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Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

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On the world maps common in America, the Indian Ocean all but disappears. The Western Hemisphere lies front and center, while the Indian Ocean region is relegated to the edges, split up along the maps’ outer reaches. This convention reveals the geopolitical focus of the now-departed twentieth century, for it was in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters that the great wars of that era were lost and won. Thus, many Americans are barely aware of the Indian Ocean at all.

But in the twenty-first century this will fundamentally change. In Monsoon, a pivotal examination of the Indian Ocean region and the countries known as “Monsoon Asia,” bestselling author Robert D. Kaplan deftly shows how crucial this dynamic area has become to American power in the twenty-first century. Like the monsoon itself, a cyclical weather system that is both destructive and essential for growth and prosperity, the rise of these countries (including India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Burma, Oman, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Tanzania) represents a shift in the global balance that cannot be ignored. The Indian Ocean area will be the true nexus of world power and conflict in the coming years. It is here that the fight for democracy, energy independence, and religious freedom will be lost or won, and it is here that American foreign policy must concentrate if America is to remain dominant in an ever-changing world.
From the Horn of Africa to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, Monsoon explores the multilayered world behind the headlines. Kaplan offers riveting insights into the economic and naval strategies of China and India and how they will affect U.S. interests. He provides an on-the-ground perspective on the more volatile countries in the region, plagued by weak infrastructures and young populations tempted by extremism. This, in one of the most nuclearized areas of the world, is a dangerous mix.

The map of this fascinating region contains multitudes: Here lies the entire arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago, and it is here that the political future of Islam will most likely be determined. Here is where the five-hundred-year reign of Western power is slowly being replaced by the influence of indigenous nations, especially India and China, and where a tense dialogue is taking place between Islam and the United States. 

With Kaplan’s incisive mix of policy analysis, travel reportage, sharp historical perspective, and fluid writing, Monsoon offers a thought-provoking exploration of the Indian Ocean as a strategic and demographic hub and an in-depth look at the issues that are most pressing for American interests both at home and abroad. Exposing the effects of explosive population growth, climate change, and extremist politics on this unstable region—and how they will affect our own interests—Monsoon is a brilliant, important work about an area of the world Americans can no longer afford to ignore.

323 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Robert D. Kaplan

58 books975 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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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 227 reviews
568 reviews17 followers
February 19, 2011
Robert Kaplan is the anti-Thomas Friedman. Where Friedman bounces around the globe looking at globalization and spins visions of future wonder, Kaplan ambles down dark streets seeing the worst of globalization. Both are travel writers with a strong interest in international affairs of course.

Kaplan is a far better travel writer than Friedman. You really get a feel for the vistas he takes in from his perches. His descriptions are wonderful, even if they are of tragic places and times. The book is loosely organized around the idea that the Indian Ocean is becoming a center of global activity as important as the Atlantic was in the 19th century. This allows Kaplan to visit Oman, a poor region of Pakistan called Baluchistan, Sri Lanka, Bengal, Indonesia and other regions. While some areas look bright (Oman, for example) others look dangerous and dark (Sri Lanka.)

On the international affairs side, Kaplan covers the impact of a decline in power of the US vs. China in the region and the desire of India to counter balance China in the region. On the decline side, he notes that Sri Lanka was able to pursue its absolutely brutal destruction of the Tamil Tigers, as the Chinese do not attach moral requirements to their foreign relations. He also shows the slow spread of China throughout the region, including into Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The big news from an international affairs stand point is that navies are back. Since the end of the Cold War, navies really haven't had much to do. The US Navy dominated everything and it reoriented towards striking land targets. Critical sea lanes lines like the Straits of Malacca make navies matter again and Kaplan argues that the Chinese-US-Indian naval relationship will be a critical one to watch.

At its heart this is a travel, not a policy book, but it will certainly encourage exploring more.
Profile Image for Max.
222 reviews5 followers
May 28, 2012
Most of the political economy books are very boring. 300 pages to prove a point that can be explained in 5 pages are the standard. I remember F.Zakaria's 'The Post-American World' was so boring I had to put it away after 50 pages. Hence, I took a gamble by picking up Monsoon, and it proved to be the black swan: 300 pages of entertaining and informative study of the geo-political situation in countries surrouding the Indian ocean.
This book is a study that takes the reader on a journey through a thriving region, alive with desire for the future. We see Oman, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Birma, Indonesia and Zanzibar through the eyes of RK (who has visited all countries, something not all political commentators do), and understand their role in the Big Game for world power in which US and China are creeping ever closer. Complemented by historical background (those Portuguese were ruthless..) this book writes a full picture, which is not two dimensional, but at least 100 dimensional with local, historical, geopolitical and economic factors to take into consideration. Even though this book is not travel literature, RK perfectly shows what intellectual baggage a traveler in the Indian ocean requires in order to understand his surroundings. I love it. Every chapter increased my desire to book a ticket to one of those countries and go and explore myself.
I was afraid for a disturbing American focus, but this is absolutely not the case. US and China are active in this region to secure their oil and gas supply. All countries are thus measured by their allegiance to China or US. This is understandable, because this Game for world power is what keeps geopolitical analysts busy - and it is the reason they pick up this book. The only thing I don't understand is that in other languages the subtitle is changed from '..the future of American power' to '..the future of World power'.
Anyway, I'll be booking my ticket shortly.
Profile Image for AC.
1,642 reviews
December 1, 2011
This in intended to be a slightly more useful review than my first pass (below).

