Robert Kaplan is one of the leading geopolitical commentator
s in the United States. When he speaks, the White House
, military industrial complex
, and political science
professors all perk up their ears and listen. Several of his books have been written with assistance from the Project for the New American Century
, and his ideas help to guide George W. Bush
's foreign policy... but Bill Clinton
also read Kaplan's works and constantly wanted to hear more from the guy. No matter what your ideology
is, his stuff will make you think
Kaplan's day job is as a reporter for The Atlantic Monthly, but he is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and has written several books on history and international relations, constantly relating them to a theme of globalization. He is so respected in this field that he's a regular at Davos, and often teaches at the FBI and Department of Defense.
His books, in reverse chronological order, are:
- Warrior Politics (2001) - My personal favorite. Kaplan takes classical philosophy and history from Greece, Rome, and China, throwing in Thomas Hobbes and Winston Churchill for good measure, and then applies it to the modern world, effectively arguing that these ancient ideas are the best way to approach international relations.
- Soldiers of God (2001) - Kaplan's gritty account of Afghanistan in the 1980's. Like most of his books, he writes this one from experiences on the ground with the mujaheddin and from interviews with Islamic leaders.
- Eastward to Tartary (2001) - Kaplan goes from Bulgaria to Syria to the Caucasus, talking about all the places in between, both in history and the present day.
- The Coming Anarchy (2000) - Based on an insanely famous article Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic in 1994: you can't take a comparative politics course nowadays without reading it. Kaplan uses the examples of Sierra Leone, Russia, and Turkey, among others, to demonstrate how extreme poverty renders many states impotent, and divides the world into a sheltered minority and a chaotic majority.
- An Empire Wilderness (1998) - Kaplan journeys across the United States, trying to figure out how yesterday's manifest destiny and today's irrational exuberance will lead into tomorrow. He argues that race, economic disparity, and other factors will eventually break America apart.
- The Ends of the Earth (1996) - A travelogue where Kaplan goes from West Africa to Mongolia, through some of the most remote and underdeveloped parcels of civilization on Earth. Much of the narrative is about ethnic conflict, and Kaplan extensively discusses the American implications of strife in the middle of nowhere.
- Balkan Ghosts (1993) - In this book, Kaplan goes through the Balkans from Croatia to Romania to Greece, interspersing the history of the Ottoman Empire with accounts of modern life. His view is very dramatic and, in some views, too dystopian, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more accessible book on southeastern Europe.
- The Arabists (1993) - Kaplan here talks about a group of Islam scholars working in the Department of State, and charges that they were too infatuated with Muslim culture and Arab nationalism to ever give Israel a chance. He argues that this pattern began in the days of T. E. Lawrence and continued right up to the appeasement of Saddam Hussein that preceded the Gulf War.
- Surrender or Starve (1988) - Kaplan's account of the civil war and famine in Ethiopia, exposing the corruption of the government and comparing it to the reign of Josef Stalin. This was the book that established his reputation as a journalist.
Kaplan is a really good writer in terms of form and exposition, but he's a really bad writer in terms of spinning a narrative. In other words, you'll learn something new from each sentence he writes, but his books aren't really cohesive: they bounce around willy nilly from topic to topic, and after hearing a litany of Chinese dynasties you'll suddenly find yourself reading about why Slavs don't drink coffee in the morning. It's informative, but it requires lots of active reading: I have to approach Kaplan with a pencil in hand to make notes, whereas Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama lend themselves to a quick chapter before bed.
Also, Kaplan is a die-hard realist, and he would be the first to tell you that children are never going to join hands singing across the world. What he writes is depressing. The world is falling apart, and nobody gives a shit: that's his message in a nutshell. His worldview is closer to William Gibson's than it is to Gene Roddenberry's. As a result, many readers tend to rip their hair out with Kaplan's books, wondering aloud if all he needs is a dose of Prozac, while others nod and say "Thank God I'm not those poor bastards."
I like Kaplan. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but he is a good scholar, and you'll learn more from a sitting with one of his books than you'll learn from watching CNN.
...What I can tell you is it is development, not poverty, that causes upheaval and terrorism. Poverty is in fact, very stabilizing. But, if you look at the decades in France, before the French Revolution and the decades in Mexico before the Mexican Revolution, you will find there were periods of uncommon economic growth and social change.
...Remember that the Nazis and the Communists were Utopians. They had this idea of the perfect society. They could only implement it through coercion and force. Without the tools of the industrial revolution: trains, tanks, aircraft carriers, railway grids, factories, etc., they never could have done the evils that they did. It was kind of a Utopianism married to the technology of the age that created these horrible regimes.
(when asked what he would say to Bush) I would say, in terms of the war on terrorism, to keep the rhetoric stark and simple, exactly as he is doing now. Keep the policy behind the scenes extremely subtle and flexible. In other words, talk like Reagan, but operate like Nixon—not in the Watergate sense of the word—but I mean Nixon in his finest moments in foreign policy.
(quotes from http://www.financialsense.com/transcriptions/Kaplan.htm)