Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan

Author. Foreign Correspondent. Geopolitics.

Robert D. Kaplan - The Loom of Time

The Loom of Time:
Between Empire and Anarchy from the Mediterranean to China


"In this captivating examination of how geography, history, and culture have coalesced to shape political order in the Greater Middle East, Robert D. Kaplan has once again shown his mastery." - Vali Nasr, professor, Johns Hopkins University, author of The Shia Revival

Robert D. Kaplan: Writing Career Reflections


From 1982 to 1989, I was a super-stringer, based in Greece, for The Globe and Mail of Toronto and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My travel budgets were meager. The challenge was how to interview the prime minister while staying at a cheap hotel. Throughout my career, I have tried to avoid the herd instinct and to search out places and stories that the media was ignoring, but which deserved coverage because of their news potential.

In early 1984, I published my first articles in The New Republic, about social unrest in Tunisia (March 26, 1984) and Saddam Hussein's tyranny in Iraq (April 9, 1984).In April 1986, my first of nearly 80 reporting and foreign affairs essays appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. It was about drought and unrest in western Sudan, including Darfur.My first book, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (1988) deals with famine not only as a feature of drought, but as a weapon of ethnic war waged by a Marxist-style government of Amharas in Ethiopia against ethnic Tigreans and Eritreans. My second book, Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan (1990), profiled figures such as Hamid Karzai, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Abdul Haq who would become more prominent in years and a decade hence. That book warned about the long-range consequences of supporting radical mujahidin like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar against the Soviets. I ended the decade with a three-part series in The Atlantic in the spring of 1990 about German reunification, submitted to the editors in the weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. (See a list of all my Atlantic articles on this website.)


Throughout the 1980s, I made repeated reporting trips to the Balkans. The region was utterly fascinating, the hotels inexpensive, and other journalists few and far between. In July 1989, four months before the Berlin Wall fell and immediately before the East German refugee crisis that would precipitate that event, I warned in a 3,000 word article in The Atlantic: "In the 1970s and 1980s the world witnessed the limits of superpower influence in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the 1990s those limits may well become visible in a Third World region within Europe itself. The Balkans could shape the end of the century, just as they did the beginning." In The Wall Street Journal Europe, on November 30, 1989, the same month that the Berlin Wall fell, I wrote on the editorial page: "Two historic concepts are emerging out of the ruins of communist Europe. One, 'Central Europe,' the media is now beating to death. The other, 'the Balkans,' the media has yet to discover..." I then went on to suggest the ethnic fissuring of Yugoslavia. In June 1991, the month that fighting broke out between Serbia and Slovenia, in an article submitted the year before, I published a 10,000 word piece in The Atlantic about ethnic troubles in Macedonia. According to a former State Department official, quoted in The Washington Post (February 21, 2002), that article was instrumental in getting "the first and only preventive deployment of U. N. peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia." Though a 1990 CIA report warned of Yugoslavia disintegrating, the State Department, this official went on, "was in a state of denial…until Kaplan's article came along." As it happens, the deployment of 1,500 peacekeepers in Macedonia prevented violence that later broke out in Bosnia.

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History  was published in full in March 1993, after the bulk of the ethnic cleansing was over in Bosnia. That same month I published an article about Yugoslavia in Reader's Digest in which I wrote: "Unless we can break the cycle of hatred and revenge - by standing forcefully for self-determination and minority rights - the gains from the end of the Cold War will be lost. All aid, all diplomatic efforts, all force if force is used, must be linked to the simple idea that all the people of Yugoslavia deserve freedom from violence." Soon afterwards I appeared on television to publicly urge intervention in the Balkans. I also urged intervention on the front page of The Washington Post Outlook section on April 17, 1994: this was still more than a year before we actually intervened. As a result, both Charles Krauthammer and Pat Buchanan  labeled me as "interventionist." Regarding the NATO air campaign in defense of Kosovo five years later, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, on April 7, 1999, when the campaign seemed to be going badly and much of the media was calling it a failure, I vigorously supported it.

