By Barry Zukerman
With all due respect to Jonathan Goldsmith, who plays “The Most Interesting Man in the World” in Dos Equis beer commercials, I submit that Robert D. Kaplan is truly deserving of that title. Among today’s writers and commentators on international affairs, he has an increasingly rare willingness to put aside partisanship and sentimentality. This enables him to look at the world through a realistic lens that is driven by his habitual examination of geographic and demographic realities, as well as historical influences on what is happening now and what may happen in the future.
Kaplan has written 20 books, as well as numerous articles on geopolitics and the United States’ role in the world. He reported for The Atlantic for 30 years and has been published in numerous leading newspapers and foreign affairs journals. He was selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers,” and has lectured at military war colleges, the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the Pentagon’s joint staff, and various universities and forums. He was a guest instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and has briefed secretaries of state and defense, as well as presidents. Currently, Kaplan is a senior advisor at Eurasia Group and the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. For a more complete biography, visit https://robertdkaplan.com/robert_d_kaplan_bio.htm.
There are a number of themes that Kaplan has hit on repeatedly in his writings, interviews and speeches over the years.
The Morality of Results
One of these themes is Kaplan’s emphasis on the primacy of results rather than good intentions. In his book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002, Random House), he examines the works of noted philosophers and writers from past eras and hits upon a realization from that most villainized of all political philosophers, Machiavelli, who understood that in a world as brutal as ours, a leader who is always scrupulous in his dealings with others and formation of policy is bound to be taken advantage of by those who aren’t.
Kaplan doesn’t shine a spotlight on this principle to signify a blank check for leaders to exhibit unnecessary deviousness or cruelty to achieve their desired ends. Rather — again, drawing on Machiavelli — it’s an acknowledgement that there are times when the least amount of brutality or unscrupulous behavior necessary to achieve a positive result is more likely to be successful than basing policy on a display of moral superiority.
He compares Machiavelli’s and Kant’s approach to morality in this passage from Warrior Politics:
“Kant symbolizes a morality of intention rather than of consequences, a morality of abstract justice rather than of actual result. He cares about the goodness or badness of a rule, while politics is often about the goodness or badness of a specific act in a specific circumstance, since the same rule might produce good results in one situation and bad results in another. Kant’s subject is pure integrity, while politics deals with justification, for if an act is justifiable by its likely results, no matter how sordid some of the inner motivations behind it, some measure of integrity is still inherent in the decision-making process. As Machiavelli says, in an imperfect world men bent on doing good — and who have responsibility for the welfare of a great many others — must know occasionally how to be bad, and to savor it. Franklin Roosevelt might not have accomplished what he did were he not naturally devious. A statesman must be able to think the unthinkable. … “
By way of example, in Warrior Politics, Kaplan relates that while serving as Israel’s defense minister during the first Palestinian Intifada, Yitzak Rabin told his military forces to “go in and break their bones.” This was at a time when there was enormous international pressure on Israel to take a softer stance and make concessions to the Palestinians. Rabin’s tough approach had domestic political implications — leading many Israeli swing voters who had previously supported the Likud Party and rejected Labor’s more conciliatory approach to the conflict to reevaluate their stance and support Rabin in the 1992 national election. After taking office as prime minister, he used his new position and enhanced credibility to forge peace deals with Jordan and the Palestinians — albeit a temporary one in the latter case. So a limited display of brutality in the short term achieved a better and — in effect — moral outcome in the longer term.
In fact, Kaplan points out that King Hussein, the Jordanian leader who eventually signed that peace treaty with Rabin, had previously sanctioned a brutal crackdown on radical, pro-Communist factions that looked to oust his regime. Yet it’s a virtual certainty that those elements would have ushered in a more brutal era for Jordanians — not to mention the probability that they would have been less disposed to making peace with Israel — had they succeeded in toppling Hussein.
