The Dutch-American writer Nicholas Spykman observed in 1944 that “geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent.” Many thinkers treated geography and geopolitics as passé fields of study after America’s victories in the Cold War and against Iraq in the early 1990s. Instead, many U.S. policymakers accepted a vision of the world that might be described as “strategic happy talk,” a misguided view forever distilled in Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat (2005)—his paean to the belief that interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs, with the gratifying result that peace and prosperity would perpetuate and reinforce themselves. To a great extent, those rosy assumptions shaped the policies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Unfortunately, this century’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of the Russian “reset,” Europe’s self-induced travails, China’s seemingly relentless military rise, and the failure of Islamic states to embrace liberal democracy reveal that strategic happy talk continues to run up against geopolitical reality.

A Herodotus for Our Time

Enter the anti-Friedman, Robert Kaplan, regular contributor to the Atlantic and fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His 18 books and scores of articles, which explain why the world is definitely not flat, have established him as one of the most consequential geopolitical thinkers of our time. He achieved that stature less for his originality than for his ability to synthesize longstanding but neglected concepts and insights into a coherent understanding. The military historian John Keegan called geography the “Rosetta Stone of battles.” Kaplan shows that geography is also the Rosetta Stone of world history.

Rather than negating geography, he argues, technology has only made the world “smaller and more claustrophobic, so that each patch of earth is more dearly held and more closely contested than ever before, while each region and crisis zone is more interconnected with every other one as never before.” The shrinkage and crowding of the globe means a world of never-ending, rapid-fire crises, which should encourage us to be prudent when considering foreign intervention.

Kaplan describes himself as a realist, arguing that realism is a “sensibility” rooted in a “mature sense of the tragic.” The realist recognizes that he must work with the elemental causes of war identified by Thucydides—honor, fear, and interest—rather than against them. His books are part travel narrative, part geopolitical treatise, combining remarkable observational talents with strategic insights. His method for understanding the world is captured by a diplomat’s comment that Kaplan noted in The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (1993): “Read, travel, read, travel, that’s the way to go.” Kaplan not only travels through the world’s regions but also “travels” through scholars’ ideas, testing his own concepts against theirs. One sees this in his essays on such exemplary realists as Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer.

Kaplan is the contemporary heir to Herodotus, the great observer of human affairs. While Herodotus is described as the first historian, the correct translation of the title of his work, The Histories, is Inquiries. Herodotus the Greek was inquiring into the ways of the other peoples with whom the Greeks were in contact, especially the Persians, Scythians, and Egyptians. One result of his inquiries was the conviction that each of these peoples was shaped to some degree by its territorial setting. Kaplan, following Herodotus, understands that cultures and civilizations continually interact in time and space and are therefore shaped by geographic realities. He explicitly acknowledges Herodotus in The Revenge of Geography (2012), which includes a tour d’horizon of the works of earlier geopolitical thinkers, especially Marshall G.S. Hodgson and William H. McNeill, who challenged Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler’s belief that separate civilizations pursued their destinies more or less independently of one another.

Geopolitical thinkers are often dismissed as determinists who believe that geography is destiny. Kaplan shows that, for the most part, these writers’ arguments are far from deterministic: only the main directions of a state’s proper strategy may be deduced from its geographical situation. Thus, the strategies of commercial seafaring peoples like Athens, Great Britain, and the United States have differed from those of land-based Sparta, Germany, and Russia.

Europe and Eurasia

In The Revenge of Geography, for example, Kaplan rejects the idea that Europe is merely a financial construct. It is a much broader, cultural phenomenon, he contends, a “truly ambitious work in progress” that “will be influenced by trends and convulsions from the south and east in a world reeling from a crisis of room.” He implicitly criticized the Obama Administration strategy of “pivoting” to the Pacific: there will be history made in Europe, he writes, and hence significant threats and opportunities for the United States.

Kaplan returns to Eurasia in his most recent book, The Return of Marco Polo’s World (2018), arguing that what we call “the West” reached its point of maximum cohesion in the conclusion and immediate aftermath of the Cold War, which brought to a close the Long European War (1914–89). NATO and the European Union constituted a kind of geopolitical “condensation” of the West’s moral and political tradition. Having defeated Communism, these institutions extended the Western European system eastward into the “Inter-marium” between the Baltic and Black Seas. Although this system was based on a generous welfare state—an attempt at moral redemption in response to the terrible suffering of 1914-18 and 1939-45—its generosity was unsustainable and led, over time, to debt-ridden, economically stagnant European societies.

Europe remained demographically separate from the Muslim Middle East, where totalitarian prison-states were, for the most part, propped up by Soviet power. Europeans were able to reject power politics and preach human rights simultaneously, writes Kaplan, “precisely because tens of millions of Muslims nearby were being denied human rights, and with them the freedom of movement.” But the collapse of these prison-states has unleashed a tide of refugees into Europe. As a consequence, Europe now “fractures from within as reactionary populism takes hold” and “dissolves from without, as it is reunited with the destiny of Afro-Eurasia as a whole.”

As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. The supercontinent is becoming one fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict, as the Westphalian system of states weakens and older, imperial legacies—Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Turkish—become paramount. Every crisis from Central Europe to the ethnic-Han Chinese heartland is now interlinked. There is one singular battle space.

Kaplan contends that we can learn much about the emerging geopolitics of Eurasia by recalling the travels of the late 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo. China’s ambitious new “One Road, One Belt” initiative, for instance—essentially a modern manifestation of the land and maritime “Silk Road”—follows exactly the route that Marco Polo traveled. He concludes: “The unipolarity that defined the Post Cold War is over, the West itself is dissipating, and we are back to classical geography—particularly in Europe.”