Balkan Ghosts paints a grim picture of ethnic relations in southeastern Europe, but it is only the grimmest human landscapes where military intervention has ever been required in the first place: for one need never idealize a human landscape in order to take action on its behalf. The prologue of Balkan Ghosts ends with the realization that the mundane, ethnic peace achieved in southern Austria as a result of economic development would soon be the fortune of the former-Yugoslavia. Chapter One of Balkan Ghosts, about Croatia,is less about fate than about the moral choice that still awaited people there: whether to follow the path of ethnic division in the Balkans symbolized by Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, or the path of ethnic reconciliation symbolized by Bishop Josip Strossmayer. Though the book discusses ethnic hatreds as often a product of Ottoman imperial decline - and how they became manipulated by Yugoslav, Bulgarian, and other communists - the phrase "ancient hatreds" can be found nowhere in the text. Though my books and articles about the Balkans were read by the President and others, at no point did anyone in the Clinton Administration - whether the President himself or even an intern in the State Department - ever contact me in any way concerning my work, and how it might be applied to specific policy choices that arose long after the book was completed. The fact that Balkan Ghosts was reportedly used as an excuse for non-intervention in early 1993 will forever cause me great grief.


In early- and mid-1993, I made reporting trips to Turkey and West Africa, which were to form the backbone of my 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, "The Coming Anarchy," published in February, 1994. The article's principal theme was that the natural environment would emerge in coming decades as the number one national security issue for the United States, and that resource scarcity, disease, population growth - especially male youth bulges - and the transformation of war to more irregular forms, often indistinguishable from crime, would help shape world politics in the future. Although the media was generally hopeful about West Africa at the time of my trips, I specifically warned of chaos in Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, and Nigeria in the years ahead, which in fact occurred in the cases of the first two of those countries in the late 1990s, as various forms of civil war erupted. (As for Nigeria, it continues to be highly unstable.) The middle part of the article paints an uplifting portrait of Turkish slum life, which led me to the conclusion that an Islamic Turkey (still secular at the time I wrote) would be a force to reckon with in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the article proved too negative, given the many positive trends in the world since. The article formed the starting point for my travel book, The Ends of the Earth (1996), and for a collection of essays, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000). That collection also included another hotly debated essay, "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" Originally published in The Atlantic in December, 1997, the article posited that democracy which was overtaking the world in the post Cold War era did not indicate a "final triumph of reason," and that "subtler tyrannies" still awaited us at home and abroad. I asserted that democracy did not necessarily lead to more stable or more liberal systems, that democracy stood a better chance of success if it followed the creation of a sizable middle class, and that what might develop in parts of the world was hybrid regimes, which combined attributes of democracy and authoritarianism.

Also in the 1990s, I turned my attention on my own country and wrote a series of cover stories for The Atlantic about the worsening border situation with Mexico and about the rise of a globalized, mixed race "Polynesian-mestizo" society in the United States. These articles were the starting point for my book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future (1998).


I continued as a free-lancer for The Atlantic, which made up a small part of my income. I did not become a staffer until 2005, and in 2009 returned to free-lancing. In September 2000, a year before 9/11, I published a 10,000-word report in The Atlantic, "The Lawless Frontier," about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as a critical area of conflict. In late November 2001, I was one of a dozen people asked by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to meet about the long-range future of the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. The meeting itself was confidential, but the ideas discussed were not. Among other things, as the media later reported, the group advised removing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. I was of the same view in print (Slate,“Debate with Robert Wright,” January 21, 2002, The New Republic, “The Liberal Case for War: Saddam is Worse than Slobo,” October 21, 2002 and The Atlantic, “A-Post-Saddam Scenario,” November 2002). Saddam's Iraq was not an abstraction to me. I knew it intimately from reporting trips. The level of repression was such that it made neighboring Syria seem liberal by comparison. There was nothing Arab about Saddam's regime: it reminded me of Nicolae Ceausescu's Stalinistic nightmare in Romania. Yet in 2002 in "the Atlantic" I wrote, "The removal of Saddam would threaten to disintegrate the entire ethnically riven country if we weren't to act fast and pragmatically install people who could actually govern." My hope was for a new military dictator in the spirit of Egypt's Mubarak. But by 2004, after a long reporting trip to Iraq, I began to realize the mistake of the war. (Imperial Grunts, 2005, in which I wrote, "the American Empire depended upon a tissue of intangibles that was threatened, rather than invigorated, by the naked exercise of power.") Since then, I have expressed deep remorse in print for supporting the Iraq invasion, most comprehensively in The Atlantic ("Iraq: The Counterfactual Game," October 24, 2008) and in the January/February 2011 issue of The American Interest, "The Wounded Home Front." This was all part of deliberate, never-ending reflection on my part. Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes: Kaplan "takes no cover behind accepted opinions. Instead, almost alone among influential public figures, he tries seriously to diagnose his errors" regarding the Iraq War. (Washington Post, April 10, 2016)