Kaplan presents a survey of the Indian Ocean littoral – from Oman to Zanzibar - moving clockwise about the Sea in conscious imitation of the ancient periplous (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periplous , which were descriptions of the Mediterranean, originally as seen from the side of a ship, moving clockwise around the Sea from the Straits of Gibraltar and back round again). Kaplan focuses on the geographical aspects, very much attuned to the relations between geography and history a-la-Braudel; on the historical background of the Indian Ocean littoral, from the Arabs, the Mughals, the Portugese – up to modern times; and the geopolitical aspects of this profoundly important region.

Kaplan’s contention is that the Indian Ocean is about to replace the North Atlantic as the heart or center of the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. The reason for this is the rise of India, which is an Indian Ocean entity in large part; and the rise of China, whose energy needs, given that China is literally “walled-in” by the First Island Chain of U.S. Allies (Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Phillippines), will have to be satisfied by tankers that need to negotiate the Straits of Malacca (among other sea lanes). Moreover, just as the Indian Ocean of the 13th-17th centuries was a circle without a center (and without a geopolitical or power center), but a broadly diffused series of trading networks that produced, of necessity, a unique medieval cosmopolitanism – and notably, an Islamic medieval cosmopolitanism (!) – so, Kaplan thinks, the Indian Ocean of the coming years is set to play a similar role.

His account of a non-arabic Islam, expressed by al-Jazeera at its best, is quite fascinating and persuasive.

The key, of course, is that the U.S. play its role of elegant decline, and not teeter-off into the blood-drenched fantasies of the Neoconservatives (and their ilk) – and that China’s nationalists, of course, whom Mark Leonard calls the "neocomms", are also kept in check. (Kaplan supported the Bush War in Iraq, but has evolved, and frankly calls his earlier support a “mistake”.)

The book also contains an important admixture of travelogue, thoroughly integrated with the larger themes, as Kaplan describes the actual tour that he took about the Indian Ocean – and it is beautifully written – almost hauntingly, in places… In addition to Oman, there is much on Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, with a final chapter on Zanzibar. One of the most interesting chapters is number 15 on Chinese naval policy.

A thoroughly impressive and important book – and a delight to read. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Consider this a six-star review.

(This is a stunning book. Rich with travel, observation, geopolitical strategy, poetry... and vision both from above and from within.... Kaplan's tour of the Indian Ocean and the revival of the Muslim-Hindic trading world-emporium of the pre-Portugese and Western entry... symbolized by a rising China in the East... and an America that, one hopes, will sanely play its role of "elegant decline"... and by Al-Jazeera.... reading this book is to hear the tectonic plates of history moving in our times....)
Profile Image for Tariq Mahmood.
Author 2 books1,023 followers
November 1, 2017
A Very engaging political travelogue about a number of countries around the Indian Ocean. I enjoyed the historical references juxtaposed with current issues affecting the various regions covered. The two biggest power players besides America are India and China, while the most modern Islamic country is Indonesia. Both Pakistan and Burma are frontier states which along with Bangladesh have been branded as failed states. The author predicts a gradual take over of the Indian Ocean by China slowly overtaking America as the main policeman of the sea. The change is inevitable and irreversible. Will it destabilize the region for the worst or the better? China does not seem to have as much hubris as the Americans so I expect the change to be for the better.

The book is a great read for anyone interested in the politics of the region.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books387 followers
April 22, 2020
Late in Barack Obama’s first term in the White House, his administration began to execute a foreign policy strategy known as the “pivot to Asia.”

The new policy was tacitly grounded in the realization that the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the long-standing primacy of the Atlantic Alliance, had distracted the country from the new emerging world order. No longer could the United States reflexively command respect as the world’s sole superpower.

