Image credit: CNAS
March 14, 2018
Robert Kaplan: Grand Strategy and the Return of Marco Polo's World
The following is a transcript of Robert D. Kaplan's speech at the Michael J. Zak Grand Strategy Lecture on March 7th, 2018.
KAPLAN: It is a great privilege and honor for me to be here today to give the Michael J. Zak Lecture on Grand Strategy, especially since it's a new program that we're going to do.
What is Grand Strategy? Grand Strategy is what a state can do or should do consistent with the fact that its resources are not unlimited and that the appetite of its people is not unlimited. And also consistent with the material at hand overseas, in terms of history, geography, culture, and specifically how a thing like culture can be changed and ameliorated by technology.
So, it's the interplay of all these things, merged with what you can do with your limited resources and public appetite in order to improve the world and work in a nation's interests.
Now, to get at this, I'm going to divide the lecture into two parts. In the first part, I'm going to describe what I see as the material at hand around the world, particularly in Eurasia, and talk about how I see it after four decades as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the region. And also from reading about ideas and such. And then I'm going to try to define what the United States is in a functional sense, in order to provide a foundation for how we need to act.
All right. So, let me get started here. It is not true that technology has defeated geography. What's happened is something more subtle. It's that technology has shrunk geography. It's made the world smaller, more claustrophobic, more anxious.
The world is on a taut string as never before. You pluck one part of the web, and the whole network vibrates. That's why the so-called short, sharp war in the South or East China Sea may migrate into something bigger, to other regions. Given the fact that China is already building a 155-acre military base in Djibouti at the other end of the greater Indian Ocean.
Technology has shrunk geography. It's made the world smaller, more claustrophobic, more anxious.
In fact, let me put it this way. Take the concept of Eurasia, which up until about 20 years ago, was just a high school social studies term. It was so big that it had no real meaning. It stretched all the way from Portugal to Indonesia. But in recent years, because of technology, because of the way military technology and transportation technology have developed to defeat distance, there is now a cohering Eurasian system of trade, rivalry, and conflict that never existed before in history. You have the interplay of zones of crisis in the East and South China Sea, the Baltic Sea Basin, the Black Sea Basin in Ukraine, the Persian Gulf, that can interfere and affect each other, in fast moving global crises as never before.
To give you an example of what I mean, let me take the case of India and China, for instance. For most of history, India and China were two completely different world civilizations that had very little to do with each other, separated as they were by the high wall of the Himalayas. And, yet Buddhism spread from the Indian subcontinent to China in middle antiquity. And the Opium Wars involved both India and China in the same conflict system in the mid-19th century. But more or less, India and China had very little to do with each other.
Now, fast forward to the 21st century. You have an Indian intercontinental ballistic missile system that focuses on major cities in China. You have Chinese fighter jets on the Tibetan plateau that can include India in their arc of operations. You have Indian warships periodically in the South China Sea. You have Chinese warships, including submarines, all over the Indian Ocean. And you have China building, or helping to build, or at least helping to finance, state-of-the-art ports with military capabilities throughout the Indian Ocean surrounding India.
So because of technology, a whole new geography of rivalry has been created between India and China, that never existed before in history. And you can play this out with other countries throughout the world. So, we're really dealing with a global system.
And a lesson here is that, in the financial community and others, we tend to think of interconnectivity as a wholly positive thing when, in fact, in geopolitical terms, interconnectivity can be a negative thing. It can lead to greater instability due to the ability of one crisis to affect and aggravate another crisis.
That's why, though financial markets are generally doing very well, there is extensive geopolitical fragility that didn't exist before. This is the real secret sauce behind it, this interconnectivity because of technology.
And, let me put it this way: think of China moving vertically south towards the Indian Ocean, in order to set up ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tanzania, Djibouti, et cetera. In other words, China is creating an early phase of the British or Dutch East India companies, with a mercantile throughput trading system and with military applications. It is running all the way from the South China Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, where, by the way, the Chinese are running ports in Piraeus and getting interested in port facilities in Croatia and other places.
