Archive for December 2012

I Think the Nasty World of You; On Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography.

I Think the Nasty World of You; On Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,

revenge of geography

No hiding: Popular Americana will still find you. So, make the most out it, add food for thought to the entertainment value, and also explore the symptoms laced around pressing tensions and expansive dilemmas. This time, the return of the repressed by the name of geography, think physicality, space, matter, circumstance as in existential historicism or even Cartesian res extensa if you wish, and imagine it in a fury throwing tantrums, obstacles, burning oil, stones and sand at the conventional wheels of realism and idealism, the typical and unconvincing dichotomy of US foreign-policy schools of thought. The choice of “good guy” today puts himself in the realist camp, and my quotation marks poke fun at such popular nomenclature in conventional mass media in the U.S. The advice then: not to believe the world has gone flat, not to assume the totality of your favorite digital virtualizations. Attachment to place still matters and this is equally banal and a very serious assertion indeed. Thus, imagine a vengeful deity that puts you in your place, pun intended. Yes,  “everything that is solid melts into air,” surely, but solidifications will also follow suit, and possibly hit you in between your eyes unless you pay attention.  Yet, there is precious little seductive foreignness in the perambulation of the world map suggested by our author, I must say, and there is typical aversion of the foreign languages, also in the bibliographic apparatus. This “mind the geography, stupid” has become something of a fashion in the last decade and this is also the emphasis of the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan (,, long-term correspondent of The Atlantic). Yet, the main theme is no geography per se, but power, the big game, world politics, or geopolitics, the big enchilada, and brace yourself up for the nasty vision of Mexico that will emerge. Boys will be boys and Kaplan is one of “them” and one of “us” in Uncle Sam’s. We will see his kind in what follows. Are we the company we keep, momentarily?

Robert Kaplan

There are other sub-themes: avatars of Area Studies as they morph from Cold-War to into Post-Cold-War situations; what we might perhaps want to call a new continentalism, inside which a gradual US decline must be registered; and most importantly, one perennial question: how does official and institutional American intelligence and sensibility relate to the world at large? There is plenty of thick peanut butter to spread around the sliced bread in a disposition more teeth-gritting and disagreeable than generous and convivial, more xenophobic than xenophilic, more mono-tone and mono-perspectival than choral and multi-cultural, with the inspirations of Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes –how strong is your Anglophilia?– and Kaplan’s avowed “philosophy” will stop there. America provides zero inspiration except for a few names in the boys’ club. Thin vegetation indeed in this world vision. This is geopolitics, ludicrously defined as attention to the outside environment, and most intellectual inspirations appear to stop here by the 1950s, say the George Kennan moment. Little of importance has happened, apparently, in the historiographic department ever since. Our author will not agonize over such blindness. This is history of the big guys, the victors, and how to continue being one of them, or leave the center stage, gracefully. But the adverb will not be warranted by the preceding pages. This is crude, thick-brush history of bigger and bigger units competing with each for global domination and no amount of fine-brush painting will change it significantly. There is fall from the number-one-of-the-universe however: the contemporary world increasingly hinges on Eurasia, also a monstrously big foreign unit for any political imagination to consider. How well equipped is your conventional American imagination to do such explorations?



Eurasia –and it is more the tail than the head, more weight in Asia than Europe despite the clear Eurocentrism in the approach– is here the hub of the wheel, the Crown Jewel, the sun for the sunflowers, all roads will pass through this Rome (India, China, Iran, Russia, etc.) in the following decades… The reference to the eternal city is not altogether unwarranted: Kaplan repeats the cliché of the imperial analogy. Obama’s contemporary U.S. is like the Roman Empire falling down and the hope is that it does it slowly and gracefully. And the assertion is already unoriginal and “old,” as the vituperation in the American idiom has it. Kaplan is repeating an abbreviated Toynbee, a hundred years later, after identical repetition by Samuel Huntington, for whom our author, has open sympathy since he  “looked at the world in the eye.” This is manner and matter, tempo and mood, in the self-imposed task of offering a predictive vision of world politics that the U.S. could make its. Look at the fundamental continuity of human nature, never go soft and tough it out, man. No world for old men.



Kaplan’s version of geopolitics –is there another, gentler kind?—is grim. Such grimness does not need cathedrals. There is no time for aesthetics. No patience for the idiographic humanities. This is mostly about nomothetic formulas that may allow you to put the big dimension together. Kaplan’s America is desert of desired pagan ethos striving after superpower status and little else. The gaze is not turned inwards. There is eccentricity and extraversion with no sense of boundaries and transformations, except the threat that we will see shortly. I quote from an entirely different sensibility that helps us circumscribe the author in question: “Since there is no self without a boundary, and that boundary is always a site of multiple relations, there is no self without its relations. If the self seeks to defend itself against this very insight, then it denies the way in which it is, be definition, bound up with others. And, through this denial, that self becomes imperiled, living in a world in which the only options are to be destroyed or to destroy” (Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), by Judith Butler, p. 98).  By self we must understand the chain of being of individual author, but also the single political unit, the nation-state and the new continentalism. Kaplan’s world geography is not picky about the constitution and transformation of such boundaries containing no significant traffic amounting to sound and fury, and nothing. What matters is to be on top.




For all the superlative gesture at world coverage, power here is no climax, offers no exhilaration, no exuberance. There is teeth-gritting pursuit of something that requires no explanation, philosophical rumination, textual exegesis and clearly zero introspection that may push the thinking rabbit out to the other side of foreign cultures and civilizations. If Eurasian is the focus, what happened to the Western-bound course of Empire? Bye, bye to Hegel? But the German totalizer does not register here, despite some infatuation with Central Europe, put together as ideal for the future. I cannot think of one single example of Eurasian desirability. The world at large is site of dread. There is no mirage. No sirens. No eastern sophistication. No high cuisine. No geishas. In a nation notorious for the ignorance of geography, Robert D. Kaplan’s latest The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012) has to be healthy reminder that “the we know that the world is real and [that] our role in it [is] big and hard,” hopefully getting acquainted and outgrowing the errors of our predecessors, as Bundy eloquently put it. There are many problems here, which will be spread out in some detail, for the evaluation of critical passion that must necessarily accompany the hot affair of geopolitics and studies.


Revenge and Kaplan

The Revenge of Geography makes the case for the need to travel to get a feel of what is going on out there, and in here. This text is coming from a war correspondent, a travel journalist, an unsmiling “boy” who sticks to old boys in form and content, there are zero women, thank you very much, and a “realist” type as such, who gives you a bit of global history, a bit of geopolitics, and a few predictions of what is to come. This is U.S. mono-perspectival, self-styled Western via Eurocentric platform and, no big surprise here, English-only and thick American idiom at that. Try to set up tent in this desert and see how long you linger. The business at hard: how to continue being a significant player if conditions are met in the Northern portion of the Western hemisphere, and the conditional is crucial. The US appears fated to deal with multi-polarity, and is not in a favorable situation, against previous perceptions.

kiss geography


In hindsight, The Revenge of Geography is at the same time eminently banal and even silly, and supremely problematic and even dangerous. Geography matters. You bet your hat. You get my money. How? Why? And we can only to think of someone like Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950) in relation to two Presidents, Roosevelt and Wilson to begin to have a feel (there is a great text, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and he Prelude to Globalization by Neil Smith). So, of course geography matters, silly donkey, but the point is the social relations instrumentalizing it! And what about chronology? But Kaplan covers the fate of nations, from pharaonic Egypt to the Arab Spring, as Kissinger praises. So this is thick-brush in a couple of pages in which one nation is dealt with and move on to the next. There is something very American, by the bad name of American, in this quick touristic tour that brings nothing home except competition, victory or defeat (think of the Olympic Games coverage in conventional U.S. television sets). But of course that virtuality does not do away with idiographic densities and localized attachments over some kind of mirage of placelessness and detachment from timespaces, a kind of liberal ideology of affluence that the U.S. cannot afford any longer. We are all in it together, we are in other people’s faces, there is less and less room, the others are reproducing fast and how do we go about the world structurally inside a capitalism in severe crisis (you bet your money the name of the system is not included, in quintessentially American fashion in which the mere naming the system is tantamount to defiling it).

