The Return of Marco Polo's World, with Robert D. Kaplan

Mar 16, 2018

If you wish to understand the depth and breadth of the geographical, historical, technological, and political forces that are shaping our world, there is no better guide than Robert Kaplan. Using Marco Polo's journey as "a geographical framing device for Eurasia today," he examines China's ambitious One Belt One Road project, dissecting China's imperial dream and its multiple, under-reported objectives.

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.

Our guest this morning is the acclaimed political affairs journalist and author Robert Kaplan. It is a pleasure to welcome him back to this podium. He will be discussing his latest book, which is a collection of essays written between 2001 and the present, entitled The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.

The lead article, and the one that anchors these essays, was originally commissioned for the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment and lays out the changing power dynamics among China, Eurasia, and America. It is said that we are witnessing a momentous transformation in world affairs. The transfer of power from West to East is not only rapidly gathering speed, but with advanced technology it is now easier for conflicts to not only migrate but become entwined. This is changing the context for dealing with international challenges as well as the challenges themselves.

In The Return of Marco Polo's World our speaker uses the 13th-century journey of Marco Polo as a geographical framing device to define the geopolitics of today and as an indicator for what we may see in the coming era. Marco Polo traveled from West to East, taking him from Italy to China, across Central Asia, returning over the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Today the Chinese regime has proposed a similar land-and-maritime Silk Road, whose purpose is to foster connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries and to boost China's role on the world stage. It is for this reason and others that Eurasia is being seen as replacing Europe and the one that is most critical to American interests.

While this shift in power dynamics is taking place, the important question to ask is: What kind of changes are we seeing, and more specifically, what should America be doing to preserve our interests? In The Return of Marco Polo's World we may find the answers we have been waiting for. Robert Kaplan has crisscrossed the globe for decades covering civil wars and collapsing states. From his front-row seat he has witnessed just how the political map of the world has changed. Now looking forward as well as back, he judiciously outlines the timeless principles that he believes should shape America's role in a turbulent world.

For that acute assessment of the current state of affairs, please join me in welcoming a person who has traveled "the road not taken" to see—and now to tell us—what others have not, our guest this morning, Bob Kaplan.

Thank you once again for joining us.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you, Joanne. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction, and it is great to be back here among friends. I think I have been coming periodically to the Carnegie breakfast council for over 20 years now.

This is a collection of essays that deals with basically two things, the state of the world as it is on the ground beyond the media headlines, and what America should do about it and what the American role should be about it. In talking about the state of the world, what I mean is, what are the processes that are going on right under our noses and how is the United States reacting to them?

What I am going to confine my talk to this morning, essentially, will be in the spirit of the lead, anchoring essay of this collection, "The Return of Marco Polo's World and the U.S. Military Response." As Joanne said, I use Marco Polo's journey as a geographical framing device for Eurasia today, and there is a reason for that. Because if you look at the route of Marco Polo's journey, you see the pathways of the Tang and Yuan dynasties of the medieval era in China, which is the period when Marco Polo traveled during the Yuan Dynasty. If you look at the pathways and the routes and the plans for China's Belt and Road Initiative, you see the Yuan Dynasty.

What China is doing with Belt and Road is very much in keeping with their own imperial tradition, and we will get into that because one of the main themes of this whole collection is that while "empire" may be a dirty word on college campuses, you cannot understand the processes going on in the world today without seriously and dispassionately looking at empire. And I don't mean the British, French, and European ones, I mean the Indian, Chinese, Persian, Seljuk, and Ottoman empires.

Let me get started. It is not true that technology has defeated geography. What has happened is something much more subtle and complex. It is that technology has shrunk geography and distilled geography so that the world is more anxious, more claustrophobic, more nervous, and smaller than ever before. Every place interacts with each other as never before. The crises zones in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Baltic Sea base in Ukraine, the Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf all have an ability now to affect each other that never existed before in history. We tend to think of interconnectivity as a positive thing, it connects markets, creates an enlightened global culture, etc. That is true. But in a geopolitical sense interconnectivity is very destabilizing.

