“I argue in favor of containment”: Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan is as scholar in the tradition of the ancient Greek Herodotus, the first globe-trotting historian. The son of a truck driver for the New York Daily News, Kaplan bought a one-way ticket to Tunisia as a young man. Since then, the 69-yea-old has traveled the globe, chronicling his encounters with its people, geography, and history.

His readership includes generals, as well as political and business leaders. Bill Clinton was spotted with Kaplan's book "Balkan Ghosts" (1993) tucked under his arm during the war on Europe's southeastern flank. Kaplan’s work is said to have dissuaded Clinton from intervening militarily in Bosnia.

Now, Kaplan has published a new essay  on the rise of neo-imperialism. While "intellectuals can’t stop denouncing the West for its legacy of imperialism," Kaplan observes that the East is not similarly constrained. Russia and China are vigorously reviving the legacies of the Romanov Tsarist Empire (1613 - 1917) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), respectively.

Die Weltwoche catches up with the man of letters who has just returned from a tour through the Middle East.

Weltwoche: You write that Russia and China are in the process of building new empires based on their centuries-old dynasties. What are the signs that lead to this conclusion?

Robert D. Kaplan: In the case of Russia, the current hotbed of conflict Ukraine was always a special case. It was both part of Russia's origin (the Kyivan Rus is considered the forerunner state of today's Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and yet distinctive and separate, at the same time. The languages are very similar but not exactly the same. Ukraine is surrounded on three of its four sides by Russia. However, it's always had a distinctive identity. When you read the history, what you find is that Russian ambition in Ukraine began with the Romanov dynasty.

Putin's insistence on undermining Ukrainian sovereignty has imperial roots. It's more than just making himself a European power. Russia was invaded by empires, Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, Napoleon was imperial, so were the Nazis. Putin and his supporters think in a very imperial sense. Remember, before the age of democracy in Europe and North America, for most of human history, empire was very normal. Everyone is attacking the concept of empire today. You read about it all the time. But unless you can think in imperial terms, you cannot understand what is happening in the world today.

Weltwoche: What Ukraine is to Russia, Taiwan is to China. The island was part of the Qing dynasty until the Japanese Empire militarily forced China to cede Taiwan to Japan in 1895. This is a driving reason today, you argue, that Beijing is determined to consume Taiwan into the People's Republic of China.

Kaplan: Taiwan was really incorporated as part of China during the Qing dynastic empire. It's an island. It's not part of the mainland that was governed by the Japanese for many years. [In 1949, the "Republic of China on Taiwan" established itself as a sovereign state. Until 1971, it was considered a legitimate representative of China by most countries in the world.] There's nothing to say that Taiwan should not be independent. It is only the imperial legacy that makes Taiwan part of the mainland. We have in Beijing, as we have in Moscow, a thinking that harks back to imperial terms. Again, unless you can consider the legacy of empires, you cannot really understand world geopolitics today.

Weltwoche: Ukraine and Taiwan are the two countries of conflict most talked about. What other places are subject to Russia’s and China’s imperialistic policy?

Kaplan: The Russians seek a soft zone of imperial-like influence throughout central and Eastern Europe. It doesn't mean invading with armies, but it means the ability to influence and undermine to some degree governments from the Baltic states in the North to Bulgaria in the south, stretching all the way over eastward towards the Caucasus. The Russians have done this with running intelligence operations, organized crime, a network of gas pipelines to make these countries dependent on Russian natural gas, and other means. This is very much an imperial strategy even though it does not include outright colonialism.

Imperialism is not totalitarianism. It is not direct rule often. It is indirect rule and heavy influence, one step removed from direct rule. That's what we see playing out in Belarus, today.

Weltwoche: How far is China’s zone of imperial influence?

Kaplan: In the Chinese case, you see Hong Kong, you see Macau. You see China's economic domination of Outer Mongolia which, again, is very imperial. It stems from the time when Outer Mongolia was part of the Qing dynastic empire. Also, China's attempt to influence, to some degree, countries like South Korea, the Philippines, the whole maritime core of East Asia. Again, we see the historical legacy of empire at work.

Weltwoche: You point out that there are new tools for 21st imperialism: intelligence operations; organized crime; disinformation; and a pharaonic network of gas pipelines. What do you mean by “pharaonic”?

Kaplan: I use the term “pharaonic” for natural gas pipelines because when you actually see the network of these pipelines, it's enormous. There's something about the size of it that recalls the great building projects of ancient Egypt. You see this network all the way from Northeastern Europe to Southeastern Europe into Central Europe, itself.

Besides Ukraine, Kaplan names two examples where Russia implements the tools for 21st imperialism: “In Belarus Middle Eastern refugees have been weaponized against Poland by President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin lackey. In the western Balkans, Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatens to break up Bosnia-Herzegovina with backing from Russia and China.”


Weltwoche: Beyond Ukraine, Belarus and Bosnia, where and how does Russia use the new tools modern imperialism?

Kaplan: Putin is about to make Germany energy-dependent on Russia. Energy dependence on Russia will influence German foreign policy. This is a drama that is playing out before our eyes in the newspapers today. We don't know where we'll exactly end up. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is in question now. It's a fast-moving developing story, whether the Germans will be able to close down this pipeline. This has a lot to do with inter-German economic politics.

[Shortly after this interview was conducted, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia to recognize of the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine. In reaction to this move, Germany has taken steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.]

Weltwoche: How is the Chinese Communist Party using the 21st-century tools of imperialism?

