Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The End of Cocacolonisation?

Jonathan Rauch
Just over half of America, having voted for Hillary Clinton, awoke the next morning to a country that seems not only unfamiliar but upside-down. Populists embrace a celebrity billionaire, evangelicals welcome a foul-mouthed Lothario, conservatives accept an opportunist whose only ideological commitment is to himself. The Republican establishment proves helpless against the hijacking of the party, the mainstream media prove ineffectual against the tide of fake news and the political system proves vulnerable to the machinations of a sinister foreign government. Longstanding global alliances are questioned, longstanding political norms are trashed — and then the candidate with the three-million-vote plurality loses. In what alternative universe does this make any sense? As Karl Marx said, in a very different context: All that is solid melts into air.
Or maybe not. Maybe the political air is turbulent but the country’s tectonic fundamentals remain solid. Maybe American politics and geopolitics rest on a foundation as immovable as the rivers and plains of the country itself. For those who feel disoriented, and also (perhaps especially) for those who feel triumphant, Robert D. Kaplan’s small but magisterial new book, “Earning the Rockies,” is a tonic, because it brings fundamentals back into view.

With only 180 uncrowded pages of text, this is a book that can be read on a coast-to-coast flight, but fully digesting it will take much longer. Every page brings a fresh insight, a telling aper├žu, a bracing reality check. If you do read the book at 30,000 feet, it will make you yearn to be down below. To understand the country, Kaplan posits, one must still “earn the Rockies,” reaching them on terra firma as our ancestors did. “To fly to California and set your clock back three hours is not to know the ground you have covered, because you haven’t seen all the different mornings and evenings along the way.”

Kaplan is one of America’s most distinguished writers on foreign affairs, with 16 prior books to his name. (He and I are both contributing editors of The Atlantic, though we don’t know each other.) Many will recall his 1994 Atlantic article (then book) “The Coming Anarchy,” which looks eerily prescient today. In his teens as a hitchhiker and again in middle age as a journalist, Kaplan trekked across the continental United States. Today, perplexed by America’s pivot against the successful global order that Americans built, he repeats the journey, “for the answers to our dilemmas overseas lie within the continent itself.”

He returns with a musing travelogue, one that seeks, in words as carefully chosen as gemstones, to bring America’s geographic and geopolitical fundamentals back into the picture. He begins in the East, where the landscape is vertical, cluttered with tall trees and taller cities. Walking streets that are thriving and dismal by turns, and overhearing conversations in rural diners and urban coffeehouses, he encounters not one country but two. Wheeling, in West Virginia coal country, is in a shocking state of collapse, but across the bridge in Marietta, Ohio, he finds prosperity fueled by natural-gas fracking. In Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, he finds “a truly global civilization,” demarcated by “miles and miles of expensive restaurants and well-appointed people.”

The new “universal civilization” is slowly dissolving local distinctiveness, but only for some: Bloomington’s elites understand their British counterparts better than they do their compatriots in Wheeling. In place after place, Kaplan encounters people who, though friendly and self-respecting, “have in some important ways just given up.” Even in blue states, many “feel their way of life is being endangered and fear being economically left behind in this new world of slim people on low-carb diets with stylish clothes.”

Then the “horizontal landscape” of the Great Plains unfurls before him, followed by the great American desert of the West, endless landscapes that forged an independent ethos yet, paradoxically, were built with the aid of enormous government investment. Here he finds the cradle of America’s international ambitions: “If this unending vastness could be conquered, then, after some fashion, the world could be, too.” At last, he arrives in San Diego, overlooking the port of the mighty United States Pacific Fleet and peering over the horizon toward Asia, where the fleet’s patrols keep an uneasy peace.

What do we learn along the way? For all the turbulent change swirling about us now, America was and remains the product of an exceptional geography. North America has more miles of navigable inland waterways than much of the rest of the world combined. Better still, its rivers run diagonally rather than (as in Russia) north and south, forming an ideal network for internal communication and trade. Moreover, America’s continental span and rich resource base shield it from external threat and dependency. Thus the United States is uniquely blessed by geography to form and sustain a cohesive continental union. Union is not the same as unity, but it’s a good start.

America’s geographical and hydrological blessings ramify not only inward but also outward. “The United States is not a normal country: Its geographic bounty gave it the possibility of becoming a world power, and with that power it has developed longstanding obligations, which, on account of its continued economic and social dynamism relative to other powers, it keeps,” Kaplan writes. “We are,” he says (his italics), “fated to lead.” For a host of reasons, ranging from geography to culture, no other country can play the same role.

Kaplan embraces America’s quasi-imperial role but is no imperialist. His book is most challenging, and most valuable, for the layers of paradox it mines. Geography and union make the United States a hegemon whose auspices create the conditions for globalization — but globalization diminishes America’s geographical advantages and erodes American unity. Meanwhile, as globalization uproots local economies and norms, the communications revolution spawns new tribal and ideological identities, everything from jihadism to alt-right. “It isn’t the clash of civilizations so much as the clash of artificially reconstructed civilizations that is taking place,” Kaplan writes. Finally, globalization, a product of American influence and a bulwark against chaos, erodes American influence and births new disruptions. For all its unrivaled military and economic power, the United States “now has no possibility of bringing order to the world.” The best we can hope for is to reduce disorder. Doing that requires projecting power, yes, but with a “light and subtle footprint.” It won’t be easy.

“Earning the Rockies” was written before the 2016 election. The name “Trump” appears only a few times. Yet there is more insight here into the Age of Trump than in bushels of political-horse-race journalism. George H.W. Bush imagined a new world order and, for a time, built one; Bill Clinton embraced soft power and democratic globalization and, for a time, made them work; George W. Bush rediscovered history, confrontation, hard power and blowback; Barack Obama sought to revive Clinton’s formula but, in the end, left too many behind. And then came Trump, repudiating all of the above for irredentist nationalism, and smashing crockery as none have done since Andrew Jackson.
Where are we now? In territory that is uncharted but not altogether unfamiliar. President Trump may try to ignore the paradoxes of geography and globalism, but he cannot escape them. In the long run, Kaplan reminds us, the shape of the river constrains the pilot’s course. America will continue to lead, because it must.

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