Thought Leader: Robert D. Kaplan

January 24, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with author Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you find the world today? Is it unique in any way? What is the planet like, especially from a moral perspective?

ROBERT KAPLAN: When I look out and travel around the world, what I see in many places is an increasing lack of central authority. For decades, we have been used to strong authoritarian states in the greater Middle East, from Morocco all the way to Pakistan.

What we see increasingly is these states unraveling, and yet overnight you don't get stable democracies. It's not like turning a television channel or just flipping a switch. So we're going from strong authoritarian states that were suffocating in their repression to the loss of central authority. That creates more freedom.

But freedom is not only about expressing oneself as an individual. It is also about the freedom of identifying oneself with an ethnic or sectarian group. That is where the problems come in, where you have conflicts.

So we face a kind of moral dilemma. Dictatorship is abhorrent, but it kept order, and within that order there were rules of the road where individual people could follow and obey and live out normal lives.

But with increasing disorder, there are no rules. So, counterintuitively, you have a greater weakening in human rights, even as you have the weakening, or in some cases the collapse, of dictatorial rule.

I think this will go on for many years to come, because it took Europe, it took England centuries to develop strong democratic institutions. Therefore, it will be hard for the greater Middle East to develop strong democratic institutions in just a few years.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you connect this to a loss of legitimacy?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. American history in this regard is a very poor way to look at what is going on in much of the world. In the American mindset, though we had a revolution in 1776, the United States essentially inherited its political models, its institutional models, from early modern England.

So the issue wasn't authority or political institutions. That was there at the start of the American republic. The issue throughout American history, from everything from Jacksonian populism to the 1960s youth rebellion, was about limiting authority, about making authority less oppressive, more honest, having accountability.

But in much of the world, the issue is the opposite. The issue is creating legitimate authority from scratch. That is something the American experience has very little experience in. So we think we can lecture the world about what to do, but actually our own history runs counter to the experience of much of the rest of the world.

Qaddafi's rule in Libya, Hafez al-Assad's and Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria, the Bolshevik rule in Russia, and on and onthese were not legitimate forms of authority. So authority has to be recreated from scratch.

We in America have had the opposite experience. We took for granted our authority. It is how to make our authority less tyrannical that concerned us.

So I see a world driven by a loss of central authority, which creates its own moral problems as a consequence.

DEVIN STEWART: So as the scaffolding of authority comes down and it illuminates various particular identities, does this create more conflict? Is this what causes what many see as an increase in religious conflict and conflict among identities?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think what you're seeing is there were always these discrepancies about who controlled whatwhich group, if any, controlled what territory. But for much of history, the stabilizing force was some form of hegemony, usually imperial.

When we hear the word hegemony, we have negative connotations for it. But actually hegemony implies a kind of agreement in a hierarchy where you will have stronger states governing or having influence over weaker states. Hegemony means something consensual. It's not like primacy, which is raw military or economic power.

Take, for instance, East Asia. For many medieval and early modern centuries, East Asia had relatively little violence compared to Europe at that time, because East Asia ran under the tribute system, where China was the central character. So China was the top dog in the East Asian hierarchy around which historic Korea, historic Vietnam, historic Japan were satellites. This inequality in the strategic landscape provided for long periods of peace.

Imperialism, as bad a connotation as it has, provided for social peace: the Habsburg Empire in Central and Eastern Europe. Under the Habsburgs, Jews and Christians, ethnic Romanians and Hungarians, various forms of south Slavs, Croats, some Serbs, Slovenians could live.

Under the Ottoman Turkish imperial domination, again you had protection of minorities. You had relative peace between Sunnis and Shiites in parts of the Middle East, because there was no argument over who controlled what place in what is today Iraq or Syria. It was all under the Turkish sultan.

This provided a peace of sorts which had a moral dimension. But as these empires crumbledHabsburg, Ottomanyou suddenly had conflicts that you didn't have before.

I would say that the Middle East is still struggling with what to do with the carcass of the Ottoman Empire 100 years on, because the colonial states and mandates that emerged after World War I were more or less, with some exceptions, along the lines of the Ottoman vilayets or communities. These colonial states were followed by indigenous authoritarian states, which were sort of post-colonial in that they did not grant any more freedom in that sense. Hafez al-Assad in Syria, the Saddam Hussein rule in Iraq, were very post-colonial in that they followed the oppression of the British, of the French, and others.