And think of India, rather than move south vertically, is moving east and west horizontally, so that India is exerting its power and influence from the Iranian plateau, where it's competing with China for oil and natural gas fields, all the way into the Burmese jungles in the east.
It's not just recently that even during the darkest days of the Myanmar dictatorship, democratic India had no choice but to engage with the government in Yangon, in order to compete with China in Myanmar. It had no choice. You know, Indian officials have told me over the years. So, again, we are in this integrated global system.
Now, of course, the biggest challenge we face is China. Let me start with the South China Sea and build outward. You could talk to the Chinese all day and night about how they should not be doing what they're doing in the South China Sea and they won't believe a word. That is because what they're doing makes perfect sense, given their geography, given their economics, given their strategic plan.
The South China Sea, for the Chinese, is nothing less than the greater Caribbean was for the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. A great Dutch-American geopolitician in the early 1940s at Yale, Nicholas Spykman, said that when the United States gained strategic control of the greater Caribbean by the early 20th century under Teddy Roosevelt, the United States effectively controlled the Western Hemisphere; the southern shore of the Caribbean included the most populous parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, et cetera. So the U.S. controlled literally everything from Yorktown to the Amazonian jungles. The Amazonian jungle, as Spykman put it, was the real break point, not the territorial division between North and South America.
And once the United States dominated the Western Hemisphere, it could affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. And that's what two World Wars and the Cold War in the 20th century were all about. It started in the greater Caribbean.
The Chinese now see the South China Sea in similar terms. Effective control over the South China Sea, or even effective parity with U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, allows China several things they didn't have before. It allows China to push further out unimpeded into the Western Pacific. It allows it to soften up Taiwan, because Taiwan is the cork in the bottle at the northern edge of the South China Sea. And it allows China an unimpeded access through the Strait of Malacca into the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is nothing less than the global energy interstate across which oil and natural gas supplies come on ships through the Strait of Malacca to Lombok and other straits, into the conglomerations of East Asia, Japan, South Korea, and coastal China.
So, with control over the South China Sea, China becomes effectively a two-ocean navy, rather than a one-ocean navy which it still is to an extent. And China is fighting a war with the United States in the South China Sea. It's just that the Americans don't completely realize it, because the Chinese method of war is to win without ever having to fight. The last thing the Chinese want to do is have a shooting match with the United States Navy, because they will lose. They may not lose in a generation, at the rate they're going, but they will lose now.
So, it's a series of thousands of little micro-steps: take an island here, build a runway there, do nothing for six months, then send an oil rig into disputed waters. After there are international complaints, withdraw the oil rig and take another island. It's a very subtle strategy where any reaction makes it seem like you're over-reacting. And so, the South China Sea is where it all starts for China.
Now, why does China go to sea in the first place? Because for the first time in its history, it's almost completely secure on land. China actually has very little of naval maritime tradition. Except for the voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho in the early 15th century—the early part of the Ming Dynasty—China does not have a seafaring tradition, because it was never secure on land. Now that it is secure, China has the luxury to go to sea.
Why is it more secure on land? Let's talk for a minute or so about One Belt, One Road -- the Belt and Road Initiatives is the new acronym, as it's called. What is it, really, in geopolitical terms?
Number one, it's a branding operation for what China has already constructed in terms of roads, railways, and pipelines across central Asia over the last 15 years; a branding operation that brings Chinese transport and infrastructure all the way to Iran. And Iran is the real key to Belt and Road because Iran plus China is an unbeatable combination, which ultimately relegates Russia. But we'll get to that in a moment.
The Chinese are prospecting for minerals in Iran, they are investing heavily in the Iranian economy. They're helping the Iranians build railroads. Iran is the real goal and hub of China's Belt and Road strategy. And that's because Iran, with its large and highly educated population and geographical location, is the very organizing principle of the greater Middle East and Central Asia.
Iran fronts not just one hydrocarbon-rich zone in the Persian Gulf, but two—the Caspian Sea area. Iran is as much a Central Asian country as it is a Middle Eastern country.