Isaiah Bowman Time Magazine


But why the focus on space over time? Wouldn’t the notion of timespace be more provocative, slippery, intelligent? Kaplan will not philosophize. His is an extrovert and eccentric gaze, literally understood. The Revenge of Geography is about “out there” with binoculars and telescopes, and my main point of interest is in the “in here,” how that fits into the picture. What Kaplan says about the world says more about Kaplan’s gaze and his vision of America than about anything foreign, which is dim, grim, paltry merchandise where you would not like to go and settle, if you were to take him for granted. This is why this critical review wants to turn things around and bring the immediate circumstance as close as possible. First, the beam in one’s own eye, and then the straw in the others. First, the blindness and nastiness in your worldview and how you got about it and then other views. But there are truly no desirable foreign societies in Kaplan’s narrative, with or without his travels since the 1980s. He is embedded with American soldiers “grunting imperially,” as one book title has it. He will not be sipping tea Bedouin style conversing about philosophies of history in foreign languages. There are no religious world views to explore either since the ideal required for imperial endeavors is pagan or incredulous. Empire does not need exegesis either, a little bit of Niall Ferguson will do. The introduction of  Mitteleuropa reads like a conventional, hurried and hasty travel guide with no blood, and lacks, for example, Zizek’s sensibility included in the Fright of Real Tears about the films of great Polish director Kieslowski. It is safe to say that there are no foreign humanities whatsoever worthy of the name in Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, this attempt at geopolitics does not make significant efforts at occasional ethnographic insight. The xenophobia that emerges is thus thick-grain dirty salt, mostly around the name of Mexico in the dreadful final chapter of a generally very mediocre, middlebrow, non-academic book.Kaplan is the ideological antagonist of foreign-affair journalists such as Chris Hedges and the Robert Fisk, the latter with sustained lived experience in the Middle East and PHD-level of research and writing of the author of The Great War of Civilization.



The title is messy waters. Geographic comebacks –did geography ever leave town?— and they do so with a “revenge.” Taciturn look at “the human condition,” as the initial quote by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) reminds readers. There is “fate,” which in the American vernacular, implies the fatalism of non-choice, or bad things are coming your way, whether you like it or not; and the first person plural pronoun, the “us,” which is the chain of being of the readers necessarily identified with the official foreign policy of the United States. Nothing of the agonies surrounding decision-making, for instance. The authorial intention: the predictive impulse of future conflicts in foreign affairs and the naturalization of the U.S. viewpoint wanting to become part of such decision-making. But our author is in the “rim” of the “heartland,” and this type of language will emerge later. The Revenge of Geography includes four sections: a preface titled “frontiers,” part one, titled “visionaries,” part two, titled “the early-twenty-first century map,” and the final part, part three, titled “America’s destiny.” The most interesting sections are the rescue of some geostrategists and “publicists” of one hundred years ago, and the final Mexican catastrophe stuck in the ditch of the historical imagination. The least interesting section, the map of the 21st century world once he left Europe behind. The Eurasian world is cursory, hasty tour made available by McNeill and Hodgson. The reader must assume that America’s destiny in the final section is the said fate of the subtitle, amid conflicts in the past and battles to come. Grabbing this fish by the tail, I want to begin with such final section, “America’s destiny.”

mackinder heartland


The Revenge of Geography is popular Americana, street-level, no big-academic, middlebrow “common-sense” current affairs consumed while en route as it were, reading it while riding the waves in some plane, and having some mild headache about world travails. How becoming is the vision of the U.S. that emerges in The Revenge of Geography? How proud does it make you feel in your still recent naturalization? The nation is said to have been granted an “exceptional geography” (p. 32), separated by two oceans. So, world mess is out there, and we are in here. All cosy? No foreign entanglements. This is “island nation” (p. 67), enjoying “splendid isolation” (p. 87), “the most favored state in the world from the point of view of geography” (p. 90), mark the adolescent superlative, and its geography, “early sustainer of American freedom” (p. 91). The final adjective of The Revenge of Geography will be “free” in relation to multi-polar world, but it is utterly unwarranted by what has preceded. And yet there are anticipations and premonitions that not everything is going all right. Kaplan puts the US as “off-shore balancer” (p. 223), as ideal catalyst and good stabilizer, more preserver than aggressor and invader, more reasonable partner  than imperial force (Turkey Foreign-Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meriting an inclusion in the  book, has recently turned such apparent blessedness into thin historicism and serious fragility of novice nation terribly far away from crucial  networks). The US is thus instead predictably “ultimate source of good” (p. 88), and “liberal,” which is a good thing to call it always in such foreign-affairs domains, I suppose, but never domestically (most visible fellow “realist” Robert Kagan, not included in the text, does the same).



Part three, or final chapter fifteen, puts the observation platform, the immediate circumstance, in front of the inquisitive lenses. The tripartite title is somewhat misleading: Braudel, Mexico and Grand Strategy. The verb? To project what is to come. But more than the French historian, there is a dialogue with Andrew Bacevich recreating Huntingtoniana with a significant modulation. Still, Kaplan makes the claim of paying attention to French historians such as Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel (p. 319), admirative of big landscapes of vision. What is at stake is the big-unit approach and the desire for a grand strategy that could make sense of post-Cold-War-situations lacking one. And how many contenders are out there to become the new George Kennan and possibly allow the repetition of new containments and new balances of power inside multi-polarity? Philip II’s grand strategy in the context of the Mediterranean is Eurocentrism of sorts –modulating the thin ideal of Central Europe with which the book opens and then goes nowhere—and Braudel affords a “god-like quality of the narrative” (p. 323) broken down into long-term, medium-term and shortest-term cycles. But it is the Luttwakian approach to the Braudelian big-vision that intrigues Kaplan the most. Philip II loses the choice of our Paris’s apple over the beauty of the imperial strategy of the Roman Empire –synthesis of the Mediterranean West, analogical precedent of the U.S. counter-acting Middle-East, Arab-Spring and Asian emergencies.  Theoretically seduced by sweeping vistas, Kaplan americanizes such foreign historians via Andrew Bacevich. The context: a panel in the Center for a New American Security. The charge: massive state failure in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan according to Bacevich. The suggested re-orientation: Why not fix Mexico instead? (p. 324). The Revenge of Geography is situation room of history and the room is getting crowded, according to globalization. Picture a crowded elevator going up or going down. This is eminently boys’ club, or gentlemen’s club if you wish (325ff). A child of late Huntingtoniana, Kaplan accepts an irreversibility that would make the ghost of the old Harvard political scientist turn in the grave: Hispanicization is here to stay.



Three dilemmas encircle U.S. foreign policy accordingly: chaotic Eurasian heartland, increasing Chinese assertiveness, increasing Mexican mess creeping into the fabric of the U.S. (p. 326). Coming from someone who supported going into Iraq, and the words of criticism about Wolfowitz are not unkind, “we never should have gotten involved in these countries” (p. 327). In this a posteriori recognition of his mistake, Kaplan shakes hands with his Wilsonian internationalist counter-parts such as Anne Marie Slaughter, who did the same. The consensus about the bad foreign policy of the Iraq war has put Democrats and Republicans in the same tight knot of the mistaken handkerchief. And the lessons learned? Kaplan does not elaborate.




The Revenge of Geography proposes a land-sea dichotomy, which is Schmittian, and the name of the dangerous German intellectual is missing in action, but his fingerprints are all over this belated Anglo-American postmodernization of Central-European Real-Politick. The US must restrict itself to being air and sea power to continue being a major force, and not fall for the same mistake that Venice did in the fifteenth century (p. 328-9). Transpositions of analogies come and go a bit often too unencumbered of chronological and geographical proportionalities. Kaplan’s goal in this frequent historical comparativism: “It is the permanence of small wars that can undo us” (p. 329). It appears that asymmetry in wars or bigness is not immediate threat. The final pronoun is telling. A second historical illustration of the analogical travel hammers the nail in the coffin: Iraq in 2006 and 2007 during the worst fighting is comparable to the Indian mutiny against the British in 1857. Little in Kaplan of Judith Butler’s fastidiousness with the analogical mode. No need to hold doubts about Kaplan’s red-white-and-blue colors: “Yet the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded even for another century. Instead, it signaled the transition from an ad hoc imperium fired by an evangelical lust to impose its values to a calmer and more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology” (p. 329). Clear about authorial intentionality then? In case you needed strong references for this candid imperialism, Kaplan includes Niall Ferguson and himself in the endnotes to such desideratum.


