Penguin Random House/August 2023
Reviewed by Colin Robertson
September 24, 2023
Journalist Robert Kaplan’s accounts of the people and places in countries he regularly visits at the ‘back of beyond’ are must-reads for those who enjoy journalism infused with history, culture and a critical perspective. The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, From the Mediterranean to China is his 22nd book and it meets the high standard we expect of him. The Loom of Time is a sweeping portrait of geopolitical developments painted from a half-century of travel and reportage in what he calls the ‘Greater Middle East’.
Bounded by the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Seas, the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, Kaplan’s canvas is the people in the lands stretching from Xinjiang in western China, south to the Indian subcontinent, and west through Central Asia, the Middle and Near East, North Africa and into the Balkans.
These lands correspond, roughly, says Kaplan, to the early 20th century geographer Halford Mackinder’s broader ‘heartland’. In Mackinder’s observation, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
For centuries, these lands were ruled by successive empires: Assyrian, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, Soviet, and American. The legacy of that imperial rule is a collection of often unstable states.
This should not surprise us as many are artificial creations of Wilsonian idealism at the 1919 Paris peace conference. Those who drew their lines on a map mostly ignored history, geography and cultural realities. That these states endure is only, says Kaplan, through rule, by a “severe form of authoritarianism”. This is hardly fertile ground for democracy.
Ongoing regional turbulence means that the real measure of peace is that between order and chaos. Using the western construct of democracy vs autocracy, argues Kaplan, does not apply in the Greater Middle East.
Western leaders, says Kaplan, have had an “obsession with formalizing political behavior in distant societies that they barely understand and do not appreciate.” What people want most, says Kaplan, is order. Pointing to Saudi Arabia, he says that, for its citizens, rights are about women being able to drive and getting a passport on-line.
Kaplan’s thesis is provocative and it should force western policymakers to rethink our efforts to promote democracy. This has particular application to the Trudeau government that has promised over the years a Canadian initiative on “peace, order and good government” and democracy.
Western governments have put great store in elections as legitimizers of democracy. But, as the Arab Spring proved in Egypt and elsewhere, elections can produce illiberal governments. Stepping back and looking at the result of democracy promotion, did we spread ourselves too widely and lose the ability to focus on where we could make the most differences?
We need to prioritize and invest in what works. After 18 years of democratic decline around the world, can democracies still deliver the basic necessities of life? Should our policymakers not be more tough-minded in making choices and commitments? At a minimum, support to places like Haiti, Sudan and Ukraine will need to be for generations rather than an electoral cycle.
This probably starts with the hard and long work of building institutions to include political parties, think tanks and civil society as well as the public service. It means enabling the rule of law and core institutions like the judiciary, police, and the military.
We need to find a new way of making the case for human rights, development and democracy around the argument it gives people better lives and security. “Rather than pine exclusively for democracy in the Greater Middle East”, says Kaplan, “we should desire instead consultative regimes in place of arbitrary ones: that is, regimes that canvass public opinion even if they do not hold elections.”
Kaplan says that a “consciously realist” China, “embracing stability over anarchy”,is playing a long game. As Kaplan described in his 2010 book Monsoon, which included a prescient section on China’s purchase of strategic ports in the South China Sea, Beijing’s goal is to obtain energy and resource security. Using the Belt and Road Initiative and other investments, China is increasing both its presence and its influence. China is now everywhere between the Mediterranean and its own borderlands in Xinjiang. Besides its hub at Djibouti, it envisions military bases at Port Sudan on the Red Sea and at Jiwani on the Pakistan-Iran border.
This is forcing the Biden administration to re-focus on the Greater Middle East but Kaplan warns that making human rights the main message only serves to push the Saudis and others to do their business with China. Leaders in the Greater Middle East, who are not sanctioned by voters for either their foreign or trade policy, want money and technology, not moralizing. China is only too happy to oblige.
Kaplan says President Joe Biden needs to study Franklin Roosevelt, who did not like the autocrats but knew American interests would only be advanced through pragmatism. Biden appears to be adapting accordingly: reinforcing NATO, reviving the QUAD, creating AUKUS, and, in his speech to the United Nations this week, dropping the ‘autocracy versus democracy’ language in favour of arguing that free choice is the better way to improve collective health and welfare.
A self-described realist-internationalist, Kaplan admits he was wrong to back the American intervention in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ruled the ‘most despotic regime in the region but the disorder that followed after invasion was even worse,’ he surmises.
In other observations, Kaplan says that the Arabs use Palestine as a distraction from their own shortcomings and he doesn’t think the trend to normalization of relations with Israel will generate major blowback. On Turkey, Kaplan says Erdogan is shifting away from the West with the increasing belief that, in a multipolar world, he can be a power player both regionally and internationally on his own terms.
On Afghanistan, Kaplan says it will continue to be of geostrategic importance. The Taliban did not emerge out of a vacuum but had its roots in the mujahidin movement and the more conservative and tribal elements. With its Western and Soviet weaponry and the backing from its inception of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the Taliban represent the Greater Middle East’s interaction with Westernization, and “in this case a conscious rejection of it”.
Of America’s 20-year Afghan odyssey, Kaplan concludes that, “We were always said to be making progress, even if we weren’t. We were always on the cusp of building democracy, even as the Afghan regimes we supported were brought to power in flawed and at times chaotic elections.” Looking forward, Kaplan observes that only contiguous powers, especially China, can help stabilize Afghanistan but it will require energy and commercial deals to bring order and development.
A self-described realist-internationalist, Kaplan admits he was wrong to back the American intervention in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ruled the “most despotic regime in the region but the disorder that followed after invasion was even worse,” he surmises. The American-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, says Kaplan, “were all about the idea that we could remake societies, and that our historical experience was somehow more important to these countries than their own historical experiences and ideals.”
Kaplan admires the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Jim Baker and encourages their heirs to study their statecraft. Pragmatists, they also recognized that reason and analysis are not enough, as Kaplan learned in Ethiopia and other places. “True clairvoyance is really about a powerful imagination”, he writes. “Because you cannot imagine an occurrence or situation doesn’t mean it cannot happen.”
Kaplan says we can learn much from history and his prose draws on Edward Gibbon, Samuel Huntington, Fernand Braudel and Arnold Toynbee. The book’s title is from Toynbee:
“The work of the spirit of the Earth, as he weaves and draws his threads on the ‘Loom of Time’ constitutes the ‘elemental rhythm of the history of man, as it manifests itself in the geneses and growths and breakdowns and disintegrations of human societies.”
The Loom of Time is a superb blend of journalism, travelogue, and geopolitics. Permeating all of his accounts of people and places is the ‘inevitability of tragedy’ unless we learn the lessons of history, geography and culture, and then apply our imagination.
Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.