For instance, I was at Davos in January, and the markets were at their top peak. This was before the disruptions of the later part of January. Yet nobody was happy there because everybody sensed that our world is more geopolitically fragile than it has ever been. They just couldn't explain why. What I am trying to do here in this lead essay is explain why.

Think of the world on a taut string. If you pluck one part of it, the whole network vibrates. That is the world.

Take the word "Eurasia." As recently as 20 years ago, Eurasia meant nothing. It was too big to mean anything: from Portugal to Indonesia?—too big; Portugal to Korea?—too big. But what has happened because of the way technology has been shrinking geography, we can now honestly talk about a cohering Eurasian system of rivalry, trade, development, and conflict that never existed before. So Eurasia as a word has meaning that it never did before.

To give you an example of what I mean, let me take just two countries. Look at India and China. India and China are two radically different world civilizations that were separated by the high wall of the Himalayas and the Palmyras and the Karakorums, that had mostly very little to do with each other throughout history. Yes, Buddhism spread from India to China in middle antiquity, and the Opium Wars united India and China in the same zone of conflict in the mid-19th century. But those were aberrations, generally. India and China were very separate.

Now look at today's world. India has an intercontinental ballistic missile system that targets cities in China; China has fighter jets on the Tibetan Plateau that can include the Indian subcontinent or parts of it in their arc of operations, you have Indian warships increasingly in the South China Sea, and you have Chinese warships—especially submarines, the most aggressive kind of warship—all over the Indian Ocean. You have China building, helping to build, or at least helping to finance, state-of-the-art ports throughout the Indian Ocean, to the east of India; to the west of India, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania; and the Chinese are building a 155­-acre military base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea.

China is in the process of building a commercial throughput seaborne empire as though it were the early stages of the British East India Company or the Dutch East India Company. That is China.

India and China are now connected in a very new geography of rivalry that never existed before in history. So, rather than defeat geography, technology has been building new kinds of geographies.

India and China are just one example that you can play out around the world in terms of how every crisis and zone is interacting with every other one. Think of China moving vertically south toward the Indian Ocean, building or helping to develop these ports that I spoke of, and think of India moving east and west along the Indian Ocean, competing with China for oil and natural gas fields in Iran and competing with China in Myanmar for influence because Myanmar has a long border with India.

I remember some years ago—about 10 years ago now—American diplomats were very perplexed, and one of them said to me, "Why is India, a democratic country, giving military aid to Myanmar, a brutally repressive military dictatorship?"

I said to them, "Have you spoken to the Indians about this, their national security advisor? Because of geography, they don't have the luxury to stand on moralistic ceremony. They have to engage with Myanmar, or else China will make it a satellite, and America is simply too far away."

This is where you get India and China competing with each other. By the way, India's great civilizations—the Mughals, the Mauryans, the Gupta, the Nanda—all had influence up to Central Afghanistan. Often you had all of Pakistan and half of Afghanistan in empires governed from New Delhi, and that is why India is so concerned about Afghanistan today. It is not someplace far away, it is almost part of the subcontinent.

Where does China's imperial dream begin from? It begins in the South China Sea. American diplomats can talk hours on end to the Chinese and tell them, "You should not be doing what you're doing in the South China Sea," and the Chinese will listen politely and, rightly, ignore these Americans, because from the point of view of China's geography, China's history, and China's goals, China is doing exactly what it needs to be doing in the South China Sea.

China is doing nothing different in the South China Sea—and this was told to me by Chinese military officers—than what the Americans did in the greater Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The South China Sea is China's Caribbean, and the Chinese think of this consciously in these terms.

If you think about it, America moved into the Caribbean in a big way after it consolidated the dry land portion of temperate zone North America. The last battle in the Indian Wars was fought in 1890. By 1895 American foreign policy was focused on the Caribbean. In other words, conquer the dry land, then the big adjacent sea next to it. Because the Caribbean bordered not just Mexico and the Gulf Coast but the northern fringe of South America, where most people actually lived, strategic control of the Caribbean gave the United States effective strategic control of the whole hemisphere. With control of the hemisphere, it was able to affect the balance of power in the other hemisphere, and that is what the two World Wars and the Cold War were all about. It all began in the Caribbean.

Now, for China in the South China Sea, China gets several things from the South China Sea: parity with the U.S. Navy, or even dominance over the U.S. Navy; it gives China greater access to the Pacific; it softens up Taiwan, because Taiwan is the northern cork in the bottle to the South China Sea; and it allows China unimpeded access finally to the Indian Ocean, which is the world's global energy interstate, because the oil and natural gas are in one end of the Indian Ocean in the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian Plateau, and the customers are at the other end, the great middle-class conurbations of Coastal China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and elsewhere.

China is at war with the United States in the South China Sea. There is only one problem: the Americans don't know it. That is because the Chinese conception of war is different than the Western conception of war. The Western conception of war is you shoot, you fight. The Chinese conception of war is win without ever having to fight, because if you have to fight, that indicates that you have made a strategic miscalculation somewhere along the way.

So what the Chinese are doing is hundreds of micro-steps: take an island atoll here, build a runway there, move an oil rig into disputed waters there; after there are complaints, pull the oil rig out, but take another atoll six months later. Just keep moving like that, in a way that doesn't generate page-one news but which over time—10-15 years—one day we will all wake up to a different world in the South China Sea.

That, in fact, is what is happening, because the Chinese are dead set against any conflict with the U.S. Navy because they know they will lose. They may not lose in 15 years at the rate they're going, but they'll lose now.

It all starts with the Caribbean. But then you have to ask the question: Why is China going to sea in the first place in such a big way, developing such a big navy in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea?

China does not have very much of a naval tradition. In the early 15th century, it is true, in the Ming Dynasty, under treasure fleet Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese sailed as far as the Horn of Africa. But that was an aberration. That was really not part of their tradition, and they withdrew the treasure fleets when they had trouble with the Mongols in the north-central part of their country. China never went to sea because it never felt secure on land.

China has the luxury now to engage, to focus so heavily on the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean, precisely because they are more secure on land than they have ever been, and they are becoming more secure on land. Why is that? That is where we get into One Belt, One Road, or Belt and Road Initiative.

The Belt and Road Initiative does several things that nobody reports about in the newspapers. The first thing: it's a branding operation for what the Chinese have already built in terms of asphalt roads, railways, and oil and gas pipelines across Central Asia to get at the gas from Turkmenistan and the oil from Kazakhstan so that China is less dependent on the Strait of Malacca, which is narrow and vulnerable, for oil deliveries. So it is a branding operation for what has already been accomplished, essentially.

The second thing is that these pathways across Central Asia link China with Iran. Iran, with a population of 80 million, highly educated, fronting not just one hydrocarbon-rich region, the Persian Gulf, but two, the Caspian Sea, is the organizing principle of both the Middle East and Central Asia. China is investing heavily in Iran. It is building railways in Iran. It is mining for minerals in Iran. The Chinese-Iranian relationship is becoming deeply organic, and China-plus-Iran is an unbeatable combination in Eurasia.

The state that loses out the most is Russia—and we will get to that later—because China is beating the pants off Russia in former Soviet/Russian lingua franca-speaking Central Asia, and is poised to infiltrate into the Russian Far East while Putin is obsessed with the West. I never bought the argument that Putin is a great strategist or tactician at all.

The other thing is One Belt, One Road is a way to deal with China's internal demons. One of the biggest of those demons are the Muslim-Turkic Uyghur minority in Western China. This is a minority that is Muslim, that does not feel itself part of Han China. The Chinese are very worried about them.

What One Belt, One Road accomplishes is it deepens China's relationship with these other Turkic Muslim states to the west of the Uyghurs so the Uyghurs can never use them as a rear base in any future imaginable insurgency.

The second thing it does, because the Uyghurs live in Western China, One Belt, One Road is economically developing Western China so the Uyghur standard of living can rise and, as a result, they may have less of an incentive to rebel in future years and decades.

So One Belt, One Road does all of these things. Again, this is the process that is happening in front of our eyes.

At the same time, we have the Middle East. Let me talk a few minutes about the Middle East.

