Global Ethics Forum: The Return of Marco Polo’s World, with Robert D. Kaplan

Global Ethics Forum: The Return of Marco Polo’s World, with Robert D. Kaplan


(bright music) – Our guest this
morning is the acclaimed political affairs journalist
and author Robert Kaplan. It is a pleasure to welcome
him back to this podium. He will be discussing his latest
book, which is a collection of essays written between
2001 and the present, entitled “The Return
of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and
American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.” – This is a collection of essays that deals with
basically two things, the state of the world
as it is on the ground beyond the media
headlines, and what America should do about it and
what the American role should be about it. In talking about the state
of the world, what I mean is, what are the processes that
are going on right under our noses and how the United
States is reacting to them. What I’m gonna confine
my talk to this morning, is essentially, will be
in the spirit of the lead, anchoring essay of
this collection, “The Return of
Marco Polo’s World.” I use Marco Polo’s journey as
a geographical framing device for Eurasia today, and
there’s a reason for that. Because if you look at the
route of Marco Polo’s journey, you see the pathways of
the Tang and Yuan dynasties of the medieval era in
China, which is the period when Marco Polo traveled
during the Yuan Dynasty. If you look at the pathways
and the routes and the plans for China’s Belt
and Road Initiative, you see the Yuan Dynasty. What China is doing
with Belt and Road is very much in keeping with
their own imperial tradition, and we’ll get into that because
it’s one of the main themes of this whole collection
is that while empire may be a dirty word
on college campuses, you cannot understand
the processes going on in the world today
without seriously and dispassionately
looking at empire. And I don’t mean the British,
French, and European ones, I mean the Indian,
Chinese, Persian, Seljuk, Ottoman empires. Let me get started. It’s not true that technology
has defeated geography. What’s happened is something
much more subtle and complex. It’s that technology
has shrunk geography and distilled geography so
that the world is more anxious, more claustrophobic,
more nervous, smaller
than ever before. Every place interacts with
each other as never before. The crises zones in the South
China Sea, the East China Sea, the Baltic Sea base in
Ukraine, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf all have
an ability now to affect each other that never
existed before in history. We tend to think of
interconnectivity
as a positive thing, it connects markets, creates
an enlightened global culture, et cetera, that’s true. But in a geopolitical sense, interconnectivity is
very destabilizing. For instance, I was
at Davos in January, and the markets were
at their top peak. This was before the disruptions of the later part of January. Yet nobody was happy there
because everybody sensed that our world is more
geopolitically fragile than it’s ever been. They just couldn’t explain why. What I am trying to do here in this lead essay
is explain why. Think of the world
on a taut string. If you pluck one part of it,
the whole network vibrates. That’s the world. Take the word Eurasia. As recently as 20 years
ago, Eurasia meant nothing. It was too big to mean anything, from Portugal to
Indonesia, too big, Portugal to Korea, too big. But what’s happened because
of the way technology has been shrinking geography,
we can now honestly talk about a cohering Eurasian
system of rivalry, trade, development, and conflict
that never existed before. So Eurasia as a word
has a meaning that
it never did before. To give you an example
of what I mean, let me take just two countries. Look at India and China. India and China are
two radically different world civilizations that were
separated by the high wall of the Himalayas and the
Palmyras and the Karakorums, that had mostly
very little to do with each other
throughout history. Yes, Buddhism spread
from India to China in middle antiquity, and
the Opium Wars united India and China in the
same zone of conflict in the mid-19th century. But those were
aberrations, generally. India and China
were very separate. Now look at today’s world. India has an intercontinental
ballistic missile system that targets cities in
China, China has fighter jets on the Tibetan Plateau
that can include the Indian subcontinent
or parts of it in their arc of operations,
you have Indian warships increasingly in the
South China Sea, and you have Chinese warships,
especially submarines, the most aggressive
kind of warship all over the Indian Ocean. You have China building,
or helping to build, or at least helping to
finance, state-of-the-art ports throughout the Indian
Ocean, to the east of India, to the west of India, in
Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan,
