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Book Review

Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos  
By Robert D. Kaplan  
Vintage Books  
New York 2003  
198 pp $18.00

This review, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.  Released October 2004

    A couple of year ago, Robert Kaplan’s latest book elicited a chorus of praise from a number of Beltway heavy-hitters, Newt Gingrich and Henry Kissinger among them, and led to a flurry of interviews on various chat shows, in which the author explained why his prescriptions for American foreign policy were an intelligent and necessary response to the world as we know it.

Now the book has appeared in paperback in time to fuel our reflections on the latest Gulf War, an enterprise which, one can confidently assume, Kaplan would find entirely in keeping with his hard-nosed approach, which seeks to persuade us that we should demand our leaders downplay the importance of moral issues in foreign policy and focus entirely on power and winning.  Let us follow, he urges, a morality of self-interested consequences rather than one of good intentions.

In launching his argument, Kaplan begins by staking out what looks like an orthodox conservative position: there is no new world order, there is no discernible pattern to history, no deterministic rule to guide us.  That being the case, we can expect world events to lurch from crisis to crisis, as in the past, and our leaders have to cope as best they can.  In such a situation it’s good to have leaders with character (ethos), men like Churchill, Marshall, Bismarck, and others.

The key characteristic Kaplan wishes us to look for in our leaders, however, is not the traditional conservative notion of virtue, which seeks to guide the necessary use of force and deceit with a wise sense of larger purpose, but rather a pragmatic determination to use whatever means are available to secure our national self-interest at any particular moment.  And by self-interest Kaplan means an effective application of or increase in power so that we, in effect, get what we want. A focus on virtue is a bad thing, so in our foreign policy those who wish to bring in human rights are wrong, and religious values are potentially disastrous. Skilful liars with no reluctance to use force in pursuit of national security are far more successful than moral idealists.

This stance, Kaplan argues, is endorsed by a long tradition of great thinkers or effective achievers.  These he parades haphazardly before us at breakneck speed—Churchill, Livy, Sun-Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Malthus, Tiberius, and so on—interspersed with rapid summaries of various modern political crises meant to illuminate what the ancient writers are advising (Kaplan’s years of distinguished reporting have given him first-hand knowledge of many of these events and their leading players).  If we attend to what he is saying, he assures us, we will not know what to think, but we will learn how to think, at least about foreign policy issues.

In a curious way he does get the reader thinking, but for reasons which, I suspect, would hardly please him.  His argument is so superficial and contradictory and his treatment of the past so cursory and cavalierly reductive that the book becomes a fascinating negative example: whatever intelligent thinking about foreign policy or about the past is exactly, this is clearly not it.

Kaplan quickly gets into some of the familiar difficulties people encounter when they adopt a simplistic defence of self-interest by any means.  To take just one example (familiar to readers of Plato): What effect does a policy of deceit have on the health of the body politic and the conduct of political leaders?  In dealing with this thorny issue, Kaplan tries to distinguish between military and civil leadership, urging the former to follow his advice and the latter not to (“Generals should use deceit; judges should not”).  But when the chief political leader and guardian of the constitution is also commander-in-chief, how is a citizen (or, for that matter, the president himself) to judge which hat he is wearing from one day to the next?  When the judicial branch is a key ally in the war on terror, such easy separation is nothing more than a convenient fiction (especially in America now when appeals court judges are showing “deference” to the executive branch in the interests of national security, as defined by the political leadership). 

Like most people who make this sort of argument, Kaplan relies heavily on examples, none of which is given any detailed treatment.  But examples of successful Machiavellian tactics have a way of working against the argument (as Machiavelli’s Prince demonstrates again and again), simply because (apart from prompting all sorts of counter-examples) they raise embarrassing questions about the nature of political success and what exactly the writer means by self-interest.  When Kaplan praises an Israeli prime minister for using violent means some years ago to promote peace with the Palestinians, for example, one wonders if he has read a newspaper lately.  It’s curious, too, why the example of the Vietnam-Watergate years and of their effect on the political Machiavels at the centre of the action and on the country generally doesn’t raise any doubts in Kaplan’s mind about the case he is making.  No wonder Henry Kissinger praised the book.

The concept of self-interest is a much more complex issue than Kaplan is prepared to admit.  Identifying it with short-term success in a particular political situation ignores the fact that long-term consequences might be much more important to a nation’s future.  I would think that one of the most important things in America’s best interests is maintaining faith in the processes of democratic government and its language of public business.  So larding the State of the Union message with untruths in order to promote an aggressive foreign policy might not be the wisest course of action, especially as casualties accumulate. 

Kaplan again and again runs into the obvious point that without some sense of moral direction a foreign policy has no purpose and becomes simply a power-scramble from one crisis to another, a process in which today’s useful ally is tomorrow’s bitter foe, but he seems unable or unwilling to explore the relationship between such a requirement and the need for morally objectionable means.  Yet that is the heart of the matter.  He, however, is in no mood to linger on complex niceties. He seems to think that by racing ahead at top speed and crying out yet again “power first, values second” the very thin ice he’s moving across won’t collapse under him.

But the most disastrous feature of Kaplan’s book is his treatment of the past.  He clearly has not read carefully many of the books he cites and has no firm grasp on what some key terms mean (one gets the distinct impression in many cases that he has read something about the book, rather than mulled over the original text, and that the main reason for writing his book might be to show off how he can be just as clever as the scholars).

Take the phrase “pagan ethos,” for example.  Kaplan ignores the long and justly famous pagan tradition of virtue as the key element in leadership and insists that a pagan ethos simply means crude Machiavellian tactics in foreign policy—just as he largely ignores the fact that many of those leaders he cites with approval were pious Christians.  The phrase gives the title of the book a nice rhetorical ring, but simply confuses any reader who brings to it a more informed sense of the classical past or of the political contributions of organized religion within our own traditions.

And Kaplan’s imagination is totally out of touch with anything close to a tragic awareness.  Early on he announces grandly that American institutions and their constitution “were conceived by men who thought tragically.”  This turns out to mean that the founding fathers were men who realized that human beings were problematic, hard to govern, greedy, and prone to fighting.  No wonder Kaplan totally misses the point of Thucydides’ great book and can, in fact, derive a comforting moral from one of the most grimly tragic masterpieces of pagan literature: “the acceptance of a world governed by a pagan notion of self-interest exemplified by Thucydides makes statesmanship likelier to succeed.”

Perhaps that’s the reason there’s at least one very prominent omission in Kaplan’s catalogue of great writers from the past—the man who spent much of his creative life in the most profound and often disturbing exploration of those political realities Kaplan wishes to educate us about.  So before he launches his next attempt of this sort it might be helpful to us all if Kaplan spent his time reading and thinking more deeply about what William Shakespeare had to reveal about Machiavellianism.

By the end of the book, Kaplan has shifted from his apparently hard-headed conservatism to cautious optimism about improving the world: “The more respect we have for the truths of the past, the more certain our journey away from it.”  Given Kaplan’s repeated insistence that these past thinkers got it right, this final sentence in his argument implies, ironically enough, that what he is recommending may be the wrong route to take.

Of course we will continue to be faced with exceedingly difficult political crises and will expect our leaders to use a variety of means for dealing with them, including, if necessary, deceit and violence.  But we might remember that when Plato (a fairly well known pagan who thought about these matters, too, and who is also conspicuously absent from Kaplan’s argument) urges wise statesmen to use lies, he adds the word “noble,” and there is still a huge and politically significant difference between a “noble lie” in Plato’s sense and a “self-interested lie” of the sort Kaplan recommends, especially where the most important issues, foreign and domestic, are concerned.

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