I finally read Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon after quite a while wanting to and never getting around it. I’m glad I did, but it wasn’t quite the work of genius that I thought it would be.
As far as I can tell, Kaplan is a fairly balanced moderate, politically speaking, when it comes to world affairs. More importantly, Kaplan seems to have traveled extensively around the area and many of his country portraits are utterly fascinating.
However, the book’s weakness is that format…it sort of starts with an argument, then jumps from country to country. I love that, but it inhibits the book’s coherency. In a sense, Kaplan fails to make a coherent series of arguments because there are so many competing influences to paint portraits of.
That said, it does make one convincing argument: American single-superpower global hegemony is eroding in favor of a more diffuse distribution of power.
I would add the observation, which Kaplan doesn’t make, that the ascendant nations of the Indian Ocean region have very different concerns and challenges than the U.S., but in many ways their expectations are framed by the U.S.’s largely unsustainable model of consumer behavior. Ooops. There’s no way to distribute resources with current technology and not engender disaster within the next fifty years. Without some revolution in sustainable energy, and a second revolution in the use of water, life on Earth is going to get… interesting.
That’s not Kaplan’s focus, however. His focus is geopolitics, and to a lesser extent culture. In that context, it’s an invigorating read.
Its central arguments are in pretty much the same territory as The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria. However, Zakaria was born in India, and strongly focuses on India in that book. This one, while professing a smaller focus, actually covers more ground.
Kaplan’s perspective doesn’t differ that much from Zakaria’s, but Kaplan goes deeper into the culture of the countries of the region other than India.
One of the most important points I get from all my reading on the region is that U.S. policy toward India during the Cold War was problematic. I also consider it tragically wrong-headed. Yeah, that could be said about a lot of places, but in the case of India it’s particularly disappointing.
I could write another 10,000 words on why that is, but I’ll give you the short version. The U.S., with its Cold War view, was pissed off by India’s insistence on remaining non-aligned. Successive U.S. administrations saw the developing flavor of socialism in India to be “pink.” The U.S. spent the next fifty years punishing India politically in various contexts.
It should also be added that Indian immigration to the U.S. was considerably less than it was from other countries, population-for-population.
However, India was NEVER in the Soviet orbit, so the Sino-U.S. Chinese relationship becomes that much more bizarre when compared to U.S.-Indian relations. Anyway…it’s all changing radically, and in fascinating ways. A book worth reading.