The planet’s center of gravity was inexorably moving toward Asia, with the emergence of China, and secondarily of India, as regional powers—both of them candidates for future superpower status. And that is the reality the geopolitical theorist Robert D. Kaplan explores in his thought-provoking 2010 book, Monsoon, which anticipated Obama’s “pivot” by two years.

South Asia holds the key to the planet’s future

The themes that predominate in Monsoon, as in much of Kaplan’s other work, are the profound impact of geography, the enduring importance of history, and realpolitik. It’s unsurprising that he would be so popular in the defense establishment, which shares these preoccupations. In his view, Asia, and most particularly South Asia, holds the key to the future big-power alignments of the twenty-first century. That future, he believes, will play itself out along the shores of the Indian Ocean, which stretches from East Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a future in which naval forces will be dominant.

The success of the “pivot to Asia” will play out on the Indian Ocean

Strategically, Kaplan sees the central question is whether China will truly succeed in building a two-ocean navy to match that of the United States. Writing before the pivot to Asia, he lacked confidence that the US Navy would command the resources to maintain its hegemony in the Indian Ocean as well as the western Pacific. (At the time, the Navy possessed fewer than 300 capital ships; currently, however, that number has grown to more than 490.) But he sees competition coming not just from China. India, too, is a naval power, and as its economy continues its rapid growth, Kaplan foresees its navy becoming formidable, also.

An excellent guide to the geopolitics of the 21st century

In Monsoon, Kaplan blends accounts of his extended travels throughout the littoral of the Indian Ocean with historical and geographic commentary, interviews with soldiers, political leaders, and activists, and fine-tuned geopolitical analysis. Along the way, he portrays some of the individuals, past and present, who have most deeply influenced the shape of the Indian Ocean world today. His portraits of the Sultan of Oman, the British imperialists Robert Clive and George Curzon, and now-Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before he attained national office, are especially revealing.

To understand the pivot to Asia, and grasp the stakes of the new grand game being played out in the waters of the Indian Ocean, Monsoon is an excellent guide.

About the author

Over the years, Robert D. Kaplan (1952-) has moved steadily in and out of the defense establishment. As a thinker, he has lately been most closely identified with the think tank the Center for a New American Security and the Defense Policy Board, a federal advisory committee to the Pentagon. He is, however, primarily a writer. His nineteen books to date encompass foreign affairs and travel, often between the same covers. His work has also frequently appeared in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines.
Profile Image for Adrian.
245 reviews21 followers
July 27, 2012
For anyone familiar with Robert D Kaplan's previous writings on the Indian Ocean in Foreign Affairs, or the changing nature of geopolitics, one would at first assume that this was merely an expansion of the aforementioned subjects. However, Kaplan's Monsoon is much more than such an impersonal academic treatise, it is both a journey through the history and the present of the Indian Ocean countries.
The central premise of Monsoon is that the Indian Ocean, rather than the Pacific and Atlantic, will be the new theatre of power rivalry in the 21st century as a result of the rise of China and India, and the ever growing importance of commerce along this sea route. At its heart is the continuing importance of Persian Gulf commerce, coupled with the growth of the Hydrocarbon market in Central Asia, and the desire of all powers to reach the sea. Particular flash points Kaplan outlines are Burma, where India and China are competing for influence with the regime for access to gas reserves and expanded trade routes, and the strait of Malacca, essentially the gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the 21st century world military power still counts, and this is indispensable when faced with piracy off the horn of Africa, and stability of commerce routes, but so does economic power and economic interconnectedness.
While one would assume Monsoon to be a study of Globalization, it is in fact a historical study that reveals globalization is much older than commonly assumed. From the first chapter of the book, studying Oman's far reaching sea faring activity, to the final chapter exploring Zanzibar's microcosm of the global village, Monsoon reveals that Globalization has featured many different incarnations, whether it was the seafaring Omanis, the crusade minded Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the English, the Indian Ocean was paramount in the expansion of global power, and will indeed return to pre-eminence.
Robert D Kaplan is by trade a travel writer and security analyst par excellence, and his travel writing expertise is evinced within Monsoon as one is not simply recounted data upon the countries in question, rather one is transported there in person through Kaplan's beautifully worded prose that fleshes out the various locations of his travels.
Monsoon is not only a study of the changing face of geopolitics, it is both a beautifully worded travel memoir and historical journey that is both a pleasure to the senses, and a treat for the inquisitively minded.
1,054 reviews87 followers
November 29, 2017
optimistic oracle opines on ocean

