Fate, Tragedy, and Repentant Imperialism

Robert Kaplan’s new works try to make sense of a world without easy triumphs or triumphalism.

The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power

by Robert Kaplan

Yale University Press

152 pp., $26.00

The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China

by Robert Kaplan

Random House

400 pp., $18.64

After reading Whittaker Chambersharrowing memoir, Witness, French intellectual giant André Malraux said to the author: “You did not return from hell with empty hands.” Chambers saw terrible things and suffered much, but he turned that experience into reflective wisdom, infused with the spirit of tragedy that haunts all human lives.

Like Chambers, Robert Kaplan has visited many modern versions of hell, turning what he has seen and experienced into a library of thoughtful and challenging books. Over the past two years, he has distilled the lessons of a life spent in pursuit of tragic knowledge into two books of differing size and scope: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power and The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China

The first is a brief essay, the latter a hefty piece of globe-trotting reportage. Both are reflections on the limits of intellectual analysis and the realities of power that conclude with a warning to intellectuals not to believe in grand visions for changing the world. “Only those who have never experienced war have the luxury of advocating it with a clean conscience,” he admonishes. After reviewing the results of decades of failed nation-building, he also makes several references to the dangers of disorder by recalling the old proverb, “one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.” As Kaplan chastises a generation of would-be angels of peace and prosperity, he can thus be charged with sympathy for the Devil—if the Devil acts responsibly to maintain order. 

The Tragic Mind is both a personal and a professional meditation, in which Kaplan relates his experiences to larger historical examples to “argue for thinking tragically to avoid tragedy.” Tragic thinking means being aware of human limits and of the power of fate to confound the most intricate plans. In a little over a dozen short chapters, written in an aphoristic style that begs quotation, Kaplan draws on a lifetime of reading, from Greek tragedies to the modern philosophizing of Nietzsche, Conrad, and Dostoevsky, with special attention to Shakespeare. His thoughts range from the individual responsibilities of leaders to the broader tension between order and anarchy. The hardest decisions are not between Good and Evil, he argues, but between goods. The essence of tragedy for a leader is in knowing that he must choose between multiple good options and that, in choosing one path, he excludes other opportunities. 

Tragic thinking should not lead to passivity, nor is tragedy merely pointless suffering. “In pure tragedy,” Kaplan writes, “struggle always has a purpose, a chance” and understanding can help us avoid the worst. “Tragedy is not fatalism; nor is it despair … it is comprehension,” because leaders “should understand the limits of their knowledge and their ability to defy fate.” The goal is to encourage humility. 

Kaplan clearly regrets his arguments of the 1990s, expressed in works such as Balkan Ghosts and his encouragement of nation building in the Middle East. As he writes with commendable honesty: “My own moral humiliations are the knowledge that a book I wrote had the result, however unintended, of delaying a president’s response to mass murder in the Balkans, and that I helped promote a war in Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. These, taken together, have burdened my sleep for decades, wrecking me at times and motivating me to write this book.”

Of course, tragedy lives among other important neighbors, such as irony and paradox, and there is an irony at the heart of The Tragic Mind. For a highly educated author of numerous works built on classic texts, Kaplan is relentless in his criticism of intellectuals and “elites” while deferential to practical political leaders. It is much easier, he writes, “to be an intellectual or an artist—or a journalist—than to be a king or political leader.” Which raises the question of Kaplan’s primary audience. Is it the intellectuals who are to be chastened in their advice to leaders, or the leaders themselves, who have little time for abstract meditations on tragedy?

That irony echoes even more loudly in The Loom of Time, the subtitle of which—Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China—immediately returns readers to the same territory that has fascinated Kaplan throughout his career: the Greater Middle East and the Eurasian “World Island” described by the father of modern geopolitics, Halford Mackinder. For most of the past century, this region has been a focal point of American foreign policy, even as American leaders have spent the better part of the last two decades assuring voters of plans to pivot and deal with other, more important matters. Yet each new pivot has been more of a pirouette. Attempts to pivot to Asia, or to Europe, or to bring Americans home often end up returning where we began, to the geopolitical contest for influence in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Gobi Desert. 

Combining historical and sociological research with the type of on-the-ground interviews and observations for which he is famous, Kaplan suggests we should not pivot away from the Greater Middle East  because it is the center of geopolitical competition for world influence. Geopolitics, as developed by Mackinder and his successors and as described by Kaplan, requires the long view and the distant lens, but Kaplan also includes the personal view that comes from conversations. He has always emphasized the importance of local knowledge, going back to his days as a reporter with a notebook and pencil.

Yet Mackinder’s ghost lurks in every dusty marketplace and high-tech conference room. The United States, in Kaplan’s telling, need not turn away from this region to confront a rising China; China is right there. The question for Kaplan is whether the United States can pursue and defend its interests there in a way that does not lead to tragic entanglements, alienate the leaders of the region, or drive them into Beijing’s embrace. 

Kaplan is a born-again realist. He recognizes Washington’s global interests and wants to maintain them in the face of the Chinese challenge but does not want to see the United States become involved in nation building again. Indeed, his multiple references to preferring tyranny to disorder make clear that he thinks the United States should avoid pressing friendly regimes to democratize if that would created chaos. This raises the question of whether American support for authoritarian regimes will earn the enmity of the populations in those places in the event they decide to change their own regimes. Kaplan, however, sees that possibility as sufficiently remote as to be of lesser concern. One can imagine coming away with such confidence from a meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. Whether MBS has sufficient tragic sensibility to have studied the fate of  the deposed Iranian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, is another question.

Human beings can never know the future, even as they constantly try to plan for it. This paradox is at the heart of every tragedy. What should American engagement in the world look like? All one can say for sure is that such engagement will have to reckon with major relative shifts in world power, which means that there will be many developments over which Washington will have limited to no control. Kaplan’s new works try to make sense of a world without easy triumphs or triumphalism, where American leaders do not seek to change or drive world affairs so much as to work within the flow of them. 

Tragedy is not necessarily pessimism, though working out the border between the two is never easy. Possessing a tragic sensibility can make you pretty sure that things will turn out badly, but also includes the hope that, with the proper mix of local knowledge and humility, we can perhaps shape how badly they turn out, and for whom and how long. American foreign policy over the past decades has been anything but humble, and the results, from Afghanistan to Iraq, have been horrible. Perhaps a tragic sensibility can help us avoid such hubristic failures in the future, though this reader’s own tragic sensibility inspires doubts on that score.

As befits an author inspired by classic texts, Kaplan borrows the concept of the loom of time from the faithful Penelope of the Odyssey, who each day worked on weaving a shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus, only to undo her work each night so as to prevent her having to choose among her suitors before her husband’s return. So, too, can the works of human hands, so painstakingly organized during the day, be undone by time and fate. Kaplan echoes Arnold Toynbee in viewing the acts of creation and destruction as a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilizations. 

Of course, the undoing of Penelope’s work was part of a conscious plan. The nagging questions for Kaplan, as for Toynbee and other writers who have tried to imagine the grand scheme of History, are who makes those plans, and is there a single coherent end for them? Tragedy suggests that there is a purpose to struggle and suffering, but that’s not the same as saying that every tragedy ends up leading to something better. We’re back at the paradox of how to balance humility and action, knowledge and policy.

Kaplan concludes The Loom of Time with the admonition that major historical turning points, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, surprise us because of our failures of imagination. Thus, his work calls on his readers to make the effort to understand the world and imagine the possible outcomes. Considering the scope of the challenge, that’s a task worthy of Sisyphus. But considering the fascinations that come with knowledge, it is possible to find joy in it. With Kaplan as our guide, we must imagine ourselves to be happy.

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