Robert Kaplan

The controversial "Balkan Ghosts" put him on the map. His opinionated, darkly seductive reports of an unraveling world have kept him there.


Laura Rozen
April 17, 2001 8:01PM (UTC)

Reading Robert D. Kaplan, the master of writing about globalization's dark side, is like putting on a pair of glasses you didn't know you needed. From the static and overflow of information about world events, layers of crisp, dazzling insight emerge. The rocky landscape of political crisis and conflict suddenly yields patterns, trends and meaning.

Through his writing, Kaplan, 48, evokes a place, and documents the experience of a journey -- though he's not a traditional travel writer. His is a journey to prove ideas. He wants the landscape of his travel map to affirm a larger truth. A kind of idée fixe that threads through his books and articles is that the nation-state doesn't hold, that the way we understand the world to be organized is dissolving, that we are missing the most important trends that determine and portend our own future.

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"Forget the map," Kaplan writes. And then he takes us on a journey to a world in which national borders are increasingly meaningless, where driving events are not the usual protagonists of news reporting -- presidents, parliaments, police -- but the forces dissolving the nation-state and the Westphalian world order built upon it: growing ethnic consciousness that conflicts with "artificially" drawn nation-state borders, explosive population growth, disease, crime, environmental degradation, water shortages and the people mobilized by these changes.

In his seven travel books and his foreign reporting for the Atlantic Monthly, he makes you long to experience his film-noir Bucharest or visit the massive Southeastern Anatolian dam being built where the Tigris River meets the Euphrates, and he sends you back to Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (published in the Atlantic in 1941) to reexperience her 1937 tour of Yugoslavia on the brink of the bloodbath that would engulf all of Europe.

"What I try to do is to provide the experience of a backpacker, with the disciplined analysis of a good journalist or a policy specialist," Kaplan said in an interview from his home in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and teenage son. "Because policy specialists in Washington, D.C., often have no useful experiences of the culture they are analyzing. Whereas backpacker types often get it."

"I thought of my wanderings in almost geological terms," Kaplan writes in his superb 1994 book "The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century," which recounts his trip from West Africa to Cambodia via Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, China and Pakistan. "I wanted to map the future, perhaps the 'deep future,' by ignoring what was legally and officially there and instead, touching, feeling and smelling what was really there."

Refreshingly, Kaplan often skips over the obligatory interview with the foreign leader, to show instead what it's like to experience the country on the ground. The inconvenience, the dysfunction -- the sheer brokenness -- of life in many countries is his story. Places that don't work intrigue him. Countries whose underpaid border guards hit up travelers for bribes, that issue the most difficult-to-get visas, are often countries at greater risk of collapse. Underneath the abuses of many regimes, Kaplan shows, are governments that are just barely hanging on.

In his writing, Kaplan explodes many of the conventions and grammar by which foreign policy, conflict and security threats have been thought and written about. The vision he offers -- kaleidoscopic, opinionated and seductive -- makes one look at the world and its drivers in a new way. Even if one disagrees with Kaplan's more radical ideas -- that democracy was just a moment, that the future of the world's wealthy democracies is closely linked to Sierra Leone's, that the end of the nation-state is at hand -- his ability to influence the way one looks at the world is hard to resist.

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Some can't hear the name Robert Kaplan without blaming him for the delay in U.S. intervention in the Bosnian war. A journalist could only dream of having so much influence. And yet, without his even knowing it at the time (he was in Turkey and Azerbaijan then), Kaplan's third -- and what has become his most controversial -- book, "Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History," made its way onto the bedside table of a new U.S. president, Bill Clinton, and was reported to have played a role in spooking him from putting troops in Bosnia.

No one is more surprised than Kaplan at his book's influence. "When I was writing and finishing 'Balkan Ghosts' and having it copy edited, my life experience was this: I had two previously published books, on Ethiopia and Afghanistan, which were reviewed well, and sank without a trace," he told me. "When I was reporting 'Balkan Ghosts' in the 1980s," he added, "the Balkans were like Ethiopia, an obscure country. The idea that any policymaker would read it, I didn't even consider. I saw it purely as an entertaining journalistic travel book about my experiences in the 1980s."

