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The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century

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A bracing assessment of U.S. foreign policy and world disorder over the past two decades, anchored by a major new Pentagon-commissioned essay about changing power dynamics among China, Eurasia, and America--from the renowned geopolitical analyst and bestselling author of The Revenge of Geography and The Coming Anarchy.

In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo began a decades-long trek from Venice to China. The strength of that Silk Road--the trade route between Europe and Asia--was a foundation of Kublai Khan's sprawling empire. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the Chinese regime has proposed a land-and-maritime Silk Road that duplicates exactly the route Marco Polo traveled.

In the major lead essay, recently released by the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, Robert D. Kaplan lays out a blueprint of the world's changing power politics that recalls the late thirteenth century. As Europe fractures from changes in culture and migration, Eurasia coheres into a single conflict system. China is constructing a land bridge to Europe. Iran and India are trying to link the oil fields of Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. America's ability to influence the power balance in Eurasia is declining.

This is Kaplan's first collection of essays since his classic The Coming Anarchy was published in 2000. Drawing on decades of firsthand experience as a foreign correspondent and military embed for The Atlantic, as well as encounters with preeminent realist thinkers, Kaplan outlines the timeless principles that should shape America's role in a turbulent world: a respect for the limits of Western-style democracy; a delineation between American interests and American values; an awareness of the psychological toll of warfare; a projection of power via a strong navy; and more.

From Kaplan's immediate thoughts on President Trump ("On Foreign Policy, Donald Trump Is No Realist," 2016) to a frank examination of what will happen in the event of war with North Korea ("When North Korea Falls," 2006), The Return of Marco Polo's World is a vigorous and honest reckoning with the difficult choices the United States will face in the years ahead.

"These essays constitute a truly pathbreaking, brilliant synthesis and analysis of geographic, political, technological, and economic trends with far-reaching consequences. The Return of Marco Polo's World is another work by Robert D. Kaplan that will be regarded as a classic."--General David Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.)

304 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2018

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About the author

Robert D. Kaplan

81 books1,018 followers
Robert David Kaplan is an American journalist, currently a National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. His writings have also been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers and publications, and his more controversial essays about the nature of U.S. power have spurred debate in academia, the media, and the highest levels of government. A frequent theme in his work is the reemergence of cultural and historical tensions temporarily suspended during the Cold War.

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Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
488 reviews76 followers
August 9, 2019
Because the realist knows that he must work with elemental forces rather than against them, he also knows, for example, that order comes before freedom and interests come before values. After all, without order there is no freedom for anybody, and without interests a state has no incentive to project its values.

Check your idealism at the door and get ready for a hard dose of unflinching realpolitik.

There was a time when the word Conservative had intellectual depth to it, a principled set of ideas taking the long view of history and human nature. You didn’t have to agree with it, but it was worthy of consideration and even respect. Alas, these days conservatism has all the intellectual depth of a mud puddle and seems to be mainly concerned with tax breaks for the wealthy. To the extent that it possesses a foreign policy at all, it is about distracting the people from problems at home with saber-rattling threats of war. It has become bellowing, Bible-thumping know-nothingism.

Robert Kaplan is a conservative of the old school. He has a gimlet-eyed view of national interests that takes little account of the niceties of democracy-for-all, scrupulous observance of human rights, and all the freedoms Western societies take for granted, but everything he says is backed up by historical analysis and hard, cold logic. If we fail to maintain a laser-like focus on our national interests we will be taken advantage of by nations that do, and will find ourselves in a morass of good intentions that never actually pan out into good results. Human nature is driven by self interest.

This book is a collection of previously published pieces, mostly from foreign affairs journals and The Atlantic, and mostly from between 2007 and 2015. Some of them are appreciations of statesmen and scholars who shared his views and whom he esteems highly, such as Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer. For each of them he examines their lives and work, and tries to distill the clarity of thought they brought to the relations between nation states. Other selections look at historical situations such as the Vietnam war and the invasion of Iraq, which he initially supported but now deeply regrets.

One of the main themes that runs though the book is that the days of monolithic nation states are over, and the future will be more fragmented, more chaotic, and more dangerous than the present. The United States can no longer be the world’s policeman, and both Russia and China will have to deal with serious internal instabilities. Local hegemons such as Iran and Turkey will emerge but even they will have limited influence in the world of social media and instantaneous internet. Kaplan makes a good point when he says that al-Quaeda is not Islam, but one violent offshoot nourished by resentment of history’s sleights and hatred of its adversaries, and held together by the worldwide reach of its sermons, speeches, and videos. There will be more al-Quaedas in the future, some religious, some political, some economic, and some, perhaps, just anarchic. As the Joker says in one of the Batman movies, “I just want to see the world burn.”

Kaplan makes his case so well that I finally decided I was better off using his words rather than trying to summarize them using my own. I ended up highlighting 91 passages from his book, and I think they are all worth reading. I took some of them and grouped them into rough categories, which are below. Every book that I have read of his has been one that I have recommended to friends. In addition to this one I have read Empire Wilderness, Eastward to Tartary, Balkan Ghosts, and Mediterranean Winter. All are worth searching out, and I intend to read more by him.

Quotes from The Return of Marco Polo’s World:


- The EU gave both political support and quotidian substance to the values inherent in NATO—those values being, generally, the rule of law over arbitrary fiat, legal states over ethnic nations, and the protection of the individual no matter his race or religion. Democracy, after all, is less about elections than about impartial institutions.
- Discovering the inapplicability of Judeo-Christian morality in certain circumstances involving affairs of state can be searing. 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.
- Corruption, [Samuel] Huntington pointed out, is a less extreme form of alienation than violence: “He who corrupts a system’s police officers is more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the system’s police stations.”

chaos theory

- those Muslim prison-states have all but collapsed (either on their own or by outside interference), unleashing a tide of refugees into debt-ridden and economically stagnant European societies.
- The more urbanized, the more educated, and even the more enlightened the world becomes, counterintuitively, the more politically unstable it becomes, too. This is what techno-optimists and those who inhabit the world of fancy corporate gatherings are prone to miss: They wrongly equate wealth creation—and unevenly distributed wealth creation at that—with political order and stability.
- The age of comparative anarchy is upon us.
- America’s confidence in “democratic” reform for its own sake is misplaced. “Reform can be a catalyst of revolution,” Huntington wrote, “rather than a substitute for it…great revolutions have followed periods of reform, not periods of stagnation and repression.”
- In the interest of thinking tragically in order to avoid tragedy, policy makers need to worry about how not to provoke more anarchy than the world has already seen.

international chess

- Russia does not require an invasion, only a zone of influence in the Intermarium that it can achieve by gradually compromising the democratic vitality of rimland states. (Hungary, in particular, is well on its way in this regard.)
- We assume, without too much thinking, that any regime change in these places will be for the better. But it easily could be for the worse. Both Putin and Xi Jinping are rational actors, holding back more extreme elements. They are bold, but not crazy. The idea that more liberal regimes might replace them is an illusion.
- Foreign policy...is not about the relationship among individuals living under the rule of law but about the relationship among states and other groups operating in a largely lawless realm.

