Book review by Jim Miles. Monsoon – The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Robert D. Kaplan. Random House, New York, 2010
When I first read Robert Kaplan, it was shortly after 9/11 when a whole library of books became available about U.S. foreign policy and how it should deal with the terrorist threat presented to the U.S. and democracy. At that time, in his work Warrior Politics he reasonably recognizes that his perspective is but one of many and none can be truly objective. He recognized the reality of the “American imperium” in terms that imperialism is the “most ordinary and dependable form of protection for ethnic minorities and others under violent assault,” and “an imperial reality already dominates our foreign policy.” Towards the end of the work he quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization,” and follows with his own summation that “the restraining power of our own democracy makes it hard for us to demand and orchestrate authentic transitions everywhere. Only through stealth and anxious foresight can America create a secure international system.”
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We have had in the intervening years since that publication a significant decrease in democracy within the U.S. (constitutional issues, international law, and human rights issues such as torture). Indeed if democracy is inimical to mobilization, then democracy needs to be avoided, and its “restraining” power has been greatly diminished (when were the people, the demos, last asked if they wanted the U.S. to go to war?) As for demanding and orchestrating authentic transitions, that has been exposed through global media as being very real, although always with unexpected outcomes – and notice that the “transitions” are not necessarily labelled as democratic, simply transitions. The record over the last decade would also show that stealth has not created a secure international system (secure for whom – the global elites, the corporate bosses?) While stealth has been tried, so has massed military attack – all with expected ‘unexpecteds’ (sort of like Rumsfield’s “known unknowns”).
In short, yes there is an empire, a U.S. empire, it is not democratic, it wants transitions to its own favour, and will try to make it happen either covertly or overtly. Neither is working well, unless one considers that the global elite are becoming richer at the expense of the many. He noted that his personal first hand experience witnessing events in the world was his education and drew him to the classics of philosophy and politics “in the hope of finding explanations for the terrors before my eyes.
With that as my background to Kaplan’s writing, I thought that reading Monsoon would be a rather antagonistic affair, even while trying to keep in mind that this is obviously written from the U.S. perspective however ingrained or not that might be. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised, not that I was in full agreement with his perspective, but his writing was both informative and entertaining within the recognition of his North American view of the world (with apologies to Mexico). Using a combination of historical background, anecdotal experiences, current interviews, supported by a wide range of travels, Monsoon becomes a worthwhile reading experience. It is a similarly engaging style as with Thomas Friedman and Robert Fisk, without the depth of perspective that Fisk delivers, and fortunately without the sometimes rather bizarre conclusions and statements that Friedman manages to come up with.
The theme of the book – no, not global warming – is about U.S. foreign policy and how it has and will relate to the littoral states of the Indian ocean, necessitating the inclusion of China within that discussion as a non-littoral but very involved state. Travelling generally from west to east in the narrative, Kaplan presents historical background, current situations, and personal perspectives with lively and vivid descriptions along with information from interviewing a variety of people along the way. Returning to his statement from above, that he hopes to find “explanations for the terrors before my eyes,” he comes close, very close, but is just moments short of grasping what he is really seeing or saying.
There are areas of context and interpretation that do limit the text. Two of his main sub-themes are Islamic terrorism and democracy, and for both he makes statements that are almost ‘aha’ moments, but then are left hanging without actually making it into deeper connections. Further from apparent awareness, although perhaps lingering constantly in the background, is the very empire which he identified earlier as not being given its due background for the region. Other empires – Portugal, Dutch, British, French, Japanese – are all included for the influence they have had on the region, but little is discussed of U.S. actions, covert and overt, in the region, past or present. In the manner in which his information is presented, it makes little difference to the agreeable nature of the narrative, but it needs to be kept in mind while reading that there is much of the overall general context of the U.S. imperium that is not discussed. Diego Garcia is one of the singular misses, the island nation given to the U.S. military by Britain while the indigenous Chagossians were evicted from the island and not compensated. Ethnic cleansing? Racism? Empire? Certainly far from “the restraining power of our own democracy.”
So what about that democracy and terror? While the work does not specifically state that Islamism is the home of terror in the region, it does continue throughout, as would be necessary, the idea that most of the countries are Islamic or have large Islamic populations (India has about 160 million Muslims, second largest in the world). Further Kaplan places that in context with the endemic poverty of the region as being the seed ground for possible terror recruitment. If he examined his own words more carefully, he should be able to make the statement that Islamism does not breed terror, that poverty does not breed terror, but that subjugation/occupation especially from a different religious ethnic group is what creates terror.
Kaplan identifies social disruption, ethnic and religious occupation, lack of official responsibility (think the denial of democratic rights to Hamas) as being reasons for most of the disruptions to organized government in the region. That they happen to be in Islamic countries is no surprise, as the Islamic countries have been beset with imperialism for the past seven hundred years, if not longer. And while Kaplan recognizes the influences of the previous empires, very little is made of the current U.S. aggression and occupation of the region, nor its support and manipulations of various regimes that have come and gone, good guys become bad guys and move on.
If Kaplan could have recognized the real train of thought that he has come up with, it would be that Islam is not the heart of terror, that disruptions to one’s daily life, to one’s homeland, to one’s religion and set of social beliefs is the main reason for terror. That is true for Sri Lanka (where a Christian led the Tamil rebellion and initiated the advent of suicide attacks), Ireland, South Africa, Lebanon, Vietnam, and much of Latin America (see also Robert Pape Dying to Win and Martin Roseroot Pious Passion). Poverty may be co-related, but is not a cause in and of itself, otherwise there would be a significant greater amount of terror in the world. Social disruption of belief systems and threats to one’s lifestyle especially by an occupying force creates the seed for terror. That is Kaplan’s biggest miss, although he does present his own evidence for it.
As for democracy, Kaplan makes a very curious and powerful statement early in the book:
“Americans have had a tendency to interpret democracy too legalistically, strictly in terms of laws and elections. They put perhaps too much stress in the act of voting itself, an interpretation of democracy which can inhibit American power rather than project it. In some societies, particularly in the Middle East, democracy is a matter of informal consultation between ruler and ruled, rather than an official process.” [italics added]
Oman is used as the exemplar, as it “demonstrates that whereas in the West democracy is an end in itself, in the Middle East the goal is justice through religious and tribal authority.”
I am not sure what was intended by the line about inhibiting or projecting U.S. power, but the rest of the statement is profound in its simplicity – democracy is not just a vote, it involves discussion, consultation with the people and their beliefs. The U.S. is currently one of the prime counter examples to this (although many other western nations – democracies – could be included), with an elaborate multi year voting system with all sorts of rules and regulations that tend to limit participation rather than include it; then, when elected, it is the elite that rule and the main people consulted are the carpetbaggers and corporate bosses of the world. Hardly a democracy in Kaplan’s true view.
All in all, read the book, it provides good background information to the region and softly delves into what the future might hold. At the same time keep in mind the lack of U.S. imperial context and interest not only for the littoral states, but other states bordering on those states.