Speaking to Kathimerini ahead of his arrival in the country for the Delphi Economic Forum – which started on Thursday and ends on Sunday – Robert Kaplan does not hide his admiration for the resilience of democracy in Greece in the face of great pressure during the crisis.
“Greece has gone through the equivalent of the American Great Depression, yet it did not leave the Western alliance, it did not become fascist, it did not move into the Russian camp; all the worst scenarios were averted,” says the respected American writer and foreign policy analyst, who is also senior adviser at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
“At the same time, it seems to have resolved this issue with Northern Macedonia, and they’ve attracted significant Chinese investment into the port of Piraeus, increasing its importance worldwide,” he says. “The presence of the Chinese, who come from such a different culture, is not a threat for the rule of law in Greece. With Russia, which is culturally closer, the danger would be greater.”
He is also “pleasantly surprised” by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, likening him to the late Andreas Papandreou, whose style of governance Kaplan experienced while living in Greece in the 1980s.
“I’ve been positively surprised by Tsipras. When he became prime minister, many predicted that he would not last, that his government would collapse. This did not happen,” he says. “Like Papandreou, on whom he has clearly modeled himself, Tsipras has proved to be very flexible, despite the leftist, populist rhetoric he uses.”
The author of the influential 1994 Atlantic Monthly article “The Coming Anarchy” also appears optimistic about Europe’s prospects after what has been an incredibly difficult decade marked by the rise of right-wing populism.
“It is here to stay for a while, but it won’t be permanent,” Kaplan argues, adding, however, that “the problem of Europe, at the root of it, is the question of Germany.”
“In the whole postwar period, Germany’s leaders followed the basic model of Konrad Adenauer: stable economic policy with no inflation, full integration in the Western alliance, a submerging of German into European identity. It is not clear that this will continue: Future chancellors may turn toward Russia, they may become more isolationist or nationalist. The European project ultimately depends on a strong and wise Germany. If Germany does not remain strong and wise, the whole European project is in danger,” he adds.
The American analyst is not so optimistic when it comes to US politics, calling President Donald Trump a “terrible messenger for realism” in a 2016 op-ed on American foreign policy in the Washington Post.
“Realists understand the ways in which plans go wrong, that policy is often a matter of bad choices, that order comes before freedom and interests come before values. They have a very sophisticated, tragic sense of the world and of world politics. Trump has none of these qualities. He doesn’t read, he lives on his iPhone – he’s what I like to call post-literate. He is a realist only in the crudest sense of the word. Yet in his very unsophisticated way, he is trying to deal with issues that the American foreign policy establishment, as sophisticated as it is, has been afraid to deal with: getting out of Afghanistan, getting out of Syria,” he explains.
“These are distractions that the US does not have the luxury for at a time when it must confront China and Russia. So in this minimal sense the approach is coherent, but it is being applied in a terribly sloppy and dangerous manner, the process of foreign-policy decision-making in Washington has broken down under Trump,” Kaplan adds.
Nevertheless, he continues, “despite evidence of some erosion, institutions – the courts, the Congress, the media – have been quite resilient, they have pushed back strongly against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.”
That said, Kaplan is concerned about the chasm – both economic and cultural – separating the American elite from the rest of society.
“The divide is very profound,” he says. “It’s not about the 1 percent, it’s really about the top 10 percent, who are light-years ahead of the bottom 90 percent. In 2015, I took a long drive from Massachusetts to San Diego, and I can tell you that, outside of the coasts, a number of state capitals and the college and university towns, you come across one town after another with 20,000-30,000 people, where the stores are boarded up, where there’s no sign of vibrant community life. They are towns that have died. The globalized American elite has less in common with the population in these places than it does with the elites of other Western countries.”
In “The Coming Anarchy,” Kaplan argues that the burgeoning environmental crisis would breed more conflict and revive ethnic and cultural tensions. With climate change so firmly on today’s global agenda, how prophetic does he believe that article from 1994 to be?
“The article concentrated on issues that no one wanted to discuss, and they are the issues that we are discussing today: the rise of ethnic tribalism, which we now call populism, the weakening of nation-states, the depletion of natural and water resources – the environment as an issue of national security. Nobody can predict the future. The best one can do is to make the reader somewhat less surprised about what will occur in the next 15-20 years,” he explains.
On the issue of China and what the growing “digital authoritarianism” it embodies holds for the future of the world, Kaplan sees a “battle taking shape” there.
“On the one hand, the regime is using digital technology to maintain order, to monitor its citizens. This promises more authoritarianism and contradicts my thesis [of increasing disorder]. On the other, China is developing a vast middle class, and middle classes are harder to rule than peasants. This will become evident in the next decade.”
Kaplan recently argued that the US needs to “make room” for China to strengthen its military presence in Asia. In light of the growing competition between China and the United States, how carefully would this need to be handled and how is the Trump administration doing on this front?
“It requires extremely delicate handling,” he responds. “The Western Pacific is no longer an American lake, like it was from the end of WWII, throughout the Cold War and until recently. The US must make some room for the Chinese navy in the area, but it cannot sell out its allies – both its official allies, like Japan and the Philippines, and the unofficial ones (Vietnam, Malaysia). Unfortunately, the Trump administration looks like it does not understand that US-China relations cannot be divided into silos: Trade tensions are connected with more tensions in the military realm, in the South China Sea. Yet the Trump administration is acting like the very hard bargain it is driving on trade does not translate into greater geopolitical stress. I worry about this. Neither of the two countries has any interest whatsoever in a war. But as tensions rise, the possibility of an incident, or even an accident, increases.”