But there is more: “Ancient history, too, offers up examples that cast doubt on whether Afghanistan and Iraq, in and of themselves, have doomed us” (p. 329). From Thucydides to Presidents Kennedy and Ford, Luttwak’s book about the grand strategy of the Roman Empire is brought to some pinnacle of fearlessness in the Ronald Reagan years. It is difficult to keep a straight face with such wild historical comparativism, but this Reaganism must be imagined some kind of Republican utopian refuge. What remains significant is the ideological build-up of the Reagan years for a desired future projection in the name of US foreign policy (for perspective, Huntington is a life-long Democrat, speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, a foreign-policy adviser to Hubert Humphrey in the 1960s, and one of the authors of Jimmy Carter’s speeches on human rights in the 1970s as Kaplan reminds us in his long Atlantic article). Repeating Huntington repeating Toynbee, Kaplan speaks of the Romanization of the barbarian tribes “eliminating the last vestiges of nativist disaffection,” of prosperous and widespread empire with the need to deploy its military “everywhere” (p. 330). Globalization is Romanization, which is another name for Americanization. And the egg shells have been broken and the omelette has changed sides on the frying pan: the “barbarians” are now moving into Empire. The Toynbeean threat: from the borders, the “others” are moving in changing your face in the buried mirror of self-identity in the following generations. The over-stretch –concept that made David Kennedy famous, and the name will recur later—and the grand strategy is the utopia, the good thing “we” do not presently have. If only Kaplan could come up with one and cash it in!


The disaster of the final chapter continues side by side the sign “Grand strategy wanted!” (p. 331). The wish is for a “graceful retreat” (p. 332) of the US from global hegemony. Will it happen? Kaplan –not given to the loneliness of the long-distance runner, always sticking to Bacevich—casts his eyes on the Western Hemisphere map in the gloomy and grim direction of the Southwest border, bringing into question “the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit” (p. 332), which is the type of turn of phrase that betrays poor geographical sensibility, Samuel Beckett would call it a “bastard phrase,” since the sign “America” is never here historicized, not even obliquely, it was thus from the times of pharaonic Egypt. David Kennedy’s GDP data casts doubts on such coherence and Third World nations pull First World nations to the povery hole in such dreadful contiguity: “Nothing will affect its society more than the dramatic movement of Latin history northward” (p. 332). But where is the movement coming from? What have the movements crossing over borders been? No philologist: Kaplan will not be doing etymologies and compare-and-contrast placenames inside the borders he so much wants to protect.

Border Patrol

The Revenge of Geography makes abundant use of the experiential first-person traveler. Thus we see a vignette of a young Kaplan hitchhiking in the US in the 1970s, 40 years ago, marveling at the splendor of the geography, and immediately juxtaposing such experience of youthful bliss with the more sober and mature mess of crossing the border with contemporary Mexico. Lost in translation? And how is your Spanish, amigo? I am imagining Cantinflas’s famous sketch with the donkey in the desert border and bargaining with the border patrol. Do not worry: Kaplan pulls out his best Mexican guide, you got it, Toynbee again, who speaks of the barbarians at the frontier threatening the Pax Romana. Wild analogical reasoning comes in handy filling in the empty back pack of Mexican intelligence and sensibility. The witches’ brew is looking dangerously thick fog and seriously obtuse by now. The threat: the Mexican population (p. 334) threatening Mackinder’s “World-Island” (we can imagine Kaplan a 21st century vulgar version of the more sophisticated “publicist” Lippman using identical language). The Mexican geography is one of disunity and “infernally divided,” and one wonders where such unions and disunions come from. And here geography is stand-in for something else –try racism– that this clumsy reportorial approach will not dare name (p. 335). No fear: Kaplan will not be having dialogues with Mexican historians offering you big visions of Eurocentrism and Western universalism, not even the borders and frontier schools of thought, few recognizable names that could easily bring shame to him. No global history from Mexican historians, no Latin Americans ever cross this limpid sky and crisp air. What imaginations does the smart reader think populate “America’s destiny” instead? Ciudad Juárez, Drug Cartels, Indians, difficult for the Spanish to tame. Alas, no gastronomy, no mole, no rancheras and no bellas señoritas. Have no fear: Kaplan will not do subaltern history. He will not quote from indigenista anthropologists. No equivalent Mexican journalist, bellicose or not. He has not read Octavio Paz’s sociology of the Reagan years apropos the philantrophic ogre. The mettle is certain: tribute to Huntington (p. 336). And the quotes doubting whether we can continue being a nation of immigrants are David Kennedy’s. Nothing of the comparative sociology of ethnic groups of people like Moynihan and Novak in the 1970s and perhaps greater mental rigidity. Scarecrow: “By 2050, one third of the population of U.S. could be Spanish speaking,” and the citation is from Carlos Fuentes’s Espejo Enterrado (Buried Mirror). Do you think Kaplan clap hands?


There is one significant difference. The Huntingtonian last will to recommit to the Protestant ethos is no longer possible. America will become a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization (p. 339) and perhaps the first adjective will raise an eyebrow, why not Asian?, and perhaps also the relative normalization of the Vasconcelista language of one hundred years ago reaching English-speaking “America.” Kaplan’s dream: to become the “globe’s preeminent duty-free hot zone for business transactions, a favorite place of residence for the global elite” (p. 339). One who disparages “liberal universalism” (p. 5) will not get caught in public with his pants down advancing human rights and international law. So, it is trade and elites!, which is code for capitalism and those who profit from it. This is the ideological home where Kaplan wants to be, geographically speaking. Will these elites be reading Braudel? Or turning instead to the first language of Leopoldo Zea, Edmundo O’Gorman, Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano, even Walter D. Mignolo? The dictum: “America is no longer an island, protected by the Atlantic and Pacific. It is brought closer to the rest of the world not only by technology, but by the pressures of Mexican and Central American demography” (p. 339). The U.S. being an island is at the very least a “metaphor” of an ideological nature that betrays poor historicization. Bacevich is right, Kaplan concludes. And in so doing he puts together Mexico and Afghanistan (p. 340): and from where else if not from the connector of the U.S. platform? And which platform is here the “off-shore balancer,” the catalyst, the aggressor, the invader? The “mis-mission” over there could instead turn to the greater hemispheric coherence that intervenes in Mexico –but how?— and in so doing pulls closer Colombia and the Greater Caribbean against Venezuela and the Southern Cone –there is no mention of Cuba. It reads like a revamping of the Monroe Doctrine that gerrymanders the American geography from Alaska to Patagonia seeking its immediate interests: “A stable and prosperous Mexico, working in organic concert with the United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics” (p. 340). Canada is quieter partner. The southern portion of South America is equidistant from the U.S. and other continents and can go funny ways. There is here no mono-continental American coherence, therefore. Kaplan’s dream: the U.S. appropriates for itself the continental name, breaks it into two halves and re-arranges the Northern portion to its convenience to hegemonize the larger unit in a New Monroe Doctrine and thus compete better with emerging continentalities out there. Still, there is perceptible decline.

samuel huntington


The Revenge of Geography is symptomatic Post-Cold-War mapping apropos the intimate conjoining of First-Third worlds (p. 342). Kaplan fails and fails again about developing cognitive mappings apropos alternative or competitive geopolitical visions. This is truly a mono-focal US-only English-exclusively perspective, and a flat one at that. His Toynbee is short-changed and parrot-like too-reverential –almost a hundred years later. Our author would never go to Ortega y Gasset’s criticism of Toynbee in the same manner Huntington never did (Anglo-Americans repeat their Anglo cousins in another time and place but in an infinitely more coarse and cruder fashion, it is not the Toynbee’s skeptical of Western imperialisms, for example). Kaplan speaks of the Coronado medieval route followed now by the Hispanic populations who are not medieval (p. 344). The choice of adjective betrays that a weak modernization paradigm keeps its hold. But Hispanic worlds are not easy territory for Kaplan, and I wonder out loud about any regional upbringing of significance of the fifty-year-old, New-York-born journalist). Such Hispanic wedge breaks open Mackinder’s World-Island (Eurasia and Africa) (p. 344), that remains immensely reductive epistemologically speaking. Still, the advocacy is for the millet system, or the patchwork, a cohesive bilingual supra-state of sorts with Canada and Mexico (p. 344). Huntington is “partly wrong” (p. 345), and Kaplan’s article in The Atlantic is vastly celebratory (“Looking the World in the Eye,” December 2001).


