America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

January-February 2015

The problem with the charge of appeasement is that the situation only became clear-cut after the fact. When Neville Chamberlain went to Munich, the deaths of sixteen million troops and civilians during World War I had happened only twenty years before. Anyone in middle age or older knows that twenty years is merely the blink of an eye. And Chamberlain was sixty-nine years old at Munich. Such mass suffering, all for a war born of miscalculation, that yielded no constructive result! By this logic, one world war was quite enough. And who—perhaps not even Winston Churchill—could have imagined the Holocaust in 1938? The industrialized extermination of an entire people as the central, organizing principle of a modern state was simply unimaginable until it was actually happening. So even getting Hitler right was not quite as simple as it now seems. And no adversary we face now or in the future will reach the Hitler standard, in terms of possessing both an ideology of death and the ability to implement it on a mass scale. Thus, appeasement will be a mundane part of any president’s future. Using it as a gotcha phrase will not work. Fate is not that knowable in advance.

Still, it must be said: a student of Shakespeare would have grasped Vladimir Putin’s character long before an international-relations wonk, just as a philosopher would most profoundly grasp the danger of people who behead innocent journalists in order to make slick videos to spread a barbaric message. The dangers that lurk now are numerous, even as overreach on our part also lies in wait. Thus, in this age of comparative anarchy to follow the age of imperialism and that of the Cold War, getting it right will be harder than ever. For many decisions are by their very nature close calls. We require leaders who will stretch the limits of what is achievable, while at the same time respecting such limits. Fate is like the gods of ancient Greece: fickle and morally imperfect, but pliable for those who are brave.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of fifteen books on foreign affairs and travel, including The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012), The Coming Anarchy (Random House, 2000) and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014). He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.