The return of geography

Some of the commentary on the whole Russia-Georgia affair has talked about the “return” of history, in somewhat post-Fukuyaman terms. (Though Fukyama himself has denied that what is underway now is a simple return to the older Cold War dynamics.)
But it strikes me what is happening these days is much more a “return” of geography to world affairs than a return of history.
Not that the hard facts of geography ever went away, any more than the ongoing dynamic of history. But Tom Friedman was only one of many western-bubble commentators who saw the world as a sort of endlessly level playing field in which the factor of distance (whether physical or cultural) had lost most of its salience.
In a geography-free world, it might have seemed quite “natural” that just one set of values and global priorities, which oh, by a remarkable coincidence happened to be those of the US-dominated west, would always prevail and indeed would necessarily be desired and recognized as superior by all the world’s (increasingly homogenous) people. In a geography-free world it seemed natural– or indeed, actively laudable– that a handful of western-educated lawyers in a courtroom in the wealthy and well-ordered city of The Hague would “know what is best” for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa reeling from the blows of IMF-imposed pauperization, the widespread destruction of their lives and livelihoods, and the existential disorder of the civil wars that were thereby fueled.
In a geography-free world, it must have seemed just as doable and justifiable to many Americans to engage in military forms of “regime change” in distant Asia as it has long seemed to be in Central America.
But now, geography is back. It has come back most noticeably, perhaps, in the form of huge increases in fuel prices in recent months. But even without those fuel price hikes Americans would already, by this point, have been starting seriously to notice the cost of continuing to sustain the country’s massive military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the US to maintain a military unit of any particular size in Iraq is, it turns out, considerably more expensive than maintaining a unit of the same size in Guatemala. (Who knew?) It is even more expensive than it is for Russia to maintain a unit of that size in Georgia, which is right next door.
Back in January 2003, when I went with a bunch of fellow peace activists here in Charlottesville, Virginia, to persuade the city council to declare our town a “city of peace”, I made a fairly short argument about how– based on my 30 years of experience as a student of Middle East strategic affairs– I saw that the imminent invasion of Iraq was most likely not going to be the promised cakewalk; that the US troops would likely find themselves bogged down in distant Iraq for several years; and that the sheer cost of sustaining this deployment would reverberate down through every sector of the US economy, including to the level of budgets for the states and cities.
I pointed out too– there, and in some of my writings at the time– that after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, within three years the cost of sustaining the post-invasion occupation had sent inflation in Israel sky-rocketing and brought Israel’s economy to its knees. And Iraq, I pointed out, was considerably further away from the US homeland than Lebanon was from Israel… Therefore, the longterm cost of sustaining the post-invasion occupation would likely be even higher.
Well, for various other reasons, we haven’t had Israeli-style hyper-inflation here (yet.) But the costs of the post-invasion occupation have proven to be just as damaging to the longterm health of our economy as I feared.
It’s largely about geography, you see.
And if you think the geography of maintaining a military presence in Iraq is high, well, just think about doing the same in the landlocked massifs of Afghanistan… There, even the Soviets– some of whom lived right next door– couldn’t afford to maintain the level of occupation force that would have been needed to quell the anti-Moscow insurgency of the 1980s.
The “return of geography” will have a number of deep ramifications in all the different dimensions of world affairs: strategic, socio-political, economic, and cultural. Most likely, geography-based “spheres of influence” will make a comeback. (Of those, of course, the US’s own Monroe Doctrine, which covers the whole of North and South America, is by far the longest established.) The specificities of human geography will be strengthened, too, as against the claims put forward by bubble-dwelling values universalists who made the ill-founded claim that their universalism was quite “culture-neutral.”
Does this mean we are doomed to revert to the formation of competing blocs, international arms races, and war? I say no. Just because there will be spheres of influence and a re-emergence of “cultural difference” doesn’t mean that all conversation is suddenly ended. Indeed, the existence– and more importantly, the recognition– of difference can and should be seen as an invitation to globe-circling conversations about these matters. That, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between today and the 19th century. Today, citizens of just about all the world’s countries have the ability to engage in unmediated, level-playing-field conversations across national borders, about all the matters that concern us. That has never happened before.
If we can open ourselves up to having these conversations, in a respectful and egalitarian spirit, there is so much we can learn about the world, about each other, and therefore about ourselves! (That’s one of the things I love about the blogosphere, and the main reason I keep coming back here.)
We can also start to understand the dubious nature of some of the claims made by our own governments.
For example, if the US has a “Monroe Doctrine”, why should Russia not have something similar of its own? Why should what’s sauce for the goose not also be sauce for the gander?
… Just one final point here. Many Americans have a very scant understanding (or appreciation) for the discipline of geography. In the UK, when I grew up and today, young people undertook several years of study of geography in high school and many of them then went on to study geography, as such, at university. Here in the United States there is almost no such systematic study of the subject. It exists in the K-12 curriculum only as small portions within the broader subject known as “Social Studies,” most of which is focused on history and civics. And only a handful of US universities offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in geography.
This always surprised me. Here’s the US– a country with, by British standards, huge amounts of geography and not very much history– and the students were supposed to spend endless amounts of time parsing the minutiae of what one “Founding Father” or another thought about something 230 years ago while ignoring the many opportunities they have, right here, in this extensive and beautiful country, to gain a rich and multi-layered understanding of geography.
Well, guys, geography is back. And nowadays, it’s decidedly global. Let’s figure out how to deal with that.

3 thoughts on “The return of geography”

  1. Helena
    It is time to see which of the Shell scenarios are panning out.
    Just at the moment it looks like Flags which is a pity.
    It is instructive to see that the EU has remained silent for the lat three weeks (other then the French President acting as nominal President of the EU, and making a bit of a hash of things)
    Your point about Geography is well made but I suspect you can carry it further. A lot of modern geographical study uses different mappings to allow insights into the real costs and times of doing things.
    You can draw population maps using simple linear metre scales. Alternatively you can take the transport times between population centres as an X axis and redraw maps. Thus while villages on either side a political boundary may be physically close they may be separated by an enormous distance in terms of time to transport people or goods between the two. Imagine such a map of the West Bank and Israel.
    Friedman picks up on this concept of alternative mappings and uses the collapse of political barriers and the advent of substantial long distance bandwidth to redraw the map of the world as flat between termination points for data transfer.
    He then explores the other techniques that can be used to spread wealth around the world by arbitraging the low labour costs in developing economies and the high value of customers in the developed world.
    The tragedy of the present throwback to Cold War or Colonial thinking is that the suspicion of anything emerging from certain parts of the world destroys the underlying assumptions of supply chains.
    An example of the problem is the obstacle presented by countries who feel uncomfortable with encryption. As encryption is the mechanism that enables eCommerce there is no way you can choose such a company as an eCommerce hub.
    The collapse of the cost reduction associated with globalisation will reduce the margins available to investors (and banks) and deny so many people a share in global growth.

  2. somewhat post-Fukuyaman terms.
    Helena telling she is all the time against the war in Iraq, but we don’t know if she believes before or now this war was in fact a mistake.
    Here is a Fukuyaman term:
    Iraq May Be Stable,
    But the War Was a Mistake
    August 15, 2008; Page A13

  3. Salah, I have always argued that the war and invasion were wrong, and a crime, and I have opposed them, and the lengthy occupation of Iraq unfailingly. I find it completely unjustifiable and unfair for you to claim that this is not the case.

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