Robert Kaplan is a hugely well-informed, indefatigable journalist who combines firsthand reporting, mostly from poor, badly governed or ungoverned countries, with wide reading on the political, economic and ecological ills facing the same lands. He is read with care by policy-makers. His terrain has been the “arc of crisis” that extends from West Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia to the Far East. More recently, he has turned from reporting to prescription. In an article in the July/August Atlantic Monthly, he has written “Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World.”
Because Kaplan is a serious reporter, his recommendations deserve to be taken seriously–the more so as they closely parallel the actual policies of the Bush Administration. That America now “possesses a global empire,” he says, is a given–a “cliché”–and the only real question is how it should be run, which is to say how the United States should “manage an unruly world.” Others–including Michael Ignatieff, author of the New York Times Magazine article “The American Empire: The Burden”; Andrew Bacevich, author of American Empire; and Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power–have taken the same view. These writers have been equivocal in their support for the project, but Kaplan is an unapologetic imperialist. He frankly advocates a policy of American global domination that others leave between the lines.
An “empire” is more than a foreign policy; it is a form of government, and American citizens might well ask exactly when it was that the United States, formally a republic, became one. It’s famously said that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind. Has it been the same with the United States? When was it decided? But never mind. For now, let’s look at what this empire is said to be, and what its apologists want it, and us, to become.
There is, Kaplan admits, a contradiction between the democratic principles the United States professes and the empire it seeks. The solution, he says, must be deception–the “stealth” of his article’s title. The United States will have to operate “in the shadows and behind closed doors.” The CIA and Special Forces will play key roles. They should not bother too much with instructions from Washington. Kaplan approvingly cites a Marine lieutenant colonel who says, “We back into deployments. There doesn’t need to be a policy directive from the Pentagon.” Thus is policy made in a stealth empire. Often, he notes, in poor countries a phone call from a US military officer will be more effective than one from an ambassador. In fact, the “very distinction between our civilian and military operations overseas is eroding.” Congress should be circumvented. Limitations it places on military operations can be safely ignored by “the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. military commander in the host country.”
The historical model for running the world should be “U.S. policy in Latin America over the past several decades,” which “exemplifies how we should act worldwide in the foreseeable future.” True, the means were “not always pretty,” but the results–the defeat of a supposed Sovietization of the region–were excellent. Certainly, the death squads and massacres by elite US-trained forces–for example the almost 800 villagers systematically slaughtered in El Mozote in El Salvador, the killing of more than 200,000 Guatemalans and the torture and “disappearance” of many thousands of oppositionists in Chile and Argentina–were not pretty, but their replication on a global scale will also be worth it for the sake of the new end: “the fundamentally liberal purpose of sustaining the key characteristics of an orderly world.”
The Romans once did it (Kaplan especially recommends the policies of emperors Trajan and Hadrian) and the British once did it. Now it is the United States’ turn. Yet in Kaplan’s telling, a shadow falls over the realization of this vision: the war in Vietnam. He approvingly quotes a Green Beret: “I wish people in Washington would totally get Vietnam out of their system.” Kaplan, too, wants to “bring back the old rules,” by which he means the “pre-
Vietnam War rules by which small groups of quiet professionals would be used to help stabilize or destabilize a regime.” Assassination will become more important and “feasible,” especially with the help of “satellites that can track the neurobiological signatures of individuals.” Kaplan strikes a rare romantic, almost Kiplingesque note in his description of these secretive professionals, who, he writes, “will find the right hinge in a given situation to change history.”
And international law? It will be tossed on the same scrapheap as the domestic law embodied in constitutional constraints. Just as there will be “less time for democratic consultation,” “the so-called international community may gradually lose relevance.” The United Nations in particular will have no place under the new rules. After all, the Security Council “represents an antiquated power arrangement unreflective of the latest wave of U.S. military modernization in both tactics and weaponry.”
The media, too, must be neutralized. Their problem is that they have a way of “undermining political authority.” The solution is to improve state propaganda: “Just as leading companies harvest the best former government officials, our government will have to find the budget and the will to hire away the best communicators for this marketing effort.”
In one respect, at least, Kaplan departs from current Administration policy. He prefers small, clandestine operations to large-scale ones like the Iraq war. The latter may become a “rallying point around which lonely and alienated people in a global mass society can define themselves through an uplifting group identity.” Better to keep public opinion “as divided as possible.”
On almost all other points, Kaplan appears to be in agreement with the Bush Administration. There is a word for this policy: militarism. Militarism was responsible for the fascist takeover of Japan in the 1930s, and the very region that Kaplan cites as a model–Latin America–also has extensive experience of its domestic results. We can be glad that Kaplan has the honesty to set forth the imperial vision with rare frankness, even as we strain every nerve to assure that this nightmare never becomes reality.