Warrior Politics  by Robert D. Kaplan

Random House 2002  198 pp. 22.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 


Robert D. Kaplan is a travel writer in the same way that Michael Jordan has a good outside jump shot.  A man of subtle intellect, wide-ranging reading, and relentless focus on the concrete, Kaplan, in eight provocative books, has explored the intersection between his direct experience of world regions and theories on their place in the international community.  His practice has been go, literally, to the worst places in the world and attempt to make sense of hunger, poverty, political corruption, anarchy, and the like within an informed, encompassing vision.

In his latest book, Warrior Politics, Kaplan stays home.  This is the first of his books to focus solely on political theorists, and he does so with an argument to make: “Ancient history … is the surest guide to what we are likely to face in the early decades of the twenty-first century.”   Relying on Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Isaiah Berlin, and Raymond Aron, Kaplan develops a thesis on the role, procedures, and goals of future American foreign policy, and the likelihood of its success: “Good government—and, likewise, good foreign policy—will always depend on an understanding of men’s passions, which issue from our elemental fears.”

Kaplan’s worldview is necessarily conservative owing to three assumptions.  First, he believes in the importance of continuity.  He sees the internationalization of democratic individualism—especially (and ironically) the push for democratization as a cure-all for societies in crisis—as inherently dangerous.  His conservatism shines through as well in his belief that human nature is universal, unchanging, and selfish (what he calls “self-interested”).  Third, he assumes that moral standards used to judge individuals are misplaced when used to judge international actions. 

These three assumptions lead to his convictions of the importance of power over virtue, and pragmatism over idealism.  This necessarily oversimplifies his position, but serves to contrast him with his opposition: historicism, begun by Hegel, modified by Marx, and now manifest in postmodernism, the idea that human nature is a pliable artifact of history, culture, and language.

While a conservative, Kaplan doesn’t seek to return to a nostalgia-laden past.  “The separation of private ethics from politics, begun by Machiavelli among others, and completed by Hobbes, laid the foundation for a diplomacy free from the other-worldly absolutism of the medieval church.  We must be careful not to return to such absolutism, for if there is such a thing as progress in politics, it has been the evolution from religious virtue to secular self-interest.”

As should be clear by now, Kaplan does not see virtue, or human rights as the basis for anyone’s view of public policy, but power.  “While human rights are, in theory, advanced by democracy and economic integration, in practice they are advanced by resolving power relationships in ways that allow for more predictable punishment of the Unjust.”

Unfortunately, Kaplan identifies this position as “realism.”  Whenever anyone describes his position as realistic, we must translate that description as meaning in accord with his assumptions about human nature and politics.  While Kaplan claims “this is not an essay about what to think: but how to think,” he is quite clear throughout on what we are to think about the nature of people and the sources of their inevitable conflicts, self-interest.  Despite careful readings of Machiavelli and Hobbes, however, Kaplan fails to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest.  While selfishness ignores the interests of others (Hobbes’ idea of human nature), self-interest, in action, is a much more complex idea, and one that distinguishes Machiavelli from Hobbes.

For these reasons, and others, this is not among Kaplan’s best books—those would be Balkan Ghosts and The Ends of the Earth.  The intellectually informed empiricism that made Kaplan’s previous books so compelling is absent.  The book could also be misinterpreted as an apology for the worst sort of international exercise of power, given his dim view of the media: “The power of the media is willful and dangerous because it dramatically affects Western policy while bearing no responsibility for the outcome.”  However, this is an important book that cautions against the well-intentioned liberal idea that we should export the political ideas that have worked in this country to areas of the world that lack our history, literacy, economic success, and egalitarian culture.