Borders Aren’t Necessarily Boundaries

Author Robert Kaplan examines geography on and off the map


Want to understand the reason for a United States’ pivot toward Southeast Asia?

Look at a map—not necessarily one of today, but of a century or more ago. And not of the South China Sea, but of the Caribbean.


Not to Robert Kaplan, whose best-selling book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate explains this and other conundrums by linking scenarios in a shrinking world.

“We live in a time of geopolitical competition, but this geopolitical competition is being played out in an untraditional landscape of globalization and technology transfers,” Kaplan said during a keynote address Wednesday at GEOINT 2015. “What this means is that what happens in a part of the world affects every other part of the world like never before. If the United States suffers a dent or an insult to its reputation for power in Southeast Asia, that affects America’s reputation for power in Europe and the Middle East, and vice versa.”

Kaplan’s version of geography may begin with a map, but it ranges far beyond the limitations of boundaries both real and artificial. His definition of geography includes geopolitics, economics, sociology, history, and other elements of the human condition.

“Technology has not negated geography,” Kaplan said. “All that’s happened is that technology has shrunk geography. It’s made geography claustrophobic so that the fights over patches of ground are more fractious than ever before. Territory means more than ever before for the people who are fighting over it, and each part of the world interlocks with every other.”

Take the pivot to Southeast Asia by China and the United States. Kaplan offers a history lesson to explain why the pivot makes sense.

“China looks at the South China Sea very much like the United States looked at the greater Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th century,” Kaplan posited. “When the United States gained effective strategic control of the greater Caribbean … (it) gave the United States effective strategic control of the Western Hemisphere.”

It also allowed the U.S. to stretch its influence to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere, tipping the balance in its favor for two world wars and the Cold War.

“That’s how China looks at the South China Sea,” Kaplan said. “Dominance there provides a gateway to the wider Pacific and, much more importantly, it allows them to further soften up Taiwan and … entry in a big way into the Indian Ocean.”

The Indian Ocean is the “global energy interstate,” Kaplan said.

That pivot to the South China Sea has not happened yet because of war in the Middle East demanding attention that could have been applied elsewhere. The pivot depends on “cooperation in the Middle East, and the Middle East has not cooperated yet,” Kaplan said.

Cooperation is stymied by geography. The Middle East conflicts are products of maps drawn with boundaries but not traditions and tribal alliances taken into account. Before modern maps, sectarian and ethnic conflicts were always present in the region, but they remained contained by rulers in Turkey during the Ottoman days, which ended with World War I.

“Almost 100 years have passed, and still the Middle East has not found an adequate replacement,” Kaplan said.


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