The Long View: Warrior Politics

Imagine this as a bald eagle with olive branches and arrowsThe opening entry of this review explains much of John's views on the Middle East. And also why this article was published in First Things.

Robert Kaplan has spent these past 20 years reporting on local collapses of civilization, chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He tells us that, in the future, we should expect more collapse rather than less, and over a wider area. Indeed, he says "the paramount question of world politics in the early 21st century will be the reestablishment of order." The period we have entered will be "the most important decades of American foreign policy," when the terms of the emerging global civilization are written. We need more than merely new policies to navigate this stretch of history, Kaplan believes. In "Warrior Politics," he tries to give us nothing less than an outline of an imperial ethos for American elites.

John didn't think that the terrorists could defeat us, but he did think that a loss of will in the voting public of the United States could have negative long term consequences. I think our wars in Iraq were stupid, but John's point of view does give me pause. It is pretty easy to laugh off John's analysis as imprecise and unscientific, but part of the reason I am re-posting everything he wrote over the last fifteen years is I am acutely interested in what he got right, what he got wrong, and why.

For example, Kaplan was very much right that societal collapse seems to be something we see more of, rather than less. One might point out that Kaplan was involved in causing this himself, but he later changed his mind. As of yet, the United States has not yet pursued the logic of promoting democracy in the Global South to its logical end. For example, we destroyed Libya, but we have have preserved Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite their depravity.

It really isn't difficult to imagine the reason why. We think we know how to remake the world in our image, but each political generation discovers anew that we cannot. We make our peace with the regimes we support and the ones we choose to destroy, but we have not yet found a principled reason for what we do. John proposed a reason, and I think we should consider it.

Warrior Politics:
Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos
By Robert D. Kaplan
198 Pages, US$22.95
Random House, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-50563-6


Robert Kaplan has spent these past 20 years reporting on local collapses of civilization, chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He tells us that, in the future, we should expect more collapse rather than less, and over a wider area. Indeed, he says "the paramount question of world politics in the early 21st century will be the reestablishment of order." The period we have entered will be "the most important decades of American foreign policy," when the terms of the emerging global civilization are written. We need more than merely new policies to navigate this stretch of history, Kaplan believes. In "Warrior Politics," he tries to give us nothing less than an outline of an imperial ethos for American elites.

Kaplan says about Western foreign policy pretty much what one wag once said of Queen Victoria: we have pursued goodness to the point of self-indulgence. The result has too often been bloody chaos. Before the UN insisted on conducting an independence referendum in East Timor, for instance, two things were clear. First, the people would vote for independence from Indonesia. Second, Indonesian partisans would exact revenge violently, unless a foreign security force were on the ground to keep the peace. The UN, or rather its members, would not provide such a force, but the do-gooders of the world nonetheless insisted on enforcing the international norm of self-determination. The cost to the people of that country was terrible.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the West in general and the US in particular have been guilty of many such exercises of catastrophic good intentions. We punished military governments in places like Pakistan and Nigeria because they were not democracies, though we knew those countries could unravel if civilians took over. We imposed economic sanctions on countries with imperfect human rights records, even though we needed their help in combating forces that were lethally disposed toward us. Often enough, such policies have been driven by nothing more than the irresponsible harping of the press. We could not have continued to conduct foreign policy like that forever. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, we haven't been. "Warrior Politics" does not directly discuss those attacks, but it does explain what we had been doing wrong that made them more likely.

In essence, Kaplan says that the Wilsonian tradition in American foreign policy seeks to apply essentially civic norms to international society. Kaplan characterizes these norms indifferently as "Judeo-Christian" or Kantian. In any case, he says we have been making a category mistake. Civic morality, in Kaplan's view, is a morality of intent. We seek to respect the rights of others, and ask that others respect our rights. The measure of how well we live up to this standard is the disposition of our will to respect it. However, as Hobbes was rude enough to point out, rights become an issue only after order has been established. Only the Leviathan state can provide civic order, and there is as yet no global Leviathan capable of enforcing universal norms. In the world as it is today, the best we can do is an ethics of result. The goals may well accord with Judeo-Christian ideals, but the means to achieve them often cannot.

Among the many technical points Kaplan never clarifies is how the ethical dilemmas of statesmanship differ from those of sovereigns domestically. Obviously, the duties of private persons differ from those of magistrates, because the latter are responsible for the well being of people other than themselves. This is true whether the conflicting goods they must reconcile are domestic or international. Is the ethics of keeping the peace abroad really so different from keeping the peace at home?

Kaplan is at pains to emphasize that he is not endorsing amorality, but rather a morality that is not Judeo-Christian. He calls this ethos "pagan," though he asserts it underlay the ethics of great modern statesmen, notably his hero Winston Churchill, and of Machiavelli and Hobbes. The actual pagans he discusses at length are Sun Tzu, author of the fourth century B.C. Chinese classic "The Art of War," and Thucydides. "Warrior Politics" is really a meditation on the implications of the ideas of these five men, plus those of Malthus, for the 21st century.

The "warrior ethos" that Kaplan proposes takes something from each of them: Churchill's animals spirits, Thucydides' caution against arrogance, Machiavelli's injunction to "anxious foresight," Hobbes's assessment of man as a dangerous predator, and the willingness of Malthus to consider that the mechanical trends of history need not tend toward the increase of human happiness. Inspired in part by an unpublished essay by Michael Lind on the "honor paradigm" in international relations, Kaplan says that the wise statesman of the 21st century should be guided by something rather like the code duello.

