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Warrior Politics by Robert Kaplan

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I started this book with high hopes, but ultimately was disappointed. Somehow it manages to have its whole less than the sum of its parts. The weird thing is, I’m in hearty agreement with most of Warrior Politics points: That the world remains a dangerous place and will be for the foreseeable future, that all people are not basically good; that sometimes the choice isn’t between being feared or respected, but between being feared or dead, and that history can teach us a lot about the modern world. The book had several problems: these ideas are too self-evident to me to be worth a book length treatment, the arguments were weak and unpersuasive, ideas that could have been profitably explored weren’t, and the explicit call for pagan values odd and unsubstantiated. Frankly, I found it inferior to Mead’s Special Providence, which I consider a real tour de force of analysis, and which I read just prior to Warrior Politics.

The book compares Churchill and Chamberlain and claims that Churchill succeeded where Chamberlain failed because Churchill was a pagan classicist (conjuring up images of Giles) whose experiences in Sudan allowed him to understand Hitler better. Well, Churchill wasn’t a pagan, and given that Chamberlain was a British aristocrat, I have to assume he was thoroughly versed in the classics, probably far better than he author of Warrior Politics, Robert Kagan. Could it simply have been that Churchill, through temperament, character and experience, had a better grasp of people, or simply guessed right? Could it be that Churchill was the right man at the right time, and that political systems that can recruit leaders from a large pool of possibilities and change them easily (i.e. liberal democracies) are able to put the right man in place?

I’m all for using history as a light to illuminate the current darkness, and certainly a lot of the problems that were faced by the Greek and Italian city states, and the Roman Republic are similar to those faced today. Excerpts of various classical texts are used to illustrate the wisdom of the past without really providing any, and the similarities and differences of the historical nations and groups to the current day is never examined. Rome was interested in conquering as far and wide as they could, but America doesn’t have the slightest interest in annexing any more territory. The book compares modern terrorism with the medieval Assassins by describing how when the Mongols were conquering the Middle East they were told by the local elites that they would have to learn to live with them — in other words appease them (shades of the EU!). The Mongols had other ideas though and methodically destroyed every assassin stronghold and killed every assassin they could. But this description has two problems. Does Kaplan really want us to adopt the ethos of the Mongols — a ruthless warrior nation that left a trail of slaughter but no cultural achievements? And the assassins, despite the Mongols best efforts, weren’t completely wiped out and ultimately outlasted the Mongols.

Kaplan doesn’t like idealism but prefers realism. But he also says any society needs myths to sustain itself for the long haul. Isn’t that myth making idealism? Does realism inspire anyone beyond self-preservation? Don’t you need idealism to inspire your own people? Isn’t what you really want a realistic idealism — a balance of the two? Why do so many commentators use the realist/idealist dichotomy when really they are arguing over what ideals should be applied? Nobody ever says, I’m a complete idealist without the slightest connection to reality; rather proposals are put forth with the claim that they provide benefits with varying time frames, and what tends to be called realism provides the benefits in short time frames, while what tends to be called idealism provides benefits in longer time frames. Does the book explore this? No, instead we get realism good, idealism bad. Take your advantages today because tomorrow may never come is left unspoken but assumed.

When Kaplan subtitles his book “Why Leadership Demands A Pagan Ethos”, I have to scratch my head, since pagan means someone who isn’t a Christian or Jew. He’s not actually telling us what this desired ethos is, but what it isn’t. Does he mean America should be like the Aztecs, and engage in the ritual slaughter and cannibalism of our enemies to strike terror in them? No, what he really means is a generic Greco-Roman ethos (its not just a wrestling style!), or even Jewish ethos — which isn’t pagan. What he really rejects is the milquetoast Christianity of leftist elites, who espouse a non-offensive, pacifist (and to me pointless and made up) Christianity. I reject it too, but then I espouse the far more meatier evangelical Christianity of middle America. The New Testament is concerned with the personal, and is silent on public policy, government, and all those things that liberal churches are so concerned with. Consequently, you can have Christians in good conscience for and against many wars, or some who sincerely believe that no war is moral. Is any of this explored? Not in the slightest. I guess I can’t blame Kaplan for not tackling a full examination of all the different Christian positions on national ethics, but he doesn’t provide any coverage at all and so the reader is left to figure out what he means by inverting his claims for a pagan ethos.

Kaplan doesn’t really advocate any standard pagan ethos. It isn’t stoicism, epicureanism, or Aristotelian — some of the famous ancient ethical systems. Machiavelli figures prominently, but Machiavelli describes how a particular person can remain in power, not how nations should act, which is what Warrior Politics is about. What the book really promotes is the ethics of complete pragmatism: a compendium of approaches that have been successful in the past, across culture, time and location, but it fails to provide any kind of guide as to when to pick what strategy (or to put it in ethical terms, what’s the hierarchy of values). And it’s short on pointing out strategies that have worked well for America in the past, nor does it deal with the possibility that America, because it was explicitly founded on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, cannot pursue a course of utter pragmatism but must have an irreducible minimum idealism in its foreign policy.

I essentially agree with the premises of Warrior Politics, but I don’t know that it would persuade anyone who wasn’t already in agreement with them. The book is too long for simply setting forth his ideas, and too short for explaining and defending them.

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About Kevin Murphy

  • quixotal

    Wow, old blog, but pagan does not mean someone who is not a christian or jew. You have to first properly define the term before you criticize its use. The traditional meaning of pagan is “country”, as in simple country person…

  • If by traditional, you mean the Latin definition, you’d be correct. However, since Mr. Kagan wrote in English, and as his book makes abundantly clear he was referring to the pre-Christian Western ethos when he referred to Pagan Ethos, you’re wrong.

    You’d be amazed what 2,000 years can do to a word’s meaning. Just look what happened to hacker over 30 years.