This is the third book of Kaplan's I've read, and I must say it's just as good as the others. He travels through Oman, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma and a bit of Indonesia, touches on Zanzibar and then sets out his estimate of what the US should or should not do over the next century. I would say that the sections vary in their depth, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh much better than the others. He establishes that the Indian Ocean has long served as a connector rather than a barrier to trade, culture, religion and politics, and warns that the USA will ignore this at its peril. Various Western powers, from the time of Vasco da Gama on, intruded into the Indian Ocean region, established trade monopolies or colonies which were forced to deal only with the `mother country'. The USA, without direct colonies in the region, still established naval power in the Indian Ocean after the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. He says that such power will be as crucial to America in the 21st century as Atlantic and Pacific power were to the 20th. It is unlikely that, with the rise to prominence of China and India, not to mention lesser powers like Iran or Indonesia, the USA will be able to keep its pre-eminence. What tactics should the US adopt to be as successful as possible in achieving its foreign policy goals? Kaplan, in the next to last section, describes a possible sharing of power and avoiding of clashes between the rising China and the withdrawing America. I thought he was being over-optimistic, though it is true that both America and China want to keep the sea lanes open so that East Asia can continue to receive energy supplies from the Middle East. Unless both powers learn to cooperate (and they are so linked by trade and finance that they should), some sort of clash may be inevitable. Both countries over-estimate their importance and hold fast to exceptionalism.

Be that as it may, the sections on Sindh, Baluchistan, Bengal, and Gujarat are excellent---describing and discussing the current situations in regions of South Asia that have been important for centuries, but which are commonly glossed over in general discussions of the larger nation states in which they currently find themselves. MONSOON is a fascinating mix of travel, interviews, history, and political commentary. If those things are your bag, this is your book.
Profile Image for Prash.
70 reviews5 followers
July 26, 2021
From time to time a book comes that dramatically transforms those who come into contact with it. I was 26 when I first discovered this book, and it utterly changed my life.

Read this alongside Kaplan's luminous collection of essays, The Coming Anarchy, and it'll utterly change yours too.

Monsoon deftly wove together together all the key themes of my life to reshape my outlook on international relations from the perspective of the Greater Indian Ocean, and now as I follow the trajectory of international affairs in my life and career, with the economic centre of the world economy slowly traveling eastward, I find myself thinking about it every day.

My only regret? Not being able read this book again for the first time at the age of 26, when I was lost and trying to find a career path that would help me combine and reconcile my interests in history, international relations, travel, culture and literature. For those who haven't read Kaplan before, this is a treat. For those familiar with his work, this book is still as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 2010.

Deftly weaving together history, political analysis, geography and literature together in crystalline prose to illuminate his travels through the littoral states lying athwart the Indian Ocean, Kaplan makes his case for why the Indian Ocean Region stretching from Aden to Malacca will be to the 21st century (and beyond) what the Mediterranean was to the world of Antiquity - a thriving thoroughfare of commerce, culture and conflict that unites Europe, Asia and Africa to become the centre of the world economy.

I envy those who will read this book for the first time, because it'll make you realize (among other things) that you're looking at the world map all wrong - I now hang a copy of the world map in my room with Asia at its centre (not Europe), because that's the map my children will grow up seeing and taking for granted.
Profile Image for Bridget.
924 reviews85 followers
April 16, 2012
Another thorough and thought-provoking book from Kaplan. Monsoon had a very personal feel for me. Although it is only very peripherally about the UAE, it is also somehow ALL about the UAE. The nations of the Indian Ocean (Oman, Pakistan, Iran, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, Burma) are all heavily present in the population of the UAE. They run this place. Ever since we moved here, I've thought that the UAE represented a kind of future where national boundaries don't matter that much, and language and ethnicities who might be political enemies back home mix together happily for the sake of trade and business. It turns out that this is not (only) the future, it's how it's been in this area in the past, too. Fascinating.

This was close to a five-star read, but I thought Monsoon was ever-so-slightly less lyrical than Kaplan's other books. Maybe I just know his formula too well. Also, I personally was not so interested in the chapter about the Chinese navy. And sentences like this made my work-and-MA-beleaguered brain hurt:

"Despite all the pageantry and stagy contrivances of Sukarno's leftist theater state, which developed a useful myth for the new Indonesian nation, and the Dutch- and Japanese-style post-colonialism of Suharto's right-wing military state, which fortified that myth with new institutions, geography has eventually overwhelmed both those attempts at extreme centralization."

Four (or 4.5) stars it is, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand more about the people who make up UAE society.