Again, by applying the minimum amount of brutality necessary under the circumstances to fend off potentially disastrous consequences, both Rabin and Hussein achieved more positive long-term outcomes than would have likely been the case had they been more tentative about using force.
Kaplan showed the other side of the coin in his book, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (1988, Vintage Books). In this case, he highlighted the Carter administration’s human rights-centered policy approach to dealing with the Horn of Africa and how it contrasted with the Ford-Kissinger approach to the same region. Carter’s indecisiveness and failure to display a willingness to support the use force in the region — in large part because of a desire not to provide aid to strongmen with poor human rights records — ushered in a period of Soviet support for those same strongmen. That, in turn, made a bad situation — including mass famine — much worse for those on the ground in the region, who Carter’s administration intended to help:
“No group of people was more ignorant of these hard facts of life than were elements of the foreign policy team of President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and 1978. No one mentioned during the famine emergency that the wholesale loss of human life — not to mention the disregard of human rights — had important antecedents in the Carter human rights policy, in which abstract moral precepts became a barrier to the kind of action necessary to save a population from being swallowed whole by the shadow of totalitarianism. Much of what transpired in the Horn of Africa … can be traced to the folly of good intentions.”
Kaplan returned to this example 25 years later while pushing back against the many who view Kissinger, the former U.S. national security advisor and secretary of state, as one of our age’s villains. In a 2013 essay, “In Defense of Henry Kissinger: He Was the 20th Century’s Greatest 19th Century Statesman,” which was initially published in The Atlantic, Kaplan asserts that,
“To be uncomfortable with Kissinger is … only natural. But to condemn him outright verges on sanctimony, if not delusion. Kissinger has, in fact, been quite moral — provided, of course, that you accept the Cold War assumptions of the age in which he operated.
Because of the triumphalist manner in which the Cold War suddenly and unexpectedly ended, many have since viewed the West’s victory as a foregone conclusion, and therefore have tended to see the tough measures that Kissinger and others occasionally took as unwarranted. But for those in the midst of fighting the Cold War—who worked in the national-security apparatus during the long, dreary decades when nuclear confrontation seemed abundantly possible—its end was hardly foreseeable.”
After addressing Kissinger’s [and President Nixon’s] actions with regard to Vietnam and Cambodia, Kaplan again contrasts them with the policies of the Carter administration in the Horn of Africa:
“The link between Carter’s decision not to play Kissingerian power politics in the Horn of Africa and the mass deaths that followed in Ethiopia is more direct than the link between Nixon’s incursion into a rural area of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge takeover six years later.”
Democracy Comes Last
Over the years, Kaplan has often criticized what he sees as a misplaced emphasis on democracy and its promotion as part of American and Western foreign policy; his point being that the building of strong institutions and a stable middle class is often more urgent and even a prerequisite for democracy to succeed in such places.
He has highlighted many examples of countries that have established free elections but could not provide their citizens with a stable way of life or economic opportunities. Conversely, a number of autocrats have built their countries up from poverty-stricken chaos to well-functioning societies with impressive standards of living. Kaplan doesn’t praise the brutality dished out by such leaders, but rather acknowledges the necessity of going through such phases before reaching the point where democracy can be successful.
For instance, in his 2014 Stratfor essay, “Elections Don’t Matter, Institutions Do,” he pointed out that,
“Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Central Europe went on to build functioning democracies and economies. With all of their problems and challenges, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have not fared badly and in some cases have been rousing success stories. This is because these societies boast high literacy rates among both men and women and have a tradition of modern bourgeois culture prior to World War II and communism. And it is literacy and middle-class culture that are the building blocks of successful institutions. …
Then there is the greater Middle East. The so-called Arab Spring failed because the Arab world was not like Central and Eastern Europe. It had low literacy, especially among women. It had little or no tradition of a modern bourgeoisie, despite commercial classes in some cities, and so no usable institutions to fall back upon once dictatorships crumbled. Thus, what was left in North Africa and the Levant after authoritarianism was tribes and sects; unlike the post-communist civil society that encouraged stability in Central Europe.”