The Indo-Pacific

Asia’s Cauldron (2014), about the South China Sea, describes how the region’s character arises from the intersection of Indian/Khmer and Sinic (Chinese) cultures. Rather than placing Southeast Asia in the East Asia and Pacific realm (as both the Pentagon and State Department do), we should, Kaplan argues, consider the region as “part of an organic continuum that is more properly labeled the Indo-Pacific, whose maritime heart is the South China Sea.” What makes this body of water so important—and so dangerous—is that it is where the interests of China, the states that border it, and the United States come into conflict. Kaplan argues that war between the two great nations is not inevitable. But it is possible. The military rise of China alarms its neighbors. Will they “bandwagon” with China, or seek counterbalancing alignment with the United States? How will China react if weaker states in the region choose the latter course?

The South China Sea is a nervous region, crowded with warships and commercial vessels, where sea denial is cheaper and easier to achieve than sea control. Such a region is particularly vulnerable to miscalculation or miscommunication. Despite the region’s volatility, Kaplan contends that the United States “must safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms, buttressed by a favorable balance of power regimen.”

As a realist who believes that states operate in their own interests and seek to maximize power relative to other actors in the international system, Kaplan acknowledges that China’s actions are merely reflective of the South China Sea’s role as its strategic hinterland. He likens China’s approach to the Monroe Doctrine. Just as the Caribbean is close to the United States and far from the great European powers of the 18th and 19th centuries, so the South China Sea is close to China and far from the United States. The difference is that, unlike the newly independent Caribbean and Latin American states that saw the United States as a bulwark against the re-imposition of European colonialism, China’s neighbors look to the United States as a counterbalance against Beijing’s military growth.

America and the World

Kaplan argues that the source of America’s power is rooted in geography and history. Earning the Rockies (2017) shows that America derives its power from being a continent, nation, and empire all at once. In travels from Massachusetts to San Diego he reflects that, “America’s geography is the most favored in the world: one perfectly apportioned for nationhood and global responsibility. America combines splendid isolation and oceanic access to both Europe and Asia.” If the United States is to provide the security necessary for a liberal world order, something it has done since the end of World War II, it must begin by maintaining its own geographical base.

How should the United States cope with the new geopolitics of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific? As Europe dissolves and NATO weakens, depriving America of its main point of entry into Europe, the U.S. has the luxury of falling back on its primary source of strategic leverage: sea power, which permits us to “act with caution and restraint, without drifting into neo-isolationism.” Kaplan’s preferred strategy of offshore balancing, or “strategic restraint,” reflects the thinking of Sir Francis Bacon, who observed over four centuries ago that “he that commands the sea is at great liberty, and may take as much and as little of the war as he will. Whereas those that be strongest by land are many times nevertheless in great straits.”

Although he acknowledges that the strategic position of the U.S. has eroded over time, Kaplan notes that Eurasia’s two principal hinge states, Russia and China, each face severe ethnic, political, and economic challenges far more dangerous than any confronting America. And a Eurasia “characterized by nonstop crisis and political stagnation and weakness—a world where chaos and wealth creation go hand in hand—is one that will keep our competitors preoccupied.” What’s more, America’s emerging energy dominance provides us with breathing room that the Eurasian powers lack.

His Critics

Kaplan’s academic critics, many of them postmodern “geographers,” criticize him for defending imperialism as a prosperous, stabilizing force in the world. For this he is unapologetic. From a 2014 Atlantic essay, “In Defense of Empire”:

[I]mperialism is now seen by global elites as altogether evil, despite empires’ having offered the most benign form of order for thousands of years, keeping the anarchy of ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war bands to a reasonable minimum. Compared with imperialism, democracy is a new and uncertain phenomenon. Even the two most estimable democracies in modern history, the United States and Great Britain, were empires for long periods.”

Many political thinkers, but not all, have regarded republic and empire as incompatible. A notable exception was Machiavelli, who in his Discourses on Livy wrote, “If any one therefore wishes to establish an entirely new republic, he will have to consider whether he wishes to have her expand in power and dominion like Rome, or whether he intends to confine her within narrow limits.” And despite their political differences, both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson linked republic and empire, the former referring to the United States as a “republican empire” and the latter as an “empire of liberty.”

Other critics accuse him of “orientalism,” militarism, and worst of all, Americanism. And there is perhaps a tension between his realism and his apparent belief in the United States as a force for good in the world. He himself has acknowledged as much by repudiating the Iraq War, which he supported in 2003 but later deplored as imprudent, the cardinal sin of realism. Nonetheless, he continues to believe that the United States plays an essential role in international geopolitics. This nation alone, he argues, possesses the continental resources and transoceanic power needed to underwrite a liberal international order. That order, in turn, is the only basis for securing liberty and prosperity to an increasing number of people in a dangerous world.

Although Kaplan does not use the term, he advocates in effect “hegemonic stability,” the international relations theory which holds that free and open international trade—globalization—requires more than simply a global invisible hand. Instead, it needs a hegemonic power willing and able to provide the world with economic stability and international security. During the 19th century, Great Britain functioned as the hegemon; since World War II, the United States has fulfilled this role. Despite the attendant burdens, hegemony is a win-win, beneficial to the hegemon and the world at large. Conversely, a decline in relative American power could create a more disorderly, less peaceful world. As the late Samuel Huntington wrote in his essay “Why International Primacy Matters”:

A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

Kaplan’s realism is not indifferent to such liberal principles as human rights and free trade. On the contrary, his style of realism makes defense of those principles possible in the first place. The realist knows, declares Kaplan, “that order comes before freedom, and interests come before values. After all, without order there is no freedom for anybody, and without interests a state has no incentive to project its values.”