The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China
“Robert D. Kaplan is America’s most prolific geopolitical theorist and observer.”
Robert D. Kaplan is America’s most prolific geopolitical theorist and observer. In his latest book, The Loom of Time, Kaplan surveys a geographical region he calls the Greater Middle East, which stretches from western China through Central Asia, the Middle East and into Eastern Europe, and includes the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean, the Aegean and Arabian Seas, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. And, worryingly, he notes that this region roughly corresponds to the immediate target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and therefore is the key to the 21st century struggle for command of the Eurasian-African “World-Island.”
Students of geopolitics will recognize the term “World-Island” as the theoretical construct of Sir Halford Mackinder, the great British geographer who in the first half of the 20th century produced geo-historical literary masterpieces that looked at global politics from a broad, general viewpoint. Kaplan in his new book does that, too, but he adds ground-level knowledge (based on his readings of relevant books) and experience (based on his many travels through the region) to present a particularized canvas of the region.
Kaplan’s book is in part also a study of civilizations, and throughout the book he invokes Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History which dramatically, if imperfectly, surveyed the rise and fall of civilizations since the beginning of recorded history. He quotes 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.’” But Kaplan’s reading also includes Edward Gibbon, Fernand Braudel, Oswald Spengler, Thomas Hobbes, anthropologist Clifford Gertz, British author and traveler Charles Montagu Doughty, Elie Kedourie, and many others.
Like many of Kaplan’s historical travelogues, he recalls his many visits to the region—the people he talked to, the officials he interviewed, the wars he witnessed, and always the geographical features that condition, but don’t determine, human action. The main impetus for this work was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2021, and the anarchy created by the so-called “Arab Spring.” Kaplan apologizes for his support of the Iraqi war started by the George W. Bush administration and continued by his successors. He so hated Saddam Hussein’s tyranny that he shelved his “realism” in the naive belief that nothing could be worse than Saddam. But he was wrong.
Sometimes, Kaplan writes, anarchy is worse than tyranny because tyranny at least produces order. Realists understand that policy choices in international politics often involve the choice among evils. Where America went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century, Kaplan explains, was conducting foreign policy as if we could remake other countries and cultures in America’s image.
America should have learned this lesson from history—the French Revolution replaced a corrupt monarchy with the “Terror.” The Russian Revolution replaced the tyranny of the Romanovs with the totalitarian rule of the Bolsheviks. The Iranian Revolution replaced the authoritarian rule of the Shah with the more despotic rule of Islamic clerics. One of the curses of U.S. foreign policy is the Wilsonian imagination that human history proceeds by linear progression.
America’s “abstract conceptions of remaking the Middle East,” Kaplan writes, has led to foreign policy disasters, a lessening of American influence, and has left an opening for China and Russia to increase their influence in the region—an opening that both Eurasian powers have been quick to seize.
Kaplan’s visits to Turkey, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia, combined with his study of the history of the peoples and tribes that have inhabited those countries and regions disabused him of sweet-sounding notions of human progress. What he saw, instead, was a Hobbesian world of all against all, except when a centralized regime—often an empire—imposed order. Empires, he notes, have a bad name and have frequently done bad things to the people they rule, but one good thing they do is produce order.
Kaplan is quick to point out that Western nations—especially Great Britain and France, but also the United States—have contributed to the fragility of the regimes in the region. Historically, Western colonial empires drew lines on maps that didn’t correspond to cultural and national realities, while more recently Western interventions aggravated an already strife-ridden region by forcibly eliminating political regimes that had at least kept order. The result has been anarchy and political instability.
Interestingly (though not mentioned in the book), Kaplan’s geographical conception of a Greater Middle East roughly corresponds to the great naval historian and geopolitical theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of the “debatable and debated ground” in his The Problem of Asia. Mahan in 1901 viewed this region of Central Asia as the scene of geopolitical conflict between land powers of Eurasia and insular sea powers. Kaplan sees it similarly today. “This greater Central Asia,” Kaplan writes, “now forms the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” China is attempting to connect Mackinder’s “Heartland” (Central Asia) with Nicholas Spykman’s “Rimland” (an arc of countries extending from China, to the Middle East to Europe). If “China’s BRI becomes regionally dominant,” Kaplan warns, it could dominate the World-Island. And Mackinder warned more than a hundred years ago, “who rules the World-Island commands the world.”