And then, finally, Belt and Road helps China solve its internal demons, particularly its number one ethnic challenge, the Turkish Uighur Muslims in Western China. By developing transport and economic links with fellow Turkish, former Soviet, and Central Asians, China surrounds the Uighur Turks inside its borders, makes sure they will never have a real base from which to operate, and at the same time lifts them up economically—all because of these Belts and Roads investments.
So, we see a system coming into play that challenges the United States. It's a system with a vision. It's dynamic, and goes along very well with Chinese history. It's a Belts and Roads pathway, which replicates a pathway such as Tang and Yuan dynasties of the medieval era, the same path that Marco Polo traveled along.
Let's move to the Middle East for a moment. Why does it take a step back from 30,000 feet? Why has the Middle East been in such turmoil for much of our lifetime, for the last 20 years? What's been going on, beyond the mistakes the United States has committed and other things like that?
The Middle East, for the first time in its modern history, is in a post-imperial phase. The Ottoman Turkish Empire, which ruled from Algeria to Mesopotamia, disappeared after the First World War. Up until that point, no matter if you were Shia or Sunni, a Jew or an Arab, you all hold loyalty to the Turkish sultan. And therefore, you had no real territorial disputes among each other. When you did have them, they were muted. Then you had the British and French imperial mandate system disappear a few years after World War II. And so, the European colonial system was just out of gas from the World War.
Then you had the U.S. and Soviet systems which the Oxford historian John Darwin said “were imperial in all but name,” in terms of the way they function. They stabilized the Middle East into different blocs. The Soviet system went away after 1991, though it's come back in a limited fashion with Syria and Eastern Libya, among other ways.
The United States' great power and influence in the Middle East has dissipated over the last 15 years rather significantly, and has dissipated not only because of mistakes the United States may have committed, but because of the indigenous political development in these countries. It used to be you had an autocrat with one phone number, one fax machine, and his national security advisor who you could deal with in any crisis. But now in many of these countries, there's a whole network of people who have to be consulted, who can influence people on top. So, it makes it far more challenging to the United States to project power into this region.
And as American power has dissipated, you see the rise of regional hegemons. Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, are all jockeying for position. And some of these places are better at it than others. The Iranians have a really rich imperial tradition to draw upon. Their sphere of influence from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Afghanistan, approximate the sphere of influence in every Persian-language empire since antiquity.
This is just the latest iteration of Iranian imperial strategy. And one of the key points of imperial strategy is using proxy military forces very well. The Romans did it, the British did it, the French did it. The Iranians are very, very good at it.
The Saudis have no real imperial tradition to draw upon. They're a relatively young state in Middle Eastern history, and we've seen them act far less efficiently in Yemen, in Qatar, and in other places as well. The Turks also are drawing on their Ottoman traditions. But, again, they've over-estimated their capacity to influence events in Syria, in Iraq, etc.
Now let me move from the Middle East to Europe for a moment. I've spoken about the Chinese power reduction. What's going on in the Middle East? In Europe, you have the challenge of what I call Soviet, or Russian, rather, soft imperial subversion throughout Central Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact is gone. It cannot be reconstructed. It was too expensive, it didn’t work, and that's the major reason why the Soviet Union collapsed in the first place.
What Russia seems to be doing is trying to re-establish a soft, traditional zone of quasi-imperial influence throughout Central Eastern Europe by subverting democratic systems, from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south, and including the Caucasus. Things like organized crime rings, buying off corrupt politicians, buying media through third parties, running intelligence operations, et cetera, all things that are relatively inexpensive, many of which are deniable, maybe not credibly so, but at least they can be denied nevertheless. And you would always withdraw further. You can always pull back if you get resistance.
And this is your real challenge—how to deal with a new form of aggression that emanates from the Kremlin, in our time in history. One of the problems is that these relatively new democracies, especially in the Balkans, want to do the right thing, but the rule of law is so weak, that it's just very hard to do so.