(PS - when we first moved here, I met a stunning, exotically beautiful woman who was half Yemeni, half Zanzibarian. I decided that was the craziest mix of parentage I'd ever heard of. Turns out, it's a totally logical marriage connection when you know more about the trade routes around here.)
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews156 followers
June 5, 2017
Monsoon is a book about the geography and geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region. It could be described as a travelogue, but Kaplan is deeply interested in the politics of South Asia as well. He travels from west to east, from Yemen to Indonesia, describing the histories, current political climates, and ambitions of the countries ringing this huge region. Kaplan doesn't say so but I think he must be one of those scholars who think the Indian Ocean will become the most important body of water in the world. Most of his focus is on the intensifying competition being created by trade and arms. China floats 85% of its oil and gas across its waters. Quickly-developing India juts into the ocean like a cowcatcher and thereby projects power over the trade routes. China's financing port facilities in Pakistan and Burma while India develops Himalayan defenses. It's anchored on its ends by a stable Oman and by an Islamic Indonesia tempered by Hindu and Buddhist influences, but the region is essentially unstable. Partly this is because the Cold War's understanding among great powers was a time of relative stability which is ending now as China, India, Indonesia, and Japan become more competitive but without the robust engagement of a now-declining America to balance their energetic rise and provide the example of moral order. This is a rich portrait of a region crowded with developing trade and increasing friction among rivals.
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,070 reviews24 followers
July 13, 2020
Kaplan's "Asian Pivot" doesn't quite pivot far enough.

In an attempt to distance itself from the anti- terror policies in the Middle East of his predecessor, the Obama administration attempted an "Asian pivot" to focus more on the rising strategic threat of China. Kaplan, reading the tea leaves (pun probably intended), offers up Monsoon which tries to make the Indian Ocean and surrounding states the next major strategic focal point.

It doesn't bear out. As with most Kaplan Lonely Plant-meets-Foreign Policy travel guides, each country he visits is given a quick little history, some interviews with some local bureaucrats or NGOs and maybe some kind words for whomever Kaplan sees as "the next big thing" in small scale authoritarianism.

Kaplan's realism is very much of a "but he made the trains run on time" variety and it always leaves a bad taste in one's mouth as it hand waves real suppression of speech, free inquiry, and political freedom in exchange for some amorphous rule-by-technocrat.

Here, every country Kaplan visits feels like it's the linchpin to American security in the area... this is so because every country asserts just that. It feels less like policy analysis than a funding or timeshare pitch.

Ultimately, Kaplan's 2014 "Asia's Cauldron" got the location right for the Asian Pivot and did a better job of analyzing the strategic importance of the region than this somewhat disjointed, but well written, attempt.
97 reviews
September 19, 2019
This book is misnamed. It is not a book about the Indian Ocean or the future of American power. It is a travelogue and human geographical study. This was one of the very few books I didn't bother to finish. I kept it on my Currently Reading shelf for months, occasionally trying to force myself to finish it, but finally gave up. If you want to read a series of studies of places in the Middle East and South Asia, then you may find the book more interesting. I got tired of it even after adjusting my expectations. The endless descriptions of every village-the poverty, the people, etc.-seemed remarkably similar each time.
1 review
November 21, 2015
Horribly and pitifully Amero-centric. Written in total oblivion to pre-existing Indian Ocean scholarship. Broad statements pronounced as fiats. Assumes total lack of African agency and involvement in the evolution, history and life of the Western Indian Ocean. Must assume this caused by ignorance rather than blinkered prejudice. The kind of narrative that generates further ignorance. A shame.
Profile Image for عبد الله القصير.
312 reviews63 followers
April 7, 2021
كتاب يتتبع سياسات الدول المطلة على المحيط الهندي من عمان إلى أندونيسيا وكيف تستطيع الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية التعامل مع هذه الدول. المؤلف يرى أن التهديد للهيمنة الأمريكية في المحيط الهندي يأتي من طرفين: الصين والإسلام شرق الأوسطي (يرى أن هذا الإسلام متشدد ولا يتعايش مع باقي الأديان مقارنة مع أسلام شرق أسيوي).
Profile Image for Vicki NewMath.
29 reviews
August 27, 2020
Despite the book being 10 years old, Kaplan nailed it with a lot of predictions and projections.
Profile Image for John.
226 reviews
July 31, 2018
The Indian Ocean and her more local adjacent waters are perhaps the world's greatest melting pot of potential issues and opportunities, at least as far as Robert Kaplan is concerned. This thesis, however, is hard to reject given the compelling arguments that fill Monsoon. The Indian Ocean presents the problems of Islamist terror, energy politics, international trade and globalization, climate change, human movement, cultural exchange, piracy, and great power politics within a confined and increasingly interconnected space. And as Kaplan so capably explains, this is not a new phenomenon. The Indian Ocean and her littoral regions, given their relative size and consistent weather patterns was the most interconnected region on earth prior even to Age of Exploration-era European arrivals. As a region and political arena, its waters had flourished with limited Western involvement for quite some time, and the danger now is that as the region develops it will begin to push out these late arrivals.