hard heads vs soft hearts

- The United States, like any nation—but especially because it is a great power—simply has interests that do not always cohere with its values. That is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has to be embraced and accepted.
- Because moralists in these matters are always driven by righteous passion, whenever you disagree with them, you are by definition immoral and deserve no quarter; whereas realists, precisely because they are used to conflict, are less likely to overreact to it.
- As we learned to our horror at the turn of the twentieth century in the Philippines, as well as in the 1960s in Vietnam, and again in the last decade in Iraq, to invade is to govern. Once you decide to send in ground forces in significant numbers, it becomes your job to administer the territory you’ve just conquered—or to identify someone immediately who can.
- America is learning an ironic truth of empire: You endure by not fighting every battle. In the first century A.D., Tiberius preserved Rome by not interfering in bloody internecine conflicts beyond its northern frontier. Instead, he practiced strategic patience as he watched the carnage. He understood the limits of Roman power.
- Given that Israel’s electoral system helps assure weak governments—which are beholden in varying degrees to small right-wing parties opposed to substantial territorial withdrawal—perhaps the only chance Israel has of not becoming an apartheid society is if an American president finds the gumption to adopt an Eisenhower-esque approach and force Israel to withdraw from significant portions of the West Bank, wrangling Palestinian concessions in the process.
- Realism is about moderation. It sees the value in the status quo while idealists only see the drawbacks in it.
- It took England nearly half a century to hold the first meeting of a parliament after the signing of the Magna Carta, and more than seven hundred years to achieve women’s suffrage. What we in the West define as a healthy democracy took England the better part of a millennium to achieve. A functioning democracy is not a tool kit that can be easily exported, but an expression of culture and historical development.
- Fate is like the gods of ancient Greece: fickle and morally imperfect, but pliable for those who are brave.


- Don’t go hunting ghosts, and don’t get too deep into a situation where your civilizational advantage is of little help.
- If the United States helps topple the dictator Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday, then what will it do on Thursday, when it finds that it has helped midwife to power a Sunni jihadist regime, or on Friday, when ethnic cleansing of the Shia-trending Alawites commences?
- policy is about the here and now. It’s about taking or not taking action based on a near- and middle-term cost-benefit analysis. To subsume policy making completely to long-range historical thinking is to risk constantly getting involved in grand schemes.
- The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean that it is Westernizing. The impact of urbanization and mass communications, coupled with poverty and ethnic divisions, will not lead to peoples’ everywhere thinking as we do.
- liberalism thrives only when security can be taken for granted—and that in the future we may not have that luxury.
- Huntington has warned in the past that it is pointless to expect people who are not at all like us to become significantly more like us; this well-meaning instinct only causes harm. “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of - Western culture suffers three problems: it is false, it is immoral, and it is dangerous.”
- the external aggression of these new regional hegemons is, in part, motivated by internal weakness, as they employ nationalism to assuage unraveling domestic economies upon which the stability of their societies rests.
- Cultural and religious differences are particularly exacerbated: for as group differences melt down in the crucible of globalization, they have to be artificially reinvented in more blunt and ideological form by, as it turns out, the communications revolution.
- People everywhere—in the West, in the Middle East, in Russia, in China—desperately need something to believe in, if only to alleviate their mental condition. They are dangerously ready for a new catechism given the right circumstances, for what passes as a new fad or cult in the West can migrate toward extremism in less stable or chaotic societies.

civilization and society

- In In The Face of War: Reflections of Men and Combat (1976), Larteguy writes that contemporary wars are, in particular, made for the side that doesn’t care about “the preservation of a good conscience.” So he asks, “How do you explain that to save liberty, liberty must first be suppressed?” His answer can only be thus: “In that rests the weakness of democratic regimes, a weakness that is at the same time a credit to them, an honor.”
- Those who fervently supported intervention in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia yet fail to comprehend the similar logic that led us into Vietnam are bereft of historical memory.
- “The heart of liberalism is individualism,” [Huntington] wrote. “It emphasizes the reason and moral dignity of the individual.” But the military man, because of the nature of his job, has to assume irrationality and the permanence of violent conflict in human relations.
- “The liberal glorifies self-expression” because the liberal takes national security for granted; the military man glorifies “obedience” because he does not take that security for granted.
- “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
- the twenty-first century will be defined by vulgar, populist anarchy that elites at places like Aspen and Davos will have less and less influence upon, and will less and less be able to comprehend. Imperialism, then, will be viewed as much with nostalgia as with disdain.
Profile Image for Craig.
73 reviews2 followers
June 6, 2019
The first essay, which compromises about 25% of the book, is new (as far as I can see). The rest are pieces previously published in various magazines. I enjoy his thoughts, but since some is recycled (and the North Korea stuff from 2008ish feels ANCIENT at this point), was a bit let down.

My favorite moments are when Kaplan walks into a hotel in some foreign country and throws 50 books on the history of the country at me while describing history, geography, culture, etc., etc., while he's there. This doesn't happen much in this book, since he's talking more about specific things in smaller articles.

In his older age he's become a bit more of a conservative old man shaking his fist at the sky, but I still like listening to him and agree with a lot of his foreign policy perspectives. A bit disappointed at the recycle rate, but happy to have all that stuff collected.

Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews160 followers
May 23, 2018
As always, I learned many things from Kaplan's book--facts, frames of reference, history--while at the same time recognizing that I already share some of those perspectives. The opening piece, carrying the title of the book, describes the old Silk Road that Marco Polo traveled to China and his return via the Indian Ocean. Kaplan is an adherent of the "World-Island" school of geopolitics which thinks of Afro-Eurasia as the most important land mass on the globe and the Indian Ocean as the most important body of water. The geopolitics of the last century or so, since the idea was first advanced, has increasingly become more aligned with it so, to Kaplan, the world has returned to that of Marco Polo's experience. Eurasia is under the strong influence of the modern Silk Road, China's One Belt, One Road project linking them to all of Europe and Africa while the nations of the region are jockeying for trade and naval dominance in the Indian Ocean.

The collection of essays, which have previously appeared in periodicals, range in time from 2006 to the present. As one might expect, the more recent events in crucial areas like North Korea or naval developments in the South China Sea have greatly changed since Kaplan's conclusions made 10 years or so ago. Other essays have been in print only a year or two.

