The Rebirth of Chinese Imperialism

Kaplan presents The Return of Marco Polo’s World as a codex of essential writings from his career over the previous ten years to advise us on the future of geopolitics in Eurasia and how American policy should adapt and proceed. The author divides his latest book into five sections: Strategy; War and Its Costs; Thinkers; and, Marco Polo Redux.

In one of Kaplan’s most commonly stated phrases, “As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres,” meaning that “the supercontinent is becoming one, fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict…” Kaplan is not one to take to cataclysmic hyperboles about the end of the United States, but he does acknowledge that in relative terms, American power is no longer going to be what it once was. The various cultures of Eurasia: Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Arab, Persian, and Hindi, are evolving and consolidating into major powers of influence now that they have matured out of their colonial past. Geography and politics are alive and well in Eurasia and it is at the center of the “World Island” that the future of global politics will be determined.

According to Kaplan, whereas Europe “fractures from within as reactionary populism takes hold…” leading to Western Civilization “being diluted and dispersed, Eurasia meanwhile coheres though the “interactions of globalization, technology and geopolitics…leading the Eurasian supercontinent to become…one fluid and comprehensible unit.” Technology is making this fluidity happen by breaking down geographical boundaries that previously separated Eurasian civilizations, such as the Himalayas separating India and China and the Gobi Desert separating the Han Chinese from the Persians and “greater Turkistan.”

The framework Dr. Kaplan uses to describe 21st Century Eurasia is the model of Marco Polo and his travels though the Mongolian Empire of Kublai Khan. The coming fluidity of Eurasia will reflect something like the Pax Mongolica of Marco Polo’s era, where China as the major economic power of Eurasia, will help bring stability and unity to the continent and his plethora of other cultures.

The key to the emerging Pax Mongolica is China’s “One Belt, One Road” project to economically link Central Asia into the Chinese economic sphere. These new projections of Chinese power, while being conducted along pragmatic, economic realities, are reminiscent of Chinese imperial power during the Tang and Yuan dynasties. In conjunction with this new expansion of Chinese soft power, is the reemergence of the Turkish and Persian “empires.” In the soft sense of the word, as Turkey and Iran continue to rise economically, they will begin to reestablish cultural and religious connections with their historical kin in the former Soviet Central Asian states. Even more interesting, according to Kaplan, is the coming reorientation of Russia away from Europe and towards Asia, as EU and NATO policy alienates Moscow from the West.

These new dynamics of power will present the United States with, potentially, its greatest challenge yet, which is to ensure that Eurasia never becomes united under one power center.

Kaplan does not limit his discussion to pure geopolitics.

In the middle of his text, he takes us temporarily out of geopolitics and into the world of philosophy, which he believes is critical to sound policy development.

In his section entitled “Thinkers” Kaplan examines the controversial and yet relevant opinions of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Dr. Samuel Huntington, and John Mersheimer as a means to helping us rediscover their positive contributions and how their wisdom can guide American foreign policy thinking into the 21st Century.

Kaplan believes that liberal democracies should not delude themselves into believing in the self-sufficiency of their ideological presuppositions. Democracy and liberal values alone cannot emerge triumphant when other non-liberal actors are constantly playing geopolitics along pragmatic rather than ideological lines. He cites the importance of these three intellectual giants to remind citizens and policy makers that the promotion of liberal values around the world should come with an equal amount of optimism and pessimism.

Kaplan is careful not to present too specific solutions, rather he offers more generic guidelines on how America should proceed in engaging with Eurasia in the 21st Century. In section one Chapter 4, one of the most important elements Kaplan discusses is the maintenance of naval supremacy. America by nature is a sea power and she secures her global supremacy though maintaining monopoly control over all the oceans. This will not be without challenges. As America’s finances and commitments become more stressful on its military capabilities, competitors such as China will gain greater ability to deny America access to sea regions in which it once held supremacy.

Fundamentally, it will come down to the type of leadership that America possesses. While warning against embracing both utopian and determinist ideals, Kaplan believes “we require leaders who will stretch the limits of what is achievable, while at the same time respecting such limits.” America may be able to keep Eurasia divided, but it must do so while understanding its imperial reach is neither unlimited, nor infallible.

Taylor Rose is a graduate of Liberty University with a B.A. in International Relations from the Helms School of Government. Fluent in English and German he has worked and studied throughout Europe specializing in American and European politics. He is a prolific writer and author of the book Return of the Right an analysis on the revival of Conservatism in the United States and Europe. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative on-line journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.