I have now read enough of Robert Kaplan to understand the central thesis of his writing on geo-politics: that geography matters. That the world has not changed much, not really, from the days when the dhows plowed the Indian Ocean and sailors had to make their long way around the cape of good hope in the perilous pursuit for treasure, bounty and prosperity.
“Monsoon” is about this: the geography of the Indian Ocean specifically; the competition between China and India over who will control the access points to 80% of the world’s commerce which traverses the Indian Ocean long after sailors stopped relying on the natural rhythms of the monsoons to help them along their paths.
And, of course, the sub-text of all Kaplan’s writing: that fundamental question of what is America’s role in a world which is becoming less unipolar and more reliant upon the emerging powers of India and China, as the dramatic populations of the Indian Ocean put stress in ways positive and negative upon a world in flux. And what to do about the rough neighborhood in which this is developing, places where Iran’s revolutionaries attempt to apply asymmetry (terrorism) to naval routes and proxy wars between Iran and Saudi have begun to play out all across the region as Persia attempts to reassert its influence in a crescent atop the Sunni world – an arc from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
I have liked Kaplan’s sweeping prose – telling the story of nations in the form of an epic, where the rise and fall of empires grace the pages, emphasized by the stories of individuals – change agents mostly unknown to the rest of the world who nevertheless have had a role to play in the rollout of history. However Kaplan’s emphasis on geography brings with it a certain determinism, albeit heavily caveated: that things cannot be changed and that people are imprisoned to their tiny patch of land. For who among us can move mountains?
I’m not saying that he is wrong – and his voice in a world of “flyover states” and globalist hubris is certainly welcome, reminding us of the rock upon which we all spin day and night as we fight and scheme and die.
But it does make me wonder often about the idea of human “agency”; about the “arc of history” as some have liked to refer to things, and how it does not necessarily bend in any specific direction but depends mostly upon the talents and the scrappy luck of we humans as we try and build the cushions between ourselves and those who would harm us. Yes, I think that is more the story of the coming political Monsoons in the Indian ocean. Less about what the planners in China are doing with new roads silken and otherwise and more about, as once was said, the “unknown unknowns”. For history oftentimes looks inevitable, if perhaps not exactly organized, in the pages of Gibbon, but rarely is it written aforehand.
And that, I think, is what makes the fight so interesting.