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Robert Kaplan: The Hard Edge of American Values

The Atlantic has a very interesting interview with Robert Kaplan, following his article on the subject of how and why America projects its power around the world. I would encourage everyone to read this – I have selected what I think were the most pointed questions, but you can follow the link and read the entire article. Very interesting stuff from Kaplan. Elizabeth Shelburne, staff editor at the Atlantic, conducts the interview by phone.

For another insight into Kaplan’s thinking, take a look at this article on Iraq.

One of the first questions that emerges in your piece is “How should we operate on a tactical level to manage an unruly world?” Can you explain what you mean by “manage” in the context of the United States’ global empire?

First of all, I find that so much of the analysis and commentary about America’s place in the world is too abstract. What I’m attempting to do here is get down to the nuts and bolts. And one of the nuts and bolts that is never discussed is personnel. Who are the ambassadors? Who are the defense attachés? Who are these lieutenant colonels who are put in these positions in so many countries, where they are basically formulating micro-foreign policies on their own? I would much rather have an imperfect foreign policy executed and interpreted by the best kind of ground-level people than a brilliant foreign policy executed and interpreted by mediocrity. The real decisions on foreign policy are often made in the meetings of the State Department and the Defense Department, where the important questions are, Who’s going to be the next ambassador to Turkey, who’s going to be the next defense attaché to Uzbekistan? These are crucial, and this is what I get into in some of the first rules. Though I don’t use the word personnel, that’s what a large part of the piece is about. And you can only manage well through whom you appoint. A policy is only as good as the people who are executing it on the ground in the various countries.

Should we be in the business of managing the affairs of other countries? Do we have a choice in the matter?

We don’t have a choice. Very few empires set out to become empires. What tends to happen is that through economic and social dynamism, they become very strong economically and militarily as other places weaken, and they find themselves in a gradual position of dominance. As they increasingly see themselves threatened, they go out and do things not for the sake of conquest, but for the sake of their own security at home. Rome didn’t go conquer Carthage because it sought to expand an empire in North Africa. It did it because it felt that Carthage was a threat to Sicily. And gradually Rome came to dominate North Africa through a process that originally started as a narrow security concern.

If you look at the history of the U.S., we were an empire long before we were a nation. I’m talking about the history of the American West. Up until the West became incorporated as states in the Union, it was essentially governed as an empire from Washington. And why did we expand to the west? Because we had the Spanish, the French, and the British at our west, our northwest, and our north. So we expanded into the continent originally for the sake of security and as a consequence we built an empire that we eventually incorporated into the country. We conquered the Philippines, a hundred years ago, as sort of an accidental consequence of the Spanish Civil War. Had it not been for Hitler and Tojo and the threats that Japanese and German militarism represented, America would not have become so dominant in Europe and Asia in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. So it was always a threat that led the U.S. deeper and deeper into the world. You can say the same thing about September 11. The United States is certainly stamping its foot around the world a lot more than it was before September 11. That increased involvement was, initially, at least, a consequence of a security threat.

You consider Colombia to be a very important example for the future of U.S. intervention in world affairs. Why should we be paying attention to that country?

I could have used the Philippines, I could have used Nepal. Colombia is important for two reasons here. First, we are deeply involved, yet no one is paying attention to it, which is an example of how we find ourselves in an imperial position in the world. There are many places where we are deeply involved that aren’t even covered by the news media. The news media tends to interpret American imperialism solely through what’s been in the headlines—Afghanistan first, now Iraq. Second and more specifically, the problems that Colombia presents are an exaggerated form of the kinds of problems that we are likely to face over the next ten or twenty years in managing our affairs around the world. North Korea and Iraq, the countries that have gotten the headlines recently, really have old-fashioned, Cold War, dinosaur-style regimes. So while these problems, North Korea and Iraq, will be with us for some years yet, they essentially already represent the past. Whereas Colombia is a sign of the future, in the sense that it has these guerilla organizations that are sort of centerless corporations split up into baronies and franchises, where it’s hard to get your finger on the pulse. And it’s very, very hard to defeat them, because you stamp out one element and there are all these other elements around the country. Colombia also represents how so much of terrorism around the world is interrelated with crime. The part of al Qaeda represented by Osama bin Laden is not an example of that. They are very utopian and ideological. But most of these groups that we’re going to have to deal with have radical politics that are interrelated with crime.

