5 December 2019

Robert D Kaplan on the coming world order

By Robert D Kaplan

As a tumultuous year draws to a close, we’re looking back at some of the most insightful interviews CapX has conducted over the last 12 months.

Robert D Kaplan is widely-regarded as one of the world’s leading thinkers on foreign policy, defence and geopolitics. He is the author of 18 books, including The Revenge of Geography and The Coming Anarchy, and he has been named in Foreign Policy’s ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’. He’s advised Kings, Prime Ministers and Defence Secretaries all over the world, and has reported from over 100 countries, giving him a grounding in the reality of foreign affairs most pundits could only dream of.

We spoke to him about Donald Trump’s miscalculations in Asia, China’s growing ambition, and the threat of Russian interference in a post-Brexit Europe that’s dominated by Germany.

John Ashmore: You’ve travelled in lots of the sorts of countries that people commentate on without necessarily having been themselves. Do you think it makes you a much better analyst having been to so many different places?

Robert Kaplan: Look, people can go to a place and get it all wrong. But what tends to happen is that people who’ve been in country get a deeper grasp of what the place is like. And I find that one of the worst things about Washington is that there’s this assumption of knowledge about distant places where little knowledge actually exists. All things being equal, you should trust the people who’ve had experience working there, and if they haven’t worked there, at least travelled there a few times.

JA: So do you think there has been a bit of a brain drain in American policymaking, in terms of that on the ground experience?

RK: Yes, and it’s been gradual. The 1980s, when George Schultz was in charge, was really the golden age of the State Department, when area expertise was valued, when the ideological arguments were very muted and nuanced. And there was a tremendous value put into what the embassies on the ground reported on. Back then Ambassadors had real power on the ground. That has changed dramatically. A number of things have happened. Number one has been the technology revolution. Now, because of email, decisions can be made centrally and foreign officers are tied to their desks because of all the requests and emails they get from Washington. So there’s less on the ground reporting on the part of the State Department than ever before.

JA: Do you put that down to a sort of post-Cold War complacency?

RK: It’s part of it. One of the things that the Cold War did was make the United States and the Soviet Union compete everywhere in the world. Every country mattered. Because the Cold War was really an ideas battle about which system of governance was better – capitalist democracy, or communism? And because there was a competition over which system was better, every single country could be an example for one side or the other. So the State Department was deeply involved with foreign aid and assistance everywhere.  So the Cold War forced America to have an internationalist mindset. And once the Cold War was over, that reason went away. There was no longer a selfish, national security reason to be involved with assistance programmes in Africa, or Asia or Latin America.

JA: But do you think that’s changing now that China is on the rise and people in the White House are aware of that?

RK: It may change –  we’re in a very early stage, because clearly the United States and China are entering a long competition. We’re re-entering a kind of bipolar landscape with an asterisk and the asterisk is Russia. But it’s mainly the US and China. And that competition may lead to the US to engage more, both psychologically on the ground and with area expertise throughout the world.

JA: And where does European Union sit in this bipolar world?

RK: Well, the main bipolarity is the US vs. China, but there’s also the US vs. Russia. And though Russia is impulsive, it’s insecure and aggressive in a way that China is not. The Chinese are more like opaque businessmen. Nevertheless, Russia is a much weaker country than China: its economy is minuscule, Its institutions are much weaker, so Russia is an asterisk, and the European Union is becoming a kind of battlefield for the influence of Russia in central Eastern Europe; of China in the Mediterranean and Greece, Italy in Portugal, where China has been increasingly active; and the United States.

JA: And do you think that Donald Trump has a properly thought out strategy towards China? Because he was seems like a very impulsive person. Do you think that’s just for show?

RK: I think that Trump does not have a well developed strategy of any kind. He’s a man of deep impulse and disorganisation. However, even though he doesn’t have an organised strategy, even though he doesn’t listen to advice, he does have impulses. And the impulses I think actually can be mapped out a little bit. And what they show is a very Jacksonian mindset.

This is someone who beats his chest about the greatness and pride of the United States, who’s very martial and aggressive, but at the end of the day does not want to engage in great endeavours overseas. So Trump’s impulses are to be very aggressive, but at the end of the day to avoid war.

