You wouldn’t mistake Robert Kaplan for Bertie Wooster. He radiates a seriousness of purpose. He is a roving geopolitical analyst, which is up there with astrophysicist in the sheer specific gravity of its title. His method is that of a foreign correspondent, firing off dispatches from the South China Sea to North Yemen to the darkest corners of Eastern Europe when it was still Iron Curtain country, and his approach has a Thucydidean texture: a gimlet-eyed realism as gathered by evidence, and guided by an understanding that the knee-jerk of history is self-interest.
Even in his professional postings – teaching at the Naval Academy; as chief analyst at Stratfor, the global strategic forecasting service; as a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; and now as a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security – he has safeguarded his identity as lone wolf and self-made, the Technicolor underpinnings of the foreign correspondent who knows his beat like an Old Hand and how to insert opinions into his journalism to give of his experience. He came to his calling serendipitously, but honestly: apprentice, freeman, master. In Europe’s Shadow is cut from all that cloth, though allowing now, after decades in the field, to let memoir touch his thoughts. Analytical memoir, of course.
This is a welcome peek into how Kaplan became Kaplan; admire him or not, his writings have influence on policymakers, and he is heading toward the kingdom of éminence grise. “For life to be life requires complications and even unpleasantness,” is the kind of hard-nose tack he takes, which can lead into some uncomfortable precincts, such as that experts may be better problem-solvers than the democratic process, compromised as it is by the emotions of the vox populi. Yes, democracy, messy. But “experts”? That’s chilling, for experts often make it into government, and as we know: history is the story of self-interest.
Here, Kaplan is back where he cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent in the 1970s: Romania. If you don’t think that alone gives him some street cred, then consider his approach to journalism in general: “properly observing the world is a matter of deliberation and serious reading over decades in the fields of history, philosophy, and political science,” but also “literature, architecture, art, and so on.” He pretty much had Romania to himself as a correspondent back then, so he didn’t have to rush to judgment. He would learn that “Authentic, undistracted travel also introduced me to the challenges of area specialization ... blending the appreciation of a particular aesthetic with the requirement of cold-blooded analysis.” This way of reading the world, this way of being in the world, also goes by a softer, more inviting name: regional geographer.
Kaplan is a regional geographer par excellence – undeniably, whatever you think of his conclusions – a big-picture man. “Landscape requires total and unyielding concentration,” and by “landscape” he means the human impact upon the surface of the earth, how we have shaped it, melded to it, abandoned it, made our story upon it, how the genus loci has made its influence felt. This is not the dreaded geographical determinism (“Voltaire would not accept that humankind must give in to fate.... For the acceptance of any force – natural, geographical, cultural, ethnic, economic – over the direction of society is an affront to ‘human dignity"), but geography as a manner of seeing and translating.
While Kaplan hungrily plunges into a dissection of Romanian nationalism – the flabbergasting expressions of national myths and symbols; the protective, pagan, elemental rural anticosmopolitanism; the yearning Latinity of the mid-19th century, the romantic movement’s “rediscovery of their classical history” of ancient Dacia and the Roman West; the anti-Semitism and communo-fascism – he explains the sources of his thinking with leisure and example: the copious reading to gain background and unveil circumstance, the interviews, the atmospheric testing on long, solitary walks. Romania is often grim, though the Romania of today appears to be reconsidering the holiness of “mud and tools and earthen objects.”
Herta Müller, 2009 Nobel Prize winner for literature, brought the Romanian earth to earth. “Snow fell on stray dogs.... The cold eats away at the gables of the houses with its salt.... water is yellow and hard, and in the laundry it feels gritty, not foamy, and the clothes turn gray.... father comes home drunk every day.... Mother was leaning her whole body against the tiled stove and crying in shrieks.”
The 1930s to 2010s are clawed through: Nazi-inspired Romanian holocaust, the hateful years of Soviet domination – “the total thought control over a ideologically hostile population,” the pillbox Stalinism and industrial feudalism, the “profound cretin” Nicolae Ceauşescu’s “‘baroque synthesis’ of Communism and fascism” – to the more savvy, if unpleasant, strategic importance Romanians appreciate they hold today, still half in and half out of Europe’s long shadow. Along the way, Kaplan reveals a fondness for icons and wooden Orthodox churches, which in turn exposes something of Kaplan’s soul. Yes, he is a hardnose and his brow is knit to the point of becoming a sweater, but he is also a Romantic of the Robert Byron stripe – "In Europe’s Shadow" is his "Road to Oxiana" – and holds a deep respect for “the sanctity of the individual and his right to freedom and existence.”
Back to being a hard-nosed geopolitical analyst. Bulgaria: “a political and institutional basket case.” Serbia: “a veritable satellite of Russia, in organized crime and politics both.” Hungary: “neo-authoritarian.” Austria: “a certain reputation for double-dealing.” When Romania emerges as a bright spot.... well, Kaplan did write that life requires complication. He can also be bracingly flinty: “as awful as such regimes as Ceauşescu’s and Saddam’s were ... in the end their subjects would have to liberate themselves.” That’s called tough geopolitical realism.
When Kaplan lets his emotions speak, his cup overfloweth. “The ultimate purpose of existence is to sanctify beauty,” say, or “Travel is about movement through stages of landscape, mirroring one’s journey through life.” These pronouncements are disarmingly passionate. No one would accuse Kaplan of being a softnose, but that kind of talk, that’s called vulnerability.