The Return of Marco Polo’s World:
War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century
by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2018, 304 pages
In 1994, five years after the Berlin Wall fell, American businessmen, journalists, and foreign policy intellectuals generally remained under the trance of the “end of history.” Events still shook enlightened consciences—the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav Wars, the first World Trade Center attack—but for the most part, the end of the Cold War brought with it a newfound faith in the power of international institutions to resolve these conflicts. Faith in the inexorable trends of democratization and globalization was high.
In stepped Robert D. Kaplan, then a young foreign correspondent and author of books on conflicts dotting the far corners of the earth. His 1994 publication of “The Coming Anarchy” in the Atlantic put him in the ranks of the Post-Cold War era’s most well-known authors. The essay’s idiosyncratic and, to some eyes, anachronistic thesis was that chaos and instability would characterize the world’s future, and that the glowing, harmonious, interconnected globe envisioned by Thomas Friedman and Bill Clinton was a comfortable pipe dream. Because of trends in population growth and resource scarcity, social chaos would chip away at political order, and a new tribalism would arise across both the developed and developing worlds.
Kaplan continued to travel widely across the world, traversing the various regions of “Afro-Eurasia” by foot, car, and train, interpreting histories and literary works alongside his own journeys, and producing essay after essay and book after book. His work generated controversy, most often for puncturing the sacred cows of modernity and erecting in their place written monuments to certain old-fashioned bits of political wisdom, made relevant again by “the return of ancient times” in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and across the world.
Ever since the shock of 9/11, Kaplan’s works have become increasingly popular, even as his subject matter has grown ever broader. From the cultural spirit of the U.S. armed forces, to detailed military-diplomatic analyses of almost every significant great power across the world, to meditations on literature, to expositions of theories of geopolitics, Kaplan has opened the eyes of the D.C.-focused policy class to the complexity, tragedy, and grandeur of the geopolitical world beyond the beltway. Like Rudyard Kipling a century before him, he serves as a guide to the distant realms of a far-reaching sea power’s empire.
Though he often casts himself as a geopolitical analyst, and often works as a travel writer and historical journalist, he is at his best as a literary tutor to princes– a tragic bard of empire who reminds the lofty-minded public of the dark eternal verities it so often forgets.
In 2018, almost a quarter century after the publication of “The Coming Anarchy,” Kaplan’s works seem more relevant than ever. So it is fitting and timely that Kaplan’s most recent book—an essay collection entitled “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century,” composed of some of Kaplan’s writings on diverse subjects written between 2001 and 2017—has been published. In this handy volume, Kaplan brings together a variety of genres and themes. There are commentaries on recent historical developments, like the end of the Cold War and the second invasion of Iraq. There are philosophical reflections on the nature of politics, such as how to stay out of wars by preparing for them, and the need for constant clarity of vision among decision-makers. There are assessments and analyses of America’s position in the world-net assessments in the broadest sense, and in more specific cases, like the state of the U.S. Navy, and the particular Eurasian situation of the late 2010s and so on. Finally, there are meditations on the virtues necessary to perceive, manage, and maintain political order— Sam Huntington, John Mearsheimer, and Henry Kissinger get their shout-outs, as do the unsung veterans of Vietnam and America’s post-Cold War expeditionary forces.
Nothing new appears in this book, but that’s not the point of this collection. Whenever Kaplan has published a book structured around some of his previously-published major essays, it’s always seemed to speak to a particular purpose, a certain need in the sphere of elite foreign policy discourse. The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War, published in 2000, sought to temper Clinton-era triumphalism in light of the turbulence of the late ’90s. Kaplan’s trilogy1 on the twenty-first-century U.S. military seems to have been both a tribute to America’s fighting men and women, and a field guide for stateside civilians to understand just what kinds of people their all-volunteer force consisted of in the early days of the War on Terror.