Following 9/11, I embarked on a five-year study of all branches of the American military, with a particular emphasis on non-commissioned officers serving not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in Asia, South America, and Africa as well. This resulted in two books, Imperial Grunts and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (2007). In 2003 I wrote about the need to apply the lessons of small unit operations, unconventional war, and counterinsurgency that I had witnessed first-hand in Colombia and the Philippines to Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The two books on the military served to renew my interest, first kindled in the 1990s, with irregular war and counterinsurgency. Thus, in June 2006, I was invited to Camp David, along with three other experts, to brief President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about ways to win in Iraq at a time when the war had become a disaster, and bloodshed there was vast. I recommended adopting a counterinsurgency strategy (See Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, 2010.) Six months later, at the urging of scholar Frederick Kagan, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and others, a counterinsurgency strategy was adopted as part of “the surge,” which at least in a military sense turned the tide in the war.


I wrote about Tunisia, Sicily, and southern Greece, with an emphasis on classical and Byzantine archaeology, in Mediterranean Winter (2004). That book was a memoir of my travels in the 1970s.  In April 2003, I published a long report in The Atlantic about instability in Yemen and how it might affect Saudi Arabia. In the June 2005 Atlantic,I wrote about the naval rise of China in a provocatively titled piece, “How We Would Fight China,” in which I predicted a subtle, cold war of the seas with the Middle Kingdom. (I emphasized the need for Nixonian realism in dealing with a wholly legitimate and  great new 21st century power.) Also in The Atlantic, in October 2009, I wrote about the path breaking coverage of the Middle East news channel Aljazeera (“Why I Love Aljazeera”).I published two cover stories in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2009 and May/June 2010) about the critical importance of the Indian Ocean and the strategic geography of China. In the March/April 2011 edition of The National Interest I co-authored an article on grand strategy, “America Primed,” with my brother, Stephen S. Kaplan, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and former director of the President’s Daily Briefing.Over the course of the years, I have written long profiles of foreign policy realists I have known: Henry Kissinger, in the June 1999 Atlantic, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington in the December 2001 Atlantic, and the University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic.

Most recently I have spent several years studying the history and politics of the Indian Ocean region, which resulted in a number of Atlantic and Foreign Affairs articles, as well as a book, Monsoon (2010). It is a ground-level portrait of the rise of India, China, and other nearby countries, which are catching up with - and may eventually overtake - the West. I argue that for too long we have been prisoners of the Mercator Projection, which highlights the Western Hemisphere, whereas the true heart of the world in the 21st century will be the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. The book’s message  overall is optimistic. "Great-power politics will go on as they always have," I write in the conclusion. "But these activities will be framed more and more by a global civilization, the product of a new bourgeoisie that in and of itself constitutes a moral force with which to be reckoned." As for Africa, which I revisit 17 years after "The Coming Anarchy," I write in Monsoon: "After some decades of violence and turmoil, the conclusion of sub-Saharan Africa's post-colonial saga might be integration into a global and specifically Indian Ocean system."

I have most recently published a trilogy of books focused on Asia: Monsoon, The Revenge of Geography, and Asia's Cauldron. Monsoon, about the strategic importance of the Greater Indian Ocean, provided the impetus for the Pentagon to re-imagine Asia as the "Indo-Pacific," as reported in Foreign Affairs (3/12/21). Asia's Cauldron (2014) was the first major trade book about the South China Sea.


