Geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan’s book “The Revenge of Geography” has been announced by Stratfor, the global intelligence company, with much fanfare for weeks. Kaplan’s explanation of the world, in particular his perspective of the current economic crisis in Europe is surprisingly simple: Germany’s trade surplus and Greece’ collapse – it has nothing to do with good or bad governance, fiscal discipline, innovative thrive, a transparent tax system etc. , no it’s all geography’s blessing or curse. To oversimplify his thesis: Northwestern Europe is blessed with a dense river network which lowers transportation costs, thus exports are facilitated and therefore these nations are prosperous. Southern Europe in contrast lacks this network, and since their competitive advantage – to offer the products at a cheaper price – became obsolete the moment they joined the Euro they are condemned to be poor.
Nice side effect: Since geography can’t be changed and the economic misery is therefore not their fault – isn’t the North morally obligated to support the disadvantaged brothers and sisters – at any cost?
Isn’t this striking? Well the problem is that Kaplan’s thesis won’t stand the test.
The cheapest “natural” transport infrastructure is not the river network, but the sea. How long are the coast lines of Italy, Greece, Spain compared to Germany’s, Austria’s or Switzerland’s? And wasn’t there a time, the mentioned Southern European countries took great advantage of their sea, when they were the quintessential trading nations of ancient and medieval times? The Greeks, the Venetians, the Spaniards – they used to be the merchants of the world. Way back geography didn’t seem to be in their way.
And where does Kaplan find his “dense river network” in the economically booming Scandinavia – or in Switzerland? If one country can prove his thesis wrong then this tiny place – landlocked, isolated by huge mountains – and with rivers which defy any “taming” to make them navigable.
I am afraid there must be other than geographical reasons why the gap opened in Europe’s economies. The “poor South” (which in itself is very inhomogeneous, don’t dare to compare Italy’s and Greece’ production) is still encumbered by the legacy of its past: feudalism, “clientelismo”, the impediments of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Both religions fought against modernism. Don’t forget that the Pope condemned railroads as “satanic”. And Greece’ higher clergy opposed the country’s joining the EC.
In other words, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy’s Mezzogiorno are still hostages of the past. They missed the chance to modernize society, economic and governmental structures.
Yes, there are determinants which explain why Europe is economically divided – but it’s less geography than history and religion. As a historian may I suggest a book with the title “The revenge of History”.