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Looking Back 

Levelheaded leadership draws lessons from the past, says Warrior Politics author Robert Kaplan

Robert Kaplan, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, spent 25 years covering foreign conflict from combat zones in Bosnia, Uganda, the Sudan, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan -- from some 80 countries in all, says his biographical sketch.

From those experiences, Kaplan came to one overriding conclusion, put forth eloquently if not forcibly in his most recent book, Warrior Politics: There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to the affairs of men, and if we want guidance we need look no farther than the ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman philosophers.

That notion certainly provides a neat framework for Kaplan's central thesis -- effective leadership demands a "pagan" ethos -- but doesn't always hold up when applied to current leadership and the global challenges faced in 2002.

By pagan ethos, Kaplan refers to "policy as an outgrowth of thinking, not feeling, guided not by sympathy but by necessity and self-interest." Furthering that argument, he references Chinese philosopher Sun-Tzu's classic The Art of War. "Good spies prevent bloodshed, according to Sun-Tzu," says Kaplan, arguing that Western media and the postWorld War II generation have weakened espionage capabilities in the U.S. in the past half-century by "proclaim[ing] an era of human rights while abusing the profession that historically provides advance warning of gross human rights violations." That hardly seems to capture or explain the intelligence failures of the massive and grossly inefficient national security bureaucracy in place today.

More compelling is Kaplan's overview of emerging populist movements across the world, "motivated by religious and sectarian beliefs and empowered by information technology." In India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Algeria, Mexico, Fiji, Egypt, Pakistan and the West Bank today, says the author, are working-class movements whose rage is fueled by population growth and resource scarcity. Enter global capitalism, which "contributes to this peril, smashing traditions and spawning new ones," says Kaplan, where wealth is not distributed evenly, and two classes emerge: the nouveaux riches and the "new subproletariat: billions of working poor, recently arrived in cities from the countryside, inhabiting squatter settlements around big cities in Africa, Eurasia and South America."

"Terrorism," says Kaplan, "arises from such disparities and will enjoy unprecedented technological resources."

It's hard to conclude how the teachings of Sun-Tzu or Titus Livy can rightly be applied to the issue of globalization, but one thing is clear: In Kaplan's view, wars are inevitable and must be fought by leaders untainted by emotions but clear about their own country's self-interest. Kaplan's ideal is an American president who talks like Reagan but acts like Nixon, at least when it comes to foreign policy.

The quality of leadership Kaplan reveres most is leadership that respects history and doesn't behave as if the problems of the "post-modern" world eclipse everything that happened before its emergence.

"Today, unlike in the late 1930s, we face no threat on the scale of Hitler," says Kaplan. "The bipolar nature of World War II and Cold War alliances is no longer evident. Our situation is more similar to that of the late Victorians, who had to deal with nasty little wars in anarchic corners of the globe, such as Sudan. Is it too far-fetched to imagine our own expedition through similar desert wastes to apprehend another Mahdi-like figure, Osama bin Laden?"

Kaplan will be at Colorado College this week to participate in a panel on "Poverty and the Causes of War." The discussion is sure to be provocative and packed with historical allusion.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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