And then finally, we have Russia and China. What I've learned as a journalist over the decades is that it's not only the difference between democracy and dictatorship, OK? Those things are important, but it’s also the difference between one form of dictatorship and another form of dictatorship. For instance, what does someone like Bashir al-Assad or Saddam Hussein have in common with the Sultan of Oman, or the King of Morocco, or the King of Jordan? They're all autocrats. They're all technically dictators. But one category of these men are potentially liberal-trending people, who are trying to provide stability, a better way of life, environmental concern, women's rights, especially in the case of Oman and Morocco. And what do they have in common with a Qaddafi, an Assad, a Saddam? So, ‘dictatorship’ is too generic of a word.
And what that brings me to is the fact that Russia and China may now be tactical rivals. They may both be dictatorships, but they're very different forms of dictatorship. They go back to the very differences in Russian and Chinese state development and culture, so there's real tension between them.
The Russians have made a natural gas pipeline deal with China, but the Chinese have taken them to the cleaners on pricing. The Russians are losing out to China in terms of economic influence and demographic incursion in the Russian Far East. China has 100 million people in Manchuria, and just over the border there are 6 million Russians in an area larger than Manchuria, and the ethnic Russian population is going down, not up.
The Russians have essentially lost out to the Chinese in Central Asia. And remember, Central Asia is a former Soviet republic. The lingua franca is still Russian, but the Chinese are beating the pants off them. And these could be Belts and Roads. Belts and Roads is really the icing on the cake. China is capturing Central Asia from the Russian sphere of influence.
It is said that Vladimir Putin is a great tactician, but what I see is his obsession with undermining Europe and the West. And that is one reason why he effectively ceded Central Asia and is ceding the Russian Far East to China. And the whole logic of Belts and Road, were it to succeed, essentially weakens Russia in Central Asia.
Above the surface there is the Russian-Chinese alliance. From below the surface there's real competition between these two states that are both sprawling, they have the organizing principles of Eurasia, and they have great differences with each other.
However, one thing you can say about China, and this segues into America, now, is that whatever you say about Belts and Roads, at least it's efficient. At least it's a direction. At least it partially answers the question of grand strategy. So, it's good, in and of itself, from the Chinese point of view, in that sense.
So, what should the United States do about all this? Well, first, let's define what the United States is in functional terms—not in spiritual terms.
The United States is the last resource-rich part of the temperate zone on the earth that was settled at the time of European enlightenment. In other words, at the time of European enlightenment, there was one big empty swath in the temperate latitude. And that was the area between the Canadian Arctic and Mexican subtropical zone. And that was settled by what became the United States.
So, the United States is a great country not only because of its values and what its people believe, but because of where they happen to live in the first place. And Halford Mackinder, the great British geographer, over 100 years ago defined the temperate zone as the one great satellite of another continent, of Afro-Eurasia. And he analyzed it as having the greatest potential to influence the whole world, Africa and Eurasia.
If it was protected from all the conflicts of the Old World on the one hand, but on the other hand, it had tremendous influence over it, because of where it was situated, between two seas. And this gets me to the great factor in their rising power which, if you think about it for a moment, is that we came through the desert in order to become a sea power.
The desert was the Great Plains. It used to be called the Great American Desert, up until about 100 years ago. We had the area between the 98th meridian and the East-Central Kansas, Nebraska, et cetera, all the way to the front range of the Rocky Mountains. It has less than 2-20 inches of rainfall per year. So, it was an authentic desert. And that was the real challenge of Manifest Destiny, conquering that desert.
Once we arrived at the Pacific, we were not just a one-ocean country but a two-ocean country, and that facilitated the development of the great American Navy, right after the last battle of the Indian Wars in 1890. We are a sea power. We're a naval power. Nuclear weapons, because of the moral taboo on their use, are kind of ineffective on a daily basis. They're symbolic. It's the Navy that gives the United States its great power.
You can move aircraft carriers strike groups from one ocean to another, from one conflict zone to another, and it's not page one in the news. It's page two or three. You've got to follow a specialist website just to see the location of that aircraft carrier on any given week. But you try to move 20,000 Army troops to a foreign country, it's front page. You get editorials in the New York Times, both for and against, et cetera.
But a carrier has 4,000 or 5,000 sailors on it. And the destroyers, frigates, and cruisers, and one sub that go along with the strike group add up to, you know, gosh, 8,000 to 9,000 sailors. And you can move them around the world at will. And it doesn't make a news story. And when I say naval power, I mean airpower as well—air and marines.