Nothing meriting the word intellectual or historical or aesthetic comes from Mexico. No Spanish language whatsoever in The Revenge of Geography, amigo. What else? Malthus, come to the rescue: “their” population versus “ours.” Think the conventional institutional use of “demographic” by managers and some of this is what is at stake when nothing else is included in these vengeful Hispanic geographies. In the meantime, we must be balancing and unifying (p. 346). Alert to the choice of euphemistic verbs of a “bad guy” playing defensively or on the retreat. Such North America will not receive the praise of “cosmopolitan” that Central Europe merits (p. 346): call it modulation of Eurocentrism and the future  vision is worse than unsmiling, petty, niggardly, “hopefully with Mexico by our side.” The adverb has been missing in preceding pages in relation to a vision of geopolitics that is everything but hopeful. This renewed North America will be “independent buffer states between Maritime Europe and the Heartland,” the latter, the Eurasian re-establishment as core world area. This re-adjusted multi-polarity, bespeaking of unmistakable US debilitation, receives a feeble and unexpected “good-note” of “free.” Do you see our author clapping hands now?

como esta amigo


Let us open the widows to wider fields of pasture. The fantastic praise by Kissinger is included in the front jacket. There is an indifferent review by Anne Marie Slaughter (“Power Shifts: Looking at Global Upheavals through the Prism of Geography,” New York Times, October 7, 2012; p. 14). There is another, tepid lengthier review in The New Yorker, “ Faces, Places, Spaces: The Renaissance of Geographic History” by Adam Gopnik (Oct. 29, 2012). The Revenge of Geography engages in “the struggle to construct liberal orders” (p. xxii). The plural form may be the most surprising element. Thin on ethnographic and idiographic specificities, The Revenge of Geography is mostly about predictive and desiderative modulations, which are unoriginal. Kaplan follows continental bulk and faithfully seeks the proximity of academic “might be giants.” For the emphasis on a few historians, French and American, this is not really a history text. It treats history as background and even landscape in which politics happens. But it is not political-theory treatise either. Nor is it an account of who’s done what where of mighty importance, geopolitically. The Revenge of Geography is really desire of the nomos of the earth, a wish to run into a grand strategy for the next couple of decades or so. 9/11 exposes “the limits of liberal universalism” (p. 5), so “geography” here is something like “culture,” a more particularistic endeavor, a humility lesson for the sole existing super-power that this is no longer –was it ever?—a matter of “going it alone” and that some compromises will be needed. What about intellectual compromises?

North American Map


What remains except naked pursuit of power without intellectual niceties? Expect no subtlety: “Liberalism ultimately rests on power: a benign power perhaps, but power nevertheless” (p. 11). The triple repetition says it all, in case you missed the first one. The Revenge of Geography is no about the mechanics of politics, too reverential of older figures such as Kissinger or Brezinski. Think of a more manageable and journalistic version of Robert Kagan, whom he does not mention, of Venus-disposed Europeans and Mars-prone-Americans fame. Naturally, Kaplan is here happy clinging to the legacies of Morgenthau without registered disagreements of any kind.



Fights for power and knowledge and prestige will be fought in the Eurasian platform, increasingly on the Asian portion, not exactly your typical travel destination for a majority of compatriots of Kaplan. Puzzlingly against “trendy monistic theories” (p. 9), Kaplan celebrates the Heartland of Mitteleuropa, called “beacon of multiethnic tolerance and historic liberalism, to which the contiguous Balkans and Third World regions further afield could and should aspire” (p. 138).  Puzzling, to say the least. The ground shifts: it is Benelux, Charlemagne Europe, Holland and even Spinoza makes a brief appearance. Kaplan gets this desirable trajectory from global histories such as McNeill’s, so the ideal of “cosmopolitanism” (p. 346) is unequivocally provincial in origin, wanting nothing from foreignness, desiring nothing from it, American in destiny and fate, zero openness, zero Levinasian intermingling with the other, thinking nothing inspirational of the cohabitation with the Mexicans worth writing on the page. As the famous line, Kaplan goes abroad to Americanize himself and his readers, keeping in mind the American mission, for example as embedded journalist. The descriptive and prescriptive dimensions get tangled up with the predictive and desiderative in manners that are radically not expansive.

woodrow wilson


Our “Iraq war supporter” (p. 18) gains distance from what he calls “idealists” (p. 19). Put Wilsonian legacy here, gaining terrain, apparently in the 1990s (hence, his historical retreat to the previous decade of the 1980s to project some feeble desirability forward). He critiques the Air-Force universalism of such idealists –left unnamed—who mistakingly thought that universalism mattered more than “terrain and the historical experience of people living on it” (p. 19). The US appears sea and air power, and The Revenge of Geography builds itself via Halford Mackinder and James Fairgrieve with the alleged preference for land (Kaplan reminds me a bit of those forceful provincials who go overseas and mainly follow pointers of their own relatives scrupulously in their original native tongues about what to see, eat, buy, etc.).



The human-nature vision is surely harsh and unremitting that does not need to historicize Hobbes or poke holes into Berlin (p. 21). These are the two “philosophers,” the Russian expatriate for the first half and the English scholar for the second half of the cycle called of the Post Cold War. Kaplan may claim interest in Braudelarian long duration, but his eyes are mostly on the next two decades. There is abundant analogical thinking. Munich signifies appeasement, and you know with whom, and this is called “universalism” (p. 20), which is no longer possible after 9/11. The analogies build connectivity with Vietnam, and there are more things unsaid than said, Hussein is put together with Hitler and Stalin, etc. Our grasshopper hops one too many geographies and temporalities and the goal is to put the U.S. in the good light, and put himself as the lighthouse. The myth of omnipotence of the U.S., which Kaplan projects back to the 1980s, is gone, alas, for us. True realism a la Morgenthau (p. 24) gives us the human nature that we want side by side Thucydides, so for all the travel to foreignness, human nature exhibits an impressive continuity, short, brutish, etc.  (incidentally, Donald Kagan, father of our Robert, did something similar with old Greek history in Yale circles, so this antique-modern modus operandi must have had some purchase in some circles). Wolfowitz had the best of intentions in the faulty Iraq War (p. 25) and he was there with him at that time. The male-exclusive club that matters is one in which geopolitically-minded individuals such as Nicholas J. Spykman strut their stuff (p. 29).

spykman book


The possible charge of “determinism” is misplaced, in case you happen to think that the quotation marks give out a very bad name (think of “fundamentalism” as well). The big and rather banal claim of The Revenge of Geography is that geography influences but does not determine (p. 36), has effects on human affairs (p. 124), is “partial determinism” (p. 56), yet geography “no longer reigns supreme” (p. 119). Hence, your intelligence should not buy whole the physicality of it, but nibble around the edges (p. 119, 129, 146, 177). Geography is one factor among others. So some de-emphasis on the geographical disposition appears appropriate, but wait, it remains important, etc. It is not “an explanation for everything, neither is it a solution” (p. 171). Hence, the disposition is “quasi-determinist” (p. 59). But this has nothing to do with the social or natural sciences, the poor humanities always already in the gloomy corner of virtual invisibility. The core of it all is geopolitics, very poorly defined as “the study of the outside environment” (p. 60). Extroversion, eccentricity, in the literal sense of these terms: I have no problems with myself, I look outside of me to understand how the world challenges to me. “Hell is, effectively, others,” with or without Sartre. But there is little smiling and sunny heaven in this grim vision of human nature, also undeveloped, and the U.S. does not emerge to life forcefully any better. Reconstructing this mindset, I do not need to go introspective, or build consensus with myself, Cartesian style, or even anti-Cartesian style, in social-ontological-relational fashion, Kaplan’s attitude is genuinely anti-philosophical, while holding hands with Berlin and Hobbes. There is zero exploration of grounds of intelligibility, one’s own or others’. Kaplan does not touch any ideas that could pose an existential threat. There is no explanation either of why ideation happened in one way then and in another way now… He follows bulk, big size, demographics and he behaves docilely with the male names mentioned he finds in the old boys’ club. He does not include the argumentation he does not like, for example, the universalism that “we” cannot afford after 9/11, and he silences the proper names of those ideological opponents. Perfect. Give them no inch. Think the antithesis of totalizing Hegelian self-consciousness accordingly, a rather flat, rehash of “old” Western sources, European expatriates in the U.S. in the field of geopolitics mostly, some European historians in English translation, remaining eminently content towards the frame of big nation-state conflagration. The cherry on top of this pie in the face of our author: anti-academicism;  “geography is the generalist’s answer to academic specialization” (p. 61). Middlebrow Americana requires the occasional explicit profession of generalism. There is coldness towards American academic environments in our travel writer, Stratfor chief geopolitical analyst and visiting professor in national security at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, as the jacket useful details.