In his characteristic style, Kaplan relays these trends and lessons through actually going to the places he describes. From Oman to India, Bangladesh, Burma, and beyond, Kaplan delivers a tangible exploration of how the Indian Ocean itself delivers so much opportunity and risk to its enveloping lands. The historical hinge of Oman meets the rising yet uneven rise of India. The great power ambitions of China interact with development in Africa and rebels in Burma. The power of the monsoon rains and the effects of climate instability threaten to wipe Bangladesh from the map, even as they brought trade in the past and necessary rains to millions in the present. The Indian Ocean region is a region in flux as it continues to advance and as capitalism continues to lift tens of millions out of poverty. This, more than any other lesson, is the driving point of the story Kaplan has written. It is a region with a troublesome past and contentious present, but it is one with a nearly limitless future. Whether or not the United States is able to profit from this will depend a great deal on how it nurtures relationships with countries and people groups both within the region and without the Indian Ocean realm. The diverse array of people that fill the countries around the Indian Ocean are in many places looking for the same thing: opportunity and personal freedoms. It would behoove the United States to contribute as it can to the fulfillment of both.
Profile Image for Vibhor Sahay.
78 reviews
December 21, 2022
A slightly dated book (2012 print) but enjoyed it.

I had never read about Oman, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Burma and the insights were fascinating. Especially the one of Zanzibar. As an ex-shippie, the draw to the central theme of Indian ocean being the heart of the future growth, was easy. The American angle was also not played out too much, which was a welcome change.
752 reviews2 followers
April 28, 2011
"Believing themselves a chosen people destined to be the sword of the faith, the Portuguese show us a religious nationalism as doughty and often extreme as any in history. Portugal's spectacular and sweeping conquest of the Indian Ocean littoral falls into a category similar to that of the Arab conquest of North Africa nine centuries earlier." (57)

"Empires arise and fall. Only their ideas can remain, adapted to the needs of the people they once ruled. The Portuguese brought few ideas save for their Catholic religion, which sank little root among Hindus and Muslims, so these ruins are merely sad, and, after a manner, beautiful. By contrast, the British brought tangible development, ports and railways, that created the basis for a modern state. More importantly, they brought the framework for parliamentary democracy that Indians, who already possessed indigenous traditions of heterodoxy and pluralism, were able to fit successfully to their own needs." (116)

"'They assumed that since we had caught them, we would soon kill them, and that we, being Americans, would also eat them.'" (Lt Cdr Rory Berke, USN Intelligence, on Somaili pirates, 303)
5 reviews1 follower
December 13, 2012
Lot of good reviews of the book here. My (short) 2c. The actions by the Obama administration in the years since the book was written seems to be have been clearly influenced by folks with sentiments similar to the author. That is a good thing.

One question goes begging - the author makes a great case for how the history of the Indian Ocean is one of trade and its consequences. But rarely is the potential role of the American corporations mentioned in this mix. Clearly globalization is not purely a state-driven phenomenon. The state plays the role of protecting the interests of its citizens. The multi-national corporations are descendants of the East India companies of yore. A book about the region which touches only lightly on these massive corporate actors seems deficient in some way. History would seem to suggest that while the US projects military power, the US corporations will have to in some ways align better with US' national interests in the region.

Good book. I will recommend it to my friends.
Profile Image for Boudewijn.
620 reviews68 followers
March 15, 2016
A travel of discovery around the nations along the Indian Ocean and the growing importance of this area in the future. It basically reads as a National Geographic article.
57 reviews13 followers
March 1, 2018
An extremely enjoyable book which discusses the history and geopolitics of the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. The book proceeds clockwise, starting from east Africa, then traverses through the subcontinent before finally reaching southeast Asia. It was eye opening to read about the history of globalization and cosmopolitan cultures that existed in these regions through history, connected by seasonally regular monsoon-wind backed trade, now preserved only in architecture and language before the legacy of divide and rule colonialism scarred every single one of them. Lest one forget, the Indian Ocean region was arguably the most colonized place on earth. Finally the book talks about the economic future of the Indian Ocean and its importance to American interests.

