Robert Kaplan on The Revenge Of Geography
HH: Special couple of hours of the Hugh Hewitt Show ahead. Robert Kaplan is back. He is the author of the brand new book, The Revenge Of Geography. It’s out from Random House. Robert Kaplan is the author of 14 books. He’s the foreign correspondent, of course, for The Atlantic, senior strategist now at Stratfor.com, and has been a frequent guest on this show. Robert Kaplan, welcome back, it’s great to have you back.
RK: It’s great to be with you, Hugh. Thanks for having me.
HH: In the past, we’ve talked about Imperial Grunts, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, about Monsoon, wonderful books all, very wonderful conversations. The Revenge Of Geography, though, is very different. I thought of it as almost a meditation on everything else you’ve written, and all the places you’ve been. Did you intend it to be understood as very different?
RK: I’m not sure that I intended it to be different. I did intent it to be a meditation on my last thirty years as a foreign correspondent, and everything I’ve seen and thought. And if I had to summarize what I could take home from thirty years of traveling and reporting, it’s that landscape matters. Where you are makes a big difference.
HH: Would you being by defining for everyone who’s forgotten, our age and those who never learned who are younger, what geography is?
RK: Geography is the study, it’s not just looking at a map. That’s what we think it is. Geography has been superseded by political science, by globalization, by economics, by communications technology. So we think of geography as something musty like a one-room schoolhouse. In fact, geography is extremely relevant. Geography in the 18th-19th Century meaning of the word, which is what I aim to recapture in this book, means not just looking at a map. It means looking at a map and seeing where the mountains are, where the deserts are, where the coastlines are, what people live on it, how long have they lived there, what has been their experience over hundreds and thousands of years, what mineral wealth, and what wealth in metals, in oil and natural gas do they have. In other words, geography is the generalist’s answer to specialization, because a map, just any map contains all sorts of generalizations about a place if you look at it long enough. And what I’m saying in this book is that thirty years as a foreign correspondent has taught me that we all need to recover a sense of time and place that has been lost in this age, when all these pundits dash across continents within hours, and look down from 30,000 feet, and therefore just see the world, as one pundit wrote, as flat.
HH: You know, I must say, I was reading The Revenge Of Geography, and was recalling 35 years ago, I left Harvard, and I had been in Stanley Hoffman’s classrooms, and Harvey Mansfield, and we read Kissinger’s book, which you refer here to. And I went out to San Clemente, and I went to work for Richard Nixon as a ghost writer on the book, The Real War. In the classroom, it was all about high theory. And all Nixon cared about was strategy and geography. This book kind of reverses it, geography and then strategy. But at least, it’s the same conversations that we used to have in San Clemente. But I don’t think academics much have, Robert Kaplan.
RK: No, no. In fact, strategy emanates from geography, because what geography shows is the battle of space and power. Geography is the spatial representation of human divisions. And the strategist is concerned with not what unites us, but with what divides us, and what people, what are the interests of the Chinese, what are the interests of the Russians, how do they see the world, because once you know that, then you can craft a strategy. And in fact, one could say that looking back decades, people like Richard Nixon and James Baker and George Schultz, and Henry Kissinger, all look much better now. You know, the longer time goes on, the better they look. And why? Because they were concerned with constraints, with what the United States could not do. All the pundits these days are concerned with what we can do, with where we can intervene, how we can erect democracy. But wisdom, prudence and foreign policy starts with constraints. And constraints begin with an understanding of geography.
HH: Now one of the most interesting aspects of The Revenge Of Geography is that it forces me back to books I read before the collapse of the Soviet Unions, because as you make the point repeatedly, the collapse of the USSR, it’s no longer there, but the Cold War’s end didn’t really change the fundamentals. And all those old books, and all those old arguments still matter, Robert Kaplan.
RK: Yes, yes.
HH: And you make that point again and again.
RK: Yes, in fact, we thought we had solved the problem of Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and of the Soviet Union two years later. We thought that the division of Europe between east and west had ended, now there was just Central Europe and other regions. But that’s not completely the case, because Vladimir Putin, who thinks geographically, who thinks geostrategically, who is not the ogre, the villain that people think he is, he’s just a Russian who has a good sense of his own history who thinks geographically. And Vladimir Putin covets buffer zones in Eastern Europe, in the Caucuses, in Central Asia, because Russia has been invaded by Swedes and Poles and Lithuanians and Germans and French over the centuries, so that the battle for Eastern Europe goes on, though it goes on in a far more subtle way than it did during the Cold War.
HH: In the second hour, we’re going to come back to Russia, China and the other great power conflicts that are across the map. I want to begin in this hour with the setup, though, but I will say I was reading this on the way down to Tampa Bay on the airplane, and I was tweeting out, hey, everyone, get this book and read Pages 119-129 as essential, because they are about urban life in mega-cities, about mass media and statelessness, about the incredible impact of over-stimulation. And I think you’re predicting an era of unprecedented tumult as a combination of these factors come together.
RK: Yes. You see, people think, Hugh, that technology, because it has collapsed distances, has made geography irrelevant. Rather, the opposite. Technology, by closing distances, has made geography all that much more precious. The very finite size of the Earth is now a force for instability, because now you have over-stimulated people in mega-cities, inflamed by mass media, enraged over patches of ground in places like Palestine, Kashmir and so on. You know, when you think about mega-cities, how many cities in the world, Hugh, do you think have over a million people in it?
