Geography, Geopolitics and Fate


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I read an excellent article this morning by Robert Kaplan, based on the work of H. Mackinder, the founder of Geopolitics. It highlights the overarching role geography plays in the outlook of nations. What is particularly interesting to me is the connections between geography; history; and religion, particularly a certain prophecy in the Quran.

I'll post some excerpts along with some interpretation. I'll start with a primer of how geography is seen in by analysts:

So, too, must we reexamine the blue-water strategizing of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval captain and author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Viewing the sea as the great “commons” of civilization, Mahan thought that naval power had always been the decisive factor in global political struggles. It was Mahan who, in 1902, coined the term “Middle East” to denote the area between Arabia and India that held particular importance for naval strategy. Indeed, Mahan saw the Indian and Pacific oceans as the hinges of geopolitical destiny, for they would allow a maritime nation to project power all around the Eurasian rim and thereby affect political developments deep into Central Asia. Mahan’s thinking helps to explain why the Indian Ocean will be the heart of geopolitical competition in the 21st century—and why his books are now all the rage among Chinese and Indian strategists.
Mackinder is known for his perception of the importance of this particular region of Eurasia. Incidentally (and interestingly enough), the article mentions both this, and Mackinder's correlation between geography and religion, in the same paragraph:

His thesis is that Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia are the “pivot” around which the fate of world empire revolves. He would refer to this area of Eurasia as the “heartland” in a later book. Surrounding it are four “marginal” regions of the Eurasian landmass that correspond, not coincidentally, to the four great religions, because faith, too, is merely a function of geography for Mackinder. There are two “monsoon lands”: one in the east generally facing the Pacific Ocean, the home of Buddhism; the other in the south facing the Indian Ocean, the home of Hinduism. The third marginal region is Europe, watered by the Atlantic to the west and the home of Christianity. But the most fragile of the four marginal regions is the Middle East, home of Islam, “deprived of moisture by the proximity of Africa” and for the most part “thinly peopled” (in 1904, that is).
As I was reading the article, I couldn't help noticing a parallel between Mackinder's thesis and a key passage in the Quran: there is an account in the chapter entitled "The Cave", which contains a historical account of a King and his subduing the nomadic tribes which roamed the borders of his territory, mentioned in connection with the story of Gog and Maggog (two tribes, which have been linked with the area of the Caucus). Scholars have narrowed the figure hinted at in these verses to a leader of ancient Persia, most likely Darius I (549-486 BC). As I kept reading, more and more light bulbs started flashing.

But lets first consider Mackinder's thesis:

As we consider this rapid review of the broader currents of history, does not a certain persistence of geographical relationship become evident? Is not the pivot region of the world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?
These days the "Great Game" is played out between Europe, America, Russia and China, and the centerpiece is not the Middle East, but Central Asia. Mackinder perdicted that this area would be the pivot around which the world revolves. (This was a century ago, before the rise of the Soviet Empire, so it was very accurate. He also correctly forecasted the World Wars, by the way).

The article then goes on to examine the work of contemporary thinkers who have shown how the geography of Asia; mixed with modern technology; diminishing resources; and overpopulation, is setting the scene for a chain reaction which could ignite the entire area in a desperate conflict. A fight to the finish, if you will:

Now there is an “unbroken belt of countries,” in Bracken’s words, from Israel to North Korea, which are developing ballistic missiles and destructive arsenals. A map of these countries’ missile ranges shows a series of overlapping circles: Not only is no one safe, but a 1914-style chain reaction leading to wider war is easily conceivable. “The spread of missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Asia is like the spread of the six-shooter in the American Old West,” Bracken writes—a cheap, deadly equalizer of states.
Getting back to the prophecy and the fate of the world, the account of the Persian King in the Quran is of him securing the borders of his Persian empire. We are told (and history confirms) that a wall was built by the Persians at Derbent, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, (which is mistakenly refered to as the Gates of Alexander), which the Persians used to contain the nomadic hordes to the North. There is a metaphor of "containment" here, (keep this word in mind) which extends beyond the literal translations.

The historical account then turns into a prophecy about the future, and we are told about a time when this area will no longer be the contained powder keg it once was. Mackinder himself could not foresee this in 1900, (and no thinker before him could either) as this required the advent of modern war technology. Kaplan articulates this very effectively:

All of this requires major revisions to Mackinder’s theories of geopolitics. For as the map of Eurasia shrinks and fills up with people, it not only obliterates the artificial regions of area studies; it also erases Mackinder’s division of Eurasia into a specific “pivot” and adjacent “marginal” zones. Military assistance from China and North Korea to Iran can cause Israel to take military actions. The U.S. Air Force can attack landlocked Afghanistan from Diego Garcia, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The Chinese and Indian navies can project power from the Gulf of Aden to the South China Sea—out of their own regions and along the whole rimland. In short, contra Mackinder, Eurasia has been reconfigured into an organic whole.
Today, the front lines of conflict are defined by geographical/geopolitical "shatter zones". These are geographical areas of the world where multiple destabilizing factors come together and make for a very unstable and explosive situation. To give an example, one such shatter zone includes my native land of Pakistan, and I especially loved this statement which made me crack up in (hopelessly cynical) laughter:

Of course, the worst nightmare on the subcontinent is Pakistan, whose dysfunction is directly the result of its utter lack of geographic logic.
As I kept reading, it became more apparent to me why Persia's history is specifically mentioned in the Quran:

It is not an accident that Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower. There was a certain geographic logic to it. Iran is the greater Middle East’s universal joint, tightly fused to all of the outer cores.

The author of this article is not just a well known journalist but also a member of a strategic think tank. The reason he wrote the article becomes clear in its conclusion, which seeks to provide a solution to the Iranian Crises. He posits that the only thing America can do is to try and "contain" Iran, as the West "contained" the Soviet Union.

The problem; however, is that Kaplan has already shown how the many shatter zones around the region simply can not be "contained". It isn't about Iran anymore, the collective factors and dangers are piling up, one on top of another. The end result seems to be in line with a "geographical determinism" which Kaplan states early on, always ran contrary to the liberal notions of politics. Maybe this is why he titled his article "The Revenge of Geography"...

The problem with politics is that there are no prophecies, only predictions. So I will end by stating one which, (seems clear to me) is close to fulfillment. As the King (a devout follower of Zoroaster/Zarathustra, the Persian prophet) finished building the wall at Derbent, which "contained" the marauding destruction, he warned the people thus: "when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust; and the promise of my Lord is ever true." (18:98) And once the "containment" fails, the resulting conflict will bring about the End, described in the following verse of the Quran.
And on that day We shall let some of them surge against others (in conflict), and the Trumpet will be blown. Then We shall gather them all together.