3/31/14 – The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Mar 31, 2014 3:00:00 PM

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I haven’t done a book review for a while, as I’ve been reading outside the usual investing and economics areas. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the continuing low-grade conflicts in Asia as China expands its footprint, I thought it was time to discuss one of the more interesting books on geopolitics I’ve read recently, The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan.

Kaplan has a broad perspective—a journalist, analyst, and author, he is now with Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence website that I subscribe to. (It’s well worth perusing if you’re interested in this sort of thing.) He has traveled around the world for decades and written at least 14 books. Kaplan is also an incredibly interesting speaker. Let’s face it: when you can get Henry Kissinger to write a blurb for your book, you’ve got something.

The Revenge of Geography lives up to the hype. The book is a very detailed survey of the intersection of history and geography, with a special focus on the constraints that the realities of location place on countries and populations. It takes the broadest possible view but homes in on detailed examples; Kaplan covers geopolitical theory and theorists, then zeroes in on how that theory is playing out in the real world. The book provides a very clear picture of how the world is today and why, and it’s worth reading on that basis alone.

That said, it’s not an easy read. Because of Kaplan’s attention to the intellectual pedigree of the ideas covered (and also, perhaps, because of his determination to place all of his examples within that theoretical context), the book’s momentum often gets derailed by extended discussions that are more academic than practical. This is a landscape book, and a complex one, not a detail study.

One thing that I found fascinating—and irritating—was Kaplan’s repeated assertion that he isn’t a determinist, and that human agency is still possible within geographic constraints. Clearly, he expects some fraction of his audience to be hostile to the idea that geography can have an influence on peoples and countries, which may explain much about how U.S. foreign policy is framed and executed. This is an interesting, if unintended, take on idealism versus realism in policy circles.

The other particular strength of this book, besides its scope, is its attention to policy formation. By focusing not just on the usual suspects, but on problems emerging so quietly that few are aware of them—the U.S./Mexico borderlands, the Europe/Russia frontier (the book was written several years ago), and the structure of Turkey (again, prescient)—Kaplan lays a framework for proactive policy making, as well as investing.

I recommend this book, although its scope, information density, and academic tone make it a complex and challenging read. For something that covers much of the immediately applicable ground, without the scope and background, you might want to take a look at George Friedman’s The Next Decade.

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