HH: It’s going to be forty with more than 10 million, right?
RK: No, it’s almost 500.
HH: Good Lord.
RK: And how many cities do you think have over ten million people?
HH: Is that the 40 number from my notes?
RK: No, the ten million, I think there are about, almost 30 cities in the world that have ten million or more.
RK: And almost 500 cities that have one million or more. This is an urban planet we live on. And even the places that we consider rural, like sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Turkey are in fact increasingly urbanized. So an urbanization requires infrastructure. It requires traffic lights, street cleaning, all of which overwhelm. Governments have trouble providing.
HH: Now I’ve got to ask you whether or not, you cite a lot of old books, and after the break, I’m going to talk about some of these great authors, but is there anyone out there right now who is thinking through the sheer ubiquity of how Twitter changes everything, how YouTube channelizes everything, and how it’s first a current, then the velocity of ideas and changes arrive. Does anyone, do you, has anyone impressed you with thinking through this on a geostrategic level?
HH: That’s wild.
RK: Because most people who are obsessed with writing, or knowing about things like YouTube and Twitter, are not interested in geography or geostrategy. What requires a man of parts, people who are interested in things that normally don’t go together. Now the one author who comes close, and I write about him quite a bit in the book, is Yale Professor, Paul Bracken.
HH: Yes, and we will come back to him. Don’t go anywhere, America.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, one thing I did not see, I know you’re not a theologian, but in The Revenge Of Geography, you do often touch on Islam, both in history and its current manifestation, but not on Roman Catholicism. And to me, the Church is sort of Achilles out of his tent now, and the Church is back resurgent in North America, South America, places in Africa. Do you see any big role for Roman Catholicism as opposed to Islam in the next few decades?
RK: Well, the book’s centered mainly, Hugh, on Eurasia. There’s actually relatively little on Africa and South America in the book.
RK: You know, I chose Eurasia as the center for my thesis. And in Eurasia, with the exception of, like, low birth countries in Western Europe, Catholicism doesn’t really play much of a role. And it’s Islam and Confucianism, and religions like that that play more of a role, though I will be dealing more with Confucianism in a future book.
HH: And in the Korean Peninsula, Evangelical Christianity is deeply rooted.
RK: That’s true, yeah.
HH: All right, so we’ll put that aside. Let’s go to the great authors. And I’d like you to give a quick summary, and I may just butcher pronunciations. Sir Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and then Major General Professor Doctor Karl Haushofer. These three, I know about Mahan. If you read any naval history, you know about him. But the first and the last, I didn’t know anything about until The Revenge Of Geography. Tell the audience about these.
RK: And there’s also Nicholas Spykman.
HH: Yes, he comes up in my notes in a little bit. Tell them about those four then, that quartet.
RK: Okay, Sir Halford J. Mackinder was a British geographer who is famous for one article. He wrote vast amounts over the course of his life, but he’s been judged on the basis of one article called The Geographical Pivot Of History, published in 1904. And it’s 1904, it’s the midst of the Edwardian Age in England. Europe, with the exception of the Franco-Prussian war, and the uprisings of 1848, has essentially known peace since the end of the Napoleonic War. It’s almost been a century when Europe can devote itself to itself, mainly, and not have to worry about wider conflicts. Here is Mackinder, then, in this situation, saying that the end, the world is now closed, that the empires of Europe have mapped out, have occupied Africa, Asia. There’s almost no place in the world that hasn’t been taken by Europe. And therefore, future wars are going to be worldwide. They’re not just going to involve the continent. We’re entering a global history. We’re leaving a continental history. And he’s saying that Europe’s drama will continue, has throughout history come from eruptions from the east, from Russia, from the forests of Russia. And he said that the drama will be between a Germany breaking out and a Russia in the east. And he explains this all in a brilliant article through geography. Now it isn’t just World War I that Mackinder intuited. It’s World War II as well, and the Cold War.
RK: Because Mackinder draws a map of all of Eurasia, talking about the battle for space, for the interior Eurasia. And it will be a battle between a land power like Russia, with thousands of miles of railway lines extending its power, and sea powers like Great Britain and the United States who can sail around the southern rim land of Eurasia, and knock against that land power from the rim lands like the Iranian plateau, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, etc. When you think of what the world was like in 1904, this was one brilliant article.
HH: He was also preceded by the great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. You had to have known him in depth when you were the professor at the Naval Academy.
RK: Yes, I did. But you know what’s interesting about that, Hugh? It’s that at the Naval Academy these days, they barely teach Mahan.
HH: Why is that?
RK: You know where they teach him?
HH: In China.
RK: In China, in India…
RK: …because those places have really aggressive, you know, have real aggressive tendencies with their, in terms of their naval ambitions. The United States no longer does.
HH: Do you think he still matters…
RK: In other words, the real true Mahanians are now in Beijing and New Delhi.
HH: And do you believe that these two guys are still driving, are still anticipating, or as you say, intuiting, what is going to play out in the next 100 years?
