Searching for Scythians on the New Silk Road: Robert Kaplan’s Modern-Day Realism


Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2018)

“Yet, given the political weakening and stagnation I have described throughout the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, this is a very contradictory picture I have laid out. And that is the point.”

After such works as The Coming Anarchy, The Revenge of Geography, and Asia’s Cauldron, Robert Kaplan’s latest collection of essays, The Return of Marco Polo’s World, plunges readers back into the cauldron of anarchy. History, Kaplan wants us to know, is back for revenge, and only by learning its lessons can we avoid being trampled beneath it.

What are those lessons, and how does Marco Polo emerge as their personification? Kaplan argues that the territory Polo traversed, Eurasia, will become the pivot point of geopolitical power in the coming decades. At the same time, Polo’s journey captures something crucial about how Kaplan sees the future of this geography. It will be perilous but interconnected: Mongol hordes meet the Silk Road. In Kaplan’s words, “the supercontinent is becoming one fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict.”

Kaplan’s style thrives on sweeping paradoxes, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. Among the acknowledged paradoxes: Eurasia is defined by the stability of empire and the instability of imperial collapse; Turkey needs Ottoman-like expansion to defend its modern, Kemalist borders. Among the unacknowledged: Empire is back, but only real nation-states will survive; European integration embodies millennia of Western civilization, but was only possible because Europe rejected its past altogether.

Kaplan presents each of these claims with such authoritative gusto that it feels downright pedantic to object. And for all the contradiction he can pack into one paragraph, a potentially important thesis emerges from his essays. For Kaplan, the future, like much of the past, will be chaotic and complex. In order to survive in such a world, America must avoid over-extending itself and focus instead on its security and core interests. The resulting foreign policy prescription is for a kind of muscular minimalism or, if you prefer, robust retrenchment. America must remain strong, while also conserving its strength. If we go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, we won’t be prepared to face the real monsters that are out there.

As a cautionary tale about the dangers of imperial overreach, Kaplan invokes the Scythians, nomadic central Asian warriors who, like the Russians fleeing before Napoleon, retreated into the steppe ahead of the Persian army. The Persian commander, Darius, followed hoping for a decisive battle, but instead lost his army in a futile, never-ending pursuit. It is astonishing, Kaplan concludes, “how the obsession with honor and reputation can lead a great power toward a bad end.”

Thus, despite his belief that the future of the global order will be determined in Central Asia, Kaplan ultimately concludes that America cannot compete there. Instead, he argues in another essay from the collection that Washington ought to focus on developing unsurpassed naval power so that it can protect the American homeland and defend global trade. Rather than get involved in impossible nation-building efforts or messy civil wars, America should, at most, engage with Eurasian politics as an offshore balancer.

For Kaplan, who enthusiastically dons the intellectual mantle of realism, the temptation toward overreach comes both from bleeding-heart humanitarians on the left and self-righteous neoconservatives on the right. His heroes, by contrast, are Cold War figures like Kissinger, “caught between liberals who essentially wanted to capitulate instead of negotiate and conservatives… who believed that serious negotiations with China and the Soviet Union were tantamount to selling out.” In this spirit, the book includes a defense of his favorite realist thinkers — not only Kissinger, but Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer — as well as praise for a tradition of Republican statesmen stretching from Dwight Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush.