Why has the Middle East been so tumultuous over the past quarter-century, whatever time frame you want to use on it? It is because of a basic fact that goes unreported, that, for the first time in modern history, the Middle East is in a post-imperial phase. The Ottoman Turkish Empire, which ruled from Algeria to Mesopotamia, is gone. When the Ottomans ruled, whether you were a Jew or an Arab, a Sunni or a Shia, you owed loyalty to the Turkish sultan in Constantinople. That didn't solve every ethnic and group problem, but it certainly alleviated it. That's gone.

The British and French imperial mandate systems, which provided order and stability in the Levant, principally Syria and Iraq, went away in the late 1940s. The American and Soviet Cold War systems in the Middle East, which Oxford historian John Darwin called "imperial in all but name," essentially went away. The Soviet system went away in 1991. The Russians have come back, but in much more limited fashion compared to what was Soviet influence in Damascus, Baghdad, and many other places.

In terms of American power: American power—for a long list of reasons that we could spend all day talking about—has dissipated over the last 20 years. America is not what it was in the Middle East, and it is not only because of the Iraq War or Afghanistan. It is because the Middle East is no longer run uniformly by stable autocratic systems where there was only one phone number, one fax machine, one president with one or two advisors you had to deal with in order to deal with a crisis. Now you have to lobby dozens of people in many places. It is not impossible to do, it is just harder to do. It is an irony that the very weakening of autocracy has also weakened American power in the region.

So the Middle East is left to its own devices. The result of that is the rise and jockeying for position of regional hegemons Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt.

Iran really has an advantage, because of all these places it has the greatest imperial tradition. If you look at a map of where Iran has influence from the Eastern Mediterranean—Lebanon all the way through Central Afghanistan where the Iranian rial is the unofficial currency—you have a map, essentially, of most Persian-speaking empires going back to antiquity. You look at the map of the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Medes, the Parthians, you see exactly where Iran is influential today.

The ayatollahs are nothing but the latest incarnation of Persian imperialism. This is a reason why the Iranians are so brilliant at working with proxy armies, proxy militias, because the real day-to-day business of imperialism going deep back in history is not conquest, it's working with local military factions in order to get your own business done, to delegate through locals and bring them into your system. The Marines, Army Special Forces, Green Berets—that is what they do most of the time. They do it very well, but they don't do it as well as the Iranians have done it with their militias in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. So there is a particular cultural genius to the way that the Iranians operate in the Middle East.

The Turks have some of this but less so. Their imperial tradition only goes back 1,000 years rather than 2,500 years. But they consciously use it. For instance, Atatürk turned his back on this aspect of Turkish history.

Turgut Özal, who many of you may remember, was the real first post-Atatürk Islamic leader of Turkey, but he was much more nuanced—he was Islamic, but he was pro-Ronald Reagan, he was pro-Western—and he combined things that ordinarily may not go together. Özal consciously used the Ottoman tradition in order to reach out to the Kurds, to reach out to other Muslims in the Middle East.

That has gone a step further with Erdoğan, who does not have Özal's particular insightful genius. He is much more of an authoritarian, and he has overextended himself, I would argue, in the Middle East because his worst fear is a Kurdish uprising inside Turkey. Yet, the Kurds overlap Turkey and all these other countries—Iran, Syria, and Iraq—and that is what really complicates it.

The Saudis: The Saudis promised victory in Yemen in two months in 2015—they are really bogged down there. The Saudis promised the quick knockout punch with Qatar over a year ago—they never got it. Yes, a lot of it is due to the impetuosity of the crown prince. But, again, Saudi Arabia is a country with no imperial tradition, no real history to draw upon in terms of projecting power, and especially military power, in this way. So we have a process of China and Iran overlying Eurasia, we have a post-imperial world in the Middle East.

Finally, Europe. Let me say a few words about Europe and the United States, in conclusion.

Europe faces the challenge that Russia—which is a country that has been invaded by not just Hitler and Napoleon but by Swedes, Lithuanians, Teutonic Knights, and others—needs a buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe. This would be true even if you had an enlightened democratic leader in Moscow. It needs a buffer zone. Putin knows that the Warsaw Pact did not work. It was too expensive, direct rule through communist parties doesn't work. So he is in the process of trying to create a traditional soft zone of imperial influence throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

The way he does that is by buying local media through third parties, buying off corrupt local politicians, running intelligence operations, running disinformation operations, and doing a host of things that are inexpensive, infinitely deniable, and that, even if they are partially successful, serve to weaken democratic systems from the Baltic States in the north all the way through the Balkans and the Black Sea. Because Putin sees this whole area—the Baltic region, the Balkans, Syria—not as three different regions, the way Americans do, but as one organic geography of the Russian mir abroad, essentially, he is trying to generally weaken this area in particular and undermine the European Union in a larger sense.

He is also a very formidable man of limits. He is in his mid-60s. He doesn't drink. He is healthy. He is very deliberate. He did not get involved militarily in Syria until four years after the uprising there started, when he was 100 percent sure that Obama would do nothing. And, even then, Putin has worked through mainly air power. He hasn't put many troops of any note on the ground because he needs to avoid a quagmire like America experienced in Iraq. So he is not irresponsible. He is very deliberate, very shrewd, and this is what we have to deal with.

What about the United States at the end of the day? All right, very quickly.

The United States is a naval power—that's what it is, that's who we are. Why do I say that? Because there's a moral taboo against using nuclear weapons, so the fact that we have a nuclear arsenal may be necessary, but it doesn't help us on a day-to-day basis.

As far as land forces go—and I'm talking about hard power here—you move 15,000 or 20,000 U.S. Army or Marines from one part of the world to another or from the United States to outside the United States, that's front-page news, it's an editorial in The New York Times, it's arguments among columnists.

But you move an aircraft carrier strike group—which can incinerate several big cities with the firepower it has on it, which has thousands of sailors—from one part of the world to another, and it's public knowledge, there is nothing secret about it. No news. Nobody cares. Maybe a page-five story somewhere for naval wonks. This is why the Navy is such a powerful instrument, because you can do things with it. You can signal, you can move troops around, you can suddenly move three carrier battle groups off the Korean Peninsula whereas three weeks before you had only one, and it is not a sexy news story in any way.

So we are a naval power, and naval power throughout history has generally been organized around free trade and advancing some form of civil society. Land powers tend to be more conservative. Everyone says America is like Rome. It is more like Venice. We are much more like imperial Venice in that respect.

That is what we are. That is our brand. We are a naval power which supports free trade. With our warships we keep the sea lines of communication open, the choke points open, and access to hydrocarbons for our allies open. It is a benign influence, and it goes with promoting, not forcibly imposing, democracy, but supporting the gradual expansion of civil society.

But if you play around with that American brand, you have nothing, essentially. You stop supporting free trade in the general sense, you send out signals that you're not especially interested in advancing the march of civil society, you lose everything in a way.

You especially lose—and here I'll conclude—in Eurasia, because we are not in Eurasia. We can't have a Belt and Road to compete with China in Eurasia. What we offer Eurasia is a vision of trade, of civil society, and of rule of law, and that is a very attractive vision, especially coming from a country half a world away that has no territorial ambitions on Eurasia. It makes it very attractive. But this is hard to do when you voluntarily give up or seriously weaken the American brand.

I will end here. Thank you.


QUESTION: Bill Raiford.

You focused on security and strategic matters. Let's just turn briefly to building freedom and liberty in the world. I think you have written, and it is well known, that the United States has roughly 800 military sites around the world in addition to the 11 aircraft carriers. Do you think that is much more likely to build freedom and security in the world than the Belt and Road Initiative?

ROBERT KAPLAN: That is a very good question. Belt and Road offers a vision. The one thing Belt and Road has that I neglected to say is that all of it may not be possible, all of it may not be built, but at least it's a vision, at least it's a grand strategy, at least it's a direction in keeping with China's imperial history, which is much more than we have. We don't seem to have a vision now.

Belt and Road is not promoting democracy or civil society. What it is promoting is economic development, and most of the areas it goes through are autocratic regimes, essentially. That is where we can compete, I think, because throughout the Cold War and the initial post-Cold War our naval power, our bases around the world, went hand-in-hand in promoting our values. We may have overpromoted our values when you try to forcibly impose democracy—that is being overextended—but we have worked with many autocracies around the world to get them to become more liberal autocracies. That is a direction to go in.