A dark, hypnotic, at times lyrical account of Kaplan's travels through the Balkans in the late 1980s and early '90s, "Balkan Ghosts" puts the ethnic conflicts that tore up Yugoslavia in the '90s in the context of a fault line in civilization that Kaplan locates along the borders of the ancient Holy Roman and Eastern Byzantine empires, later a divide between Christian Europe and Muslim Ottoman Turkey's holdings in the Balkans. Kaplan's portrayal of a Serbian Orthodox nun vowing a holy war against "Muslim" Albanians, of Serbian police beating Kosovar Albanians after a soccer match in November 1989, suggest a tinderbox, a place riven by such innate, historical and profound ethnic and religious hatreds, that a brutal war and ethnic cleansing seem almost inevitable.

"Here [in the Balkans] men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate," Kaplan writes of his search for history, as he travels south from prosperous European Austria to disintegrating prewar Yugoslavia. "Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy. What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities? Is there a bad smell, a genius loci, something about the landscape that might incriminate?"

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Many who advocated intervention to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, and many Yugoslavs as well, bitterly criticized Kaplan for focusing on the "ancient hatreds" clichis while downplaying the high rate of intermarriage, cosmopolitanism, areligiousness and peaceful coexistence that characterized Sarajevo, Bosnia and much of Yugoslavia during the Tito era. In fact, Bosnia is mostly absent from "Balkan Ghost," which was almost entirely reported in the years before the war there.

At the time he was reporting, what mattered to Kaplan was to depict the intensity of the stifled hatreds and historical grievances in the region, to convey to readers the power that "ghosts" seemed to have on the psyche of some of the population in the waning days of Communism. He didn't intend to be comprehensive. In a way, "Balkan Ghosts" is an alarm bell: Hey, all of you cheering the peaceful end of the Cold War. This place is about to blow.

Of course, by the time "Balkan Ghosts" was published, one year into the Bosnian slaughter, the details mattered. It mattered that members of a cosmopolitan civilization that lived and breathed and supported multiethnicity -- a population largely ignored in the book -- were being forced from their homes and murdered by those fighting for fascist, ethnically "pure" states carved out through genocide. And the fact that those decent, civilized people were mostly absent from Kaplan's portrait of the Balkans outraged those who couldn't stand to watch them being slaughtered by thugs.

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Kaplan says, "If I knew what would happen, I would have been clearer in bringing out those points," Kaplan says. "I did add a more blunt preface to later editions, that says this is only a travel book."

Regardless of the controversy it generated, "Balkan Ghosts" is incredibly absorbing. The chapter on Romania is particularly brilliant and evocative, recounting Bucharest life through the history of the once-glorious and now diminished Athenee Palace hotel. Kaplan's portraits of the people he meets capture the destroyed dreams of many who lived under the Ceausescu regime:

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His name was Stefan Stirbu, a 51-year-old artist who had an exhibition in 1974 in Memphis, and another in 1977 in Pittsburgh. After 1977, Stirbu was not allowed to leave the country. He slowly became a prisoner in this small room in Tulcea with its soot-blackened windows. He looked at the review clips every day, to remind himself that a world still existed outside and that he had twice been there."

"Balkan Ghosts" also offers some breathtakingly prescient insights into the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. And Kaplan suggests intriguing parallels between Ottoman despotism and Soviet totalitarianism, and that the decline of the Ottoman Empire, its shards spread throughout the Balkans, offers clues to how the Soviet empire's demise might play out.

With almost eerie accuracy, Kaplan seems to chronicle the future. In 1985, he interviewed the former high-level aide to Marshall Tito and Stalin confidant Milovan Djilas, who predicted the disintegration of both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union years before it occurred. Spurred by a later conversation with Djilas in 1989, Kaplan writes in "Balkan Ghosts":

A thought then occurred to me: if Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time.