What makes Kaplan so interesting is that his work--and this book, certainly--provides many aha moments. He convincingly articulates history and our current world and how they intersect. Reading him is to learn from him. Each page offers a perception to catch your eye and your mind. He has smart things to say, for instance, about the influence of the internet on politics, how America's geography fates it to be a world leader, the burdens of imperialism, and the important blend of liberal ideals backed by conservative force. I was also fascinated by the portraits in the middle of the book of 3 statesmen and academics he admires: Kissinger, Samuel L. Huntington, and John Mearsheimer. He passes to us some of what he's learned from them.
Profile Image for Alexandru.
239 reviews17 followers
April 26, 2023
Kaplan's book The Return of Marco Polo's World is a collection of articles written by the author approximately between 2008 and 2016. The main narrative thread centers around the fact that the world is going back to a decentralised, nationalist paradigm similar to the period when the great explorer Marco Polo undertook his journey to China.

The main parts of the book include:

- Strategy - this is basically the main chapter that covers the decline of US dominance, the increasing importance of navies, the rise of city states and great disorder in Asia, the potential effects of the fall of the North Korean regime
- War and its costs - in this chapter there are 4 articles about the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, the effect of wars on the home front, probably the least interesting and disconnected part of the book
- In Defense of Henry Kissinger
- Looking the World in the Eye - an excellent overview of Samuel Huntington's career and worldview, probably the most interesting part of the book along with the next one
- Why John Mearsheimer Is Right About Some Things - a thorough explanations of the realist school of foreign policy and John Mearsheimers view on the threat posed by China
- On Foreign Policy Donald Trump Is No Realist - an article about why Donald Trump does not understand foreign policy and is damaging US interests
- The Great Danger of a New Utopianism - a discussion of the horrid utopianism of the XXth century (Communism, Nazism) and the effect of modern utopianisms

The book is a mixed bag due to its nature. Being a collection of articles some are more interesting, others are redundant and less relevant. It still quite an interesting read. The reader must also take into account that Robert Kaplan is a known US hawk, he advocated for the US invasion of Iraq and although he now throughly regrets it, he is still a major proponent of American power projection.
Profile Image for Charles Gonzalez.
118 reviews12 followers
April 16, 2018
So if this volume is not on every legislators and Administration bookshelf then the future failures of American foreign and strategic policy will have been preordained. Kaplan hits at the heart of the American conflict - between our geographically inspired idealism and the hard won realism that was our birthright from the Founders. One reads this volume of essays and wonders at the what may have beens while appreciating the special nature of our exceptionalism. Kaplan is no straight-jacketed interventionist but rather that rarest of things - an American writer who truly understands the world and all its wonders and dangers. It’s a shame that i come so late to reading him but will catch up ASAP on his past efforts at educating his countrymen about the world we inhabit.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
1,012 reviews40 followers
May 5, 2020
Want to read a geopolitical book that looks at various dimensions and challenges in Eurasia from China, the Middle East, Iran and the steepe? If so this book might be for you. The author is a bestselling author on foreign policies and travel, a political risk consultant, former visiting professor at the Naval Academy (2006-2008) and journalist. Readers don’t have to agree with everything he has to say and still walk away learning a lot and being challenged in a good way in thinking about international relations.
This work is a collection of essays and articles he has written for the United States military, foreign policy journal and newspaper. It explore American foreign policy and world disorder over the past two decades. The topic can be quite different from chapter to chapter. For instance one chapter talks about the psychological burden of American fighting men and women with the last two decades of war while another chapter concentrate on China’s economic and trade advantages and how it is becoming a regional player for Asia and other parts of the world. I don’t see this as a negative but as a plus in terms of how stimulating Kaplan is in his view of the world and how things work.
Among the things I like in the book include how he admitted that he was wrong in his early support for the Iraq invasion. I had to mull on this a bit since the cost of that war is not cheap in terms of dollars and lives (of both Iraqis and Americans) but in the end I’m glad he has put into print why he’s in error with the strategic disadvantage with America’s intervention in Iraq. Here I enjoyed Kaplan’s discussion in the book about the limit of America and the west to build democracy in other parts of the world, something I think both Left and Right have a tendency of doing when they have the White House. The author made a bgood point about how long it took even the west and for England to slowly develop a tradition of democratic republic and how it was a long road from the Magna Carta to where we are at today. Excellent point. Kaplan’s realism foreign policy also makes the point that realism might avoid more war than other ideological foreign policy outlook and also the need for the west to realize that corruption is a less degree of a problem than violence in other countries; we should be careful of calling for any particular military and secular dictator to be removed in a country when they might be much more progressive or modern than we realize than some of the other parties that want to take over a country. I think this is a sad lesson from the last twenty years. Also I also was surprised at the book’s discussion about the wounded home front of American service members; not what I expected from a book on big picture geo-political analysis. He’s made a point about too few troops bearing the burden too long. Also insightful for me is his discussion about veterans writing books for veterans and not necessarily for the general public and yet why its important for the general public to read these stories of American service members. His discussion about the elite MACV SOG was fascinating because I just recently finished a book on them recently.
There’s a nuanced discussion about Kissinger, Samuel Hutchington’s clash of civilization, China, Iran and the Balkans. Again a stimulating book.

Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books706 followers
December 25, 2017
For decades, Robert Kaplan has immersed himself in conflict. He is an acknowledged expert, and in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, he looks both forward and backward. What he sees is more of the same, but geographically shifting to Eurasia.

The best section by far is the first, where he analyzes the state of the world and projects future conflagrations from past experience and current developments. China is his focus, with its national policy on trading along the Marco Polo Silk Road, west towards India, Africa and Europe. He explores its newfound military expansion on the oceans, something China has studiously avoided for 3000 years. But now that it has consolidated its land territories, sown instability in the smaller states on its borders, and understood the value of trade routes, the seas have taken on immense urgency.

The rest of the book is reprints of articles he has written for the likes of National Interest and Atlantic. He examines the warrior class and the mentality of soldiers and how they are an almost entirely different subspecies. And that we need to recognize that. He also profiles some right wing celebrities like Henry Kissinger, who he absolutely idolizes, whether he admits it or not. Three hagiographies reprinted here are the least credible or insightful. Kaplan is much better at strategy. He lives in a tense, violent, military-centric world. His observations are tightly focused - depressingly so - but when he lets his ultra-conservatism surface, he weakens.

In May 2016, six months before the presidential election, Kaplan wrote (in National Interest) “The twenty-first century will be defined by vulgar populist anarchy that elites at places like Aspen and Davos will have less and less influence upon, and will less and less be able to comprehend. Imperialism, then, will be viewed as much with nostalgia as with disdain.” He does not and has never appreciated Donald Trump’s grasp of world affairs, saying he is no realist. For Kaplan, realism is the gloomy opposite of idealism, the unachievable. He quotes Jean Lartiguy in this paradox: “How do you explain that to save liberty, liberty must first be suppressed?”

There’s a lot to disagree with, something Kaplan acknowledges up front. He says Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army “are, in fact, redemptive millennial movements that are a response to the twin threats of modernism and globalization.” No they aren’t. They’re conscripted criminal gangs whose only concerns are power and wealth over everyone else. Intellectualizing them is absurd.