So, we are a great naval power. And that also makes us, naturally, a liberal maritime power because the great sea empires of history tended to be liberal. And Venice is the best example, with there being more liberals than the land-bound empires.
And so, naval power, liberalism in the classic sense, free trade, and democracy are all part of a piece. They all go together very naturally, in this sense. And this is part of the building blocks of what gave the United States its great idea. And its great idea was about, essentially, not imposing our system around the world, but just encouraging and fostering the advancement of civil society in whatever form was practical in specific countries. As you know, it varies at various points.
As a liberal sea power, we kept the seas open for commerce. We kept the maritime choke points open. We protected access to hydrocarbon for our allies, and even our non-allies; the whole global system. Globalization itself would be impossible without the United States Navy, and the values that it brought upon the United States. You wouldn't have these conferences at Davos and other places without the U.S. Navy, because globalization could not have taken place in the first place, in the way that it has.
And this American vision system came to a fruition at the end of World War II. And then, because of the Soviet threat, because of the ideological, philosophical threat from world communism, the United States remained at arms and fostered over 75 years tried to foster a liberal world order both in Europe and in Asia. And that is now being challenged in many respects. It's lasted for 75 years. Things don't go on forever. History tells us that was an aberration, that no geopolitical conflict is more normal. But simply because it's an aberration does not mean it cannot continue or should not continue.
The way I would put it is that it all began in the Caribbean, for the United States. And it’s all beginning in China's Caribbean for China, in the South China Sea. And what do we do about it? Well, we know, over the last 15 years, maybe longer, we overstretched ourselves. You know, we've made mistakes, and we've seen an upsurge in arguments for restraint as a corrective action. And the issue is whether restraint is a corrective action or is it something more? It may be a technique only, to get us more into a middle path.
We should not want, in my opinion, the pendulum to swing from one extreme to the other. What we would like is a sustainable foreign policy. And what is a sustainable foreign policy, given our geographic and historical situation? It's not a foreign policy driven exclusively or even primarily by humanitarian intervention because that is unsustainable.
But also, because of our geographic situation, as Mackinder pointed out, we are fated to lead, in some degree. We are fated to lead, because we are both protected from the other, from Afro-Eurasia, but we are also rich in our river systems, minerals, et cetera, and we can affect development in Africa and Eurasia, to a degree that people on those continents cannot.
There's an advantage to being on the other side of the world. The advantage is, we have no territorial pretensions in Asia. And that's why we can be trusted there. We can be the negotiator of last resort, in a sense; the trustworthy ally since we're not threatening anyone's territorial sovereignty. And this goes for Europe as well.
So what we need is a corrective to the mistakes of the past, but not to go so far in the other direction that we lack a vision. I've written recently that the deliberate withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of the greatest self-inflicted errors the United States has made in Asia, since the process of the Vietnam War.
And that's because the Asia pivot was not supposed to end with merely deploying more warships from other commands into Pacific commands. The Asia pivot was supposed to culminate in a free trading system that would give the United States more of an incentive to be even more engaged with Asia than it had been in the past.
What I've seen as our policy in Asia has gone from having a vision to one where it's simply about protecting America from North Korea and getting better trade deals from China. That is not a vision that excites, that energizes, that inspires the people in Asia. And I've heard this not only in Asia, but, in a similar respect, on my recent trip to Europe, where people in Central Eastern Europe are very worried that the European Union is out of gas and the U.S. is out of a vision and the Russians are playing a long game there.
Again we’re fated to lead, but within limits. And what is diplomacy, at its best? I would define diplomacy at its best as pushing out to the limits of what you're capable of, while at the same having a sixth sense not to go over those limits. It's like working at the edges all the time. Not withdrawing and saying, "Let the situation take care of itself," but not overextending yourself at the same time.
And I think as long as we can work near the edges and exercise more restraint than we have in the last 15 or 20 years—but not totally withdraw—we will be able to, if not lead the 21st century, to at least compete well with it. And I'll end here with this. Twenty years ago, I published a cover piece in Atlantic Monthly, called “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” where I challenged the assumption of the 1990s that democracy was going to win out. I predicted an age of authoritarian renewal, for a number of reasons.
