by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2012, 432 pp., $28
At the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, we read the circular Robert Kaplan e-mailed around with surprise and some apprehension. In it, he announced that he was saying good-bye to his career as a foreign correspondent in order to become chief geopolitical analyst for the private consulting firm STRATFOR. We wondered if someone so idiosyncratic, so used to being his own boss, could adjust to working for corporate clients under the direction of STRATFOR’s formidable founder George Friedman. But inasmuch as Kaplan had been globetrotting for 35 years and just turned sixty, who could fault him for choosing more regular employment, predictable income and more time spent at home in the Berkshires? This book, an armchair tour d’horizon as opposed to Kaplan’s trademark rugged travelogue, may well reflect the renowned author’s passage to a new phase of life.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to a friendly predisposition toward this review. One reason is my love for geography dating from early childhood. Indeed, a fascination with globes, atlases, maps, books, magazines and programs about far-away places initially stoked my interest in history. Over the course of a long teaching career I have sadly observed the decline of geographical knowledge among American youth and have done my small part to try to reverse that.1 I have observed even more sadly the ignorance or contempt of geographical and cultural realities by U.S. policymakers prone to believe either that “the world is flat” or else can be made so by American force. Hence my prejudice in favor of a book that loudly reminds liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike that they are but Shakespeare’s players on a stage that they did not build and that they cannot readily redesign.
A second source of my favorable predisposition is the book’s dedication to the late Harvey Sicherman, FPRI’s beloved president from 1993 to 2010. A disciple of Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, Harvey never pronounced on a foreign policy issue until he had “done the map” and recited Talleyrand’s motto, “above all, not too much zeal.”2
A third source of my favor is Kaplan’s track record over 14 previous books and eighty articles, all original and many prescient, warning of crises before they were on anyone’s radar screen. Moreover, unlike most foreign-policy pundits, he admits his mistakes (such as helping Paul Wolfowitz’s inner circle sell the 2003 invasion of Iraq).3 To judge by his subsequent trilogy...