From the Rockies to the World

[Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies. How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World. Random House. New York, 2017. 201 pages]


REVIEW / Iñigo Bronte Barea

Despite rising powers in conventional geopolitics, the United States today remains unopposed due to geography as an overwhelming advantage for the US. As such, the country is blessed  with a trifecta of comparative advantages. The country is bound by  oceans on both sides, lacks any real threat from its neighbors, and contains an almost perfect river network.

Throughout the book, Author Robert D. Kaplan guides the reader as he travels the US,  portraying how geography impacts the livelihood of its population, analyzes the concerns of its citizens, and studies how the country achieved its current composition from a historical lens.

The author introduces the topic by arguing that the world´s security during the 20th and 21st century largely depended on the political unity and stability of the United States. Kaplan crosses the country to study how geography helped the US attain the position that they have in the world. The title of his book, “Earning the Rockies,” emphasizes the importance of the fact that in order to achieve western part of nowadays US, it would be necessary to first control the East, the Midwest, and the Great American Desert.

During his travels, Kaplan brought three books to reinforce his personal experiences on the road. His first book was “The Year of Decision: 1846” from the DeVoto trilogy of the West. From this text, Kaplan learns that America´s first empirical frontier was not in the Caribbean or Philippines, but earlier in the western part of the country itself. Kaplan also stresses the idea that the solitude and dangers of the old West are today very present in the common American character. In particular, he argues such values remain manifested in the extremely competitive capitalist system and the willingness of its population for military intervention. The last and most important idea that Kaplan gleans from DeVoto was that the defining feature of US greatness today is based ultimately on the country being a nation, an empire and a continent, all rolled into one.

Kaplan starts his journey in the spring of 2015 in Massachusetts. He wanted to contemplate the American continent and its international role, and the one that must be expected for it in the coming years; he wanted to discover this while hearing people talking, to discover what are their real worries.

Back on the East coast, Kaplan traces the country’s origins after the independence of the thirteen colonies in 1776. Kaplan starts his eastern journey by examining the US from a historical perspective and how it grew to become a global force without equal. Primarily, Kaplan argues that the US did so by first becoming an army before the US became a nation. For the author, President Theodore Roosevelt was the one who realized that the conquest of the American West set the precedent for a foreign policy of active engagement worldwide.

Earning the Rockies. How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

Kaplan continues his travels through the Great Lakes region; Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Ohio, and West Virginia. His travel is set in the context of the Presidential primary season, in which he examines the decline of the rural middle class from the staple of the American workforce to near poverty. As such, the devolution of the social process ended with the election of Donald J. Trump. Despite a legacy of success in globalization and multilateralism, America quickly became a nation enthralled with a renewed sense nationalism and isolationism.

From his travels, Kaplan deduces several types of groups based on the founding fathers.  He categorizes them as following: elites in Washington and New York were Wilsonian (who seek to promote democracy and international law), Hamiltonians (who are intellectual realists and emphasize commercial ties internationally) or Jeffersonians (who emphasize perfecting American democracy at home more than engaging abroad). Surprisingly, the huge majority of the American people were actually Jacksonians: they believe in honor, faith in God, and military institutions.

Kaplan continues his path towards the Pacific by crossing Kentucky and Indiana, where the transition zone leads him to the arid grasslands. During his voyage, Kaplan finds that the people did not really care about ISIS, the rise of China, the Iraq War or any other international issues, but instead their worries on their work, health, family, and basic economic survival. This is in fact because of their Jacksonian way of seeing life. This in turn means that Americans expect their government to keep them safe and to hunt down and kill anyone who threatens their safety. Related to this, was the fact that isolationism was an American tradition, which fits well within the current political landscape as multilateralism has lost much of its appeal to people in the heartland.

The native grasses and rich soil of the temperate zone of this part of the country, such as Illinois, promote the fertility of the land that goes on for hundreds and hundreds of miles in all directions. For Kaplan, this is ultimately what constitutes the resourceful basis of continental wealth that permits America’s ambitious approach to the world.

West of Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska, it could be said that you enter the real West, where roads, waterways and urban cities rapidly disappears. At this point, Kaplan begins to make reference to the second book that he read for this part of the journey. This time, author Welter P. Webb in “The Great Plains” explains that the history of the US relies on the history of the pioneers adapting to life in the Great American Desert. This author argues that the Great Plains stopped slavery, prompting the defeat of the Confederacy. He states so because for Webb, the Civil War was a conflict between two sides whose main difference was largely economic. The Southern system based on the plantation economy with huge, “cash” crops and slave labor. On the other hand, the Northern economic system was based on small farms, skilled labor, and a rising industrialized system. While the Great Plains were a barrier for pioneers in general, that wall was greater for the Southern economy than for the industrializing North, which could adapt to aridity unlike the farming economy of the south.

The last book that Kaplan reads while crossing the country is “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stenger. The author of this book stresses the importance of the development limitations in immense areas of the western US due to a lack of water. This desert provided a big challenge for the federal government, which manages the little resources available in that area with the construction of incredible dams, such as the Hoover Dam, and turnpike highway system. It remains quite clear that the culmination of American history has more to do with the West than with the East. Stenger is well aware of the privileged geographic position of the US, without dangerous neighbors or other inland threat. In addition, the US contains an abundance of inland waterways and natural resources that are not found on such a scale anywhere else. This characteristic, helps provide the US with geographical and political power unlike any other in modern history. As Stenger stipulates, the fact that World War II left mainland America unscathed, which inly shows how geography has blessed the US.

One of the key aspects that Kaplan realized along his trip was the incredible attachment that Americans have to their military. For Kaplan, this feeling becomes more and more romanticized as he headed westward. In Europe, despite the threats of terrorism, refugees, and Russia, the military is seen locally as merely civil servants in funny uniforms, at least according to Stenger. On the contrary, America, which faces less physical threats than Europe, still maintains a higher social status and respect for military personnel.

In summation, the radical landscape of the west provided Americans with a basis for their international ambition. After all, if they could have conquered and settled this unending vastness, they settle the rest of the world too. However, the very aridity of the western landscape that Kaplan faces at the end of his voyage, requires restraint, planning, and humility in much of what the government had to invest in order to make the west inhabitable and successful. But despite the feeling that they could conquer the world, America faces huge inequalities, real and imagined, that force US leaders to focus on domestic issues rather than foreign affairs. Therefore, elites and leaders in Washington tend to be centrist and pragmatic. In such, they do not dream about conquering the world nor opt to withdraw from it either. Instead, they maintain America’s “pole position” place within its global affairs.

At the end, it could be said that American soil itself is what in fact really orients the country towards the world.  Despite all the restraint and feelings for the heartland, what really matters are the politicians and business leaders that enable the new American reality: the world itself is now the final, American frontier.

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