Robert D. Kaplan
"Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos"
Transcription of Audio Interview, February 23, 2002
Editor's Note: We have edited the interview in this transcription for clarity and readability. The original real audio interview may be heard on our Ask The Expert page.
JIM: Joining me on the program is Robert Kaplan. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the best-selling author of seven previous books on travel and foreign affairs that have been translated into many languages, including Balkan Ghosts, The Arabists, The Ends of the Earth and The Coming Anarchy. We are here to discuss Robert’s new book called Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. Robert I want to talk about something that President Bush said in his State of the Union Address. He said, “We live in dangerous times.� What can you tell us about the world that we live in today, especially with all your travel? Do you agree?
ROBERT: 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. What happens is that development leads to rising expectations that overwhelm governments and regimes and lead to tumultuous change. It is precisely because we have seen so much dramatic uplifting development with the creation of new middle classes in places as far flung as Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. We are probably in for about a decade or so of really tumultuous, sometimes violent, political upheaval. Remember that the terrorist of September 11th and the recent suicide bombers in Israel were not sons of poverty. They were all sons of the new middle class.
JIM: Now in your previous book, The Coming Anarchy, you talked about how we live in a bifurcated world. Part of the world is healthy and well fed and then there is the other part of the world that is poor, brutal and short. What does this portend for the future for rest of the world?
ROBERT: Well, it’s not just that the world is separated or bifurcated between rich and poor. Even in poor countries in the poorest parts of Africa, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. You have little communities on the coast of Ghana, where you have wealthy families hooked up to satellite television and private security guards. Then you have all kinds of tribal violence in the north. Again, it is because the world economy grew at such a fast, dramatic rate over the past decade or two, and because capitalism, by its nature, is uncontrollable. The more dynamic the capitalistic expansion, the greater the disparity. It is from the disparity that we are going to get all the political upheaval for the next few years.
JIM: We have seen great sources of stress in the undeveloped world, which has the greatest population growth. How does this shape up in terms of battle for the earth’s resources? I am thinking of some of the environmental stresses that we have seen, whether it is water or natural resources.
ROBERT: Well, first, keep in mind that while the world population as a whole is aging, we are going to see what is called “demographic youth bulges.� We will see the explosion of the population of young males between the ages of 15 and 30 in several dozen of the most unstable countries to begin with, over the next few years. If you think about it, it is that age group that causes political upheaval. China is the best example of your question. You now have two-thirds of the Chinese population living in environmentally fragile areas. There are places where human beings never lived in economic concentrations before. Even if you have a continuation of the same weather and seismic patterns, with the same kinds of floods etc., you are going to see a lot of instability because of weather patterns that have continued through history. But never before in history have these areas been populated in such urban concentration.
JIM: It was readily thought, at least when the Cold War ended, that it was going to usher in this world of great peace. The media has given the illusion of this peace. Most of the major powers have reduced their standing armies, including the United States. Robert, we now live in an entertainment-oriented society. We seem to be almost numb and blind to the various conflicts that we see around the globe.
ROBERT: This is the most dangerous time in history. Although the U.S. power is greater proportionally than the British Empire or the Roman Empire ever was, the asymmetry is also exaggerated. In other words, because of the technological era that we live in, you could have a group of ten or twelve people who can unleash a chemical agent that could ruin an entire city in the American Mid-West. So, it takes relatively little to really harm us. It is a very dangerous time in history. I can’t think of a more challenging time for leadership. There is this illusion of safety and prosperity, somewhat shattered by September 11th, but not completely. What happened on September 11th is at least, theoretically, small stuff compared to what can happen.
JIM: In your book Warrior Politics, you draw a sharp distinction between what we call realism and idealism in dealing with foreign affairs. Where, in your opinion, is America today?
ROBERT: Well, first of all, realism has a specific definition in foreign affairs. Here are a few parts of the definition. Realism in foreign affairs assumes that domestic politics operates within the confines of law. Foreign policy, though, operates in a lawless realm. The kind of morality we apply overseas in dealing with our adversaries is a more limited, sadder morality than we apply at home. Realism also means that all moral questions of human rights, democracy, etc. are ultimately questions of power. Realism assumes that sometimes you have to perpetrate a certain amount of evil in order to do a greater amount of good. These are all aspects of realism in foreign affairs. I think the United States, right now, under President Bush, is what I would call a classically realist foreign policy.
JIM: In your opening chapter, you state something that I thought was fascinating. You talk about the fact that the evils of the 20th century arose from populous movements that were monstrously exploited in the name of Utopian Ideals. They had their power amplified by new technologies, but also, as we go forward into the 21st century, we see populous movements springing up all over the world.
ROBERT: Yes! 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.
JIM: I wonder if you might explain how the role of the Islamic fundamentalism plays in this old world.
ROBERT: Remember, Islamic fundamentalism is partly an outgrowth of urbanization. For decades, the Muslim societies have experienced a tremendous growth of cities as part of globalization. When people left their age old patterns in the villages, where the religion was traditional, non-ideological, they moved into these vast cities and they needed to keep the family structure together. Religion became more intense, more ideological, more of fear. So while it solved the problem of crime in the cities and kept families together, it also provided a very fertile petri dish for the emergence of diseased germs, like terrorists. So, precisely because we live in an urbanized world, what we have now is a new/old phenomenon of political Islam. I think that ultimately in the first few decades of this century, we are going to see the implosion of political Islam, because there is no Islamic way to fix a car. You either have just the absolute repression of the Taliban or the economic incompetence of the Ayatollahs who have destroyed the Iranian middle class. I think it is interesting that the population of Iran is very pro-American, because they have actually had an experience on the ground with an Islamic revolution and it has been terrible.
JIM: Your book, Warrior Politics, is not so much a book about what to think, but more importantly, about how to think. You say with foreign policy, that it will become more of an art than a science. Explain that.
ROBERT: I don’t tell people in this book -- business leaders or government leaders -- what to do in this crisis or what to do in that crisis. I show them how to think by condensing the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, the ancient Chinese and the ancient Romans, and that many of the problems that leaders think that they are confronting for the first time, they shouldn’t be so lonely. These problems have all been confronted in the past, in all their complexity. There is a way to work through them.
JIM: In your book, you talk about the actions and the thinking of Churchill and Chamberlain. I wonder if you might draw the contrast between the two. How the two approached foreign affairs. How they solved them or dealt with them.
ROBERT: In Chamberlain's way of dealing with things, he did not have moral priorities, or what I call a hard-headed morality. He was unwilling to overthrow Hitler in the mid-thirties, because Hitler had been democratically elected. Whereas Churchill was willing to commit a smaller evil, like destabilizing a democratically-elected regime in Germany in the 1930’s in order to do a greater amount of good, which was to stop Hitler from taking over Europe. Churchill understood that foreign policy was messy, dirty business. Often, you have to do a certain degree of harm in order to be responsible to the millions of strangers who have elected you.
JIM: In your forth chapter, which I thought was a very powerful one on history for today’s leaders, you talk about some of the wisdom of Sun Tzu and Thucydides. You had a quote from Clausweitz, that is, “The fog of uncertainty, a wide ranging intellect, is called for to feel out the truth with an instinctive judgment." Isn’t that what is called for today.
ROBERT: Yes. Domestic affairs are long drawn out processes, thorough studies of Congress, like Social Security reforms. Foreign policies in crisis events move very fast. They are often complicated and mystified by cultural differences. What is required is a mind, a very well read mind that knows history because he is often acting on instinct. In foreign crisis or in business, you often have to make decisions with only 20% of the evidence in because by the time there is 40% of the evidence, it is too late to affect the outcome. It is the more you know, the more sure you are. But the later you act, the harder it is to change things.
JIM: I was reading your book on Churchill and I am reminded of another book that I recently read, which was The Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. Churchill was blamed for the failure of the British Army and Navy at the Battle of Gallipoli. Yet had they followed Churchill’s advice, the war, some say, could have ended much earlier. He was willing to act and force an issue based on intelligence he had.
ROBERT: This was Churchill’s proclivity throughout his career. I don’t think it was something he learned. I think it was instinctive. In my chapter on Churchill, in Warrior Politics, I deal with Churchill as a young man. A 25 year old soldier and journalist, writing about a war in the Sudan in the 1890’s that is very similar to America’s recent war in Afghanistan. One of the things that Churchill writes about is a great power -- if it doesn’t have something to struggle for, it will slide into decadence and partisanship. In the 1890’s Britain was the financial center of the world. It was a place at peace, but it had been humiliated in Sudan because of a fundamentalist rebellion and Churchill was ready to force the issue. He would have gradually built-up forces there, despite all the dangers, in order to overthrow the regime and set Sudan on the path of good government. In fact, that is what happened.
JIM: When you talk about the world of the Greeks and Thucydides, in many ways, does the Peloponnesian era in history represent what we see today?
ROBERT: The Peloponnesian War, between a very big complex city/state alliance, lead by Athens verses another very unwieldy alliance of city/state lead by Sparta. It was actually a bi-polar conflict, with more similarities of the Cold War, than the era we are in today. If you look at both Athens and Sparta, each had about 50 city/states on their side. You had alliances within alliances and explaining that is very difficult. Think how difficult it will be explaining the minutia of the Cold War Alliances to someone say, 300 years from now, let alone 2500 years from now.
JIM: It was amazing. You also wrote about another statesman. In many ways, a political philosopher, Machiavelli, like Thucydides, wrote his best work while he was in exile. Why do you think it is that Machiavellian or that term connotates a negative way of thinking in politics today?
ROBERT: Well, actually, Machiavelli got a bad wrap during the Counter-Reformation because the Catholics were caught up with coming into power over the Protestants. Machiavelli’s enemy really was the power of the Pope. In fact, The Prince, which was his great work on politics, was not so much a work of amoral criticism as it is an instructional guide for those of us who do not accept fate or fatalism. We know that the forces that rate against us, in politics, in business, can be so strong that all the cunning is required in order to overcome them. The Prince is an instructional guide to that cunning required to overcome fate and that is why it has become a classic.