The other main fault is Kaplan’s total failure to account for climate change. While the military are busy making climate conferences profitable all over the world by showing up in unprecedented numbers, land shrinkage, water shortages and climate refugees do not figure in his calculations at all. Still, he is perceptive to a terrific degree, even to acknowledging that Shakespeare had more to tell us about dictators and rises and falls, than all the expensive analysis piling up in think tanks and bookstores. So it’s a worthy adventure with a qualified guide.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Vali C.
24 reviews1 follower
March 11, 2023
This book is mostly a collection of essays published by the author during various times, some as old as 2000. I am not extremely familiar with geopolitics and strategy (follow it more as a hobby and haven't read a lot on the subject), so take this with a grain of salt, but this book provided me with a lot of interesting new perspectives, especially from a philosophical point of view.

The book starts with a chapter on the new interconnected world (a return to the world of Marco Polo) of Eurasia. The author makes the point that paradoxically this world is going towards more divisiveness as cultures and ideologies clash more often. This is becoming a multi-polar world after a period of Pax Americana as the United States enters an isolationist phase and wishes to disentangle itself from a lot of places, more specifically the Middle East now that the US can domestically satisfy its energy needs after the adoption of fracking.

The second half of the book was the most interesting to me as the author went on to provide a detailed description of the writings of Kissinger, Huntington, Mearsheimer. This was my first time being introduced to these political titans and it made me want to search for more (I specifically added Huntington's "Political Order in Changing Societies" to my reading list). In this section Kaplan also analyses the dangers of utopia and its ability to seemingly fulfill the lack of meaning present in the modern world.

The book also has a chapter about talking about the Vietnam war and the author's experience with veteran authors and their perspectives. I have to say this is the only chapter I skipped after some point, because I felt like the author was repeating a few key ideas over and over again and the subject was not particularly to my liking in order to find it worth it to get through this.

All in all, this is a great introductory book for geopolitics and a good gateway to more in depth writing on the subject. Kaplan does not shy away from getting philosophical (there is a very interesting discussion about amorality, especially concerning Kissinger's political career and writings) at times and he does a good job of presenting all of the major current crises in the making like China's expansionism and the North Korean situation. There seems to be a slight conservative bias in the presentation, but the author does a good job of providing counter-arguments to the main points even if these counter-arguments may not necessarily be the strongest ones available.
184 reviews9 followers
September 6, 2020
The reference to Marco Polo in the title of this work has nothing to do with the popular swimming pool game. Instead, the author is referring to Central Asia no longer being part of the Soviet Union or, before that, the Russian Empire, so that overland travel between the Mediterranean and Chine is once again viable as it was 700 years ago when Marco Polo and other merchants made that trip.

Robert Kaplan is a devotee of geopolitics and in the tradition of Mahan and Mackinder, Kaplan has a tendency to see geography as destiny. He therefore views China extending its influence into Central Asia by building roads, pipelines and other infrastructure in the region as having significant consequences, and possibly altering the balance of power in Eurasia. Those readers not familiar with Metternich and the concept of balance of power may find Kaplan tedious and anachronistic, but I have found geopolitics fascinating since I first learned of the works of Mahan and Mackinder.

I admit that I have often leaned towards a kind of Rodney King foreign policy in which the salient question is "Can't we all just get along?" Kaplan is a realist and has no patience with that kind of Pollyannaish view of the world. He maintains that countries have interests that must be pursued, regardless of the type of government currently in power. He suggests that a democratic China would still be building artificial islands in the South China Sea and a democratic Russia would still be holding on to the Crimea. He finds those who see foreign policy through an ideological lens to be misguided, and possibly dangerous.

Reading Kaplan will almost certainly question some portion of your world view regardless of what perspective you approach him from.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
July 13, 2018
Robert Kaplan has really fashioned himself as the American liberal establishment's own version of Marco Polo, so its fitting enough that he has now written a book titled after his progenitor. Not a travel book however, this is an uneven collection of essays of his written over the past several years and anchored by a Pentagon commissioned study on the coalescence of the Eurasian continent. I found the study to be an underwhelming reflection on things that are very obvious to any reader of the news, and the essays to be of fairly dubious value particularly given how dated some of them are. But there was one exception: a short but brilliant essay on the growing danger of utopian ideologies in modern societies.

Entitled "The Great Danger of a New Utopianism," this essay is sensitive, informed and prescient about the dangers of the spiritual vacuum that many modernized and modernizing people around the world currently inhabit. It is worth quoting at length:

What is our worst existential fear, worse than any cyber, biological, environmental, or even nuclear threat? It is the threat of a utopian ideology in the hands of a formidable power. Because utopia is, in and of itself, the perfect political and spiritual arrangement, any measures to bring it about are morally justified, including totalitarianism and mass murder. But what, on the individual level, has always been the attraction of utopian ideology, despite what it wrought in the 20thcentury? Its primary attraction lies in what it does to the soul, and understanding that makes clear just how prone our own age is to a revival of utopian totalitarianism.

Aleksander Wat, the great Polish poet and intellectual of the early and mid-20thcentury, explains that communism, and Stalinism specifically, was the “global answer to negation. . . . The entire illness stemmed from that need, that hunger for something all-embracing.” The problem was “too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.” Who could cope?

So, Wat explained, a “simple catechism” was required, especially for the intellectuals, which explains their initial attraction to communism and, yes, to Stalinism. For, once converted, the intellectuals could then unload this all-embracing catechism on the masses, who would accept it as a replacement for the traditional and hence normal catechism of religion. Whereas traditional religions fill a void in the inner life of the individual, thereby enriching it, Stalinism turned that inner life immediately, in Wat’s words, “to dust.” Stalinism represented “the killing of the inner man”; it stood for the “exteriorization” of everything. That was its appeal. For without an interior life, there would be less for a person to think and worry about......

......Our time on earth, indeed, may be ripe for the next batch of utopian ideologies. Far more than the early 20th century even, we are bombarded by stimuli: If there were too many books and ideas, too many people and systems, back in Wat’s time, they were only a fraction of what people must cope with now. The soul itself, explains the contemporary Romanian philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici, is being hollowed out because of the substitution of the inner imagination by technology: smartphones, intelligent toys, the array of electronics at malls. Technology, as Martin Heidegger understood, is devoid of intrinsic purpose, with mental anguish and confusion merely the result of its overuse. Thus, we desperately require meaning in our lives, which conventional politics obviously cannot satisfy, even as technology and primitivism—witness the Islamic State—can flow together in new belief systems that assign themselves to traditional religions.

Then there is loneliness. Toward the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observes: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination . . . is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” Totalitarianism, she goes on, is the product of the lonely mind that deduces one thing from the other in linear fashion toward the worst possible result, and thus is a “suicidal escape from this reality.” Pressing men and women so close together in howling, marching formations obliterates individuality and thus loneliness. But even with all of our electronic diversions, is loneliness any less prevalent now than it was when Arendt published her magnum opus in 1951? People are currently more isolated than ever, more prone to the symptoms of the lonely, totalitarian mind, or what psychiatrists call “racing thoughts.”