He also addressed this theme in some detail during a speech given to promote his book, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000, Vintage Books):
The Coming Anarchy is a collection of essays released in 2000. This was a period — after the conclusion of the Cold War and prior to the 9/11 attacks — when Western leaders and public intellectuals were asserting that democracy had triumphed over totalitarianism and less extreme forms of autocracy and that we were entering an age of greater stability and less conflict. Yet Kaplan, through his travels to many of the world’s least stable regions, where he spoke with the inhabitants and studied the history of each area he visited, concluded otherwise.
A few years earlier, while speaking about his book, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century (1996, Random House), he had this to say:
“One of the messages of this book is that for a critical mass of Third World inhabitants, in more countries than we can deal with, things are going to be very tumultuous and perhaps violent over the next 20 or 30 years. The long-range future may be bright, but the next 20 or 30 years in a significant part of the globe may be very bloody. It’s not because of poverty so much. People don’t go to war because they are poor. It’s because these places are rapidly changing and developing and because developing is always violent, uneven and painful. Iran erupted after the best years of its development. And the development Iran saw — the creation of the sub-proletariat — that saw wide discrepancies within the society is now being approximated in India and elsewhere.”
Reporting From Tomorrow’s Trouble Spots: The Roles of History, Geography, and Demographics
In addition to traveling to the world’s under-reported hot spots to examine current facts-on-the-ground, the enormous amount of time Kaplan puts into studying the history of those regions makes his gift for predicting future trends possible. In fact, he frequently starts off a discussion or answers a question regarding a current topic of interest by referring to the past.
In a passage from his 1999 New York Times essay, “In the Balkans, No Wars Are ‘Local,'” which was added to later additions of Kaplans book, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (1993, Picador), he addressed the reasons for Greece’s hesitancy to fully support NATO’s position during the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. After pointing out that because it is so geographically close to Serbia, Greece views it’s relations with that country differently than do most other European nations, Kaplan adds:
“Moreover, throughout the long centuries of Turkish occupation, Greeks were supported by their Orthodox co-religionists in Serbia and Russia — a fact of history with effects that run deep. And, having never experienced Soviet occupation or Communism, Greeks have a romantic attachment to Russia that doesn’t exist in Romania or even Bulgaria.”
U.S. President Bill Clinton’s hesitancy to insert American troops into the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia was reported to have been influenced by his reading of Balkan Ghosts, although he eventually relented while limiting American involvement to the use of air power. Kaplan was critical of Clinton’s vacillation in another New York Times essay that was later published in Balkan Ghosts, arguing that his writing on the region should not have been used as an excuse to avoid a thoughtful analysis of what was in America’s strategic interest, given the circumstances of the day.
In passages from Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World (2017, Random House) that are relevant to current events in the United States, Kaplan addressed the importance of young Americans being taught about 19th century Western expansion, in all of its complexities and ambiguities. He raises warning flags about the teaching of history being “… reduced to atrocity and little more. … There is too much destruction coming out of the academy, not enough inspiration. We require a proper balance.”
That’s not an excuse for or a pass to gloss over the atrocities of the 19th and earlier centuries that fell upon African Americans and American Indians. But it’s a plea to acknowledge that history is too complex to reduce all parties to heroes and villains. As he points out in Earning the Rockies, without becoming a continental power, with all of the infliction of pain that entailed during the 19th century, the United States would not have been in a position to make a difference in the outcome of the two world wars and resist international Communism during the 20th century.
While Kaplan had touched on the impact of geography on foreign affairs and the roles played by various nations on a number of occasions previously, he turned his attention fully to that theme in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012, Random House), which is arguably his masterwork.
Portions of the book read like Geopolitics 101, with profiles of those responsible for major geopolitical theories and the theories themselves. One of those theories is the view of Europe and Asia as a supercontinent that is at the center of world affairs. Another is the extent to which control over Central Asia determines the supercontinent’s dominant power.
In Revenge of Geography, Kaplan also asserts that gaining a keen appreciation for the role of geography in world affairs and the limits it places on what is possible is bound to lead one to view the world through more of a Realist lens. And that will, in turn, lead to a respect for the limitations of what a country can achieve, thereby resulting in more careful consideration being given to, for instance, where to become militarily involved.
In this video clip from an interview in support of Revenge of Geography, which is, again, extremely relevant to what’s happening in Eastern Europe today, Kaplan first discusses the reasons for Russia’s apparent paranoia in wishing to avoid Western power projection too close to its border. Then, he asserts that a series of military and foreign policy successes for the U.S. during the ’80s and ’90s led to military and foreign affairs policy makers within the George W. Bush administration erroneously assuming they could ignore geographical barriers in achieving their goals. That led, in turn, to a brutal reminder of the limits of geography in Iraq:
Kaplan points out that the American sense of optimism in what can be accomplished has been shaped in part by the geographical benefits the nation has enjoyed since its founding. There are large oceans separating each American coast from far-off potential rivals. The East Coast is flush with an abundance of natural harbors. The country has more miles of navigable and convenient waterways flowing east and west than the rest of the world combined. That helped make western expansion and national unity possible.
Once the U.S. established dominance over the Caribbean region, with no major nearby rivals, the country was free to begin projecting its power outward. Kaplan has pointed out several times that the same thing may happen for China if it establishes dominance over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Two other factors that tie into each other in determining what the future may hold for a given region are its demographics and environment. In particular, Kaplan has asserted that any place with a rapidly growing population — particularly of young men — in increasingly urban settings with a lack of natural resources, including water, and an accompanying dearth of economic opportunities, is likely in for a rough period that could include increased crime, corruption, and various other types of instability and violence.
According to the World Bank, as of 2019, the globe’s top ten countries in terms of percentage of population under age 15 were all in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries with a myriad of problems.
Of course, countries with aging populations have other difficulties ahead.
In his 1994 Atlantic essay, “The Coming Anarchy,” that was republished as part of the book of the same title, Kaplan looks at West Africa’s woes, zeroing in on a slum district in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan named after Chicago:
“Chicago, like more and more of Abidjan, is a slum in the bush: a checkerwork of corrugated zinc roofs and walls made of cardboard and black plastic wrap. It is located in a gully teeming with coconut palms and oil palms, and is ravaged by flooding. Few residents have easy access to electricity, a sewage system, or a clean water supply. The crumbly red laterite earth crawls with foot-long lizards both inside and outside the shacks. Children defecate in a stream filled with garbage and pigs, droning with malarial mosquitoes. In this stream women do the washing. Young unemployed men spend their time drinking beer, palm wine, and gin while gambling on pinball games constructed out of rotting wood and rusty nails. These are the same youths who rob houses in more prosperous Ivorian neighborhoods at night. …
Fifty-five percent of the Ivory Coast’s population is urban, and the proportion is expected to reach 62 percent by 2000. The yearly net population growth is 3.6 percent. This means that the Ivory Coast’s 13.5 million people will become 39 million by 2025, when much of the population will consist of urbanized peasants like those of Chicago.”
Tying Them Together
The themes I’ve hit on from Kaplan’s writings, speeches and interviews — focusing on positive results rather than good intentions when determining the morality of a policy; the folly of pushing for democracy in places that lack sturdy institutions and economic and cultural stability; and the impact of a region’s history, geography, and demographics on its present and future — can be woven into a single theory for carrying out foreign affairs and increasing world stability.
A healthy respect for what is possible in the international arena — driven by studying a relevant region’s history, geography, and demographics and not encumbered by chauvinism in favor of Western or any other norms — is the most likely way for policy-makers to avoid worst-case scenarios in an international arena where achieving the ideal is rarely possible.