JA: Often people get very scared when Trump says something about North Korea or the like. But do you think this is just an another part of his usual negotiating tactic, where he starts high and then comes down?

RK: Yeah, I think Trump never wants to show weakness. He never wants to show that he’s eager for a deal. Because if you sound like you’re eager for a deal, as he puts it, you’re dead in the water. And he sees that as the great flaw of John Kerry’s negotiation with the Iranians – that Kerry and Obama both seemed publicly eager for a deal.

JA: So how do you see things playing out with Iran and the Trump administration? I mean, do they have any more road to run in terms of what they’re willing to threaten?

RK: Well, I think there are several things going on. First of all, the chance of a military eruption is greater with Russia than it is with China because of the impulsiveness and insecurity of the Putin regime. But it’s greater with Iran than with Russia, because of the nature of the Iranian regime.

You could have a very interesting geopolitical conversation with Xi Jinping. You could also have one with Vladimir Putin, but you could not have one with Ayatollah Khomeini. You’re dealing with a different kind of regime in Iran than you are with Russia and China. And so that’s one factor. The other factor is neither side seems to want a war. What they seem to want to be doing is setting the new terms of the conflict. The Iranians have their backs against the wall. Trump has torn up the nuclear agreement, which has taught the Iranians that they cannot trust the United States, even less so than before. And the economic consequences of Trump’s sanctions have been worse than the Iranians had bargained for.

So the Iranians are really up against the wall. And what they’ve decided to do is a number of things. The first is that the regime allows quite a bit of demonstration against it internally to let off steam. It’s allowed women a bit more freedom on how they dress. This is a very sophisticated regime. It’s not a one man thug-ocracy like Saddam’s was in Iraq. And it’s also used small scale attacks and tanker seizures to show the geographical fragility of the Strait of Hormuz, which has only two shipping lanes each only two miles wide. It doesn’t take much to send oil and insurance prices up. And it doesn’t take all that much to close the Strait. So this is what Iran is doing. Now, the United States military in the Middle East has decided on a strategy of not being provoked by Iranian actions. The US military has said it has no intention of going tit-for-tat with Iran. They’re going to just sit back and let it happen, unless there is a very great provocation.

JA: How much do you think the US and combined forces’ action in Libya has had an effect on other countries who’ve developed nuclear weapons? They’ve  seen Gaddafi and seen that he’s got rid of them and still been toppled…

RK: Well, yes and it’s not just Gaddafi. You know, we’ve set a pattern where if you already have nuclear weapons, we’re not going to attack you. But if you’re in the process of developing them, or then you give them up, you’re vulnerable. In other words, we’re sending the wrong signals. Had Saddam Hussein already had nuclear weapons, we probably never would have went to war in Iraq. There would have been some other way of dealing with it. But the Libya example, as you pointed out, was particularly bad because here was a regime which in its later years was giving up its weapons of mass destruction, cooperating with with Western intelligence agencies, trying to get on the good side of the West as much as possible. And then the minute there was a demonstration against it, we deserted the regime.

JA:  And just coming back to what we were talking about before, about a bipolar world and America versus China. The big infrastructure thing we’re seeing, obviously, is the Belt and Road initiative. Do you think China is actually going to realise all of these projects without running into local difficulties? Do they have the on the ground analysis that you mentioned at the beginning?

RK: Speaking of on the ground analysis between 2007 and 2009, I spent two years just visiting all of these Chinese ports, which were then in the making, and I basically wrote a book about Belt and Road before it was called Belt and Road. And what I found out was that each project is different. Some were realised very quickly and successfully like the one in Myanmar, where there’s a port on the Bay of Bengal where natural gas get shipped by pipeline directly into China, thus avoiding the fragile Strait of Malacca.

