Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the battle for supremacy in the 21st century
Robert D Kaplan
Robert D Kaplan, the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the battle for supremacy in the 21st century, is a man on a mission. Since the 1990s, when President Clinton was seen clutching a copy of Kaplan’s book on the Balkans under his arm, Kaplan’s work has become a lightning rod for US public and political opinion in a similar vein to pop political scientists like Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. And he has certainly been taken seriously by successive American administrations since his leap to fame under Clinton’s elbow: aside from his work as correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Kaplan sits on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
Kaplan’s latest book, Monsoon, is a sweeping geopolitical account of the Indian Ocean and its littoral countries. It’s an eclectic beast: part travel memoir, part regional history, and all political prescription, interwoven with asides into architecture, and literary, political, and economic history, which, far from diluting his work, give it a depth and a breadth lacking in so many books on contemporary politics. For a work that rides on the tale of the monsoon winds from which it takes its title, covering twenty-odd countries and a large chunk of the world’s population in its short 323 pages, Kaplan’s writing rarely loses sight of the human scale of his thought and its implications.
Kaplan’s response to the West’s current obsessive preoccupation with incipient American military decline and the rise of China is at once placatory and slightly exasperated. His concern is that America, preoccupied with the military struggles in the Middle East, is missing out on establishing geopolitical relations in what he sees as the 21st century’s field of play: the Indian Ocean. Just as the 20th century was defined by the Atlantic, the Pacific, and their winds, conflicts and currents, Kaplan feels strongly that the Indian Ocean will be the political waters over and about which the defining political struggles and alliances of the 21st century will take place. Kaplan sees clearly that it’s not extremist Islam, but the rising middle class of Muslim millions across the region, most especially in India and Indonesia, combined with a strategically minded Chinese administration seeking land access to the ocean through Bangladesh and Burma, that will define the coming century’s political schemata.
Despite the fact that Monsoon makes for informative reading for anyone with an interest in politics, it’s clear that Kaplan is addressing his work to Americans, and to the American military and administration in particular. His tone is confiding, but there’s an edge of fatigue at times to his prompts and cajoling, aware as he is of the difficulty of turning any administration’s gaze from the Middle East towards the Indian Ocean.
‘The vicissitudes of extremism notwithstanding,’ writes Kaplan, ‘a replica of the pre-Portugese Muslim-Hindu trading cosmopolis is now being rebuilt, buttressed by Chinese investment. In this new Indian Ocean world, it is hoped that Sri Lanka will achieve a new stability, putting its ethnic differences behind it as its government is gradually forced to adjust to the rigours of peace. Meanwhile, new trade routes will open between India, Bangladesh, Burma, and China, with the linkages between great and small powers as dynamic as the tensions. Indeed, the challenge to America, ultimately, is less the rise of China than communicating at a basic level with this emerging civilization of Africans and Asians… unless America makes its peace with these billions symbolized by the Greater Indian Ocean map, many of whom are Muslim, American power will not be seen as wholly legitimate. And legitimacy, remember, is a primary feature of power in the first place.’
Kaplan sees the coming century as defined by trade, which in his mind is a purely placating force. He delivers with gusto the tired old neoliberal declaration:
Trade delivers peace and prosperity. Trade is the great equalizer among people and nations; it does more than perhaps any other activity to prevent war.
But the incredible hikes in trade and the resulting national interdependence that Kaplan looks forward to as potentially stabilising in the region will have a devastating effect globally, the implications of which Kaplan entirely overlooks. Kaplan’s main concern about the Chinese construction of deepwater ports in Bangladesh and elsewhere do not come attached to human rights requirements: that while China, engaged in ‘the bleakest sort of realism’, is happy to deal with Sri Lanka and Burma, to pour money into private infrastructure projects there, the US is looking elsewhere, and missing the shifting tenor of world politics.
Kaplan fails to mention that other area of bleak governmental realism, environmental policy, or account for the devastating environmental implications of increased trade on the scale he looks forward to. If the modernization of billions across the Indian Ocean region, not to mention China, continues apace with no accounting made for its unsustainability, and with no effort made by the West to drastically curb their own emissions, the world will tip well past the point of no return and into an era of increased climate and environmental change.
Kaplan surely knows this, and even acknowledges that the United States Navy will be increasingly defined by its involvement in environmental disaster reliefs as much as in military exercises, pointing to the enormous US Navy response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. But the only time he refers at length to environmental factors is in his chapter on Bangladesh, where he could hardly ignore them:
With 150 million people living packed together at sea level, the lives of many millions in Bangladesh are affected by the slightest climatic variation, let alone by the dramatic threat of global warming. The possibility of an eight-inch rise in sea level in the Bay of Bengal by 2030 would devastate more than ten million people, notes Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. The partial melting of Greenland ice alone over the course of the twenty-first century could inundate more than half of Bangladesh in salt water.
Despite his political blinkers with regards to environmental change and its geopolitical ramifications, Monsoon is worth a read. After all, Kaplan is nothing if not upfront about his agenda. And unlike so many political works that can be dense and dull, bringing about undergraduate hangovers in readers long graduated, Monsoon is both informed and engaging, a romp across centuries and borders.