RK: Yes, yes I do, because Mahan wrote in a book published in 1919, now completely forgotten. You know, one of the raps against Mahan is that he was a fatalist, because he said geography determined everything. Mahan was not a fatalist. He believed in human agency. He just believed that you had to be honest about all the physical forces arrayed against you. And only once you were honest about that could you devise a plan to overcome them. And after World War I, Mahan devised, said that what the world needed was vibrant, independent buffer states stretching from the Gulf of Finland all the way down to the Black Sea to separate Germany and Russia…
RK: …because he did not believe that the battle between Germany and Russia was ended by World War I. He alone thought that it would continue.
HH: Talk about then what you call in the book the Nazi distortion, and the work of Major General Professor Doctor Karl Haushofer.
RK: Yes, Major General Professor Doctor Karl Haushofer was a German academic in Munich who had been in the military, and he was basically, he basically tutored Hitler on geopolitics. Hitler had just failed in taking power through the Beer Hall Putsch in 1922, I think it was. He was in Landsberg Prison, he was allowed to have visitors, and he occasionally had Professor Haushofer as a visitor. And Hitler, being a badly, poorly educated man, needed someone of much higher education to tutor him on foreign policy. And Haushofer distorted Mackinder’s vision. Mackinder was all about balancing, that you needed a balance of power, because it was the balance of power that preserved freedom. One state balanced against another, each state could then go about developing its own society peacefully and productively. Haushofer was not interested in that. Haushofer wanted to completely overturn the balance of power so that Germany would dominate the world. He saw a Germany that stretched from France all the way deep into Central Asia. And so Haushofer provided the missing element in Nazi strategy.
HH: And united some very bad fevers in Hitler and the men that surrounded him.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, although it’s 350 wonderful pages, early on you sort of tip your hand, Page 4. This book is an argument between you and Francis Fukuyama, who is the end of history, kind of launch the dance or the holiday from history, or the holiday from geography following the end of the Cold War. Do you expect any reaction from Fukuyama to this, or a debate with him at any point? I’d pay money to see that.
RK: Yeah, well actually, I think I’m fair to Fukuyama in the book.
HH: You’re fair.
RK: Yeah, I mean in the sense that unlike others, I’ve actually defined his thesis accurately. He didn’t predict the end of history, per se. He predicted the end of the argument in a Hegelian sense in terms of what form of government was best for individual people. And he said that the argument is over, liberal democracy has won out. He didn’t say there would be no more wars or uprising. He said there would be, but they wouldn’t be fought over fundamental consequential things like philosophy in this sense.
HH: But you know, in your book is embedded, especially in your meditations on the Iraq war, which we’ll come back to, and on Russia, and on Putin, and on China, a rebuke to that idea that the argument is over.
RK: Yeah, yeah, but first, you know, but at least I defined him, you know?
RK: You know, that his theory was more subtle than many people think.
HH: How do you expect this book to be taken by people.
RK: Well, let me just say that the problem with, it isn’t just Francis Fukuyama. It’s the whole…I would say, the whole policy elite is concerned, and this is very important what I’m going to say. The whole policy elite is concerned with what we can do, with what we can change and affect. In other words, it’s all about human agency on every op-ed page, liberal or conservative, and all the elite journals of opinion and book reviews. But that’s only what I consider like half of the historical reality. This book is about the other half of historical reality, the things we can’t change, and the constraints we have to work within. I’m not saying that human agency is a chimera, that it’s false, that it’s overrated. I’m just saying I’m going to show you the other side of it.
HH: You also, and I want readers, listeners to understand, you explain this to them in a way that they will get it. You argue Isaiah Berlin versus Hobbes is one of those divisions which is going to drive a lot of the disagreements that are incorporated into the book and anticipated here, and that, and this is a controversial statement, Robert Kaplan. “There are things worse than communism it turned out, and in Iraq, we brought them about ourselves. I say this as someone who supported regime change.”
RK: Yes, absolutely. I was in Iraq under Saddam Hussein several times, and it was the most frightful place I had ever been. It was like one vast prison yard lighted up by high wattage lamps. Everyone was terrified, paranoid. And I thought what could be worse than this? I would go from Iraq to Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, and Syria by comparison, under the Assads, was relatively liberal, because in Iraq, you couldn’t even think or talk against the regime. In Syria, you could talk against it if you whispered and you kept it within the family. So I said well, what’s worse than this? Well, it turned out that if you looked at the death rate in the war in 2006-2007, it was worse or comparable to what Saddam had done, because at least under Saddam, you could, you know, things were predictable. You knew the rules, and if you went against them, terrible things would happen. But in the situation we brought about in Iraq, there were no rules, so nobody was protected. I’m not saying that the war could not have been fought differently, that if we didn’t have a totally inexperienced three star who had just previously been a two star, or whatever, had we put in an experienced four star at the beginning, it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference. But a lot of the mistakes in the Iraq war are inherent in the hubris of the conception.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, as I went to break last time, I said I was going to ask you this. Knowing what we know now, are you glad we did what we did then, especially in light of conversations we’ve previously had where you said look, no one could understand what this Stalin in Iraq had done. And he could have done horrible things if he’d had what even Libya had at the time, or Syria strove to get from North Korea. So what do you think from our perspective in 2012 about what happened in 20003?