Then you had Hambantota which was an amazing construction project to watch unfold as I did but which went into debt. And then you have places like Gwadar in Pakistan which I visited in 2008. And Gwadar is a beautiful port. The problem with it is the land side is surrounded by Baloch separatists who are very anti-Chinese. They feel that Gwadar has been developed without any money going to ethnic Baloch. It’s all been stolen in their minds by ethnic Punjabis  in Lahore and Pakistan, and that this Punjabi-Chinese deal has left the Baloch out. So all these projects have their particular issues. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t look at Belt and Road as a specific plan. It’s a grand strategy. And like any grand strategy, the idea is to give China a direction in which to go. And that grand strategy is always amenable to compromises, to adjustments, so that China is adjusting the terms by which it lends money so as to avoid future Hambantotas.

The genius of it is it seeks to expand China’s domestic market; it It allows China to develop supply chains outside of the normal global Western supply chains; and, though it may not make sense in purely capitalistic terms it does make sense in Imperial and mercantile terms, in terms of giving China commercial and military access throughout the Indian Ocean, right up to the eastern Mediterranean.

JA: The analysis we often hear is of China as this runaway juggernaut, but do you think that other powers in Asia might club together to try and stop China dominating the area?

RK: Well, look, because of the Chinese challenge, Vietnam, India, Australia Japan have all been dramatically intensifying their own bilateral and multilateral relations with each other, to form a kind of emerging Asian power web to balance against China’s growth.

But without an American director for this emerging Asian power web, it doesn’t really add up to much – you need an engaged Washington that has a big idea for Asia, as big as Belt and Road, that’s about free trade, military alliances, and about democratic trending, even if each of these countries aren’t all democratic. And when Trump tore up the Trans Pacific Partnership he threw away that American big idea and left the stage to China’s Belt and Road.

But I also think in a larger sense, the only thing that can stop China is China itself. China’s developing a vast middle class, and middle classes are notoriously ungrateful. They have wants and needs and desires that a country of peasants never had. So China, precisely because of that success (and it’s ageing population) is going to get harder to govern rather than easier to govern. I think it would be natural for the regime to dial up nationalism as a default response.

JA:  We’ve talked quite a lot about China for obvious reasons. But one country that doesn’t get as much attention is India, even though it’s absolutely enormous and the world’s largest democracy. What do you see India’s strategic importance being in the future?

RK:  India now has the most geopolitically minded Prime Minister since independence. He’s a whole different personality profile than previous Prime Ministers. He’s very willing to band with the United States to balance against China, but he would like India to be more autocratic in order to emulate China’s economic growth.

I interviewed Modi in Gujarat state in 2008. And he said to me, ‘Look, I want to make Gujarat like South Korea or Singapore. That’s my model.’ Well, that’s a good model to have for a single Indian state on the Arabian Sea that was always open to trade and commerce. But India is not Gujarat. It’s big. It’s unwieldy. Its diverse. It has powerful individual state interests. It has a very muscular parliamentary system. So it’s hard even for an autocratic type like Modi to dramatically change things. So India will continue to go in the right direction, but the pace is going to continue to disappoint people.

JA:  We’ve talked a lot about the great powers. What is does the future hold for a middle rank power such as the United Kingdom?

RK:  Well, that’s very interesting. Because the the UK is essentially leaving Europe. So what does that do? Well, it leaves mainland Europe more open to the power of Germany, given that Spain, Italy and Greece have real systemic problems. And then there’s France which can’t get any economic reform done. So that leaves Germany as the most successful of the major powers on mainland Europe and leaving Europe in the hands of Germany – when the next generation of German leaders may not have the wisdom of the Kohls, the Schmidts, the Adenauers and even the Merkels, who had a deep deep knowledge of World War Two and memories of the Cold War – I think that leaves Britain at the mercy of a very disorganised, less united Europe over which Russia and China will be vying for influence.

I would not be surprised if down the road, Germany leans more in the direction of Moscow, because that’s the path of least resistance: take the second Nord stream gas pipeline from Russia, have an informal German-Russian Alliance. This is the fear – I’m not predicting it, it’s just a fear I have. And that would leave Britain relying even more on the United States. Because I think by being a member of the EU, with its Atlantic connection, allowed Britain to punch above its weight. I fear in the future that might not be the case.

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Robert D Kaplan is one of the world’s leading thinkers on foreign policy, defence and geopolitics. He is the author of 18 books, including 'The Revenge of Geography'