Eleven years later, the world has indeed witnessed revolt against the last Communist regime in Eastern Europe, in Belgrade, and become all too familiar with the fascistic nature of the Milosevic regime and its failed Greater Serbia project.

Although Kaplan describes "Balkan Ghosts" as an entertaining journalistic travel book, the role it played in shaping policy seems to have deeply affected him. In reading Kaplan's later books ("The Ends of the Earth," "An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future," "The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War," "Eastward to Tartary"), I was struck with just how much his writing has changed, and how conscious he seems to have become of the effect his words could have on policy. Gone is some of the lyricism, some of the sheer joy in adventure. Newly present is an invisible audience of army officers, intelligence analysts and Foreign Affairs subscribers.

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"Now I give periodic lectures to the military and to people in the intelligence community," Kaplan says. "I try to kind of figure out what people will want to grasp in two or three years. And there are so many places around the world which are really in an unstable condition, which nobody writes about much. All this upheaval. I kind of keep my eyes on places. I did a piece on Pakistan. I have this instinct that this could be a place like Yugoslavia.

"We're still living in the post-colonial era, where states were organized by the Berlin Congress in 1883, and other similar ones," Kaplan told me when we spoke. "What we saw in the last decade was only the partial crumbling of it. We saw places with small populations -- Sierra Leona, Tajikistan and others unravel. What I am saying is this: When you put together urbanization, big youth bulges, water shortages, crumbling infrastructure, the post-colonial gridwork of nation states will unravel further and take in big countries. A lot of these countries are artificial: Their borders were foisted on them by colonialists. They have been around for enough decades that they have some validity. Nevertheless, ethnic, regional, global identities, city-state identities, all create a far more nuanced understanding of what people think they are than the old nation-state gridwork.

"Things are coming apart," Kaplan added. "And when this happens where there are weak institutions, no middle class, and where big issues of society are unsettled, such as which ethnic group has control, you have a real breakdown."

Identifying the forces that are likely to fuel future social upheaval and conflicts, and putting volatile regions on the radar before they become headlines, Kaplan serves as a one-man early-warning system. But that largely humanitarian project often clashes with the realpolitik vision of global politics and human behavior Kaplan espouses. His portrayal of phenomena such as dissolving borders, ethnic hate, rising crime, population explosion and conflict often conveys a sense of resignation to the inevitable.

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For instance, by portraying the ethnic conflict that erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s as an irresistible, almost natural force larger than the individuals who chose to kill and ethnically cleanse, he downplays a sense of individual responsibility. Cumulatively, perhaps unwittingly, the effect is to deprive his narratives of a sense of powerful human agency. His writings offer a vivid understanding of the forces that will lead to the next century's Yugoslavias, while expressing little hope that well-informed policies will be erected to forestall disaster. We are heading toward the apocalypse, and there is no deliverance.

"I would be unfaithful to my experience if I thought we had a general solution to these problems," Kaplan writes in "The Ends of the Earth." "We are not in control. As societies grow more populous and complex, the idea that a global elite like the U.N. can engineer reality from above is just as absurd as the idea that political 'scientists' can reduce any of this to a science. In an age of localized mini-holocausts, decisive action in one sphere will not necessarily help the victims in another. Only in a few cases will an organization like the U.N. make a truly pivotal difference."

A collection of Kaplan's essays published in 2000 titled "The Coming Anarchy" aims to jolt America from its peacetime complacency, even as it chronicles Americans' growing passivity. In the book Kaplan strips his arguments and analysis from their strict ties to landscape. This is not travel writing, but sharp, often uncomfortable observations about U.S. foreign policy and trends in American life. In these essays, Kaplan reveals himself to be a brutal realist, critical of many of the ideas of progressive liberal thinking: democracy, genocide prevention, even the idea of progress in human affairs.

"I don't accept the difference between humanism and realism," Kaplan said during our conversation. "Realists understand the slow route is the steadier route. Everything can't be done at once."

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"Isolationism goes perfectly with idealism," Kaplan adds. "When things don't work out perfectly according to perfectionist fantasies, idealists have been able to retreat back across the ocean. Now, we cannot withdraw anymore, because technology has defeated distance. So we are always engaged now. Idealism will be replaced by realism."

