Technology Has Shrunken Geography, Altering Regional Dynamics, Kaplan Says

The world is more anxious, more claustrophobic and more interconnected than ever, said Robert D. Kaplan, author and senior advisor of the Eurasia Group, speaking at CEU May 31 as part of the Rethinking Open Society series. The role of the regions in geopolitics has shifted as a result, Kaplan said.

After being introduced by CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff and prior to beginning his talk, Kaplan had some words to say about CEU and the threat posed by current Hungarian legislation.

“It is a great privilege to be here at the Central European University, which is not just a university in my mind, but it is a monument. It’s a monument to the victory of liberal ideals after to the end of the Cold War. And I have been speaking about that and talking about that with officials in Washington, because I feel that the survival of the Central European University is critical to where Europe goes in the future,” he said.

Moving on to his main topic, technology has “shrunken geography”, Kaplan said.  “Think of a taut string, where you plug one part of the web work and the whole system vibrates,” said Kaplan. Because of communications, transportation infrastructure, and the cyberworld, crises can also now migrate much more easily.

The new interrelated nature of the world means that it now makes sense to talk about Eurasia and other regions as systems, he said. India and China, two separate great world civilizations that developed isolated from each other for thousands of years, “are in a rivalry that never existed before.”

Robert D. Kaplan spoke about how geopolitics changed in a new, interconnected world. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Robert D. Kaplan spoke about how geopolitics changed in a new, interconnected world. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

Meanwhile, the Middle East is in a “post-imperial” state for the first time in history, according to Kaplan. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the end of the British and French mandate systems, and the fall of “post-imperial strongmen” like Gaddafi, the region is now in turmoil. Kaplan refers to “age-old clusters of civilization”, like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, where the form of the state might be in question, but not the state’s existence.

Countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq, by contrast, are only “vague geographical expressions,” where the state is more artificial, and the form of dictatorship was more intense.

Regarding Europe, Kaplan does not believe that the European Union will collapse, “because it is too important for that to happen and it’s too well integrated.” He thinks though that the EU will increasingly share power with strong states like Germany.

Kaplan also sees the nature of German leadership an important determining factor. “Every German chancellor since Adenauer, with varying degrees, has essentially adhered to the mold set by him. How long can this go on, before Germany becomes a normal nationalistic nation in some way or another?” he asked. 

The Balkans can be stable and prosperous, but that requires a rejuvenated European Union, he said. Only the European Union can, under its umbrella, solve and smother out the continuing rivalries between the Balkan ethnicities,” Kaplan said.

Russia’s purpose now is to create a soft zone of traditional imperial influence, stretching from the Baltics to Bulgaria, Kaplan said. “Russia today is a much more ambiguous threat than it was, but it is a real threat,” he said.

He sees Asia as a region of strengthening states, where economic performance also leads to increasing military investment.

“China between three decades ago and now has gone through the same development pattern as the United States between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War,” Kaplan said. “What did America do in those quiet decades in the late 19th century when its economy was growing by 7-8 percent a year? It built a great military.”

Robert D. Kaplan talked about how China is going through a similar development phase as the US in the late 19th century. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Robert D. Kaplan talked about how China is going through a similar development phase as the US in the late 19th century. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

Kaplan sees a potential future Chinese crisis as the key question in geopolitics. “The richer and more complex Chinese society becomes, the more unsatisfied, counterintuitively, people become. If you make people wealthier and wealthier sooner or later they don’t care about wealth, they want freedom. And that’s where the real crisis comes in.”

Another major question of geopolitics is why the leadership role of the U.S. is weakening. According to Kaplan, the reason is not to be found in economics, but rather in societal changes.

“What I saw driving across the United States two years ago was that the middle class, visually, had disappeared. Even in western Nebraska there was always one restaurant catering to the Chardonnay- and whisky-sipping upper middle class, and a much larger one catering to the lower middle class. Nothing in between,” he said. “Globalization, by creating a global upper middle class, has taken one part of society with it into the cosmopolitan borderless realm. But the other parts of society, for one reason or another, cannot compete, or do not want to compete. They are left behind and they are very angry.”

Kaplan sees this disappearance of a prosperous middle class as the main reason behind the U.S. gradually losing its willingness to “lead the world.” He also regards Trump’s presidency as a consequence. “Trump is the first president in modern times who is post-literate in a sense. He has made an end run around literacy. He lives in a digital universe, where facts are wrong, are made up, and most importantly, there is no context to things,” Kaplan said.

“We all take the stability of our age for granted, because our lifetimes just happened by accident to coexist with the 75 years of peace after World War II, but that may turn out to be an aberration in history,” he said.