The Wind from the South East

Robert D. kaplan Monsun. Ocean Indyjski i przyszłość amerykańskiej dominacji (Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power), Czarne 2012.

Among the growing number of books whose authors claim the center of the world has been moving towards Asia, special attention should be paid to Monsoon by Robert D. Kaplan. For many reasons the book is special. Firstly, Kaplan does not focus exclusively on China. Obviously, he does realize its significance: after all the Middle Kingdom does constitute one of the major pieces of the continent’s geopolitical jigsaw puzzle. However, he is successful at avoiding any big or simplifying sweeping statements. Nor does he echo the voices claiming that the growth of the Chinese giant has brought about the emergence of a disastrous “Beijing Consensus” fending off the Washington Consensus and advocating abandonment of democracy and human rights in the name of economic development. Also, he is not really interested in those interpretations which view China as an alternative– so looked forward to by the left– to the Western model of economy and politics. Monsoon presents Beijing as a significant actor, and yet one of many, whose victory is far from predestined.

This view stems from a second feature which makes Kaplan’s book stand out from numerous works devoted to the demise of Western hegemony and the emergence of a multipolar world, the birth of new global giants and so forth. The author does not concentrate exclusively on narrowly- understood economic development driven by consistently high GDP. The real power, Kaplan claims, is not just about production capacities, favorable balances of foreign trade or acquiring new technologies; rather, it is primarily about the skillful utilization of geographic location. This is precisely why he pays so much attention to those countries which have normally been forgotten by the mainstream media like Oman, Sri Lanka or Zanzibar.

Kaplan admits that he doesn’t like the crowd; he is not interested in following the flock of correspondents and photojournalists who rush from one major conflict to another. What he does instead is carefully observe maps, study historical books and talk to local politicians. He discovers how modern trade relations actually slip back into the old rut determined by the wind conducive to sailing and civilization patterns based on religions which have been professed for ages. Listening attentively to the whispers of the past, he is able to foresee the future better than a number of journalists who only have knee-jerk reactions at their disposal.

A good example of this look, both towards the past and into the future, is Kaplan’s description of the construction of a giant seaport at the southern end of Sri Lanka. Like the Pakistani city Gwadar, Hambantota offers an amazing landscape of thundering waves and could at some point become one of the most recognizable sites of the 21st century. In a way, this would mean a return to its previous status as part of the Ruhuna Kingdom, when it constituted a vital stopover on the Sea Silk Road. The new seaport is being constructed with Chinese money, but the local government has an ambition to manage the port on their own following its completion. This time, it will not be rolls of silk being shipped but barrels of oil that are transported from the Middle East to East Asia. Even though commodities and resources are now different and new technologies are used to load them—as well as being new political actors controlling the trade route—still, its direction and strategic location have remained intact.

Monsoon gives you the impression that it was written long before the theses of the “end of history” and “flat earth” were formulated. The reason for it is not that the author realized that western capitalism and democracy are no longer the only games in town—we do have plenty of writers advocating this view nowadays. Unlike them, Kaplan has never harbored the illusion of an unconditional triumph of democratic values. As early as 1997 he authored a famous and controversial essay Was Democracy Just a Moment?, in which he presented multiple instances of states sinking into chaos while trying to harness their power by authoritarian rule.

Yet the overview of states fighting over influence in the Indian Ocean region provides examples which transgress the division into democracies and authoritarian states. In this region, a momentary illusion of the universal nature of the western political and economic model was quickly dispelled, exposing the multitude of alternative forms of governance. They link modernity with tradition, religiosity with economy, comprehending local conditions and having global ambitions at the same time.

Oman is a case in point. Kaplan is clearly fascinated by this state, claiming that Oman proves that globalization in its best form is based on a strong local patriotism that can weather the surge of destructive commercialism. What to an inexperienced traveler can seem “medieval,” is actually perfectly attuned with the trends of the modern world. The state is a sultanate governed by Quaboos bin Said al Said, a venerable leader enjoying wide social support. He maintains extensive cultural and commercial relations with the West, Middle East and Asia. “Oman is everywhere,” is what Kaplan heard from Abdulrahman Al-Salimi, a member of the Omani government; Kaplan even made this phrase into a title of one of the book’s chapters dealing with the role of the sultanate within the Indian Ocean basin.

The events which unfolded after Kaplan wrote the book give credence to his theses. When the Arab Spring started, Tunisia and Egypt were simmering. At the same time, the Omanis took to the streets of their capital Muscat with pictures of the sultan and put into his hands a petition in which they requested him to expand the scope of democratic freedoms and social welfare, to which the leader kindly agreed. This satisfied the subjects who concluded that there was no point in further protests. There were no flaming palaces, domestic war or flights from the country.

Robert Kaplan considers himself an heir of the tradition of political realism. He looks up to Samuel Huntington—bear in mind that he picked a quotation from the Clash of Civilizations for the motto of Monsoon—and of John Mearsheimer, who is known in Europe mainly as the co-author of a famous book on the influence of the “Israeli lobby” on American foreign policy. Consequently, some liberal intellectuals automatically treat him as a whipping boy, accusing him of fascination with military power. Indeed, Kaplan finds the army a fascinating topic; still, this does not make him an inevitable militarist.

If he was one, he would have surely skipped the following diagnosis in Monsoon: major powers, Kaplan claims, will obviously continue pursuing their policies. The American and Chinese navies will silently compete with each other, trying to get a position within the first island chain, whereas India and China will keep on rivaling each other over sea trade routes and influence. However, those activities will be increasingly restricted by the global civilization: a product of a new bourgeoisie representing a moral force which cannot be ignored. Despite his strong insight into the military potential of the aforementioned states at sea, Monsoon is not a prophecy for an inevitable confrontation; rather it is great praise of trade civilization in its multiple forms: Islam, Christian, Hindu, and Confucian, etc. The Polish version of the book wrongly mentions “American dominance” in the subtitle. In the original book, Kaplan actually speaks of “American power.” And this can be accomplished not necessarily through consolidation of zones of influence and military hegemony but on the basis of the new bourgeoisie: a growing number of affluent citizens of the Indian Ocean region who are no strangers to human rights and social justice.

Paweł Marczewski

Paweł Marczewski is an adjunct at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, and cooperates with Tygodnik Powszechny weekly.

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