Sitting reading a book in a pre-WW1 café in Trieste, Robert Kaplan looks about him and sees “a complex and completed civilization, ill at ease with itself.” Much the same might be said of Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.
Trieste sits in a sliver of Italy largely surrounded by Slovenia. It is cosmopolitan; the population has roots in Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, as well as Italy. The city’s ambiance is the result of ancient interactions between Greek Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam. For centuries the diversity of Trieste was facilitated by the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 1918, however, with the rise of state nationalism, Trieste’s location meant bitterness. Memories of atrocities by Yugoslav Communist partisans against Italians in WW2 linger, so here the European Union is welcomed, with people hoping it can function “as a de facto replacement for the Habsburg Empire.” People in Trieste are sophisticated, but their ethnicities and history do not make them confident about self-rule, and so they hope for the return of empire as a political form that will allow them to sit and drink coffee cosseted in the “warm yellows and chocolate browns” of their pre-WW1 cafes.
They hope that empire will be a benevolent EU, but the city knows that another, very different empire, sits in the offing. “Trieste is Central European intimacy with an Italian-global spin” but its people are gloomily aware that looming is “the new and vast maritime empire of China [which] threatens to overwhelm all of these European associations.”
Kaplan is an American thought leader on geopolitics and the author of twenty books. He holds out the Adriatic—the sea edged by Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, and supporting storied and subtle cities like Ravenna, Venice, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Corfu—as a model of governance for our newly minted world.
The Adriatic is “a geographical metaphor for an age that is passing: the modern age itself in Europe.” The book continues the theme of Kaplan’s tremendous volumes The Coming Anarchy and The Return of Marco Polo’s World that the moment of the unipolar world—the age of American dominance and the famed rules-based order—is over. The region surveyed in his latest volume is “the globe in miniature. Indeed, the civilizational subtleties of the Adriatic now encompass the world.” Nation states and their hard borders are withering and being replaced by cosmopolitan trading city-states, new wannabe Venices.
The Adriatic is a region with “a growing emphasis on city-states and the half-hidden traditions of empire,” which easily connects with the early modern sensibility of concordia. At the start of the scientific revolution, and absent a hegemonic power, elites in the trading cities of the region managed far-flung commercial interests in a milieu with plenty of ethnicities, but no strident state-sponsored nationalisms. The early modern period was not all milk and honey, but a modus vivendi was found that allowed highly diverse peoples to muddle along profitably, albeit with elbows being thrown on occasion. The new world we find ourselves in demands we revisit the historic Adriatic and find our way through to a similar concert of autonomous cities operating adroitly within parameters set by the geopolitical flexes of the American, Chinese, European, and Russian empires. The problem with Kaplan’s vision is that the conversations he reports with various constituents on the ground do not make one confident that they find the ideal of concordia quite so charming. Perhaps Kaplan is not confident either, which might explain why the book is conceptually diffident. Adriatic is not as well-wrought as previous books.
Perhaps Adriatic’s diffidence stems from Kaplan losing some confidence in himself. Visitors to Law & Liberty are big readers and will enjoy Kaplan’s declaration that he intends to treat books as “characters in this journey as much as the landscapes.” “Truly, I travel in order to read.” Much of the volume is about books, which leads Kaplan to a caution. Trying to correct his past errors, he warns readers about the limits of his own work, and that of other journalists. At every stage of his journey, he tells us about the books he reads either by locals or by academics expert in themes raised by the location. It is a way to educate the reader that each of the places visited is complex, and forbiddingly so. For this reason, he is especially laudatory about difficult books written by academics. He is not naïve about the poor quality of some academic work but, at its best, he thinks university monographs not merely indispensable, but significantly, “the only way to escape the deafening monotone of the commentariat.” The genres he mentions include travelogue, history, art history, geography, politics, and strategic studies. He is also historical in his reading, frequently citing hundred-year-old texts.
At one point he expresses frustration that he cannot find the right form for the book. He is unsure whether he is writing travelogue, long-form journalism, or a geopolitical manifesto. What he might have added is that the book is, at least in part, a confession. Kaplan makes use of Noel Malcolm’s massive Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, and there is a backstory. This is not only a great book, he admits, but by an author who took Kaplan to task for his Balkan Ghosts thirty years ago. Malcolm’s review, says Kaplan, was savage, and it cut him deeply. It was a case of an elite professor schooling a journalist for forcefully stating things about places and events he barely understood. Over the years, Kaplan says, he has grown in appreciation for the patience of the scholar whose list of books cannot possibly match that of Kaplan. He accepts the professorial with better grace now, “seeing it as an opportunity for self-improvement, rather than for resentment.” But there is more. Kaplan’s book reputedly saddened President Bill Clinton and had some causal role in the American war in Serbia. Kaplan reports utter shame for the hawkish positions he took over both the Serbian War and the Second Iraq War and concedes he urged others to war in places that he, in fact, knew relatively little about. Parts of this book are a lamentation, a witness to the snares warned about in Ecclesiastes. It is brave writing.
Venice receives a lot of attention in Adriatic because, well, the city always does. Perhaps no other city has inspired so much commentary and great art as Venice. Its historical, literary, and artistic legacy is unparalleled. Kaplan recalls that when he was a young man the city schooled him on the need to be more learned. “Venice was a delicious put-down, and still is.” Giving the Middle Ages more credit than many writers do, Venice is proof that “without the medieval centuries, there would have been no West as we know it.” The medieval synthesis it perfected, makes Venice a rebuke in our day: “the right-wing nationalists want pure ethnic nations, but the metamorphosis of Venice works against that notion.” The Republic of Venice represented the triumph of a closed elite managing the twin pressures of culture and geography adroitly.
