Argument

Robert Kaplan’s New Global Geography

In Monsoon, our latter-day Kipling makes the case that America can't rule the whole world alone.

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Is Robert Kaplan becoming a starry-eyed optimist?

For the last three decades, the globe-trotting journalist and essayist has chronicled many of the darkest corners of the planet, from the tribal badlands of Yemen and Pakistan to the killing fields of Sierra Leone, Eritrea, and the Balkans. Along the way, he has developed a uniquely pessimistic, contrarian view of the world: more Fyodor Dostoyevsky than Thomas Friedman, with a little Sun Tzu thrown in for good measure. He speaks often of the need for a "tragic" view of history — recognition of the limits of power when faced with the more determinative forces of geography and culture.

In that sense, Kaplan’s writing has often been a useful corrective to the techno-utopianism that characterizes much commentary on U.S. foreign policy — the overweening aura of cultural and institutional superiority that trips up both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike — even if he has been generally wrong about a world that has gotten dramatically better over the last few decades, not more chaotic and violent. "The best guide to foreign policy is to think tragically to avoid tragedy," he once wrote.

Sometimes, Kaplan’s healthy cynicism can lead to rhetorical overreach, a penchant for seeing monsters under every bed. For instance, in a 2000 essay called "The Dangers of Peace," Kaplan saw peril even in post-Cold War stability, writing: "A long period of peace in an advanced technological society like ours could lead to great evils, and the ideal of a world permanently at peace and governed benignly by a world organization is not an optimistic view of the future but a dark one."

He has also attracted his fair share of critics, from the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan, who has accused Kaplan of indulging in "cheap pessimism," to a much less polite David Rieff, who ripped Kaplan’s 2005 book Imperial Grunts as "boneheaded nonsense" in a vicious cover story for the New Republic. Coming just as the American empire seemed to be meeting its Waterloo in Iraq, Kaplan’s paean to the troops landed with a thud in public, even if it proved more influential among generals and Special Forces operators.

Kaplan has always been at his best when channeling the anxieties of the developing world, not the fears of the U.S. military. And if Surrender or Starve and The Coming Anarchy represented Kaplan at his darkest, Monsoon, his newest work, finds the author waxing positively giddy about the rise of Asia. As he told Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks, "This is my most optimistic and — hopefully, that is — nuanced work."

Indeed it is. In a sweeping narrative that traces Kaplan’s journeys along the Indian Ocean littoral — the coastline of the world’s third-largest body of water, which stretches from Africa in the west to Indonesia and Malaysia in the east — he deftly weaves history, reportage, and grand strategy cobbled together from several previously published essays into a coherent portrait of an undercovered region whose importance will only grow in the decades to come. "No image," he writes, "epitomizes the spirit of our borderless world, with its civilizational competition on one hand and intense, inarticulate yearning for unity on the other, as much as the Indian Ocean map."

Kaplan’s main point is one that he makes often in other contexts: Our mental maps are fast becoming obsolete. Whereas the West tends to think about the Middle East and Asia as separate entities, Kaplan sees them as turning increasingly toward one another in a shift reminiscent of bygone eras when Omani dhows, Portuguese men of war, Chinese treasure fleets, and Dutch merchant ships rode the monsoon winds from Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz: "Rudyard Kipling’s turn of phrase ‘east of Suez’ — from the 1890 poem ‘Mandalay,’ which begins in Moulmein in Burma, on the Bay of Bengal — applies more than ever, though few may realize it."

Kaplan is hardly the first to point out this massive shift, but he makes a compelling case, grounded in history and geography, for its importance. Rather than spurning the West for the riches of the rising East, the Persian Gulf’s monarchies are simply returning to their trading roots, with oil and cheap Chinese consumer goods taking the place of medieval gold and spices. And all these new commercial ties are coming with major geopolitical implications.

"After all," declares Kaplan, "this is a world where raw materials from Indonesia are manufactured into component parts in Vietnam and supplied with software from Singapore, financed by the United Arab Emirates: a process dependent on safe sea-lanes that are defended by the U.S. and various naval coalitions."

But the growing battle for primacy between the United States and China, or India and China, won’t necessarily play out in the open, Kaplan argues. "Instead of the hardened military bases of the Cold War and earlier epochs, there will be dual-use civilian-military facilities where basing arrangements will be implicit rather than explicit, and completely dependent on the health of the bilateral relationship in question."

At times, Kaplan can seem too enamored of his own geostrategic logic, tending to see dubious infrastructure projects like a proposed canal across Thailand as "Great Game"-style masterstrokes in a world where human capital and institutional development have become the real drivers of societal success. Writing of Gwadar, the Chinese-sponsored Pakistani port that for years he has been touting as a global game-changer, Kaplan says it has the potential to be "the pulsing hub of a new silk route, both land and maritime: a mega-project and gateway to landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia — an exotic twenty-first-century place name."

And yet here too is the new, more nuanced Kaplan, who recognizes that there’s less here than meets the eye: "When I got to Gwadar, it was the pitfalls that impressed me as much as the dreams." The ambitious project has barely gotten off the ground, hampered by unrest in the surrounding province of Baluchistan and corruption in Islamabad. A Karachi businessman tells him: "Come back in a decade or two and this place will look like Dubai." But Kaplan is skeptical. "The Gulf states did not just happen; it was not destiny," he avers. "It was the product of good government under ideal conditions, which Pakistan singularly lacked."

Kaplan’s policy prescriptions are generally sensible, even modest. In an age of soaring budget deficits, he’s no longer banging the drum for an unaffordable U.S. naval buildup. Describing several hush-hush meetings with Christian missionaries (complete with colorful pseudonyms like "Father of the White Monkey" and "The Bull That Swims") who run covert ops involving heavily armed Burmese hill tribes, and want American support, he concludes that the current U.S. policy of ineffectual moral condemnation of Burma’s ruling junta is probably the wiser course of action. As for the scourge of Somali piracy, he says it’s a "nuisance" to be dealt with comprehensively and primarily on land, echoing the sage advice of organizations like the International Crisis Group.

Most striking of all is Kaplan’s seeming about-face on China. In the past, his chronicling of Beijing’s burgeoning influence across maritime Asia has been accompanied by dangerous alarmism, as with his 2005 Atlantic essay, "How We Would Fight China," which describes China as "the principal conventional threat to America’s liberal imperium" and unabashedly advocates a "second Cold War" in the Pacific.

As before, he views the rise of the Chinese military as "wholly legitimate" — the product of growing commercial realities, not a drive for conquest. "If you governed China, with the responsibility of lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese into an energy-ravenous, middle-class lifestyle," he writes, "you, too, would seek a credible navy in order to protect your merchant fleet across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific."

But now, rather than stressing the need for deterrence, he argues, "Strong American-Chinese bilateral relations going forward is not only plausible, but might be the best-case scenario for the global system in the twenty-first century, allowing for true world governance to take shape" — the latter a phrase Kaplan would once have written with dripping disdain. Instead, he highlights opportunities to cooperate with China, for instance in fighting piracy and terrorism, or providing relief after natural disasters. And there’s even a potential "bright side" to piracy, in that "it offers up a common enemy — the very symbol of anarchy, in fact — which rival powers can then come into agreement to jointly oppose."

Rather than an adversary to be contained, he sees a potential partner to be wooed: "Given America’s civilizational tensions with radical Islam, and its at times quarrelsome relationship with Europe, as well as with a bitter and truculent Russia, the United States must do all that it can to find commonality with China," he concludes. "It cannot take on the whole world by itself."

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