Joseph R.


March 2, 2002

Third World Kaplan and the Empire of Gloom


Robert D. Kaplan has made a name for himself writing politically tinged travelogues from various Third World pest-holes and global hot spots for the Atlantic Monthly. Now, in his new book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York: Random House, 2002), he stakes his claim to advise us – well, provisionally "us" – on how "we" should run the world. At the very least the book is symptomatic of a felt need on the part of US imperial leaders, or their cheerleaders, for a compelling doctrine to justify what they wish to do anyway. I shall look at it in that spirit.


As befits such a work, Kaplan addresses himself to the failings of human nature revealed in history. For taking a gloomy view of human nature, Kaplan is said to be "conservative," a usage that helps empty the word of what little real content it has had for several decades. Never mind that. Conservative or otherwise, Kaplan holds that the ancient writers are the best authorities on such matters as human nature, fate, doom, and the like.

The endorsements on the jacket and the people mentioned in the acknowledgements will help the discerning reader get his bearings on the book. Newt (Future Man) Gingrich, Henry the K, William S. Cohen, Michael Lind, Francis (G. W. F.) Fukuyama, and John Gray, founder and president of the Weltanschauung of the Month Club, all praise the book. These are not good omens, except perhaps for neo-pagans in training.

The book defies summary because Kaplan constantly moves the goalposts and changes his own rules in the name of realism, pragmatism, moderation, whatever, and the latter undergo some sea-changes as well. I shall do my best to tease out the main themes. Kaplan gets off to a running start with a dire assessment of the current situation, which is meant to prove that nothing has changed much in history. "Global capitalism" – hanging in the air, undefined – is fueling "populist rage," since capitalism is not "equitable" (an assertion dropped, rather than argued).

This circumstance threatens us with new "populist" and "utopian" movements akin to Bolshevism and Nazism in the 20th century. Bad, angry masses mobilized by bad ideas wrecked that century. Evidently, they did this in an institutional vacuum, as states and politics go rather unanalyzed in this connection.

Now come some warnings about terrible new enemies who "will not fight according to our notions of fairness" but who will attack "asymmetrically" (the new buzz word). Thus, "[i]f our soldiers cannot fight and kill at close range, our status as a superpower is in question" (p. 9). Clearly, we must draw on the unchristian wisdom of the ancients to understand these things, but first we must take a detour with Winston Churchill.

Churchill, it seems, understood these things and thought like an ancient. His account of the suppression of the Mahdi is held up as great moral instruction. Kaplan sums up the man's – Churchill's not the Mahdi's – greatness: "Churchill's unapologetic warmongering arose not from a preference for war, but from a breast-beating Victorian sense of imperial destiny...." (p. 25). ). In other words, having an empire means constant warfare, so one prefers empire itself, rather than the wars as such, to not having empire at all. Very clear, I guess.


Churchill naturally brings us around to Titus Livy, ancient Roman virtue, sacrifice, law, and imperially imposed order. Hannibal turns out to be Hitler (p. 32) and luckily far-seeing forerunners of FDR overcame "provincial isolationists" and rallied Romans to defeat him. All this led to executive dictatorship but happily republicanism "survived as an ideal" in much the way that American "freedom" survived the Cold War albeit as a mere rhetorical device.

Somehow, Sun Tzu now comes into play to show how bureaucratic order delivered ancient China from interstate warfare. Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War is mined for insights about "fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos), and honor (doxa)" (p. 47). All Kaplan takes from the famous dialogue between the Melians and the Athenians is the rather startling thought that a "completely amoral foreign policy" might work out poorly (p. 49). One supposes, therefore, that a moderately amoral policy has much to recommend it.

For old Sun Tzu and Thucydides "war is not an aberration" (p. 50). Cheery lot, they are. But now we are getting somewhere and soon embrace the neo-pagan insights of Machiavelli, the better to throw aside Christian silliness about morality. The insufficiently pagan Shah of Iran is duly scorned for having "to compromise with street anarchy" (p. 53). Actually, the Shah shrunk from unleashing the secret police on his people to the extent advised by the steely-eyed US proconsuls.

