Clash of the Strategists

Clash of the Strategists

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Random House, 2018), 304 pp., $28.00.

Elliott Abrams, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 320 pp., $24.99.

Harlan K. Ullman, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 272 pp., $29.95.

AT A time when President Trump’s National Security Strategy claims to be one of “principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology,” three new books take different sides in the long-standing battle between realists and neoconservatives. Robert Kaplan’s collection of essays, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century , presents a well-crafted case for a hard-headed approach to international security that nevertheless incorporates America’s idealistic impulse. Elliot Abrams, on the other hand, makes an impassioned plea for a return to the democracy agenda so beloved of the neocons. As the title of his book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring , makes clear, however, he attempts to cloak his interventionist views in realist terminology. Harlan Ullman charts a third course. His Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts asserts in effect that neither approach has been consistently underpinned by what he terms “sound strategic thinking,” with the result that U.S. policy has suffered setbacks both on and off the battlefield.

Kaplan has a well-deserved reputation for eschewing ideology, if only because his travels off the beaten policy path and his historical perspective have convinced him that one must address things as they are, not as we would like them to be. His unique blend of geography, history, culture and economics makes for sound advice to decisionmakers who too often are either cloistered in their government offices or who, when on travel, spend their time in hotel rooms, at fancy dinners or on guided tours in between their official meetings. At the same time, he offers the general reader a sophisticated yet readable analysis of the evolving international system, with a heavy focus on the decline of the Westphalian order, as he articulates in his opening and leading essay, from which the book takes its name.

Kaplan offers an unusual perspective on Russian and Chinese expansionism. He argues that “the geographical heart” of the challenge that Russia poses is “the Black Sea Basin: here is where Russia intersects with Ukraine, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. Or explained another way, where Europe meets the Near East and where the former Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg imperial conflict systems all merge.” He worries that Western policymakers have paid far too little attention to this geopolitical vortex. He highlights the strategic importance of Bulgaria, a NATO ally to be sure, but “just one of the many countries that are invisible to the Washington policy elite and consequently are never part of its conversation.”

The Chinese challenge is entirely different. Kaplan writes,

“globalization, with its exaggerated emphasis on sea lines of communication, has necessitated Chinese power projection into the blue-water extensions of its own continental landmass. Because that requires China to remain secure on land, it also means the permanent subjugation of the Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans, and Inner Mongolians. And thus we have the One Belt, One Road strategy. In short, China’s ethnic demons within its borders lead it to push out militarily and economically well beyond its borders.”

Nevertheless, he sees a significant though long-term threat to both countries in the form of internal authoritarian decay, leading to a challenge to central control of what are still in effect empires, as are Iran and Turkey. He postulates a similar challenge to the highly centralized rule of the Iranian mullahs—most recently played out on the streets of every major Iranian city—as well as that of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, whose own imperial ambitions are unlikely to be sustained over the longer term. As he puts it, “the imperial experiences of Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China explain the geopolitical strategy of each country to this day.” Yet he goes on to note that “because of the way communications technology empowers individuals and small groups—in addition to the instability that erupts from the increasing interconnectedness of crises worldwide—threats to imperial-oriented power centers are now greater than ever.”

Moreover, globalization poses a challenge to many nations in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it fosters “an emerging global culture that spans continents,” yet at the same time, “precisely because religion and culture are being weakened by globalization, they have to be reinvented in more severe, monochromatic, and ideological form by way of the communications revolution.” As examples of the latter he cites “Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which do not represent Islam per se, but Islam igniting with the tyrannical conformity and mass hysteria inspired by the Internet and social media.” Taking issue with Samuel Huntington, Kaplan therefore argues that “it isn’t the so-called clash of civilizations that is taking place, but the clash of artificially reconstructed civilizations” whose power lies in both the fear and exploitation of increasingly global networks.