Kaplan's War

Kaplan's War

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

by Author(s): Mark Blitz

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.

Our other reigning analytical division concerns how much to rely on others in our foreign policies and how much to go it alone. This split is deeper than a mere tactical squabble because idealism and internationalism are often conflated, as are realism and nationalism. Kant and Woodrow Wilson welcomed leagues and federations while America-firsters have preferred to seal our borders. These conflations are misleading, however. A case for world government can be made by realists on Hobbes' grounds of self-interest and fear alone. The democratic nation-builders of the UN-ridiculing Reagan era were motivated by a love of equal rights as much as if not more than by national interest. International institutions can govern for reasons as narrow, or under laws and regulations as palpably biased, as nations can be broad-minded and generous. The two major distinctions we have learned to use, problematic in themselves, do not overlap in any simple way.

We therefore need coherent intellectual ground from which to overcome-or, better, place ourselves ahead of-these ritualized divisions, especially the split between realism and morality. As it turns out, prior to the division of the world into interest and idealism by modern intellectuals, political choice in foreign affairs (often) appeared in a more unified manner. It is this unity that concerns Robert Kaplan-not only its history, but also its future.

Kaplan's Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos is useful and interesting because it gropes toward such a coherent political perspective for the future, one based on interest without being immoral. That said, Kaplan clearly begins with what is harsh, not gentle, in this point of view. Indeed, reading him reminds one of the morbid thoughts that always seemed to be gathering under Andrei Gromyko's solemn countenance, a flock of ravens straining to be released into the howling night. Warrior Politics is the book of someone for whom an excess of dollar bills causes immediate concern about an impending shortage of green ink.

In the observer of foreign affairs, however, such a taste for worry can be beneficial. What would make for an annoying if darkly fascinating dinner companion can produce healthy caution when lives, fortunes and freedoms are at stake. For excessive concern to be useful, however, it must be moderated, and to be moderated it needs to be allied with good judgment. Aristotelian prudence rather than Nixonian brooding must be the guide.

Kaplan seeks to step in this prudential direction, and to develop from the habit or inclination to be on guard a useful standpoint from which to deal with what is threatening. He argues for "constructive pessimism" in foreign affairs, and makes his case not only with the evidence of his own journalistic eyes, but also the experience of others, as well as the views of thinkers and reflective statesmen. His strategy is to mine the philosophic literature and bring to the surface some brilliant advice on behalf of sobriety and watchfulness. He is not content to quote a sage remark or two, but allows himself the "excitement" of actually reading and following the authors to whom he is attracted.

Kaplan organizes his book around what he believes Machiavelli, Churchill, Kant, Thucydides, Livy, Sun-Tzu and others can teach us about how to face our international future. Because he examines these thinkers for his own purposes he is not altogether true to theirs: no one should read this book to learn precisely what Thucydides has to say. But because his sober intention is not far from theirs, because he is well guided in interpreting them, and because, above all, he is a serious man not blinded by pretense or pretentiousness, he is for practical purposes often close enough to the mark.

Kaplan is timely as well as thoughtful. Indeed, to call Warrior Politics timely is to damn with faint praise. Kaplan's warnings about Osama bin Laden, bioterrorism, and a volatile future of urban crowding, Islamic extremism, and poverty in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were prescient when they were written, well before September 11, 2001. Several months ago, indeed, they might have seemed to some to be immoderate. The terrible reality of our murderous enemies now makes Kaplan's arguments appear more cautionary than excessive.

Kaplan's realism begins by looking at, not away from, facts and trends. The facts with which he is most concerned are those that challenge and will continue to challenge the United States in parts of what used to be called the Third World: growing populations (especially of young men), significant unemployment, ungovernable cities, radical religions, and easily producible weapons of mass destruction. After the destruction of the World Trade Center it is less likely than before that these facts will be ignored or downplayed, but it is still altogether possible that we will underestimate their continuing salience.

A second set of facts concerns American power in the world. The United States is unrivaled, but not all-powerful. We cannot intervene in every place to which moral concerns might drive us. We are subject to the realities of human self-interest and fear, and to geographical and historical constraints as well. We cannot escape some of the ways war must be fought-"if our soldiers cannot fight and kill at close range, our status as a superpower is in question", writes Kaplan-but we are also subject to technological change and to unconventional military asymmetries. While international law and organizations are becoming more powerful (in some areas), for the foreseeable future keeping the peace will depend on our own strength, interests, intentions and will.

These facts form the base for understanding how we must conduct ourselves-namely, realistically. This means that our approach must be guided by the "anxious foresight" that Kaplan finds in Hamilton, Madison and most other thinkers he discusses, as well as in statesmen such as George Marshall. We must be modest in our self-regard at moments of victory, cautious and when necessary manipulative with rivals, and restrained with our friends and those whom, however silently, we control. We must remember what ancient history teaches: "without struggle-and the sense of insecurity that motivates it-there is decadence."

Why must such realism govern our approach? The reason, as Kaplan never fails to remind us, is that human beings are usually self-interested, scheming, narrow-minded and fearful. As Machiavelli put it famously in The Prince, those who "make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good." A pagan "morality of consequence", not a Christian morality of intention, must therefore be our guide if we are to prosper and succeed in this world-hence Kaplan's provocative subtitle. We are also prone to overestimate our capacities and beneficence. Those of us who forget our limits will fail. The pagan ethos, however, will "curtail illusions", restrict fanaticism and reduce "the scope for miscalculation."

Kaplan clearly believed all this already, but he enjoys finding his view confirmed in the classics of political philosophy and strategy. He recognizes, too, that realism alone is not enough: "a policy with no moral intent will be cynical." According to Kaplan, Chamberlain was as realistic as Churchill but something more than realism was required in 1938. Now, one may doubt whether someone overcome at the crucial moment by baseless hope born of excessive fear was in fact realistic. But be that as it may, Churchill understood the real Hitler better than did Chamberlain, and Kaplan recognizes that Churchill's breadth of vision was not realism in the usual sense.

What is or causes this greater breadth? Kaplan locates the proper neighborhood to explore for his answer: "The moral basis of our foreign policy will depend upon the character of our nation and its leaders, not upon the absolutes of international law." But he has trouble clarifying his discovery. He mentions Greek virtue, warrior virtue, heroic virtue, and patriotism, but he is never quite able to say what these are or square them with the unblinking ability to look harsh facts in the face that he rightly admires. He recognizes the importance for Churchill of both his grasp of history and sense of daring, but he cannot put his finger on what unites these and differentiates Churchill from his often very gifted fellows. Similarly, Kaplan quotes approvingly Theodore Roosevelt's assertion that "aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords", but he does not make clear how FDR's and TR's concern with democratizing can be squared with their aristocratic virtue and realism.

Two additional studies might have helped Kaplan figure this out. One would be to examine Aristotle's discussion of great pride or greatness of soul, and of ethics generally. Such study would allow him better to articulate and round out his view of classical virtue, and of its links to the kind of practical reason he admires.

A second would be to reflect on the ambition to found or defend a liberal democratic regime. Hamilton and Madison surely were prudent realists as Kaplan suggests, but they also ambitiously helped to found a country. The success of their enterprise, serving as it did revolutionary principles, was hardly guaranteed. Their path was not the safe path, yet their actions were not headstrong. In both great pride and democratic ambition there is a link between seeking justice and seeing men and events as they are. One can see the facts realistically but not cynically, deeply but not as matters of calculation or causes of fearful inaction. Such facts look as they do because one sees them in terms of one's wish to make a home for one's own excellence, and to do so in a world of freedom on which such excellence depends.

Essay Types: Book Review