Curiosity – and a joyful quest for wonder. For wonder is not something that hangs low on branches for the feckless or lazy to grasp. Wonder is a reward for hard work, searching and understanding and discovery – a journey which begins with curiosity.
Robert D. Kaplan has two main, overarching theses that come through in all of his books. The first is what he sometimes calls “the revenge of geography”. That place matters, the mountains and the dales and the passes – the seas and the straits and the special experiences in faith and freedom and empire and tyranny of those who traverse them.
The other is the importance of realism and the danger of utopia. People are not the same, ideology is a simplistic utopian panacea by which we like to pretend others see the world as we do and wish it to be as we wish it. But they don’t; a lesson hard-learned by evangelical nations like the United States which wears her morality on her sleeve, and etches her values along the lines of her fingers, to be observed and understood in either a handshake or a fist as part of the promise or the punishment of our power.
“The Return of Marco Polo’s World” is about this. Anchored by an essay written for CNAS, it is a collection of other essays and treatises written over a period of perhaps ten or fifteen years about different areas which have aroused Kaplan’s curiosity. China; the Baltics; the Balkans; Russia; Iran and Turkey.
It is a book written for US policymakers but not about US policy, at least not mostly. It is about the way the world is and what is going on and how we should see things and understand them; it is an eloquent appeal to be humble in our dealings with other nations and not allow our actions to be driven by hubris or our great and overflowing impetus for freedom – however good the latter might be.
I find Kaplan’s writing comforting – for it is both sweeping and epic but brimming with the minutiae and anecdotes which lend power and truth to his observations. Its no surprise that I am not particularly sanguine about the future of our world or our arriving ordeal – but its also important to remember that America’s time at the top is but twinkle of a moment in relation to the march of empires. They ebb and flow as people change and the world changes around them – and yet still the grand story of humanity powers forward; captured by so great of thinkers as Robert D. Kaplan.