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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Robert Kaplan: Think “Tragically” About War and Politics

In The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, just out from Yale, Kaplan brings a bleak outlook drawn from Greek tragedy to the practice of statecraft. He wants to bend practitioners’ attitudes toward healthy caution. 

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).
PHILIPPINE SEA (Feb. 28, 2022) Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Anatalia Zamora, from Midland, Texas, runs to a safe distance before an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the "Tophatters" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability through alliances and partnerships while serving as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Singley) 220228-N-MM912-1137

Robert D. Kaplan ranks among this generation’s foremost commentators on international affairs, leavening reportage from the world’s farthest recesses with insights drawn from history, philosophy, and literature. Kaplan may have written his capstone work, but it’s more of an extended literary essay than his more traditional fare. In The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, just out from Yale, Kaplan brings a bleak outlook drawn from Greek tragedy to the practice of statecraft. He wants to bend practitioners’ attitudes toward healthy caution. 

Read the whole thing. 

This is not Kaplan’s first foray into Greek antiquity as a guide to diplomacy and warfare. Around the turn of the century he consulted classical historians such as Thucydides, often acclaimed the father of history, and Herodotus, history’s crazy uncle, along with other philosophers of bareknuckles politics—Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and kindred practitioner-scribes. He compiled his meditations into a short treatise titled Warrior Politics, subtitling it Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. 

In The Tragic Mind as in Warrior Politics, the author pleads with statesmen and soldiers to see the world as it is rather than how they want it to be. Here he turns to the inventors of tragedy, playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, for inspiration. His central idea is that “anxious foresight” constitutes the proper posture for makers and executors of policy and strategy. Oracles deceive; the world obtusely refuses to submit to human designs; actions have unintended and unwanted consequences; human beings are prone to hubris—outrageous pride that goes before a fall. 

This is reality—and it warrants caution. 

Successful practitioners of statecraft attune themselves to such unpleasant yet implacable realities. They set a high standard of proof for themselves before making the decision to launch themselves and their nations into such risky enterprises as power politics or warfare. That’s why Kaplan’s phrase anxious foresight is so well conceived. That foresight is a cardinal virtue is a staple among contributors to the strategic canon. But at the same time ancient Greeks—along with the Machiavellis and Clausewitzes of later centuries—entreat us to remember the limits to human foresight. 

Humility, in other words, is as important as foresight among human virtues. It tempers ambition. All of us should be anxious about our limits—and pause to reflect before setting out to reshape the world around us. Would that Vladimir Putin had taken an anxious, fatalistic attitude before marching Russia into its military misadventure in Ukraine last year. The world would be a better place. 

If you haven’t figured it out, I am a fan of The Tragic Mind, and I hope it finds wide readership among those in authority and those who oversee them. But I’m also conflicted about it as I seldom have been about Kaplan’s past works. Two critiques, one major, one minor. First, a repeated refrain in the book is that order is always better than anarchy. For example, in his commentary on Hamlet—Shakespeare is another author of Greek temperament whom Kaplan often brings up—the author proclaims that “order is paramount. It is the first step toward civilization. Only afterward can the work begin to make order less coercive.” 

This Hobbesian claim seems to have come out of Kaplan’s experiences on the ground in Iraq, when he witnessed the tyranny of Saddam Hussein firsthand and later, following the 2003 invasion, saw the mayhem that convulsed that unhappy land after the despot’s overthrow. Leviathan was unpleasant but better than the alternative. Kaplan wrestles with the implications of declaring order paramount. He seems to espy two problems: how to reform a tyrannical order if suffering under one, and how to replace a tyrannical order swiftly and with minimal chaos if you decide to essay regime change. 

It’s hard to see how Saddam’s rule could have been reformed from within. It was tried during the 1990s to no avail. Is a boot stamping on a human face forever really preferable to temporary anarchy that gives way to something more humane? I doubt Winston Smith would agree. Now, whether regime change should have been imposed from without is another question, and how the coalition tried to bring about regime change certainly deserves censure. It became clear fairly early on after the 2003 invasion that the U.S. military had forgotten its own counterinsurgent past. Political and military chieftains had little inkling that anarchy would sweep Iraq once Saddam’s boot was lifted, and little idea of how to replace tyranny with something better. 

Needless human suffering resulted from the dearth of anxious foresight—as Kaplan points out. 

Still, I would amend Kaplan’s claim slightly but significantly: order is always preferable to anarchy if there’s some realistic route to improve the existing order. That’s the point Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick made many years ago when distinguishing garden-variety dictatorships from totalitarian rule: the former could be moderated and improved over time while the latter could not. I think I’m with Kirkpatrick on this one. 

Order is usually better than anarchy, but never say always. 

That’s the major quibble. The minor one also relates to the invasion of Iraq and postwar anarchy. Over the past two decades Robert Kaplan has gone out of his way to remind readers that he backed the invasion and that he now considers that a mistake. I admire his honesty. It’s unusual. It’s far more common among commentators to quietly move on to some other topic after blundering, and without ever fessing up to the blunder. But Kaplan goes to the opposite extreme. I think after twenty years we can all stipulate that he believes he erred by failing to exercise anxious foresight. And we can move on without further ado, thanking him for his candor. He made a good-faith error at worst, and frankly the invasion’s aftermath would have turned out better had anxious foresight prevailed among coalition leaders. 