Here's a passage when the author visits Zanzibar which I enjoyed reading about:

"I awoke before dawn my first night on the island to rain crashing on the rusted and rattling corrugated iron roofs of Stone Town, the heart of old Zanzibar. I was renting two rooms from a friend above the cassava souk. My rooms featured the usual oriental carpets, a poster bed with mosquito netting, colored-glass windows, and furniture made of wood and brass and copper: an effortless confection of Arab, Persian, Indian, and African aesthetics. In the morning I ascended to the “tea house” on the roof, a raised and open platform embraced by bougainvillea and the boisterous sea winds that granted a prospect of Stone Town’s dizzying roofscape. The view was punctuated by Mughal-style minarets with their triple folio arches and the scabby, weather-beaten steeples of a late-nineteenth-century French cathedral. There were, too, the pencil-thin cast-iron pillars of the House of Wonders, a palace built in 1883 for Omani Sultan Barghash bin Said in tropical Victorian industrial style. My eyes met the horizon with freighters, outriggers, dugouts, and plank-built dhows all plopped in the milk-turquoise water of the Indian Ocean, so unreal a shade that it conjured up a water color more than it did the sea itself."
Profile Image for Blaine Welgraven.
186 reviews7 followers
February 1, 2021
“Today, despite the jet and information age, 90 percent of global commerce and two thirds of all petroleum supplies travel by sea.” - Robert Kaplan, Monsoon

A stark reminder, ensconced in the realist school, that petroleum, pipelines and products will drive - as they have driven - as much or more geopolitical movement as any ideology in the 21st century. Written in 2010, it is worth noting that many of Kaplan's starkest predictions - including China's continued aggressions towards Taiwan stemming from fundamental maritime needs - have essentially played out as he stated they would. Highly recommend.

Update 2/1/21: I finished this brief review, and about three hours later checked social media - to see that Myanmar’s military had successfully conducted a coup. Kaplan’s scholarship in Monsoon is going to remain relevant for a long time, it appears.
Profile Image for Parth Agrawal.
92 reviews18 followers
May 22, 2018
A 5 star book after so many days!! Who would've wondered it would be coming in the form of a book based on geopolitics which, now, has single handedly improved my understanding of why countries are doing what they are doing, which country falls where, what are the important water bodies for a particular nation, self-interests of nations in break up or patch up of their neighboring states. iF you are interested in these kinda stuff, not only I would love to have a lovely conversation with you but this is the book to grab for you

You know if you really want to rule the world then there are only 4 places that you need to control in this world. I used to imagine that yeah to hell with that the 4 places are not exactly places, they are these huge countries- India, China, USA and Germany maybe? But to my utter surprise these aren't the ones. The four places are:

1) Strait Hormuz-> This particular strait connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian sea and believe it or not, 70% of the world's oil tankers are passing this area

2) Bab el Mandeb-> This plays the same role between connecting Red sea to the Arabian sea and also the supplies coming from the Mediterranean into the Indian Ocean

3) Strait of Malaca-> This is the island nation near Singapore. 85% of China's energy needs, which are met by oil and natural gas, moves through here and that's a very substantial amount for a 11 mile stretch of water

4) Suez Canal-> This basically connects Mediterranean Sea with Red Sea and also helps in providing the extended extension to the Atlantic Ocean as well

So what is the underlying theme here? Energy needs is one of the primary ones and by design or coincidence, energy hungry nations have been creeping up in Asia. The burgeoning middle class in China and India are alone to account for world's 35-40% of the energy demands and since we can safely establish here that the transition from Non-renewable to renewable sources of energy is a work in progress so at-least in the near future majority of the energy needs will be met through non renewable sources of energy and for that, the above four places will be the choke-points for the safe imports of oil and gas for the Asian Nations

Don't get me wrong. This book is not only about the political and geopolitical shenanigans. It is also about how religion, Islamic extremism to be in particular, will play out in the foreign policy calculations of the nations. Apart from this, there a lot of interesting instances of imperialism and colonialism and their contribution in the engendering of native cultures of the former colonies

"Circumstances will determine the nature of struggle that will pan out in the Indian Ocean"
Profile Image for Krishna.
160 reviews10 followers
January 13, 2013
Kaplan's book is a well-informed and entertaining exposition on the rising importance of the Indian Ocean region in global politics due to a confluence of factors: the continuing reliance on Middle East oil, the presence of internationally active terrorist groups in a broad swathe of the region ranging from Yeman, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to Indonesia and the Philippines, and the rise of China and India, and their competition for resources and influence in Africa and the Indian Ocean littoral.

Kaplan's geopolitical sensibility is deeply influenced by history and geography, and the book brims with thought-provoking observations. For example, though the state of Oman does not loom large in the present world, Kaplan points to it a a global trading power in the Indian Ocean region before the advent of Europeans. Who knew for instance that Gwadar in Pakistan was an Omani possession until 1958 (11 years after Pakistani independence), or that Omani trading communities existed in places as far apart as Zanzibar and Aceh.

