Monday, April 16, 2018

The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, & American Interests in the Twenty-first Century by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan and his most recent book
Robert D. Kaplan's latest book (2018) is a collection of essays that he's written for publications such as The Atlantic, The American Interest, The National Interest, and the Washington Post. These essays provide an excellent entry into his observations and thinking if you're not already acquainted with his work, and they offer a delightful refresher if you're already acquainted with him, as I am. Kaplan describes himself (no doubt accurately) as a "foreign correspondent." But he's a foreign correspondent steeped in a profound and continuing reading of history and in particular, the history of relations between nations (which includes everything from tribes to empires to nation-states, as well as anarchical situations). This acquaintance with history allows him to achieve exquisite focus on the particulars of the here-and-now around the world (especially Asia, Africa, and Europe). This broad knowledge enables him to pull back from the tight focus to see the big picture of how the world is (and has) worked in the myriad relations between actors on the world stage, from disaffected demographic groups (young Muslim males) to nation-states and empires. 

  The subjects in this collection of essays are diverse. Three of them are profiles of foreign affairs thinkers (and actors): Henry Kissinger (whom Kaplan calls "a close friend"); the late Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor and veteran of a couple the Johnson and Carter administrations; and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, the chief proponent of "offensive realism" and a noted commentator about U.S. relations with China. Each of these three thinkers shares the designation of "realist" with Kaplan, although none of them prove to be beyond Kaplan's criticism on some points. All three subjects have been lightening-rods for harsh criticism, so Kaplan's generally sympathetic treatment of each of them provides a useful anecdote the heavy dose of invective that you can find about each of them elsewhere. 

Other essays address such topics as the literature of the Vietnam War and the warrior ethos, the consequences of the fall of North Korea (written in 2006), the wounds of war, and so on. But the most interesting to me were those that examined the relations between states in Asia, developments on the Eurasian continent, and how these developments affect the U.S.  As a part of this, Kaplan discusses the uses of empire and how (at least until the advent of the Trump administration), the U.S. and its support of international institutions, served as an empire to help ease relations in a world of nation-states. His discussion of the Obama administrations actions and attitudes in this regard is insightful and merits careful consideration. 

With President Trump, we have in office a man of woeful ignorance about history and foreign relations. And without leadership from the top, we may not garner a clear picture of how the U.S. will conduct its grand strategy at present. But reading Kaplan, who identifies the fissures and fault lines that will shake us in the future, we know that these threats lie in wait, and we can perhaps only hope for the best. 

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