Nonfiction: Foreign Policy From the Dark Side

Take the Mediterranean. For half a millennium, it mostly separated not only two continents but also two civilizations: Christendom and Islam. Yet the collapse of political order throughout much of the Maghreb has reminded millions of Africans that the Middle Sea isn’t so wide after all. Thousands have drowned trying to cross it; many more have succeeded, with cumulative effects on what we used to think of as European society.

“We are back to a much older cartography that recalls the High Middle Ages, in which ‘the East’ did not begin in any one particular place because regions overlapped and were more vaguely defined,” Kaplan writes. “The dichotomy of the Orient and the Occident is breaking down the world over, even as subtle gradations continue to persist.”

What’s true in the Mediterranean basin is true in other places, too — and in other ways. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine (and the West’s de facto acquiescence in it) is the most visible evidence of the flimsiness of the post-Cold War’s national borders.

But what about covert Russian influence peddling in places like Bulgaria; or overt influence peddling through the Russia Today “news” channel; or cyberoperations, via Twitter and Facebook, to disrupt and undermine Western elections?


After the Cold War, many of us naïvely assumed that the communications revolution would be the vehicle through which the West would spread its values, attitudes and tastes to the rest of the world. We forgot that the revolution worked in the opposite direction as well: that for every Google executive fighting for political liberalization in Cairo, there might also be an alienated young Islamist in the West learning how to build a bomb by reading Inspire, Al Qaeda’s slick online magazine.

Kaplan never loses sight of this fluidity: “The smaller the world actually becomes because of the advance of technology,” he writes, “the more permeable, complicated and overwhelming it seems, with its numberless, seemingly intractable crises that are all entwined.”

That is the world’s reality — crooked, unexpected, ironic and often tragic — and it leads Kaplan to his capital-R Realist foreign-policy inclinations. It’s a subject he explores in chapter-length profiles of Henry Kissinger, Huntington and the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer (whose 2001 magnum opus, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” was later overshadowed by his tendentious and bigoted screed, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” written with Stephen M. Walt).

Kaplan makes clear that, at its best, Realism provides American statesmen with a middle path between what Kissinger once called “the disastrous oscillations between overcommitment and isolation.” This is what guided the Nixon administration as it sought to get out of Vietnam in a way that preserved America’s reputation as a reliable ally, while also securing a balance of power (through the opening with China) that would help see the United States through the Cold War.

That Kissinger was willing to do this in ways that scandalized moralistic American liberals is more than fine by Kaplan. “Ensuring a nation’s survival sometimes leaves tragically little room for private morality,” he argues. “The rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating such morality, acted accordingly and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries, even as they have caused great unease among generations of well-meaning intellectuals who, free of the burden of real-world bureaucratic responsibility, make choices in the abstract and treat morality as an inflexible absolute.”

There is much truth in that observation: Foreign policy is not merely a subset of ethics. Yet Realism also has limits that its practitioners can fail to appreciate. If it offers a powerful caution against overdosing on the kind of idealism that led us into nation-building exercises in Vietnam and Iraq, it can also keep statesmen from grasping their opportunities. Many Realists were scandalized by Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Cold War could be won. He proved to be right, in part because he understood the moral dimensions of the struggle against Communism better than they did; and in part, too, because sometimes there really is a good case for optimism.

Realists can also fail to grasp the power of ideology to shape the behavior of states, often in ways that deform or disregard their own interests. Iran, for instance, has no rational reason to threaten Israel, with which it shares ancient cultural bonds and current enemies. Yet Tehran threatens Israel as a matter of theological conviction, Realpolitik be damned. It is the very rationalism of much of what goes by the name Realism that undermines its claims to understand the world as it really is.

Kaplan gets this: “A student of Shakespeare,” he writes, “would have grasped Vladimir Putin’s character long before an international relations wonk.” Geography may be the immutable fact of geopolitics, but geopolitics is still politics, and thus a human story.

This makes one of Kaplan’s final chapters, on the dangers of a new utopianism, all the more chilling. We may think we’ve put Orwell’s “Big Brother” behind us, but the psychological conditions that gave rise to fascism and Communism are very much with us today. “The very idea that some sermon or blog or tweet has gone viral is a sad reflection on the state of individualism in the 21st century,” he says. “The electronic swarm is a negation of loneliness that prepares the way for the new ideologies of totalitarianism.”

It’s a dark prophecy from an observer with a depressingly accurate record of predictions. When it comes to curbing our enthusiasms, Kaplan’s achievement is to throw so much shade with so much verve.

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