On the Road with Robert Kaplan

For the past twenty-five years, Robert Kaplan has been among the most prominent writers on world politics, with a tendency to focus on the darker features of life in the international system—anarchy, tribalism, violent nationalist and religious hatreds, famine, crime, terrorism, and other familiar threats that he sees as the dominant themes of the post-Cold War world. In his new book, Earning the Rockies, Kaplan is searching for a more positive vision for how the United States can shape geopolitics in constructive ways. And to do so, he goes on a transcontinental road trip, from Stockbridge, Massachusetts to San Diego, California.

His goal is ambitious: to “contemplate nothing less than the American continent and what its international role will and should be in the twenty-first century.” He covers a lot of ground—literally—and by the end of the trip he remains confident that because of its geography and its history, “America is fated to lead.” Little of what he reports on from the road, however, leaves the reader convinced that America is up to the task. Unless, of course, we accept the rather minimalist, restrained vision he presents of what global leadership means for the years to come.

Geography and National Destiny

Kaplan’s focus on geography is the book’s great strength. As he rightly observes, “America’s geography is the most favored in the world.” First, there is the geography of separation from Europe and Asia, keeping the world’s great powers at bay. Americans do indeed lose sight of the abundance of security that separation from the world’s hot spots provides.

Second, there is the internal geography of continental fusion, which is the source of America’s great power. To tell this story, Kaplan turns to Bernard DeVoto, a largely forgotten mid-20th century writer that placed geography at the center of America’s history and understood America’s proper role in the world through this lens. Continental scale offered the United States two great advantages. First, the continent’s magnificent internal river system, which contains more navigable miles than all the world’s rivers combined, made it easy to transport, and thus mobilize, the wealth of the heartland, making it possible for the United States to become the most economically powerful country on Earth by the turn of the 20th century. Second, control of the west coast of the continent made it possible for the United States to project naval power across the Atlantic as well as the Pacific oceans. America was no mere “state,” it was an empire in itself.

For DeVoto, and Kaplan, the significance of America’s continental scale goes beyond the raw material power it provides to the United States. The experience of continental conquest itself shaped America’s political culture. According to this view, America became a nation of restless trail blazers, risk takers, heroes, and self-reliant optimists. This American “tame the frontier” culture, according to Kaplan, became “the basis for their international ambition. For if this unending vastness could be conquered, then . . . the world could be too.”

Tragedy and Redemption

On this point, Kaplan is sensitive to the condemnation generated by the uglier side of American expansion. In his words, America was “built on enormous crimes—slavery and the extinction of the native inhabitants.” The Mexican War, he says, is a “moral tragedy” of “naked territorial expansion.” But while making an honest effort to acknowledge this history, Kaplan picks up DeVoto’s philosophical position on Manifest Destiny, that it was “a tale of tragedy and redemption.” For Kaplan, “The only answer to the crimes committed is for the United States to use the resulting power that has come with the conquest of a continent in order to continue to do good in the world.” America is fated by geography to serve a global good, but where, and for what purposes, specifically?

Historically, Kaplan points to several acts of raw American power that have redeemed its crimes: saving the world from the rapacious aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the U.S. Navy’s ongoing role in safeguarding a liberal maritime order that underwrites a prosperous global economy. For Kaplan, this is part of the “usable” history we should bring to bear on questions of America’s global responsibilities in the 21st century. Following this historical example, he calls for a robust American role abroad today, and his objectives focus on what has been the bedrock of American grand strategy for many decades: preventing hegemonic control of Europe and Asia by any great power (which means balancing against China and Russia today), and in the process keeping the peace in these critical parts of the world, and ensuring access to the world’s markets and resources through maritime power projection.

There is nothing new here; Kaplan is merely brushing the surface of an important ongoing debate about America’s proper role in the world. Even among those who fully support American global engagement, there is a vibrant debate about how far, how deep, and at what cost. Unfortunately, his reflections on the American continent fail to yield any nuance on these questions.

The Limitations of Order

Despite the lack of nuance in his discussion of grand strategy, and his sweeping pronouncements about America’s responsibility to lead notwithstanding, Kaplan is also blunt in declaring that the real world imposes fundamental limitations on America’s ability to bring order to the world. And one recent experience seems to bring him to this conclusion: in essence, his message seems to be, no more Iraqs.