The most interesting chapter in the book must be the one on Kolkata, where he contrasts Curzon and Tagore -- the former the arch-imperialist and the latter, the Indian nationalist icon. But in a brilliant inversion, Kaplan labels Curzon as the original proponent of the vision of Greater India who has inspired later generations of Indian strategic thinkers, and Tagore as the advocate of universal humanism who sought to transcend national boundaries.

Similarly the chapter on Burma is finely informative, tracing that nation's current difficulties to the conflict between the majority Burman ethnic group (residents of the central Irrawady valley) and the various hill tribes that live on the periphery of the country. The conflict over names -- Myanmar or Burma -- makes more sense when we remember that Myanmar was one of the three kingdoms (the others being Arakan and Mon) that were central to Burman history (Burman being the ethnicity and Burmese the nationality).

Cleverly, Kaplan ends the book with a chapter on Zanzibar, which before colonialism was a cosmopolitan melting pot and trading center. But in the years after independence, the island has descended into racial tensions, political conflict, and violence, much like the rest of the Indian Ocean region has. Perhaps, Kaplan optimistically hopes, trade can once again restore peace to the region, just as it had in the past
Profile Image for Jon.
128 reviews5 followers
April 22, 2011
What started off slow with me, gained in momentum. By the end of this book, I really enjoyed myself and appreciated that the author covered such a vast scope of landmass and provided such visual history. Essentially in the author's view the ocean of importance in the 21st century and on onward will be the Indian Ocean from East Africa to Indonesia. His analysis is very erudite all the while lucid and thankfully not over the top scholarly. He provides the reader a virtual and very descriptive history of colonialism, conflict and trade since since the 1400's while taking opportunities to coalesce it to American's current position and future. He starts with Oman, sweeping then East in subsequent chapters to Indonesia and then works his way back to the east coast of Africa, particularly the anarchic horn of Africa. All the while he essentially speaksof who will ultimately dominate or pry the Indian Ocean. He provides his opinion which is hard to argue against that it will be multilateral consisting of three essential powers which are India, China and the U.S. That the U.S. will no longer be the ultimate power and that is OK. India and United States will partner to keep China in check but all the while the U.S. and China will partner too to keep global trade robust. Essentially each of these 3 countries goals are the same and should be preserved. What can destroy it are egos, radicalism and conflict. Partnering is the best solution and Kaplan feels this will be the case. Monsoon is essentially a metaphor for the sweeping winds occuring in the vast part of this world interlocked by the African continent and the archipelago of Malaca and Indonesia. It is truly fascinating all of the various interests, relgions and ethnicities in this part of the world. The end result is that Man as quoted towards the end of the book, "is meant to trade." Let us hope so.
Profile Image for Matt Ely.
673 reviews40 followers
May 12, 2017
I define a two-star book as one that involved consistent eye rolling, consistent skimming or temptation to skim, and a weak sense of purpose while, at the same time, having some amount of compelling or intriguing material.

This is a selective travel book around an enormous population without much of a premise. You'd think this would have more to do with, you know, the future of American power. But that's addressed haphazardly, if at all, throughout the text. He spends the last few paragraphs of the final chapter honing in on it, but it feels more like a desperate attempt to justify the subtitle than a real summation of the work.

There are lots of interesting data points and well told histories. In fact, if treated as wholly separate articles, they might be okay. The chapter on Sri Lanka was intriguing, for example. But when put together, there doesn't appear to be much linking them thematically, aside from "they sure are all on the Indian Ocean."

I'm not sure what to make of his political statements. The only thing that seems consistent is that he thinks the US Navy should be bigger. Other than that, his tone seems to vacillate throughout, particularly on China.

It might be worth reading a few chapters of this, but I can't recommend the whole book. Not to mention, things have changed so much since in the last ten years that large portions are only relevant as a time capsule, not that that's the author's fault.
15 reviews
March 20, 2011
With a couple of his earlier books, I really enjoyed Robert Kaplan's mix of travelogue and political commentary. Unfortunately, that mix is a lot less present in Monsoon, with a few chapters feeling like they were taken straight from the lecture podium, possessing an overly academic air. The personal travel experiences he does reference in this book feel slight and more sheltered than his previous forays. This book also feels significantly more driven by a partisan political agenda than other efoorts of his. Judging from the inside jacket, his profile as a writer has allowed him into some of the inner circles of the beltway, and these connections seem to exert their influence on the "case" presented by Monsoon.

However, Kaplan still brings his paradigm of borders (in the many ways they are and are not important) to this collection, and in light of my very limited reading of similar writers, he still provides a very refreshing perspective on broader geographical relationships. Overall, I got a lot out of this book, and-as i have with previous Kaplan books-found myself adding a lot of his cited sources and background reading to my queue.
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