So Belt and Road is not about promoting civil society or freedom, but it is a vision, it does promote economic development. We, at least at this juncture—and I believe it is correctible—are not promoting what we have always been identified with.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for being so incredibly insightful. But I didn't hear one name for China which Xi Jinping has emphasized, and that is the Middle Kingdom, which is the center of this theory of the empires. Another word you did use was "Caribbean." So why is China bothering to go to the Caribbean and Africa, in other words, to extend to the whole world?

ROBERT KAPLAN: China learns from American strategy in the Caribbean. China has a worldwide vision. It is building transportation routes from the Indian Ocean coast into Central Africa, from the Atlantic coast on the west into Central Africa. It has been doing this for many years now.

I'm sure you have had other speakers talk about China in Africa with much more depth than I have, but what this is all about is acquisition of minerals and acquisition of energy. China wants to create a middle class of hundreds of millions of people. To do that it needs unlimited supplies of energy, and it doesn't trust the Strait of Malacca completely.

That is why China has been doing everything—it is sort of like China doesn't really have a foreign policy so much as an energy acquisition policy. That really defines what it has been doing in Africa and everywhere else. Chinese companies run the port in Djibouti, they run both ends of the Panama Canal. We live in an age of rising Chinese power. The real issue there is that China is going from an enlightened authoritarian regime to a less-enlightened authoritarian regime.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Beata Samel, and I am actually a recent undergraduate graduate of Hunter College two blocks up north.

I wanted to ask you, (a) what do you think of the Trump administration's announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs, and (b) do you think the claim that these imports threaten national security has any truth to it?

ROBERT KAPLAN: To my knowledge, we only import a little over 3 percent of our steel and aluminum from China. This really affects our allies Mexico and Canada much more, so it's a misplaced policy, on one hand. It could lead to trade wars, on the other hand, and trade wars sometimes lead to shooting wars, because they poison the international climate. Finally, it's another way to beat down the American brand of free trade.

Free trade is not perfect. There is certainly an argument for better trade deals. You can make the argument that our trade negotiators could have been much better. Nevertheless, America has always stood for free trade. So I think the steel and aluminum tariffs are really bad on several fronts.

QUESTION: Thank you. Rita Hauser.

Bob, I want to get back to America. You said we were the proponents of free trade, yes, and civil society, yes. But wasn't this an aberration in a small period of history when we became the dominant power after the results of World War I and World War II? I see America fading away from that mission not just because of Trump but in general.

ROBERT KAPLAN: That's a good point. In the 1960s at Harvard—and someone who was their student told me this the other day—Henry Kissinger and Sam Huntington would always talk about spheres of influence, because even though since 1945 we've been building a liberal world order, they saw this liberal world order as a U.S. sphere of influence. It was both things. Our sphere of influence just had some different connotations than the Soviet sphere of influence had.

So the liberal world order was another name for a classic sphere of influence, and it worked for about 75 years, which is very long considering the technological changes that have gone on during this period, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, etc. It built up contradictions, and it appears to have run out of gas with Trump.

We seem to be going from an age of ideology—liberalism versus communism, etc.—to a much more traditional age of geopolitical competition among spheres of influence, which are bad. A geopolitical age of competition among spheres of influence may not be as horrifically bloody as the 20th century with its competition for ideologies, but it is not necessarily uplifting, either.

It also generally will, in a relative sense, weaken the United States, because what it means is that America will be one sphere of influence among several. The only way to get around that is to continue to build a liberal world order because it is attractive to people around the world. As long as you do not overextend yourself, which we were guilty of doing during certain periods—Vietnam, Iraq, etc.—it can go on indefinitely. But it looks now like it is an aberration in history that, in a way, went against human nature as it has been throughout history and we are back to geopolitical competition.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

We have recently been reading in books and articles by Gregg Easterbrook, Steven Pinker, and others that things are getting better and have been so for millennia—standard of living going up, longevity up, violence down. Do you subscribe to those views, and, if so, how do they interact with what you have been talking about? [Editor's note: For more from Easterbrook, check out his recent Carnegie Council talk.]

ROBERT KAPLAN: Right here I debated Steve Pinker a few years ago, actually. It's true, a lot of what they say is true: standards of living have gone up, literacy has gone up, brutal basic poverty has lifted peasants into the lower middle class. All that is happening.

But what I don't subscribe to is that simply because life is getting better it will be more peaceful generally. Remember, the 20th century saw the highest standard of living by far for humanity, and we had about 50 million people killed in the two World Wars, not to mention the 60 million that Mao killed in China. So don't simply equate raising standards of living with geopolitical stability. As I said at the beginning of my talk, markets could be going up and the world becomes more geopolitically fragile.

Before World War I there was a great British thinker, Norman Angell, who published a book, The Great Illusion, where he said that because there is more and more trade among nations and standards of living were rising, we are on the brink of a peaceful period, and don't believe anyone who says otherwise. Then World War I happened, followed by World War II and many other things.

There is a lot of truth in their books, and Steve's maps and graphs in his earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, are really insightful. But I don't wholly subscribe to his notion, because he essentially believes that human nature is changing. He said that, that it is changing for the better.

My argument was: "What? Look at the Internet. Look at cyberspace. Look at the hacking, the viruses, the bots, the trolls."

My former boss at my think tank in Washington, who now is the CEO of a high-technology cybersecurity firm, said to me, "Bob, the Internet, cyber, it's anarchy, it's absolute anarchy, and it reveals the absolute most vicious worst in human nature" and that "the only reason there may be less violence than during World War II is simply because the technology has changed so these vicious, perverse sides of human nature are displaying themselves differently than they did with Tommy guns and hand grenades and things like that."

So while I respect what they write, and they certainly have a point of view, I don't fully subscribe to it.

QUESTION: My name is Jim Altschul. Thank you for a most insightful and interesting presentation. A couple of questions, and I apologize if you covered either of these topics at the beginning because I got here a little late.

First of all, the establishment of the Chinese naval base at Djibouti, should we take that at face value, that it is just to protect their shipping, or is it fitted to some of these larger themes?

Second—again, I don't know if you discussed this—China's strategy about Japan?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes, I mentioned Djibouti. It's a 155-acre naval base at this point. It's changing every week. I have someone looking at these satellite maps of it.

The military base at Djibouti does a number of things for China. First of all, if you think, as I said earlier, China is having ports, it's now taken over Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, it's running Gwadar Port in Southwestern Pakistan. Djibouti is a military anchor. It gets China militarily into the Middle East, and it also guards their trade routes, because China is also involved in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is running and redeveloping the port of Piraeus in Greece. It is very interested in the Adriatic, especially in Trieste.

Djibouti is at a real transport choke point for China's emerging commercial empire and gives it a military application that it didn't have before. So the Djibouti port is of great significance.

China and Japan. The one thing that is preventing a war in the East China Sea is that China is afraid of losing to the Japanese because the Japanese military is the most underrated military in the world. It has niche capacities in submarine warfare, in Special Forces. Japan puts, I think, three times as many major warships on the high seas as the British Royal Navy does now. So Japan has become a really powerful military state.

If China got into a shooting match with Japan, even without our help in the East China Sea, China could lose. The Chinese know this, and they know if they lost to Japan in a small war, it would so humiliate China that Xi's rule and the future of the Communist Party of China would be at stake.

Also, we can stay out of a war in the South China Sea because, yes, the Philippines are a treaty ally and Vietnam is a de facto ally, but we are not emotionally tied to either of those two countries—the American public knows very little about them—as we are to Japan. You could argue that Japan is the United States' most capable, loyal, trouble-free ally in the world today. It does not have the political problems and challenges of Germany, France, or Great Britain. It is very capably and dynamically led. It is building up its military forces, which none of our European allies are doing. The American-Japan alliance really anchors stability in the Western Pacific, and America could very likely go to war in Japan's defense in the East China Sea.

China knows it needs another 10 years before it can sort of "capture" Japan or capture the East China Sea the way it is capturing the South China Sea. Again, China knows all this, and it wants to avoid a fight. It wants to become dominant without ever having to fight.

QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat but not in the Far East.

If we are concerned about the erosion of our brand, I hear from people who come back to New York from all the countries I have served in—and they use different words, but they are very concerned about this—why is it that we are not making more of an effort to connect with Europe, the trade deal with Europe that is now backburner or gone completely? This is the kind of thing. It is, yes, perhaps NATO is old, and perhaps these old institutions need to be renovated, but why are we not putting more effort into that? Because when it comes to values, it is not just Canada and Mexico.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Right. I think American leadership has not been very good. There are vast differences between George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton, but as a group they are a much less impressive group than our Cold War presidents were.

Nixon may have had Watergate, but he was a brilliant foreign policy thinker. Reagan morally re-armed America in rhetoric, but he also surrounded himself with realists like Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Frank Carlucci, and others. H.W. Bush was probably our last aristocratic, enlightened-realist president in the foreign policy mold that we have ever had.

We have seen a real deterioration in American leadership since the end of the Cold War. The Cold War enforced a certain discipline on American policy. It anchored American foreign policy to Europe because people had fought in Europe. They had living memories of World War II, of the early Cold War days, the Berlin Airlift, and all of that.

Time passes, the effect of technology. George W. Bush got deeply enmeshed in the Middle East. Barack Obama was not particularly oriented toward Europe, and in fact he withdrew two brigade combat teams from Central Europe in the beginning of 2012, which sent a message to the Russians, which was a "mission accomplished" message, essentially. Between that and doing nothing when the Russians invaded greater Georgia in the summer of 2008, you can see what happened. Then there is Trump, who is not oriented toward allies in general and doesn't seem to share their values.

So it is a compounding of errors. Because it is such a compounding, if you take a step back, what you see is that American leadership has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War.

QUESTION: Krishen Mehta.

With the recent changes that have taken place in Washington, is there a risk that the United States could be, by intent or unwittingly, going into a confrontation with Iran that would have devastating consequences down the road? If you look back to your own legacy with regard to what happened with Iraq and the lessons we have learned from it and not learned from it, what would you say would be some important checks and balances that could be brought into play to prevent such a confrontation?

ROBERT KAPLAN: The new incoming secretary of state, assuming he is confirmed, has been on the record as being an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal. He is much more in line with Trump in that regard than the outgoing secretary of state.

The Iran nuclear deal may not have been perfect, may not have been as good a deal as someone like James Baker or Brent Scowcroft might have been able to negotiate, but it still took a problem off the table. It took the problem of Iran's expanding nuclear program off the table for three-quarters of a decade, and in that time frame a lot can happen inside Iran and in the region. It is not the greatest deal in the world, but it is a good in and of itself, essentially, and worth preserving.

If the Trump administration continues to erode it and continues to beat up on it and beat it down, that is going to lead to greater tension between the United States and Iran in the Middle East. The Europeans are not going to be on our side, by the way, on this. They really aren't because one of the strengths, the accomplishment, of the Iran nuclear deal is that it held the alliance together. People forget this. This was a great accomplishment. It held the alliance together.

I think us competing with Iran militarily in the Middle East will be a loser. The Iranians have cultural and other advantages that we don't have. They can play hard in a way we would not dare to play. They can do things. The Iranians are not staying up at night worrying that civilians were killed by Bashar al-Assad's bombs in Ghouta or that there is mass starvation in Yemen, where they are active. That doesn't upset them. That is not how they operate. So they have real advantages.

I think the best policy toward Iran is one—and remember, we had so much trouble with Iraq, and Iraq was always a weaker, less impressive state than Iran, always, extremely—what we should do is maintain the nuclear deal and have a policy of containment in Iran and wait for the day—and it will come—where there will be a regime amelioration, a regime shift, because Iran is not a complete authoritarian state. It is a weird mix. It is an authoritarian state generally but with democratic elements inside of it, periodic demonstrations against the regime, periodic elections. A system like that doesn't stay static. It is inherently unstable.

It may be that the current supreme leader may be the last person to occupy that position, that that position may actually be eliminated after Ali Khamenei passes from the scene. So I think it is in our best interest to play a game of waiting containment with Iran.

JOANNE MYERS: Regrettably, we have come to the end of the hour. I know there are other questions, but Bob will be here signing his book to answer your questions.

Thank you once again for a special morning.

ROBERT KAPLAN: My pleasure.

You may also like

MAY 23, 2024 Podcast

U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

"Atlantic" staff writer Tom Nichols returns to "The Doorstep" in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation