Sunday, April 25, 2010

Speaking of People Who Get More Attention Than They Deserve

Robert Kaplan is now apparently an economist, as he argues in today's NYT* that geography is destiny.  Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain are all in southern Europe:
That Europe’s problem economies — Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal — are all in the south is no accident. Mediterranean societies, despite their innovations in politics (Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic) were, in the words of the 20th-century French historian Fernand Braudel, defined by “traditionalism and rigidity.”
I wonder if he would say the same about the Scots and the Irish.  He should, but they, inconveniently, are doing pretty well these days (the Celtic Tiger is tamer and a bit troubled, but still not so badly off, I am guessing).  How does Iceland fit?  Their financial system crashed, too, but they are descended from North Europeans, not the barbarians of the south and east (oh, am I suggesting that Kaplan is a racist?  Sorry).  Kaplan then goes on to repeat the mistakes of his previous work:
To see just how much geography and old empires shape today’s Europe, look at how former Communist Eastern Europe has turned out: the countries in the north, heirs to Prussian and Hapsburg traditions — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — have performed much better economically than the heirs to Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey: Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. And the parts of the former Yugoslavia that were under Hapsburg influence, Slovenia and Croatia, have surged ahead of their more Turkish neighbors, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, at least initially, mirrored the divisions between Rome and Byzantium.
Slovakia?  Where does that fit?  How about the Baltics?  Perhaps it is how the breakup actually played out that mattered--who was harmed and helped by war, sanctions, refugee flows, and the like?  Nope, that would be too political and contemporary and not ancient enough.

All I can say is that perhaps the biggest difference I made during my year on the Joint Staff was to change the reading list for officers who were taking positions on Central and East European countries--dropping Balkan Ghosts, with which Kaplan created more ignorance than knowledge.

*  No link provided because I really don't want people having more knowledge destroyed by reading Kaplan's stuff.


Chip said...

thank you thank you thank you for getting them to drop B.G.!!! Balkan Ghosts is a horrible book, it's scary that they were actually reading that as a source of knowledge! But it is also scary that he's still looked to for commentary on anything serious.

Steve Saideman said...

Well, that is only of modest impact, as the reading list I revised is only for folks in the strategic planning and policy directorate of the Joint Staff who work on Balkans stuff. Still better than nothing.

Chris C. said...

Kaplan's arguments always sound great at first: "Oh yeah, of course Geography matters, Jared Diamond told me so," or "Oh yeah, of course Africa's going to collapse in a pile of resource wars, that sounds so familiar." But if you spend 5 minutes actually thinking through what he's suggesting and taking stock of all the exceptions, you'll realize he's just jumping to wild conclusions. His ideas are provocative though and in this case he's pointed out one thing that political scientists have known for awhile, namely that Southern Europe is different from Northern Europe. But going back to ancient history to explain the differences doesn't exactly make sense, especially since the Hapsburgs were just as incompetent as the Ottomans. A classic case of, "oh look, interesting observation, let's come up with some make-believe to explain it within 1,000 words!"