This is a fascinating turnaround for an early, unwavering supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Kaplan was no mere journalistic advocate for the war—he participated in a secret November 2001 meeting hosted by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps the most fervent champion of war in the Bush administration, to help develop a document making the most forceful case possible for invasion. He published an article in The Atlantic a year later that called the Middle East a “laboratory of power politics,” and predicted a long list of wonderous strategic effects that would follow from the use of American muscle to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime: a stable, unified Iraq under a secular dictatorship, an Iran that respected American power and kept its head down, and a withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank that would help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just to name a few. His enthusiasm for such views has certainly cooled.

In this book, Kaplan sees Iraq as an example of the “frontier tradition” going too far. “I feel this deeply at a personal level,” he says, “having supported the war, and having tried in my analyses to learn from it ever since.” “Fixing complex Islamic societies on the ground has proved out of reach,” he concludes; the upheaval here is “epic in scale and barely fathomable to outsiders.” Like Vietnam, he says, this “unnecessary” war simply made the problems in Iraq worse.

It seems as though Kaplan has concluded that if the political culture that emerged from the frontier experience presents grave dangers of optimistic overreach, then the solution can be found on the frontier as well. The water-starved Great American Desert also taught Americans about the constraints and limits imposed by the world around you. With this in mind, Kaplan wants his readers to understand that believing in the inevitability of progress and the virtues of American exceptionalism “can lead to disaster.” The key point of the book, if the reader can move beyond the repeated references to America’s destiny to lead, is that “balance and discernment” regarding responsibilities abroad is what a “usable” American history should encourage.

A Trip Through Backlash America

With this core point in mind, it’s time to return to the travelogue portion of the book. Unfortunately, Kaplan’s observations of the small towns, the highways, the cities, the horizons, and the people he encounters between Massachusetts and California are disconnected from the grand questions of history and geography, of power and purpose, that motivated the road trip in the first place.

His two main travelogue chapters are titled “Notes” on the landscape, both the vertical landscape of the eastern third of the continent, and the horizontal landscape of the Great Plains and the Great American Desert that stretch to the west. And as a series of “notes” is just how the chapters read. His brief observations on the towns and cities he visits and the roads he travels are interspersed with the kinds of ideas that drift through your mind as you drive for hours at a stretch. They are just snippets really; some are banal assessments of what he sees in front of him, while others are sweeping general pronouncements about history and culture. His roaming thoughts all hover around the same themes, but his writing skips from one thought to the next, mimicking the way our minds wander as we drive. He seems to not notice the disconnect between these impressionistic notes and the broader narrative of the book—this seems like a missed opportunity.

Much of the narrative is drowning in bleakness as he muses about the “tasteless ranch houses and prefabs . . . squeezed between minimarts and gas stations,” creating a “nightmare of uniformity—the same strip malls, fast food, and prefabricated churches along the roads and highways . . . that only get worse as I continue my journey.” He complains about the unceasing maintenance along America’s crumbling highways, with their weeds and rubble, orange construction cones and Jersey barriers. On the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, the “place has the cloying, wretched smell of fried, processed food. Nearly everyone looks poor and unhealthy.” This is backlash America, in which globalization has “created a vast and alternative universe all its own: of downtrodden, unpretty, unprogressive, often obese people.”

He does find a few bright spots, like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Marietta, Ohio, and Bloomington, Indiana—walkable cities made vibrant by universities that educate their local populations and connect them to the world, and new money that absorbs the benefits of a globalized world. But the stories of decay greatly outnumber the stories of hope along his journey.

It is hard to find the juggernaut of American power in the places he visited. But it is just as important to point out that he only visited a thin ribbon of America, hardly representative of its population, its culture, its history, or its economy. Clearly, there are insights to be gleaned about America and its role in the world from the places he visited, but in the end, Kaplan fails to make the link. Perhaps the real purpose of this journey was to give Kaplan the chance to ruminate on the two sides of the frontier experience—the can-do spirit of America and the restraints imposed by the realities of a harsh landscape that won’t yield to mere optimism—while also puzzling through the opportunities and constraints of global leadership in the twenty-first century.