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Robert Kaplan On His New Book, Monsoon

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
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HH: It’s time for a great visit from one of our favorite guests, Robert Kaplan. He’s the senior correspondent for The Atlantic. He’s also at the Center For A New American Security. But we know him as the author of Imperial Grunts and Hog Pilots: Blue Water Grunts. He’s got a brand new book out which is just riveting. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power is so good that I’ve asked Robert to come back next week and the week thereafter as I’ve done with very few authors in the past so we can digest Monsoon in parts, and make it a little bit more accessible for the radio audience who in the meantime can get out and buy it. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. It’s at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Robert Kaplan, welcome back, it’s great to talk to you.

RK: It’s great to talk to you as well, Hugh.

HH: Well, I must say at the beginning, I was describing this, this morning, to my friend, David Aikman, long with Time Magazine. I think you may be the most intrepid American correspondent left. Before we talk about the book itself, when did you write it, and how long were you on the road in some of the most inhospitable places for Americans on the globe?

RK: Well, I got the idea in 2006 scanning Armed Forces Journal and some other military journals. They kept making references to the Indian Ocean. And whenever I’m in search of an idea, I go to an atlas. I look at a map. And I scan the map. And I looked at the Indian Ocean, and I said my word, here is the entire arc of Islam from the Sahara desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Here is the global energy interstate, you know, across which oil and natural gas travel from Arabia and the Iranian plateau all the way across the Indian Ocean and up to the burgeoning middle class fleshpots of Asia. Here is China moving in, moving south. Here is India moving east and west. Here’s the world. The security challenges that American is going to confront in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world, here is a world that Americans know so little about, because we’re prisoners of the Mercator Projection.

HH: And explain to people what that is.

RK: All right. When Americans look at a map, they look at a flat map. It’s called the Mercator Projection, North and South America in the center, and on the edges, you know, the Pacific Ocean is at one edge, the other half of the Pacific Ocean is at the other edge. And the Indian Ocean gets lost at the edges as well. So…and also, Americans know about the Atlantic, because we’re an Atlantic country. We know about the Pacific, because on the West Coast, we’re a Pacific country. But they know nothing about the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is the only ocean that is not, that does not have a great superpower on its borders.

HH: And as a result, a lot of the geography is simply unknown, even to well-read Americans, unpronounceable to people who have lots of experience with the world, but nevertheless very little experience with it. So I will give you my overall impression. I’m one-third through it when I started to slow down, because it’s unlike your amazing books, Imperial Grunts and Hog Pilots: Blue Water Grunts. It’s difficult going for someone, just because of the vocabulary. It’s absorbing and riveting, but it’s difficult going. And I must tell you at the end of the first third, I’m dizzy, and I’m also a little bit depressed, Robert Kaplan. How can the world possibly survive the stresses which are bubbling up in this region that you put on display in Monsoon?

RK: It will survive, and you’re not through the whole book yet, Hugh, but I can tell you at the very end, this is probably my most optimistic book.

HH: Well, that surprises me, because as we pick up, I’ve been through your travels in Pakistan…

RK: Yeah.

HH: Up into Oman, and we’re moving past the nationalist threat to India. But I’m still thinking about Pakistan. We’ll come back to this.

RK: Yeah.

HH: Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan. What do you do with that place?

RK: Yeah, all right, well let me just say that the world is what it is. You know, the challenges were just as complex and terrifying in previous centuries, only we didn’t know much about it because of global communications. And there is a certain order taking shape in the world that I deal with, which is it’s a balance of power world on steroids. It’s a Metternichian balance of power world where Indian will balance against China, along with Indonesia and Japan and South Korea, and Europe will balance against Russia, and we will support, you know, Russia in the Far East to balance against China, even though we won’t support Russia balancing against Europe. There will be a balance of power regimen that will keep the world, I believe, at relative peace. And I’m concentrating on the Indian Ocean in this book, because I feel it’s the only way to take a look at the world whole, without going into the bland nostrums of globalization, because the entire Earth is just too general an image to focus on. You’ve got to take a chunk of it.

