The Long View 2002-03-15: Kaplan and Spengler

Robert Kaplan is a good example of who, exactly, is part of the Deep State. Kaplan wrote a number of influential books on foreign policy, and was invited to a closed-door meeting by Paul Wolfowitz during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. However, he is also a good example of what the Deep State is not. Kaplan was a vocal advocate for the war with Iraq, but he later changed his mind. The Deep State is not monolithic nor conspiratorial, at least for the most part. It is composed of like-minded individuals who cooperate, or not, of their own free will.

Kaplan & Spengler

Ever a slave to fashion, I recently read Robert Kaplan's, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. I also wrote a review of it, which I hope that the journal First Things will publish in due course. Three months after due course, I can put the review on my own site, so I am not going to write another complete review for here. Anyone interested in a full treatment of the book, including answers from the author himself to readers' questions, should look in the Archives of Andrew Sullivan's Book Club. There is a point extraneous to my review, however, that I would like to publicize sooner rather than later.

Almost every element of Warrior Politics was covered 70 years ago, in Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision. That book was published in Germany in 1933, and it is full of old Oswald's crankiness. "No one living in any part of the world of today will be happy," he tells us in the Introduction, the most cheerful part of the work. The Hour of Decision was, famously, the only book critical of the Nazis to be published during the Third Reich. However, his criticism was not that the Nazis were especially brutal, or likely to be so in the future. What bothered him was that they were manifestly incompetent in an age that he correctly understood to be uniquely dangerous.

Spengler and Kaplan have roughly the same model of history, and some of the same political concerns. As in ancient times, an "Era of Contending States" is coming to rest in an Imperium Mundi. There is a clash of civilizations between the West and the Rest. To allow the norms of domestic politics to govern those of international relations is to invite catastrophe. Warrior Politics and The Hour of Decision are short, suitable for harried statesmen to read on a train or plane trip. They even have the same sort of detailed, narrative Contents pages. Spengler is not mentioned in Warrior Politics, and there is no reason to think the later book was modeled on the earlier. I suspect what we do have here is a striking case of parallel evolution.

To a large extent, the differences between the books arise from the fact they describe earlier and later stages of what both authors perceive to be the same historical process.

Spengler was desperate. He knew a second world war was impending and he knew that the Nazis were not the people to handle it. He hoped 15 years earlier, when he was writing The Decline of the West, that Germany would be the organizer of the Imperium Mundi. In The Hour of Decision, he has serious doubts about whether Germany will even survive. Kaplan, in contrast, is past all that. For him, history has made the decisions to which Spengler alluded in the title of his book. The United States is the global hegemon. The question now is how a tolerable world system can be organized.

Spengler's version of the clash of civilizations may seem to readers today to be cast in repulsively racist terms. Still, his observations are not without insight, so much insight in fact that the danger he foresaw has pretty much come and gone. What he called "the Colored World-Revolution" later took the form of what history calls "The Cold War." In his scheme of things, the Russians count as the leaders of the "coloreds," having seceded from Europe when the Romanov Dynasty was overthrown.

Spengler characterized the Marxist ideology that Moscow promoted as a brilliant weapon, one used to manipulate what we still call the Third World, and to foment unrest within the West itself. The acme of this particular Spenglerian nightmare was, perhaps, the Bandung Conference of 1955. In any case, he insisted, Marxism had nothing to do with economics, and certainly the Russians did not believe it themselves. Eventually, they would simply drop the charade. Spengler suggested in The Decline of the West that the Russian Communist Party would be peacefully set aside rather than violently overthrown.

The section of The Hour of Decision that really drags for an early 21st-century reader is the middle third, in the section called "The White World-Revolution." This attempts to explain the state of the class war and its relationship to the economic crisis of the1930s. It is full of little gems, such as "a stock, at bottom, is only a debt," which suggest that Spengler was on firmer ground when he discussed the history of mathematics. Nonetheless, the section is so boring because, as Spengler predicted, the whole subject would be obsolete by the end of the 20th century. In the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century, politics was about "the Worker," meaning the industrial worker in heavy industry. Some people were for a proletarian revolution, and some were against it, but everybody talked about it. It must have been very shocking when Spengler suggested the question was transitory.

Spengler, of course, was often flat wrong. Looking at the prostrate United States of 1933, he doubted whether the country could avoid civil war and social revolution. Perhaps Chicago would become the Moscow of the New World. More seriously, he seems to have believed that politics meant nothing but the preemptive use of force. No one ever seems to have explained to this man that real Realpolitik is about compromise, procrastination, and restraint.

Even with the limits to Spengler's political sense, and even with the passage of time, Spengler and Kaplan are still pretty much on the same page. Kaplan foresees an "aristocracy of statesmen," just as Spengler wanted national elites with global vision. Although Spengler's take on the clash of civilizations was conditioned by the Bolshevik menace, still he understood that the phenomenon was broader than that. Kaplan is patronizing to democracy. Spengler is dismissive or hostile. Neither seems to think it will be the organizing principle of the 21st century.

The model that Kaplan and Spengler employ still has things to say about the future. Maybe in another 50 years, or even 70, another writer could write another book of much the same sort. That will be the last revival, however. The scenario will be played out.


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