RK: All right, the Iraq war, look, you can play out all kinds of counterfactuals, Hugh. And counterfactuals are interesting. They’re instructive. But ultimately, you’re left with the facts that you have with what actually happened. And with what actually happened, we spent over a trillion dollars, maybe 200,000 Iraqis were killed, the figures are controversial, I know, about 5,000 American troops were killed, and more importantly, about 30,000 were seriously wounded, over a thousand of them had lost a major limb. We got a highly imperfect, barely functioning democracy that is allied with Iran, though that could change in a few years. I write about that in my book. On the whole, I would say that we paid too big a price for what we achieved.
HH: In that calculation, how do you add in, for example, the Libyan disarmament that preceded the instability…
RK: That was obviously…look, it wasn’t only the Libyan disarmament. Hafez al-Assad, I mean, Bashir al-Assad in Syria might have collapsed in 2006 or 2007 had Iraq not fallen into disarray as it did. But as I said, you can say that had we made better decisions, had we managed the war differently, it all would have been different. But we have to make, I have to answer your question, Hugh, based on the facts we have.
HH: Do you think, as you wrote early in the book, the Balkans led us to Baghdad. Do you think that Baghdad will keep us out of places that we ought to go in the near future in the next couple of decades?
RK: All right, the Balkans led us to Baghdad for a lot of people, but not for all people. As I write, there were quite a few liberal internationalists who supported the intervention in the Balkans, but opposed it or were at least ambivalent about it in the case of Iraq. Will Baghdad keep us out of other places? This is an excellent question, because here’s the problem President Obama faces in Syria, and whoever is elected in November will face in the days and weeks afterwards, which is if you want to establish a no-fly zone, a no-fly zone could lead to the collapse of the regime. And so a no-fly zone in October, say, leads to calls for U.S. troops on the ground as peacekeepers in December or January, say. It could be a very slippery slope. And because of Baghdad, the American people have no appetite. If we got involved substantially in Syria, and we didn’t fix the problem sufficiently within a few weeks, there would be a hue and cry on the home front. So the lesson is when you overstretch yourselves, as it turned out we did in Iraq, that makes it less likely that you can take the risks for humanitarianism in future operations. And that is what The Revenge Of Geography is all about – understand limits, understand geography, that way we won’t overextend, and that will actually prepare, that will actually provide more opportunities for the interventions we do decide to take part in.
HH: Let me also say, one of the things I think is so valuable that The Revenge Of Geography is, you force people who read it to confront the consequences of going from 280 ships to 250, as opposed to back up to 340 as Romney has outlined. And it’s really quite stunning, Robert Kaplan, against the backdrop of The Revenge Of Geography, that we’re contemplating that kind of downsizing.
RK: Yeah, I would put it as a world with a 250 ship U.S. Navy is a different world than a world with a 280 ship Navy, and a far different world than a world with a 340 ship Navy. A world with a 250 ship Navy is a much more multi-polar world. Now we already have multi-polarity in a diplomatic sense, certainly in economic terms. But we don’t have it in a military sense, because despite the rigors of Iraq and Afghanistan, our Navy and Air Force dominate the world to a much greater extent than anyone else’s navy and air force. Armies are for contingencies, but navies and air forces project power around the world on a daily basis.
HH: Gosh, I hope people are listening to that. Now I also want to bring up not just geography but demography, because Mark Steyn, a frequent guest on this program, wrote America Alone and After America. You don’t reference him by name, but you write that you know, demography can be overstated, even as you write on Page 147, Europe’s going to lose 24% of its prime working population by 2050.
HH: People over 60 will rise by 47%. Percentages of Muslims in major European counties will more than double. With all that on the pages, you nevertheless do seem to discount Mark’s grim view of the future because he counts demography before he goes to geography.
RK: Yeah, look, a book can’t take everything into account. What I’m trying to do here is to show, is to return people to basics, to explain the map of the world as it relates to the choices we face in foreign policy.
HH: And so when you write about Herodotus, and he’s writing about the vast movements of people across maps, demography isn’t one of those drivers which is…
RK: Well, I do deal with demography in the chapter The Crisis Of Room.
RK: And in terms of youth bulges, it’s true the world is aging. But in the 30 or so most unstable countries, populations are extremely young, and the youth bulge is widening. Now what’s a youth bulge? It’s young, unemployed males.
HH: And a dangerous group of people.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, this is a very short segment, but I want to use it to introduce your pivot to the here and the now in the near term, and you do so with Europe. And you talk about the long European war of 1914-1989. In two or three minutes, is that war over, done, finished now?
RK: That was is over, but, but, the battle for the space between Germany and Russia goes on in more subtle forms. The European Union was to keep the Russians out and the Germans down. It did neither. Germany dominates Europe economically, Russia is flush with cash from oil and natural gas revenues. Eastern Europe, especially Central Europe, too, need Russian natural gas. Putin uses this as a lever. You know, you can really see the competition now between Germany and Russian when Angela Merkel makes a statement, makes a visit to Moldova, to the Baltic states. You see the Baltic states trying to build liquefied natural gas terminals in order to take natural gas from elsewhere in the world and convert it in order to lessen their dependence on Russia. You see Poland increasing its military budget, you know, and leaning heavily on the United States. This belt of countries that Mackinder first identified is still in play. You know, nobody’s asked the question, Hugh. We know the European Union is in bad shape. It’s facing zero growth for most of the countries. The Euro Zone may contract. But nobody’s asked what’s the geopolitical consequences, and I deal with that in the book. The geopolitical consequences are increased Russian influence.