Historians in the U.S. neighborhood such as McNeill and Hodgson provide the big sweep of historical account (p. 38). The Revenge of Geography is most re-heated pages of these historians and a few geopolitical items. It is not a history of geopolitics proper either. The quick thick-brush rendition of such “bad guys” is the most interesting section in the book, the so-called “visionaries.” The weakest section is by far the global mapping of the world running from Europe to Russia, China to India, Iran and the “former Ottoman Empire.” Our author does not feel to respect the provenance of foreign materials generating multi-perspectivism. Ours is the time of annihilation of foreign-affairs correspondents seeking the truth “on the ground,” and contrasting it with other sources. Imagine American football: Kaplan notices the big bulks on the football field and follows the official whistle close to his seating bench. Think painting, Kaplan applies the thick brush stroke to large-scale dimensions inside cumulative conglomerations in the vicinity of the stars and stripes. There is no need to complicate the already complicated picture. Who would want to include Indian sources for India, Iranian sources for Iran, Turkish sources for Turkey, etc.? What about world-visions with or without the US intervention emerging from Eurasia, the alleged corner of world politics in the decades to come?

spykman photo


Central Asia emerges as pivot of history qua world domination (p. 61, 62). Kaplan imagines no other history worth pursuing. Land power wins here. Eurasia will dominate geopolitical calculations: from the heartland to the world (p. 73, 74). Mahan’s Naval-Force power takes backstage (there is a good tactful rebuke of Mahan by McGeorge Bundy’s fine-brush prose dealing with native dimwits, “Foreign Policy: From Innocence to Engagement,” in Arthur M. Schlesinger and Morton White’s Paths of American Thought (1963), pp. 293-308 [302-3]. The Revenge of Geography conveys to me the increasing feeling of an epistemological retreat, a kind of cognitive withdrawal symptom, a “closing of the American mind,” if you wish. The U.S. does not hold much sway. I recall Moynihan’s pithy comment that is also significant here: “It has always seemed interesting to me that never in the long history of the American republic have we occupied the role of what Lewis Feuer calls the “nation of conscience” for the intellectuals of the world (Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (2010), edited by Steven R. Weisman, p. 106). The Revenge of Geography does not even try to reverse the charge coming from the former liberal Irish senator of the native state of our writer. Hence, the feeble attempt to put Central Europe as the cosmopolitan ideal model and toleration pinnacle when it is the Asian portion of Eurasia that matters most. But Kaplan surrounds himself mostly with McNeill, Hodgson, Braudel and Mackinder. The latter fails him a little, “he [goes] soft in supporting “Wilsonian” (sic, in quotation marks in the original) principles of national self-determination” (p. 75). Kaplan’s language says it all in the choice of adjective –what’s less manly?— apropos the dismissive tone appertaining to national sovereignty, the theoretical principle of the United Nations, unmentioned in The Revenge of Geography. What other principle would Kaplan uphold, perhaps confederations or new continentalisms? Kaplan repeats the Mackinder language of World Island (p. 77), but Mackinder was “deep down a liberal” failing in his “drift [was] towards Wilsonian principles” (p. 76).

down with usa


The first part of the book travels from Herodotus, receiving mere four pages, to come to nest –a bit too predictably?—in the immediate precedent of the “really bad guys,” the Nazi distortion of the crisis of room. This is the immediate negative historical precedent against whom almost everybody looks good by analogy. Kaplan is, and you would have predicted by now, closer to Bernard Lewis than Edward Said, the Kagans over Judith Butler’s modulated Hegelianism and red-alerts over analogical thinking over suffering. The Nazi impulse is “illegitimate geography” (p. 81) because it “annihilates the individual and replaces him with the vast racial multitude,” in what is a silly repudiation in favor of “the forces of good” (p. 82). Another exclusive club: Strausz Hupé, Haushofer, Mahan, and Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman, some of them expatriates of Northern European lands making a professional living in the U.S. in the years before and after the Third Reich (I insist on the suspicious invisibility of Carl Schmitt). This is the “realism” that Kaplan will die defending, and the best pages are, to me, chapters IV and V dealing with summaries of these individuals contemplating world maps setting up the conditions for U.S. supremacy (p. 92), squaring the circle, so to speak, for the conventional use in the U.S. of the sign “America” thus naturalizing imperialism and colonialism.



Hence, the New World, or the Western Hemisphere if you wish, is “American Mediterranean” (92ff) in Spykman and who doubts that such remains still to this day the conventional American imaginary of all things Latin American? Still, it is too close to the skin, too close for comfort. Latin America brings Third-World instability and mutation of conventional identity markers (Mexico is according to our interpreter a threat for the U.S., 189ff, p. 319, in the same way that China is not, p. 200, so this gives you an idea of the kind of identity threat that Kaplan is, following Huntington, contemplating). The bad things do come from the outside, like Hollywood blockbuster horror films, and the inside is all good and cosy and beautiful youthful bodies in bikini laughing and taking a plunge into the ocean where the bad shark lives. The Caribbean is, Kaplan reminds us, already part of the very fabric of American life, something like a cushion or defense mechanism,  and I am sure you will trust me if I say to you that The Revenge of Geography promises zero intelligence that could be called Latin. What is Latin is demography and big-number migration (p. 94). Another sign radically missing from these geopolitical mappings, “democracy.”



Flip a coin high in the sky and bet that “the entire earth is in play.” Kaplan reheats Spykman’s recreations of Mackinder’s Heartlands and Rimlands (one can think of parallels such as centers and peripheries in environments of historical sociology our author will not touch with a ten-foot pole, not to mention dependency theories). George Kennan’s containment theory is said to have both Spykmanesque and Mackinderesque feel (p. 97), and this is the last grand consensual Cold-War synthesis that is still lacking its post-Cold-War progeny (Huntingtonian clash of civilizations and Fukujama’s end of history may qualify as contenders). The baseline of world politics: North America and Eurasia, how colossal are the categories?, South America and Africa “achieve significance only in their relationship with the northern continents” (p. 101). The single unit of the World-Island breaks down into such continental dimensions pursuing naked political power. The U.S. is here, predictably, an “offshore balancer” (p. 223), referee, “liberal” judge of sorts, and North America is still the “most significant of the continental satellites” (p. 102), and the perceptive reader can quickly feel the slippage between geographic markers (island and continent, lands and seas, and feel free to ask your conventional Americans to reason out how many continents there are out there), and astronomical features (satellites and planets, stars and stripes and the glory of the sun). But if you remove the abstract center of national self-interest, Kaplan is blind to any other forces. Our author betrays no interest in idiographic textures embedded in ethnographic popular-culture approached perhaps seeking vigorous Canclinesque hybridities that could tie your tail to the big tree and get you all tangled up in blue or in a cat’s cradle of epistemic confusion that could then walk on all four legs towards other understandings, perhaps utopian. A repetition: how does Kaplan operate accordingly? Think big hulk and think squeeze. There is crisis of room and the big guys will have to go about some re-ordering with Eurasia, “huge area,” re-emerging as the hub to multi-polarity of competing centers, despite the concept being absent, “as they did during the Middle Ages following the break-up of the Roman Empire” (p. 128). Nothing else world-historical except this naked pursuit of power framed within nation-state conglomerates has the force to inspire the uninviting future envisioned by Kaplan. The past is no different and there is very little desirable “American” here. And there is Malthus and crowd psychology and you can already deduce how Kaplan will handle it.



Fourteen books are credited to Kaplan and I am the first one to be surprised that I have already read three in three different moments of my American peregrinations: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground and the one that concerns us today. My favorite is the one dealing with the U.S. I suppose that one reason why I keep paying attention to this type of popular Americana is the firm disposition not to sentimentalize its findings. Kaplan’s America is not love at first sight and he will be the first one to tell you what’s got love to do with any of this?, perhaps with an expletive or an imperial grunt. The Revenge of Geography will not bring your love an inch closer. You will not fall either for this version of Central Europa as cosmopolitan ideal, in a rather bizarre combination of Charlemagne, Low Countries, English channel and Holland –rim of the heartland that matters. It is a somewhat bizarre celebration of the Habsburg Empire of 1648-1913, and the sniff of militarism is always close to Kaplan, with or without  Iberian-and-American earlier half of the homonymous empire. There is maritime Europe and there is a continental one with a crush zone in between (p. 151). It is the crush zone that Kaplan wants you to inhabit. No love for detail of it either and no persistent infatuation with protagonists other than analysts coining the new academic discipline of geopolitics. America is nasty worlds away from becoming utopian for the rest of the world, but also for itself. Remember the previous, tremendous line by the liberal Irish senator from the Empire State who was followed up by Hilary Clinton: the U.S. represents zero intellectual ideal for the world, also this is coming from this anti-intellectual and anti-academic travel writer turning to foreign-affairs frames of immediate future endeavor.



