Robert D. Kaplan has made a name for himself by traveling to the world's most uncomfortable and dangerous places and returning with hair-raising predictions of impending military and/or political chaos in the countries he visited.
He was on the money in his book Balkan Ghosts, which foresaw a violent rift along ethnic lines in Yugoslavia, and may yet be proven correct in his assessments of political meltdown in West Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia in The Coming Anarchy and To the Ends of the Earth.
With his latest book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Requires a Pagan Ethos, Kaplan breaks the pattern of travel writing coupled with political reportage and stays home to delve into the territory of political science and military history. These are areas in which Kaplan admits to being a layman and that don't permit the trenchant personal observations that made his previous books so compelling.
For this reason Warrior Politics starts out promising with a chapter that echoes his more travel-based books, but then fizzles as Kaplan attempts in some 200 pages to formulate a guideline for foreign policy based on the wisdom of Livy, Thucydides, Sun-tzu (孫子), Machiavelli and Hobbes, among others.
Nevertheless, Kaplan's main premise that the great minds of antiquity should be the guiding lights to policy making in the contemporary world is a fascinating one and one that seems well grounded.
Kaplan writes: "As future crises arrive in steep waves, our leaders will realize that the world is not `modern' or `postmodern,' but only a continuation of the `ancient': A world that, despite its technologies, the best Chinese, Greek and Roman philosophers might have been able to cope with."
By Robert D. Kaplan
The ancient world, as Kaplan describes it, was a nasty and brutish place where only the strong survived. Summarizing Hobbes, he writes: "Altruism is unnatural, human beings are rapacious, the struggle of every man against every other is the natural condition of humanity, and reason is usually impotent against passion." True leadership then requires the measured and "self-interested" application of power and a policy's moral value will be judged according to its consequences not its intentions.
Though this sounds dangerously close to an apology for warmongering and the forceful spread of democracy and American values, Kaplan cautions against this trend. He draws a line between widening US power and exporting its system. To make his point, he quotes Sun-tzu: "The side that knows when to fight and when not will take the victory. There are roadways not to be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaulted." A war over human rights, for example, may be a fight not worth fighting.
What Kaplan warns against is the strain of idealism, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that dominated liberal thinking at the end of the Cold War that would pin its hopes on democracy and free markets as a panacea for the developing world.
Herein lies the crux of Kaplan's world view: that beyond the small group of countries that play by the rules of international law and trade, lawlessness prevails and what motivates and influences people is raw power. To deal with the groups or countries that will doubtless be nipping at the heels of the family of democratic nations in the coming century, Kaplan favors wielding a big stick.