Warrior Politics by Robert D. Kaplan

I have always been interested in what might be called the intellectual history of American Foreign Policy. In fact this is a good description of what my Masters thesis entailed; even if it only a discussed a small but important slice of that history. I quite regularly dip into books on foreign policy and, given the times in which we live, I have been focusing on this area more deeply of late. And in this vein, it is often helpful to check out what the respected “establishment” writers and thinkers are saying. Toward this end I have recently read works by John Lewis Gaddis and Walter Mead (remind me to post something on these two interesting works later). Around the same time I had picked up Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert Kaplan thinking that it would be worth reading in this same line. Having received a review copy of Defending Human Dignity: John Paul II and Political Realism by Derek S. Jeffreys (about which more later), I thought now would be a good time to read Kaplan. After all Jeffreys would seem to be positing an alternative of sorts to the type of thinking Kaplan is lauding.

Enough of my motivations, I hear you asking, what about the book? Well, despite it being an easy read and one that touches on some interesting ideas, I was not impressed. It is a decent introduction to what you might call the realpolitik or classic realist view of foreign policy thinking via classic philosophers from Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, and Malthus and historians from Livy and Thucydides to Winston Churchill. Into this mix of ancient thinkers and writers Kaplan mixes his own views on what is happening around the globe and what the future might look like. Warrior Politics doesn’t demand much of the reader and as a result delivers little in return.


The problem, for me anyway, was that the intellectual history was too journalistic and the thinking about the future was vague and not particularly insightful. The basic concept of the realist school of thought is worth while (I consider myself a realist). It asserts that morality in foreign policy can’t simply be boiled down in the same way as personal morality. The Golden Rule may work very well as a system of ethics for the average person but it is not an effective foreign policy for a nation state. The origin of this way of thinking is often attributed to realist’s view that the international system is a Hobbesian man-against-man type system where order is rare and chaos is the rule. In the realist’s view this situation requires that states act in a more calculating and cynical way in order to see to their self-preservation and defense.

Kaplan’s reading of various ancient scholars makes him a proponent of this viewpoint. Warrior Politics is his attempt to communicate why it is not only the correct one but also necessary in today’s world. Unfortunately, the picture he presents is an overly-simplified one. Realism and idealism, as foreign policy or international relations perspectives, are better seen as falling along a spectrum rather than as clear cut and set positions. Instead of acknowledging this, Kaplan seems to paint all of the writers he touches on as clearly and unambiguously within the realist camp and contrasting them with a sort of straw man idealism. For example, Kaplan’s tone and language throughout makes it seem as if there is a clear conflict between Christian or Judeau-Christian thinking and realism; hence the title’s reference to a “pagan ethos.” But this ignores the work of a host of thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr who developed a Christian Realism that sought to avoid the moralism of a Utopian idealism and yet tempered the amoralism or realpolitik with aspects of Just War Theory, etc. The result is that Kaplan’s realism is on one side a collection of truisms and on the other a caricature of a more sophisticated political philosophy.

Kaplan’s overtly Malthusian musings on resource scarcity induced conflicts and massive city states independent of their nation state hosts add little to his discussion. They seem neither predictive – unlikely to describe either the near of long term future – nor insightful – getting at the intellectual roots of our problems if not the factual details. His discussion of realism is not new and has been done better elsewhere while his vision of the future is vague and, to my mind, faulty.

As I noted above, Kaplan’s writing is easy to read and the question of how morality and foreign policy interact is an important one. Seeking wisdom in the past is certainly not something this conservative historian objects too either. But in the end Kaplan offers little more than a thin journalistic overview of classic thinkers and warmed-up summations of the insights of realism. Without tackling the real challenges of avoiding Utopian idealism without slipping into amoral tyranny, or at least discussing the tensions involved, a homage to realist thinkers of the past offers little insight or inspiration for these troubled times.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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