But now you have finally that post-Ottoman organization truly unraveling, from the Mediterranean to the Iranian plateau and across North Africa, particularly in what used to be Libya but which barely exists as a state anymore.

The United States, as the preeminent world power, is at sixes and sevens in how to deal with this. On the one hand, the Americans don't want to recreate a second Iraq in Syria regarding American troops. On the other hand, America should do something, should lead in some way, but it's finding it difficult to manage how.

So we have these whole new moral problems which have come out into the fore because of the collapse of the post-Ottoman state system in the Middle East.

DEVIN STEWART: Taking a step back and looking at these trends, would you say things are getting better or worse, just generally speaking, whatever that might mean?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I would say that in terms of raw violence, things may be getting better, because you don't have massive interstate conflict on the level of World War I or World War II.

In terms of political order and organization, things may be getting worse, because you used to have a strong Soviet Union, a strong China, strong authoritarian states in the Middle East, and now all of these things are unraveling. Even China. People worry about Iran and the future of Iran going nuclear. I think the future of Chinese society is every bit as important, maybe even more so, because the Communist Party of China is merely the latest Chinese dynasty. Is that Chinese dynasty unraveling now that the form of economic organization it usedexport de facto capitalismis having a harder and harder time?

So can a one-party state make the transition to a different way of organizing its economy that has significant social and political repercussions?

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a guess?

ROBERT KAPLAN: My guess is that economists will tell you the Chinese cannot manage it. I would say a lot of thiswe have to take into account the cultural genius of the Chinese as well, which is an unknown factor. It's impossible to quantify, which is why people have trouble talking about cultures, because you leave the realm of objective thought and enter the world of subjective thought.

Every person I meet who is an expert on Chinaeconomist, political scientistI ask them the question you asked me, and I haven't gotten a straight answer from anyone. I don't think anyone really knows, but I think that is the central question. Will China, after a few unsteady years, resume its growth, leading to China becoming a power on the scale of the United States? Will China come apart? Will it decompose into regions?

This is the issue that is really going to affect East Asia more than any other. The South China Sea disputes, the East China Sea disputes, the future of Myanmar, all this hinges on what will happen inside China itself.

DEVIN STEWART: Mr. Kaplan, tell us, what do you think is the biggest ethical question of our time?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think the biggest ethical question in international affairs is how great distant powers can operate so as to reduce suffering that is in turn caused by weakening central order in societies throughout the former colonial world.

It's easy to say we intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo and it finally worked, so we will do that in the future. But on the other hand, you have the question, we intervened in Iraq against a dictator who had killed several times more people than Slobodan Milosevic had killed in the former Yugoslavia, and it didn't work. That intervention did not work; in fact it made things worse.

So in each issue that comes up, whether it's Libya and Benghazi, whether it's Rwanda, whether it's Iraq, whether it's the former Yugoslavia, whether it's Syria, there are no rules of the road. What may work in one situation won't work in another.

Therefore, though it's easy to say we will have human agency, we will protect minority rights, the way in which one does so is infinitely complex and has to be reinvented according to the specific characteristics of each individual crisis. So the principle ethical dilemma is that there is no one-size-fits-all response to every humanitarian catastrophe. In some cases one intervenes militarily; in another, one doesn't. If one chooses not to intervene and is criticized for the rest of one's life for it, you never know. Maybe it would have been worse had we intervened at that time, in that moment. These are unknowables.

DEVIN STEWART: Excellent answer. Thank you.

Part of our project here is to look at a sort of unifying idea. We call it a global ethic. That was explored in the 1980s and then we have sort of launched this again with our Centennial chair, Michael Ignatieff, kicked off about a year ago. Does a global ethic mean anything to you, and if so, what is it?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think a global ethic does mean something. What it means is originally there were tribes where one's humanity, one's love, only extended to one's family and extended family and the tribe. That humanity was extended over centuries and decades to encompass a nation.

Now I think a global ethic means we will feel the same responsibility and love for people in distant countries of no relation to us, the same level as we used to feel towards one's own tribe. That to me is a global ethic.

But it is a very thin and superficial global ethic because it is mainly one subscribed to by what one can loosely define as the elites of the world. Once one gets into the depths of many individual places, one finds that expressions of love and responsibility even today do not extend beyond that of the region or the tribe or the sectarian group.

So the global ethic is how to overcome that. How do we expand the number of people who feel love and responsibility beyond their extended family and group?

DEVIN STEWART: Very clear. Thank you.

