The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

Jan 31, 2013

TV Show


With a breadth and depth of knowledge spanning not only current geopolitics but centuries of history, Robert Kaplan shows us the crucial importance of geography in shaping our destinies. Geography still matters, and always will.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us for what, I am confident, will be an extremely stimulating morning.

Our speaker is Robert Kaplan, who is no stranger to the Carnegie Council, as he has spoken here several times before. With each visit, whether the topic was America's military might, the future of American power, or leadership, the unique insights of this bold, adventurous, and celebrated journalist have always added interesting new dimensions to our understanding of the world. The reason is simple enough: Bob has the gift of focusing our attention on issues he believes we should not only be thinking about but, from the strength of his arguments, we should also be addressing.

Today he will be discussing his latest book entitled The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. This work brings together his reflections as a foreign correspondent on everything he has seen and thought about over three decades of reporting. This time around, he brings to life the theories of earlier geographers and political scientists. He then applies their ideas to present-day crises in such places as Europe, Russia, China, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Middle East, to show how their views about geography have stood the test of time.

His conclusion: Geography still matters. It is human history itself, history where borders, climate, and landscape play a most important role in shaping the fate of a region, more important than even its leaders or its inhabitants. It is geography, he says, that determines where people live, what battles they fight, and who will win them. It is geography that influences the culture and the social norms of the people.

In case you haven't guessed by now, Bob Kaplan is a realist, but a sagacious one. He thinks in broad strategic terms and believes that not only by studying maps but by understanding the constraints and limits imposed by mountains, waterways, and other natural frontiers, we will have more tools at our disposal which will help us in addressing the complexity of conventional foreign policy analysis, and this will better prepare us for the coming conflicts and the battles against fate.

Please join me in welcoming a very, very special guest. It's a pleasure to have Bob back at this podium.


ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you very much for that lovely, really splendid introduction. It hasn't been years; it's been decades, almost, since I have been coming back here on a regular basis. Thanks especially to Joanne.

In 1755, there was an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, that decimated three-quarters of the city, killedwe're not suretens of thousands, 100,000 people. It was one of the greatest natural catastrophes of history. Voltaire, the French philosopher, was 60 years old at the time, and he said, "I am opposed to the earthquake." He wrote a series of articles over the years saying how he was opposed to this natural force imposing itself on human agency and reality.

All right, so you may think Voltaire is absurd. How can you be opposed in a policy sense to an earthquake? But actually Voltaire had a very serious motive in mind. What Voltaire was really saying was, "I am opposed to all great natural forces, whether it's geography, ethnic characteristics, the environment, natural resources, constraining what men and women do. And if you start to believe in those natural forces, you won't have responsibility before history."

Actually, someone who took up Voltaire's theme, in a very different way, was Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher whose life was coeval with the 20th century and who, in 1953, delivered a famous lecture called "Historical Inevitability," which was published the following year, and which basically had the same argument: We should never give an inch to geography, ethnic characteristics, culture, any of that, because the reality of an individual is much greater than the reality of an ethnic group or a culture or a nation, which are just constructed identities; they're very vague. What gave Berlin's lecture really special prominence was that this was less than a decade after the Holocaust.

That's what it was really all about. While Berlin had communism and fascism in his sights, it was the memory of the Holocaust, of this great event occurring, to which human beings did not do enough, that gives the argument against all forms of fatalism particular urgency.

What I have just described is what motivates all the opinion pages, whether liberal/left, neoconservative/right, whether you're talking about The New York Review of Books or The Wall Street Journal editorial page. It's all about "we can do something because we must do something," because we have a responsibility before history, and therefore anyone who raises his head and talks about geography or this or that is basically the very enemy that Voltaire was trying to vanquish when he opposed the Lisbon earthquake.

Now, the problem with this is not that it's not trueit's very truebut philosophers don't have the responsibilities of policymakers. Policymakers wield bureaucratic power, and their first priority is to the interests of people within their geographic space who vote for them or who don't vote for them, but whom they have responsibility over anyway.

