The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy from the Mediterranean to China
Roger D. Kaplan
(Random House, 400 pages, $23.23)
In his new book The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy from the Mediterranean to China, Robert Kaplan views China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the 21st century’s version of empire building. If China succeeds in achieving its commercial and strategic objectives in Central Asia and the Middle East, Kaplan writes, it will be positioned to control what geopoliticians call the “World-Island” — the vast Eurasian-African landmass that, as Halford Mackinder noted, combines insularity with incomparable human and natural resources. “Who controls the World-Island,” Mackinder warned, “commands the world.”
Kaplan compares China’s BRI to the British East India Company, which was an important lever in Great Britain’s empire building across the region that Kaplan calls the “Greater Middle East.” “Whereas the British East India Company in the early modern era advanced eastward from Europe across the Middle East to China,” he writes, “China is now advancing in the opposite geographical direction westward, though with similar commercial and strategic motives.” The strategic goal of the BRI is, in Kaplan’s opinion, to link the “Heartland” of Central Asia to the “Rimland” — a crescent-shaped region named by the great Dutch-American geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman that encompasses East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Western Europe. “The more the Heartland and the Rimland are interconnected, and the more China’s BRI becomes regionally dominant,” Kaplan explains, “the greater the potential for China to dominate Mackinder’s World-Island, including Spykman’s Rimland.” (READ MORE: These American Businessmen Are Cozying Up With China)
While China’s maritime threat to Taiwan and the western Pacific dominates the headlines, its empire building across Central Asia into the Middle East and Africa to the Mediterranean Sea proceeds apace — almost unnoticed. Kaplan has traveled many times to the region and seen first-hand China’s growing influence. “[T]he Chinese,” he writes, “have been increasing their security relationship with the Central Asian republics, in the form of military bases and the dispatch of war planes and drones, as well as bringing Central Asians to China for security-related training.” China is also building highways, ports, energy pipelines and other infrastructure projects throughout the region. And as Javier Melendez recently reported in The Diplomat, China’s global reach extends beyond the World-Island to Central America where its presence has “exploded.” This is not the stuff of headlines, but it is the stuff of empire.
Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring showed once again that history, geography, and culture trump Wilsonian dreams.
Seen in this light, our ignominious departure from Afghanistan and our diminished influence in the Middle East created a power vacuum that China and Russia are seeking to fill. Kaplan notes that “Russia and China are officially strategic allies, but they obviously compete in Central Asia.” That competition presents opportunities for U.S. diplomacy to exploit potential fissures in the “partnership” between the two Eurasian giants, but to date America’s leaders seem uninterested in reviving the Nixon-Kissinger style diplomacy that worked geopolitical wonders in the early 1970s, setting the stage for America’s Cold War victory.
Nixon and Kissinger were realists. Robert Kaplan is a realist. The Loom of Time is in part Kaplan’s mea culpa for abandoning realism during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Global War on Terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America. Kaplan saw first-hand Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule in Iraq, which led him to support the war to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. But he also saw that the end of Saddam’s rule led not to democracy and freedom, but to violent, uncontrolled anarchy — and this anarchy, he writes, was worse than Saddam’s tyranny. In this harrowing experience, Kaplan relearned that “the world was not merely an extension of the American historical experience and the values it has produced.” Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring showed once again that history, geography, and culture trump Wilsonian dreams.
Historically, the Greater Middle East described by Kaplan is “a vast and thin-soiled battlefield of different cultures and civilizations” whose peoples are often disunited by religion and tribe. In the past, empires at times imposed order on the peoples of this region, but Western colonialism also introduced ideologies (Marxism-Leninism, Fascism) and state practices that helped produce modern tyrants like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria’s Assads. The triumph of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran added to the violent mix. And when America went abroad to destroy some of those “monsters” (to borrow John Quincy Adams’ memorable phrase) it only made things worse.
What The Loom of Time ultimately teaches is that “beautiful ideas” such as democracy and liberty “cannot overcome objective realities” such as geography, culture, history, religion, and ethnicity. U.S. foreign policy needs to deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Mackinder once cautioned that we need to adjust our ideals to the realities of our earthly home. That is the essence of realism.
Kaplan concludes The Loom of Time by urging American policymakers to prevent “the Chinese from dominating the World-Island.” China’s threat, he writes, is similar to the threats posed in the 20th century by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Once again, it will be geopolitics, not abstract ideals, that decide the outcome of this global struggle for power.