The beginning of a monumental change?
For more than three decades, Robert Kaplan has challenged readers with his distinctive blend of travel writing, journalism and foreign affairs analysis. His most recent book, Adriatic, returns to South-Eastern Europe, a corner of the world that has nourished his thoughts since the beginning of his career. Kaplan revels in the historical and cultural mess of this regional palimpsest, with its layers of Greek, Roman, North African, Byzantine, Ottoman, Jewish, Islamic, Slavic and even Mongol influence. Traveling from Italian Rimini, on the northwest coast of the Adriatic, then around the northern shore of the sea through Italy and Slovenia, and finally south through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, until it ends on the island of Corfu, Kaplan sifts through these various civilizational layers. and flushes out their persistence in the present.
Kaplan’s instincts as a travel writer are superb. He understands the importance of history and dwells on the particularity of each stage of his itinerary. He is a good listener, recording many conversations with local politicians and scholars, allowing their different perspectives to come to the fore. He appeals to art, architecture and especially literature for the understanding they offer of a people and its politics. He reads a lot, collecting books at each stop along the way and letting one text lead him by chance to another. He knows that we only manage to understand ourselves by being pulled out of ourselves, and that the great virtue of travel is precisely to do this.
Adriatic is nonetheless a frustrating book at times, in part because Kaplan is surprisingly reticent about the argument he wishes to make, which the patient reader must let gradually emerge from his rich portraits of individual towns. The book is an exercise in induction, with conclusions slowly emerging through the accumulation of detail. Only in the last 10 pages of the book does Kaplan give a clear and concise statement of the argument he has constructed, which I would summarize in terms of four interrelated assertions.
First, Europe is not a homogeneous cultural unit, but rather the product of many cultural influences, from north and south, east and west; from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia; Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam; and various imperial formations, including the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires, as well as, nowadays, the European Union. Efforts to separate these influences from each other, draw sharp lines between them, and label only certain elements as “European” are misleading.
Secondly, this intermingling of civilizations is not only a thing of the past, but will also shape the future of Europe, especially as demographic pressures produce continued migration and resurrect ancient ties across the Mediterranean and even beyond (Kaplan repeatedly suggests, without elaborating, that China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, is now becoming a key player in the Mediterranean).
Third, Europe is therefore at the start of an era of significant change, in which the future may look much more like the distant past than the recent past. In particular, political structures are changing. Historically, complex civilizational mixtures have most often existed peacefully under the rule of an empire. The modern state, which has often strived to be a mono-ethnic nation-state, is ill-suited to govern such a cultural mix; it will be increasingly strained, to be replaced either by empires like the EU (which is an empire, says Kaplan, whether she admits it is or not), or by vibrant regional metropolises with identities similar to those of independent city-states.
Finally, the outbursts of nationalist populism that have emerged across the West are not a harbinger of the future but rather the last gasp of a dying past, as national histories and cultures face a continued erosion in the face of international migration, trade and tourism. Kaplan uses various terms to describe the world that emerges instead. On at least one occasion he describes it as neo-medieval, but more often than not it is “postmodern” or, most often, “primo-modern”. Indeed, these two terms seem to mean much the same thing to Kaplan: a world of overlapping and intersecting identities, where local, national, regional and global identities coexist and in which sober attention to interests undermines passionate identity crusades. (The fact that modern Europe has also been the scene of fierce religious wars is not mentioned.) Europe’s own cosmopolitan and universalist values push it in this direction, for by their very nature they must suitable for various peoples and cultures.
One way to understand this collection of theses is as a retort to Samuel Huntington’s famous prediction of the “clash of civilizations” that the post-Cold War era would be defined by conflicts between global civilizations (Western, Islamic, Sinic , Hindu, etc.). Kaplan and Huntington share some ground. The civilizations of the latter were based on primordial factors such as religion, ethnicity and language. Consequently, they have the kind of long-term perseverance that Kaplan discovers on his travels. Huntingtonian civilizations are also larger than the nation and thus reflect a view of international relations that is not narrowly state-centric. Nevertheless, Huntington’s description of the world implies that the boundaries between civilizations are relatively clear and easy to draw. Without explicitly targeting Huntington, Kaplan argues forcefully that this is an oversimplification.
Nevertheless, Kaplan’s broader claims are not entirely convincing. I feel the tug of his rich and diverse universe of the Adriatic, which at its best has been a tolerant mix of religions, languages and national traditions that constantly rub shoulders. Modern American conservatism, with its Burkean influence, has been anti-ideological, anti-rationalist, and values tradition as a source of collective wisdom. It is therefore engaged in a kind of particularism and, consequently, of pluralism. Kaplan is an expert at bewitching this particularistic pluralism, and it would not be misleading to characterize his book’s appeal as akin to cultural enchantment.
But he misinterprets the direction of the contemporary world. A small clue to this is his repeated description of it as “postmodern”, at a time when postmodernism has become almost completely outmoded, is no longer a subject of interest outside of a few narrow strands of continental philosophy and literary theory. The elements of postmodernism that were valuable – particularly its recognition that people always inhabit specific times and places and therefore operate from particular and limited perspectives – were never really at odds with modernity, nor particularly new. In fact, our somewhat reflexive tendency to label things “postmodern” is among the factors that prevent us from seeing the real shape of our own world.
In our world, the state, despite repeated predictions that it was on the decline, is not weak; on the contrary, it remained strong and resilient. International politics does not resemble the early modern world, but rather the decades before World War I, driven by balance-of-power maneuvers between the great powers. The most powerful ideology in the world today is exactly what it has been since 1848, perhaps since the French Revolution: nationalism. The international critical divide is not civilizational; it is the struggle, best described by Robert Kagan, between free countries and autocracies. We are not in a postmodern world, and certainly not in a modern world. Instead, we’re back in the 19th century.
Time will tell if my 19th century parallels or Kaplan’s early modern parallels prove more illuminating. In the meantime, he’s a wonderful tour guide, and anyone trying to peer into the crystal ball hopes that Adriatic is not the last of his globe-trotting reports. Reading his book makes you want to read it again while retracing the stages of his journey. His palpable thirst for knowledge of human cultures and his tireless effort to wring new perspectives from a life of travel and reading are exemplary. I suspect, however, that the world unfolding before us will not be “the start of a monumental change” he predicts for Europe, but rather surprisingly familiar.