People everywhere—in the West, in the Middle East, in Russia, in China—desperately need something to believe in, if only to alleviate their mental condition. They are dangerously ready for a new catechism, given the right circumstances. What passes as a new fad or cult in the West can migrate toward extremism in less stable or more chaotic societies.

The jet-age elites are of little help in translating or alleviating any of this. Cosmopolitan, increasingly denationalized, ever less bound to territory or parochial affinities, the elites revel in the overflow of information that they process through 24/7 multi-tasking. Every one of them is just so brilliant! They can analyze everything while they believe in nothing, and have increasingly less loyalty to the countries whose passports they hold. This deracination renders them wholly disconnected from the so-called unwashed masses, whose upheavals and yearnings for a new totality, a new catechism, in order to fill the emptiness and loneliness in their souls, regularly surprise and shock them.

The full essay itself is actually here (https://www.cnas.org/publications/com...) so maybe you don't even need to buy the book. I'm an avid reader of Kaplan despite frequently disagreeing with him, but I am not a fan of collections of essays.
Profile Image for Ronit.
126 reviews9 followers
December 28, 2018
Interesting take on the future of the world and the challenges facing it, albeit from a strictly American and security point of view. The name of the book comes from the opening piece which is the most comprehensive of the articles. Makes the case for a world order in which America will continue to play an important role though its relative power will decline leading to a more anarchic world (taken to mean there will be no single authority) where increasing economic prosperity and globalization will take place, just like during Marco Polo's time when he traveled the Silk Road. For example, in Central Asia it is not the US but China and Russia which are more important now. While the latter two cooperate regularly, they are also competing at the same time, and China is the main country limiting Russian dominance in the region. Though Asia has become more prosperous there are some very real structural and ethnic tensions in the region, particularly in central Asia and western China, which should be kept in mind. Points out that rising prosperity and political stability don't always go hand in hand. In fact, rising prosperity might exacerbate existing conflicts between different constituents. In recent times, these tendency has been accelerated due to the greater transportation (roads, railways) and communication networks (internet, mobiles).

However, the author tends to downplay the contradictory objectives of the countries the US is interacting with. For example, apprehension of China has pushed Myanmar to seek better ties with India and the US. So Kaplan recommends that India should be used as a vanguard against China as well. This downplays the complexities of the relation between India and China. While India is uncomfortable with China's rise it has made strenuous efforts to maintain good relations with it, in spite of recent border skirmishes (Doklam standoff in 2017).

The rest of the articles in the book are journalistic pieces the author wrote over the years. Due to their size they are of somewhat uneven quality. The best ones are interviews of the Realist thinkers Samuel Huntington, John Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger in which he dwells on their ideas and what they mean for the world at large.
Profile Image for Chase Metcalf.
193 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2021
Excellent book filled with insightful analysis of the evolving geopolitical environment. Author is a self-described realist who believes in anarchic system and state pursuit of power. The book itself is a collection of past articles and writings that paint a picture of a increasingly connected and unstable environment where the US will be more limited in its ability to dominate the global system but will remain the most powerful player in the system. Ultimately the author argues that the globalization and communications revolutions have reinforced rather then negated geopolitics - thus the “return to Marco Polo’s world”. Some key highlights from the book:
- America is empire that must apply its power sparingly and through proxies to avoid becoming overstretched - notes that passion (emotion) and wise policy rarely flow together
- Emphasizes interests over values while acknowledging at most effective when these are aligned - stresses that R2P and “Never Again” motivation too often ignores limits of US power and resources
- Promotes realism quoting Morgenthau in his description of realism as appealing to historical precedent rather than abstract principles and focused on realization of the lesser evil rather than the absolute good
- Argues that realism is about the ultimate moral ambition in foriegn policy as it seeks avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power
- Realists understand that values follow interests - not the other way around. Realism is about moderation and sees value in status quo while idealists only see drawbacks.

Ultimately this is a highly readable book that paints a clear-eyed view of a world that is likely to be more chaotic and unstable than that of the Cold War.
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,083 reviews26 followers
April 21, 2020
A 'Greatest Hits' collection of essays that's disjointed and stale.

Essay collections from contemporary geopolitical thinkers are risky propositions. There's a risk that what you're writing about gets OBE (overcome by events) but also a risk that merely recapping what you wrote over the past year presents too limited a perspective to be useful.

Kaplan's 2018 collection of essays is more the former as it includes essays going all the way back to 2006 which appear positively quaint in hindsight.

The titular essay purports to focus on Marco Polo's Silk Road as the next big thing(tm) in geopolitical importance but the remaining essays are a hodgepodge of writings that cover discrete issues/countries in the area or are little mini biographies of influential realist thinkers (Huntington, Kissinger, Mearshimer, etc).

The bio sketches are interesting but there's little connective tissue between the entries and no real overarching theme.

Basically it's a "Greatest Hits Volume 3" whereby the hits get less great....
Profile Image for Mircea Poeana.
134 reviews12 followers
September 27, 2020
Robert D. Kaplan, unul dintre cei mai renumiti analisti de politica externa ai Americii, ne ofera intre copertile cartii cu titlu metaforic o serie de eseuri aflate la granita dintre pragmatism si filosofie.
Fiecare eseu reprezinta in sine o mica "opera", dar si o piesa intr-un puzzle ce se intregeste firesc la finele volumului.
De aici si diversele concluzii sau intrebari cu - deocamdata - raspuns deschis.
Este America actuala capabila sa joace un rol similar cu, de exemplu, cel al Imperiului Habsburgic?
Ce rol are cultura in deciziile luate de presedintii americani?
Cum va evolua Asia si, in general, intreaga lume sub influenta unei Chine in plina ascensiune?
Este amenintarea Rusiei comparabila cu pericolul Statului Islamic?
Cititorul este invitat sa reflecteze, in cel mai pur stil de "challenge" american.
Si pana la urma, exista un castigator al infruntarii dintre ideologiile Vestului si religia fundamentalista a Orientului?
Profile Image for Aman.
56 reviews
July 26, 2018
Being a collection of essays could obviously use more structure. However, it does say in simple and clear language things that are worth saying. To put it differently, it simplifies the world without being ahistorical of strong evidence.
23 reviews
Want to read
July 19, 2018
85 reviews
March 11, 2018
One of the best essay collections I've read yet; especially pertaining to international relations, history, and U.S. foreign policy. This is as realist as one gets.
436 reviews26 followers
July 7, 2018
Robert D. Kaplan's books remain addictive. This one deserves five stars on the basis of intellectual content and quality of writing. The last star is withheld because it is lacking maps, unlike his earlier Monsoon, which featured a map for every chapter. This book consists of a declassified report he wrote for the Defense Department, along with reprinted Kaplan articles from magazines over the past two decades. Each chapter would be greatly enriched by maps of the quality of those in Monsoon. Random House has done Kaplan and the reader a disservice by not adding maps. The places he goes and writes about are not your usual overseas vacation spots, so maps are in order.

