Stephen M. Walt

Robert Kaplan to the rescue? (updated)

I’ve never paid much attention to forecasts and analysis from Stratfor, the for-profit strategic analysis firm that was rocked by a cyber-attack in December 2011 that compromised its customer data base. I wasn’t willing to pay their premium prices, although I occasionally read Stratfor reports forwarded to me by a colleague who was a subscriber. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I’ve never paid much attention to forecasts and analysis from Stratfor, the for-profit strategic analysis firm that was rocked by a cyber-attack in December 2011 that compromised its customer data base. I wasn’t willing to pay their premium prices, although I occasionally read Stratfor reports forwarded to me by a colleague who was a subscriber. On the whole, I thought they were often interesting but also overly alarmist.

I mention this because Stratfor has taken an interesting step to salvage its fortunes, by hiring journalist and noted realist Robert Kaplan to write a regular feature on geopolitics.   I don’t always agree with Kaplan’s analysis — I don’t agree with anyone all of the time — but he’s one of the few prominent journalists who sees the world through a realist lens and has a clear capacity to think in broad strategic terms. He’s also an intrepid traveler and lucid writer who is willing to challenge conventional nostrums, and I’ll be interested to see what he has to say from his new perch.

I’ve complained in the past about the remarkable dearth of realist commentators at major media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the like. Liberals, idealists, neoconservatives, and former editors all enjoy privileged positions at these august institutions, but none of these organizations has managed to find a card-carrying realist to provide an alternative view on a regular basis. This omission is especially striking given that realism is a well-established intellectual tradition and used to have a respected place in our foreign policy discourse. It’s not perfect, of course, but its track record is clearly superior to the liberal and neoconservative commentary that one can read almost daily in the commanding heights of American journalism. Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show GPS is a partial exception, perhaps, but when you consider that this humble blog might be the most prominent realist commentary in contemporary public discourse, you get a good sense of marginal realism has become.

Which is why Kaplan’s new job is a welcome development.  It’s not the Washington Post op-ed page — unfortunately — but I hope he attracts a lot of readers. You can see his first entry here.

 Update:  After posting this entry, it occurred to me that I had failed to mention several important realist voices in contemporary policy discourse, including Steve Clemons (now at the Atlantic), Paul Pillar at The National Interest, Robert Merry (ditto), and this site.   Les Gelb at the Daily Beast seems to be rediscovering his inner realist of late.  Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune also writes from a partly realis, partly libertarian perspective.  But I’d still argue that realist ideas remain systematically under-represented in the commanding heights of contemporary media.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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