But now that that's come about, to a certain extent, I think that authoritarianism will have its own challenges, especially in the 2020s. And that's because countries like China and Russia will come up against what I call the Sam Huntington trap. Huntington was a very clairvoyant political scientist, and you wouldn't be smart to bet against him in terms of his record. And one of the things he said was, when you have the development of a mass middle class, when you make people more secure, a bit wealthier, make their lives a bit better, if your institutions don't also advance and become more flexible and enlightened and responsive, the very creation of a middle class can actually be politically destabilizing rather than stabilizing.
And I think that's where China and Russia, too, are going to have their challenges in the next decade. So we should not despair, is what I'll say. And I'll end it with that. We should not despair.
Thank you very much.
VICTORIA NULAND, CEO of CNAS: Thank you for that brilliant overview of the grand strategies of the world, ending with the U.S. mission.
What I heard you describe was a China with a strategy, Russia with a defensive area strategy, Iran with a grand strategy. But on the U.S. side, you hedged a little bit. I got the sense that fundamentally you believe the grand strategy that has dominated traditional foreign policy thinking here is mainly that the U.S. should take the world stage for democracy. To quote former leaders, we should maintain the liberal tradition of openness, whether at sea, whether at trade—it needs to be perpetuated, but with some modicum of restraint.
But that's not where we find ourselves on this Tuesday news day with the U.S. not only withdrawing from the TPP, but also undercutting one of the basic compacts of the liberal family, which is that we share security, but we speak with each other economically on a level playing field. Now we are moving in the direction of actually building walls within the order. So, that's one piece of it.
But the second thing was your advocacy of not promoting humanitarian intervention but, nonetheless, maintaining peace and security. So, how do you define those boundaries?
KAPLAN: All right. Let me spin this out a bit.
NULAND: So, and address, for example, Syria and pushing back on China. How much should we care? And address the weakness of Europe.
KAPLAN: Yes. And the way I always put it is, humanitarian intervention should always be there, but it should not define our foreign policy. R2P should play as high a role as possible, but it cannot ultimately be dominant, because it's unsustainable. So humanitarian intervention is there. You should always consider it. And it was considered throughout the Reagan administration, throughout George H.W. Bush’s administration. It just cannot dominate. Reagan deliberately did not arm the rebels in Mozambique or Ethiopia, even though they fit naturally into the Reagan doctrine, because of the nefarious nature of those two rebel groups. So there was discipline and distinction, even within the Reagan doctrine.
I think that the new tariff plan or the general anti-free trade trend of this administration is bad. And I think it reverses the idea of promoting common values. The way I always put it is, don't install democracy, but press at the boundaries of advancing civil society in whatever forms, all over the world.
Now, in some countries, like Oman, as I mentioned, or Morocco, you're not going to want a full democracy, and you don't want to inflict it upon those societies. But what is all over the world, what you can encourage is building blocks of civil society, and don't get too legalistic about it in many places, because elections don't necessarily mean a democratic system.
NULAND: So, is settling the Syria conflict an imperative for us, geo-strategically, in terms of maintaining order in the commons and a Middle East that can prosper and stay open? Or is it a humanitarian intervention that's beyond the pale? That was one version of the question. I want to push you a little bit on this -- on the encouragement of civil society, which, you know, has been an American principal. But what about inside the adversary countries? What about inside China, inside Russia, inside Iran?
KAPLAN: All right. On Syria, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad all collapsed after the end of Baathist rule there and it resulted in mass bloodshed in all of those places. Damascus has not collapse. Eastern Ghouta is not Damascus. I've been there. It's way out. You know, it's a drive.
Damascus has been more or less -- it's gotten worse and worse and worse, but it's more or less at peace. If you were to dislodge Assad my fear is that Damascus would become like Aleppo, and that you could get, you know, ethnic cleansing of the Alawites an even worse situation for the Christians there.
