The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century by Robert Kaplan, Random House, US $28.00, Pp 280, March 2018, ISBN 978-0812996791
Europe is disappearing and Eurasia is cohering into one fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict, as the Westphalian system of states weakens and older, imperial legacies — Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Turkish — become re-emerge. Every crisis from Central Europe to the ethnic-Han Chinese heartland is now interlinked. There is one single battlespace. In The Return of Marco Polo’s World, Robert D. Kaplan gives a historical and geographical background to it. Kaplan says that Europe disappearing and Eurasia cohering does not mean that Eurasia is becoming unified or even stable in the manner that Europe was during the Cold War and the post-Cold War – only that the interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are heading the European supercontinent to become, analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasia simply has meaning in the way that it didn’t use to.
Moreover, Robert D. Kaplan says, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increasing interaction across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Arica, we may now speak of Afro- Eurasia in one breath. The term “World-Island,” early twentieth-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase for Eurasia joined with Africa, is no longer premature.
The slowly vanishing West abets this development by depositing its seeds of unity into an emerging global culture that spans continents. The erosion of distance by way of technology: new roads, bridges, ports, airplanes, massive container ships, and fiber optic cables. Robert D. Kaplan says that it is important, though, to realize that all this constitutes only one layer of what is happening, for there are more troubling changes, too. Precisely because religion and culture are being weakened by globalization, they have to be reinvented in more severe and ideological form by way of the communications revolution. The examples are Boko Haram and the Islamic State
China is attempting to build a land bridge across Central and West Asia to Europe and a maritime network across the Indian Ocean from East Asia to the Middle East. These land and sea conduits may themselves be interlinked, as China and Pakistan, as well as Iran and India, hope to join the oil and natural gas fields of distant Central Asia. China is branding these infrastructure projects “One Belt, One road” – in fact, a new Silk Road. Robert D. Kaplan writes that the relative and multicultural nature of the Silk Road during the Middle Ages meant that it was no place for orthodoxy or single-mindedness. Medieval travelers on the Silk Road encountered a world that was complex, tumultuous, and menacing, but nonetheless porous. With each new traveler’s account, Europeans saw the world not as smaller and more manageable, but as bigger and more chaotic. Robert D. Kaplan argues that this is a perfect description of our own time, in which the smaller the world actually becomes because of the advance of the technology, the more permeable, complicated, and overwhelming it seems, with it’s numberless, seemingly intractable crises that are all entwined. The late thirteenth-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo who traveled the length and breadth of the Silk Road is most famously associated with this world. And the route he traveled provides as good an outline as any for defining the geopolitics of Eurasia in the coming era.
The Return of Marco Polo’s World once again shows that Robert Kaplan remains the leading proponent of foreign-policy realism. He provides a fresh and unique perspective on the emerging international economic and political system. Robert Kaplan powerfully shows that Eurasia is emerging as a single zone of chaos and conflict. More importantly, he has convincingly argued that America’s ability to influence the balance of power in Eurasia is on the decline. This is a book every foreign policy student and practitioner must read.