Letters

Is Geography Destiny?

How pertinent of Robert D. Kaplan ("The Revenge of Geography," May/June 2009) to remind us of Halford Mackinder’s message in "The Geographical Pivot of History." Kaplan correctly quotes Mackinder’s view that man initiates and nature controls, but then goes on to label Mac-kinder a determinist. He certainly was not an environmental determinist in the meaning ...

How pertinent of Robert D. Kaplan ("The Revenge of Geography," May/June 2009) to remind us of Halford Mackinder’s message in "The Geographical Pivot of History." Kaplan correctly quotes Mackinder’s view that man initiates and nature controls, but then goes on to label Mac-kinder a determinist. He certainly was not an environmental determinist in the meaning of the term at the beginning of the 20th century.

Mackinder thought that grand strategy was played out on a game board provided by nature—the distribution of oceans, land masses, and natural routeways. The significance of space could be altered by technology, particularly railroads, which Mackinder mistakenly thought would cover the interior of Asia and increase the mobility of the pivot power. (He was close: It would be air power instead.)

Mackinder’s work has never found its way into the main canon of international relations literature, yet scholars seem to revisit it every few years. Why the continuing interest? Part of the answer is that his argument can only be tested by events, and his article contains intuitive and prophetic elements. The nuanced writing allows commentators to generate many interpretations, which helps explain why each generation rediscovers Mackinder.

—Brian Blouet
Huby Professor of Geography and
International Education

College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Va.

Kaplan has done a service by reminding the reader of the timely geopolitical works of Braudel, Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman, and we basically agree with him, even if his thesis takes geographical determinism a bit too far at times.

We only wish there could be more discussion of the increasing importance of geography to questions of nuclear proliferation, nuclear targeting, and potential nuclear preemption, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.

India, Pakistan, and Israel are nuclear powers; Iran is almost there; and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among others, wait in the wings. If Israel decides to preempt Iran and cannot overfly Iraq because of U.S. objections, there is the question of whether it can be done by overflying Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, by going through the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea, or by firing missiles from submarines from the latter. If India and Pakistan escalate to the nuclear level, how much of an advantage does India have because of its strategic depth?

Regarding both state and nonstate actors, what is the geographical context of the delivery of "suitcase" weapons? What, too, is the geography of the use of biological weapons by any of several countries? Crucial here are distances, borders, missile and aircraft ranges, refueling capabilities—even the geography of prevailing winds matters. If policymakers heed Kaplan’s advice and return to the study of geography, we can only hope that these are among the questions they are asking.

—Geoffrey Kemp
Director of Regional Strategic Programs
The Nixon Center
Washington, D.C.

 —Robert E. Harkavy
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pa.

Kaplan approvingly quotes the view of a U.S. military "expert" who says, "Terrorism is an entrepreneurial activity, and in Yemen you’ve got over 20 million aggressive, commercial-minded, and well-armed people," a situation that "terrifies the hell out of the government in Riyadh." I take particular exception to this blanket defamation of the Yemeni people.

Yes, Yemenis are enterprising and have historically excelled in trade and joined the business elite in Saudi Arabia and throughout Asia. But Yemenis have never been and will never be in the terrorism business. I must remind Kaplan that Yemen was a strong state before the Roman Empire and remains so today. Its people and tribes have lived under the rule of law since the reign of the Queen of Sheba. Furthermore, Yemenis have lived with their Saudi brothers to the north since antiquity and will not, under any circumstances, infringe on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighboring country.

It’s true that Yemen today is in a deadly struggle with al Qaeda and its supporters, who crave control of our prohibitive terrain (which incidentally, resembles Afghanistan’s). My country’s dire poverty, combined with high youth unemployment and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people, also provides fertile ground for recruiting terrorists of all stripes. The international community is, therefore, dutybound to work with the government of Yemen to strengthen its capacity to face this plague.

Instead of defamatory portrayals of Yemenis as terrorist entrepreneurs, we need help and solidarity. Erroneous statements of bias, on racial or religious grounds, even when uttered by "experts," only add to misunderstanding between peoples and aid those who would sow discord.

—Abdullah M. Alsaidi
Ambassador to the United Nations
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Yemen
New York, N.Y.

Robert D. Kaplan replies:

It was not my intention to insult individual Yemenis. But to avoid generalizations altogether is to immobilize discussion. The fact remains that Yemenis are among the most well-armed people in the world and constitute an overcrowded population plagued by rapidly dwindling water resources. The possibility of an upheaval in Yemen affecting Saudi Arabia simply has to be addressed.

Brian Blouet is right that Mackinder was not exclusively an environmental determinist. But Mackinder’s starting point in analyzing the political affairs of men was geography, which means that men’s actions and the direction of history occur within an environmental framework. In that sense I do consider Mackinder a determinist.

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