Another reason why Colombia is so important, which I didn’t have space to mention in the piece, is that we are constantly reading about these disputes between the State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon on the other. It’s like they are these two poles of opposing bureaucracies. But when you get into the field, this totally dissolves, because any major U.S. program anywhere is an interrelationship between the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. If the agencies don’t work together seamlessly, the program itself doesn’t work. Plan Colombia, which is the name of the whole gamut of foreign and military aid that we are providing to the Colombian government was, up until post-Saddam Iraq, the largest foreign interagency operation that the U.S. government had in the world. Plan Colombia represents billions of dollars of interagency cooperation. And interagency is really the only way we can ever operate into the future.

Is the United States the only country that has this diffuse military presence, with thousands of operations a year in 170 countries?

Yes, we are. Some other countries—like Australia and Israel—are surprisingly diverse; they do things that would surprise people. Of course, you have the French throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, and they are very active in ways that also do not get that much news coverage. But these tend to be small, boutique operations. The United States is the only one that is doing it all.

You state that “a world dominated by the Chinese, by a Franco-German-dominated European Union aligned with Russia, or by the United Nations … would be infinitely worse than the world we have now.” Why is that the case? Can you give examples of why each of these would be worse?

Let’s go down the list here. Let’s use the Iraq crisis as an example. Or let’s use the Balkans in the 1990s. In these cases, removing a terrible oppressive dictator was the primary aim—and remember, Saddam Hussein is responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing two to four times as many people as Slobodan Milosevic. The Europeans claimed that they could handle the whole problem in the Balkans at the end of the Cold War. They wound up calling upon us. It took the United States to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I think a world operated by the French, the Germans, and the Russians would have a kind of realpolitik that is more of the seventeenth century than the twentieth century. It would be so cold-blooded, and yet it would be dressed up with self-righteous moral statements, like the “world community” and “every country is sovereign.” The result would be that some horrible dictators would flourish. And remember, Russia is not really a democracy. Germany has never really exhibited much wisdom in foreign affairs. If you look at how the French have operated in sub-Saharan Africa, how they operated supporting the Serbs in the Balkans, you will see that despite all the statements, their actual operations on the ground in many parts of the world have been, by any moral standards, worse than ours. And the problem I have with the United Nations is that it can only make decisions on broad consensus. And it’s like any bureaucracy: the more people that are involved, the more mediocre and diluted the decisions are. Tough decisions tend to be made by small groups of people willing to take risks. The European Union and the UN Security Council certainly aren’t designed that way. If you look back, the UN Security Council didn’t give its stamp of approval for Bosnia, for Kosovo, for almost anything in the post-World War II world, except for the Korean War and the first Gulf War.

Right. Why haven’t we done this thus far? Also, how has the U.S. military’s relationship with “hyphenated Americans” been changing of late?

Well, we have been doing it, and there’s been a lot of progress on this since I wrote the article. In fact, one of the stories that got some attention, but perhaps not as much as it should have, is the number of visits by high-level Pentagon officials to Dearborn, Michigan, which is kind of the center of the Iraqi-American community. People in the U.S. government have been increasingly reaching out to Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles, to Iraqi-Americans in Dearborn, hopefully to Palestinians in northern New Jersey. They recognize that we aren’t tapping the “hyphenated Americans,” and increasingly we’re making progress. But just think about it. We have the most international country in the world. Large communities of Armenians, of Iranians, of Laotians, of Vietnamese, and of Arabs. Given this population base, there is no excuse for us not having a diplomatic and military corps that is the most erudite and linguistically sophisticated in the world. And we do, to an extent. But we have to get a lot better at it.

The U.S. military’s relationship with Latin America emerges as an example in your piece of the military’s aggressive intelligence operations, Special Forces training of local units, and domineering diplomacy. You admit that “the results were not always pretty and frankly, not always moral.” Is there a way to avoid these results in the future while still following the example?

Yes, absolutely. You cannot judge a foreign policy unless you accept the assumptions of the age in which that policy was executed. And the assumptions of the Cold War age were that the Soviet Union and China and Cuba together represented a massive, palpable security threat to the United States. That the people who lived under those regimes were essentially far less happy, far poorer, more miserable and more repressed than those who lived in the regimes of our allies. Having accepted those assumptions, we operated in a very rough and dirty way in Latin America during the Cold War decades. What I’m talking about here is using Cold War Latin America as an operational example, while at the same time being much more aware of moral concerns.

Rule No. 9 is “Fight On Every Front.” The media appear to play an important role in implementing this rule. Can you talk about what kind of role you envision for the media?

I think the key thing that is so obvious that it’s almost overlooked is that there is no longer an American media. There’s a global media. Increasingly, American newspapers, magazines, etc., use reporters and writers from other countries, who come with a non-American perspective. Media organizations are global. They may be based in the U.S., but they’re essentially global. So, while the U.S. government still has to operate in a world of nation-states, it’s being judged by a media that already exists in a universal, post nation-state world. This increases the tension between government and media. Operating in such a world means you’re judging the United States on a level of morality that any nation-state will find hard to live up to in every crisis. So there is no absolute answer to this, but there are two partial answers. One is, we can do information a lot better than we’re doing it. As I put it, a nation that has businesses that can sell us things that none of us want or need can certainly come up with a better way of explaining our foreign policy. The other point, and I think this is crucial, is that we want to avoid future Iraqs. It never plays in our favor when there’s one massive issue in front of the world’s eyes. Because once an issue becomes so important—I’m talking about foreign-policy security issues—people start thinking about it emotionally and symbolically. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It’s gone on for so long and been on the front pages so long that there are many people on both sides who simply react to it emotionally. And because we are the world’s preeminent military power, it’s natural that when people focus on one issue that we’re involved in, they’re not going to take our side, they’re going to be suspicious of us, they’re going to be frightened and nervous—the way it’s normal to be frightened, nervous, suspicious of anyone who wields all the power, or most of it. So we want to deal with issues around the world before they achieve mega-front-page status. In my opinion, that is ultimately the best information strategy.

You mention that U.S. dominance could end in a few decades. Why such a short amount of time? What sort of world do you see emerging after that?

Hopefully it will last only a few decades. If we have this much power in the world a hundred years from now, we would be far less benign and idealistic than we are now. I think it’s a good thing that we should only be the preeminent power for a few decades. I can’t in detail describe the world that’s going to come next, simply because it hasn’t happened yet. I foresee a global system in a few decades that will very roughly resemble the Han Empire that emerged in China in around the second or third century BC. The Han Empire, which governed much of today’s China, was not a dictatorship ruled from a central capital. In the beginning, at least, it represented a grand harmony of diverse peoples and systems that despite all their power struggles found out that it was in their self interest to limit their own power for the sake of the greater whole. So while a single country didn’t emerge, a loose web of agreements emerged that was a system, even though it wasn’t a central government.

In other words, I’m not predicting a world government. What I am hoping for is a kind of world governance that’s loose, informal, undeclared, and allows for a number of organizations—regional, global, and great powers—to work together toward the larger good. I don’t think we’re there yet. And because we’re not there yet, I think it’s very important that the preeminent military power in the world is also a liberal power, and that it serve as an organizing principle until this system of global governance emerges.

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