So while the whole opinion elite concentrate with this half of reality which I have just described, what I'm going to do this morning is talk about the other half of reality. I'm not saying that what Voltaire and Berlin said was wrong in any way it's notit's just that there's another side to this.

If we really, totally believe that everything can be overcome, we would get ourselves involved in all manners of interventions and adventures abroad. Policymakers have to deal with a much sadder reality. They have to take a stand periodically against great forces, natural forces, but on a day-to-day basis, they have to pick and choose their battles.

One of the ways to pick and choose your battles is to know what's out there, to know what can be changed and what can't be changed. Voltaire and Berlin to the contrary, the reason why Taiwan still has de facto independence is because it's 100 miles from the coast of the mainland. If it were 20 miles, the width of the English Channel at the Straits of Dover, Mao Zedong would have conquered Taiwan in the early 1950s, most likely. It's this great natural deterministic force of geography that is most important in Taiwan being the way it is.

One of the reasons why Japan has been one of the largest economies in the world and, despite its economic doldrums, has been such a success story overall is because, as the great historian of Japan Edwin Reischauer at Harvard wrote in the mid-1960s, if you take Japan and superimpose it on the East Coast of the United States, northern Japan, Hokkaido, is where Maine is, and Okinawa, the Ryukyu Islands, is where Key West, Florida, is. In other words, Japan occupies the perfect point of the temperate zone, which has proven the most necessary for development of communities.

Russia lies north of 50 degrees latitude. Given where Russia's population actually lives, it's colder than Canada on a per-capita basis.

China lives south of it. China, like Japannorthern China, Manchuria, is where Maine is. Southern China, Yunnan province, is where Florida is. It's the perfect portion of the temperate zone for development.

These things matter. They can't be wished away by philosophers who say, "Don't pay attention to deterministic forces at all."

The United States: Many things may account for the success of the United States over the last 240 years or so, but the basic thing is that the United States occupied the last resource-rich part of the temperate zone that had been relatively unpopulated or underdeveloped at the time of the European Enlightenment. The United States' river system, unlike that of Russia, which divides RussiaWest Siberia from East Siberia, from the Lena River, and the other rivers which run north to souththe Missouri and Mississippi and Ohio river systems run diagonally east-west, more or less, in many ways and unite the continent.

The United Statesthe lower 48 stateshas more miles of navigable inland waterways than the rest of the world combined. That's what really enabled Westernizationnot ideas, but this very fact that allowed for transport.

Around the world I could go. Let me try to look at current events from the point of view of partially deterministic, fatalistic forces.

Look at Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started. Tunisia is the closest point in the Arab world to Europe. You can take a slow car ferry from Tunis to Trapani in western Sicily, and it will take only seven hours. You can fly in 30 minutes. If you read Tunisian history, you find throughout the medieval and early modern age it had as much to do with Italy and Sicily as it had to do with any other place in North Africa.

If you look at a map of Roman settlements from Morocco to Egypt, you will find age-old clusters of civilization in Morocco, TunisiaGreater Carthage, that isand the Nile River Valley. Algeria and Libya were basically vague geographical expressions that weren't invented as modern states until relatively recently.

The road system of Tunisia was laid by the Romans. If you drive through Tunisia, chances are the road you're on was a road in Roman times, because it was so close to Europe.

Yet when Scipio Africanus destroyed Carthage, destroyed Hannibal's forces, he dug a fossa regia, a demarcation ditch, which went from Tabarka in the north, south a few hundred miles, and then straight east to Sfax on the eastern Mediterranean coast. For 2,000 years, every place within that ditch, between the ditch and the Mediterranean, was highly developed, and every place on the other side of the ditch was left to relatively low-level underdevelopment.

Voilà, you had the Arab Spring start in the part of the Arab world that was closest to Europe, but outside the demarcation ditch, in a town, Sidi Bouzid, which always had high levels of unemployment, high levels of underdevelopment. These things did not cause the Arab Spring, but they were underlying background noises and factors that help explain it better.