Ever the historically conscious geographer, Kaplan here continues his analysis of Eurasia featured in Monsoon and other earlier books of his. The era of Marco Polo was one of empires, and empires remain important despite the disappearance of the Western European colonial empires after WWII.
For, Kaplan writes, " keep in mind that empire remains the organizing principle of world affairs, given that the imperial experiences of Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China explain the geopolitical strategy of each country to this day. That same legacy also explains how each country could weaken or partially disintegrate." That historic perspective frames his analysis in the DOD report, reiterating that the Silk Road of Marco Polo's time was centered on trade, and that trade is still the driving force behind many policy decision of Eurasian nations today. The United States is deeply interested in that trade, as well, as it impacts American markets, imported goods, and the maintenance of secure sea lines of communication. He recommends that America first should focus on naval and air forces deployed to the area. "Boots on the ground," while important, carries the impression of "occupation" to the impacted countries. Overall, "along Marco Polo's route we always should seek to occupy the territory between neo-isolationism and imperial-style interventionism."

Kaplan identifies the Black, Baltic, South China, and East China Seas as possible areas of confrontation that could flareup and go out of control. He notes that, "The Peloponnesian War that engulfed all of Greece had its origins in relatively minor conflicts involving Corcyra and Potidaea, which helped drive tensions between Athens and Sparta to the breaking point." Starting a war carries with it the natter of ending it, as well.

The included Kaplan articles examine a range of policy issues. "The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy" addresses the pro and con of going to war in the case of national interests or for humanitarian reasons, such as the prevention of genocide. "Elegant Decline: The Navy's Rising Importance" traces the shrinking of the U. S. Navy from 6,700 vessels during WWII to under 300 today. "Rereading Vietnam" examines a number of informative books, mostly by veterans of that conflict, which had to be published privately because they were declined by major publishers at the time.

In his section "Thinkers," he reviews the writings and careers of three realist intellectuals, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer. The profiles are based on Kaplan's review of their published work and his personal friendship and professional interactions as a journalist with each. It is a rich and rewarding exploration of ideas from the realist mindset. That mindset does not consist solely of a rush to war, but, " because, as some argue, realism in the classical sense seeks the avoidance of war through the maintenance of a balance of power, it is the most humanitarian approach possible."

The only bad thing abut a Kaplan book, apart from no maps, is a "good bad." That is, one comes away from reading it with a list of additional cited books to read. "So many books, so little time."

Highly recommended for readers who aren't put off by having to think about the subject.

315 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2018
This is probably my 8th Kaplan book and I was really looking forward to something new especially in light of the changes in the US since 2016. I was disappointed to find this to be a collection of his essays that have been published elsewhere and I have already read or essays written as long ago as 2001. "Most people think that they generate their own ideas; in fact, their ideas are prepared by others who think for them." I wanted to Kaplan to think for me as he has become my geopolitical professor. I am trying to understand his "realist" thinking when I have long been a liberal idealist.

As an adolescent in the 60's I took international relations as a class my senior year of high school. I found the subject fascinating but was such a naive provincial teenager as to not know very much about the world. Then I went to college and took 2 semesters of Western Civilization. Kaplan says:
"The very obvious fact that courses in Western civilization are increasingly rare and controversial on most college campuses in the US indicates the effect of multiculturalism in a world of intensified cosmopolitan interactions. Indeed Western Civilization is not being destroyed; rather it is being diluted and dispersed." So in 1968 I was too young to understand the world and in 2018 I am too old.

I am still trying to understand liberal/conservative when even those terms are replaced by populist and progressive. However Kaplan says: "The liberal glorifies self-expression because the liberal takes national security for granted; the military man glorifies "obedience" because he does not take that security for granted. Conservatism grows organically out of the military ethic...the conservative mind like the military one, believes that human beings learn only from human experience." Here as a liberal I want to learn from books!

Kaplan's realism "the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy--the avoidance of war through favorable balance of power" sounds simple and yet the changes required to achieve it are dark and scary. His essay on warriors and what we ask of our civilian volunteer military is heartbreaking. The difficulty of obtaining a medal of honor is enlightening in that maybe it should be difficult and yet how many actual heroes slip through unnoticed because of those difficulties. His themes about a great navy and his insight and sympathies for the military are coming through in the essays. Articles on Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer are interesting. An article from 2006 about Korea is very pertinent albeit dated. The only thing I have been able to find about his thoughts on Trump is an article from 2016 in which he says "But Trump seems post-literate, a man who has made an end run around books directly to the digital age where nothing is vetted, context is absent and lies proliferate." He doesn't speculate rather those qualities are apropos in a world of leaders such as Kim Jon Un and Putin. Kaplan tells me what I didn't know my senior year, "International relations is as much about understanding Shakespeare--and the human passions and intrigues that Shakespeare exposes--as it is about understanding political science theories...and ultimately historians are more valuable than political scientists." I may never understand it all but Kaplan says "a frustrated warrior class, always kept in check by liberal-minded officers, is the sign of a healthy democracy."
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books203 followers
November 16, 2017
I'd rate this higher if I hadn't seen all these essays before--this is a collection of Kaplan's pieces, largely for The Atlantic, on his belief in Central Asia as an emerging center of gravity, and China and Russia's roles there as regional hegemons, as well as promotion of American naval reach as a lifeline. There's a roundup book review about Vietnam memoirs that is worth revisiting, but I don't think he's got a good handle on recent studies of Mongol rule if he's going to make Marco Polo extended metaphors.
Profile Image for Joseph Spuckler.
1,509 reviews21 followers
October 8, 2020
The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century by Robert D Kaplan is a collection of articles on foreign policy. Kaplan is an American author. His books are on politics, primarily foreign affairs, and travel. His work over three decades has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers and publications. His more controversial essays are about the nature of US power and have spurred debate and criticism in academia, the media, and the highest levels of government.

In the world of foreign policy, there are two camps. The realists are based on nations acting in their own interests and closely associated with Kissinger in Us policy. The liberal camp believes in collective actions and policies based on generally held beliefs like human rights. In American thinking, it is closely tied to Woodrow Wilson and international cooperation. Without the slightest bit of doubt, Kaplan is a realist. A rational thinking realist, but still a realist. He makes a point of describing the biggest flaw in the liberal theory when points are made on moral or ethical grounds there can be no opposition or variance -- if you do not act to stop genocide, then you support genocide. There is no in-between position.  It is a difficult position to hold and defend in a world where everything is not black and white. 

