As a frequent writer on geography and strategy for such publications as The Atlantic, The American Interest, and The National Interest, Robert D. Kaplan has established himself as a uniquely insightful observer of foreign policy, combining the observational talents of a Gertrude Bell with the strategic insights of a Halford Mackinder or Nicholas Spykman. His approach to understanding the world is captured by a diplomat’s comment that Kaplan noted in his 1993 book, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite: “Read, travel, read, travel, that’s the way to go.”
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, Kaplan’s 18th book, is a collection of his essays from the past 17 years. The book is anchored by the first essay, which also gives the collection its title. In this pivotal article, based on a study he conducted for the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment, Kaplan claims that what we call “the West” reached its point of maximum cohesion at the conclusion and in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, which brought to a close the Long European War (1914–89). He contends that the geopolitical “condensation” of the moral and political tradition of the West was NATO and the EU, which, having defeated Communism, extended the Western European system eastward into the “Intermarium” between the Baltic and Black Seas.
This system was based on a generous social-welfare state, which was an attempt at moral redemption in response to the human suffering of 1914–18 and 1939–45. Unfortunately, this approach was unsustainable and led, over time, to European societies that were debt-ridden and economically stagnant.
Meanwhile, Europe remained demographically separate from the Muslim Middle East, where totalitarian prison-states were, for the most part, propped up by Soviet power. Europeans were able simultaneously to reject power politics and preach human rights, writes Kaplan, “precisely because tens of millions of Muslims nearby were being denied human rights, and with them the freedom of movement.” But the collapse of these prison-states has unleashed a tide of refugees into Europe. As a consequence, Europe now “fractures from within as reactionary populism becomes a relevant dynamic” and “dissolves from without, as it is reunited with the destiny of Afro-Eurasia as a whole”: “As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. The supercontinent is becoming one fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict, as the Westphalian system of states weakens and older, imperial legacies — Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Turkish — become paramount. Every crisis from Central Europe to the ethnic–Han Chinese heartland is now interlinked. There is one singular battle space.” The cause of this emerging Eurasian integration is the interplay of globalization, technology, and geography.
Kaplan has long argued that a major weakness of U.S. foreign policy is its tendency to divide the world along boundaries articulated by Cold War area studies. The result is a fragmented, as opposed to holistic, approach to global affairs. This approach has been exacerbated by the fact that national-security elites have fallen prey to the conceit that technology has somehow rendered geography less important than it once was. On the contrary, Kaplan has contended, the makers of U.S. foreign policy must recover the sense of time and space that they have abandoned. “The combination of violent upheavals and the communications revolution in all its aspects — from cyber interactions to new transportation infrastructure — has wrought a more claustrophobic and ferociously contested world: a world in which territory still matters, and every crisis interacts with every other as never before.”
Kaplan contends that we can learn much about the emerging geopolitics of Eurasia by recalling the travels of the late-13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo. He observes that China’s ambitious new land and maritime “Silk Road” proposal duplicates exactly the Silk Road that Marco Polo traveled.
As the Westphalian system weakens in Europe, Kaplan claims, the struggles among Eurasia’s old empires — Russia, China, Turkey, and Persia/Iran — will take on increased importance. “The unipolarity that defined the Post Cold War is over, the West itself is dissipating, and we are back to classical geography — particularly in Europe.”
How does the United States cope with the new geopolitics of Eurasia? As Europe dissolves and NATO weakens, depriving America of its main point of entry into Europe, the U.S. has the luxury of falling back on its primary means of strategic leverage: sea power, which permits us to “act with caution and restraint, without drifting into neo-isolationism.” In the language of today’s geopolitical debate, Kaplan is advocating a strategy of offshore balancing, or “strategic restraint.” His logic here reflects that of Sir Francis Bacon, who observed over four centuries ago that “he that commands the sea is at great liberty and may take as much and as little of the war as he will. Whereas those that be strongest by land are many times nevertheless in great straits.”
Kaplan is not pessimistic about America’s emerging geopolitical situation. The strategic position of the U.S. has been eroding over time, but he notes that the internal positions of Eurasia’s two principal hinge states, Russia and China, have been eroding more. Both face severe ethnic, political, and economic challenges that are far more dangerous than any that we face. And a Eurasia “characterized by nonstop crisis and political stagnation and weakness — a world where chaos and wealth creation go hand in hand — is one that will keep our competitors preoccupied.” Further, America’s emerging energy dominance provides us with breathing room that the Eurasian powers lack.
Although this insightful essay on the emerging geopolitics of Eurasia is the only one written especially for this book, most of the others remain as timely as when they were first published. Kaplan has much more to say about strategy, including the “art of avoiding war” and the importance of U.S. maritime power. His excellent essay “Rereading Vietnam” is especially pertinent in light of the recent Ken Burns–Lynn Novick PBS series on Vietnam.
One of my favorite essays in the book is an account of the heroic actions of Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith in Iraq, for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Kaplan notes that Smith’s story “elicited 96 media mentions for the eight-week period after the medal was awarded, compared with 4,677 for the supposed abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay and 5,159 for the disgraced Abu Ghraib prison guard Lynndie England, over a much longer time frame that went on for many months.”
Kaplan is an unapologetic foreign-policy “realist,” and this volume features a series of essays on important realist thinkers, including Henry Kissinger, the late Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer. For Kaplan, realism is not a strategy so much as what he calls a “sensibility” rooted in the “mature sense of the tragic.” The realist recognizes that he must work with the elemental causes of war as identified by Thucydides — honor, fear, and interest — rather than against them.
His is not the realism that is often dismissed as amoral, lacking concern for liberal principles such as human rights and free trade, but instead a realism that makes defense of liberal principles possible in the first place. The realist knows, says Kaplan, “that order comes before freedom and interests come before values. After all, without order there is no freedom for anybody, and without interests a state has no incentive to project its values.”
I have argued before that Kaplan is the contemporary heir to the tradition of Herodotus, the first great observer of human affairs. It is useful to remember that the correct translation of the title of his work, The Histories, is “Inquiries”: Herodotus the Greek was inquiring into the ways of the other peoples with whom the Greeks were in contact, most notably the Persians, Scythians, and Egyptians. One result of his inquiries was the conviction that each of these peoples was shaped by its physical setting. Kaplan, following Herodotus, understands that cultures and civilizations continually interact in time and space and are therefore shaped by the realities of geography.
The Return of Marco Polo’s World reinforces Kaplan’s well-deserved reputation as one of the most astute observers of world affairs. His writing style is elegant. His arguments are compelling. If one does not always learn something from him, one is simply not paying attention.