Once we leave Europe behind, other units appear less gripping. These are foreign bodies crowding the planet and emphatically nothing emerges that will seduce you. Kazakhastan is Mackinder’s heartland (p. 184ff) and this is prime site for uranium, chromium, lead and zinc, manganese and copper, coal, iron and gold. Afghanistan, “geographical buffer,” is dealt with quickly in 245ff and you can imagine colorful balls on an awful lot of green of the billiards table.  Iran is “chasm of the millennium” and “civilization attractor” (p. 269): do you think anything desirable emerges out of such magnificence? Run the gamut of Turkey, China, India… I am reminded of the Henry James’ predicament exemplified at the end of one of his novels in which the male protagonist hits with the fists the walls surrounding the antique monastery inside which his beloved object of desire will be contained, incomprehensibly. How could anyone choose “old” over “modern”? This is fine-grain, eminently literary HenryJamesian sensibility to magnify disparities in chronological appreciations or spatial depreciations between Europe and the U.S. Magnify the existential drama, collectivize it and travel with such excess to imaginary places you have not yet seen. And which geographies to rescue and treasure according to The Revenge of Geography?


In the end I submit to you that this is a rather miserable vision of a rather miserable world, stretching like tasteless chewing gum from pharaonic Egypt to the Arab Spring, and the U.S. is radically no better, dim presence of imperial politics according to a few analysts, also sociologically on its way to becoming something else, perhaps something different, call it by the funny “Latin,” more mixed, more hybrid, perhaps in a gradual decline, perhaps even bilingual, and what else if not English and Spanish?, no more and no less than any other part and parcel of a new continentalism. Such utopia fails here to emerge seductively by our raw and crude American author who, it is safe to say, does not love with all the necessary philosophical love needed, geopolitically speaking as well.


Questions, comments?,


Do The Good Guys ever Win?: On Michael Walzer.

Do the Good Guys Ever Win?: On Michael Walzer.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,


I got to see Michael Walzer’s presentation, “Can the Good Guys Win?,” with the mighty subtitle: “Moral Dilemmas of Asymmetric War.” The talk took place at Harvard University inside the Mahindra Humanities Center activities in the Fall 2012 semester, a few days before the end of the semester and nearly a month after Obama’s victorious re-election, which merited no comments, as though such victory was a given, even a matter of jubilation?, and perhaps it has already been digested by all. But has it? Our dilemmas are surely momentous and politically ugly, irrespective of your location, whether Democrat or Republican. And I must say that I do not find collective intelligence going at such ugliness forcefully and fearlessly. There is instead something of subdued vigilance and a few butterflies in the stomach. The whole point of the talk was to put them –the dilemmas, and also the butterflies– in circulation in a manner that I felt was eminently clinical. Boylston Hall, where the event took place, has touch-free,  waterless, no-flush urinals. I am afraid I do not remember the brand. The point: Walzer does some of that touchlessness with pressing contemporary ugliness, state terrorism being one glaring concept, rhetorically left unmentioned side by side the advocacy of the ideal of justice in war situations.

Walzer does not strike me as particularly shy or diffident, yet he stuck to paper reading and there was discreet, polite engagement with the courteous audience in the end. (Is Harvard ever not courteous?, that would be a good question for another occasion). His presence, avuncular, jacketed, no tie, no bowtie, respectable, ivy-league laurels, and the respectable adjective must be understood in the politically correct manner, or the narrow-official-institutional, call it still old-liberal if you wish, inside the tight handkerchief knot of the label of the “Just-War theorists,” such was the “self-fashioning,” to use a recognizable Greenblattianism. Walzer’s is, I feel I can say, middlebrow sociology of “current events and globalization,” such is the label of the Harvard Book store for US political culture, with some historical sense of curiosity, totally absent in the event I witnessed however, I must say. Such sociology would like to have some dealings with policy experts or conventional International Relations individuals, and probably some elbow-rubbing with humanists, but not much, I would presume. The imagined predilection would be to keep a cool head and to cast a semi-long historical perspective, i.e. moral. This is a calm practice of discursive moralism resisting all efforts at explicit politicization from the inside. Walzer appears to float academically between both political parties, its horizons intermingling in international visions, particularly in the conjuncture.

For all the apparent willingness to engage some with theoretical argumentation, there is from the very beginning the feeling that thoughts and words do not quite flow fast and fly furious, but remain instead within a “safe” frame (how many do you know who would defend waging an unjust-war, or being a bad guy, yet war waged how, why, etc. in the global timespace?). There was the conventional poke in the ribs at some “European Left” with no names and how complicated is this from a US perspective and some institutionalist-officialist standpoint. Our “moralist-in-chief” –who appoints him in such role?– speaks of “soldiers and insurgents,” easily portable dichotomy, thus pretending reasonable equidistance. But it evaporates quickly. There is the occasional mention of “terror” as in the rhetoric of “war in terror,” no mention of the unpleasant abstraction of “state terrorism,” and how on earth do you crazy imagination imagine such smelly elephant strutting its stuff in Fong Auditorium at Boylston Hall, perhaps taking a piss in those wonderfully postmodern flush-free urinals? Who dares touch such uncomfortable collaborations of geopolitics and studies in public nowadays? Quintessentially New-England the American touch therefore accordingly, “don’t say anything if you have nothing nice to say.” We are working under the assumption that “we” have always already been “good guys,” and we want to continue being and doing so against some undefined “bad guys” out there. The (false) dichotomous assumption of the speaking subject being, goodness is part and parcel of the speaking position, and by extension of its immediate community of readers and interpreters and the farther we go, and one easy, cheap example is the Nazis, the less of the goodness there is. Isn’t this how the assumption of xenophobia operates? There were imaginary buckets of this dirty water strategically placed at Fong Auditorium inside Boylston Hall.

The philosophical vocabulary of exploration of grounds of historical reason was accordingly thin, I found. Morality is here assumed, natural company of “Empire,” an unpleasant word Walzer did not use, and his horizon would then be one of gradualism and proportionality apropos a more moral Empire (intellectually speaking, Carl Schmitt was scrupulously right from a position of historical and social defeat in the uncovering of the political intent of the US forcefully breaking free from American constraining temporalities and geographies, call it the Monroe Doctrine, in the mouthpieces of its international-law theorists increasingly speaking in the language of universality). There was  some of this comparable “universalism” in Walzer’s advocacy of justice as well, I would defend.

And there was intentional folksiness, perhaps even cuteness, embedded in the rigidity of the intellectual language willingly welcoming the catchiness of “good” and  “guys” (imagine playful variations, very good and very bad guys, both doing very good and very bad things with good and bad and very bad girls, etc., and doing well, and doing good, and the adverbial modulations allow for more combinatory fun). One joke: sex is bad, very bad for you, very, very bad until it gets good, very, very good. And some of this sprinkle must also relate to Walzer’s tinkle, and yours and mine, in relation to themes such as strict (moral) dichotomies, the desirability of gradualism and proportionality and the final compromise made explicit at the end of the presentation, which puts Walzer in the clearing of the forest, in case anyone may feel disoriented around the various trees. But on the face of it, there was drastically no fun and the presentation was mostly a reading exercise, focused and neutral-dry, mood, more somber than profane or exuberant, no obscene joking around –not even about misbehaving men of high rank in the business of directing foreign wars in the Asian plateau. And who feels like joking around with such momentous issues? One: perhaps the fatal debilitation of the West to call the (political, historical, cultural) shots in the new century and Walzer enters the stage as the self-assigned moralist for the sliding scale of moralism and imperialism also during the second term of the Obama administration. But there was no historical perspective as to whether this is going up or down. Immediately, instinctively I thought of Benjaminian undertones to the by now rather common rhetoric of the good guys and the bad guys. And some of them are very, very good and some of them are very, very bad, until they get good and then it gets very good… But, do the good guys ever win, politically, socially, historically, epistemologically? And the axiology would be built upon what premises? Will utopia ever land in the home of the brave? And who gets to adjudicate the goodness and the badness out there? Since when such crudity of language? Will the American idiom ever mature to more persuasive levels of public rhetoric about such thorny matters of global politics? Walzer wanted to do something with and for it. I don’t think he was successful.