Yitzhak Rabin, by contrast, is praised for being successfully ruthless, which explains, one imagines, the present peaceful disposition of everyone in that part of the world. The wicked Pinochet of Chile, however, "lack[ed] Machiavellian virtue" because he used "excessive violence" (p. 55). One can only guess whether Francisco Franco looks a proper Machiavellian under Kaplan's microscope.

Machiavelli lucked out by rejecting private Christian virtue in favor of public, pagan virtue. Self-educated, he missed out on "the scholastic abstractions that tainted the culture of his age" (p. 57). Hypocritical Tridentine Catholics smeared the poor fellow's reputation (p. 59), but we neo-pagans can get past that.

Public pagan virtue provides us with the stones to emulate that wonderful statesman Lincoln, "who was sufficiently ruthless to target the farms, homes, and factories of Southern civilians in the latter phase of the Civil War" (p. 61).


With Lincoln, we turn to suitably amoral moderns who did the right thing, even though there is – according to Kaplan – no objective morality but only reason of state. (So if there is no objective morality, how do we know they did the right thing?) To break out of the "determinism" offered by the medieval Catholics and the Marxists (p. 70), we must read Isaiah Berlin – another bad sign.

More importantly, we must read Hobbes and Malthus. Hobbes teaches that the natural state of man is – on what evidence? – a war of each against all. Thus, we must submit to a Leviathan state, within the frame of which we enjoy whatever freedom is actually possible. Absent the social Covenant, says Hobbes, "no action can be Unjust" (quoted, p. 83), a piece of impertinent nonsense from which Kaplan derives really Zbig, I mean "big," consequences.

The state causes freedom, it seems, and Little Jamie Madison and Alexander Hamilton appear as character witnesses for it. The American Revolution "is impossible to imagine" absent "the philosophy of Hobbes and Machiavelli" (p. 87) and the Founders were all pagan virtuosos. They "substituted the arenas of party politics and the marketplace for actual battlefields" (p. 87, my italics), as if they were mighty Social Engineers and as if they had any choice in the matter!

But the state giveth and the state protecteth and the state cannot be held to mere "private morality," which is the whole point, really, for Kaplan. Most of our ancestors did not actually sign up for these premises. But, returning to the flow of the book, Thomas Malthus takes a bow for warning us (by inference) about angry Third World males and telling us about ecosystems (pp. 88-95). Malthus' real economic insights fall by the wayside, because economics is, generally, beneath the notice of well-read pagans.

With a bow to the Holocaust and Immanuel Kant, we are told that "isolationism" and American "idealism" are just two sides of the same coin (p. 102), totally unsuited for making pagan foreign policy. TR, Serbia, and "the future of NATO" (p. 107) are mentioned, even if no reason is given why the latter should have a future. Suddenly Kaplan wants to fuse "Judeo-Christian" values with the heroic pagan ones (p. 109), having spent much of his time ridiculing Christian thought up to this point (pp. 46, 51, 56, 57, 61, 62, 63, 70, 109, 114, 115, etc.).


The nightsoil intersects the cooling device, at last, in chapter nine. Here we learn that to deal with warlike humanity, we must take up Churchill's burden. The distinction between civilian and military leadership will blur, even more than in the heroic Cold War; wars will come and go – all of them undeclared. Even better, wars will take place "within states" and international law will go by the board (p. 118).

We shall be ruled by a new "aristocracy of statesmen, military officers, and technocrats..., motived, one hopes, by ancient virtue" (p. 121). Ah yes, one would indeed hope so, but since virtue has already been defined as pagan ruthlessness, perhaps this isn't as good a bargain as it might appear.

The childish moralizing of the mass media may be a problem for the neo-pagan world-improvers. Kaplan makes no suggestions here, even though "[t]he power of the media is willful and dangerous" (p. 129). This cheered me immeasurably, for Kaplan has finally noticed a form of power that might be dangerous amidst all his calls for toughness, aerial bombardment, and urban counter-insurgencies.

