Kaplan's War

Robert Kaplan advocates a pagan ethos for American statesmen in the 21st century, but not all pagans think alike.

Issue: Spring 2002

Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York: Random House, 2002), 198 pp., $22.95.

From what standpoint should we conduct foreign affairs? We currently discuss this issue by deploying a stylized division between national interest and morality, or realism and idealism. Endless variations on this division, with degrees of neo- and paleo- as varied and subtle as the thousand shades of beige in a decorator's palette, try but necessarily fail to overcome the underlying split.

Many sensible people like to combine the contenders: national interest in the service of something noble, or limited by general rules; moralism that is neither self-immolating nor unaware that proper action requires a live actor. Nonetheless, it is difficult to put the two together convincingly. This should be no surprise, because the Kantianism in which the split originates must leave a principled gulf between the two halves. The free and ideal cannot be the determined and material; what is moral or legal ought to shape our actions even if these dutiful measures fail to satisfy. Some day, Kant believed it was moral to hope, what is right will always be what succeeds. That day is in the infinite future, though, and however close we come it can never be reached.

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