Regarding an uproar over my May 2015 Foreign Policy essay, the original title, "It's Time to Bring Back Imperialism," fundamentally misrepresented what I wrote. Rather than argue for renewed imperialism, I chronicled how imperialism helped stabilize the Middle East in the past and analyzed the post-imperial future that awaits us now in the region. The Foreign Policy editors consequently changed the title to "The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East," which accurately reflect ed my text. Indeed, in a companion piece appearing in the June 2015 issue of The Atlantic, entitled "The Art of Avoiding War," I argue d for a restrained American approach in the Middle East, the very opposite of what critics accused me of. Furthermore, in the January/February 2015 Atlantic, in two blogs in The National Interest, and on the PBS NewsHour the same year, I supported a better relationship with Iran as a means to reduce America's burden in the region. A brief description of my view involving empire is thus in order:

By any historical standard, the United States since 1945 has found itself in an imperial-like situation globally. Empire, moreover, has been the default means of governance for large swaths of the earth since antiquity. But the history of empire teaches many lessons: including restraint, caution, and strategic patience. These are the qualities of successful empires that I have drawn upon in recent years in order to argue for a more deft and measured American role in the Middle East - so that our top policymakers can also pay sufficient attention to Europe and Asia. That is what I believe; that is what I, in fact, published.


Regarding my new book, In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, I have been writing about, traveling to, and reporting from Romania for over a third of a century. It is a country with which I have been fascinated. In religion and language, it is both Greek and Latin. It is the geographic organizing principle for southeast Europe's relationship with Russia. In Central and Eastern Europe, only Poland is more important. But whereas many writers and scholars have concentrated on Poland, relatively few have concentrated on Romania. This is a book I had to write, since my own professional history is partly tied in with that of the country. People tried to steer me away from the subject, saying it was too obscure. The events in Kiev in January 2014 proved me right, however. Romania and Romanian-speaking Moldova share a longer common border with Ukraine than does Poland. This book is a combination of travel writing, memoir writing, journalism and history. Rather than cover a larger area in a grand sweep as I have done in most of my previous books, here I do a deep dive on one country and its environs in order to look at large, critical themes - geography, imperialism, the question of fate in international relations, the Cold War, the Holocaust, and the second Cold War initiated by Russia in Ukraine. The book is technically about Romania; it is really about Europe writ-large. It will be published in February 2016.


In January, 2017, I will publish a short book with a big thesis, about how geography still shapes America's role in the world in ways that are unseen yet real. A sequel to The Revenge of Geography, this book is part travel writing, part geopolitical analysis. It records a road trip I took from the Atlantic to the Pacific, reflecting on American foreign policy at a time of global anarchy.


In 2018, I published my second collection of essays, half from The Atlantic and the rest from other publications. The book’s title, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, is taken from the lead essay about Eurasian geopolitics.


In September 2020, I published what I consider my most important and ambitious work, The Good American: The Epic Life and Adventures of Bob Gersony, the U. S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian. I worked on this book for some years. It is the story of a man from a wealthy Jewish family in Manhattan, who dropped out of high school and served in Vietnam, where he was awarded a bronze star for service. Then, in his mid-twenties, he started a network of Mayan language schools in Guatemala. In Guatemala in the mid-1970s, he was spotted by the U. S. Agency for International Development, and began a 40-year odyssey through virtually every war and disaster zone on every continent, interviewing hundreds of refugees and displaced persons in every location. By providing high decision-makers with a second opinion on momentous events, in almost every case he improved policy for the better, saving countless lives. It is an inspiring story about someone who always worked alone, spending much of his life in refugee camps, and who remained obscure and unrecognized.


This is a travelogue that covers literature, art, architecture, music, and geopolitics. It begins in Italy and continues through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. It represents my first lengthy, ground-level reporting from the former Yugoslavia since "Balkan Ghosts" was published in 1993.


This is a meditation on tragedy as defined not only by the Greeks and Shakespeare but also by the great German philosophers and the modern literary classics. I write not as an academic but as someone with the lived experience of decades as a foreign correspondent covering wars and upheavals. I aim in this book for an original and self-critical ode to realism.

Robert D. Kaplan - THe Return of Marco Polos World

The Good American:
The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian


"For anyone who has stopped believing that one person can make a difference, or that government service is still a noble calling, or that facts still matter or that the American brand can still hold fast to practical idealism, this book is the antidote to those fears." - General James N. Mattis, former Secretary of Defense

The Necessary Empire
The Necessary Empire

The Downside of Imperial Collapse

When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise