Robert D. Kaplan writes: As the events of the past week demonstrate, the Middle East has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Melting away before our eyes is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the British and French carved out spheres of influence in the Levant, leading to the creation of Syria and Iraq. A terrorist Sunnistan has now emerged between the Lebanese city of Tripoli and the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, while a messy child’s finger-painting of different tribalized sovereignties defines Sunni and Shia areas of control between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau. This happens even as a sprawling and fractious Kurdistan sinks tenuous roots atop the corpses of Baathist regimes. But Middle Eastern chaos is but prologue to the drama sweeping much of the temperate zone of Afro-Asia all the way to China. Indeed, so much else is going on beyond the Levant that the media overlooks: not necessarily violent, but increasingly and intensely interrelated. Understanding it all requires not a knowledge of Washington policy alternatives, but of classical geography.
The ancient Greeks had a term for what they considered the “inhabited quarter” of the globe: the Oikoumene, the temperate zone of the Afro-Asian landmass stretching from North Africa to the confines of western China. Marshall Hodgson, the great historian of the Middle East at the University of Chicago who died in 1968, defined the Oikoumene as more-or-less “Nile-to-Oxus,” a term both grand and suggestive, linking as it did the river valley civilization of Egypt with that of Central Asia, and connoting the intricate tapestry of peoples, trade networks and conflicts from one end of Afro-Asia to another. Nile-to-Oxus perfectly sums up a vast zone of quasi-anarchy that we now can no longer deny. For the Cold War divisions of area studies—which both circumscribe and distort the work of academics, journalists and government analysts—are finally yielding to a more organic and fluid geography: not the geography of globalization in which people desert their cultures for the sake of cosmopolitan values and identities; but the geography of interacting, catalytic instability.