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Robert Kaplan has spent the past twenty 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 declares that “the paramount question of world politics in the early twenty-first century will be the reestablishment of order.” The period we have entered will be “the most important decades of American foreign policy”—the years during which the terms of the emerging global civilization will be written. We need more than merely new policies to navigate this stretch of history, Kaplan believes. In Warrior Politics, he provides nothing less than the outline of an imperial ethos to guide 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. Take East Timor, for example. Before the UN insisted on conducting an independence referendum in the region, 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 was placed 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 the international norm of self-determination. The result was disaster.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the West in general and the U.S. 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 nations 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 how our past actions made them more likely.

In essence, Kaplan accuses the Wilsonian tradition of American foreign policy of seeking to apply civic norms to international society. Kaplan describes these norms variously as “Judeo-Christian” and “Kantian.” To use such norms internationally is a category mistake, he claims. Civic morality, in Kaplan’s view, is a morality of intent. We seek to respect the rights of others, and we 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 international statesmanship differ from those of sovereigns acting domestically. Obviously, the duties of private persons differ from those of magistrates, since the latter are responsible for the well“being of people other than themselves. This is the case regardless of whether they are focused on domestic or international problems. Is the ethics of keeping the peace abroad really so different from keeping the peace at home? Kaplan’s analysis assumes so, but we are not told why.

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 formed the core of Winston Churchill’s ethics, not to mention the views of such nominally Christian political theorists as Mach­ iavelli 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 ideas of these five men, plus those of Malthus, with reference to the needs of the twenty“first century.

The “warrior ethos” that Kaplan endorses takes something from each of them: Churchill’s animal spirits, Thucydides’ caution against arrogance, Machiavelli’s injunction to “anxious foresight,” Hobbes’ assessment of man as a dangerous predator, and the willingness of Malthus to consider that 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 twenty-first 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 on 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 provokes one’s enemies to unite in self-defense.

Kaplan imagines a world in which conventional military conflict is rare but continues through “asymmetrical” means. Terror and assassination will become, he thinks, 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.”

The role of the United States in all this is unique. While not quite a world Leviathan, it is clearly 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 third century b.c. 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 between the United States and Rome; the point of departure is the frequently made comparison between the Second Punic War and World War II.

The role of the United States, then, will be to oversee the formation of a global civilization we would want to live in. Yet Kaplan believes that American patriotism must be preserved if America is to guide globalization. That is, Americans must cultivate Flag Day and the Fourth of July in the interests of national unity. Kaplan’s model here is the myth-making patriotism of Livy, though one may note that Livy idealized the Roman Republic after it had collapsed, 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” of international relations that Kaplan submits for our approval. The eminently pagan Epicureanism and Stoicism were very much philosophies of self-cultivation, not blueprints for empire-building.

Indeed, all of Kaplan’s attempts to apply philosophy to history are problematic. For example, his axiom that “unarmed prophets always fail” has as many historical exceptions as confirmations. He does mention that the unarmed followers of Jesus did “help bring down the Roman Empire,” but without discussing the case in detail. More shocking to First Things readers, perhaps, will be his silence about Christian political theory. Though he mentions Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” favorably, he does not describe it. He makes a passing friendly reference to Richelieu’s and Bismarck’s “pietism,” but only because he believes that it left them free during business hours to maneuver as Realpolitiker. And his remarks about Just War theory are confined to this: “Grotius’ ‘just war’ presupposed the existence of a Leviathan—the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor—to enforce a moral code.”

Warrior Politics is 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. This is a tall order by anybody’s standards, maybe taller than Kaplan realizes. By telling statesmen to seek the attainable “common good” of peace rather than the “highest good” of justice, he is in effect calling for the end of political modernity, the great age of trouble-making reform. Something else he may not realize is how many of the important questions he raises have long been addressed systematically by theologians and ethicists. Universal peace sounds like a good idea, but it will require a thicker foundation than the code duello.

John J. Reilly is a member of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilization.

Image by John Samuel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.