Timespaces were largely kept undefined. There was no explicit philosophical standpoint attached to the avowed desire for moralism either. There were the occasional generic vignettes devoid of sustainable specificity, as though one could travel from situation to situation and put the moral lesson in the backpack and keep going. And where are we going? No overarching frame was made explicit either. Were we to assume the well being of the immediate official circumstance, Ivy League institutionality, Princeton et al., where Walzer hails, and the “chain of being” tying the knot with the influential nation-state inside which such institutions are located, also inside the capitalist system, the frame of the West expanding to other societies? (as in the line, “what is good for General Motors is good for America,” and also good for the world?). Walzer betrayed no visible discomfort, intellectual or otherwise. Burning fires and restlessness  underneath a calm exterior? Perhaps. And yet quick exchanges with the audience brought some of the working premises –proportionality and gradualism, for example, not to mention the goodness of what guys—down to the floor of Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall. I am presuming authorial intention, never made explicit: it appeared to march along with the good guys for the “enlightenment of mankind,” and the quotation marks are meant ironically, obviously. I read somewhere that Niebuhr Obama was the kind of reading that Obama was doing early in the first term of his presidency. Walzer has to be included side by side the Princeton neo-Wilsonians, also for the repair work after Bush. If they let him in, he must behave accordingly. And he did: there was no insinuation or shadow of the possibility of dissonance in the presentation. The whole session struck me as easy-listening –call it moral– music in the civilizational elevator going down, but without quite saying it is going down.


What follows has mainly to do with the said presentation in a rainy Monday in December in the New England environment of small mirth. I plead guilty to the prejudice that puts performative Walzerian logic largely and straight into the hands of the immediate interests of the U.S. administration, first with Bush 2 and now with Obama. Would he disentangle himself from those interests? Would he want to disentangle himself from those interests? I somehow doubt it and I want to be wrong. Perhaps lengthier texts will make the reasoning murkier, more slippery and more difficult to handle in between the motions of two very different administrations intersecting faithfully in war conduct.

The implied framing of the justness of the military endeavor is not in doubt. Walzer is Francisco-de-Vitorian, if I am allowed to use a somewhat obscure historical reference within an almost forgotten imperial horizon of another time and place: Walzer wants, on the face of it, to buttress the morality of “empire,” but without using such crude language, which would have been very welcome, by some members in the audience of the said event. Walzer appears to want to set up theoretical limits to violent conflagration and one may easily imagine the game of chess in its grand beauty. But things get more complicated and “funny” if one turns to considerations of “geopolitics,” another word missing in Walzer’s studies, and how many big ones do we already have in the basket? Yet, there was no strong evidence of such hardline boundaries during the reading, which was a series of generic argumentations, parable-like if you wish. There was more definition in relation to a question apropos the use of drones and expansive redefinitions of legitimacy of targets. To which, Walzer did not hesitate to characterize it as “impermissible.” There was no further elaboration. And a very interesting thing indeed would be to see how such theoretical repudiation builds itself up to anything larger. How do we connect this drone program with that rendition program with this Guantanamo and that Abu Ghraib and that targeted assassination? Will Walzer press the thorn on the side of Empire until it hurts him and you and me? I somehow doubt it and again I want to think I am wrong. Contextual evidence: Walzer sits –visibly with no discomfort—in the Princeton vicinity in the looming shade of the US Empire. Anything critically drastic coming out of such international halls? Is he ideological friends with the neo-Wilsonians there? A fellow traveler? (After leaving the Obama administration, Anne Marie Slaughter wrote of her mistake in endorsing the Iraq War, the Vietnam of her generation; has Walzer provided comparable evaluative judgments?) But where else would this venerable historicism of the “good guys” go in the name of “just war” harking back to the harsh and self-righteous rhetoric of the Fathers of the Christian Church?


The apparently polished presentation must surely qualify for epistemic disconcert and intellectual troublesomeness. At times it was as though we were ruminating the abstract quality of justice of and in war and there was no intimation of pain in the history of such “bad thing,” and I am using the colloquialism advisedly. Good guys doing bad things, and what about it? Your creativity may play irreverent combination games as in the initial joke. There was an air-conditioning, euphemistic feel to the handling of war that left the concept not pressed historically and socially for concrete yields in the compare and contrast. How is war in 2012 the same and different from the 1960s, WWI and WWII?, how does our official morality compare with those moments, etc.?, that would have been an interesting fork of the road to take. We remained instead discursively far away from it, no blood, no tears, no images, no number of casualties, no first-names, no geopolitical interests, almost in the manner of the bird’s eye view contemplating the “moral” argumentation that humans make, or don’t make, when engaging in such violent activities. There was no truth on the ground either, as the military colloquialism recently popularized has it. I wonder in the end what Walzer delivered: liberal armchair morality that the tough guys on both sides of the soldiers-insurgents divide will surely thanks-but-no-thanks? Walzer’s presentation was the exact opposite of approaches such as The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005) by Robert Fisk, whose notion of morality will not square with our protagonist. This critical humanist is happy to bet a few dollars that this is the case of disharmony, and I would follow Fisk over Walzer any day in these war matters, particularly in relation to the geography of concern, the Middle East. This is the perennial “there” to which the “here” relates, imperially speaking.


Allow me to insist: Walzer’s is the quintessential self-appointed “moral-liberal” position of theoretical, neutral disquisition about world strife, while invoking justice, surely the lofty goal with smuggled subject position, yet without references to particularities, major contending forces, explicit or implicit interests, possible frames of intelligibility. There were no cognitive mappings on display. The generic invocation of “soldiers and insurgents” had no flesh and bone, no faces, no complete sentences inside narratives of cause and effect against conflictive constellations of epistemic strife. There was no self-explicit position within a particular epistemic ground, hence the virtual assumption of the secular mediation of reasonable arguments. The word capitalism was not mentioned once. And one can begin to see the use-value of the folksy generic “good guys,” stooping to conquer something of an audience for international affairs always begging one?, but think pieces on the chessboard, or the arrows, diagrams and colors in the stormy weather forecast always introduced with some brio, in complicity with the strongest “guy” on the block, and our avuncular-looking weatherman appears not to have cold feet in the bad weather of contemporary history. His was the avoidance of repudiations (the exception being, the “inadmissible” to drone with the new expansiveness). The use of the first plural pronoun, the “we” left no shadow of a doubt as to where Walzer is politically: where else but the “force for good” of the sole standing superpower?


There was something about the disquisition of Walzer that was not in doubt, despite or because of the assertiveness of hypotheticals in the vicinity of abstract justice over the sustainability of hesitations about possible epistemic grounds, political and social, required for waging war. If war is extreme politics, there’s got to be discursivity that dissects such politics fearlessly; and there’s got to be extreme positions of confrontation around such extremity; namely, multi-perspectivism. Of this, there was little. Big landscapes of vision were none. There was no attempt at redefinitions of such ugliness (war, violence), no historical excursus, no marveled dwelling in war technologies a la Paul Virilio. Asymmetric warfare was occasionally mentioned.  There was zero description of the parties involved. The invited guest fed your political and philosophical imagination only indirectly. Intellectually speaking, the tease was discreet.

The thrust of the argument is the theoretical affirmative to the cute question. Can the Good Guys Win? Yes, of course. Ideally. Think in the affirmative and invite the analogy with Molly Bloom’s final, affirmative soliloquy to James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. Ditto, the winners of imperial history: Walzer’s affirmation in collaboration with the U.S. administration, particularly after 9/11. “We” have to do things the right way. Think mostly at the level of policy or institutional memoranda, the book of rules, minus Kafka, and never at the level of competing philosophies of history. Walzer remains “approachable” and “reasonable” in this regard, at the deliberately pedestrian level of “policy.” He is for helping out towards the good policy for the good guys fighting the just war. Now, the rub is filling with content these nouns and adjectives; namely, historicize, socialize, politicize. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations is orthodox-institutional intellectual aftermath of such terrible date of 9/11. There will be differences between Bush and Obama administrations in relation to policy issues, which I am now neglecting, for the sake of the greater indifference at home. What philosophies of history are dished out at home in high places and street-level other than the Number One?, that would be a major question for another time and place. If Obama is administration of the gradual decline, Walzer brings gradualism, proportionality, moralism, liberal justice, etc. to it.


