The Best Defense

Monsoon: Robert Kaplan's new book

Here is a conversation with my officemate, Robert Kaplan, who has written a lot of interesting books, and has a new one out today, titled Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, about the growing political importance of the Indian Ocean basin.

If after reading this you want more, come on down the evening of Nov. 9 to his CNAS book rollout, hear him talk, buy a book, and get it signed. And if you mention "Best Defense" Bob might give you a free beer. Register here.

Best Defense: What made you turn to the Indian Ocean as a book subject?

Robert Kaplan: In 2006, I saw a few references to the Indian Ocean in military journals. So I did what I always do when hunting for a new project, I consulted an atlas. As I stared at the map, the book began to emerge in my mind: Here was the entire arc of Islam from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Here was the global energy interstate, through whose waters pass the hydrocarbons from the Middle East to the middle class cities of East Asia. Here was a vehicle to get beyond Islam as strictly a phenomenon of Middle Eastern deserts and take in its green, tropical allure in the Far Eastern seas as well. Here was a way to connect the issues of Islam and China in one book. Another influence upon me was the teaching post I had at the time at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where I met colleagues who had experience on warships in these waters, and they told me their stories.

BD: What do you think will be the biggest surprise in the book for readers of this blog?

RK: This blog has tended to concentrate, as it should, on the wars of the moment, in Iraq and Afghanistan, messy land wars where counterinsurgency is a doctrine that the U.S. military is pursuing. This book takes military issues beyond those of the day, and suggests a future where our challenges may be primarily maritime. China and its naval rise, and the possible threat it poses to the Indian Ocean and adjacent South China Sea, figure prominently in this book, while Iraq and Afghanistan figure barely at all. Central Asia figures, though, because it will one day be linked by roads and energy pipelines to the Indian Ocean. Pakistan figures heavily, but here, too, I concentrate on what the media has generally ignored: the restive provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh on the Indian Ocean. The surprise of this book is that future wars and conflicts may be vastly different than the ones of the moment. Instead of fighting neighborhood by neighborhood in Baghdad or Kandahar, we may in the future have to influence vast spaces on the map through naval maneuvers.

BD: Some of your previous books have had dark scenarios and descriptions. Is this book also pessimistic?

RK: No. This is my most optimistic and -- hopefully, that is -- nuanced work. Of course, the reader will be the judge of that! The interweaving of civilizations in the Indian Ocean is incredibly complex, and it was a real struggle for me to adequately communicate it. It was certainly the hardest book I ever wrote -- the book where I did more reading and research than any previously. As I get older, writing just gets more difficult and complicated. I did not set out to be an optimist. But my conclusion is that the Greater Indian Ocean is evolving into a vibrant, multipolar trading system reminiscent of the Muslim and Chinese trading systems that preceded Vasco da Gama in these waters. And for the United States to maintain its power it will have to listen more to the yearnings of hundreds of millions, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are not concerned with al-Qaeda, but with attaining a middle class standard of living. If you want to hear the authentic voice of the emerging, former third world, watch Al Jazeera, and maybe dip into my book.

BD: What do you think you will write about next, and why?

RK: I have started writing a book about geography, about the great geographers of the past and how to incorporate their sensibilities in order to approach places like Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey in hopefully a new and original light. Whereas, Monsoon involved enormous traveling, this next book involves endless reading. I don't believe we have overcome geography, despite the jet and information age. The Hindu Kush, the Tibetan and Iranian plateaus, and the riverine wastes of Siberia, to name a few examples, still matter to international politics, as they deeply affect the behavior of nations. As Napoleon said, if you want to know a nation's foreign policy, inspect its geography. That's what I am now trying to do.


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