In his most recent book, World Order (2014), Henry Kissinger made an observation that serves as a warning. In leading a nation “from where it is to where it has never been,” a maker of foreign policy must first analyze his own nation: where it finds itself, and why. Essential to that analysis, just as it is to an analysis of other nations, Kissinger emphasized, is an understanding of history and geography.
Robert Kaplan, the foreign-policy thinker and journalist, has in his numerous books and dispatches illuminated the historical and geographical forces that shape regions around the world, from the Balkans to the South China Sea. In his book The Revenge of Geography (2012), he took a global view. He explored the past, present, and future of China, Russia, India, the former Ottoman Empire, and other geopolitical hinge points with genuine insight and often with discomfiting implications for U.S. foreign policy. The book remains one of the richest sources of foreign-policy wisdom today.
In Earning the Rockies, Kaplan now turns his attention to the United States to understand how we got to where we are in the world and to shed light on the different paths in foreign policy that lie ahead. Kaplan is neither reticent nor apologetic about his perspective: This is a book about the United States, written to help comprehend and advance its interests in the world.
Kaplan recounts his journey from Massachusetts to California, a narrative interspersed with observations on the material wealth of the continent, the historical importance of America’s network of navigable inland waterways, and the historiography of the nation’s expansion. Kaplan’s constant theme is the combination of good fortune, ruthlessness, and ingenuity that has given the United States the most favored geography in the world — and the consequences thereof. It is, notes Kaplan, a geography “perfectly apportioned for nationhood and global responsibility.”
Kaplan is clear-eyed about the economic and cultural upheavals of the past few decades and their impact on American society. He emphasizes the vibrancy and cosmopolitanism of communities across the country that are connected with and feed into the larger world — for example, through colleges, manufacturing, and agricultural production — and the profound struggles of communities that have lost manufacturing or mining jobs and have yet to regain their footing. Kaplan’s dispassionate analysis of those trends as they play out across the country, and of their ramifications for domestic politics and U.S. foreign policy, is both admirable and jarring.
Kaplan spotlights what others often overlook. In his view, Indiana, Iowa, and other black-soil states lay the foundation for U.S. economic might. Their astonishing agricultural production and related offshoots work in a virtuous cycle with state universities, where “much of the scientific, technological, and engineering research and training of America takes place, on which postindustrial society depends.” The cycle of innovative higher education and applied technology that underpins American power, Kaplan reminds us, occurs not just or even mainly on the coasts. And although he does not say so explicitly, that power derives less from fortune than from foresight. There is a reason so many campuses across the country have a Morrill Hall. They are named after Justin Morrill, the Vermont representative who sponsored the 1862 Land-Grant College Act.
The end of Kaplan’s journey is the naval base in San Diego, facing west to Asia. The Pacific Fleet, homeported more than 2,000 miles away from the nation’s capital, symbolizes the responsibilities and the trials that lie ahead for the United States. In the last chapters of the book, Kaplan provides a sobering prescription for how we ought to think through our foreign-policy choices. He also develops what has become a prominent theme in his work: the need to recapture a tragic sensibility in foreign policy.
Kaplan has emphasized, sagely and necessarily, that U.S. foreign policy ought to be rooted in “a mature sense of the tragic — of all the things that can go wrong in foreign policy, so that caution and a knowledge of history are embedded” in the policymakers’ mindset. He is temperamentally a realist and therefore has urged restraint and prudence, arguing against dissipating our strength in unnecessary endeavors abroad. He is also forthright that our idealistic pursuits in the world are made possible by amoral means, including the globe-spanning U.S. Navy, and that we must not misuse and diminish our hard power, which is the basis for the good we do in the world.
But Kaplan urges restraint in another sense. Our ability and willingness to project and sustain our military abroad, and our worldwide network of alliances, enable freedom of navigation and commerce and underpin the (relative) peace. Do not take that for granted, Kaplan cautions. He notes, as Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg and others have, that when the British Empire entered into relative decline, the United States stepped in to protect the freedom of the commons and to enforce something of a peaceful order. The global dynamics are now very different. The dangers if we try to withdraw from the world, or if, with little regard for the long-term consequences, we choose to break apart what we have helped build, would be grave indeed.
Kaplan knows and conveys that the world is competitive, rough, and unforgiving, and that America today is fractious and wary. Two facts illustrate what Kaplan narrates. A large majority of Americans believe that their children’s lives will be worse than their own. And if we maintain our current trajectory, within a few decades spending on entitlements and interest on the debt will consume all federal revenue. Every penny spent on anything else, including the military, will be borrowed.
The United States faces two related, simultaneous challenges. First, we must conduct a judicious foreign policy that aims both to compete and to lead. Second, our domestic policy must focus on ensuring that our power is sustainable over the long haul. Each of those challenges will require hardheadedness and decisions with difficult trade-offs. Anyone who doubts the urgency or importance of those tasks needs to be reminded of Kaplan’s wisdom: Don’t ever think that things can’t get worse, because they can, and quickly.
– Mr. Lettow was the senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff from 2007 to 2009.