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

Of course, virtue in the service of liberal democracy and aristocratic excellence are not identical. Indeed, they will develop and conduct themselves differently, whatever their links in freedom and practical judgment. It is not only that Kaplan fails clearly to illuminate the unity of justice and interest that makes up the statesman's perspective; it is also that he skirts some of the problems in the relation between virtue and democratic politics. Democracies do not favor the education and training that allow Churchills to be produced; surely they, no more than other regimes, can guarantee such men. Party politics, mass media, technological changes and administrative complexity, moreover, require attention and limit or direct effort in ways that modify the simplicity, directness and reserve of more traditional excellence. Kaplan mentions most of these phenomena but does not truly grapple with their effect on the kind of statesmen he admires. It is also true that liberal democracies must usually succeed under ordinary leadership, for this is the leadership their founders and inventors know they are most likely to have: pessimism, however constructive, could expect no more.

If Kaplan is correct to think that something like warrior virtue will be as necessary in the future as it was in the past, these limits of democratic life must be considered. Perhaps it is enough if we foster the virtue of responsibility among our citizens, not in the narrow moralistic sense of guilt-fearing accountability, but in the more practical sense of taking on tasks and doing them effectively-including the political tasks of protecting and promoting natural rights and their intelligent use. Responsible character is more easily and widely achieved in a liberal democracy than is the out-sized virtue of Churchill or Lincoln or the passion of Achilles; yet it can make room for these should they appear, and if it must appear.

From the standpoint of responsibility, virtue or the ambition of democratic statesmen, "our" national interest will always be inseparable from what forms us: directions for foreign policy will be visible through principle restrained by advantage, or advantage shaped by principle. Our standards foster responsible confidence in ourselves and in the judgment that liberal democracy's merits will prevail. For this reason, responsible confidence is a more accurate American watchword than constructive pessimism. Despite his interest in individual warrior virtue, Kaplan is a shade too taken with cautious realism and quasi-determinism. His mild preference, or insufficient distaste, for world courts and other international institutions that limit American self-governance indicates that his heart is too much with regular (and sometimes stultifying) order at the expense of free flourishing within, and therefore sometimes at the edges of, this order.

In these ways, Kaplan falls a bit short of his goal. But a bit short-even quite a bit short-is still closer than most. Kaplan puts his readers on the right track in thinking about foreign affairs. This is admirable. Nonetheless, the track to our fog-shrouded destination is so full of curves that we are bound to become derailed. Given the difficulties, it should be no surprise that Kaplan, thoughtful as he is, is an imperfect guide.

Mark Blitz, Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, was Associate Director of the United States Information Agency during the Reagan Administration.

Essay Types: Book Review