Great Jewish thinker Robert D Kaplan saw the anarchy coming. So what makes him an optimist now?

The traveller, strategist and historian says there’s a new realism in the Middle East and the Americans having less prestige is encouraging the regional players to try to deal with their problems in their own right

June 16, 2022 12:27

I am sitting on a bench outside Norman Rockwell’s studio in the Berkshires with the traveller, strategist and historian Robert D Kaplan. The Berkshires are to New York as the Cotswolds are to London, only larger and wilder.

It is a clear day in early summer; before us, the forested ridges of the Berkshire Hills ripple away into the blue distance. Kaplan has taken the long road, and he takes the long view. He has just published Adriatic, an intricate Mediterranean travelogue and imperial history, but his eye is already on another horizon.

“I was in Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq over the past year-and-a-half,” he says. “What I found is that there’s an eternal struggle between absolute autocracy and absolute chaos, and the struggle is to find something in the middle between those extremes that gives people a sense of justice, a sense of stability in their lives.”

Democracy is a source of instability even in America. In the Middle East, Kaplan says, experiments with democracy have been “a disaster”. The social contract in the Arab societies of the Middle East is this: “The people will respect the fact that they cannot criticise the head of the regime.

In return, they will be well and efficiently governed and have a certain amount of rights and predictability in their lives.” Americans talk about “the evils of monarchy”, but monarchies are able to deliver this — for instance, the “monumental cultural change” in Saudi Arabia, where a monarchy has “essentially liberated 50 per cent of their population, the women”.
“And that goes totally against Western principles of progress,” Kaplan notes. “But there it is.”

If democracy figures at all in the strategic alliance between Israel and the conservative Sunni Arab states against Iran, it is a negative factor.

Israel’s democracy may play well in America but, Kaplan reports, it “doesn’t impress” the Arab monarchies. They see it as “inefficient, leading to weak minority governments”, unable to create a parliamentary coalition for peace with the Palestinians.

We hear a lot about trade deals and the warming of relations between Israel and the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia. We read less about the relations between the UAE, the Saudis and India, or about Iran becoming a client of China. The rise of China and India is shifting the regional centre of geopolitical gravity eastwards.

“The Saudis have told me they like China because China is the world’s second-largest economy,” Kaplan says. “It buys their oil and, most importantly, it does not offer them lectures on morality.” America is “a more difficult partner. And that’s more or less the opinion throughout the UAE and other Gulf states.”

Born in New York City in 1952, his background is far from that of most other Jewish intellectuals: his father was a truck driver. “I grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens.

"I went to public schools. I thought every school just had a number, not a name, until I got almost to college. I went to the University of Connecticut, which was great.

"It’s a middle-of-the-pack, working-class college but I had wonderful professors, just literally wonderful teachers, who imbued me with a sense of learning for the rest of my life, essentially. But I didn’t see any openings for me anywhere, and I just had an urge to travel. I spent many years wandering around the world. I lived it.”

In the mid-Seventies, he travelled across Europe and North Africa, then made aliyah to Israel, where he served in the IDF. “I became a realist in Israel because Israelis didn’t have the luxury of living through ideals. They had a real world and dangerous borders. And, not funnily but counterintuitively enough, it made me more of an American and more wanting to explore the world and understand it.”

Kaplan went to Romania, “the worst Eastern Bloc dictatorship at the height of the Cold War”. It was, he says, a revelation: “Romania changed me because I was in history.” He started sending freelance articles to the Atlantic, then wrote Balkan Ghosts (1993), which caught the Clinton administration’s eye during the Yugoslavian civil wars. The success of Balkan Ghosts brought Kaplan full circle: back to the US, but to a very different life and kind of society, the elite world of think-tanks and Washington, DC.

The outsider remains an uncomfortable insider. “Balkan Ghosts was about describing in the most raw terms what you saw in front of your face and relating it to history. This is not the way the think-tanks operate. They deal in more abstract, theoretical terms about how society should be, rather than what they are.”

In the early Nineties, when the Western way appeared to have triumphed, Kaplan resisted the Washington consensus, took to the road and took the long view. In The Coming Anarchy (1994), he predicted the return of history and the global disorder we now face. Yet he seems more optimistic about the Middle East now.

“Much more. The region has gone through these demographic and democratic-trending upheavals, which have failed. It’s gone through decades of enmity between the Israelis and the Arabs and that has failed. There’s a new realism in the region and the Americans having less prestige is encouraging the regional players to try to deal with their problems in their own right.”

An optimistic view of humanity and history are the distinguishing characteristics of Americans’ self-conception and their dealings with the outside world. But history tends towards tragedy rather than happy endings. Kaplan’s next book, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate and the Burden of Power, applies literature to the dilemmas of statesmanship.

“For the Greeks and Shakespeare, the modern German philosophers and our greatest modern novelists, like Dostoyevsky, Conrad and Melville, tragedy was not a common misfortune. It wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t evil. It was comprehension, which comes when you see that the choice is not good versus evil…

"It’s about the battle of good versus good, about moral yet incompatible choices where, simply by choosing one good over another good, you cause suffering in some quarters. And that’s tragedy. Tragedy is comprehension in the sense that you normally discover the truth too late to affect the outcome. And that also is tragic history. The book is an exploration of tragedy and its relevance to statesmanship.”

How, I ask, should the US approach today’s rivalries in the long view?

“I would say we had three great Republican secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker III. They were more interested in reconciliations than in absolute outcomes and victories. They were realists, but they were not neo-isolationists like the realists of today.

"They were realist internationalists: they wanted an active role for the United States in the world, but within realist principles of statecraft.

“If you look at the record of the three men, it’s essentially realist internationalism that won the Cold War.

“And unless we can find our way back to realist internationalism, we’re not going to do well in the future.”

Dominic Green is a British historian based in Boston, USA

June 16, 2022 12:27

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