Kaplan pictures Europe fracturing and unruliness moving in. In France, there is a rise of the National Front. In Germany, there are more incidents of right-wing extremism. These are popular movements by those fearing immigration, job loss, and identity. Eurasia, meanwhile, begins to strengthen using technology, globalization, and geopolitics. Globalization leads to the weakening of culture and religion. This affects different countries differently. In the Middle East, it has met with violence and radicalism. Other areas are taking advantage. Given to the title of this book, China is trying to build a new silk road: Harbors and high-speed rail in Pakistan and railroads and highways in Africa. Trade and trade advantage has become the goal of China. Iran is also in a position to become a regional power, but declines to do so because of the religious leadership sees integration into the capitalist systems as a treat to Islamic ideology. China traditionally deals with all regimes, good or evil. It takes a true Machiavellian stance in its foreign relations. China changes as the situation changes.

The rest of the book is a collection of previously published articles covering issues from Trump to the growing limitations of the US military.  Kaplan explains drone attacks are not a sign of American strength, but a sign of its limitations.  The US uses drones to knock out targets without engaging military forces against the threat.  It hopes to end problems by picking off parts of the problem.  The US does remain the undisputed maritime power in the world.  Able to sit safely off coasts and strike inland with missiles and aircraft. American maritime power also tasks itself in ensuring sea lanes are open and the supply of petrochemical are available to allies. Something China enjoys without cost. 

Kaplan uses current and past foreign and domestic issues to build upon his thesis.  Of course, one can argue against any of his positions as well as for them.  This is something I recall having to do repeatedly in graduate school -- defending and rejecting the same piece of policy.  Kaplan defends his position well and although holes can be found in his thinking, they are very small holes in the big picture.  Kaplan presents a thoroughly researched and thought out position on foreign policy.
Profile Image for Steve Greenleaf.
223 reviews70 followers
April 16, 2018
Robert D. Kaplan's latest book (2018) is a collection of essays that he's written for publications such as The Atlantic, The American Interest, The National Interest, and the Washington Post. These essays provide an excellent entry into his observations and thinking if you're not already acquainted with his work, and they offer a delightful refresher if you're already acquainted with him, as I am. Kaplan describes himself (no doubt accurately) as a "foreign correspondent." But he's a foreign correspondent steeped in a profound and continuing reading of history and in particular, the history of relations between nations (which includes everything from tribes to empires to nation-states, as well as anarchical situations). This acquaintance with history allows him to achieve exquisite focus on the particulars of the here-and-now around the world (especially Asia, Africa, and Europe). This broad knowledge enables him to pull back from the tight focus to see the big picture of how the world is (and has) worked in the myriad relations between actors on the world stage, from disaffected demographic groups (young Muslim males) to nation-states and empires.

The subjects in this collection of essays are diverse. Three of them are profiles of foreign affairs thinkers (and actors): Henry Kissinger (whom Kaplan calls "a close friend"); the late Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor and veteran of a couple the Johnson and Carter administrations; and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, the chief proponent of "offensive realism" and a noted commentator about U.S. relations with China. Each of these three thinkers shares the designation of "realist" with Kaplan, although none of them prove to be beyond Kaplan's criticism on some points. All three subjects have been lightening-rods for harsh criticism, so Kaplan's generally sympathetic treatment of each of them provides a useful anecdote the heavy dose of invective that you can find about each of them elsewhere.

Other essays address such topics as the literature of the Vietnam War and the warrior ethos, the consequences of the fall of North Korea (written in 2006), the wounds of war, and so on. But the most interesting to me were those that examined the relations between states in Asia, developments on the Eurasian continent, and how these developments affect the U.S. As a part of this, Kaplan discusses the uses of empire and how (at least until the advent of the Trump administration), the U.S. and its support of international institutions, served as an empire to help ease relations in a world of nation-states. His discussion of the Obama administrations actions and attitudes in this regard is insightful and merits careful consideration.

With President Trump, we have in office a man of woeful ignorance about history and foreign relations. And without leadership from the top, we may not garner a clear picture of how the U.S. will conduct its grand strategy at present. But reading Kaplan, who identifies the fissures and fault lines that will shake us in the future, we know that these threats lie in wait, and we can perhaps only hope for the best.
Profile Image for Lianne Burwell.
785 reviews22 followers
May 25, 2018
The Return of Marco Polo's World was a book I felt a little conflicted by.

First off, the essays that made up the middle of the book, originally published in The Atlantic, are based around a number of subjects. There are articles about various thinkers and advisors who tried to guide US foreign policy in a very pragmatic direction. Following high morals just does not work, since what works in North America and Europe isn't necessarily going to work in other parts of the work, and trying to force Western-style democracy on the middle east or Asia is likely to cause even more chaos than is already there. The author, and the subjects of his essays, push a more pragmatic stance of looking at possible interventions and making choices based on whether it will be good for the security of the US, not whether it is the 'moral' thing to do.

The essays on the morass of the middle-east follow similar thought paths -- only step in if it will, in some way, make things better for the US.

It's a somewhat cynical, and very pragmatic, look at foreign policy, and where its focus should be. As someone who is pretty left-wing (in a country that is also very left-wing), I found myself heavily agreeing with him there. I'm left-wing at home, but feel that we should let other countries work out their problems. Provide aid where they need it, but not try to police them. Iraq under Hussein was not good, but is it really any better now? Or further back, the US interfered in Afghanistan in the cold war days, and while they knocked the USSR out of the country, the result was the Taliban, and later Al-Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the opening and closing pieces, written (or heavily revised) for the book are less successful. The opening attempts to tie Marco Polo's era into the present, travelling along the corridor that China wants to develop with high-speed travel as a modern version of the Silk Road. To be honest, that piece dragged, and the sentence structure was so tortured that I had to keep rereading paragraphs to make sure of what he was saying. As well, he periodically threw in words that I had to look up. I consider myself well-read with a large vocabulary, but in several places I came across words that I couldn't even figure out from the context. Thankfully, my Kobo has a word lookup dictionary.

The closing piece, on China, was shorter, but again went for the overdone language. It made me wish that those two pieces had the same editor as the magazine essays.

In the end, the book's contents had little to do with the title, although the subtitle was a clear description of the contents. I just wished that it had been billed more as an essay collection than trying to force in a theme that only really showed up in the opening that was, to me, superfluous.

But looking at only the magazine essays, this is a book well worth reading.
Profile Image for Jeff Beardsley.
66 reviews
May 19, 2018
One literary topic that I have been fascinated with for many years is that of the Silk Road; both the ancient and modern variants. I have been fortunate enough to travel through many regions connected with the Silk Road (though Western China has yet to feature in those travels), and have learned much about its geography, history, culture, politics and its people. About 10 years ago I even completed my Master’s Thesis on an issue related to this topic. Great Game, Iron Silk Road, One Belt One Road, Ancient Samarkand and Bukhara: these images and thoughts stir my mind. So…any chance I have to read more about the topic, I am game.