Bagamoyo in Tanzania, and the Chinese are building
a 155-acre military base in Djibouti at the
mouth of the Red Sea. China is in the process
of building a commercial throughput seaborne
empire as though it were the early stages of the
British East India Company or the Dutch East India Company. That’s China. India and China are
now connected in a
very new geography of rivalry that never
existed before in history. So, rather than
defeat geography, technology has been building
new kinds of geographies. India and China are just one
example that you can play out around the world in terms
of how every crisis and zone is interacting with
every other one. Think of China moving
vertically south towards the Indian Ocean,
building or helping to develop these ports that I spoke of,
and think of India moving east and west along
the Indian Ocean, competing with China for oil
and natural gas fields in Iran and competing with China
in Myanmar for influence because Myanmar has a
long border with India. I remember some years ago,
about 10 years ago now, American diplomats
were very perplexed, and one of them said to me, “Why is India, a
democratic country, “giving military aid to Myanmar, “a brutally repressive
military dictatorship?” I said to them, “Have you spoken
to the Indians about this, “their national
security advisor? “Because of geography,
they don’t have the luxury “to stand on
moralistic ceremony. “They have to engage with
Myanmar, or else China will make “it a satellite, and America
is simply too far away.” This is where you
get India and China competing with each other. And where does China’s
imperial dream begin from? It begins in the
South China Sea. American diplomats can talk
hours on end to the Chinese and tell them, you should not
be doing what you’re doing in the South China Sea, and the
Chinese will listen politely and, rightly ignore
these Americans, because from the point of
view of China’s geography, China’s history, and China’s
goals, China is doing exactly what it needs to be doing
in the South China Sea. China is doing nothing different
in the South China Sea, and this was told to me by
Chinese military officers, than what the Americans did
in the greater Caribbean in the 19th and
early 20th centuries. The South China Sea
is China’s Caribbean, and the Chinese think of this
consciously in this term. If you think about it, America
moved into the Caribbean in a big way after
it consolidated the
dry land portion of temperate zone North America. The last battle in the Indian
Wars was fought in 1890. By 1895 American foreign policy was focused on the Caribbean. In other words,
conquer the dry land, then the big adjacent
sea next to it. Because the Caribbean
bordered not just Mexico and the Gulf Coast but
the northern fringe
of South America, where most people
actually lived, strategic control of the
Caribbean gave the United States effective strategic control
of the whole hemisphere. With control of the hemisphere,
it was able to affect the balance of power in
the other hemisphere, and that is what
the two World Wars and the Cold War were all about. It all began in the Caribbean. Now, for China in
the South China Sea, China gets several things
from the South China Sea, parity with the US
Navy, or even dominance over the US Navy; it
gives China greater access to the Pacific, it
softens up Taiwan, because Taiwan is the
northern cork in the bottle to the South China Sea; and it
allows China unimpeded access finally to the Indian
Ocean, which is the world’s global energy interstate,
because the oil and natural gas are in one end of the Indian
Ocean in the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian Plateau, and the
customers are at the other end, the great middle-class
conurbations of Coastal China, South Korea, Japan,
Singapore, and elsewhere. China is at war with
the United States in the South China Sea. There’s only one problem,
the Americans don’t know it. That’s because the
Chinese conception of war is different than the
Western conception of war. The Western conception of
war is you shoot, you fight. The Chinese conception
of war is win without ever having to fight,
because if you have to fight, that indicates that you’ve made a strategic miscalculation
somewhere along the way. So what the Chinese are doing
is hundreds of micro-steps, take an island atoll here,
build a runway there, move an oil rig into
disputed waters there, after there’s complaints,
pull the oil rig out, but take another atoll
six months later. Just keep moving
like that, in a way that doesn’t generate page-one
news but which over time, 10 or 15 years, one
day we’ll all wake up to a different world
in the South China Sea. That, in fact, is what is
happening, because the Chinese are dead set against any
conflict with the US Navy because they know
they will lose. They may not lose in 15 years
at the rate they’re going, but they’ll lose now. It all starts with
the Caribbean. But then you have
to ask the question, why is China going to
sea in the first place in such a big way,
developing such a big navy in the South China Sea
and the East China Sea? China does not have very
much of a naval tradition. In the early 15th
century, it’s true, in the Ming Dynasty, under
treasure fleet Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese sailed as far
as the Horn of Africa. But that was an aberration. That was really not
part of their tradition, and they withdrew the treasure
fleets when they had trouble with the Mongols in
the north-central
part of their country. China never went to sea because it never
felt secure on land. China has the luxury now to
engage, to focus so heavily on the South and East China
seas and the Indian Ocean, precisely because they
are more secure on land than they’ve ever been, and they’re becoming more
secure and more secure on land. Why is that? That’s where we get
into One Belt, One Road, or Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road Initiative
does several things that nobody reports
about in the newspapers. The first thing, it’s
a branding operation for what the Chinese
have already built in terms of asphalt roads,
railways, oil and gas pipelines across Central Asia to get
at the gas from Turkmenistan, the oil from Kazakhstan so
that China is less dependent on the Strait of Malacca,
which is narrow and vulnerable, for oil deliveries. So it’s a branding operation
for what has already been accomplished, essentially. The second thing it is, these
pathways across Central Asia link China with Iran. Iran, with a population of
80 million, highly educated, fronting not just one
hydrocarbon-rich region, the Persian Gulf, but
two, the Caspian Sea, is the organizing principle
of both the Middle East and Central Asia. China is investing
heavily in Iran. It’s building railways in Iran. It’s mining for
minerals in Iran. The Chinese-Iranian relationship
is becoming deeply organic, and China-plus-Iran
is an unbeatable
combination in Eurasia. The state that loses
out the most is Russia because China is beating
the pants off Russia in former Soviet, Russian
lingua franca-speaking Central Asia, and is
poised to infiltrate into the Russian Far East while Putin is
obsessed with the West. I never bought the argument
that Putin’s a great strategist or tactician at all. The other thing One
Belt, One Road is, it’s a way to deal with
China’s internal demons. One of the biggest
of those demons are the Muslim-Turkic Uyghur
minority in Western China. This is a minority
that is Muslim, that does not feel
itself part of Han China. The Chinese are very
worried about them. What China does, what One
Belt, One Road accomplishes is it deepens
China’s relationship with these other Turkic
Muslim states to the west of the Uyghurs so the
Uyghurs can never use them as a rear base in any future
imaginable insurgency. The second thing it does,
because the Uyghurs live in Western China,
One Belt, One Road is economically
developing Western China so the Uyghur standard
of living can rise and, as a result, they may
have less of an incentive to rebel in future
years and decades. So One Belt, One Road
does all of these things. Again, this is the
process that’s happening in front of our eyes. At the same time, we
have the Middle East. Let me talk a few minutes
about the Middle East. Why has the Middle
East been so tumultuous over the past quarter-century,
whatever time frame you want to use on it? It’s because of a basic
fact that goes unreported, that, for the first
time in modern history, the Middle East is in
a post-imperial phase. The Ottoman Turkish Empire,
which ruled from Algeria to Mesopotamia, is gone. When the Ottomans ruled, whether
you were a Jew or an Arab, a Sunni or a Shia,
you owed loyalty to the Turkish sultan
in Constantinople. That didn’t solve every
ethnic and group problem, but it certainly alleviated it. That’s gone. The British and French
imperial mandate systems, which provided order and
stability in the Levant, principally Syria and Iraq,
went away in the late 1940s. The American and Soviet Cold
War systems in the Middle East, which Oxford historian
John Darwin called imperial in all but name,
essentially went away. The Soviet system
went away in 1991. The Russians have come back, but in much more limited fashion compared to what was Soviet
influence in Damascus, Baghdad, and many other places. In terms of American power,
American power for a long list of reasons that we could
spend all day talking about has dissipated over
the last 20 years. America is not what it
was in the Middle East, and it’s not only because of
the Iraq War or Afghanistan. It’s because the Middle East
is no longer run uniformly by stable autocratic systems
where there was only one phone number, one fax
machine, one president with one or two advisors
you had to deal with in order to deal with a crisis. Now you have to lobby dozens
of people in many places. It’s not impossible to do,
it’s just harder to do. It’s an irony that the
very weakening of autocracy has also weakened American
power in the region. So the Middle East is
left to its own devices. The result of that is the rise
and jockeying for position of regional hegemons Iran,
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, to a
lesser extent, Egypt. Iran really has an
advantage, because it has, of all these places, the
greatest imperial tradition. If you look at a map of
where Iran has influence from the Eastern
Mediterranean, Lebanon all the way through
Central Afghanistan where the Iranian rial is
the unofficial currency, you have a map, essentially, of most Persian-speaking
empires going back to antiquity. You look at the map of the
Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Medes, the Parthians, you see exactly where
Iran is influential today. The ayatollahs are nothing
but the latest incarnation of Persian imperialism. This is a reason why the
Iranians are so brilliant at working with proxy
armies, proxy militias, because the real day-to-day
business of imperialism going deep back in
history is not conquest, it’s working with
local military factions in order to get your
own business done, to delegate through locals and
bring them into your system. The Marines, Army Special
Forces, Green Berets, that’s what they do
most of the time. They do it very well, but
they don’t do it as well as the Iranians have done it
with their militias in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. So there’s a particular
cultural genius to the way that the Iranians
operate in the Middle East. The Saudis promised victory
in Yemen in two months in 2015, they’re really
bogged down there. The Saudis promised the quick
knockout punch with Qatar over a year ago,
they never got it. Yes, a lot of it is
due to the impetuosity of the crown prince. But, again, Saudi
Arabia is a country with no imperial tradition,
no real history to draw upon in terms of projecting power, and especially military
power, in this way. So we have a process of China
and Iran overlying Eurasia, we have a post-imperial
world in the Middle East. So what about the United
States at the end of the day? All right, very quickly. The United States is a naval
power, that’s what it is, that’s who we are. Why do I say that? Because there’s a moral taboo
against using nuclear weapons, so the fact that we
have a nuclear arsenal
may be necessary, but it doesn’t help us
on a day-to-day basis. As far as land forces
go, and I’m talking about hard power here, in
terms of land forces, you move 15,000 or
20,000 US Army or Marines from one part of
the world to another or from the United States,
outside the United States, that’s front-page
news, it’s an editorial in “The New York Times,” it’s
arguments among columnists. But you move an aircraft
carrier strike group, which can incinerate
several big cities with the firepower it has
on it, which has thousands of sailors, you move that
aircraft carrier strike group from one part of the
world to another, and it’s public knowledge, there
is nothing secret about it. No news, nobody cares. Maybe a page-five story
somewhere for naval wonks. This is why the Navy is
such a powerful instrument, because you can
do things with it. You can signal, you
can move troops around, you can suddenly move
three carrier battle groups off the Korean Peninsula
whereas three weeks before you had only one, and it’s not
a sexy news story in any way. So we’re a naval power, and
naval power throughout history has generally been
organized around free trade and advancing some
form of civil society. Land powers tend to
be more conservative. Everyone says
America is like Rome. It’s more like Venice. We’re much more like imperial
Venice in that respect. That’s what we are,
that’s our brand. We’re a naval power which
supports free trade. With our warships we
keep the sea lines of communication open,
the choke points open, and access to hydrocarbons
for our allies open. It’s a benign influence,
and it goes with promoting, not forcibly imposing democracy, but supporting the gradual
expansion of civil society. But if you play around
with that American brand, you have nothing, essentially. You stop supporting free
trade in the general sense, you send out signals that
you’re not especially interested in advancing the march
of civil society, you lose everything in a way. You especially lose, and here
I’ll conclude, in Eurasia, because we are not in Eurasia. We can’t have a Belt and Road to compete with
China in Eurasia. What we offer Eurasia
is a vision of trade, of civil society,
of rule of law, and that’s a very
attractive vision, especially coming from a
country half a world away that has no territorial
ambitions on Eurasia. It makes it very attractive. But this is hard to do when
you voluntarily give up or seriously weaken
the American brand. I’ll end here, thank you. (audience applauding) (light music) – [Announcer] For
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