Robert Kaplan: The Journalist as Bad Historian?

Historians in the News

In the months after 9/11, you started hearing more and more references to Robert Kaplan as the closest thing to a geopolitical thinker to come from the ranks of roving journalistic correspondents -- apart from Tom Friedman, of course. They became the Mutt and Jeff of American punditry.

Friedman emphasizes trade and diplomacy; exhibits a rather straightforward appreciation of technology as a driving factor in human progress; is, in his most optimistic moments, prone to evoking a global future of unlimited gravy production. Kaplan is more likely to refer to history; regards culture as the decisive force in each society's prospects; and, when imagining the world's future, tend to sound something like Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, only less cheerful.

Friedman sees some grounds for concern over the pace and direction of globalization. At heart, though, he trusts the process. Kaplan trusts nothing but the superiority of the West, and has not been shy about saying that imperialism was a good idea that has only gotten better with time.

If those are our options, we are doomed. Be that as it may, here is my confession: Friedman often irritates me, while Kaplan's weltanschaung calls to mind the phrase"beneath contempt."

Fortunately Tom Bissell does not agree: He considers Kaplan worth all the scorn needed to fuel an analytical essay of several thousand well-turned words. His piece,"Euphorias of Perrier: The Case Against Robert D. Kaplan," appears in the new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review -- a publication rapidly dispelling any fear that the day of the important literary quarterly is over.

"Kaplan's real and growingly evident problem," writes Bissell,"is not his Parkinson's grip on history, or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger, but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer." He calls one of Kaplan's books"a thesaurus of incoherencies."

What is worrying is that Kaplan has his enthusiasts in the corridors of power.

"Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the extension of politics by other means," says Bissell."Bush and Kaplan, on the other hand, appear to advocate war as cultural politics by other means. This has resulted in a collision of second-rate minds with third-rate policies. While one man attempts to make the world as simple as he is able to comprehend it, the other whispers in his various adjutants’ ears that they are on the side of History itself."

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