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silk road : eurasia : robert kaplan : realism

[Robert Kaplan, The Return of framework Polo's World. War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century. Random House. New York, 2017. 280 pp.]


review / Emili J. Blasco

The Return of framework Polo's World

The signs of "imperial fatigue" that the United States is showing -a lesser willingness to provide world order- contrast with the destiny of projection over the globe that its nature and size imprint on it. "The United States is condemned to lead. It is the sentence of geography," writes Robert Kaplan. "No. The United States is not a normal country (...), but has the obligations of an empire."

Between the reality of a great power whose foreign policy has entered a new phase - a certain withdrawal on the international scene, begun by Barack Obama and continued by Donald Trump - and the demands of its national interest, which in Kaplan's opinion requires an assertive presence in the world, moves the new book by this well-known U.S. geopolitical author.

Unlike his previous works - the most recent being Earning the Rockies. How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World (2017)-this time it is a volume that collects essays and articles of his published in different media during the last years. The longest one, which gives degree scroll to the compilation, was commissioned by the Pentagon; the headline of another of the texts, also from 2016, heads these lines.


When Kaplan speaks of a return to the world of framework Polo he means two things. The main one is the new linkage that is emerging between China and Europe thanks to increased trade, symbolized by the new Silk Road, which leads the author to a long essay on the materialization of what until now was only an idea: Eurasia. The other meaning, which he develops further in other parts of the book, has to do with the new international order to which we are heading and which he qualifies as "competitive anarchy": an era of greater anarchy if we compare it with the time of the Cold War and the one we have known afterwards (the Age average of framework Polo was also a time of multiple powers).

Kaplan is one of the authors who is most often referring to the emergence of Eurasia. The arrival of Syrian migrants in Europe has made Europe dependent on the vicissitudes in the Middle East, showing that the internal borders of the supercontinent are fading. "As Europe disappears, Eurasia is cohesive. The supercontinent has become a fluid and comprehensive unit of trade and conflict," he writes. And with the cohesion of Eurasia the specific weight of the world shifts from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific or, as Kaplan also calls it, the Greater Indian.

Realism, morals and values

Among the many strategic issues Kaplan considers in relation to Eurasia, perhaps one important caveat may go unnoticed: much of China's success in charting its Belt and Silk Road depends on Pakistan acting as the core topic that, in the middle of the arc, both gives it completeness and sustains it. "Pakistan will be the main registrar of China's ability to link its [overland] Silk Road across Eurasia with its [maritime] Silk Road across the Indian Ocean," Kaplan advances. In his view, Pakistani instability, even if it does not lead to the country's collapse, could well limit the effectiveness of the great Chinese project .

Apart from that Eurasian chapter, the book is a sober and calm argumentation, in Kaplan's always elegant prose, of the principles of realism, understood as "a sensibility rooted in a mature sense of the tragic, of all the things that can go wrong in foreign policy, so that caution and the knowledge of history are integrated into the realist way of thinking". For a realist "order comes before freedom and interests before values," for "without order there is no freedom for anyone, and without interests a state has no incentive to project values."

Kaplan unpacks these considerations in articles dedicated to the thought of Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer, all realists of different stripes, to whom he is close, especially to the former: Kissinger's reputation will only grow over the years, he assures. On the other hand, he rejects that Trump's foreign policy can be framed in the realist doctrine, because the American president lacks a sense of history, and that is because he does not read.

Kaplan presents realism as a sensibility, rather than as a guide with prescriptions for action in crisis situations, and certainly in several pages he goes into discussion on whether a state's foreign action should be guided by morality and the defense of values. "The United States, like any nation - but especially because it is a great power - simply has interests that are not always consistent with its values. This is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has to be embraced and accepted," he concludes. "Because the United States is a liberal power, its interests - even when they are not directly concerned with human rights - are generally moral. But they are only secondarily moral."

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