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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Technology Shrinks Geography

October 14th, 2015 by Susan Smith

Author Robert D. Kaplan Author of “The Revenge of Geography” Senior Fellow, CNAS spoke recently on the topic of technology and geography.

“Technology has not negated geography, but has shrunk geography,” stated Kaplan, “it has made it claustrophobic. The fights over packets of ground are more intense than before. Each part of world interlocks with the other.”

He chose to talk about the Middle East, then about Asia Pacific, then Europe.


Middle East

“2015 has seen three systems of imperial order collapse,” said Kaplan. “The first system, the Ottoman Turkish Imperial system was a relatively good system where everyone was a subject of the Turkish sultan so it mattered less what people were. After World War I you had the French and English imperial system, they separated countries, they created wars – at the eastern edge of Mediterranean Sea. They muted the wars because they were in control. It wasn’t democratic, or humanitarian but it governed and kept stability. This ended after WW II. A few years after WWII French and British colonial systems ended. That gave way to the American order of sorts. Americans don’t like to think of themselves as an empire.”

Kaplan said that the U.S. “has been empire in all but names.”  The challenges are similar and comparable to empires going back hundreds of years. In the last few years, the system has weakened in the Middle East. It has a heavy footprint. It wants regional powers themselves to do the balancing. His suggestion is to build up Egypt, and let some regional powers merge that the U.S. can work with.

“Why did the Middle East collapse system after the Europeans left?” Kaplan asks.  “A string of military rulers of Iraq like Saddam Hussein  had to rule by artificial order set up by Europeans, so they created secular state identities. It was a suffocating idealogy. They had obliterated all orders – when these rulers collapsed, there was nothing left. There was no bureaucracy, no political associations left, there was nothing but tribe and extended family at the bottom. We are at a state of chaos in Syria, Libya and Yemen.”

Age old clusters of civilizations, where the borders configure with Roman civilizations, were always states in one form or another, and because they were real states, more real than Syria, Iraq and Libya, they did not rule as oppressively. Because of that they allowed intermediary levels of organization so when they collapsed there was still order.

Yemen is losing water at the fastest rate. It’s not the drought that causes sectarian conflict, said Kaplan, but it adds as an irritant, so they have 80 million population, drought across the Middle East, and water is a strategic issue.

The divisions are about who rules Egypt. Libya and Iraq had loose geographic boundaries and now there is nothing left, said Kaplan.


Asia Pacific

In East Asia there are very strong states.  The disputes in the East China Sea go back centuries. “In the early and middle phases of the Cold War, all of these states were internally preoccupied, i.e., China through Mao Tse Tong, negatively, internally focused,” said Kaplan. “Vietnam and Malaysia were involved in internal wars for decades. Same with the Philliipines. Japan was engaged in quasi-passivism as an aftershock of militarism of WWII.”

Now that these states have bureaucratized with peace at home, with successful capitalism, and with air forces and navies, countries like Viet Nam, China, etc. can press outward. In doing so, they find they have these disputes. Why is China so intent on dominating the South China sea? Like the U.S. looked at the greater Caribbean in the 19th century, because the Caribbean united the southern shore of the U.S. and northern shore of South America, and gave them power, it could effect balance of power in the eastern hemisphere.

The South China Sea provides a gateway that enables China to make an end run around Taiwan, parity with U.S. Air Force and entry into the Indian Ocean. The Strait of Malaca is the global energy interstate, across which all the ships travel to bring oil and gas from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean.

China is only a regional power in the military and would like to operate in two oceans rather than one. The U.S. has to steer between two extremes. “We can’t afford a military conflict with China for many reasons,” said Kaplan. “It would affect global markets more than war in Iraq. The U.S. has to prevent formal and informal allies, Viet Nam and the Phillipines – where China might gain control of foreign and security alliances.”



The Ukraine is a buffer state between Russia and Europe, and only matters to Russia the most. It’s where Russia began in the 9th century in Kiev. “But the Ukraine crisis opens up something larger, from the Baltic states down to the Balkan countries and then to the Caucasus countries,” noted Kaplan. “These countries have been between two imperialisms – Germany and Russia. Germany is a benign economic power, Russia is a different story. If the U.S. does not efficiently project power into this region, limiting Russian advance, these countries will have no choice but to make terms with Russia on Russia’s terms. This is what happened in the Cold War. Countries like Romania and Poland are watching this carefully.”

What Kaplan suggests here is caution, restraint and strategic patience.

The Russians have been able to produce and sell large naval platforms to other countries that buy them, thereby supporting Russian R&D. This will give the Russians capacity and they will be able to approach the Arctic.


This sweeping look at world affairs and the geography that defines them is illustrative of what has created oppression and structural orders to collapse. Whle Kaplan said issues like drought are an “irritant,” it’s quite clear that the overarching race for natural resources overlaying age-old boundary and religious conflicts, will continue to shape the world’s conflicts and priorities, it seems, for years to come.

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Categories: airports, analytics, ArcGIS, Big Data, climate change, cloud, cloud network analytics, conversion, crowd source, data, earthmine, emergency response, geocoding, GEOINT 2015, image-delivery software

3 Responses to “Technology Shrinks Geography”

  1. John says:

    Was this the keynote at GeoINT back in June?

  2. Susan Smith says:

    Yes, it was one of the keynotes. Additional coverage of that event and keynotes is in the GISCafe Voice blogs.

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