HH: I congratulate you on that. In fact, when you call in Page 13, this is the new great game in geopolitics, I immediately thought of Peter Hopkirk’s wonderful books, including one by that name. And it really does sort of pulse with that. I will begin, then, with this question. You also note, almost casually, that the future strength of the U.S. Navy is uncertain, and that the 500 year period of Western preponderance, almost as a causation of that uncertainty, is at an end. Is this also a warning to the American people that they’ve got to get their Navy and their sea power back?

RK: Yeah, it is. One thing I’m bringing out in this book is that for the last ten years, we’ve been very much absorbed in messy, dirty ground wars, land wars. And so counterinsurgency has been all the rage. And what I’m saying is that the next conflicts may bear very little relationship to the ones we’re presently engaged in. Remember, the Navy really hasn’t been a centerpiece of our fight for a long time. It’s never really had a challenger. The last great naval battle, I think, was the Battle of the Philippine Sea…

HH: Right.

RK: …towards the end of World War II in the Pacific. Now I’m not predicting World War II-style naval battles. But what I do come to in the book is the rise of China, the rise of the Chinese navy and the modernization of the South Korean and Japanese navy, the growth of the Australian navy, the growth of the Indian navy to be one of the greatest navies in the world. And so while we’ve had a multi-polar world in economic terms for quite a while now, we’re entering a multi-polar world in military terms. And one of the greatest mistakes Americans could make is not to fund their Navy.

HH: I’m talking with Robert Kaplan, author of the brand new book, Monsoon. It’s listed at Hughhewitt.com, at Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. Robert, when we come back from break, we’ll talk more in depth about Pakistan. But I want to talk a little bit about something that is glimpsed throughout Monsoon, which is the rise of this dual use civilian military facility basing strategy, the string of pearls.

RK: Right.

HH: It’s a competition I don’t think many Americans know is underway right now.

RK: Yeah, yeah.

HH: Tell people what that means.

RK: Well, you’re talking about the Chinese ports.

HH: Yup.

RK: …that China is building. All right, I wish I had a map, but let me draw a mental map. You know, imagine in your minds, all the listeners, the Indian Ocean. And imagine its northern littoral is dominated by India. But just above India, kind of parallel to the Indian Ocean, is China. Now China is building a great navy. And China hopes to dominate the East Asia or the Western Pacific. But what isn’t reported on is that China is also building state of the art gigantic modern ports all along the Indian Ocean to the south of it, in Gwadar, in Pakistan, in Chittagong, in Bangladesh, in Kyauk Phru, in Burma, in Hambantota, in Sri Lanka. Now these are all countries that surround Indian, and where China is also giving significant amounts of, in fact, vast amounts of military and economic aid. So what is China’s goal here? I’m not paranoid. As I say in the book, and I go, you know, I get very subtle about this. China does not really plan to have naval bases in all these places, because that would be too provocative to India. And China is at pains that its neighbors see its rise as benevolent and non-hegemonic. But what China is building is these dual use facilities that will be warehouses, sort of through-put stations for their merchant marine to store all these consumer goods that China will sell to the Middle East and Africa, and also ports where its naval warships can visit, and possibly use in case of emergency. In other words, China is building the 21st Century equivalent of the British Empire. And these ports are veritable coaling stations, if you will.

– – – –

HH: I’m going to skip over Oman for a second, Robert Kaplan, come back to it after the break for timing purposes. I want to jump to your treatment of Pakistan, both the Baluchistan province and Gwadar and Karachi. First of all, were you ever sending peril as you traveled in these very often hostile parts of Pakistan?

RK: No, not at all. Not at all. I had a good companion. I had several guides that I used. And Pakistan, you know, it’s very strange. Pakistan is violent in a very political way, and in an inter-ethnic and religious way. But it’s not violent in terms of random crime or anything like that. You know, Islam has really constructed a kind of moral society in that sense that keeps the family structure together. But by becoming so austere, it’s become ideological. And the ripple effect of that is terrorism.

