American Power in a Medieval World

Globalization is ongoing but the dream of the techno-optimists is finished. This is the thesis of the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the 21st Century. The world is modernizing but globalization is not generating a uniform world of liberal democratic regimes dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, goods, and services. Kaplan warns that we best get used to “comparative anarchy”—a situation in which waning national power competes with city states, local and ethnic militancy, and corporate and criminal fiefs.

“Geopolitics—the battle for space and power—now occurs within states as well as between them,” he says.

Anarchy thriving amidst deflating national power is not the whole of our contemporary story, though, for instability is sparking an appetite for stability. In an evocative formulation, Kaplan cautions that optimism is out of place in an increasingly claustrophobic world. Driving the claustrophobia is imperialism, with three former empires—Russia, Iran, and China—reasserting ancient claims.

The core strategic problem facing American policymakers is that these three countries have their imperial ambitions fixed firmly on the same enormous stretch of land. Power and geography will be contested in Eurasia, the great land mass stretching from Turkey to Korea. This is the area that Marco Polo travelled for 25 years in the late 13th century.

Infrastructure and Markets

Kaplan does not consider U.S. power to be handicapped by internal anarchic instability, but externally America’s clout is significantly curtailed by the new imperialism. U.S. global power is in decline, for America has lost two historic advantages. One was that, unique amongst the great powers, it emerged from the 20th century’s wars and revolutions with its infrastructure and industrial base intact. The other was being blessed with an internal market unrivaled in its size and strength. Many nations have caught up when it comes to infrastructure, and the drive to empire is precisely to compete with the United States in internal markets. Emblematic is China’s herculean effort to reconstitute the medieval Silk Road as a series of trading hard points and energy installations across the unified market tantalizingly proffered by Eurasia.

Keeping these two geopolitical factors in view, American power must for the foreseeable future be guided by tragic realism: The world is fractured (tragedy) and though U.S. power can consolidate U.S. interests, instability and empire mean it can do little beyond that (realism).

The Return of Marco Polo’s World collects essays by the noted defense analyst and foreign correspondent written since 2000, and for those wanting to understand contemporary world events, the first essay is a must-read. Commissioned by the Pentagon, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World and the U.S. Military Response” makes for fascinating reading and is the highlight of the volume. That the Pentagon turned to Kaplan for a strategic compass is not surprising. An establishment figure, he was an Atlantic correspondent for three decades, a sort of combination of Kissingerian big-think and acutely observant travel writing. His nearly 20 books, which include the impressive The Coming Anarchy (2006) and The Revenge of Geography (2011), evince both bookishness and empiricism. Their analytical precision is leavened with on-the-ground observations that make Kaplan one of America’s most insightful writers.

Eurasian Truths

Not long ago the mental map of the average Briton looked like this: an Empire flying the Union Jack spread into all parts of the planet, with a few unincorporated countries here and there. An American’s mental map was not dissimilar, picturing a secure North America and Europe, a messy Middle East, a failing Africa, and a burgeoning China. Kaplan warns that the second is as out of date as the first—but that to regain accuracy one must recur to the distant past. Today’s map is, he argues, neo-medieval: city states, empires, the Silk Road, and a Europe relearning what the Romans knew, which is that Europe does not end at the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Western European immigration woes stem not from porous borders but from the geographical fact that the Mediterranean basin includes North Africa and the Levant, and thus experiences the shifts and dynamics of Eurasia.

The travelogue of Marco Polo reveals the true sweep: Europe is contiguous with lands that are, in turn, contiguous with the Korean Peninsula—and that all figure in the historical imagination of Russia, Iran, and China. Kaplan urges U.S. policymakers not to underestimate the gravitational pull this historical imagination holds over U.S. rivals or the deftness of a Vladimir Putin when deploying it. A clear-eyed view would mean recognizing that U.S. power is sufficient to secure essential American interests: hegemony in the Western hemisphere, open sea lanes around the globe, and continued control of the hydrocarbon market.  Opportunity on occasion might permit Washington to pursue idealism but the coming Eurasian empires necessitate realism: a focus on fundamental interests and a willingness to get along with a variety of regimes, unpleasant consequences notwithstanding. “In Defense of Henry Kissinger,” a powerful affirmation of the legacy of the former Secretary of State, is designed to spell out the significant gains this approach can yield.

Kaplan supported the Second Iraq War but now thinks on consequentialist grounds that it was immoral—that the suffering of Iraqis and American military families outweighs the good of having gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. These pages are not especially personal, however; their discernment stems from a thorough appreciation of geography, a subject seldom taught in American colleges. The thread running throughout this book, which includes essays on diplomacy, the warrior ethos, and geopolitical theorists, is that geography is the framework in which policy must be made even if it does not determine what might be accomplished by brilliant strategists. He thinks highly of Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and President George H.W. Bush (the U.S. intervention in the First Iraq War, 1990-1991, was justified in Kaplan’s view, for it kept open the sea lanes) and less highly of Richard Holbrooke and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Besides its grand sweep, The Return of Marco Polo’s World offers good asides on the state of America’s establishment. Even if talk of “the Swamp” or “the Deep State” is not your cup of tea, the news from those quarters is not good. Kaplan worries that America’s best and brightest are simply not focused on foreign affairs, and talented interested youth are getting steered into the study of quantitative political science when it would make more sense for them to be steeping themselves in Shakespeare, history, philosophy, and atlases. Moreover, bureaucracies in the military and public policy fields produce narrow outlooks, with Washington seemingly unaware of countries, such as Bulgaria, that are likely to be important in Eurasia in the decades ahead.

Worryingly, in Kaplan’s experience, the country’s elites are not only hopelessly out of touch with international conditions, and America itself, but they are increasingly indifferent to the country whose passport they use for travel. (This point is also made by Michael Anton in his Law and Liberty podcast from 2016.)   

Maintaining the Edge Vis-a-Vis Beijing

America can secure its vital interests, Kaplan believes, and what bolsters his belief is the strategic edge America has over China—he specifically means the cohesion of the continental United States. With great oceans and Canada’s vast arctic lands as barriers, the country is geographically secure. Is it culturally secure, though? Kaplan mentions the de-Westernization afoot in our schools and universities and yet it does not appear to shake his confidence. If one were to posit that Joel Kotkin is to U.S. domestic trends what Kaplan is to U.S. strategic prospects, there would alas be room for doubts. (Kotkin’s recent surveys of America’s financial apartheid and pernicious social bubbles show him to be less sanguine about the American future than he was.)

Kaplan is well aware of corrupting bubbles and positively skewers our journalists for having misread the Arab Spring. In the latter case, the media, fascinated by urban Arab elites and intellectuals, wrote as if the Arab Spring activists were all a mirror image of themselves. The driver was not the desire for bourgeois values or Western-style hedonism but something closer to millenarian zeal: disgust at the corruption and secularism of central state authority stemming from an appetite for a “purity of belief and logic.”

Unless your geography is excellent—and Kaplan suspects it is not—you’ll want an atlas to hand when reading this book. It cunningly offers us something like a contemporary Marco Polo strategic travelogue, and it’s a genuinely informative read.