Walzer is affirmative public intellectual in the semantic field of Just-War theory. Without getting dirty in particulars, rules of engagement are invoked quickly in passing; they refer to Stanley A. McChrystal’s, currently retired General after the mocking comments included in the Rolling Stone interview. These rules were never addressed in detail. Walzer’s love was not in the details in the Harvard event. Perhaps his God, also kept under wraps, is there in his lengthier texts? But there was no hint of a need for the religious dimension in this defense of abstract justice. The argumentation dwells in the conundrum: “but if we fight according to these rules we can’t win.” The argumentation runs through hypotheticals and, should you find yourself losing sight of the forest among the trees, you can always follow your peas on the floor of Fong Auditorium back to the first person plural, the “we,” for reassurances. Walzer speaks of the “rising tide of human-rights agitation.” No names. So, there is agitation on one hand, they agitate, and there is calm, “we” here want justice, and good wars, but perhaps this is a dreary and appalling calm always left thus generic and empty of biting social, historical and political content. Argumentation contemplates the increasing “burden of laws and regulations,” whose?, but there is often, if not always the smuggle of first and last names, social groups, historical backgrounds (regrettably, Walzer delivered no Kafkaesque salaciousness about big generals misbehaving, and current event have provided some of late). Walzer is smooth operator who does not want to personalize the issues. Hence, we –you and I– are left dealing with some impersonal history of violence and the justice of it appears “mere” intellectual exercise. There was no “dirty war” –emerging from the Latin American Southern Cone— and most significantly none of “state terrorism” –emerging from humans-right activist agitation and virtually non-existent in US media circles. The catchy cuteness of Walzer’s question is more toothless than anything else, at least the rainy night in question, delivering no fundamental commotion to the major issues involved meriting it.

If the rules constitute a burden, do we unburden? If following the rules puts the war effort at risk, do we break them? My rules of engagement over here and what about yours? Is this like some kind of international sports competition with agreed-upon referees and verifiable rules in books, and non-combatants nicely left alone, and the trophy thus awarded to the best fighter? Do we agree that it is a good thing that non-combatants are to be left out of the fighting? Certainly. The dirty mist of the “total war” hangs in some bad history in the past. So you can feel Walzer engaging with such “totalitarianism.” And what happens in situations of extremity? You can see the situational approach to “morality” and the contemplation of exceptions to the avowed rules, which can be disavowed if your life depends on the extreme situation. Walzer failed to mention specific institutions, as though moralities were desirable individual-universalist affairs on which we could all bring laborious consensus in the public marketplaces of the global village. He appeared to move gracefully within fluid spaces, unhindered by affiliation, language, identity markers, giving a handshake to soldiers and insurgents alike, assuming some kind of unnamed United-Nations stance, surely a beleaguered institution with little good public face in the U.S.

And would you bomb a weapons factory during war with the Nazis in the certainty that there will be collateral damage? And how much courage does it take to answer in the affirmative (the assumption being that the receiver of the question is an enemy of the Nazis)? Walzer himself recognized the easiness of the example, whenever the Nazis are invoked. And who does not look a little good against those very bad guys? The explicit objective: the pursuit of justice in the conduct of war, with an eye towards those directly engaged in it, the soldiers. There was a military focus kept under wraps in the presentation, as though Walzer wanted to have his texts included in courses in the military academy. If the engagement rules do not allow me to win, do I change them? (Guillermo del Toro’s cartoonish-super-hero film Hellboy appears to be one step ahead of Walzer in the visual recreation of the mixed-hybrid composition of all dichotomies, good becoming bad and vice versa and how bad is good, also at the level of political desire, etc.). But this baby talk (good guys, bad guys) has to be socialized and historicized with fastidious attention to timespaces.

Walzer gave us the Latin distinction of “ad bellum,” and “in bello.” And the contemplation of the ability, or inability, to fight justly. Fighting unjustly may disqualify you in war. The pursuit or the goal of victory in the violent circumstance inside which you find yourself involved, if you are a soldier: this was the non-negotiable against the extremity of your own theoretical destruction, if you do not win. The argument of responsibility: yes, you must strive to fight justly according to your honor code (perhaps the entire reading boils down to this upholding of the honor code). And yet there is the theory of the supreme emergency, or extreme dire straits in which the distinctions of “ad bellum justice” and “in bello justice” collapse. And who gets to determine if they do collapse? And will they collapse if no one is looking? No answers.

The soldiers have to be trained to fight justly: now, who would raise the hand in public and object to this banality? Such theoretical motion will bring majority vote surely in principle in all societies. Walzer refered to the honor code of professional armies, and there was a sub-clause referring to Western armies, so that was a hint into his perspective. He did not get caught in the messiness of competing bureaucracies or institutions fighting for power and influence. The rules promulgated by McCrystal were done so that the soldiers could win wars. But if they become a nuisance, a burden? The word casuistry was not mentioned. But the argumentation led in the direction of such ad hoc negotiation of specific situations behind closed doors and precious little public airing of “dirty laundry.” Of the colloquial expression in quotation marks, there was none in the Fong Auditorium aired by Walzer, who must be put in the antipodes of Chomskian denunciatory modalities.

But isn’t politics always already mucking around any notion of morality anyone might perhaps want to invoke? And yet the invocation is never automatically persuasive. Rhetoric has to be developed.  Within the famished language used, Walzer condemned what he called the “history of apologetics, which equated terrorism with the weapons of the weak.” There were no elaborations, no examples. A generic “European Left” got to carry this chamber pot of dirty water.

As the evening went on, I had an increasing feeling of a Jacques-Tati Mon Oncle set-up gone mildly awry. Walzer wishes to provide orderliness to a messy situation, call it the justice of the wars of Empire. He puts himself near the strongest “guy” to do so, never asking big-frame questions, but applying his lenses to honor codes and his nose to the book of manners.  This is surely a delightful film in which an eccentric uncle deals with the ‘madness’ of modern civilization, putting the boot in the pot and the bicycle in the wrong side of the garden face, pushing the wrong button to activate the automatic cup-delivery mechanism in the ultra-modern kitchen, etc. The uncle is some endearing and clumsy character disrupting the orderliness of modernity and we are meant to empathize with him. As the film goes on the orderliness is put in question. The uncle is whiff of unrestraint freedom inside an abstraction of increasing unreason. Comparatively, Walzer is no disruptive but “conservative” avuncular figure who insists on the morality and the ideal of justice of war endeavors in the Age of Obama smoothly transitioning from the Age of Bush assuming naturally the destruction of modernity (or capitalism) always already behaving docilely intellectually within official parameters… But these gradual buttons, these proportional gadgets, these just measures… do not work upon close inspection.

Silence was thick. There was no mention of Guantanamo, no systematic invasion of Civil Rights by the current administration, no quick travel inside the messy geography of “rendition” collaboration among Western governments. At one point Walzer put four adjectives (preemptive and imminent and preventive and speculative), and I could not help but feel that this was splitting hairs, but always in the abstract social landscape of hypothetical possibilities. Walzer included some quick anecdotes about being invited to attend military events, and one can easily imagine our humanist interjecting the occasional moral clause to the main simple sentence. It must look very cultural and very nice in the ornamental sense of the term that does not quite develop fully to multi-perspectival debates in public light of what is going on in the current wars the U.S. is waging in the Middle East. A final question about computer virus infecting the web system with no real bodies put the whole issue of asymmetrical war in a hypothetical mess. Proportionality and gradualism are clearly in smithereens in such virtuality, one modality of war among others in our bewildering moment in history. You can detect Walzeresque language in the Obama administration, occasionally. I am sure they will say that our good soldiers must fight justly the just war and the complication is in the thread of adjectives and adverbs and according to whom. What about “unable to fight unjustly”? But is it a good cause? And is it done well? Sentences were put on the table loosely. What if the bind of the positive and the negative terms, the just tangled up in the unjust, the unjustly and the justly? The answer came almost unexpectedly in the end,  “justice has to be compromised,” in case you did not see it coming. No need for big theories. Casuistry. Ad hoc, portable morality indeed, history in the illustrations, put the thing in the back inside the backpack, which you will be taking to the next war. Walzer is only too happy to help.

In these investigations eagerly embracing the adjective “moral,” there were no strong, explicit repudiations provided by the distinguished guest, except the fast one in passing about drones in the Q&A period. There was no elaboration of what such “impermissible” entailed. Pity. That would have been a good moment, how the repudiation finds the strength of an argumentation against imperial nation-state behavior. Unsurprisingly, there were also no repudiations also from the audience at large in the Harvard event that took place one rainy December day at Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall, but perhaps, I want to think, some took some severe reservations with them to the privacy of their homes in these moments of severe disorientation. I feel I have put myself in the corner in the end and that I will have to report about Just and Unjust Wars. I am not holding my breath: I predict no less but more trouble.


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