HH: Now you write at one point, or you quote someone as saying Pakistan is not eternal. I underlined that a couple of times, and began to think about that. Boy, is that an understatement. But the consequences of that sort of realism are very difficult to contemplate. Would you unpack that, what it means for Baluchistan, what it means for the rest of Pakistan?

RK: Yes. Yeah, India, the best way to unpack it for the listeners is to compare it to India. India has geographical logic. If you look at a map, there’s the Arabian Sea in the southwest, the Bay of Bengal in the southeast, there are the Himalayas to the north. India couldn’t fall apart if it wants to. It’s just there. You know, it’s a section of the map. But Pakistan has no geographical logic. You know, it contains areas that were under different empires. It has no natural borders at all. All its borders are artificial. It was set up as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. But there are more, there are almost as many Muslims in India proper, which is Hindu dominated, than there is in Pakistan itself. And Pakistan contains four basic regions. Baluchistan in the southwest on the Arabian Sea, which is, you know, the book’s about the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea is part of the Indian Ocean. It’s got Sindh in the southeast, also on the Arabian Sea. It’s got the Punjab in the northeast, and it’s got the Pakhtuns in what used to be called the Northwest Frontier province in the northwest. And these are all regional identities, ethnic religious, for which Islam is not a sufficient adhesive. It doesn’t hold the country together. So while we’ve been concentrating on the struggle with the Pakhtuns relative to our Afghan war, actually, Pakistan is coming apart in the south, because the Baluchis and the Sindhis feel that their country is just being dominated and overrun by a Punjabi-led army based in Rawalpindi, you know, in northeastern Pakistan, that Pakistan is kind of like a fissuring Yugoslavia, if you will.

HH: That’s what really comes through in this chapter.

RK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HH: And very well done. And the Bhuttos, as the alternative to the military, really never got it together, and at the end of this…

RK: No, they didn’t. They did…no civilian leaders got it together. And the military, Pakistan has failed both under civilian rule, and also under military rule. Just as Yugoslavia was held together by a Serb-dominated army, Pakistan is held together by a Punjabi-dominated army.

HH: So can commerce provide the adhesive? I mean, when you talk about Gwadar…

RK: Well, hopefully. Again, it needs to be said, these statistics came out after my book went to press, but the middle, the poverty rate has been cut in a third over the last nine years, which a lot of credit for that should go to the former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. But still, there isn’t enough of a middle class in Pakistan. It’s, I use Gwadar as an example because it’s this port built by the Chinese, part of their string of pearls, on the Arabian Sea. And I go to Gwadar, and I see this very quaint, 19th Century fishing village with an airport that’s so small it doesn’t even have a conveyor belt for luggage. And yet there are these plans to make Gwadar into a future Dubai, or you know, or Singapore, or other grandiose, global port cities.

HH: But they’ve got all these natural resources which are just waiting there to be tapped.

RK: Right. Yes.

HH: So that’s the upside to this.

RK: Here’s the positive scenario. If Pakistan can gradually, little by little get its act together, 30-40 years from now, you would have all of Central Asia with pipelines and railroads and highways connected all through Pakistan, down to the egress at Gwadar and Karachi on the Indian Ocean. And the most remote parts of Central Asia would be connected to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan. And the whole region would pulse with commerce.

HH: But when you talk about Karachi, and you know, the 16 million who are living there, this very unplanned city, how much of that 16 million are threatened by Islamist fanaticism?

RK: It’s not that they’re personally threatened. It’s that Islamist fanaticism undermines the state as a whole. And that has an effect on how the state fails to provide goods and services to the population. So Pakistan is a very weakly governed state. It’s got a middle class, it’s got some really aggressive professional journalists who report and expose corruption and malfeasance, but it’s not enough. It’s just not enough. It’s basically this nuclearized Yugoslavia in the making, held together by a Punjabi-led army.