I think there are a lot of hard second and third order of effect questions that have not been discussed in the op-ed pages, you know, about this. So, I'm very skeptical about a military Syrian intervention. What I do think is that when you have four or five armies all in the same area, in Eastern Syria, Western Iraq, this is a picture-perfect case study for creative diplomacy. I mean, because -- even though it’s all these armies together, this is not -- this question that military generals can solve.
It's a question that historically has been solved by diplomats, at a conference, at a peace conference or something, and what I see is a real dearth of diplomatic leadership. Between doing nothing and sending in 150,000 troops, there a lot in between that you can do.
Now, some of that is between the military, but most of it’s not. Most of it’s diplomatic and economic, so that -- because generally, you know, when we're talking about humanitarian intervention, there's a lot we can do without sending in the troops, and which don’t overextend ourselves.
NULAND: Well, as a recovering diplomat, I thank you for that shout out. The profession is not dead. Audience, questions, thoughts? Please.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for such a brilliant talk. I just need to know your opinion about the JCPOA, which a very historical document that the United States had signed with Iran. It’s the most comprehensive deal. It seems like the Trump administration is trying to basically not comply with their side of the agreement. I need to know what your opinion is and what you think the U.S strategy should be in that area?
KAPLAN: Thank you. I supported the Iran nuclear deal, in principle, because I thought it got an issue off the table for 8 or 10 years. And during which time a lot can happen internally, in Iran. Iran is a very funny system. It's not a complete dictatorship. It has a form of limited democracy, with disturbances, rebellions, and not just the kind we've seen recently, but also ethnic uprisings at the fringes of the Iranian state.
So, I think if we were to undo the Iranian nuclear deal, not only would they rush for weaponry, but the Europeans would not abide by what by what we did essentially. The Europeans themselves would start trading with Iran. It would just be a self-inflicted error, at this point.
So it’s a deal that’s made, it is not Nixon going to China. It didn't lead to a rapprochement with the U.S. and Iran. And it may have been handled clumsily. There may have been an opportunity for much more effective diplomacy, and to reassure U.S. allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But the fact is, the deal is done, and I think it would only make it worse if you try to undermine it.
QUESTION: I was really taken with your characterization of the Belt and Road Initiative as a sort of manifestation of China's grand strategy. One thing you didn't touch on is what the economists call sharp power. Can you talk about that and, you know, how that intersects with China's grand strategy?
KAPLAN: What do you mean by sharp power?
QUESTION: They are going to other countries and trying to interfere in their political system, and putting their students and teachers in the universities, and trying to influence the country and the citizens’ views of China from the inside.
KAPLAN: Yes. Well, I've seen this in the case of the port in Hombantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan. The Chinese provide loans and loans and loans. The host country does not pay them back. The Chinese take over the port, and then they say, "Let's be friends," you know, essentially.
And what you just described goes along with this, as a way to use a transport pathway strategy as a kind of entryway for wider Chinese influence around the world. And I think that where China is having difficulties is in Africa, because you can't extract minerals from the heart of Africa, as they're doing, without getting involved in state politics in Africa. It's just impossible not to do so. So, the Chinese may be overextending themselves in this matter.
To me, the Chinese are not a behemoth authoritarian system that's destined to win. I think that we have to play the role of the long-distance runner here, by remaining engaged in the world, without overextending ourselves. By really redeveloping our diplomatic hand, our military hand, and to try to exert influence without necessarily committing ground forces anywhere.
QUESTION: We've seen an evolution in the dialog for partners and allies, and we hear it going on even today around national security threats. Are these still important?
KAPLAN: A foreign policy without alliances is unsustainable for the United States, I believe.
And we were at the brink of a real breakthrough with Mexico until Mr. Trump and his administration. Because Mexico had a president who had liberalized a lot of economic laws. He allowed Texas oil companies to buy into the whole Mexican oil industry. We were leaning to a point where Mexico and the United States could sort of merge, economically. And that has now gone out the window, at a time when we're going to have a Mexican election in the summer that will probably bring to power a socialist, nationalist of some sort.
