Benevolent Imperialism

Robert D. Kaplan attempts to explain American greatness via a road trip across America.

rockies illo.

Adi Embers

It’s a hard time to be a Cold Warrior. Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is as toasty as a banya after three shots of vodka. Despite a lingering conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the United States’ diplomatic deadlock with Russia has thawed. This leaves the journalist Robert D. Kaplan in a difficult position: He built a career translating Eastern European geopolitics to the masses. Presciently, Kaplan made his way back to America on the eve of the election, perhaps sensing that imperiled democracies and citizen revolt can be found at home, as well as in Eastern Europe. The result is a book on how settling the American heartland in the 19th century prepared the U.S. to be a superpower in the 20th.

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World is a meditation on America’s decline as a world power disguised as a transcontinental road trip. Kaplan starts the book with his truck-driver dad, who was never able to take the family much farther than their home in Queens but who traversed the country for work. The solo journey that Kaplan sets off on, from Western Massachusetts to San Diego, is a paternal tribute. Kaplan employs a Proustian memory-jogger (a visit to President James Buchanan’s house with his father in the early 1960s) to reflect on his own professional life, which was largely spent in places where America projects its power: the Balkans, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. Coming back home after covering global politics seems to be both an admission of growing American isolationism as well as an attempt, as a member of the East Coast foreign policy intelligentsia, to rediscover his country.

This book and Kaplan’s other geopolitical travel tales from abroad often read, for good and for ill, like the lectures of a learned and digressive uncle: Juicy stories are offered up with a large side dish of historical context. Kaplan summarizes 20th-century writings in history and geography on America’s burgeoning connections with, and domination of, the rest of the world. The book self-consciously takes account of America’s many bungled attempts to maintain and promote its interests abroad, including the Iraq war (which Kaplan supported but disavowed). It also resurrects currently unpopular arguments about American exceptionalism. Using the physical landscape just as much as the philosophical project behind 1776, Kaplan asserts that “Americans are a great people not only because of their democracy and their Protestant creed (uniting faith in one god with hard work, which all non-Protestant immigrants unconsciously adopt), but also because of where they happen to live.”

It was by settling the vast landscape of the West, Kaplan argues, that the U.S. learned how to be a global power. Drawing heavily on the work of the early 20th-century historian Bernard DeVoto, Kaplan claims that settlement of the American West, including the wars and eventual extermination of native peoples, was a spiritual experience for the young American nation. “The conquest of the Great Plains and the Rockies,” he cites DeVoto as intuiting, was “a necessary prelude in order to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese.” His take on Manifest Destiny is more complex than DeVoto’s: He both defends the impulse to expand while lamenting the moral cover that the cowboy-homesteader mystique gave to the abysmal treatment of native peoples and the jingoism of the Mexican-American War. Using a fascinating mishmash of contemporary political observation and layered historical references, he shows that the closing of the frontier was the preamble to the Spanish-American War, when Latin America became a zone of exclusively American influence. From this 19th-century history, he extracts Andrew Jackson as the bellicose inspiration for Trump country, the red-state heartland, while asserting that coastal blue-staters subscribe to a mixture of Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, and Wilsonian beliefs on the perfectibility of democracy, the strong state, and the importance of international law.

Kaplan’s fundamental takeaway is that empires are naturally occurring in world history and they won’t be going away anytime soon. The U.S., in his opinion, is a benevolent imperialist power that has made mistakes but has mostly done good. Someone has to be in charge; better the U.S. than, say, Putin’s Russia, or China, or even the EU, for that matter. He argues convincingly that the U.S.—separated from the Old World by a big ocean and with the most navigable rivers of any country—is geographically blessed and harnesses much of its power from this simple fact. But he also thinks there’s something greater than geography at play, some cultural explanations for the supposed virtue and altruism of America’s premier global role after World War II.

Kaplan’s attempt to draw cultural arguments for American greatness from his road trip are hampered by how averse he seems to talking with actual people. Kaplan spends a lot of time in roadside diners, in order to silently “contemplate nothing less than the American continent and what its international role will and should be in the twenty-first century.” Then he hears “the voices of people at the next table … ” Kaplan’s grasp of history and political theory expertly describe how the U.S. became a superpower, but when it comes to explaining the nature of that power, we mostly get musings that feel lifted from the pages of Travels With Charley.

Earning the Rockies is at its best when Kaplan explains how the ideology of conquest was slowly replaced with the romance of naturalism and Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationism. In this, he’s aided by the Civil War soldier and geologist John Wesley Powell, who, despite losing an arm in the Civil War, was an intrepid explorer of hostile landscapes. Combining frontier individualism with a belief in public land management, Powell “would play a pivotal part in the establishment of the Washington institutions designed to both study and regulate the use and settlement of the arid West.” Contradicting so much of the present-day cant about gruff Western self-sufficiency, the story of Powell makes the point that homesteading was only possible with geological surveys, federal land grants, irrigation projects, and military protection from displaced indigenous people. In short, settlement is only achieved with cooperation. Though Americans living in the interior states often espouse a go-it-alone ethos, their material reality makes this effectively impossible, limiting their mobility to towns with few options and fostering a creeping feeling of cultural isolation from their coastal counterparts.

Kaplan is more judicious in his explanation of America’s future role in the world as he surveys a naval base in San Diego. The U.S. has not forgotten some kind of martial sentiment that led it to world power. Rather, the very possession of power has bequeathed an alarming moral muddling resulting in foolish interventions “without an obvious and overwhelming national interest.” Kaplan ends defending policy elites who he frankly labels an “imperial class.” Yet, perhaps learning from his own experience pre-emptively celebrating the “victory” of the Cold War, he cautions that: “Progress, sad to say, is not inevitable. American exceptionalism, the belief that we are a unique people with a unique mission in history, may arguably be true, but even if it is true, believing it too intensely can lead to disaster.”

The book tellingly ends with a chapter called “Cathay,” a historic term for China. Kaplan reminisces about time he spent on a nuclear submarine based in Pearl Harbor with “young men and women [who] often hailed from the flat, yawning interior of the continent.” While these young sailors had sometimes “never seen an ocean until they joined the navy … the conquest of space was in their psyche, as if inherited from their ancestors.” The Pacific is the new frontier for American power; its greatest competitor sits on the other side, sending cargo containers of iPhones our way rather than missiles. He insists that China, like the U.S. a century ago, harnesses strength from an inland empire and is just now trying out naval dominance in its neighborhood, the South China Sea. Kaplan is not an alarmist about the rise of Chinese power, but he makes it clear that it’s another challenge the U.S. will face in an already chaotic world, one on which we’re losing our grasp.

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House.

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