Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought U.S.-Russia relations to their lowest point since the Cold War. At the same time, China ramped up its aggressive activities in the South China Sea, pushing its territorial claims and challenging international norms of freedom of navigation. Iran, meanwhile, increased its support to proxies across the Middle East and bolstered its support for the Assad regime in Syria.
The Washington Free Beacon discussed this disconcerting assortment of challenges with foreign affairs expert and bestselling author Robert D. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Kaplan believes that geography, a strategic factor sometimes dismissed as a consideration of a bygone era, is still as important as ever. He argues in his 2012 book The Revenge of Geography that, despite advances in technology and a greater focus on individual empowerment, human affairs are fundamentally shaped and limited by geography. Mountains, rivers, ports—these underpin a country’s historical experience and influence its policies and geopolitics.
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The Free Beacon recently spoke with Kaplan on the phone. The conversation, edited here for length and clarity, focused on Russia, China, and Iran, and also addressed Kaplan’s new book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World.
Washington Free Beacon: Iranian vessels have been harassing American Navy ships in the Persian Gulf at an increasing rate in recent weeks. What’s Iran trying to accomplish?
Robert D. Kaplan: The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal is not Nixon going to China, because when Nixon went to China, there were only two or three people who he and Henry Kissinger had to convince to change policy. China was a top-down totalitarian state at the time. Iran has multiple power centers. There’s a fierce argument among the elite, and while most Iranians would like an opening to the world, the people in control are ruthless. But they have the will to maintain power.
This is not a regime that is about to collapse or change because of this nuclear deal. Keep in mind that when regimes like Egypt in 2011, Romania in 1989, Iran in 1979, and other places crumbled, all those leaders were in bad health–they had lost the will to power. Look at what the Iranian leadership is doing in Syria. They are killing large numbers of people to keep their client in power. Imagine what they’d be willing to do to keep themselves in power in Iran. This is a very extreme leadership that’s saying, "We made this deal because we had to get our economy back on track, to keep our grip on power. But that’s as far as we go."
WFB: President Obama said in the "Obama Doctrine" article [by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, April 2016] that Saudi Arabia and Iran must "share" the region with a cold peace. Is this realistic?
Kaplan: One of the reasons the Nixon rapprochement with China worked was because the U.S. reassured Japan and made sure the Taiwanese were protected, although they were very angry about the rapprochement with the mainland. Trying to orchestrate a balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fine, but the only way it can work is if you reassure your allies first.
You cannot have an opening to an adversary without at the same time doubling your reassurance to your allies.
This is something the Obama administration has not done well. It has not reassured Riyadh or Tel Aviv. There’s a feeling in those capitals that the administration is weak. That was not the feeling in Japan [and] Taiwan when Nixon went to China. It seems like a contradiction: How can you reassure allies while reaching out to an adversary? Well, that’s what foreign policy is about, dealing with such contradictions. You have all these menus you can pursue to improve relations with an ally.
Clearly, given the nervousness in Riyadh, and the previous nervousness in Israel—and I think the Israelis have come to terms actually with the Iran deal—we have simply not succeeded in assuring our allies. That’s something the new president will have to do immediately.
WFB: What do you make of the Iran-Russia partnership in Syria?
Kaplan: Iran and Russia can be tactical allies. They cannot be strategic allies because there’s a lack of trust. The Russians occupied significant parts of Iran into the first days of the Cold War. The Iranians have a deep distrust of the Russians. They tend to see Russia as a lever they can use against the Americans rather than as a like-minded power.
The Russians are terrified of Islamic fundamentalism. They don’t like the nature of this Iranian regime. They would prefer a less religious-oriented regime [but] they know they can’t do that. During the Iranian Revolution, you may recall there was a significant number of communists purged–the Iranian Tudeh Party. Russia and Iran is kind of like Russia and China; you can have tactical alliances of like-minded regimes that are hostile to the United States. But at the same time, Russia has all these difficulties with China going into the 19th century and even further back—and the same with Iran.
WFB: You wrote an article in Foreign Affairs this year suggesting both Russia and China are projecting power outward to deal with internal issues. Is this what Vladimir Putin is doing?
Kaplan: To understand Putin or any foreign leader, you have to try to see the world from their point of view, not from yours. He knows not just Hitler and Napoleon invaded Russia, but also the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, and others; that Russia legitimately requires a buffer zone, a soft imperial influence in central and eastern Europe.
When I say Russia needing a soft zone of influence, that’s from the Russian point of view, not from the American point of view. That buffer zone does not mean outright occupation. That’s what the Warsaw Pact was about, and the Warsaw Pact failed. It was too expensive to maintain, and Putin knows this. What Putin is doing is using subversion to weaken regimes from the Baltic states down to Romania and Bulgaria. He will get involved in Syria but only in the air, and not to impose a new order but to prop up the existing order. "We’re not going to get into a quagmire like the Americans did in Iraq. This is the way we can slowly create a soft buffer zone of imperial influence that will recreate in a much more subtle, low-calorie version the old Soviet Union." I think that’s what he’s about. And if these things are handled properly, it’s more spectacle for the masses that are suffering economically.
WFB: Would Putin ever make a move on the Baltics, and would more NATO troops in eastern and central Europe deter him?
Kaplan: He’s probing, seeing how far he can go. And if he doesn’t meet a response, he’ll push further. In 2012, Obama withdrew two brigade combat teams from Europe. It was sort of Obama’s "Mission Accomplished" moment. Coming right after the Russian invasion in greater Georgia, that signaled to Putin that he had room to run in terms of projecting power and putting pressure on the eastern rim of NATO.
But since [Ash] Carter became secretary of defense, we’ve been slowly reversing that. We’ve been putting rotating forces back in. We’ve signed missile defense agreements with Romania and Poland. So the Obama administration has been slowly reversing course. But I think there’s greater room for us to continue, to put permanent troops in eastern and central Europe to telegraph to Putin, "We have equities, too. Don’t push us too far, because it’s not in your interest to have a conflict; it’s not in ours."
WFB: What do you make of what China has been doing?
Kaplan: China is just reemerging as a great world power. It’s trying to do in the South China Sea what the U.S. did in the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and combining that with its port development interests and projects throughout the greater Indian Ocean. In a step-by-step process, it would become a two-ocean navy throughout the southern rimland of Eurasia … and combining [all this] with competing with the Russians in Central Asia. That’s another reason why the Russians don’t trust the Chinese. The Chinese are building pipelines, roads, and railways throughout places that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
WFB: To what extent should the U.S. embrace China’s rise?
Kaplan: It’ll be impossible to deny China a greater naval role in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. China’s military growth is legitimate. China is not Iran. It’s never threatened to destroy a country or wipe it off the map. It doesn’t have an extremist ideology. It’s a reemerging imperial power that over the last 35 years has been following a course trajectory similar to the U.S. after the Civil War up until the Spanish American War, when in quiet decades the U.S. economy grew by leaps and bounds.
The result of constant capitalist expansion is you build a great navy. You build a military that goes along with your economic expansion to protect your new interests, and also a matter of status comes into being. I don’t see anything that China’s doing that’s out of the pattern of emerging or reemerging great powers. That doesn’t mean we have to accept it; that’s not what I’m saying. But I’m not surprised by any of this. China’s interests in the South China Sea are totally logical when you look at the map from the point of view of Beijing.
By logical I don’t mean legitimate from our point of view. I just mean they’re not crazy. They see what we were able to accomplish by dominating the Caribbean, which gave us effective domination of the Western Hemisphere and then we can affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. They want something similar.
WFB: To what extent can we reasonably push back what China’s doing in the East and South China Seas?
Kaplan: I like what Ash Carter is doing. The freedom of navigation exercises, the Pentagon is trying to push back. The risk is that wars start throughout history, and neither side wants it to start. They start it over an incident or accident that triggered great existing differences. So the risk is, if we get into a military conflict with China or Russia, how do we end it?
Here’s the problem: China and Russia are not democratic regimes; they’re authoritarian regimes. A democratic regime can do badly in a war, the president can lose face, but the system goes on. In an autocratic regime like Russia and China, if they get bloodied badly in some high-velocity conflict that’s triggered by some incident in the Baltic or Black Seas or the South China Sea, a dictator can’t lose face to the degree that an American president can. So they have to fight on. Then you’re entering an area nobody in Washington is discussing, which is if a conflict starts, does that trigger a change in regime? And the world may not look the same afterward.
Everybody’s talking about building up forces, being tougher. That’s all fine, but as long as you’re also asking the other question, which is if a conflict starts, how do you end it?
WFB: You wrote a 2014 article for Stratfor saying the post-Cold War order is over, and the world will essentially become a disorderly mess. But what I’m hearing now is that Russia, China, and Iran are doing pre-World War I imperialism. So do you see the world evolving more into spheres of influence?
Kaplan: That’s one superficial level of the reality. Russia and China are deeply internally troubled. The last 30 years in Chinese domestic history were far more stable than the next 30 years are going to be. And the Russian economy is in a disastrous state. We should not automatically assume the continued internal stability of Beijing and Moscow. Although we superficially see a new round of great power competition, it’s not built on strength; it’s built on internal weakness in the cases of Russia and China.
That’s why I think we’re entering an age of comparative anarchy—more anarchic than the Cold War and the post-Cold War, which has effectively ended.
WFB: Let’s talk about your new book, Earning the Rockies.
Kaplan: Geography still continues to shape America’s role in the world. What we can do in the world, and what we cannot do, is still dependent on our geographical circumstances. We’re a great people not just because of who we are but where we happen to live. The temperate zone of North America is the greatest of the geographical satellites around the Eurasian landmass, so that we can influence Eurasia without being caught up in the struggles across that supercontinent.
It’s not just a matter of the United States being protected by two oceans with just the Canadian Arctic to the north. We’re a country that has the largest internal river system in the world. It’s a river system that united the continent in the 19th century, that was overlaid not on the water-starved soil of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains but on the arable cradle of the Midwest. We could produce all these agricultural goods and at the same time get them to market down the Mississippi into the Caribbean, into the great sea lines of communication, so that we were separated from the problems of Eurasia while at the same time connected to the world system.
The most important point I want to make is that America’s first experience with empire was not with the Philippines in 1898. It was settling the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains West in the mid-19th century. For the first time in history, an Anglo-Saxon culture met up with desert, and that changed the American character. It taught the pioneers limits, how to be brutal, how to think tragically in order to avoid tragedy. I try to draw upon the pioneer experience to teach us how to be more prudent in foreign policy.