RK: The Russians are now buying up financial and infrastructure assets throughout Central Europe and Eastern Europe from banks to electricity grids. They’ve got hundreds of billions of dollars to spend, and the Russians now are poised to undermine Ukraine and other countries in Europe’s eastern edge much more than before, Serbia as well, because the European Union no longer has the cash to influence places like Serbia and Ukraine. It doesn’t have the financial bandwidth for the time being. So it provides an opening for Russia. In other words, the way that the Balkans, Serbia, the way that Serbia, which is the real key state in the western Balkans, was going to be lifted out of obsession with ethnic hatred, and to be incorporated into Europe, was by European Union largesse. But it doesn’t have that anymore.
HH: And it’s going to be Russian largesse.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, I want to get right back to that. The second half of your book begins with Europe, but it quickly pivots to Russia. It’s the largest, really, section deserving, I suppose, because they’re the largest country. Why is it back after it was humbled so badly by the collapse of the Soviet Union? Why did it regenerate so quickly?
RK: Because Russia has always regenerated. It always comes back. Geography demands it. Other empires rise and fall, and they’re never heard from again. But Russia expands under Kievan Rus in the 9th Century, then contracts. Expands again under medieval Moskovy, then contracts. Expands again under the Romanov dynasty, then contracts again. The Bolsheviks take over, there’s a civil war, Russia contracts. Then it expands again. The Yeltsin years brought Russia to its lows. It had lost half, much of its territory. The economy had collapsed. It had no bandwidth to push out into places like the Ukraine or Poland or Central Asia. Now Russia is back under Putin. Why does it expand and contract throughout history? What does geography show us? Russia has, Russia extends over half the longitudes of the Earth, yet it has a population of only 144 million, which is less than that of Bangladesh. It’s rivers go north-south, so they don’t unite the country, they divide it. It has few natural barriers, so Russia is perennially geographically insecure. And this insecurity as a land power leads them to always push out, because it has no natural barriers, and it’s afraid of invasion. And so Putin is, you know, we wanted a kind of garden variety, liberal humanist leader in Russia, the kind of Russian we could applaud at fancy conferences. In Putin, we got Russia, you know, in italics.
HH: Now you write, and I’m sure there’ll be critiques from the human rights community about this, that the face of Russian imperialism is hard because of the Caucuses. I don’t know that you’re trying to excuse it so much as explain it. But explain why the Caucuses drive this tsar-like cruelty, and I perceive that cruelty in Putin.
RK: Yeah, yeah. The Russians have always been obsessed with the Caucuses. It’s like it’s their wild west, even thought it lies to the south of Moscow. Russia is frigid. Most of Russia lies above 50 degrees north latitude. The Caucuses are mild and even semi-tropical. Most of Russia is bland, it’s boring, it’s flat. The Caucuses are beautiful, you know, with spangled mountain ranges. It’s obsessed the Russians. The Caucuses also are the barrier to the Middle East, and the Middle East is nothing but trouble for the Russians, because they fear the Muslims. And so the Russians need, if not to dominate all the Caucuses all the time, they need a commanding position there, and that’s why when the Americans get too friendly, or prop up President Saakashvili in Georgia, or make moves to maybe even incorporate Georgia into NATO, and get very friendly with Azerbaijan and build pipelines, any Russian leader, it doesn’t have to be Putin, is going to lash out.
HH: Now do you, you write that Putin wants the Ukraine back. Do you expect he will get it?
RK: At the moment, it’s looking more and more like that. Of course, it’s salami tactics, it’s gradual. It’s no troop movements, nothing like that. What Putin needs is a compliant Ukraine. As I said earlier, in an earlier segment, the European Union is less able for the moment to influence the Ukraine, because it doesn’t have the available cash anymore. The Ukraine is split between Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the eastern part of the Ukraine. When we supported the Orange Revolution years back, from our point of view, we were supporting democracy and human rights. From Putin’s point of view, we were geopolitically undermining Russia. Putin didn’t care about democracy or not democracy. He just wanted a pro-Russian leader in Kiev.
HH: Now when Mitt Romney, I read his book closely, he’s been a guest on this program recently. If you ask him about the biggest adversary, he always brings up Russia and Putin. Not China, not, as you talk about later in the book, and we’ll get to it, and Mexico on our southern border being a problem, but Putin, Putin, Russia, Russia. Is he right to do so?
RK: Look, first of all, let me say whatever he says now in the campaign, he will be confronted with a new reality and new constraints if and after he is elected, and that may cause him to act very differently. Why do I know that? Because most presidential candidates act very differently on foreign policy after they’re elected, and they get their first briefings and everything. I think he’s overstating it, really. Putin is not an enemy. You know, after 9/11, he cooperated with helping us get troops into Afghanistan from former Soviet Central Asia. You know, he’s not a totalitarian. He’s just a normal Russian dictator. That’s all he is, who’s pressing at the borders, trying to influence the Baltic states, knows he can’t get them back, but trying to have some serious influence there, uses Belarus for arms transfers to Cuba and Venezuela. It doesn’t have the military bandwidth to conquer Central Asia, but he wants to have a very influential position there. If we were smart, if we were thinking like Henry Kissinger or James Baker or someone, we would be thinking of how can we use Putin to balance against China.
HH: Well now, let’s move to China, and you mentioned Dr. Kissinger, a guest on this show last year talking about his new book about China. And you write on Page 189, China is only something less of a continent than the United States. It’s got its 9,000 miles of coastline, but it’s got these huge ambitions. And Dr. K here said look, you’ve got to watch out for the tigers inside of China, because they are aggressive in a way that the regime historically gives into. Do you worry more about an unanticipated collision with China, or one with Russia, Robert Kaplan?
RK: I don’t worry about a collision with Russia, because Russia, Putin has reasserted Russia after the Yeltsin years as a significant regional power. But Putin will be unable to achieve full dominance in the Baltic states and the Caucuses in Central Asia. China has more of a possibility to be a great power and rival of the U.S. But do not neglect China’s internal problems, which I talk about in the book. Though I talk about how China is poised to expand economically and in terms of natural resources into the Russia far east and Central Asia and southeast Asia, I also talk about how the ethnic Chinese within China are surrounded by ethnic minorities – Uyghur turks, Mongolians, Tibetans. And China seems to be on the verge of a tumultuous economic trend.
HH: You do write, but as we come up to the break, though, that China is enveloping Taiwan. You take it almost, Robert Kaplan, tell me if I’m wrong, as a fait accompli that Taiwan will in fact be part of greater China sooner rather than later.
RK: Yes, but by the time that happens, China itself may transform itself.
HH: Explain that to the audience.
RK: China in 20 years may be less a monolithic state than a country where Beijing is less the capitol than a point, a reference point of imperial-like control where you have more autonomy in places like Tibet, Xinjiang in the west, inner Mongolia in the north, Yunnan province in the south. And Taiwan, under this more pluralistic China, would little by little be enveloped by it. You know, when I say enveloped, I’m just reporting what’s already happened. I’m not advancing a theory. There are hundreds of commercial flights a week between Taiwan and the mainland as we speak, even as the mainland has about 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan. So on the one hand, it’s threatening Taiwan. On the other hand, it’s enveloping it economically.
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HH: Back to China, Robert Kaplan. On Page 207, you write that China’s most advantageous outlet for its ambitions is in the direction of the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia. You write about how it’s asserting control over the Indian Ocean, which I love when you call the world’s hydrocarbon interstate, and that their number one priority is to deny access. You develop these things in Monsoon, but you give a concise summary of them here. Is the United States responding strategically to this three point argument you make about what China is doing?
RK: Yes, I think it is. I think…I give President Obama on the whole a B+ in foreign policy. But the one area where I give him an A would be Asia. That’s because, take Secretary of State Clinton. She’s focused more on Asia than any American secretary of State since Henry Kissinger. And she’s basically gone, she’s literally on a plane all the time back and forth to the area. And what the Obama administration has done is several things. It’s said we’re back, we’re no longer distracted by the Middle East, we’re going to keep, maintain the number of warships. We may increase them, but at least we’re going to maintain them. And we’re going to engage even closer economically, because we know it’s only our economic interests that will ultimately lead us to always have military interests in the region. The United States has to do two things. It has to prevent China from becoming dominant in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, it cannot let countries with hot-blooded, combustible nationalisms like Vietnam and the Philippines drag the United States into a conflict with China.
HH: Now I am…
RK: So it’s between those two extremes that a principled, pragmatic policy has to emerge.
HH: I’m a little surprised, because in the first hour, we talked about American naval policy, and how we are headed towards 250 ships, and that is a component part of American national strength.
RK: Yeah, it is, but the administration has asserted this repeatedly, that if there’s any decline in the number of warships, it’s not going to come at the expense of East Asia.
HH: But that, isn’t that a false choice?
RK: Yeah, I know. I know. But their heart is in the right place on this, really. And it’s true. If you had a Republican president, you’d probably have somewhat higher Defense budgets, more warships. I’m not arguing that.
HH: All right.
RK: I’m not arguing that. As I said, on the whole, I give Obama a B+ on foreign policy.
HH: Let me turn then to internal China, one more China question.
HH: Dr. Kissinger worries about these Chinese tigers. And if we watch these trials that are springing up in Beijing, every day there’s a new development. There’s stuff going on there we have no idea. How much do you worry about sort of a black swan event there, a shudder?
RK: I worry about it, because see, here’s what’s going on. For the first time in decades, China has real politics. Bo Xilai was the first politician, charismatic politician, in fact, since Mao Zedong, because since Mao, there’s been, and since Deng Xiaoping told everyone to keep their heads down essentially, it’s been bland, collegial leadership, the ultimate opposite of personality cults. And this bland, collegial leadership, for all the frustrations the U.S. has with it, has provided predictable foreign policy and steady economic growth for decades. And now it is breaking down, and we’re getting real politics into China, and so China becomes less predictable, more disarray, and you could have a more autonomous People’s Liberation Army/navy calling the shots, for instance. And that’s one of the reasons, probably, we have incidents and chest thumping in the South China Sea.
HH: I also want to mention, although people are going to have to read The Revenge Of Geography to get the full explanation, you really want the United States to double down in Guam, expand its Oceania presence, and to make sure that it’s got sort of almost a defensible island border.
RK: Yes, because here’s the irony. The U.S. military is very popular all over Asia. They want us there. It’s not like Europe or other places. But the individual inhabitants of places like Okinawa and parts of South Korea don’t like a U.S. military base in their own backyard. So big Cold War-style Burger King bases are going out of fashion, because you know, the minute you bring the troops, the wives, the kids, the dogs, the churches, the PX’s, suddenly it becomes a political hot potato in domestic politics. So we’re going to have a lower troop presence in places like Japan and South Korea as the years go on, and we have to compensate by dispersing, distributing power throughout the whole rim land of East Asia and the Indian Ocean. And the benefit of Guam is the U.S. owns it. They can’t kick us out.
HH: They can’t. I also, before the break, want to touch on India. Monsoon is a revelation when it comes to India. But also in The Revenge Of Geography, you write about that, the Indian subcontinent. You talk about Pakistan, and it’s a country built wrongly on an ideological premise. But to those Americans who keep thinking we’re going to be okay in Southeast Asia because India is our friend, what do you say to them, Robert Kaplan?
RK: I say don’t take India for granted. Yeah, India is inferentially our friend. What that means is that India, merely by its economic growth since 1991 ’til now, and merely by its expanded defense budgets since the early 1990s, is the best piece of strategic good luck the U.S. has gotten since the end of the Cold War. But if we demand a transactional, official strategic partnership with India, the body politick in new Delhi will rebel. So in other words, here’s an example. If we were to move, if we were to have a big fight with China, India might have to actually move closer to China, because China is close by to India, and India can’t afford to upset it too much. But if we were to move closer to China, India would feel left out, and then make moves coming closer to Washington. That’s subtle balance of power politics.
HH: Now Pakistan, I asked this about Russia and Ukraine last hour. Does Pakistan endure as a real state over the next 100 years?
RK: I provide two scenarios for Pakistan in The Revenge Of Geography. I set out the argument why it’s artificial, and that argument is well known. I mean, it’s this puzzle piece of territory that you know, that’s really carved out of India. It’s supposed to be for the subcontinent’s Muslims, but more Muslims live in India proper and in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. But then I posit the opposite argument that it may not be artificial. Pakistan is the formal state embodiment of Indus Valley civilization.
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HH: Let’s talk about Iran, Robert Kaplan. I’m surprised by this. I was thinking last night, I took down off the shelf The Persian Night by Amir Taheri, who discounts completely this Persian history that you put a lot of store in, because the ayatollahs have waged such relentless war on the Persian identity, trying to replace the Shia identity completely over it. I guess you just don’t believe they can be successful at that.
RK: No, because the Persian identity is thousands of years in the making. And the ayatollahs have only been in power for 30 years, or 33 years or so. And Persia still lasts. Nowruz, you know, the pagan springtime festival is celebrated in Iran every bit as much as Ramadan is, despite the ayatollah’s tendency to repress it. The ayatollahs think that as much as they deny their Persian identity, they think like nationalistic Persians when they conduct foreign policy, because what do you have under the ayatollahs? You have an Iranian empire of sort, stretching from the Mediterranean to Western Afghanistan which closely approximates Persian empires of the past, be it the Medes, the Parthians, the Sassanids or whatever. And it built on a particular Persian genius. After all, it takes a lot of talent to run suicide networks and others. The Iranians do it very efficiently.
HH: You do write on Page 283, and this is surprising and optimistic that the prospect for peaceful regime change, in your view, is greater in Iran than it was in the late Soviet Union.
RK: Yes, yes. Yeah, I really believe that, that for most of the Cold War, regime change was unimaginable in Moscow. Here, you could see the outlines of it. Look, Iran is going to face some real crises over the next year or two. The issue of their nuclear weapons program, or their nuclear program is going to come to a head. The regime in Syria, which is their main ally in the Arab world, may well collapse, and is already as we speak becoming less useful towards them. And you know, this is going to cause real internal disarray.
HH: Now I want to switch to Turkey, Robert Kaplan. I’ve only been to the country three times, and each time, I’m confused. There is a great admission of modesty in The Revenge Of Geography when you write, “And that was the big thing I got wrong, because moderate Turkish Islamists were then relatively open-minded about Israel. I assumed they would always be so.” Not only is that charming in its modesty, it’s also chilling in its consequences.
RK: Yes. In 1998, I interviewed and spent a good deal of time with the people now ruling Turkey. They were out of power then, and I wrote that they were going to come into power. I got that right. What I got wrong was that there was this mild, subtle sympathetic to Israel tendency in the 1990s. That’s changed. It’s changed for a number of reasons. One is globalization, and let me bring in Sam Huntington here. The real truth of the clash of civilizations was that world communications and globalization would create religious solidarity groups spanning thousands of miles that never existed before, so that there was no contradiction between pan-Islam and globalization. And the Turks increasingly feel part of an Islamic solidarity group as the years go on, so that rather than the Arab-Israeli crisis, it becomes Muslim-Jewish crisis, which the Turks as Muslims can support the Muslims. Also, you know, it has to be admitted that several things happened. Number one, the Turks thought they were going to get into the European Union. They didn’t. At the same time as this, Bush, George W. Bush invaded Iraq. That was very unpopular in Turkey. The Iraq war did not go well. That made the Americans even more unpopular in Turkey. And Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel made a number of diplomatic mistakes, I believe. And so a whole bunch of things coming together turned the Turks.