HH: You mention at length, a great portrait of Jinnah here. Not many people know about Jinnah, and what I knew I only knew from Freedom At Midnight and some of the popular histories. Is there another Jinnah-like character who can emerge out of this to combine all of the aspirations of the various sectors of Pakistan?

RK: Well of course, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the founder of modern Pakistan. And he died right after the state’s creation. And his vision was sort of like a Muslim republic that would be secular in personality, kind of like Turkey in its first few decades. That didn’t happen. That didn’t happen. The military took power, and in order to assuage the Islamists and the radicals, it made all these deals with the worst elements. And so Pakistan foundered. I don’t see another Jinnah on the horizon, Hugh. I don’t see it in the military. I certainly don’t see it in the civilian sector.

– – – –

HH: And I want to go backwards a little bit to Oman now, Robert Kaplan, but not before noting that all of my Portuguese-American friends up in the Central Valley, listening on KYNO, are going to love the fact that the Portuguese seafaring tradition finally gets its due in a little popular history. That is just simply not well known, I don’t believe.

RK: No, it isn’t. I mean, the Portuguese constituted one of the most incredible empires in world history. And I write about Vasco da Gama, about Luiz Camoes, the great Portuguese poet, and how if you’re going to discuss the Indian Ocean, you have to, you know, you can’t escape the fact, the historical fact of the Portuguese, who were the first outsider to do anything comprehensive with the ocean, to set up trading facilities all the way from East Africa to the Indonesian archipelago.

HH: You know, it’s very interesting, at one point, you find these old ruin Catholic churches. I’m trying to find my notes where they are.

RK: They’re in Diaoyu.

HH: Oh, in Diaoyu.

RK: Diaoyu and Gujerat in India.

HH: And it’s as though the Catholics and the Jesuits pushed in and bounced off of the Indian Ocean perimeter. It’s like there’s nothing left.

RK: Yeah, yeah. That’s because, as I said, they didn’t lose an idea, an uplifting idea, whereas the British united the Indian Subcontinent through its railroads, and helped create a real cohesive national identity.

HH: There’s a lot of history in Monsoon which I will leave to the reader to revel in. I want to touch on Oman briefly, though. Oman is a hopeful part of the book Monsoon. On the other hand, their benevolent dictator is an old man, and there’s no successor.

RK: Right. Yes, Sultan Qabus is probably, of Oman, is probably the most extraordinary underreported-about leader in the Arab world. He’s the most erudite, the most well-read, the most well-spoken in Arabic. He can discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue from both the Israeli point of view and the Palestinian point of view. He has good relations with the United States, great relations with Iran. He’s the ultimate intermediary, yet he’s shunned publicity, because he’s so understated he’s like an old-fashioned Victorian gentleman for whom getting publicity is almost a sign of bad character.

HH: So what happened? Does Oman go backwards towards the chaos that is Yemen? Or does it move forward towards the more modern states of the Middle East, the Emirates?

RK: I think it moves forward, more modern, because Sultan Qabus has established a real, two things. He’s established a real state identity. People feel themselves as Omanis first. And number two, he’s established real institutions of government – ministries, bureaus that actually work, where you can get things done without having to pay bribes like in Pakistan. So he created a functioning state with a small population, relatively wealthy in natural resources and oil. So I think Oman goes forward. But it’s not going to be a completely smooth road, because the Sultan has been so dynamic, he supports the environment, women’s rights, all that stuff. And this is an Arab ruler. That he’s going to be a very tough act to follow, and I think the Sultan is an absolute monarch. He’s sort of the ultimate benevolent dictator like Li Quan Yu in Singapore. But the next monarch is going to have to open up the society, decentralize a bit, rule not so absolutely, because it’s hard to imagine that the next ruler of Oman is going to combine all the skills of the present sultan.

HH: And you also, you’re very quick to point out democracy in the Western sense, simply isn’t always the answer wherever we go. And Oman is your, I guess, exhibit number one for that, Robert Kaplan. How’s that going on with the small d democrats around the world?