In "The Coming Anarchy," Kaplan turns progressive liberal thinking on its head. He writes about the liberation of violence. He offers a cautious defense of Henry Kissinger and the bloodbath of Vietnam and Kissinger's decision to delay withdrawing U.S. troops from there as perhaps necessary for the U.S. to show strength before its Cold War adversaries.

In one of the collection's essays, "Idealism Won't Stop Mass Murder," Kaplan criticizes the trend he notes in U.S. foreign policy toward a "Holocaust mentality," that seeks to prevent genocide through institutions such as war crimes tribunals. "Such an attempt is both noble and naove," Kaplan writes. "Institutionalizing war crimes tribunals will have as much effect on future war crimes as Geneva Conventions have had on the Iraqi and Serbian militaries." He, who has spent so much time chronicling state collapse and conflict in Africa and elsewhere, writes, "Callously put, the murder of up to a million Tutsis in Rwanda did not affect the United States. Only when moral interests crosshatch with strategic ones will the public tolerate blood in an intervention."

In another essay, "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" Kaplan heaps scorn on the United States' fondness for exporting democracy around the globe. Democracy often brings instability and becomes a vehicle for amplifying ethnic and minority tensions, he says, rather than providing the foundations for a middle class, growing prosperity and stability. What people really want, Kaplan writes, is a better life, which benign authoritarianism and hybrid democratic-autocratic regimes may be better able to deliver. "My point, hard as it may be for Americans to accept," Kaplan writes, "is that Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy, and China may be succeeding in part because it is not."

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Kaplan then goes further to argue not only that the conditions for successful democracy don't exist in much of the world, but that democracy is slipping away from us at home. One may be offended by some of his ideas. But the picture Kaplan draws of Americans' being steadily lulled into passive voyeurism as corporations and strip malls overtake the landscape, and "Survivor" and multimillion-dollar sporting events fill our TV screens, is disturbingly convincing. As he writes in "The Coming Anarchy":

When voter turnout decreases to around 50 percent at the same time the middle class is spending astounding sums in gambling casinos and state lotteries, joining private health clubs and using large amounts of stimulants and anti-depressants, one can legitimately be concerned about the state of American society. We have become voyeurs and escapists. Many of us don't play sports but love watching great athletes with great physical attributes. It is because people find so little in themselves that they fill their world with celebrities. The masses avoid important national and international news because much of it is tragic, even as they show an unlimited appetite for the details of Princess Diana's death. This willingness to give up self and responsibility is the sine qua non for tyranny.

The link Kaplan draws between the failures of democracy abroad, and the shrinking of democracy at home, gets at what may be the heart of Kaplan's work. In all the places he's traveled all these years, Kaplan has confronted the signs of an unjust, bifurcated world, where the people in the rich comfortable West are seemingly unaffected by those suffering immense poverty, disease and conflict in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Cambodia, even down the street. After watching a girl die of tuberculosis in Cambodia, Kaplan writes in "The Ends of the Earth":

On the plane, I wondered what it all proved -- that girl, my journey from Sierra Leone to Cambodia? I could have watched a homeless person die of TB a few blocks from a pricey restaurant in Manhattan. I didn't have to come to Southeast Asia to see suffering and disparity. Many of the problems I saw around the world -- poverty, the collapse of cities, porous borders, cultural and racial strife, growing economic disparities, weakening nation-states -- are problems for Americans to think about. I thought of America everywhere I looked. We cannot escape from a more populous, interconnected world of crumbling borders.

Kaplan argues in "The Coming Anarchy" that it isn't moralism that should spur U.S. foreign policy regarding the implosion of Sierra Leona, genocide in Rwanda or tuberculosis in Cambodia. We should care because the world's problems are coming to our doorstep. "West Africa's future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world," Kaplan writes. "As AIDS shows, Africa's climate and poverty beget disease that finds its ways to the wealthiest suburbs. We are the world and the world is us."


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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