Robert D. Kaplan sees the world whole. Geography is his lodestar. Geopolitics informs his understanding of history and current international relations. For more than a decade, he has used his keen analytical skills to explain the world’s power relationships. He is America’s geopolitical star.
Kaplan has written twenty books on foreign affairs and travel, but the core of his geopolitical thought can be found in five books: Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2011), The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012), Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014), The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century (2018), and his latest book, just published, Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age (2022).
Eurasia–Africa is today the target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which masks itself as economics when in fact it is geopolitics.
Modern global geopolitical thought can be traced back to the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval officer who achieved fame not as a sailor but as a writer. Mahan taught at the U.S. Naval War College in the late 19th century. Though most remembered for his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), Mahan’s geopolitical worldview is more evident in The Problem of Asia (1901) and The Interest of America in International Conditions (1910). Mahan recognized the centrality of Eurasia to global politics and viewed world history through the lens of continuing struggles for power between Eurasian land powers and offshore sea powers. He promoted Anglo-American strategic cooperation as a means to offset the immense human and natural resources of Eurasia. And he understood that U.S. security depended on a politically divided Eurasia. Remarkably, he foresaw the geopolitical alignments of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, and warned that a politically stable and economically powerful China would one day threaten the global balance of power.
Mahan’s geopolitical successor was the British educator, geographer, and statesman Sir Halford Mackinder, who wrote a series of articles and books that explored the influence of geographical conditions on history and international relations. The same year that Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History appeared (1890), Mackinder wrote an article for The Scottish Geographical Magazine entitled “The Physical Basis of Political Geography.” There, he proposed to apply geography “to the lighting up of history.” Eurasia, he noted, was the world’s greatest landmass, and he identified its two greatest populated regions as “the Gulf stream region” (Western Europe) and the “Monsoon area” or “Indo-Chinese” region that extended from “India to Japan.” And he noted that “the greatest events in the world’s history are … related to the greatest features of geography.”
A decade later, Mackinder wrote Britain and the British Seas (1902), where he foresaw the global balance of power shifting toward continental-sized states, but also noted that the unity of the ocean was “the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.” He followed that book with his famous 1904 address to the Royal Geographical Society entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), in which he warned that a sufficiently populated and armed great power in control of the resources of Eurasia could overwhelm the Western sea powers and become a world hegemon. After the First World War, Mackinder expanded and refined his “pivot” paper in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919). Russia, he wrote, occupied the “Heartland” of Eurasia, and he warned that from its Heartland base, Russia could potentially dominate Eurasia and the larger Eurasian-African landmass which he called the “World-Island.” Later, in the midst of the Second World War, Mackinder further revised his geopolitical concept in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” He foresaw the formation of a North Atlantic alliance to balance Russian power in the Heartland. And in both his 1904 “pivot” paper and Democratic Ideals and Reality, he noted that a rising China could also one day become a Eurasian power that threatened the global balance of power.
Mackinder was followed by the Dutch-American professor of international relations at Yale, Nicholas Spykman, who wrote two geopolitical masterpieces during World War II: America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) and The Geography of the Peace (1944). Spykman, like Mahan and Mackinder, viewed Eurasia as the world’s most important geopolitical feature. But he identified a huge crescent region that stretched from Scandinavia to East Asia — that combined population density with access to the oceans — as the Rimland of Eurasia, and wrote that whoever dominated that region controlled “the destinies of the world.” And Spykman, too, recognized that China would become a great power in the post-World War II world.
You cannot understand Robert Kaplan’s worldview without knowing about Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman. Kaplan is in a very real sense their geopolitical heir (especially after the death of Colin S. Gray, who more than anyone else resurrected classical geopolitics from its premature grave in the 1970s). Kaplan’s geopolitical books echo Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman, and updates them for today’s international politics.
This is most evident in Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography and his The Return of Marco Polo’s World. “Geography,” he writes, “is the preface to the very track of human events.” Eurasia remains central to global politics, just as Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman said. But in the 21st century, power in Eurasia has shifted from Western Europe to the Asian Rimland, what many are calling the Indo-Pacific. And for the first time in history, Kaplan writes, Mackinder’s concept of the “World-Island” is real. Eurasia-Africa is today the target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which masks itself as economics when in fact it is geopolitics.
Kaplan gets more focused in Monsoon and Asia’s Cauldron, where he writes that the geographical “pivot” of world politics has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. This region includes the Indian Ocean, the South and East China Seas, and is the gateway from the East Asia–Pacific to Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. And it is the Mediterranean region that is the subject of Kaplan’s new book, Adriatic, where he shows that China’s geopolitical reach has extended to Central Europe and the Mediterranean; specifically, the Adriatic Sea and its environs. And the Adriatic region is the gateway to Western Europe and China’s achievement of Eurasian hegemony. This is part geopolitics and part geo-economics.
“The Adriatic,” he writes, “is about to be linked with the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as key elements of a burgeoning global trade, from Hong Kong to Trieste by way of Hambantota, Gwadar, and other Indian Ocean ports.” The Adriatic, he continues, may soon serve as “the western maritime terminus of China’s Belt and Road.” And Kaplan views the Belt and Road as an empire builder and sees China (as Mackinder saw Russia) as a successor to the Mongol Empire:
If the early-twenty-first-century world has a geopolitical center, this would be it: the Greater Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, and including the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. The current Chinese regime’s proposed land and maritime Silk Road, called … “the Belt and Road Initiative,” duplicates exactly the routes Marco Polo traveled. This is no coincidence. The Mongols, whose Yuan Dynasty ruled China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were “early practitioners of globalization,” seeking to connect the whole of habitable Eurasia in a truly multicultural empire. And Yuan China’s most compelling weapon was … not the sword but trade.…
It was trade routes, not the projection of military power, that emblemized the “Pax Mongolia.” Mongol grand strategy was built on commerce much more than on war. If you want to understand China’s grand strategy today … look no further than Kublai Khan’s empire.…
Kaplan concludes Adriatic with a question rather than an answer. What is to become of Europe in the 21st century? This is after all the geographical region that dominated global geopolitics for centuries. He notes that Europe as a geographical concept replaced Christendom when secular statesmen replaced religious rulers. Will Europe be replaced or will it instead dissolve into “Afro-Eurasia” (Mackinder’s World Island)? And if the latter, will it dissolve as a result of China’s growing pressure on Europe’s eastern and southern gateway, the Adriatic Sea? And if that happens, will China emerge as the Eurasian hegemon that replaces the United States as the organizer of the global order? Stay tuned, and wait for Kaplan’s next book.