REVIEW: What Should We Do About China? Robert Kaplan Has Some Ideas

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The Return of Marco Polo’s World; War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century by Robert D. Kaplan

By Paul Markowitz

The Return of Marco Polo’s World is a series of essays written by Robert Kaplan, the renowned geopolitical analyst and author of the best-selling Revenge of Geography.  The lead essay was commissioned by the Pentagon’s Office of National Assessment.  It has been touted by both Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  The remaining essays were all previously published in The Atlantic, The National Interest, or The Washington Post between 2001 and 2015.  There is a lot of good writing about foreign policy and war in the book, but it has a clear main attraction: a new essay “The Return of Marco Polo’s World,” about the changing power dynamics among China, Eurasia, and America, which was commissioned by the U.S. government and is now being released for the first time for public view.

The title of the book reflects Kaplan’s belief that as Europe disappears as an entity, Eurasia coheres.  The supercontinent is becoming one comprehensible unit of trade and conflict. As traditional state systems weaken older imperial legacies -- Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Turkish -- become primary.  Every crisis from Central Europe to China is now interlinked.

What makes Kaplan’s analysis interesting and thought-provoking is that he does not think in historical increments of battles, wars, and years but in centuries if not millennia.  Kaplan sees much of the 20th Century as the Long European War which lasted three-quarters of a century with the triumph of NATO with its long tradition of political and moral values ultimately triumphant.  Unfortunately the supranational cooperation that came out of the wars led to a single monetary unit for much of the European continent.  Except for some of the northern European societies the social welfare state became unaffordable and the weaker southern European economies piled up massive debt.

Added to this was the dissolution of the Soviet-backed “prison-states,” such as Libya, Syria and Iraq.  Now with their “independence,” huge tides of refugees sought freedoms in a debt-ridden and economically stagnant southern Europe with the inevitable reactionary populist response.  Kaplan believes that now that the West, after having won the Long European War, is beginning to lose itself in a “vast web of history.”

What is emerging, according to Kaplan, is a “New Silk Road” formulated by the Chinese that duplicates exactly Marco Polo’s travels.  Also, according to Kaplan, it is not a coincidence.  As he points out the Mongols were early practitioners of globalization connecting habitable Eurasia in a multicultural empire.  Their weapon was trade.

Ultimately Kaplan sees the former Soviet republics in inner Asia as key - with the Soviets as aggressors as in Georgia an, the United States as unwilling to offer help.  Thus they find themselves aligning with China for support and investment.  Kaplan feels that Central Asia will eventually show who has the upper hand.

With Afghanistan signaling the limits of American power, what appears to be developing is some semblance of Eurasian unity among China, Russia, and Iran, with China among equals.  America’s role should lie somewhere between neo-isolationism and imperial style interventionism, according to Kaplan.  The key constants for him seem to be that a strong navy is critical, nothing is local anymore, to invade is to govern, and most assuredly geography matters.

The rest of the book is a series of essays previously written and published by Kaplan over the past decade or so.  He discusses the role of morality in foreign policy and the navy’s rising importance, and delivers a reassessment of Vietnam and Iraq wars.  These essays show both his perceptive insights and knowledge of history and geography but also the limitations of long-term global thinking within the unpredictability of historical events.

What was most troublesome in a couple of essays is his tepid defense of his original support for the war in Iraq and his full-throated defense of his friend and mentor, Henry Kissinger, in his 2013 essay “In Defense of Henry Kissinger.”  His belief is that among “the dull and practical men of business” Kissinger shines as an intellectual with a historical world view, which apparently grants him a pass in some historically bad decisions in which he was a key participant. 

What is ultimately clear is that Kaplan's lead essay is a thoughtful and significant piece of global thinking that hopefully is being considered by the powers that be.  It is, essentially, the antithesis of the shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy that seems to be the policy du jour.  You may not agree with all of Kaplan's analysis but you cannot help but admire his incredible depth and breadth of historical and geopolitical knowledge and the intriguing analysis and predictions he offers up based on them.