With regard to how this philosophy shines any light on what American foreign policy should be, while Kaplan has expressed deep regret over his initial support for the Iraq War and has perhaps become more circumspect of sending American ground troops into conflicts that don’t directly impact the country’s vital interests, he also has repeatedly shown opposition to any signs of the U.S. attempting to withdraw from playing a central role in world affairs.
I recall seeing him assert during an interview a number of years ago, in essence, that there is a never-ending power struggle on the global stage and that any country with both the power to make a difference and a moral compass has a duty to partake in that struggle rather than ceding the international stage entirely to those nations with values and principles that run counter.
Yet he is also wary of the ways in which an overreliance on force over time can drain a nation of its sense of purpose while cutting short the period during which it can play a leading role on the world stage.
Kaplan has argued that the U.S. should maintain a powerful navy and airforce that can deter geopolitical rivals and potential rivals from acting too strongly against American interests and global stability.
While he generally holds in high regard the foreign policy leadership displayed by the Republican presidents of the Cold War period, with George H.W. Bush included among that group, Kaplan has been less charitable with the post-Cold War presidents. Although true to form, he doesn’t allow an overall critical evaluation to get in the way of praising specific policies, as well as displays of good judgment and resolve.
The Wall Street Journal published a column by him while I was working on this piece in which he urged U.S. policy-makers to push hard to maintain the status quo in both the Ukraine and Taiwan as part of a wider Cold War style policy of containment. In the case of the former, that would mean keeping Ukraine neutral, rather than either a part of NATO or a Russian vassal. For Taiwan, that would entail maintaining its de facto independence without expressly declaring that it is a separate entity from the Mainland.
Given the themes I’ve touched on from Kaplan’s writings, he undoubtedly weighed Russia’s history of being subjected to invasion via lands that used to be part of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in concluding that adding Ukraine to the Western alliance was not an option likely to bring peace or stability in the near- or longer-term future. Conversely, appeasing Putin’s apparent desire to rebuild the large buffer zone Russia previously enjoyed would be a recipe for disaster.
Always keeping in mind what is possible with an eye on what will bring about the least bad results is often the most that even the best of leaders can do.
That’s the sort of realization one picks up by reading Robert Kaplan regularly for nearly 20 years.
While he has labeled himself a reporter and travel writer, through his observations during those travels, as well as his approach to analyzing them, Kaplan has built an impressive and important body of work with insights that one is unlikely to get from other journalists working today.
This is the serious piece I alluded to in a couple previous posts. Please consider sharing if you enjoyed it. Thank you.
And I’d like to give special thanks both to my wife, Maura, for copy-editing this post and my friend, Corlyss, who turned me on to Robert Kaplan about two decades ago and was also kind enough to provide her editing skills and advice while I worked on the piece.
9 thoughts on “Robert D. Kaplan: A Mind Apart”
Wonderful post. I used to read his pieces in the Atlantic years ago. When I was
Young I disagreed with him, often vehemently. Then I grew up.
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Yes. He’s got a very adult way of looking at the world. I think he’d admit that even he has grown up some since those early years at the Atlantic.
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This is one of the best pieces of writing that I have seen published anywhere. The analysis in this piece is well balanced and thoughtful. You have an untapped talent for writing on all sorts of subjects that, in terms of quality, is far above the average. If you are looking for a career change, you might start submitting pieces to both print and electronic publications, just to see what sort of response you would get. I think you might be surprised.
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Thanks, Louis. That’s very nice, especially coming from an author.
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But who makes Robert Kaplan’s favorite cheesesteak? ;^)
Excellent work, Barry, you clearly put a LOT of time and effort into this post.
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Thanks, Brad. He had an excerpt in his book, “Earning the Rockies,” which featured him driving around the U.S. and describing what he saw and where he thinks we’re headed, in which he talked about how depressing it is to see so many people basically living on deep fried junk food.
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