HH: And they’re not turning back any time soon.
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HH: Lest I forget at the end of the segment, I want to thank Robert Kaplan for spending this much time with us. The new book, The Revenge Of Geography, we could easily do this again and again, so thank you, Robert.
RK: It’s my pleasure, Hugh, always.
HH: I want to ask you about Israel, and this is a tough question. This is not an aspirational judgment I’m asking you about, but one based upon geography. Does the state of Israel survive a hundred years?
RK: Well, the facts on the ground are not encouraging, and that’s because you know, we spoke earlier that I didn’t, you implied that I didn’t spend enough time on demography, but in the Israel section, I do. And one of the things, I compared the birth rates of West Bank Arabs, of Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Jews. And the differences are devastating. Israel’s problem is that if it doesn’t withdraw from the West Bank, it becomes a vague semblance of an Apartheid-like society, simply because Jews rule a larger non-Jewish ethnic group who has less rights and privileges, or the Israelis can withdraw from the West Bank and lose strategic depth. You know, so that’s the conundrum.
HH: All right, now let’s go to the United States. I want people to hear that and go read what you talk about there. Let’s finish with the United States and with Andrew Bacevich. Do you say it Bacevich? I’ve read about him for years, but I don’t know how to say his name.
RK: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s Bacevich or Bacevich.
HH: He’s doing a panel, and he says look, we’re talking Iraq, we’re talking Afghanistan, and we really ought to be talking about Mexico. Well, I’m in Southern California, so I know what he talks about with a failed state on our southern border. Expand a little bit for the audience, Robert Kaplan, the fact that we are overlooking what is in essence the biggest driver of American geographical destiny.
RK: Yes, while we’re all focused on Syria and Iran and Israel, while we’re focused on 20,000 deaths in Syria over the last 18 months or so, 15 months or so, since 2006, 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico in violence. The violence has been mainly confined to the north, though not completely. The violence is between drug gangs. The violence is now tampering down, but that’s only because the drug gangs are consolidating their control near the U.S. border. I point out that Mexico is an incredibly mountainous country. I believe I write that if you laid Mexico out flat, you know, flattened out all the mountains, it would cover most of the Earth, and that has encouraged decentralization, and a difficulty in the government in Mexico City from controlling this vast area, that the drug lords of today are in the tradition of Poncho Villa of the Apaches, of the Yaqui Indians, of others, in the sense of being groups that are not controlled by the central government, that roamed the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. I talk about Mexican demography, and the point that Mr. Bacevich made was that he didn’t say it, but he implied that Mexico matters much more to American destiny in this century for geographical reasons than anyplace in the greater Middle East.
HH: And people have to read and reflect on the immigration patterns as well that are laid out in The Revenge Of Geography. I want to close with two statements you make at the end of the book, Robert Kaplan. On Page 332, question, “How does America prepare itself for a prolonged and graceful exit from history as a dominant power? And then your prediction that America will become a Polynesian cum Mestizo civilization oriented from north to south. I’m going to predict that in every book review, one of those two statements will show up, because they’re so controversial.
RK: Okay, I’m happy with that. Now I’m very pleased with those statements, because that’s what I see. We’re becoming increasingly multi-racial, and the United States is like any other great power in history. It cannot sustain itself at the top of the heap forever. Yes, America may be the dominant, yes the 21st Century may be an American century, as I think Mitt Romney said.
RK: Especially since we’ve got so much shale gas deposits.
RK: We’re going to be the energy capitol of the world. I understand this. I’m thinking out over the real long range, Hugh.
HH: Let me ask you, though. I don’t care a bit about the racial composition of America. It will be what it will be, and it will be wonderful. But do you think the ideological cement of the United States, the freedom cement, endures, the institutions that we’re familiar with under the press of geography and demographic tide?
RK: I think that two key things. The first is can Mexico emerge as a cohesive first world society? If it does, the border will matter less. And if the border matters less, we’re going to have an unbeatable combination in North America. The second thing is, and this is not part of the book, well, it’s a little bit about the chapter The Crisis Of Room, is continual transformations in electronic media undermining the quality of our democracy.
HH: You also put, and I’m going to close on this, you have a glancing blow at the education that we provide people, and that it’s poor quality, but it’s ubiquity hobbles out ability to be a national power again.
RK: Do I write that?
HH: Oh, you bet you do. You write about poorly educated masses rising.
HH: And in our country. And so I’m just wondering, do you see that ever changing?
RK: Look, everyone cannot be middle class. But more and more people can be middle class.
HH: And that means?
RK: And that means the more middle class people we have, the healthier the democracy is.
HH: All right, last question, Robert Kaplan, what are you doing next?
RK: I’m working on a smaller book about the South China Sea.
HH: And so you’re not going abroad anytime soon?
RK: Well, I’ve been back and forth to Asia on this book.
HH: Okay, Robert Kaplan, again, thank you, a tremendous success. Really quite an epic work, and The Revenge Of Geography is going to, I’m sure, fly off the shelves to my readers and listeners, and to people who enjoy just knowing what’s going on in the world. Thanks for joining us today.
RK: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.