I take it you didn’t like the book then?

A review by Michael Busch of Hog Pilots in the Brookyln Rail:

Numerous critics have taken Kaplan to task for his poor readings of history and literature. These accusations are well founded. Kaplan borrows liberally from a grab bag of literature, history, and political science references to frame his discussions of global events. But while this certainly makes for colorful writing, it also leads to lousy analysis. Kaplan has read widely, but unfortunately, not deeply.

This shortcoming is nowhere more evident than in Kaplan’s abuse of political science. He proudly admits to being a political “realist”, yet even a cursory glance at realist thought demonstrates that he’s nothing of the sort. Where realists see an international system dominated by self-interested, sovereign nation-states, Kaplan sees a world where the power of non-state actors has largely supplanted a crumbling Westphalian system. When hard-core realists argued persuasively that the invasion of Iraq was a fool’s errand destined to undermine the United States’ national interest, Kaplan dutifully banged his war drum, praising George W. Bush’s foresight and resolve.

But Kaplan’s most egregious abuse of realist theory revolves around his preoccupation with “anarchy.” Traditional realists take pains to emphasize the term’s Greek etymology in order to describe a rational international order lacking a government of governments. In Kaplan’s mind, however, anarchy connotes a disorderly international scene where the irrational forces of man’s inner depravity are given full expression. With such a grim outlook on the state of world affairs, Kaplan’s faith in the American military’s ability to provide global stability is unsurprising. There’s only one problem: Kaplan suspects that Americans may not be up to the challenge.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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16 Responses to I take it you didn’t like the book then?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This looks like a semantic review. The reviewer takes issue with Kaplan’s use of the terms “realist” (without a capital letter) and “anarchy” but gives no examples of how Kaplan’s analysis is shallow in any way. I do think that the burden rests with Kaplan to explain his use of the terms “realist” and “anarchy”, given that he’s gone against the grain, but other than that, we don’t get any real information about the book, its thesis, or its analyses. Too bad.

    When are you going to post on Olivier Roy’s interview on Al Jazeera English on the Riz Khan show?

  2. IJ says:

    Kaplan has a grim outlook on the state of world affairs?

    No wonder. The International Energy Agency reckon that demand for energy will substantially exceed supply in the near future. “The next 10 years are critical”, they say. See Grand Strategy.

    Moreover the WSJ this week questioned priorities. Why is everyone is worried about long-term climate change when big resource wars are imminent.

  3. Monte Davis says:

    It’s time (but then, it’s always time) to remember Wright Mills’ dissection of “crackpot realism.” For a short version:


  4. Dan tdaxp says:

    If Kaplan actually calls himself a realist, these are fair criticisms. It is dishonest & disingenuous to make up new meanings for words as you go along, because those words confuse the reader and hamper honest discussion.

    I haven’t read any books by Kaplan since Balkan Ghosts, however, so I do not know if he really so self-identifies.

  5. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I’ve assumed, for years now, that the classic “Realist” theory has been pretty much eroded away along with Westphalia. Made sense once upon a time, not so much anymore. And anarchy can be creative as well as depraved, as the new inter-whatever system emerges.

  6. Stupid review. The first line, about “Given that Iraq and Afghanistan are disasters” tells you a lot. The last line, telling you the guy is an IR PhD student tells you even more. He is a pencil-headed academic who resents Kaplan daring to have the brass to speak out loud about such things. Bottom line, Kaplan’s eyes-on-the-scene obserations have their own value. The guy is also someone who cannot handle conclusions which deviate from the norm in the faculty lounge. Facts which conflict with the smug academic consensus cause cognitive dissonance, and irrebuttable facts based on eye-witness reportage are the most grating of all.

  7. Bill Petti says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan are disasters–this statements tells you a great deal about the person who denies it at this point. Even the architects admit it hasn’t gone well and we are trying to recoup and move forward at this point.

  8. Jing says:

    A poor review of Hog Pilots, but a dead on assessment of Kaplan’s shortcomings.

    I don’t mean this exactly to be a personal attack Lexington, but your wild eyed criticism of Busch is simply ridiculous. Anti-intellectualism seems to be fast becoming tenant of the American mainstream right. The problem with Kaplan’s so-called eye-witness reporting and facts is that his eyesight happens to be incredibly myopic and his understanding that of superficial tourist at best. Intellectual laziness is Kaplan’s hallmark in that he has little care of context that ends up leading his writing into the realm of the quixotic. It would be akin to me visiting Cleveland for a week and proscribing local urban political developments to based on the relationship between the Indians and the Yankees.

    For the longest time I was boggled as to why Kaplan was so popular until I realized that he is writing for the lumpenintellectuals and the middle-brow mixed with a dash of adventure narrative remeniscent of 19th century imperialists for excitement. He is to IR what Oprah is to women’s studies; what the NYT is to in-depth reporting.

  9. Jing says:

    After having read the the complete review now, I take back what I said about it being a poor review. It is a dead on accurate review.

