Robert D. Kaplan ranks among this generation’s foremost commentators on international affairs, leavening reportage from the world’s farthest recesses with insights drawn from history, philosophy, and literature. Kaplan may have written his capstone work, but it’s more of an extended literary essay than his more traditional fare. In The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, just out from Yale, Kaplan brings a bleak outlook drawn from Greek tragedy to the practice of statecraft. He wants to bend practitioners’ attitudes toward healthy caution.
This is not Kaplan’s first foray into Greek antiquity as a guide to diplomacy and warfare. Around the turn of the century he consulted classical historians such as Thucydides, often acclaimed the father of history, and Herodotus, history’s crazy uncle, along with other philosophers of bareknuckles politics—Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and kindred practitioner-scribes. He compiled his meditations into a short treatise titled Warrior Politics, subtitling it Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.
In The Tragic Mind as in Warrior Politics, the author pleads with statesmen and soldiers to see the world as it is rather than how they want it to be. Here he turns to the inventors of tragedy, playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, for inspiration. His central idea is that “anxious foresight” constitutes the proper posture for makers and executors of policy and strategy. Oracles deceive; the world obtusely refuses to submit to human designs; actions have unintended and unwanted consequences; human beings are prone to hubris—outrageous pride that goes before a fall.
This is reality—and it warrants caution.
Successful practitioners of statecraft attune themselves to such unpleasant yet implacable realities. They set a high standard of proof for themselves before making the decision to launch themselves and their nations into such risky enterprises as power politics or warfare. That’s why Kaplan’s phrase anxious foresight is so well conceived. That foresight is a cardinal virtue is a staple among contributors to the strategic canon. But at the same time ancient Greeks—along with the Machiavellis and Clausewitzes of later centuries—entreat us to remember the limits to human foresight.
Humility, in other words, is as important as foresight among human virtues. It tempers ambition. All of us should be anxious about our limits—and pause to reflect before setting out to reshape the world around us. Would that Vladimir Putin had taken an anxious, fatalistic attitude before marching Russia into its military misadventure in Ukraine last year. The world would be a better place.
If you haven’t figured it out, I am a fan of The Tragic Mind, and I hope it finds wide readership among those in authority and those who oversee them. But I’m also conflicted about it as I seldom have been about Kaplan’s past works. Two critiques, one major, one minor. First, a repeated refrain in the book is that order is always better than anarchy. For example, in his commentary on Hamlet—Shakespeare is another author of Greek temperament whom Kaplan often brings up—the author proclaims that “order is paramount. It is the first step toward civilization. Only afterward can the work begin to make order less coercive.”
This Hobbesian claim seems to have come out of Kaplan’s experiences on the ground in Iraq, when he witnessed the tyranny of Saddam Hussein firsthand and later, following the 2003 invasion, saw the mayhem that convulsed that unhappy land after the despot’s overthrow. Leviathan was unpleasant but better than the alternative. Kaplan wrestles with the implications of declaring order paramount. He seems to espy two problems: how to reform a tyrannical order if suffering under one, and how to replace a tyrannical order swiftly and with minimal chaos if you decide to essay regime change.
It’s hard to see how Saddam’s rule could have been reformed from within. It was tried during the 1990s to no avail. Is a boot stamping on a human face forever really preferable to temporary anarchy that gives way to something more humane? I doubt Winston Smith would agree. Now, whether regime change should have been imposed from without is another question, and how the coalition tried to bring about regime change certainly deserves censure. It became clear fairly early on after the 2003 invasion that the U.S. military had forgotten its own counterinsurgent past. Political and military chieftains had little inkling that anarchy would sweep Iraq once Saddam’s boot was lifted, and little idea of how to replace tyranny with something better.
Needless human suffering resulted from the dearth of anxious foresight—as Kaplan points out.
Still, I would amend Kaplan’s claim slightly but significantly: order is always preferable to anarchy if there’s some realistic route to improve the existing order. That’s the point Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick made many years ago when distinguishing garden-variety dictatorships from totalitarian rule: the former could be moderated and improved over time while the latter could not. I think I’m with Kirkpatrick on this one.
Order is usually better than anarchy, but never say always.
That’s the major quibble. The minor one also relates to the invasion of Iraq and postwar anarchy. Over the past two decades Robert Kaplan has gone out of his way to remind readers that he backed the invasion and that he now considers that a mistake. I admire his honesty. It’s unusual. It’s far more common among commentators to quietly move on to some other topic after blundering, and without ever fessing up to the blunder. But Kaplan goes to the opposite extreme. I think after twenty years we can all stipulate that he believes he erred by failing to exercise anxious foresight. And we can move on without further ado, thanking him for his candor. He made a good-faith error at worst, and frankly the invasion’s aftermath would have turned out better had anxious foresight prevailed among coalition leaders.
Had political and military leaders heeded his counsel, in other words: Warrior Politics appeared on the eve of the invasion. Flinty-eyed coalition leaders may have fared better in Iraq.
For the record, I also backed the invasion. I did so “tepidly,” as I remember telling one of my University of Georgia colleagues when she asked the day before the armies stepped out. Tepidly because so much can go wrong in politics and warfare. (Not that my views mattered much back then; I was a Ph.D. student and university researcher writing for a regional newspaper in Georgia. If I was an opinion-maker, it was on a small scale.) Like Kaplan, I had humanitarian motives for going along with the endeavor, having been in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and seen the brutality that befell the Marsh Arabs and other rebellious segments of the Iraqi populace after coalition forces withdrew.
But mostly I backed the undertaking because I saw it as a defense of the U.N. system: Saddam had repeatedly defied U.N. Security Council resolutions enacted following Desert Storm, and eventually there had to be a penalty for defying the ceasefire terms and related U.N. mandates. QED.
That’s essentially the case Robert Kaplan has been making about the Biden administration’s stance toward the Russo-Ukraine war. The White House portrays the war as a struggle between freedom and autocracy; Kaplan has urged U.S. leaders to recast it as a defense of the system of international law and order, and in particular of the principle that the strong may not amend international frontiers by force of arms at the expense of the weak. That principle has been enshrined in international law at least since the League of Nations Covenant a century ago. It’s worth defending.
Granted, back in 2003 coalition leaders did not frame their case chiefly in terms of upholding the integrity of international law. But they could have, rather than burrow down the rabbit hole of weapons of mass destruction. An appeal to the rule of law would have made sense vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein’s Iraq then, and it makes sense in policy toward Russia and Ukraine today.
So enough with the regrets, Professor Kaplan—and keep the good books coming!
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.