were ruled by one leader or a single party, that was the time to develop a civil society and a multi-national consciousness. That was never done. You cannot develop a multi-national consciousness without awarding freedom and free economies. And because that didn’t happen, as soon as the lid came off upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, those societies disintegrated. So geography helps to better understand and explain those societies, but it wasn’t because of geography per se that they broke up.

Q. How do the geographic truths that you’ve come to believe figure as regards other artificial colonial boundaries, such as Africa’s and the Middle East’s?

Kaplan: Africa has a number of geographical problems. It’s got relatively few good natural harbors. Its rivers are not navigable for the most part from the interior to the sea. It lies astride the equator to the degree that no other continent does. So it’s the hottest continent, and therefore the most prone to disease, which hinders development. Also, because of the vast forests in central and western Africa, that has made any border you could draw perforce artificial. Now there are some exceptions. Angola is to a degree a natural country. It’s got a coastline. The southern border is the desert. It has uplands in the north. It’s more of a potentially cohesive community than other countries in central and west Africa.

In terms of the Middle East, you have to be careful. Because though the specific borders are artificial—they look drawn as if by an unsteady knife—nevertheless, these countries, Syria and Iraq for instance, go back to agricultural hinterlands that were specific and had identities right back into antiquity. You may have not had the Iraqi state in antiquity, but you had Mesopotamia. You may have not had the Syrian state in antiquity, but you had the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent was divided from Mesopotamia. So these states are not altogether as artificial as people claim. Syria for instance really connotes a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian community united by commerce close to the Mediterranean, and therefore might survive as a larger variant of early 20th century Beirut, Alexandria or Smyrna. That’s the positive outlook. Of course the negative outlook is that Syria is a disintegrating Yugoslavia-in-the-making with regional sectarian-ethnic groups.

Q: Does geography figure in what we are seeing unfold in the Middle East and what we might expect going forward?

In the book, I write—here, I have the page marked. Page 122: “A Eurasia and North Africa of vast, urban concentrations, overlapping missile ranges and sensational global media will be one of constantly enraged crowds, fed by rumors and half-truths, transported at the speed of light by satellite channels across the rimlands and heartland expanse, from one Third World city to another.” In other words, electronic communications have altered geographies. But that hasn’t negated the importance of geography. It’s simply increased its preciousness by making the world more claustrophobic. The Middle East doesn’t exist by itself. Southeast Asia doesn’t exist by itself. Events can ricochet from one part of the globe to another. The geography of Palestine can become like a totemic, existential symbol for crowds all over the world. For instance, Palestine is an intensely emotional issue among Malaysian Muslims. So it’s not that geography has been defeated. The very finite size of the Earth has become a force for instability as technology erases distance.

Q: You write that Iran is not a contrivance, but in fact “the ancient world’s first superpower.” What role does its geography play in Iran’s attitudes, and its tectonic frictions with the West? And are there answers within the geography to help the negotiators?

Iranian leaders don’t think geographically. The whole point of this book is that geography is something that everyone takes for granted, including leaders sometimes. But it operates in the background by serving up constraints and opportunities. What does geography show about Iran? That the Iranian state is more or less synonymous with the Iranian Plateau. So it’s a natural state. There have been Persian-speaking states on the Iranian Plateau going back to antiquity. So there is nothing artificial about Iran, not like Syria, Iraq or even Saudi Arabia. Its government may fall or transform or weaken in the future, but there’s always going to be an Iranian state on the Iranian Plateau. And not only a state, but a state that has borders on the Caspian in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south, which as you know are the two great energy-producing areas of the greater Middle East, and gives Iran an incredible advantage. Another advantage is that in the northeast it fronts on Central Asia. So there are roads and pipelines being developed between Iran and Central Asian states, and in the west, all the roads lead down to Mesopotamia, which gives Iran a very advantageous position vis-à-vis Iraq.

It is also a state from which the US has been estranged for 33 years. And that’s about a decade longer than our estrangement from Red China. So you have to assume that at some point there will be a US rapprochement with Iran that will change the whole Middle East. Now, that rapprochement may not take place in a straight line. The line may zig and zag. We may even fight a small war with them before that happens. But at some point the Iranian regime and Washington have to have a rapprochement just because of the centrality of Iran to the Middle East.

Q: In the book, you lay out an unconventional scenario in which Iraq rebounds as an influence on Iran.

Kaplan: We’ve all been taken with the notion by how Iran has influenced Iraq, how Iraq has become almost an Iranian satellite. Future years may show the opposite. Because if Iraq can stabilize and get its oil production up, the relatively more freedom in Iraq, particularly in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, might influence Iran, even as Iranians become more and more hated in Iraq as the equivalent of ugly American busybodies. So it may be that this very organic relationship between the two countries will in the future influence Iran in a positive direction.

Q: China is an “uber realist power,” you write, that will stand at the “hub of geopolitics.” Is there a scenario in which China, as an unspoken and even unintended proxy for U.S. aims, serve to stabilize Afghanistan through the development of mining, roads, infrastructure and so on?

Kaplan: Afghanistan is one of the places where China and the US have common interests. America wants Afghanistan stabilized so it can leave. China wants it stabilized so it can stay and extract minerals to transport back over a new kind of Silk Route into China itself. But that being said, I don’t see where it is in China’s interests to actively help the United States in Afghanistan. It can implicitly help by extracting natural resources and providing jobs for young men. But it is not going to bear the burden the way we want. Because on the one hand China wants a stable Afghanistan. But on the other, it’s advantageous  for China that we remain distracted in Afghanistan, in Syria and in other places. This gives the Chinese more room to keep enlarging their military footprint in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Q: Do you see that as a conscious Chinese strategy?

Kaplan: Here is how I answer that.Why is China able to go to sea? What is really behind Chinese seapower that we’ve seen, with all these headlines about dustups in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea? It is for a little-noticed but very basic geographical fact: for the first time in 200 years, China’s land borders are secure, and it is internally secure. It doesn’t have wars and rebellions and disintegration or imperial weakening like in the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, the warlord era, the Mao Cultural Revolution or the Japanese occupation. It’s only for the first time since about 1979 that China has been stable enough without having to worry about its land borders, so it has the luxury of going to sea in the way that it has. Because a vast continental country like China goes to sea as a luxury, not as a necessity. Island nations have to go to sea as a necessity, like Great Britain or like the US, which is a virtual island. And that’s why I believe that the only thing that could stop Chinese expansion in the western Pacific is a profound internal crisis in China.

Q: This book seems to have immediately resonated, as we see in the sales rankings. Do you have your suspicions as to why?

Kaplan: The big answer is I don’t know. It’s always a mystery to me which books take off and which ones don’t. My library is full of books that I think are brilliant but never went anywhere. The books l love the best had small sales.