The aristocrats of Venice understood “that geopolitics—the battle for space and power—is eternal.” The tonic, they understood, was realism. For the city to endure in the hothouse of Adriatic politics it was necessary that its leaders think “tragically in order to avoid tragedy.” The history of Venice teaches that order comes before freedom, interests before values, “and yet realism requires beauty or else it slips into coarseness and vulgarity: this, too, is the genius of Venice.” Enlightened tolerance at home meant a stable base camp for rapacity abroad. Kaplan does not imagine the world aborning will be peaceful but its cut and thrust might, if inspired by the Venetian Republic, at least be less hateful and more beautiful.
Yet, one of its lessons seems naively expressed: “The Venetians, somewhat like the present-day Chinese about to commercially invade these waters, had no ideology or universal values to export to the world.” Perhaps more than his other books, Adriatic expresses how Kaplan wishes the world would be rather than what appears to be happening. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ex-Prime Minister and an acknowledged China expert, certainly would not agree with Kaplan’s account of China as ideologically lite.
On his tour of the Adriatic, Kaplan sits in a lot of fantastic cafes and talks to a lot of sophisticates. A Trieste journalist, Mario Nordio, evokes the spirit Kaplan wishes for the world: “I am a spiritual son of Adenauer, who, ever since I was young, has harbored a profound sympathy for the Habsburg Empire.” Nordio expresses a sentiment common to a certain class in the region that the mark of true nobility is to be “a man above nationality” in the Habsburg tradition: “My old home, the Monarchy, alone was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men.” “Such a patriotism,” adds Kaplan, “is almost contemporary, even futuristic, in its character.”
Likely because of language, his interviews are restricted to the intellectual class – journalists, professors, and graduate students. Yet even some of these conversations leave him depressed. Sometimes they express his own view of cosmopolitanism, with a flourish of romanticism for the Habsburg double eagle, but frequently they express populism, which seems to surprise him. In one footnote he admits that after his conversations in Slovenia he was blindsided when the people elected a Trump-like populist only months after he had left the country. Not all the stakeholders in the region share Kaplan’s sense that:
Now, saving the West can only mean advancing into a sturdy cosmopolitanism that can accept and absorb migrants, and not retreating into a coarse and reactionary nationalism: for the West grew gradually and inexorably, if not always directly, in the direction of liberalism. Europe, in other words, in order to save itself and the West, must become a system of states whose societies internally are international in scope and tradition.
The limits of language restricting Kaplan’s perceptions may have been compounded by a tactical mistake. One Trieste journalist proposes that diplomats are detached from understanding the world because their portal is the airport, while a genuine grasp of the ebb and flow of peoples, sentiments, and the true weight of events would require the portal to be the train station. Kaplan does not take up this opportunity for intimacy with regular folk: he appears to have missed encounters with locals by touring the region by car.
Kaplan is better traveled than most people on the planet, and certainly, none approach him when it comes to traveling the world so thoughtfully, yet can he really be so surprised that nativism is strong when, for example, Europe’s migration crisis has even overwhelmed liberal Sweden? Far from the Adriatic, Sweden has received a flow of migrants who passed through it, so many in fact that now a full fifth of its population is foreign-born: that’s 2 million out of Sweden’s 10 million people. It seems odd that so fine an analyst as Kaplan dismisses populism as just “a swan song for the age of nationalism itself,” whilst other strategists, like John Mearsheimer, think nationalism a property of human nature and its sentiments the most powerful in world politics.
Adriatic would benefit from Kaplan finding his old analytic swagger again. He cannot square the conversations he had in Slovenia with the fact that the electorate just a little after elected a Trumpian rightist. There seems to be plenty of reasons Kaplan might have come away from the country with a poor reading of its direction, yet he all but backs into a conspiracy theory: “with Orbán’s help [Janez Janša] built a propaganda network that garnered many followers. It was an example that we are truly at the end of the modern world and into the postmodern one, in which absurdity combines with globalization to produce unimaginable outcomes. It was humbling to see a country whose experts had impressed me with such probity to drift for a time into illogic.”
Kaplan’s eager use of Noel Malcolm’s research into the “upper reaches” of the Ottoman bureaucracy seems problematic. This elite, we are told, included “many `renegades’ (converts to Islam) from Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere, whose native language and mental formation were Western.” Kaplan finds attractive the contemporary analogue: “The knowledge and policy elite among us inhabit a very cosmopolitan milieu… a world of a former narrow and aristocratic elite morphing into a larger global upper class, one full of opportunities and risks.” Yet, we don’t normally think of biting the hand that feeds a virtue. Renegade is hardly a positive word, which is why Kaplan finesses it with scare quotes. Back in the day, I imagine these converts were thought apostates to their religion and traitors to their nations, and what are we to think of this modern variant of cynical chancers?
Even if we could warm to this morally detached elite, there are two further problems. One problem is evident from Kaplan’s trip to Albania. Kaplan acknowledges that some of those unmoored from nation, and adept at surfing the currents and eddies of risk in our postmodern condition, are crime families. I wish Kaplan had addressed the populist point that loyalty to a land is a requirement for rule of law. Further, as John Gray points out, the track record of these “masters of the universe” in understanding and managing the world is risible). Kaplan might find these slick operators attractive, but I wish he’d addressed in a complete way whether the populist impatience with decades of lurching from one financial and military crisis to another merits serious analytical consideration.