The last chapter meditates a bit on the Emperor Tiberius, whose career is conveniently divided, unlike Gaul, into two parts. Tiberius I was a likeable fellow who caused prosperity. Tiberius II, however, apparently lost track of his pagan virtues while cavorting at Capri, and became bad. This does not seem to make Kaplan question the imperial form of rule.

On the world's loom, weave the Cons doom, or so one might think. It has fallen to "us" – that is, the US – to build the, ahem, new world order of "governance" (that sounds so much nicer than World Government). Kaplan writes that this happy outcome will rest on peacekeeping missions, war crimes tribunals, and democracy – but not too much of the latter, since the pagans need some room to work in.

In the interim, American patriotism must be kept alive so as to swindle the masses into backing and paying for this realistic, pragmatic, pagan creation of order. Bring on the Fourth of July fireworks. Down the road, all this backward American nationalism can wither away. Our critics at Free Republic might wish to ponder the role Kaplan has chosen for them in this process.


The utter, well-nigh ruthless, partisanship of Kaplan's treatment of historical and contemporary figures is quite stunning. There is no thesis in this book. There is merely lawyer's history and special pleading in the interest of the present ruling class. The morality of actions in foreign affairs is entirely to be judged by consequences. This threadbare utilitarianism goes nowhere, but it would take a separate essay to do it justice (provided there is justice outside Kaplan's and Hobbes' Leviathan state).

Kaplan's argument meanders and waffles on anything substantive. We mustn't believe in determinism, yet he predicts the future. Realism is flawed, but we must be realists to some undisclosed extent. Morality is after-the-fact but we must sometimes intervene to do good on the basis of justice, which doesn't actually appear to exist objectively. There is no ontological order in Kaplan's world, not the least glimmering of economic insight, no political theory.

He shreds the constitution, belittles democracy, defames the founders as pagans, but informs us that we are prosperous because we enjoy "the rule of law" (p. 9). He must have an odd notion of what law is. He equates Hitler and Hannibal but also announces that "medieval popes," Mohammed, and Hitler were "armed prophets" (pp. 32, 60). Does this make Hannibal a pope or a prophet? Between Kaplan and Hobbes and Calvin and Hobbes, I think the choice must be clear.

Throughout this Case for the Ruling Class Restated, Kaplan waves his hands in the general direction of an unspecified "West." The "West" takes in Greece and Rome, skips the Christian Middle Ages somehow, and shows up again in the British and US Empires. How convenient. How unconvincing. But necessary: you can't have Augustine, Aquinas, Mariana, Grotius, and the like messing with morality, can you?

Like the two Marxists right out of Monty Python, who wrote a treatise on "pre-capitalist modes of production" and then had to write a corrective sequel to sort out the forces and relations of production, Kaplan will need to write another, longer book just to rectify the contradictions and inconsistencies in his present book. That, or he can go back to reporting from the imperial frontier on the latest triumphs or setbacks of his preferred foreign policy. It is the business he has chosen.

We, apparently, have no choice in the matter, and hence Kaplan's attack on constitutional details, "democracy," and freedom of the press.

Please Support

A contribution of $50 or more will get you a copy of Ronald Radosh's out-of-print classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, Suite 202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form

Text-only printable version of this article

Archived Columns

Third World Kaplan and the Empire of Gloom

The Debate We Never Have

Fast Times at National Review

Conserving Nothing

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Is There a Constitution?

Chimes of Wilson Flashing
11/10 /01

Not Exactly World War II, But Close Enough

Big Government, Having Never Gone Away, Is Now Said To Be 'Back'

The Jingoes and the Social Reformers

Irrepressible Conflicts Everywhere

Eugen Richter on War and Empire

Hegel, Well-Regulated Police States, and Empire

Quis Americanos Constituit Judices Nationum?

The Peculiar U.S. Theory of Self-Defense

A Short History of Warmongering at the National Review

Howard Homan Buffett: Old Rightist Extraordinaire

China Syndrome

Same Old Story: Film at Eleven

Empire and Reaction

Richard M. Weaver on Civilization, Ontology, and War

An Anti-Imperialist's Reading List: Part Two

Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


Back to Home Page | Contact Us