Why Cold War Presidents Were Better

By Robert Kaplan
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The post-Cold War is less one-dimensionally geographic. But geography still plays a significant role. Russia still seeks to undermine Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia for the sake of buffer zones. China covets adjacent seas in the Western Pacific as well as the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Japan, Vietnam and other Pacific nations push back at China for the same geographical reasons. China and India engage in an intensifying, albeit quiet, strategic rivalry. Energy deposits in the Persian Gulf, North America and elsewhere will continue to determine power relationships more than any lofty ideas. Israelis and Palestinians battle in zero-sum style over the same territory. The toppling of a regime in Iraq abets Iranian influence, even as a civil war in Syria may possibly undermine it. A dictatorship dissolves in Libya, indirectly leading to the dissolution of nearby Mali into anarchy. These are all geographical phenomena about which globalization -- with which elites are so fixated -- has relatively little to say.

While it is true that financial markets and electronic communications make the world more integrated, they also make geography more claustrophobic, so that an obscure geopolitical competition in one area echoes worldwide. Every place matters now to a degree it didn't before. Even the militarization of space and cyber warfare have geographical dimensions. After all, cyber attacks by China against the United States are simply another form of warfare directed from one continental-sized country in Asia against another in North America. These are realities that the Pentagon, for one, has deeply internalized.

However, American elites, who help condition the thinking of American leaders, have become spellbound over democratization, humanitarianism and other values-driven enterprises, so that leaders must make excuses for acting geopolitically to a degree they never had to during the Cold War. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, could justify moving closer to totalitarian China in geopolitical terms, without the risk of embarrassment or the need for excuses. But Obama has been castigated in the media on moral grounds for wanting to improve relations with a far less authoritarian regime in Russia, even though it may make geopolitical sense to do so. It certainly isn't that Obama is dumber than Nixon, or thinks less in terms of geography than Nixon. It's more that he is operating in a less serious public policy climate, and that helps make his public explanations less serious.

It was easier for Cold War presidents to explain their actions geopolitically. Nowadays presidents continue to want to act geopolitically and periodically do so, but more often they have to explain their actions solely in moral terms. Thus, by speaking exclusively in moral terms, they, counterintuitively, lack the courage of their convictions. Reagan's morality was in line with his geopolitics -- eject Red Army troops from Central and Eastern Europe in order to end regime-inflicted poverty and tyranny there. Conversely, Obama speaks out against the tyranny of the al Assad regime in Syria while doing relatively little to undermine it, because he does not want the United States to own, even partially, the responsibility for the ground situation there. But Obama rarely speaks honestly about this. Thus, his policy lacks serious purpose.

Geopolitics is not immoral. Actually, as many a Cold War president showed, it can be quite moral. If a liberal democracy like the United States does not employ geopolitics to its own purposes, illiberal autocracies like China and Iran certainly will -- and will have the field to themselves. Indeed, China is acting and speaking geopolitically in the South and East China seas; Iran is doing likewise in Iraq and Syria. When post-Cold War presidents justify to the American people their actions in geopolitical terms, the public will likely understand and support them, even if some sectors of the elite do not. And from that will flow a more serious, more coherent foreign policy.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

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