Libya: Libya was not a place, a country, until the 20th century. Greater Tripolitania, Trablus, Tripoli in the west, was always oriented to Greater Carthage. Benghazi, Cyrenaica, in the east, was always oriented towards Alexandria and the Nile Valley. It was always a nest of regionally based tribes.

Therefore, when the Arab Spring spread to Libya and Egypt, it was fundamentally different in Tunisia and Egypt than it was in Libya. In Tunisia and Egypt, the issues quickly became politicala form of Islamism versus a variant of Western-style secularism or whateverand these became pitched battles, which are still being fought. But the basic identity of the state was never an issue. There were bureaucracies. There was a motor vehicles bureau. There were agricultural forces. There were roads. There was institutional administrative development, because these places were age-old clusters of civilization because of proximity to the Mediterranean in Tunisia's case and the Nile Valley in Egypt's case. The Nile flows from south to north, but the winds go from north to south, enabling sailing in the other direction. So Egypt became united by the Nile.

Whereas in Libya, the issue was very different. The issue was governance itself. This place wasn't really a country in the first place, partly and largely because of geographical reasons. So the government of Libya can't really govern outside of Greater Tripoli. The whole south has already been lost, and the ties that unite east and west are very tenuous.

Yemenanother age-old cluster of civilization, but if you look at the topographical map of Yemen, you will see it's internally divided by mountain ranges. That's why in Yemen's classical history you never had one kingdom; you always had six or sevenSabaean, Hadhramauti, Himyarite, other kingdoms.

I consider Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator of Yemen from the late 1970s up to a couple of years ago, one of the most impressive leaders of the Arab worldthough I have very few takers on this, I have to say. Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to govern 20th century Yemen more effectively than most other leaders. On a good day, maybe he controlled 65 percent of the country. He united the north and south.

I was able to travel and hitchhike throughout Yemen 10 years agogo to Aden, all through the Hadhramaut, all overin some degree of safety. You can't do that anymore, again for reasons of geography that are rooted in ancient history.

Syriaanother vague geographical expression more than it was a state. Not as bad as Algeria or Libya. I wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1992, the February issue, that Syria was not a country, that Hafez al-Assad was the Brezhnev of the Arab world, in the sense that he papered over differences of sectarian and ethnic groups, but didn't create a civil society in its place. He didn't use the opportunity he had by creating stability to create a civil society. Therefore, Syria was a nest of regionally based ethnic and sectarian groups.

Let's move beyond the Middle East for a few moments.

Europe: We read about Europe as just an economic or financial crisischange this interest rate, get a new finance minister here. It is not an accident, a total accident, that the most southeastern extremity of Europe, Greece, has the most difficulties. If you look at the map of Europe, you see Brussels, Maastricht, The Hague, Strasbourgthe great cities of the European Union. These were also the great demographic points of Charlemagne's ninth century Carolingian Empire. This was always the heartland of Europe because of the rich, lush soil, the outlet to the sea via the North Atlantic, and yet protected by a screen of islands. All this allowed for Europe to emerge and for Charlemagne's Europe to be dominant during the Cold War.

Now we move to more of a Prussian/Bismarckian Europe as power is shifted from Brussels to Berlin. Berlin may not control Europe, but it's the central point of arbitration for solving problems in Europe.

So you have Charlemagne's Europe, you have Hapsburg Europe, and then you have the comparatively lesser developed and more weakly institutionalized Byzantine and Turkish Europe. Greece is the misbegotten child of Byzantine and Turkish despotism, essentially. Greek political parties were not strongly institutionalized until the 1970s and 1980s. Before that in Greece, you had coffee house politics, where parties were organized around a chieftain or a dominant personality, where there was very little bureaucratic stratification. Seventy percent of Greek businesses, as I write in The Revenge of Geography, are run by families, where meritocracy is not operative, where you get promoted based on your relations to the owner.

These things are not all the legacy of one bad finance minister. They are not just the legacy of having a slightly wrong financial or economic policy. These are the legacies of history and geography going back many centuries. They are not totally fatalistic, but they are partially fatalistic.

The euro zone is a very ambitious enterprise, because it attempts to take into the same currency system countries with vastly different historical experiences. These different empiresPrussian, Hapsburg, Charlemagne's, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the Byzantine Empirehad their effect on development patterns as well, which are still operative.

Let's look at Russia for a moment. Everyone in the media loves to hate Vladimir Putin. They see that picture of him riding a horse without a shirt on or in a leather jacket or something, and they say how unsophisticated and lower class he is just a thug, and all of that.

Vladimir Putin is just a normal Russian autocrat who looks out at the world from the point of view of Russia's geography. What he sees and knows is that Russia encompasses half the longitudes of the earth, yet it has a population smaller than Bangladesh, and it has no natural borders in the west towards Europe, which meant that not only did the French and the Germans invade in the guise of Hitler and Napoleon, but so did the Swedes, the Poles, and the Lithuanians in earlier times of Russian history.

So Russia requires a buffer zone in Eastern Europe. So what if the Warsaw Pact has fallen? Russia will use every means at its disposalcrime groups, intimidation, thuggery, and, particularly, manipulating natural gas exports and where and how Russia builds energy pipelinesto reconstitute a buffer zone in the former Warsaw Pact.

Russia will work with Iran to make sure that the United States does not gain a foothold in the Caucasus. "We will do everything in our power to undermine a pro-Western Georgian government"this is Russian history talking, based on geography. If you had a fully democratic, human rights-oriented leader in Moscow, you would probably have similar policies, in some way or another, in the Caucasus, in Europe.

Putin knows he doesn't have the military bandwidth to completely reoccupy Central Asia, but yet he will maneuver. Putin knows that his greatest real strategic enemy is not the United States, regardless of what Mitt Romney may have implied; it's China. Russia and China have land borders going thousands of miles. What is now the Russian Far EastAmuria and Ussuria, Greater Vladivostokwas part of China up until 1860. China is a demographic behemoth that's growing mightily, that wants to extend its corporate and demographic reach into the Russian Far East, into former Soviet Central Asia. China is building roads and rail lines and pouring cash and building gas links all through former Soviet Central Asia, and it's driving the Russians crazy.

This is really what motivates Putin behind the headlines.

China: China has a good geographic scenario and a negative geographic scenario. Its positive geographic scenario is that China is set to expand, as I said, in search of strategic minerals, metals, and resources like timber and hydropower, into the Russian Far East, into Central Asia especially, and to retain control of Tibet. China is at its maximum point geographically since the high Qing Dynasty over 200 years ago.

But here's China's dilemma. The ethnic Han core of China is mainly a function of central China and coastal China. To the north, China finds ethnic Inner Mongolians. To the west, it finds Muslim Turkic Uighurs. To the southwest, it finds Tibet. The Dalai Lama may be a spiritual figure for Western elites, but he's really a geopolitical factor. He's a geopolitical factor because Tibet controls more water than maybe any other place on the earth. It controls the Brahmaputra, Meghna, and other river systems that provide water for West Bengal in India, for Bangladesh, and for much of China.

If you take away Tibet from China, you're left with a rump China that's not much bigger than China during the Ming Dynasty, without water. So this ethnic Han core looks to these high plateau and grasslands in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang province in the west, Tibet in the southwest, where there are different ethnic groups who have had difficult historical relations with the Hans.

So the Chinese leadership says, "The West wants us to liberalize? Are they crazy? We're not going to give up central control, because if we start allowing more individual freedoms, we'll have ethnic insurgencies up and running." This is China's geographically based dilemma.

What is the South China Sea to China? It's China's Caribbean, essentially. What made the United States a great power, ultimately, in the late 19th century? It was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin and getting European powers out.

If you look at a map of the New World, you'll be superficial if you say the New World is divided between North America and South America. It's really divided between the whole area north of the Amazonian Basin and south of the Amazonian Basin. That's why Venezuela and Colombia are not in South America, regardless of what the map says. They are part of the Caribbean world. Most of the people in Venezuela live near the coast. The south is difficult jungles. By getting control of the Caribbean, the United States was able to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and by dominating the Western Hemisphere, it was able to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century. That's what the two world wars were about.

China sees the South China Sea similarly. The South China Sea, if it can control it, gives China access to the Indian Ocean. It totally shifts the balance of power throughout the western Pacific.

This is not about ideas or beautiful philosophies or standing up for responsibility before history. This is about places on the map. This is very cold logic.

The United States only has one geographic challenge. It doesn't have challenges on its east and west. That's the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. It has another middle class country to the north, where most of its population lives near the U.S. border. Its real geographic challenge is with Mexico to the south.

Mexico has gone from one-fifth the population of the United States to one-third the population of the United States over the decades. Though Mexican population growth is slowing, the average Mexican is still in his mid-20s; the average American is in his mid-30s. The median age is about 10 years' difference.

Increasingly, the Mexican economy is in the northern third of Mexico, near the U.S. border. Most inhabitants of cities in the American Southwest are increasingly Spanish-speaking. Mexico is going to affect the character and destiny of American society to as great a degree as anything that happens in the Middle East or anything that happens in China, and maybe more so in that regard.

Mexico is also a country where large swaths of it, in terms of who monopolizes the use of forcewhich is how you define a government in the first placeare controlled by criminal drug gangs. The security situation in Mexico should be a prime concern to the United States precisely because of geographic reasons.

Mexico, even though it is plagued by drug violence, is number 12 in terms of the rankings of world economies and is likely to crack the top 10. Mexico is going to be a major world power over the next few decades, while Southern European countries like Spain and Italy may fall through the floor and become far less important.

If you want to look at America's destiny from the point of view of geography, look less at China and the Middle East, and look towards Mexico.

Final thing: Geography, shale gas. Most of the shale gas deposits are in the United StatesTexas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota, western Pennsylvania, et cetera. The United States is importing only 10 percent of its energy from the Middle East now. In 15, 20 years, it's going to require tremendously less energy from the Middle East. The United States will be energy independent, more or less, within Greater North America, from Alaska to Venezuela, essentially.

No matter what terrible mistakes America makes in foreign policy, geography will determine that America will continue on as probably the major world power, because while China and India are going to have to import more and more oil and natural gas from the unstable Persian Gulf and the Iranian plateau, America will have less and less need, and will require a stable Middle East less and less as the years go on.


QUESTION: Allen Young.

Clearly geography and human agency are both important factors. The question is, what's more important?

Consider Germany. Germany was the same in 1871 as it is today. Before 1871, it had basically very little power, because the human agency basically was focused on all the various kingdoms and principalities and so on, and they couldn't get their act together. Starting in 1871, because of a strong sense of nationhood, they managed to ultimately get control of Europethey almost did in the Second World War.

Now what has happened is that Germany is the major force in Europe today, but it's not doing it through military force. It's doing it through its economics and through its sense of Europe.

Isn't human agency so much more important? The geography hasn't changed. It was the ideas that motivated the Germans that made the difference.

ROBERT KAPLAN: I would put it even more strongly. It had to do with a brilliant leader, Otto von Bismarck. The thing about Bismarck is that he's seen as this Prussian militarist, but when you read the biographies of him by A.J.P. Taylor and others, what you learn is that Bismarck was all about limits and constraints, and about geographical constraints. He won the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, 1871, but he kicked himself for getting involved in it in the first place. To him, it was a failure, in the sense that he allowed himself to get into a conflict.

He was constantly aware that they shouldn't press beyond northern Austria; Schleswig-Holstein was the limit. Bismarck was constantly obsessed with geographical limits. And because he realized them, he was able to create a great German state and was never foolish enough to get involved in any conflict in the Balkans.

It was by recognizing broad geographical limits that he was able to reach the limits, in turn, of human agency. In other words, the more you can listen to geography, the more you expand the realm for which you can do great things.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

Would you comment a bit on how you think the powers of the world will be affected by the slow increase in the earth's temperature?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I'm not a climatologist, but I suspect that it would be good news for the countries in the extreme northern and the extreme southern latitudes if you had warming climates. It would probably create more difficulties for Africa, probably more opportunities for Canada, if you have the opening up of Arctic sea lanes, but would probably give a country like Canada more responsibility in terms of security over time.

Norway, I've noticed, is becoming a significant Arctic military power. That will probably increase as time goes on.

A warming planet also means rising sea levels. Even an infinitesimal rise in sea levels would threaten upwards of 170 million people in Bangladesh. If you have ever been to Bangladesh, it's a ruler-flat, aquatic landscape, where dry soil is very expensive and dear. The same could be said of much of the Nile Valley in Egypt, where many Egyptians live.

So a warming planetgeopolitically, when you're talking about rising sea levelsputs hundreds of millions of people around the earth at risk. We're not talking just of small countries with tiny populations, like the Maldive Islands. I would worry most about Bangladesh, about the Nile Delta.

Climate change means higher sea levels. "Higher sea levels" doesn't mean everybody drowns. What it really means is that the soil becomes saltier, more alkaline; alkalinity increases. And that hurts agriculture. That, in turn, hurts the economy of the country.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you about something you referenced briefly when you talked about Mexico, in global terms. Can you comment on demographics? There are many examples of thisChina's one-child policy, the concentration of young people in cities in the Arab world, and so on. I think demographics is a factor, along with geography, that is worth considering.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. I go into demographics quite strongly in the book. The population of northern Mexico abutting the United States has doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement. There has been a rush to northern Mexico, which again weakens the border between Mexico and the American Southwest.

China will get old before it gets prosperous. It will become gray before the average Chinese has a decent standard of living.

India is in better demographic shape, I would think. It has a younger population than China.

I think aging in the United States and in Europe is going to mean more immigration from North Africa and Mexicoor more immigration from Central America, too, not just Mexico. It's complicated. Mexico's rate of population growth is slowing, too. So Mexico, in turn, may need immigration. From where? From Central America, maybe from Africa, which still has the youngest population on the planet.

Africa has the youngest population. It's the only part of the world that has yet to have a green revolution in agriculture. And it's resource-rich. So it will figure quite heavily.

The key thing is that, because the world is smaller due to technology, every place is strategic now in geopolitical terms. We used to have "this continent is strategic, that one isn't," or "this country is strategic, that one isn't." But in an increasingly smaller world, every place becomes more strategic. Therefore, you have to pay attention to the map even more so.

QUESTION: William Verdone.

In terms of what country now has more power or more influence, what are your impressions on what might be a looming conflict with those tiny little islands between Japan and China?

ROBERT KAPLAN: The way I define all these new maritime disputes, from the East China Sea down to the South China Sea, is this: It's only in recent decades that all these countries, like China, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippinesit's only in recent decades that all these places have become strong states.

Now, the Philippines is an exception. It's a very weakly institutionalized state.

But 75, 100 years ago, or even 50 years agoChina has been wracked by internal rebellions of one sort or another since the early 19th century right up to Deng Xiaoping's new economic policy. Japan was recovering from World War II for decades after 1945. Malaysia only became a strong state under Mahathir bin Mohamad in recent decades. Vietnam was wracked with internal wars, as was Malaysia. The Philippines, with the Hukbalahap Rebellion, the various Islamic insurgencies in the Sulu Archipelagonow, because all these states suddenly are more institutionalized, they can project naval and air power outwards into the seas.

So these disputes over islands, which had existed previously but had never actually meant anything, suddenly mean something. Japan has a navy that has four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy at the moment. This is quasi-pacifistic Japan. And what is happening to quasi-pacifistic Japan? It's becoming a normal country, a normal nationalistic country.

Since the mid-1990s, and especially since the turn of the 21st century, China is building a great navy, with a great air force and a ballistic missile force to go with it.

So suddenly these island disputes matter. They matter because now you have strong states with navies and air forces, whereas before, you didn't. This is the new normal. This really is the new normal.

We've all been taking East Asia stability for granted for too long. For too long, East Asia was a Fortune, Forbes magazine story of just economic success, where you sent your economic correspondents. But we're going to need military correspondents there as well.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt.

France has unexpectedly gotten itself involved militarily in Africa. Nigeria has emerged as a major power in terms of oil production and so on. What do you see for Central and Southern Africa in the relatively near future?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think Nigeria is not a country; it's a weak empire, where Abuja is the central point of arbitration. Nigeria has a Muslim south; it has a Christian and animist south; it has a Boko Haram terrorist outfit in the north, which is a way for the Muslims to put pressure on the non-Muslim president of Nigeria in the capital. You have an up-and-running insurgency in the Niger Delta. Nigeria is never going to be a strong state.What keeps it together, what keeps it from totally pulverizing, is the high levels of corruption, which means that you can dole out payments to enough people to keep the central force operating.

Sam Huntington in his book Political Order in Changing Societies, from 1968, said that corruption is a stabilizing force in many parts of the world. Without corruption, you would have revolution. That's what keeps Nigeria together at the momentcorruption.

I spent a month with U.S. Army Special Forces in southern Algeria near the Malian border about six years agothere is no border. When we think of a border, we think of customs agents and stamps and all of that. This isn't a border; it's a frontier. A frontier is a medieval concept. It means a borderland where tribes cross, where there's no real regulation.

Here's what happened. The Algerians were cool about a U.S.-French-led intervention force against al-Qaeda-affiliated Tuaregs in northern Mali, because the last thing the Algerians wanted was for Mali to stabilize. If Mali stabilized, then all the al-Qaeda people would go into southern Algeria. It was very geographically convenient for Algeria that Mali had collapsed, had fallen apart.

But the French acted. There was this reaction. Algeria is a country with a very strong and ruthless intelligence service, with a very strong army, which has a very, I would almost say, neoconservative attitude towards Islamist guerillas, because it fought a war with them throughout the 1990s. So this is a pot that's going to continue to boil.

Libya affected this. Qaddafi had armed large numbers of ethnic Tuareg mercenaries. When Qaddafi was overthrown, they fled into Mali and destabilized Mali.

The question is, will we see something similar in Mauritania and Niger and other places as time goes on?

But Algeria is emerging as the strongest state in North Africa. Morocco is geographically inconvenient to North Africa. It's divided from the rest of North Africa by the Atlas Mountains. It's more Atlantic-focused. Tunisia and Egypt are wrapped up in internal problems. Libya has collapsed. But Algeria has not gone through an Arab Spring, so to speak, and it is more formally structured. Yet most of Algeria's population is in the north, and the south. I remember when I went to Tamanrasset, the big city in southern Algeria near the Malian and Niger borders, it was a military-run city. It may have been Algerian territory, but the Algerian army occupied it. There was no sense of a civil society there, so to speak.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for your brilliant insights, as always. But let's stir the pot a little more, particularly in the search of Voltaire's Candide for the best of all possible worlds. So we have to understand more, and I would like to follow Allen's point about human agency.

Let's go back to Rome. The great Roman Empire stretched everywhere. Today we have Italy. Rome was a unifier, but Italy was divided into many small places.

Look at Yugoslavia. When Tito was there, it was all togetherthe Balkans, the mountains. Look at it today.

External forcesyou talked about central China. What about Genghis Khan coming from the outside?

So human agency, forms of government, and ideology are also very significant.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Very significant. As I said before, the degree to which individual leaders can operate and respect geographical realities, the greater their chances of success. If they don't respect geographical realities, they can still govern, but they will need in some cases more extreme forms of repressionremember, Tito ran a very ruthless secret police network in order to keep Yugoslavia togetheror they will have an essentially weak state, in some respects, like Italy has been for many periods. But they have to make some accommodation somewhere.

Lee Kuan Yew, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest examples of human agency, took Singapore, which had a standard of living in the early 1960s equivalent to that of sub-Saharan Africa, and raised it to the top of the World Economic Forum's list of most desired countries to do business in. Lee Kuan Yew used to joke, "If only I had China. What I could do with China."