RK: I think the world is very realistic about democracy. We all know that states in the long run are better off with freer societies, with elections, civilian rule. But we’ve also learned that you can’t impose solutions in the short run. You have to let things evolve. And after all, where would we be in the Middle East without King Mohammed VI in Morocco, without President Ben Ali in Tunisia, without Sultan Oman in Oman, without Ali Salah in Yemen, without King Abdullah in Jordan. These are all relatively non-democratic rulers. But they’re essentially pro-Western, pro-American.

HH: We’ll come back with Robert Kaplan, on to India.

– – – –

HH: Robert, on to India, but we begin with Gujarat and Modi. I hope I get my pronunciations right.

RK: Yes, your pronunciation is right.

HH: It’s a fascinating look at a fascinating individual. But I think you’d better start with the events of 2002, and maybe a little geography on this home of 50 million people.

RK: Right. Yeah, think of Gujarat. Gujarat is in northwestern India, with a long, squiggly, shattered coastline. It’s always been at the heart of Indian Ocean trade and commerce. You know, it has ships going, for going back centuries, trading textiles and agricultural goods to East Africa to the west, and to Southeast Asia and Indonesia to the east. Gujaratis have traditionally been among the most adroit, skillful, business oriented Indians. I think, I read a statistic, I think I quote it in the book, that of all the Indian immigrants in New York City, 40% are Gujarati.

HH: Yes, you did. They also go to Silicon Valley in great numbers.

RK: Oh, yes. Yeah, they’re a really, really talented subculture of India. It’s also the most dynamic, commercially and economically dynamic part of India, and we all know how dynamic India has become. But while it’s been so global, globalized on one hand, it also has very strong communal identities. You know, Hindus are really Hindu in Gujarat, and Muslims feel really Islamic in Gujarat. This is partly because Gujarat, because it’s in northwestern India, has born the brunt of foreign invasions going back to the early Middle Ages, coming down into the Indian subcontinent, which have often been very bad for communal, inter-communal peace. So people have very strong, into religion on one hand, but very globalized in every other way. Just to give you an example, in restaurants in Gujarat, almost all the food is vegetarian. It’s hard to find a restaurant with meat, serving meat in Gujarat. There is no alcohol in Gujarat, you know, at restaurants, because this is interesting, because Gandhi, Mohandas Gandhi, was a Gujarati. And he was a very typical Gujarati, because he started his career of working for the rights of man in South Africa…

HH: Right.

RK: …where he was an Indian immigrant. And of course, Gujaratis emigrated all through Africa, and later to the United States, et cetera. So Gandhi was a Gujarati. You know, you can’t talk about India without dealing with Gujarat. Then we get to the figure of Narendra Modi, who I profile in the book. Modi is sort of the prime minister, the chief minister of Gujarat. And he’s extremely charismatic, extremely efficient, and extremely, you know, efficient administrator. He tolerates no corruption. Gujarat is probably the most well run part of India, and yet at the same time, he’s a fervent Hindu who is very, you know, according to his actions, he’s been very anti-Islamic, very anti-Muslim. In 2002, there were terrible pogroms against Muslims in Ahmedabad, the capitol of Gujarat, that Modi stokes, that probably wouldn’t have happened without his actions.

HH: And very well organized, very effectively deployed. It was not an accident.

RK: Exactly. And he was behind it. And so I went to do a profile of Gujarat for my Indian Ocean book, and a profile of Modi. And I had a long interview with Modi. And I gave him one opportunity after the other to apologize for the events of 2002. And he would not take the bait. You know, he just showed absolutely no remorse, and this is what makes him a very alienating, controversial figure in India. Up until about 2008, people were fearful that he might one day become prime minister of India. Since then, India has sort of turned a corner. Hindu-Muslim relations are better now. The real threat that India faces is with its Maoist Naxalite terrorists in eastern and central India.

