In a career spanning three decades and all continents, save perhaps Antarctica, Robert D. Kaplan has become our American Odysseus, forever ranging, it seems, across the oceans, penetrating far and legendary lands, collecting stories of warriors, priests, and princes that are passed on to eager listeners. Like the wily king of Ithaca, Kaplan, too, has finally come home, turning his critical eye toward his native land. After sixteen books limning nearly every global security issue of importance, Kaplan now asks his American readers to turn inward, to look carefully at their own country in order to understand why they do what they do abroad.
Those who have read Kaplan know that geography above all shapes his worldview. Unlike those who begin with ideology as the driving force in American history, such as Robert Kagan, in his Dangerous Nation (2006), or those who, like Walter Russell Mead in Special Providence (2002), typologize American foreign policy persuasions, for Kaplan it all begins with the land. For some, that will smack of old-fashioned geographical determinism, but in a world besotted with imagined communities and the chimera of ever-expanding globalization, the irreducible element of geography is a needed corrective.
Those who have read Kaplan know that geography above all shapes his worldview.
A brisk, compact book, Earning the Rockies may begin with boyhood lessons about the country taught by Kaplan’s biological father, but it is Kaplan’s intellectual progenitors who truly impart to him the wisdom of the American experience. Like Odysseus visiting Agamemnon and Heracles in the Kingdom of the Dead, Kaplan summons forth the shades of Bernard DeVoto, Walter Prescott Webb, and Wallace Stegner, all of whom identified the American character, governing institutions, and the course of our continental and overseas empires with the way our land works.
Kaplan is at pains to show that the geophysical variegation of the American continent actually brought forth competing national cultures and even governing institutions. The well-watered East and Middle West, connected by an unparalleled riparian network, facilitated both settlement and trade by self-sufficient individuals, the classic American archetype. Yet the water-starved Great Plains and West required not only strictly directed communal effort, but resulted in the first real bureaucratization of the American government. Thanks to these differences, the American continent contained a logic of expansion all its own, unfolding one macro-ecosystem after another to its Anglo-European settlers, ultimately resulting in a coalescing of the imperial impulse to conquer its vastness. What generations of schoolchildren have been taught, usually now to decry, as “Manifest Destiny” was, in Kaplan’s view, the unfolding of America’s fate to be driven to expand across its trackless distance, and eventually overseas, towards Asia.
As in his The Revenge of Geography (2012), Kaplan in Earning the Rockies strives to restore a due respect for geopolitics, the serious study of which long ago went out of style. Referencing not only DeVoto, but the Yale political scientist of the 1940s, Nicholas Spykman, Kaplan explains that “the United States came to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and with that had the resources to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. And that proved to be the essential geopolitical dynamic of the twentieth century.” It seems a neat linearity: conquest at home led to conquest (and success) abroad.
In order to explain how we dominated the continent, Kaplan undertakes what he does best, an odyssey by automobile across the country, starting in his New England fastness of western Massachusetts, and ending, three thousand wandering miles later, at the great U.S. Navy base in San Diego, where sit America’s thousand ships that can be launched across the wine-dark sea as those ancient ones were to Troy.
One sympathizes with Kaplan’s self-imposed burden, for in undertaking such a daunting peregrination, ten volumes would not be enough to capture the dynamism and variety of the country. Instead, what Kaplan provides are the written equivalent of glimpses flashing by the car windshield. Cities, states, entire regions are dispatched in a few pages; tantalizing insights and fascinating vignettes, such as of Mount Rushmore or the Mormon trek to the Great Salt Lake, are gone before there is enough time to digest them.
But Earning the Rockies is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue, nor a more in-depth look at the state of American society, like George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013). Like the rivers he repeatedly mentions, Kaplan’s treatment is meant to speed the reader along to a greater destination, that of America in the world. It is the work of an author mellowing into middle-age, serving up not so much carefully quarried specimens for further analysis as impressions and images of a great people in a great land. As such, Kaplan stands along with John Dos Passos and Van Wyck Brooks as a modern bard, his stream of consciousness reporting a way to replicate the dynamism and mutability of the land he is crossing.
Kaplan’s treatment is meant to speed the reader along to a greater destination, that of America in the world.
Yet perhaps in some ways, Kaplan is too generous, too hesitant to criticize. He notes more than once the splitting apart of the country into globalized city-states on the coasts (and a few others, like Chicago) and an alienated, isolated interior. The two Americas increasingly have little in common, and even less understanding. Just look at the electoral map from 2016. Yet Kaplan records rather than judges this tectonic separation, leaving his reader waiting for a lifeline, a suggestion drawn from his deep well of understanding of how nations around the world fail.
Perhaps more fundamentally, Kaplan acknowledges that “geography is only half the story.” The other half is “the ingenuity of a European civilization, characterized by a secular Protestant creed, and early modern and modern British parliamentary traditions” transplanted onto the abundant American soil, creating a dynamic society unlike any other on earth. Yet, as Kaplan traces the dissolution of that original American bedrock into the molten magma of globalization, and the transformation of Anglospheric traditions and byways by other cultures with dissimilar worldviews, one is compelled to switch metaphors and ask if the software that made America so great will survive, regardless of the hardware into which it is embedded. In other words, even if we still live on the same land, what if we no longer think, act, or believe like the Americans whose shared assumptions and worldview furnished so much of the energy that fueled the country’s rise? Can Americans stop being Americans?
Thus, some readers may well dispute Kaplan’s fatalistic argument, that America had—and has—no other choice than to lead the world. That may be, but the raw material of the continent, from mountain ore to woodland to ocean resources, must still be turned into national power. A government that hinders rather than facilitates, an elite lacking self-confidence or interest in the world, a people tired and battling monsters at home—all may combine to waste our patrimony, abandon the world, and create a very different history than the one we now argue over in schools and on television.
None of these criticisms are to deny the breadth of Kaplan’s vision, his love for this unique land, and his powerful understanding of the connection between geography and history. Americans of all political, cultural, and socioeconomic stripes would do well to reacquaint themselves with the extraordinary diversity of their own country, and how it has privileged and burdened them with a global role perhaps unmatched by any great empire. As one of America’s finest muses, Kaplan is a guide to questions that will exist as long as the Republic remains united.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 79
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