In civil society the state protects us, but in lawless regions we must look to self-help, or to strong protectors. The safety of the weak, in fact, depends on the willingness of the strong to use violence in their behalf. In such an environment, the strong dare not suffer insult, lest their credibility diminish and so invite further attacks against them and their clients. There are limits to violence, however. The strong act from self-interest, but only to the point dictated by necessity. To use more force or cruelty than the occasion demands would provoke one's enemies to unite in self-defense.

Readers of Frank Herbert's romance "Dune" may note how closely this ethos matches that of the leaders of the Great Houses in Herbert's imaginary galactic civilization. Indeed, the parallels are closer, since Kaplan imagines a world in which conventional military conflict is rare, but conflict continues nonetheless through "asymmetrical" means. Terror and assassination become the preferred methods of attack, not by the weak, but by the ambitious. The leaders of the West, and particularly the United States, must be prepared to function in a world in which democratic mass armies no longer ensure security. Future wars "will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, motivated, perhaps, by ancient virtue." So much for soccer-mom politics.

The role of the United States in all this is unique. It is not quite a world Leviathan, but it is a planetary hegemon. It does not have the luxury that Great Britain had after the Second World War of handing its place in the world over to a compatible power. If anyone is going to embed human rights and the rule of law in the world system, it has to be us. As Kaplan puts it, "Global institutions are an outgrowth of Western power, not a replacement for it." At least on a military level that power lies almost exclusively with the United States.

Kaplan suggests that the world is moving to a greater level of institutional unity. He dwells on an analogy between modernity and the Warring States Period in China. That era resulted, after three appalling centuries, in the Han Dynasty at the end of the 3rd century BC. Kaplan characterizes the dynasty as a loose system of "governance" for the newly unified but highly diverse Chinese world. Inevitably, he also makes the analogy of the United States to Rome; the point of departure is the frequently made comparison between the Second Punic War and World War II.

The United States, then, is to oversee the crystallization of a global civilization we would want to live in. However, Americans must be quite literally the last people in the world to eschew ordinary patriotism for internationalism. Americans must cultivate Flag Day and the Fourth of July in order to maintain the national integrity needed for their global role. Kaplan's model here is the myth-making patriotism of Livy, though one may note that Livy idealized the ancient Republic after it was over, in the first generation of the Empire.

"Warrior Politics" does not propose a formal system of ethics, not even an ethics of statecraft. Still, while describing an ethos is not quite the same as elaborating an ethics, we may note that the ethical systems that come down to us from the ancient pagans have little to do with the "ancient pagan ethos" that Kaplan submits for our approval. Epicureanism and Stoicism were at least as much philosophies of self-cultivation as is Kant's Transcendental Idealism.

Kaplan's dictum that "unarmed prophets always fail" has as many historical exceptions as confirmations. Kaplan does mention that the unarmed followers of Jesus did "help bring down the Roman Empire," but without discussing the case in detail. However, inflexible idealism prevailed over pragmatism even in one of his favorite historical analogies. In the great ideological contest of the Warring States Period between Legalism and Confucianism, the outcome was the defeat of Machiavellian Legalism and the triumph of persnickety, I-told-you-so Confucianism. The prigs do sometimes inherit the earth.

Kaplan's silence about Christian political theory is encyclopedic. He mentions Niebuhr's "Christian Realism" favorably, though he does not describe it. He also makes a passing friendly reference to Richelieu's and Bismarck's "pietism," which Kaplan believes left them free during business hours to maneuver as Realpolitiker. No doubt he saved himself the trouble of reviewing an extensive literature by confining his remarks about Just War theory to this: "Grotius's 'just war' presupposed the existence of a Leviathan - the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor - to enforce a moral code."

"Warrior Politics" is really a call for the American political class to redefine itself in terms of a new goal: the maintenance and consolidation of an international system that is, in some respects, a loosely organized global empire. Kaplan does indeed propose a transformation of values, though maybe not the ones he imagines. In effect, he is not asking for the rejection of Jesus, but of John Rawls. The imperial project is not inconsistent with the expansion of the rule of law, domestically and internationally, and the spread of democratic institutions, or even of economic equality. However, its overriding goal would be peace, or at least a tolerable global order. This would be a new organizing principle for politics. Certainly it would be an un-modern one.

One way to look at modernity is as the period in which societies sought to transform themselves in order to achieve the highest social goods. Democracy and equality in some form have usually been counted among them, but then so have free markets for some and socialism for others. For many people the highest goods have included secularization and environmentalism. In any case, these highest goods, however defined, could never be more than instrumental to the global system of perpetual peace (or mitigated war) that Kaplan is proposing as the end of policy. We are to turn our attention from the highest goods of modernity to the common, essential good of civilization, which is a livable order.

This may or may not be a good idea, but let us not deceive ourselves about the magnitude of the change Kaplan proposes. His "warrior ethos" would change our rhetoric, our public priorities, the kinds of things we admire and despise. An imperial future would be a different world.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2002 issue of First Things. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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My web colleague John Reilly has a bit on his site about societal decadence that is particularly good. John says:

Regarding the apparent collapse of the attempt by the Obama Administration to reform the American medical industry, Jacques Barzun's historical survey From Dawn to Decadence best sums upwhat the failure says about the current state of American politics. To quote from my own review:


Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.

The era of sweetness has passed, alas, but the Mexican standoff continues.

The decadence here is of various sorts and agents, not all of them connected with the health issue. Any party that would nominate Martha Coakley to run for a symbolically important Senate seat must be suspected of nipping at the absinthe.