“The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century” by Robert Kaplan certainly draws from this issue of the Silk Road, but dwells mostly on the modern version and its geopolitical machinations. This is not a book which moves through a thesis in straight form but is rather a compilation of Kaplan’s writings over the past ten years or so. Many of these directly address the Marco Polo geography (think Central Asian “Stans, Iran, Western China, etc.), but at times goes beyond this region. It definitely addresses U.S. and Chinese policy in the region to a great extent. A few of Kaplan’s points that stuck out to me are the following:

• Central Asia will be the place that reveals to us who has the upper hand in regional power.
• Pakistan will be the register that proves if China's “One Belt One Road” policy will work.
• The United States must move from a policy of domain control to one of domain denial in Asia.
• Assessing the Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” more than 20 years later.
• The dangers of Utopianism and the advantages of Realism in a Global context.
• The next 30 years of China's future will not be as easy as the last 30 years of Chinese history.

If any of these points strike your interest and find you wanting to know more about the topic, than I can highly recommend this book. It is a quick read. And, while I was hoping for a bit more than a compilation of essays in this book, it did inform me a great deal beyond my studies of the region. My only real complaint was that many of the essays are dated at this point, and a lot of history has happened in the interim; meaning, the book as a whole may not always read as up-to-date as the reader would wish.
Profile Image for Joel.
Author 10 books20 followers
March 17, 2019
Curiosity – and a joyful quest for wonder. For wonder is not something that hangs low on branches for the feckless or lazy to grasp. Wonder is a reward for hard work, searching and understanding and discovery – a journey which begins with curiosity.

Robert D. Kaplan has two main, overarching theses that come through in all of his books. The first is what he sometimes calls “the revenge of geography”. That place matters, the mountains and the dales and the passes – the seas and the straits and the special experiences in faith and freedom and empire and tyranny of those who traverse them.

The other is the importance of realism and the danger of utopia. People are not the same, ideology is a simplistic utopian panacea by which we like to pretend others see the world as we do and wish it to be as we wish it. But they don’t; a lesson hard-learned by evangelical nations like the United States which wears her morality on her sleeve, and etches her values along the lines of her fingers, to be observed and understood in either a handshake or a fist as part of the promise or the punishment of our power.

“The Return of Marco Polo’s World” is about this. Anchored by an essay written for CNAS, it is a collection of other essays and treatises written over a period of perhaps ten or fifteen years about different areas which have aroused Kaplan’s curiosity. China; the Baltics; the Balkans; Russia; Iran and Turkey.

It is a book written for US policymakers but not about US policy, at least not mostly. It is about the way the world is and what is going on and how we should see things and understand them; it is an eloquent appeal to be humble in our dealings with other nations and not allow our actions to be driven by hubris or our great and overflowing impetus for freedom – however good the latter might be.

I find Kaplan’s writing comforting – for it is both sweeping and epic but brimming with the minutiae and anecdotes which lend power and truth to his observations. Its no surprise that I am not particularly sanguine about the future of our world or our arriving ordeal – but its also important to remember that America’s time at the top is but twinkle of a moment in relation to the march of empires. They ebb and flow as people change and the world changes around them – and yet still the grand story of humanity powers forward; captured by so great of thinkers as Robert D. Kaplan.
Profile Image for Adrian.
251 reviews21 followers
March 15, 2018
The standouts of this volume, and indeed, what are unique to this volume, are the titular Return of Marco Polo's World and Marco Polo Redux, the former in itself justifies the purchase of the book, even if one does not read the whole thing.
As for the rest, should one persevere? Well yes and no. For this reader, yes as Kaplan's writing style is immensely readable and informative, however, the earlier chapter, War and Its Costs, becomes very familiar very fast, and at times seems like an extended book review.
The section on Thinkers, detailing Henry Kissing, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer is an excellent insight in itself, and is worth reading for any international relations enthusiast who desires a better understanding of the field's greatest modern scholars of the past half century.
The latter section, Reflections and Marco Polo Redux are what take us back to the crux of the matter, the re-emergence of Eurasia.
A key reason for concern highlighted by Kaplan is that the geographical center of the world is shifting from the US and Europe toward Russia and China, essentially Eurasia, and the various vassals within the periphery.
Russia is unstable and has unsound underpinnings to its economy, China less so, though it is weaker than it actually appears. A cautionary insight one can gain from reading is that the replacement of a Putin or Xi could actually herald something much worse.
Kaplan's work, like many others, are a well written cry for greater understanding. Kaplan does not miss the important matters at all, he is not distracted by the trivial and sensational. His is a mind worthy of emulation, and his writing is stimulating and thought provoking.
Enjoy his writing, heed his warnings.
Profile Image for Nick.
214 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2018
Kaplan is insightful as usual in this quick read. However, his collection of reflections and insights into the war and strategy in the 21st century are not necessarily unique or very deep. Kaplan suggests that the US must adopt a Realist view of foreign policy, but does not fully address domestic political constraints, what the US should do, or even what endstate the US should pursue to achieve its national security goals in East Asia. If the US reserves the right for itself to project military force globally, surely it cannot let itself be too alarmed when China starts to project its military force locally. A realist foreign policy might call on the US to push back on Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas, for example, but how do policymakers reconcile issues regarding nuclear weapons, domestic politics, and US global commitments? The obvious answer is to rely more on allies and multilateralism, but Kaplan seems critical of these approaches, at least to a certain degree. As a result, he falls into the same trap of other thinkers who suggest that the US can and should ensure that it get its way in international affairs at all times.

Overall, Kaplan's views are helpful for understanding some aspects of international affairs, but in others he simply repeats the conventional wisdom of those who follow such things without providing deeper analysis or taking the opportunity to question this wisdom. Refreshingly, Kaplan admits that he was wrong about the Iraq war in 2002. Unfortunately, he does not tell us what other ideas he has been wrong about, or which of his own he is unsure of.
April 9, 2018
This is a collection of essays that Robert D. Kaplan wrote during the past couple of decades, many of them pieces I read years ago. Kaplan has a fine sense of history and a hard-nosed realism that often leads him to breathtaking clarity about events that seem to be spinning out of control across the globe. He is firmly in the camp of foreign policy realists and skeptical of the idealistic streak that runs through America's stance on issue after issue. The funny thing is, he's not wrong. The trends he identifies exist. The concerns he focuses on are, no doubt, valid. Kaplan's views are, after all, hard-earned. The man has traveled extensively, talked to people everywhere, taken the pulse of nations time and again. It's hard to argue with a guy who clearly knows what he's talking about. Yet I still think he's too dour, too worried, too fearful. I don't see utopia ahead anytime soon, but I see a lot more hope that the anarchy and evil he thinks is looming. What's interesting, though, is that the policy prescriptions Kaplan offers -- stay strong and nimble militarily, don't get involved in prolonged land wars and preserve a balance of power in the vast stretch from Europe to Japan -- are pretty much on the mark anyway. It some ways, it hardly matters whether approach it all with pessimism or optimism. The United States does, when you come right to it, have clear interests that ought to remain front and center. Like Kaplan, I wish our president knew what they were.
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