Robert Kaplan on the dynamics of global power

What happens when one well-traveled journalist, Michael Totten, interviews another well-traveled journalist, Robert Kaplan?  As you might expect, you get a fascinating conversation.  The interview covered the end of the Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka, China’s and Russia’s goals, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Israel, and more.  I’d highly recommend it if you have 20-30 minutes.  I wanted to highlight two sections, and I’d be interested in any comments on these sections or the rest of the interview.

On the Indian Ocean and maritime power:

MJT: So you’re working on a book about the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan: Yeah. I’m deep into it. One day we’re going to wake up from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to see a changed world. We’re going to see a world where there are still geopolitical contests, but they’ll be between China and India. We’ll see the emergence of China on the world’s seas with less U.S. dominance. We’re going to see a more maritime world. We may live in an era of globalization, but 90 percent of all goods travel by sea in containers. It’s container shipping that allows for the whole globalization, the clothes we wear, the prices we pay for them, etc. Those who control the sea lanes are going to be crucial.

Now, we’ve seen a little of this already in the news with the piracy issue. When does piracy thrive when you read about piracy historically? It thrives when trade is thriving. Pirates are parasites. The more international trade is thriving, the more hosts are available for parasites. So piracy is an indication that things are good, in a way.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: And we see how critical these sea lines of communication are if just a few hundred pirates can get ships to divert from using the Suez Canal and instead choosing to go around southern Africa. Which is what’s happening.

So I think we’re going to make up more of a maritime world where the rim line of the world is going to be between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan with the Strait of Malacca as sort of the Fulda Gap of the 21st Century. The Fulda Gap, you know, was a valley in West Germany during the Cold War where Soviet tanks would come through if there was ever a confrontation.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: Global warming could change things a bit, if it’s true. If the seas really are warming and the ice is freeing up, land-locked Russia will no longer be land-locked. It has this vast coast to the north that it could suddenly use for shipping across the Arctic to North America, Japan, and elsewhere. That would bring a whole new advantage to Russia.

Now, of course you could say that Russia is losing population, the health statistics are terrible, and that’s true. That’s also something we’ll have to take into account. Russia is deteriorating greatly in social and medical terms. But if the ice really is melting, that’s going to provide a great benefit for Russia in the decades to come.

We don’t even look at that geography now. But we would start looking at it in an age of ice melt in the Arctic.

MJT: A lot of Americans will listen to what you’re saying about the Indian Ocean, that India and China are going to ramp up their navies, and they’ll be in charge of policing the Indian Ocean area, and say “Great. Finally. Someone else is finally doing this work. Why do we have to do it all the time?”

Kaplan: That’s a good point.

MJT: Would they be right? I mean, neither India nor China is an ideological power.

Kaplan: Right. Excellent. Look, not only that, our differences with China are much less than our differences with the Soviet Union.

MJT: Much less.

Kaplan: And India is a democratic country that’s inferentially pro-American. So your average American would be right. This is a way for us to gracefully retreat from global domination, by leveraging other powers to take up responsibility.

Either way, this is the world that will confront us after Iraq and Afghanistan. We will still be a great power, and an indispensable power. We’re the only great sea power operating in Asia that does not have territorial ambitions in Asia. We’re half a world away.

Kaplan’s interpretation of the appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan:

MJT: What do you think of him?

Kaplan: Oh, he’s got it. He’s another Petraeus. He’s larger than life. I’ve interviewed General David McKiernan, the man he’s replacing. He’s a good guy, but he’s no lightning. He has no great ideas.

I think deep down the real reason the Obama Administration fired McKiernan and wants to bring in McChrystal is because McChrystal is a man hunter. He got Zarqawi in Iraq. And Obama desperately wants to kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to show that they can do this better than the Republicans.

So the White House said, “we want to get these people.” And Secretary Gates said, “well, if you want to get them, McChrystal’s your man.” He ran the Joint Special Operations Command for five years. It conducts all the secret operations – Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, the best Ranger battalions. It’s all very secret. And they go out on man hunting missions and kill people.



  1. Truly great interview.

    I have no reason to dispute their facts, and their analysis makes perfect sense to me. I’m amazed how they can accurately and confidently sum up countries, interpreting their contacts in a greater context. It seems all too easy (and far too common) to just take one faction’s perspective as truth, or, on the other extreme, believe everyone and come to no moral conclusions. But I get the (brief) impression that they both strike a good balance in their ideology.

    Obama re McChrystal is a neat tidbit and something to look for in terms of finding Bin Laden (who might already be dead). And controlling sea lanes is a smart, well founded angle. It is fascinating that Russia may have motive to encourage global warming, at least to affect their northern ice.

  2. Kevin, I was impressed by the scope of the interview as well. They both seemed to be well-informed and have some depth in the way that they talked about each country.

  3. Joel, where’s your sense of adventure? Don’t you like paying for more than half the world’s military spending and having 800 bases around the world?

    I have to say that I was one of the Americans that Totten referred to that was relieved that the Chinese and Indians could police the Indian Ocean rather than us trying to be the lone superpower. I’ve wanted the US to get out of the empire business but it always troubles me what would come after we stepped back (sort of like the Iraq dilemma: how do we morally disengage from a problem that we helped create?) This interview allayed my fears a bit about American global power.

    Thanks also for the book and review. I find the logic as explained by the reviewer pretty compelling. The reviewer made an interesting point: where the Romans extracted tribute, we give aid. I guess it’s the multinational corporations who really reap the benefits of empire.

    How would you explain your ideal for American foreign policy? Kevin, take a crack at this one too, if you’d like.

  4. I’m one of those relieved Americans, too, as long as India and China, et alii, continue to view open lanes of commerce (free trade/market) as being in their own best interest.

    That actually approaches my ideal for foreign affairs on this topic. I’d like to see the US largely disengage (aid and militarily) while other countries step up to preserve the peace for reasons of their own self-interest in everyone’s liberty. Strangely, this could be a perverse silver lining of the self-inflicted (and somewhat natural) deterioration of the US, since it will be unable to engage so pervasively with the world.

    btw, though both contribute to US debt, the reviewer actually focused upon loans to the US, not aid from the US (which came to my mind, too). In any case, is extracting tribute really analogous to voluntary loans or giving aid or even purchases from multinational corporations?

    I tend to agree with many of the reviewer’s points, but morally speaking, economic hegemony roughly based upon free market ideals is so significantly different from oppressive violent hegemony, that it’s a shame they are so often conflated, as in the context of empire. Granted, this is an over-simplification, but I think we’re painting in broad strokes at this height.

    Well, I see I took the easy way out here, since foreign policy is far more difficult, complex, and variable than idealizing foreign affairs, but I hope I gave a flavor of my perspective. I’m curious how you and Joel (and any others) would answer your question, Scott.

  5. My ideal is simple isolation. Trade with other nations and negotiate with them. Leave our military at home defending our borders.

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