Mr. Carnegie founded our place about 100 years ago. As we think about the last 100 years, we also want to think about the next 100 years. It is irresponsible for us to ask for a prediction, but what would you like to see happen in the next 100 years?

ROBERT KAPLAN: What I would like to see happen is the following. It's inevitable that a significant number of authoritarian states will decentralize into regions, into region-states, into micro-states. It's happening in Europe with Catalonia, for instance, and other places. It's happening in a far messier manner in the Congo, which is too large a territory to be ruled from one point of arbitration like Kinshasa. So that is happening in any case.

I think the goal should be, the wish should be, to allow that, yes, there will be many more smaller and smaller entities, but that they have peaceful relations internally and with each other.

The fact that Syria and Iraq may devolve into regionsSunni, Shiite, Kurdish, Alawite, et ceteramay be unsolvable. But it is solvable that these new regions will work in harmony with each other on some future morrow.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting.

That goes right to my next question, which is, is world peace possible? Andrew Carnegie was famous for pushing for it.

ROBERT KAPLAN: You could have periods of relative peace versus relative disorder, or relative violence versus periods of less-relative violence. I don't believe you will have world peace as such because you cannot have that unless there is an agreement on what is the best form of human development and progress. For various geographical, religious, ethnic, and other reasons, there will never be that point of agreement.

You will always have geopolitics, the battle of space of power. So you can get highly developed, sophisticated, ultramodern societies, like Japan, coastal China, South Korea still having conflicts about who controls what in this maritime sphere.

So even in postmodern Asia, if you have these disputes, I don't see how you could have world peace except in a relative way, a relative diminution of conflict.

DEVIN STEWART: And those were conflicts about not only the territory but also about ideas?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. I think the battle of ideas goes on. I don't think it was ended by the end of the Cold War. It will take different forms. We may have new ideologies, new religious ideologies that are influenced by technology in the future in ways that we cannot foresee.

I think that's why we always have to bear in mind, especially in that big red book I have at home, The Proper Study of Mankind, the collected writings of Isaiah Berlin, where a major theme running through it all is this aversion to big centralizing ideologies in favor of temporizing compromises that undergird the individual differences.

DEVIN STEWART: Very good. I am getting to two more final questions, thinking more prescriptive.

What does moral leadership mean to you?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Moral leadership means to me the greater good, not looking good on the op-ed pages. Moral leadership means making decisions even if the opinion polls point in the opposite direction. It means the willingness to be unpopular in order to do the right thing. It means the communal good as opposed to the individual good, because leaders of large states have to make decisions on the basis of what is good for the majority of its people.

Remember, tragedy does not mean evil triumphing over good. Tragedy means one good triumphing over another that creates suffering. I will go to war to save this group, but in the process some of my own soldiers may be killed. So one good trumps another good, and in the process suffering occurs. It is those kinds of decisions which make leadership so lonely.

People have a bad impression of Machiavelli. They consider him a cynic, all of this. But Machiavelli believed in individual agency and was against fatalism. The Prince is really an instructional guide to overcome fate. Because Machiavelli knew how strong and vibrant were the forces of fate, he knew that one required all the individual cunning to overcome it. So Machiavelli, in an odd way, presents an instructional guide for leaders to overcome fate and operate for the greater good.


The last question is, who is accountable for these problems that you've outlined? Is it more toward the powerful? Is it everyone? Is it historically weighted toward history?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think that individuals live on geographic space, and they have different interests based on where they happen to live and the circumstances and the manner in which they live. You have clashing interests. As long as you have human beings with individual agency, you will also have clashing communal interests or sectarian interests or clashing national interests or whatever.

So, as I said earlier, geopolitics goes on. The struggle for space and power goes on. I think that cannot be wished away.

DEVIN STEWART: A final additional question is more about you, Mr. Kaplan. If this were a time capsule that we are doing here today, what idea would you like to be remembered for?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I would like to be remembered for pointing out the difficulties of living in a world of collapsing state power, of weakening state power, and the emergence of smaller sub-state power, which creates its own problems of stability and therefore of human suffering; that I live in a period of history when, while states are being created and strengthened, as in East Asia, in the greater Middle East they are weakening and in some cases eroding; and where, while Africa experiences at this moment in history rising economic growth rates in certain parts of the continent, it is also experiencing an unraveling of state power in other parts of the continent.

So I am not about pessimism. What I am about is the weakening of central authority.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Mr. Kaplan.

ROBERT KAPLAN: My pleasure.