Crossposted from Foreign Exchange.
Robert Kaplan is a journalist and author whose work has had a huge influence on me, as someone with a background in history, and a particular passion for stories about Asia and Eastern Europe. But there is always a sense, at the end of his books, that something is missing.
He spins a great and colorful yarn and stuffs readers full of facts and anecdotes, but when he begins to articulate strategy, I often find myself raising my eyebrows. I know that Kaplan is widely regarded as a strategic thinker first and foremost, and so I’ve struggled to figure out why I dissent from that view.
While reading his latest offering, Monsoon, and some of the reviews of it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: the thing that makes Kaplan so compelling as a historian and journalist is his geographical determinism. Geography is a mostly fixed lens, a constant that lets you trace seamless stories across time. Kaplan’s approach allows him to cut through layers of information and show us The Way Things Are.
His fans like to think that this is also what makes him a great strategist: that geography can determine the way things will or should be. But the whole notion of strategic thinking is about choices, and options, and maneuvers; it is the opposite of determinism.
The result is that Kaplan’s ‘strategic’ conclusions are often too broad to be really useful, and one often feels as though the strategy has been stretched over what would otherwise be excellent travel writing. Shashi Tharoor makes this point best:
Shoehorning his travels into the book makes for an uneven effect, with some surprising inclusions and omissions, and one can’t help feeling that a country has been deemed to be important because he traveled there.
Ouch. That said, for a great story, you could do a lot worse.