LASTFRONTIER-GEOGRAPHY

JIM HARRIS

What Geography Says About Our Coming Conflicts and Fate

            Because I have become intoxicated with land and water, the smell, look, and sounds of the natural world, I have developed a hunger for the subject of geography.  I love to look at geographic maps to see what they might tell me about where in the world I am.

            Five or six years ago, I bought two new books that I read quickly and casually, without much regard for making their subject matter a part of my mental library.  In a couple of columns, I wrote just a few words about the books.

            However, during the holiday season while recuperating from surgery, I decided to reread both books.

            The first book is “On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks” by Simon Garfield.

            The second book–a considerable portion of which focuses on the American Southwest–is “The Revenge of Geography:  What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate” by Robert D. Kaplan.  

            I enjoyed both of these books, but Kaplan’s work is both fascinating and just about as exciting as the long title sounds.  Thus, for this edition of The Last Frontier, I will share a few of his ideas. 

            Geography is a description of the earth, and Kaplan believes that a country’s geographic place can tell us much about that country’s politics, economics, and culture in the present and in the future.

            Kaplan is NOT a geographic determinist, one who believes that the fate of a country or a people is entirely determined by where he or she lives, but by studying history, geography, and demographics, it is not difficult, he writes, to conclude “that geography is vitally important.”

            Here is the first sentence in the final paragraph of the book’s preface:

            “As political upheavals accumulate and the world becomes seemingly more unmanageable, with incessant questions as to how the United States and its allies should respond, geography offers a way to make at least some sense of it all.”

            Kaplan believes that the areas of the world that pose the largest threats to the continued power and safety of America are Eurasia (which includes the Middle East); China; and Mexico-Central America.

            Readers of the brief essay may already be surmising that Kaplan’s 2012 book sounds like a modern narrative, like it was written for a 2018 or 2019 audience.

            How long has America been sending soldiers to Iraq and to Afghanistan?

            And now President Trump has sent troops to South Texas along the Rio Grande border with Mexico?

            In his long concluding chapter of “The Revenge of Geography,” Kaplan examines the transformations taking place in the lives of those individuals living in northern Mexico and in the Southwestern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

            In other words, he is writing about you and me and our neighbors on both sides of the international border that divides America and Mexico.

            Kaplan believes the geography of our region has always been a huge factor in the lives of those who live here.  He also says that “we delude ourselves in believing that we are completely in control of our destinies…” but that “the more we are aware of our limits, the more power we have to affect outcomes within them.”

            In addition, he believes, “Geography, climate, population determine communications, economy, political 

organization.”

            Furthermore, he thinks that while we have been fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “a massive state failure was developing right on America’s southern border, with far more profound implications for the near and distant future of America, its society, and American power than anything occurring half a world away. What have we achieved in the Middle East with all of our interventions since the 1980s?….Why not fix Mexico instead? How we might have prospered had we put all that money, expertise, and innovations that went into Iraq and Afghanistan into Mexico.”

            Looking for historical parallels to what is happening in the American Southwest and northern Mexico, Kaplan finds many that tell what might happen here.

            Similar situations to that found in the Southwest can be found in Ming China in 1449; in medieval Venice, Italy; in the Indian Mutiny against Britain in 1857-58; in the Battle of Syracuse in 413 B.C.; and in the decline of the Roman Empire over several centuries before and after the time of Christ.

            In “A Study of History,” (1957) historian of the rise and fall of Rome, Arnold Toynbee writes the following about countries, including the Roman Empire, who confronted conditions like those in the American Southwest:

            “The erection of a limes(a boundary or wall) sets in motion a play of social forces which is bound to end disastrously for the builders.  A policy of non-intercourse with the barbarians beyond is quite impracticable.  Whatever the imperial government may decide, the interests of traders, pioneers, adventurers, and so forth will inevitably draw them beyond the frontier.” 

            Near the end of “The Revenge of Geography,” here is Kaplan on the region of America that is our Southwestern home:

            “The quality and fluidity of this cultural and bi-national (the US and Mexico) interaction will, arguably, more than any other individual dynamic, determine how well American interacts with…(Eurasia and Africa).  American foreign policy will likely be both wise and unwise by turns in the course of the decades.  But American economic power, cultural power, moral power, and even political and military power will be substantially affected by whether we can develop into a cohesive, bilingual supra-state-of-sorts with Mexico and Canada or, instead, become trapped by a dysfunctional, vast, and increasingly unruly border region that engenders civilization tension between America’s still dominant Anglo-Protestant culture and its Hispanic counterpart….

            “Thus, if the United States and Mexico do not eventually come together to the degree that the U.S. and Canada already have—if we do not have Mexico as an intimate and dependable ally in world forums—it will adversely affect America’s other relationships, especially as Mexico’s (and Central America’s) population grows at a much higher rate than ours, and thus Mexico will assume more importance as time goes on.”

            To conclude, while writing this Last Frontier, I’ve been wondering if I were starting over as a freshman in college, would I choose geography as a major?   

            And speaking to the many conflicts in which America finds itself in the early years of the 21stcentury, here are the final seven words in Kapland’s “The Revenge of Geography”:

            “A world balanced is a world free.”

CUTLINE

Students of history can learn much from studying a geographic map of the natural and artificial boundaries in northern Mexico and the American Southwest.