I think with Canada there were a lot of missed opportunities along the way. You could argue that the Keystone Pipeline was unnecessarily delayed by President Obama. I think that allies allow you a number of things. They allow you to magnify your own power. They allow you to spread the risk. So, if you do have to get involved, in a military sense, overseas, you can build alliances and coalitions when you already have allies more easily than if you didn't.
And if you have alliances and coalitions, then you spread the risk and you make it easier to do an intervention without the downside risk. Getting involved in Kosovo and in Bosnia was much different than Iraq, for many reasons. But one of the differences was it was a NATO coalition affect -- you know, involvement in the Baltics, whereas Iraq, though technically it involved fighting over a countries, was effectively, unilateral.
So, I think that a foreign policy begins with allies.
QUESTION: How does China's strategy to use technology to repress the people brings a different dimension for what happens for authoritarian governments? And, as you said, in 2020 you thought they would break. I don't think so.
KAPLAN: All right. I actually wrote about this just a few days ago in the Washington Post. I said that the Chinese are on a route to be able to monitor the searches and the sequence of searches that people use on the internet, which means, if you think about it, if they can monitor the sequence of your searches, they're inside your brain. Very creepy, you know? They're inside your thought system.
And that, combined with facial recognition and other technologies, allows for a degree of Big Brother-type repression that is unprecedented. And it also shows how technology, which has been sold to us by Silicon Valley as an altogether positive thing in history, can also be a very negative thing in the hands of authoritarian systems.
I think the Chinese direction in this matter is leading China from being an enlightened authoritarian regime to being an unenlightened authoritarian regime. But I think the effect of this on the long term is really increased anxiety, neurosis, psychosis on the part of the individual Chinese. And in a situation like that, combined with an enlarging middle-class stability trap, which Samuel Huntington wrote about in 1968, we do have the possibility of a crisis for authoritarianism, if not in this decade, perhaps in the next.
QUESTION: You took us on a great tour of the world, both what’s currently happening and history. What is your approach for collecting information, synthesizing so much of that and bringing that all together? What's your mental model, your thought approach to thinking about the world? You're clearly going all around the world talking to people. How do you figure out which information is the best, bring it together into kind of a coherent package that you kind of see the world through?
KAPLAN: Well, I think of geography in the 19th century sense of the world, meaning geography is the starting point. It's not an end point. It's just a starting point to deal with history, civilization, culture, and politics.
Because what is culture? What is a national culture? It's the experience of a very large group of people upon a similar landscape for hundreds and thousands of years. And their experience upon that landscape leads to a language and culture, ways of doing things, peculiarities, et cetera. And from that you go to individuals, and what individuals have to say. Because the way I see it, 50 percent of what goes on is about individual choice. You know, it’s Shakespearian.
If you really want to understand various dictators in the past like Ceausescu, or Milosevic and his wife in Yugoslavia, you had to really get into their mentality and their relationships with their advisors, their spouses, et cetera.
But the other 50 percent is the record of history, economics, geography, and culture. And it's the interplay of the two, essentially, that creates what we see in the world. Most analysts look at the human Shakespearean dimension and the idea dimension that emanates from liberalism, conservatism. I tend to emphasize the other half, the other 50 percent of the coin.
QUESTION: And after having seen the scope of what you’ve written on, I'm curious about your question or your points around the lack of a U.S. vision, and the state of different powers in the world, some of which take on a very subtle form of competition. Would you mind speaking about the capacity of U.S. government and U.S. society that exists to compete, and how that capacity might need to evolve?
KAPLAN: Yes. I think there is significant capacity in our system, but leaders have to make sure not to test it at its limits.
When I look at what at what to me was the closest model in foreign policy that I've been comfortable with over the years, where I've seen the fewest mistakes, I would say the moderate Republican presidents during the Cold War; Eisenhower, Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and even Ronald Reagan. Because, remember, Ronald Reagan spoke to moral rearmament of Wilsonianism. But he surrounded himself with very pragmatic people, George Schultz, Frank Carlucci, Casper Weinberger, and others, which modified his own vision. And because of the way they modified it, as I said earlier, even with something like the Reagan doctrine, there were places that they stayed away from even though there was a cry for help.