The Return of Marco Polo’s World seems to be geared towards a combination of the aforementioned books’ ends and goals. Neither a policy manifesto nor a historical argument, it seems to be more aligned with the medieval mirrors-for-princes genre. Its commentaries, reflections, assessments, and meditations on history, tragedy, leadership, and empire are meant, collectively, to be didactic in the best sense. The reader—particularly the young American reader, born after the end of the Cold War, who has seen mainly suave, incompetent Western leaders presiding over a steadily-fracturing global order—need not be reminded of the problems of our times. But in examining Kaplan’s book, they will find new ways to think about those problems that few authors manage to articulate skillfully, if they choose to articulate them at all.
These are the times when “rough men,”2 ready to do violence on behalf of the safety of the free, are more necessary than in ordinary times, if freedom and order are to be preserved. And at an intellectual level at least, one can become “rough” through a careful study of the bulk of Kaplan’s works, some of the most relevant of which are reprinted in The Return of Marco Polo’s World.
The Antidote to Providentialism
One of the things that makes many American readers uncomfortable with Kaplan’s writings is their implication thatcertain truths Americans hold to be self-evident might not be as true as Americans think. Do peace and democracy go together naturally? Like Alexander Hamiltion, who observed in Federalist no. 6 that “there have been almost as many popular as royal wars,” Kaplan doesn’t think so. Does the arc of history bend towards justice? That implies a certain moral inevitability, something Kaplan doesn’t believe exists without firm human agency and large helpings of fortuna.
Kaplan is accused, sometimes rightly, of being excessively pessimistic and borderline deterministic. He ignores the good and noble side of human nature, or the reality that happy stories sometimes do come true, some lament. But human nature being what it is, he’d probably say it is prudent to focus on the darker sides of humanity, given that fear, anger, passion, cruelty, and intrigue show themselves in politics far more often than their benevolent counterparts.
Kaplan is a master of sprinkling iconoclastic aphorisms and longer bits of wisdom throughout his essays and other works. Against those who wish for an easy and simple American foreign policy of “peace through strength,” “universal human rights,” or simply “restraint,” Kaplan writes that “foreign policy at its best is subtle, innovative, contradictory, and truly bold only on occasion.” Against the rigid determinists, Kaplan argues that leaders are needed who stretch the limits of the possible—but that they must first acknowledge that there are limits to the possible. Wise politicians know that “the art of statesmanship is about working as close to the edge as possible, without stepping over the brink.”
Kaplan possesses a very sophisticated understanding of political reality, an understanding which aspiring public servants would do well to cultivate. Being a journalist by trade, he is not as systematic a writer as most political scientists are, preferring to describe through anecdotal stories rather than to explain by building intellectual structures. This can be maddening for readers looking for a coherent system of applied theoretical geopolitics, which will not be found anywhere in Kaplan’s body of work. Nonetheless, it is not the theory that matters in Kaplan’s writing; it is the sobered temperament that a reading of his writing engenders. In essence, Kaplan’s worldview posits a world of fundamentally irreconcilable opposites, whose undefinable synthesis is the closest thing there is to discernible truth—a truth that cannot be written or reasoned perfectly, and only illustrated, experienced, and lived, and perhaps studied through the examination of history.
Kaplan’s Aphoristic Wisdom
Shakespeare’s players on Mackinder’s stage make history. To some degree, politics, foreign policy, and human affairs can be analyzed and predicted. In other respects, accurate prediction is impossible. Those who study geopolitics and history find the constraints and imperatives limiting human action; those who study literature and history discern the motives and passions driving human action. Both are partially correct, but neither is entirely correct. Only an appreciation of both geopolitics and literature can provide a full understanding of the realities of history as well as its tragedy and grandeur.
Geopolitics has many identities, but at a basic level, it involves the effects that geography and climate have on politics and culture. Terrain affects agriculture and military culture; access to oceans affects trade and commerce; geolocation defines a country’s political neighborhood. At another level, geopolitics is concerned with the institutions—political, military, economic, cultural—that exist in a country and do not change quickly. Geopolitics, then, provides the stage and backdrop of human history.
Literature intersects with geopolitics at the level of institutions and cultures, but primarily focuses on the human beings involved—their loves and hatreds, their passions and reasoning, their cultures and duties and entitlements, and their very humanity. There are multiple sorts of literature, as well. On the one hand, there is literary fiction—poetry, novels, plays, great works—that communicate truths through artistic display. On another level, there is the great classical canon of political writing, documenting a great tradition of thinkers wrestling with the greatest political questions.
Herodotus is as useful as Thucydides, and Thucydides is as insightful as Herodotus. Shakespeare is as crucial as Mackinder, and Mackinder is as penetrating as Shakespeare. If “realism” focuses on what is real, then it must acknowledge the complexity of reality, a complexity that cannot be distilled to either human relations, vast impersonal forces, mathematical equations, or creative wills to power.
Order and justice do not mix, and make for tragedy. The defining aspect of human existence is tragedy, in the sense that the ultimate fulfillment of humanity’s deepest and profoundest needs and desires will forever be incomplete, and that different moral goods will always clash. There will never be a perfect world; there will never be a true attainment of the ideals of order and freedom so many yearn for, and there will never be a cessation of suffering. This is not due to scarcity or malice or stupidity, though those play a role; rather, it is due to the inherent limitation of humanity’s capabilities for political order–particularly due to the divergence of order and justice.
Justice can be defined in many different ways, but in contemporary discourse it usually implies the protection of human rights. And it is no secret that human rights, when as broadly construed as they are now, and even when they are narrowly construed, are always precariously secured. But they are threatened by the very thing that can best preserve them: political order. In any society, and among societies, the need to preserve order implies limitations on freedom and on rights, sometimes to excess. The balance is hard to strike and is rarely found. And often the defeat of chaos and its replacement by order is accompanied by other transgressions.
Then, too, there is the tragedy of universalism and particularity. It would be excellent to love and serve all human beings equally. But reality being as it is, we have closer attachments to those closer to us, be it by blood, culture, politics, or proximity. These attachments, in turn, help shape our identities, and help shape us. At some point, we can only help our own, to the detriment of others.
Finally, there is the tragedy of fate and the tragedy of agency. Those appalled by the barbarities of the human condition might wish that human beings could, by their own agency, transcend such limitations and leave the horrors of the past behind. To some extent this is possible; in other instances, such dreaming only leads to disaster. The limits on human action and creativity, the irreconcilability of multiple competing goods, the inescapable fate of suffering, and the endless cycle of politics—these all make for the battle against fate which the most ambitious politicians undertake. And there is no greater grandeur than fighting that battle, knowing always that it will be lost. All the wise think tragically.
Strength and prudence make for leadership. Good leaders—Churchill, the Roosevelts, George H.W. Bush, and Tiberius, Livy’s Fabius Maximus, and Thucydides’ Pericles—know their strengths and weaknesses, and those of their countries. They know both imperatives and limits, and they think not in absolutes and generalities, but in relativities and specifics. Nonetheless, they are not blind to absolutes and generalities—the nature of man, the existence of immutable principles of justice, right and wrong, the tragedy and grandeur of history. But in governing, in strategizing, in harnessing the dogs of war and establishing the laws of peace, they bring a sober judgment informed by both experience and study, pursuing nothing to excess and nothing too little.
At the same time, they are not loath to take action. They are decisive, vigorous, and strong, unhesitant to use force to tame the brutal realities of human nature’s darkest manifestations. Their judgment counsels both restraint and vigor, and is so internalized that it requires little or no reflection to bring out the best of both. The great realist and the great leader thinks not solely in strategies, nor solely in ends, nor solely in principles, but in grand visions of the sweep of history, its workings, and his or her place in it.
For these reasons, the greatest leaders and public servants are those who combine the vicarious experience of others with their own personal experiences. They understand the past, and they know the present. Whatever their battlefield—domestic party politics, industrial economies, the far-flung frontiers of great empires, the great global commons of the seas and the air—they are versed in both its history and its contemporary affairs. As Machiavelli spoke, in his study, to the greats of the classical world, so they walk among the great men of history as well as the great men of their age, and understand what the simple moderns and mere historians cannot.
And history and lived experience teach, among other lessons, that the tragedy of human public life is best survived, tamed, and managed by individuals, elites, governments, and nations that are both energetic and wise. So they dedicate themselves and their efforts to the cultivation of prudence and vigor, knowledge and ability—for in a tragic world, only these make one fit to lead nations in the service of higher ends. Character can be destiny, and destiny is fate.
America, with her ideals and her geography, is an inevitable Empire. Empire, like most things, is morally nuanced. But the realistic and sober moral thinker will have to conclude that, on balance, empire has been a net benefit to world history. Under empires, benign rule led to prosperity, safety, culture, trade, order, and flourishing.
But for all the goods it provides, empire is a checkered business that brings sacrifice and guilt. There is always a vanquished. America, over the course of a century, annihilated the Native American tribes, aggressively took land from the Mexican empire, and existed until 1865 on an economy inseparable from the institution of slavery. Following the continental conquest, it waged brutal and duplicitous wars in the Philippines and Cuba, while forcibly opening various nations to trade and annexing others through intrigue. But it was only this America, with continental resources and transoceanic power, that could preserve democratic nationhood and international openness against the depredations of totalitarian empires in the twentieth Century. This America still preserves the international order, and her sword underwrites freedom in an increasingly dangerous world.
Moreover, Americans cannot simply choose to abandon this imperial responsibility. Geography, culture, and history—fate, by any other name—have conspired to make America a power capable of empire. Its possession of the resources of an isolated continent which straddles two strategic oceans implies that, in our oceanic world, America will avoid foreign domination while possessing the ability to build considerable projectable strength. Moreover, a national character shaped by Anglo roots and successive frontier conquests makes Americans take pride in the liberty available to the people of such a continent, while the radicalism of the founding encourages in Americans a desire to see all the world’s peoples freed. And thanks to key trends and decisions in the twentieth Century—FDR’s casual takeover of the British trading order, the vanquishing of the Nazi, Japanese, and Soviet empires— Washington has become a true Rome, with all the privilege and responsibility such status confers.
This is the most important reality of geopolitics and history in the early twenty-first century, and Americans forget it at their peril. The task at hand is to figure out how to manage the inherited empire, keeping in mind the complexity of history, the wisdom of tragedy, and the importance of character and fate. But as any frustrated realist knows too well, the roots of that empire—the universalistic radicalism implicit in some of our founding documents and tradition; the formerly isolated geography that precluded any real threat of foreign invasions during our formative national decades; and perhaps most importantly, our apparent success whenever we have ventured abroad, at least before Vietnam—have also been the roots of our rosy temper and do-gooding idealism. And a political culture shaped by those traits does not make for a useful strategic tradition, which makes the occasional strategic grandmasters arising in our government all the more worthy of emulation.
Kaplan’s American Exemplars
Kaplan believes that some Americans, despite the political and intellectual habits of their fellow citizens, have figured out how to strike the balance and successfully manage American interests. His shining example of tragic realist statecraft in the American context—and his beau ideal of a statesman—is Henry Kissinger. In his Atlantic essay “In Defense of Henry Kissinger,” reprinted in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, Kaplan examines the cold, calculated decisions of the Nixon and Ford administrations in Vietnam, Chile, and Ethiopia, arguing that Kissinger’s counsel, which has been derided as ruthlessly amoral, led to more moral outcomes than would have been possible otherwise. (For example, the gradual drawdown of American troops in Vietnam prevented a full-on retreat and national embarrassment, and strengthened the American hand in negotiations when Nixon and Kissinger traveled to Beijing and Moscow.) Kaplan explicitly compares Kissinger to such nineteenth century statesmen as Castlereagh and Palmerston, and the subtitle of the essay calls Kissinger “the 20th century’s greatest 19th century statesman.”
Another great nineteenth century statesman of the twentieth century whom Kaplan lauds (though his tribute did not make it into his recent book) is President George H.W. Bush. In an essay in the National Interest addressing arguments that President Obama’s foreign policy resembled that of Bush Sr., Kaplan looks at the forty-first president’s enduring legacies: success and strength in the Gulf War; prudence and restraint as the Soviet Union collapsed; diplomatic subtlety in the U.S.-China relationship; and enduring strategic foresight in the reunification of Germany. Kaplan argues that Bush Sr.’s “restraint and pragmatism” remains admired today “because it was so deftly combined with the unabashed projection of American power.” Bush Sr., of course, is more popular these days than Kissinger, but at a moral and strategic level, he’s not too terribly different.
Kissinger and Bush Sr. pretty well encapsulate the sort of temperament Kaplan believes to be absolutely crucial and non-negotiable for the preservation of order, freedom, and civilization itself, in this decaying nuclear age. They lived the principles that Kaplan extolls through all his works. They were different versions of the “dark knight” trope, “rough men” making the hard choices necessary to preserve a free society. As Kaplan writes, “the rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating [conventional] morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries.”
But statesmen are not the only ones who practice these virtues. At a day-by-day level, some Americans working in the rough-and-tumble of foreign affairs on the front lines—diplomatic staff, intelligence personnel, and most especially members of the Armed Forces—live the same sort of life, to some degree or another.
The most vivid example is Colonel Tom Wilhelm, a U.S. Army officer serving in Mongolia in 2005 whom Kaplan profiled in his aptly-named Atlantic essay “The Man Who Would be Khan.” Wilhelm, described by Kaplan as “one of the best of this new breed of soldier-diplomats,” was the U.S. defense attaché in Ulan Bator during the early phases of the Global War on Terror. But rather than advising locals fighting radical Islamists (work done by his colleagues in more westerly parts of Central Asia) Wilhelm worked the classic “soft-power” job of building the U.S. relationship with Mongolia, in an effort to forestall Russian and Chinese influence.
As the twenty-first century draws on, and foreign affairs grows more complex, Colonel Wilhelm’s sort of independent operation in the name of the national cause appears to be more along the lines of the work American personnel will have to prepare for, in a variety of theaters and environments. Kaplan argues that the mindset of America’s expeditionary military is an ethos of rugged, useful operational independence, comfort across a variety of unconventional situations, a can-do mentality and a pride in hewing to a fine tradition of professionalism and service. It’s not too unlike the ethos exhibited by the British imperial forces in a previous era, exemplified by Charles George Gordon, Winston Churchill, and other young expeditionary adventurers of the late nineteenth century.
Why Kaplan’s World Matters
Unfortunately, the ways of thinking and acting, the habits of mind, and the virtues exemplified by a Kissinger, Bush Sr., or Colonel Wilhelm are not exactly in vogue these days (if they ever were). More often, it is only unpopular outsiders to civilization who know how to protect it successfully. America’s expeditionary forces and diplomats cultivate these qualities to some degree, but they’re not the ones making policy. It is the beltway elites—whose primary expertise lies in conforming to courtly rituals—who make policy, and as the last quarter century has demonstrated, these elites are often not up to the task.
As the world grows increasingly unstable in the present era, it is important that the forthcoming generation of foreign policy professionals—recruits for the military officer corps, the intelligence community, and the foreign service, as well as D.C.-bound policy thinkers and aspiring politicians—has among their number at least some who understand the ideas Kaplan has sought to communicate through his writings.
They could do worse than picking up a copy of The Return of Marco Polo’s World before shipping out on their next tour of duty.
2 Though a quote along the lines of “We sleep soundly at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf” is often casually attributed to George Orwell, it appears nowhere in his body of work. It appears that the phrase first appears in a Washington Times column in 1993, by the late writer Richard Grenier, paraphrasing Orwell’s ideas but not claiming to be a direct quote.