But he only half-said that, because he knew that China was a vast geography, where Singapore was a city-state. Because Singapore was a city-state, it lacked a hinterland. Because it lacked a hinterland, it was easier to control and to do things with, to turn into this vibrant economy. But Chinese leaders do not have the luxury of Lee Kuan Yew because of their geography. They govern large numbers of non-Chinese ethnic groups, of what in previous centuries had been nomads.

You're right, human agency is the ultimate determinant. But it helps when you have respect of geography.

QUESTION: John Richardson.

There are lots of nomads in Africa. There are the Roma, who are sort of quasi-nomads. There are nomads all over the place.

What does geography teach you about the future of nomadism, as the city-states and the large populations have their own problems? I imagine, scientifically, maybe solar-powered nomads with electric motors playing a role in life.

ROBERT KAPLAN: The person who wrote most profoundly about this was Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, where he said that civilization begins when nomads cluster in a certain place and build a city. The city leads to development and to wealth. The wealth leads to corruption and more of an effete lifestyle, which leads to the greater city-state itself breaking up and being reformulated into other patterns. I think Ibn Khaldun was the first historian-philosopher who wrote about the relationship between civilization and nomadism, in that regard.

Keep in mind that over half of humanity now lives in an urban setting. We're an urbanized planet, whereas 50 years ago we weren't. Even places like Eastern Turkey, which look small on the map, have hundreds of thousands of people in them.

I think we will continue to haveI wouldn't call them nomads so much, but people who live outside the confines of major cities and who are able now to travel, not by camel, but by four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruisers. The fact that the Toyota Land Cruiser became the preferred weapon of war in the Horn of Africa battles between the Eritreans and the Ethiopians, in the various conflicts in the African Sahel, is indicative of the effect of nomadism, in a way, on modern conflict.

Jordan is a very troubled country today. We didn't speak of it. The king is losing power and legitimacy. But one of the reasons is because the East Bankers are no longer nomadic Bedouins, so to speak. They have cell phones and pickup trucks. The whole relationship between the East Bank and the palace in Amman has shifted because of technology kind of layered on top of what used to be nomadism.

So I think nomads still matter, but in very different, complex ways than they did before.

This is why I'm very worried about the French involvement in Mali. I sometimes get the feeling that this is another war that never ends. You can kick people out and they disperse, because borders don't matter, whatever the lines on the map say. The borders don't matter between Niger and Mauritania and Mali and southern Algeria, et al. So they disperse. You invade; they retreat. You take back Timbuktu. It's fine. But you're never secure, because you have to stay there. The moment you leave, everything can revert back.

We may see this in Afghanistan. It's unclear.

QUESTION: Caroline Urvater.

What do you predict about the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

ROBERT KAPLAN: It's not that I predict. What I would say is that, from the Israeli point of view, despite the last election the other day, which moved power more away from the right towards the center, Israeli governments are still, in an historical sense, to the right of where they were 20 and 30 years ago or in the days of Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Israeli politics is still significantly to the right of that.

The Palestinians are divided. I think the reason why Israel made that decision to build settlements in East Jerusalem just a day after the UN vote that gave the Palestinians legitimacy a few months ago was Israel saying, "Abbas can no longer deliver for us. Therefore, why show him any respect? We might as well undermine him wherever we can, because he can't deliver in any case."

I think the prospects are very dim. I see the Israelis just continuing to create facts on the ground, sometimes in a headline-making manner, many times not. They are creating facts on the ground in the way that it's going to make a settlement much more difficult.

Remember in the 1970s, Arik Sharon said that Jordan is the real Palestinian state, and King Hussein got enraged about it? Sharon was very much criticized in the world media. What Sharon was saying was that you have a Palestinian East Bank which demographically is more and more Palestinian, a Palestinian West Bank; sooner or later the Palestinians will rule Jordan. It was a very cruel geographic truth that he was saying.

I wonder, given the weakness of the king in Jordan, the increasing weakness, whether Sharon's geographical-based analysis will at the end of the day have some validity.

JOANNE MYERS: If you had any doubt that geography or history mattered or that Bob Kaplan had something important to say, this morning would dispel that.

Thank you so much. It was fabulous.


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