I picked up Robert D. Kaplan’s 2017 book Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World based on several high profile recommendations. In a short 178 pages, Kaplan — a card-carrying member of the East Coast elite that he proceeds to denigrate throughout the book —describes a cross-country trip taken in 2016 and mixes in his thoughts on how our geography led the U.S. to become a benevolent imperialist power. And calling on his impressive foreign policy experience and credentials, there are parts of this meditation on America’s rise and decline that are skillful and insightful.
Kaplan argues that America became a great country not just because of our constitution and values, but because it occupies some of the best, most fertile land on the planet that is connected by a river system (running diagonally) that unites the heartland into a strong political unit. “America’s greatness,” in his words, “ultimately, is based on it being a nation, an empire, and a continent rolled into one.” And in taming the frontier, America — according to Kaplan’s analysis — learned how to be a global power. He would argue that we are a benevolent and necessary power, but imperialistic nonetheless. On the flip side, the size of America has made it difficult to build a national identity and unity around our role in the world. There’s a great deal of contrast provided between the isolationist heartland and the global, world-facing values of the coastal cities and college towns throughout Kaplan’s story.
In discussing the goodness that America has brought to the world, Kaplan acknowledges that “the American narrative is morally unresolvable because the society that saved humanity in the great conflicts of the twentieth century was also a society built on enormous crimes — slavery and the extinction of the native inhabitants.” What he doesn’t acknowledge very directly is the moral ambiguity that continued throughout the 20th century and into today. In the first World War, for instance, Americans were led by one of the country’s most racist presidents in Woodrow Wilson, while we continued our discrimination and racism during and after the second World War, not only against African Americans but against all people of color. Kaplan does recognize that our work has not always been for good, and that we have bungled our way at times through being a global power (e.g., the Iraq War, which he originally supported but came to renounce). He’s right in asserting that our country’s narrative is morally unresolvable. But his own narrative bogs down when he strays from the impacts of geography and tries to draw inferences from the traits of the residents of the Midwest and West. In one of his few references to Donald Trump, he suggests that Trump “represents a sort of antipolitics: a primal scream against the political elite for not connecting with people on the ground, and for insufficiently improving their lives.”
That’s an interesting case to make from someone who seems to have difficulty actually talking to people he meets along his road trip. Early on Kaplan indicates that he will sit at nearby tables in diners and eavesdrop, the better to understand the real people. So his meditations about the nature of our power seem haphazard and drawn from his readings of early 20th century historians as much as from strong analysis of what the people on the ground are actually thinking in the 21st century.
Sitting here in the fourth year of a presidency where the world, and our role in it, is turned upside down due to Trump’s allegiance to Russian president Vladimir Putin, his disdain for NATO, and his affection for strongman dictators, this book left me with questions. Kaplan’s final chapter appears to be fighting a rear guard action against the upheaval he saw coming in the Trump administration. But I also wonder if the author wrote this at a time when he believed that our foreign policy and military structures could withstand a frontal assault from our own president, supported by clandestine assaults from our primary Cold War adversary. Given the timing of the trip and the book, there isn’t enough here to address that question, at least from my perspective.
Some of the best parts of this work relate to the life and impact of the Civil War soldier and geologist John Wesley Powell. Kaplan makes the point that Powell understood, better than most, that westward expansion would require cooperation; strong government intervention (e.g., geological surveys, federal land grants, irrigation projects, and military protection); and limitations on individualism. If you take that key point out from Kaplan’s work, you can see a way forward for the U.S. to acknowledge its past and its geography while building a new role in the world in the 21st century.
I found much to absorb in Earning the Rockies, even among the arguments where I disagreed with Kaplan’s analysis. It is worth the time to stretch your mind.
More to come…
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