    “Georgia did not have a European tradition beyond Tbilisi’s architecture and circle of intellectuals. The rest of the country was heavily Oriental. The strength of Georgia’s mafias and the weakness of its governing institutions attested to the predominant influence of Persia’s clan and tribal system over that of Russia’s bureaucratic tradition.”

    My eyes are rolling so much it hurts.

  10. Now, Jing, I am ok if you say I am a lumpenintellectual and middle brow. So stipulated. But when you suggest I am part of the mainstream right, I bet irked. I am, sir, part of the FAR right. Or something. But not mainstream.

    To be serious, I do think that putting Kaplan in the basket with Ph.D.-style I.R. analysis is apples and oranges.

    Kaplan does ask for it to some degree. But, really, he is a travel writer who offers opinions based on what he has seen. Frequently, I think he is astute.

    And I do think the academic writers resent it when someone who is not from their little indian reservation offer opinions or proposals. Too bad. These are issues that impact all citizens, and that crowd have not proven themselves to merit any kind of monopoly. IR is overrated. Struggling to find something microscopically novel to justify a journal publication is not likely to be the golden road to truth. I say all this having several friends who are smart people from that community, and they sometimes have a contribution to make. But let 100 flowers bloom.

    “Adventure narrative” is a funny kind of dismissal. What motivates these people, on both sides? Who are these armed men running around? What motivates them? A spirit of adventure? A desire to do brave and exciting or irrational things? Sure, frequently yes. Ralph Peters, another guy the IR-Ph.D.-types will choke on, had a funny piece about how intellectuals cannot bring themselves to write about how terrorism is rooted in psycho-sexual pathology more than any kind of dessicated IR-style theorizing. Peters is not the final arbiter, nor is Kaplan. But they have a contribution to make.

    I am anything but anti-intellectual. To the contrary, I am a vicious intellectual snob. But I am anti-academic. That world too often is removed from reality and more interested in preserving its monopoly and cozy intellectual consensus than it is in engaging and facing and understanding reality. Not all the time, but too often. They need some pushback. Blogs like this are one such venue. May there be ten thousand more.

    Like Kaplan, I only tell you what I have seen with my own eyes.

  11. Younghusband says:

    “Lex said”:http://cominganarchy.com/2007/11/20/i-take-it-you-didnt-like-the-book-then/#comment-380960 “I do think that putting Kaplan in the basket with Ph.D.-style I.R. analysis is apples and oranges.”

    I think this is core issue. It is the old battle between the historians (who interpret through personalities) and IR scholars (who interpret through theories). Kaplan is _not_ an IR guy. We already went through this argument once when we were doing the whole Kaplan vs. Barnett thing. Apples and oranges, both have something to give.

  12. Arcane says:

    Kaplan is definitely a realist. There is no other theory in international relations that applies to him more than that. He regularly attacks those who follow liberal models of international relations, such as Democratic neoliberals and the neoconservatives (he actually first attacked the neocons in The Coming Anarchy while praising Henry Kissinger, a realist’s realist if there ever was one).

    The idea that all realists were opposed to the Iraq war is absolutely absurd; just because a small, but very vocal, clique centered around Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and a whole slew of others who populate the pages of The National Interest (many realists who disagreed with TNI’s editorial line on Iraq bailed and formed The American Interest) were opposed to it does not make it true. Various hegemonic realists supported it, as well as many offensive realists (like Rumsfeld and Armitage) and defensive realists (like Powell) within the State Department and Defense Departments. Ralph Peters is mentioned in the comments here, so it should be pointed out that he thinks along many of the same lines as Kaplan and is just as critical as liberal international relations theorists as Kaplan is; he’s a realist, too.

    If anything, Kaplan’s modernization and application of realist theory to real-world circumstances from personal observation is a welcome and much needed antidote to the stagnation that is found in political science departments, which, in my experience, were highly intolerant of attempts to break out of the molds they have created for themselves. Kaplan, who cites Thucydides regularly, is perhaps the closest thing left to a classical / human nature realist there is.

  13. A.E. says:

    Part of the problem with academia is the imposition of such categories on an unruly world that largely rejects them. I don’t always see eye to eye with Kaplan but I think he has a much greater grasp of the emerging global reality than the IR theorists who scorn him.

  14. subadei says:

    “Kaplan but I think he has a much greater grasp of the emerging global reality than the IR theorists who scorn him.”

    I agree. But then you and I are very likely the “middle brow lumpen intellectuals” his literary swashbuckling is aimed at, eh?

  15. A.E. says:

    Not exactly—I really do enjoy IR theory, everything from traditional realism, liberalism, contructivism, the whole shebang. I just really don’t like it when academics attempt to construct an iron divide between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” works of analysis. You can disagree with Kaplan’s ideas (being opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, I certainly am!), but to disavow his ideas out of hand is the height of snobbery and immaturity.