But as with any broad theory like realism or historical analogy involving nomads, the true challenge comes in applying it to concrete foreign policy questions. “[M]any decisions are by their very nature close calls,” Kaplan writes, and his re-examination of some of the closest reveal the analytical limits of turning to history or abstract theory as a guide. Kaplan, for example, has come to his skepticism about foreign intervention in part as a chastened Iraq war advocate — something he is admirably candid in noting throughout the book. He now believes that the war’s costs were unjustified. “Iraqis will never behave like Swedes,” he concludes, and “you can’t go around toppling regimes just because you don’t like them.” But if Kaplan thinks the Iraq war was a tragic misuse of American power, he vigorously defends Vietnam. Specifically, he argues that in deciding to stay in Vietnam from 1969 to 1974 — a period in which over 20,000 American soldiers died — Nixon and Kissinger “evinced a timeless and enlightened principle of statesmanship.” Only by continuing the war and ordering the intensified bombing of North Vietnam could the United States withdraw from the region “in a way that did not betray America’s South Vietnamese allies.” This, in turn, “preserved America’s powerful reputation,” thereby facilitating Nixon’s breakthrough with China and subsequent arms talks with the Soviet Union. Sometimes, it would seem that honor and reputation do justify pursuing the Scythians for a few more futile and deadly years.

On one of the biggest potential questions facing U.S. policymakers today, Kaplan avoids taking a clear stance. In an essay entitled “When North Korea Falls,” Kaplan predicts that China ultimately stands to benefit when North Korea collapses, because both America and South Korea, as democracies, would not be willing to swallow the cost of occupying and reconstructing the North. And yet, by the end of the essay it’s not clear whether Kaplan thinks this is for the best or not. When he concludes that, “while military units can be expected to be heroic, one should not expect a home front to be forever so,” he almost sounds like a Persian general rationalizing his regret at letting the Scythians slip away.

One reason for Kaplan’s success as a thought leader may well be his ability to articulate the full range of potential U.S. foreign policy positions in a manner that sounds, above all, tough-minded. In calling for intervention, he casts his position in opposition to those who are too soft to fight. In calling for non-intervention, his foil becomes those who are hopelessly naïve in their reasons for fighting. This is a satisfying attitude, and one that can be useful in escaping ideological confines to consider a diverse range of policy options. But it is ill-prepared to evaluate the trade-offs in cases like Vietnam or Korea, where the advocates of intervention are using tough-minded language as well.

In this regard, Kaplan’s enthusiasm for the military’s stoicism and supposed lack of nuance seems to push him toward hawkish positions that conflict with his warnings about imperial overreach. His defense of Kissinger’s decision to stay in Vietnam, for example, comes after an essay in which he contrasts the principled courage of the men who served there with the pacifist Democrats and “Manhattan-based publishing industry,” who opposed the war. Kaplan certainly recognize the limits of this warrior ethos even as he idolizes it. Yet it’s easy to imagine how someone contemptuous of Lyndon Johnson’s hesitancy could have ended up supporting the Iraq war, regardless of his own reservations about nation-building.

For all Kaplan’s paeans to realism, he goes back and forth on whether it represents an alternative to traditional moral values or the best path to achieve them. Throughout the book, he argues that realism offers not only a correct assessment of how the world works, but also a moral code. Leaders have a duty to prioritize their national interests over their values. But doing so, for U.S. leaders at least, also turns out to be best way to advance these values as well. Several of his examples of realism’s unintentional morality seem obvious, while others come off as more the product of contrarianism. If a concern over the European balance of power led Washington to defeat Nazi Germany, that’s certainly good. But by overthrowing Salvador Allende, did Kissinger really save the lives of countless Chileans who would have died in Ethiopian-style mass famines if the country had gone communist?

At times, Kaplan becomes so expansive in his rhetoric as to leave realism behind entirely. In one of the book’s final essays, he argues that “America is fated to lead.” “That is the judgment of geography,” and “whenever large scale atrocities happen anywhere America must at the very least take notice” Having earlier dismissed the doctrine of responsibility to protect, and praised Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria, Kaplan goes on to lament that “Obama does not relish the projection of American power, without which you cannot challenge fate.”

The Return of Marco Polo’s World wrestles with the question of whether you can relish the projection of American power and still be content with a policy of restraint. Kaplan never gives a comprehensive answer. But by the end of this book, it appears that, like many intrepid intellectual travelers who set out to challenge America’s conventional foreign policy wisdom, he has ultimately found himself awestruck in the court of the Great Khan.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics.

Image: Abraham Fresques, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons