Clash of the Strategists

A U.S. Marine, who is part of a military honor guard, takes his position before a welcoming ceremony for German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

May-June 2018

In addition, Kaplan anticipates an ongoing upsurge of populist nationalism, such as that which has led to Brexit and which has fueled the drive for Scottish, Catalonian and north Italian independence from their respective central governments. Indeed, he sees fractured states across Eurasia, and Africa as well, as long-standing but submerged loyalties to city, region or tribe emerge to the fore. His summary judgment is that “Western civilization is not being destroyed; rather, it is being diluted and dispersed.”

KAPLAN ENTITLES the first section of his book “Strategy,” and it is naturally to Washington policymakers that he addresses his advice on what that strategy should look like. Kaplan’s prescription for the United States, whose stake in the Westphalian model was clearly linked to its creation of the postwar international military, economic and financial order, is twofold. First, he cautions that Washington be careful not to press for regime change, especially in its putative adversaries Russia and China. Indeed, he goes one step further. He would avoid any degree of interference in the internal dynamics of other states. “The world is intractable enough (and becoming more so),” he argues, “without our needing to impose our values on other countries’ internal systems. Thus, we should start with asking how we can act with caution and restraint, without drifting into neo-isolationism.” Overthrowing the current ruling structures in Beijing or Moscow could well lead to the chaotic breakup of either or both, which could spread throughout the Eurasian landmass, given the connectedness of the contemporary international environment. A world of warring regions and city-states would be America’s worst nightmare.

His second and related piece of advice is that Washington adopt Britain’s nineteenth-century model of caution when applying military force, while also striving to maintain its monopoly on sea control in the Eastern Hemisphere. The latter will be no mean feat, however, and not merely because China’s fleet continues to grow and expand its area of blue-water operations. As Kaplan points out in an essay on the decline of America’s maritime forces, entitled “Elegant Decline: The Navy’s Rising Importance,” the United States will need to rethink its approach to sea power, which remains vital to its national security. Some of his suggestions are quite radical, such as delegating some of its missions to private naval companies, in effect returning to the era of privateers, upon whom the fledgling American republic heavily relied. Others are more conventional, such as equipping large carriers with laser weapons, or adding far more submarines to the fleet. His central point is that the decline of the fleet can be managed, and offset, as long as its fundamental importance to national security in the years ahead holds a central place in the minds of policymakers.

Relying more heavily on the Navy and, by implication in an era of ongoing constraints, due to the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Control Act, not expanding or even shrinking the Army—as he puts it, “our land strategy should be secondary, and should follow from our air and naval strategy, not the other way around”—renders it less likely that the United States will undertake another regime-change operation like that of Iraq. In another essay, in the section of the book entitled “War and Its Costs,” Kaplan addresses the question of whether what began as Operation Iraqi Freedom and continues to this day has been worth its cost in men and matériel. His conclusion is unequivocal: “at more than four thousand and counting, the answer for years to come will still be no.”

His view reflects his overall reluctance to have America engage in foreign adventures, especially when they do not directly affect American national security, as was the case with neither Iraq nor, for that matter, Vietnam, which he terms a “dirty, badly conceived” war. Indeed, he is leery of regime change whether or not it involves military action. In that regard he follows in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger, whom he unabashedly admires, and who is the subject of another chapter in the book, in a section devoted to “Thinkers.” But he also has much to say in favor of another realist who has been the subject of considerable criticism, namely Samuel Huntington, he of The Clash of Civilizations. Kaplan sees Huntington as an intellectual giant, who managed to blend old-fashioned liberalism and support for the export of American ideals with the need to maintain American power. American conservatism, Kaplan is in effect telling his readers, need not be cold-hearted and can certainly promote American values, without, however, forcing them on those whose cultures may resist them, or taking military action against those who resist them.

Kaplan’s volume includes an essay, written over a decade ago, that is likely to command special interest. In “When North Korea Falls,” Kaplan speculates as to the effect of a collapsed North Korean regime on the South, on America and on Korea’s neighbors. He observes that