“Americans have to learn geography, because they are living now in a world in which they’re no longer isolated…and they simply will not make—will not be able to make—sense out of what they read in their newspapers and about the decisions their government makes unless they understand some historical and above all, geographical, relationships.” Henry Kissinger
American educational, corporate, and governmental spheres suffer from a well-documented spatial paradox. Our interaction with the world has never been more complex, while our ability to spatially analyze places and cultures has remained stagnant. Searching for the United States in Asia or Africa on a world map, and similar types of popular embarrassments aside, the implications of geographic ineptitude are an extremely serious matter for the country’s current and future well-being.
Part 1: Geography
Among the most serious structural implications are: geographically uneducated citizenry (compared to other industrialized nations), business miscalculations and loses (corporate), counterproductive foreign and domestic policy (government), and avoidable personal and institutional mistakes prior to and during military interventions (government + military and intelligence). These categories are not independent of each other. They are interconnected in terms of overall causes and outcomes; citizens’ inadequate education (causes) manifests itself in their socioeconomic and political actions as professional individuals and as a part of the general public.
The current conditions will not change in the foreseeable future, because of a widespread unwillingness to acknowledge deficiencies and an inability to implement reforms. Both require adjustments in the populace’s understanding of the value and benefits of the ability to think and analyze spatially, i.e., a major social change must occur. But when people do not want to understand something they tend to denigrate its importance, or attach to it a trivial value.
Trivializing spatial analysis begins in primary and continues through to post-secondary education. Far too much coursework in geography emphasizes memorization over analytical thinking. Educators focus on teaching details instead of stimulating interest in an holistic approach. Parents, and the rest of the public, feel that geography is in the curriculum only because a school’s coach cannot be employed without teaching courses.
As a result, the American cultural system sidelined geography decades ago. Society did not care, politicians did not worry; after all, the United States was the leader of the world in…everything. The widely held feeling of American global dominance in terms of economic, military, and cultural superiority and influence—though in many respects being unattached to and unaffected by the global community—was widespread.
Global increase in competition began to transform American leadership from “everything” into “most” and then into “some.” The society here, however, remained ambivalent about the importance of understanding remote places and cultures. As did the politicians—themselves products of the same cultural system that de-emphasized geography for decades—who designed disjointed foreign and domestic policies we are experiencing now. So, too, did the military and intelligence apparatus, following the politicians’ orders for endless interventions in some of the world’s most culturally complex geographical regions.
[For more on the importance of proper geographic analysis in military and intelligence milieu, see The Flagellants and the Black Death: Intelligence Community’s Zeal for Human Geography.]
Meanwhile, the citizens’ concerns revolved around domestic economic issues, seemingly unrelated to the global interaction-influenced transition from “everything” to “some.” It is not, however, that their carelessness stems from hereditary ignorance. People do not care because—since their earliest education—both society and the formal educational system have systematically devalued the importance of connecting foreign with domestic spatial dots. Adults rarely correct habits acquired during their years of formal education; hence, for most people such an attitude continues through their lifetime.
[Despite national-level efforts to increase awareness about geography, in some of which I have participated, results are not encouraging.]
Part 2: Detail-Oriented Gold and Pyrite Realism
The opposite of a holistic way of looking at issues is to focus on detail—another byproduct of sidelining geography. This approach is now prevalent in all areas mentioned, from education to the corporate world and military intelligence. Educators produce detail-oriented students. Former students become employees and employers, then hire colleagues with similar analytical skills and complete the circle. Sadly and inexplicably, the contemporary American cultural system considers “detail-oriented” being equal, if not superior to, analytical aptitude in professional resumes.
Attention to detail is a valuable skill, per se, but only within limits. When focus should be on strategic yet turns into tactical, or when a short-term fix is substituted for a long-term strategy, it crosses the limits. A major deficiency in this approach is a minimal effort given to the analysis of a system, rather than just its parts. Any system is far more important than its individual components, although a comprehensive understanding is rarely emphasized.
Geographers study spatial systems (regions and interactions within them). When geographic education is sidelined, so is the more superior level of analysis. Let me illustrate this with a practical example and how the system, its structure and history, matter.
The United States is physically only a single segment of a vast and extremely complex global system. When the system revolves primarily around American influence, during the “everything” period, the benefits for the Americans are the greatest. For that to happen, however, other aspects of the system have to give in, voluntarily or not, and adjust to American demands.
In the Middle East, examples would be Saudi Arabia (voluntarily) and Iran/Iraq/Syria/Libya (military interventions and regime changes). In the post-Cold War era Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, expansion of NATO, and decline of Russia, have combined to expand the power of the system. Globally, dependence on the dollar as a reserve currency provided continuous prosperity and benefits for the citizens of the United States.
When the system begins to transition from “everything” to “most” and “some,” this means that someone other than Americans is most benefitting. It also means that the other parts of the global system are not giving in anymore; their own strength is growing and it is Americans who have to adjust via compromise. At this moment detail-oriented analysis provides a disservice.
In reality, the change of the system depends on all the parts transforming simultaneously, all of them contributing to the decline of American power and prestige. Contemporary examples include: the Chinese and Russian decision to trade oil in currency other than dollar; Germany’s insistence to trade with Russia and build another gas pipeline; Saudi Arabia’s de facto coup (changing the successor to the current King); or the seemingly irreparable mess in Afghanistan. They may not hold much weight individually, but they are all contributing simultaneously to the system’s change.
America’s response to the challenges is an incoherent and schizophrenic foreign policy. It makes perfect sense. If American government’s actions during the “everything” period were devoid of systemic analysis of causes and long term consequences, why expect the “most” and “some” periods to produce anything different?
Part 3: Stages of Change
Current change in the existing system is affecting Americans in three stages. Exhaustion and Frustration are the first stage. People are tired of endless and unwinnable wars (including the War on Drugs and other crusades on the home front), increasing public and private debt, and the government without a clear framework for addressing deficiencies of the system.
The next stage is Fear. It is a period when Frustration transitions to Fear—a stark realization that the system cannot be repaired. Not only is the era of “everything” gone, but an era after “some” may be approaching soon. Fear, resulting from the loss of dominance, eventually transitions into Anger and Deflection. This, in turn, leads to the realization that the system’s current direction cannot be changed (and a concomitant inability to accept responsibility for our own actions—as a country—while blaming and accusing others for nearly everything).
Ultimately, the only possible way to address Anger and change the system is by engaging in a major war. Sadly, no other method in history has been more effective in modifying cultural systems than wars.
Major social and cultural changes occur in the aftermath of wars. That we know. Consider the two world wars and their impacts or any other violent historical event of significant proportions. What we do not know prior to any war is specifically what changes will result from military conflict and the nature of their short- and long-term effects. The German Empire and Habsburg Monarchy, together with the Russian Empire, did not enter World War I with the intent to cease being empires four years later. Yet that is exactly what happened.
Part 4: Outcome
A recent poll revealed that 76 percent of the Americans fear that the country is on a path of a major war. People feel that something is going in the wrong direction and a major war is inevitable. For the reasons I described in this essay, however, it can be argued that a majority of them—politicians included—would find it difficult if not impossible to explain how the system transitioned to its current state. These reasons may seem trivial to readers who may believe that geographic education and literacy are inconsequential for making proper decisions.
It is their right to feel that way. Yet, as the Anger stage is upon us, with the impending threat of a major war, it is worth considering how we arrived at such conditions and to learn from them. Popular expression that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it must be extended to geography. Those who are unaware of how their actions impact the global system are doomed to pay a steep price for decades of continuous mistakes. Others, currently in the minority, realize that the price of major war is far too great a price of pay. They are aware of such a conflict’s negative outcome for the country’s well-being. For this reason alone, geography education should be returned from the sidelines and occupy a prominent place in the American cultural system.