Kaplan: Remember, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Chinese had a tributary system throughout East Asia which was stable. It was largely peaceful and more stable than with the balance of power system in Europe at that time. What the Imperial Chinese did was they had trading relations with all these East Asian countries. China was the top dog where it benefited the most and where these other nations could not gather together as one and challenge China. China was able to deal with them separately. It had a very favorable trading relation with them, had a dominant position with each of these countries. But at the same time, China protected them. It was somewhat imperialistic and very paternalistic.

Weltwoche: Beijing now controls every fourth container terminal worldwide. In Europe, China owns its own terminals or shares port companies in 14 European ports — from Piraeus to Rotterdam to Marseille. Is this network based on the traditional Chinese tribute system?

Kaplan: Yes, it's very much in the Chinese tradition. Remember, it was only for about the better part of two centuries that China fell into disarray in the latter Qing dynasty — in the period of the warlords and up through the civil war in China (1927-1949). China is back now. It hasn't emerged, it's reemerged. Obviously, it's drawing on its roots of the tributary system whose essence is very imperial. That's what we see with these Belt and Road port projects all the way from Sri Lanka, all the way almost to Europe.

Weltwoche: The Chinese as well as the Russians take pride in their imperial legacies. How do they show their pride?

Kaplan: With China, it's very open. There is, for example, Admiral Zheng He, an early Ming Dynasty explorer who sailed a large arm treasure fleet as far as the Pacific and East Africa. He established colonies or, more importantly, trading relationships across the greater Indian Ocean. The Chinese have spent an enormous amount of money educating their public about this man and celebrating his imperial legacy. He is a Chinese national hero.

The Chinese are not apologizing for anything, nor the Russians. It's only in the West where there is apology for imperialism and particularly for colonialism in Africa and other places.

Weltwoche: While the elite in the West are trying to come to terms with its "dark" age of colonialism, Russia and China are establishing new empires free of any moral scruples.

Kagan: Imperialism and colonialism are hot topics of discussion among Western intellectuals. These European colonial empires of the French, the British et cetera, do not exist today. They lie mainly in the past. However, empire is not limited to Europe. The Iranians had great empires, so did the Indians, so did many other places. As I said, empire was the rule of how to politically organize large tracks of territory through most of humanity's history. The Chinese and the Russians are actively doing empire. Whereas, in the West, it's a debate only about the past.

Weltwoche: You make an interesting point: "Imperialism throughout history has often originated from a deep well of insecurity.” Why insecurity?

Kaplan: Yes. Imperialism emerges from insecurity because a state becomes very economically dynamic and robust, but it sees disarray in its region. It goes out in search of monsters to conquer to make the region stable to allow for it to grow further. With the Russian case, it's very clear cut. The Russians have been invaded by not just Hitler and Napoleon, but by Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, Teutonic Knights, et cetera.

Weltwoche: Russia wants to ensure that such a military surprise can be avoided in the future?

Kaplan: The Russians crave a protective barrier of influence in Central Eastern Europe. Of course, Ukraine is so important to that. China was carved up by Western imperialisms. There were the treaty ports where Western countries actually held territory in Chinese cities for a long period. It was deeply humiliating for the Chinese. China's desire to expand its influence throughout East Asia across the Indian Ocean goes back to the fact that China, itself, almost disappeared in the 19th and early 20th century at the hands of Western forces. This is a reason for China’s attempt to recover its lost glory and why it appears so aggressive these days.


The new empires in the East present the West with the question of how to respond. The U.S. has "no choice but to be a status quo power," Kaplan states. “It must firmly hold the line against their advance. In terms of the two current hot spots, this he suggests: "Ukraine does not need to join NATO or the European Union as long as it remains independent and democratic. Taiwan does not need to declare independence as long as it is not incorporated into China."


Weltwoche: Is it sufficient for the US to limit itself to a “status quo power” to counter the new wave of imperialism in the East? Should it not rather embark itself on new sort or imperialism?

Kaplan: I argue in favor of containment because the Western publics simply have no appetite for military aggression, but they do have an appetite for unity, for banding together, for applying diplomatic tools, economic tools, et cetera, in order to contain China and Russia. We are in the midst of a crisis over Ukraine, and we don't know how it will end.

At this point [the interview was conducted before Russia recognized the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, on February 21st], it appears that the Biden administration has done very well in terms of putting pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin through diplomacy and economics without using military force. Yes, there has been some relocation of US and other forces to Eastern Europe. That's not really the heart of this strategy. The heart of the strategy is Western diplomatic unity combined with the pronounced ability to impose economic sanctions upon Russia if it militarily acts. If it ultimately succeeds, and we don't know that it will, it will provide a blueprint for how we should operate in the future.

Weltwoche: What makes you confident that containment will be enough to keep the new empires at bay in the long run?

Kaplan: As we know, the US and the Soviet Union did not have a war during the Cold War. The Cold War never went hot; it always stayed cold. There was no great power warfare between 1945 and 1989. It was the constant application of diplomacy, alliances, and economic power that contained the Soviet Union and ultimately led to the end of the Cold War on victorious terms for the West.

Weltwoche: The Soviet Union finally imploded without a bullet being fired.

Kaplan: We should keep that in mind, given that domestic tensions inside Russia and China, though more opaque than our own, aren’t to be underestimated. We should not think in terms of defeating Russia or defeating China. We should think in terms of improving our own societies, applying diplomatic pressure, economic pressure when the moment permits, and outlast these regimes rather than to defeat them.

Mr. Kaplan holds a chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is author, most recently, of “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian.”