HH: Yeah, it was a fascinating portrait of an interview, Robert Kaplan. And I put it down and I started thinking, Hitchens and I recently had a long conversation about the various people he’s interviewed over the years on the sinister to joyful scale. And Modi comes across as a joyless technocrat, but also, as you say, not a fascist, but I mean, I have trouble placing him with a parallel anywhere.

RK: Yes, he is what he is. I mean, people compare him to Hitler. They compare him to Li Quan Yu in Singapore. But he is what he is. He’s uncomparable. He’s like one of these new charismatic figures that the electronic age has thrown off.

HH: Now you also say that eventually, they’ve got to come to grips with 2002, but I made a note. You know, Tiananmen Square was never, has never been grieved or acknowledged by the Chinese, by Deng Xiaoping thereafter. It is just the great unspoken cataclysm.

RK: Yeah, yeah it’s almost as if China’s economic surge has sort of been the apology for Tiananmen Square. And so that raises the question. If Gujarat can keep growing economically, nobody may ever apologize for what happened in 2002.

HH: You’re an optimist at the end of this chapter, and I’ll press on to Delhi and beyond, about Hindus and hate. Explain to people why you are.

RK: Why you are?

HH: Why you are optimistic that Hindus will not give into sort of Islamist hate.

RK: Because first of all, the Indian economy, even in this age of great recession, has been growing at about 8% a year. This, India is catching up at a fast rate. It’s creating new jobs. It’s creating new businesses. People are becoming more globalized. And India’s had bad riots between Hindus and Muslims for going back decades. And it just seems to overcome this. And I think it will continue to do so. India is becoming, it’s interesting about India. Indians used to compare themselves with Pakistan. They used to be this hyphenation. India-Pakistan. The hyphenation now, Hugh, is India-China.

HH: We’ll come back with the final segment of this week’s conversation with Robert Kaplan, the first third of the book, Monsoon on the table.

– – – –

HH: As we conclude this, Robert, there’s a fascinating passage in here where you talk about your trip to Somnath, but you also talk about your trip to the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, and the Black Madonna Shrine in Poland. You kind of have to be a student of comparative religion. And I’m wondering at the end of this, which of these world religions do you see as being the least abrasive in the coming world, or the most likely to prosper in the coming century?

RK: I can’t really pick one. But one thing I’ll point out is we in America have been obsessed with 9/11, with political Islam, with radical Islam. And what we ignore, which I address later in the book, is the fact that the real change in the Muslim world over the last twenty years has not been radicalism, so much as the creation of the vast middle class. You can see this in Cairo, in Damascus, and Casablanca, and you can see it in India. And you can see it especially in Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world. And this middle class has the same aspirations as middle class people of other denominations. So I think eventually, we’re going to get beyond radical Islam. Radical Islam is going to be absorbed into this more benign Muslim middle class with economic values of getting ahead, of providing for their children. If you want to see a glimpse of what this middle class values, look at the English edition of Al Jazeera television, which is sort of European center-left without being too far left.

HH: Oh, fascinating. Robert Kaplan, we’ll continue the conversation about India and China next time when we get together. But I’ve got to ask before I go, completely unrelated to the specifics of Monsoon, when Robert Kaplan lays his head down and starts to daydream, or perhaps nod off, given that you’ve been everywhere in the world, what do you dream of?

RK: (laughing) I forget my dreams when I wake up.

HH: Oh you do? There’s not a favorite place to which your thoughts turn?

RK: Actually, Oman and Yemen are two of the most scenic countries I’ve seen in the world.

HH: And you write about the ball and chain of the Indian landscape. I must say, some of these travels are not particularly alluring to a travel person.

RK: Yeah.

HH: You’re speechless?

RK: I’m speechless. I’m stimulated by what’s interesting. It doesn’t have to be beautiful in a conventional sense.

HH: Well said. Robert Kaplan, I look forward to our next conversation. Again, America, the book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power. It’s shooting up the bestseller lists as it should. If you want to know where the world is headed and how it’s going to get there, read Monsoon. We’ll be back with Robert Kaplan, I hope, next week, Chapters 7-13.

End of interview.

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