JIM: I wonder if we could move on and talk about the importance of Hobbes’ Leviathan. You wrote something about freedom becomes an issue only after order has been restored, or we can restore order. What did you mean by that?
ROBERT: I think the next twenty years of politics is going to prove just how relevant Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher was. In Hobbes’ view, the most important question is order, not freedom. Just think of it practically for a moment. If you have no order, no police, no court than any man can commit any violence against any other man. Anyone can steal someone else’s family and property and kill them. It is only once you have a certain amount of order that then you can go about the task of making that order un-tyrannical. In other words, freedom has no meaning without the protection that order implies. Throughout the world we see all these decaying, calcified regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, that are going to, in some sense or another, crumble. The real issue is not going to be holding democratic elections. It is going to be the re-establishment of some form of legitimate order in many of these countries.
JIM: I want to talk about something I found fascinating in your book -- something I follow -- and that is the role that media plays. It is almost like they are in their own country and their own state in terms of shaping public opinion, not only the opinion of public citizens, but also the leadership. We live in an age where reason and intellect have given way to, what I call, emotions. We have the rule of the mob. What problem does this present to statesmen?
ROBERT: The media now are generally global cosmopolitans. Their friends and colleagues live all over the world. They are less concerned with national self interest than they are with universal morality. An example is, during the 1990’s, they were much more concerned with the United States saving the lives of innocent civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia, and less concerned or felt less important, was the terrorism going on against US Embassies in East Africa, against the bombing of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, etc.. Statesmen are more limited. They don’t have the luxury the media has with being concerned for universal human rights. Statesmen are accountable to specific populations in a specific geographical space that have elected them. They, of course, have to be more concerned with issues of national self interest than with human rights. That is what leads to the ultimate sort of conflict and tension between a world media and say someone like President Bush, whose first priority is the preservation of American power.
JIM: Does this not present a problem, the way that public opinion is shaped? I don’t know what term I would use, but I would call it an over-sensationalism of coverage of certain news items, whether it is the death of JFK, Jr. or the death of Princess Diana. They get overly focused on a particular issue. Another example is in Bosnia.
ROBERT: It is that the more secure we feel, the less serious the media will be. When security is taken for granted, entertainment becomes the principle medium of public discourse. Leadership becomes increasingly lonely. The President has to only concentrate on threats that the media perhaps cannot see or will not take with the same seriousness as the President.
JIM: You wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1994, which I guess was the outcome of The Coming Anarchy. Where do you see the world today, in comparison to when you first wrote that article in 1994?
ROBERT: I think in general the article has been born out. Many of the things I wrote about in Africa have in fact come true in the specific countries. I think that there are greater economic disparities, not only between continents, but within continents and within countries. I think that the next ten years are going to be categorized by a seamless instability in many parts of the world, a mini-chain reaction. Every place influences every other place. There are too few and too feeble global mechanisms to control things.
JIM: Moving into the future, what form does that Leviathan take, and in particular, what role will the US play?
ROBERT: I think that the ultimate goal over US foreign policy over the decades, say over 50 or 70 years, is to stay strong enough. We need to maneuver in a wily enough fashion to preserve our power so enough time is given for the strengthening of interlocking global institutions so that ultimately, say in 100 years or whatever, the United States can gradually receive from history. It will sort of be over taken by the global institutions that reflect their own values. The US does not have the luxury to do that now, because the UN is clearly not up to the task and we certainly do not want to give way to a power like China. We have to step up to the plate of being kind of a benevolent, imperial power.
JIM: A lot of people would call that into question. They would resent great power politics. If we look at history, with the fall of the Roman Empire, what came in afterwards were the Dark Ages. In fact, in your book, Warrior Politics, you end with Tiberius. What was it about the Romans that they ruled for so long?
ROBERT: They ruled for so long because they had a system. They also had a culture, which whatever its drawbacks were, was so strong and vibrant that it assimilated other cultures. Other people wanted to be like them. They wanted to speak Latin. They wanted to be Roman Citizens. I think there are some similarities between the Romans and the American. The biggest difference though, Rome was highly centralized, whereas America has a relatively weak central government and is very vibrant at the edges, in the various states and communities. This gives the United States flexibility and a dynamism that Rome lacked.
JIM: Going forward from your years of travel, what would you say is the most important thing you learned?
ROBERT: I think the most important thing I learned as a foreign correspondent in about 80 countries is that it takes a very shallow knowledge of history to think that there are solutions to most problems. It is impossible for the United States to micromanage solutions and development in many parts of the world.
JIM: Finally, if you were to give a piece of advice, if you were an advisor to a president, what would you advise them on foreign policy?
ROBERT: 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.
JIM: Alright Robert, we have run out of time. I would recommend your book to any politician taking part in foreign policy, or anyone wanting to think differently about history. The name of the book is called Warrior Politics, it is by Robert Kaplan. Another book written by Robert Kaplan is called The Coming Anarchy. Mr. Kaplan, I want to thank you for joining us on The Financial Sense News Hour. We wish you the best of the day, sir.
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