Had political and military leaders heeded his counsel, in other words: Warrior Politics appeared on the eve of the invasion. Flinty-eyed coalition leaders may have fared better in Iraq. 

For the record, I also backed the invasion. I did so “tepidly,” as I remember telling one of my University of Georgia colleagues when she asked the day before the armies stepped out. Tepidly because so much can go wrong in politics and warfare. (Not that my views mattered much back then; I was a Ph.D. student and university researcher writing for a regional newspaper in Georgia. If I was an opinion-maker, it was on a small scale.) Like Kaplan, I had humanitarian motives for going along with the endeavor, having been in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and seen the brutality that befell the Marsh Arabs and other rebellious segments of the Iraqi populace after coalition forces withdrew. 

But mostly I backed the undertaking because I saw it as a defense of the U.N. system: Saddam had repeatedly defied U.N. Security Council resolutions enacted following Desert Storm, and eventually there had to be a penalty for defying the ceasefire terms and related U.N. mandates. QED. 

That’s essentially the case Robert Kaplan has been making about the Biden administration’s stance toward the Russo-Ukraine war. The White House portrays the war as a struggle between freedom and autocracy; Kaplan has urged U.S. leaders to recast it as a defense of the system of international law and order, and in particular of the principle that the strong may not amend international frontiers by force of arms at the expense of the weak. That principle has been enshrined in international law at least since the League of Nations Covenant a century ago. It’s worth defending. 

Granted, back in 2003 coalition leaders did not frame their case chiefly in terms of upholding the integrity of international law. But they could have, rather than burrow down the rabbit hole of weapons of mass destruction. An appeal to the rule of law would have made sense vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein’s Iraq then, and it makes sense in policy toward Russia and Ukraine today. 

So enough with the regrets, Professor Kaplan—and keep the good books coming! 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Jim

    May 8, 2023 at 1:32 pm

    There’s another book of fiction, a novella, titled Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, 1937, which suggests, “The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.”

    It would seem in the last 20 odd years the foreign policy establishment has forgotten the lessons which Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Steinbeck flesh out, one via historical analysis and the other by way of fiction.

    The author of the present article doesn’t call out what leaped off the page for me; Mr. Kaplan is describing what I and many others call Realism.

    The international diplomacy & geopolitical school of Realism possibly best embodied (or known via of) by John Mearsheimer @ the University of Chicago.

    Realism takes into account the possibility of failure and to guard against it by using foresight into various scenarios or outcomes from a given policy… the cautionary principle is also recognized by the school of Realism… as it is also by Kaplan.

    On the other hand, there is Neoconservatism where plunging into a war situation is done with little thought or insight into what might happen as a result of the “regime change” operation, either because the effort (whether war, “color revolution,” or coup) has potential to damage United States foreign relations or the aftermath ends up hurting U. S. national interests (see Iraq & Afghanistan… and Syria).

    Neoconservative geopolitical thinking has been shown to fail, time after time.

    It’s time to replace it with something… more realistic… which doesn’t damage the United States’ international relations and geopolitical standing.

    I’m sick of neocon fantasies… not working out.

    In the Multi-polar world (the “Uni-polar” moment has past) Realism is a much better approach than the arrogance, hubris, and failure of Neoconservatism.

  2. Duane

    May 8, 2023 at 3:34 pm

    Regarding Iraq, we had other options that we could have pursued, and should most definitely have pursued, other than invading and taking out Saddam Hussein. No matter how desperately bad he and his regime were, war is worse.

    How many so-called “marsh Arabs”, about whose plight we heard so much of in the late 1990s and early 00s, were actually killed under Saddam’s misrule?

    Nobody seems to have an exact number, but it is known that the total population of marsh Arabs in 1991 was only about 500 thousand, of whom Saddam “killed thousands”.

    So how many Iraqis, regardless of whose side they were on, died during the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011 when hostilities briefly ended, just before ISIS supplanted Al Queda as terror masters in Iraq? Again, nobody really knows, but estimates of both military and mostly civilian deaths due to the invasion and the following insurgency range up to 1.1 million killed, and millions more maimed.

    Did we really cause the deaths of 1.1 million in order to save a few thousand marsh Arabs? Does anyone actually think of or pay any attention to marsh Arabs today?

    The thing is with war, all wars, is that they are uncontrollable, and contrary to the hubristic thinking of both civilian and military leaders, war cannot be carefully calibrated. It is the bluntest of all tools wielded by human beings. Like using a mallet to conduct brain surgery.

    Nobody would have launched the war in Iraq justified by saving a few thousand now totally forgotten marsh Arabs by killing more than a million other Iraqis, none of whom asked to be made to suffer such an onslaught.

    Ditto with most other wars – they quickly get out of hand or turn into long bloody slogs where nobody seems to be winning – see, “Ukraine War – 2022-202?.

    Wars are sometimes necessary, but usually can be avoided, even the so-called “good wars” like WW Two. We didn’t make the Japanese attack us or the Germans attack Europe, but we clearly got in their faces, led by a President who was itching to get the US into the middle of it, and did numerous provocative acts like blockading Japanese sources of oil and metals, and by aggressively attacking German U-boats that were attacking British convoys. We weren’t innocents as our leaders of the time pretended. We could have done differently, and not going to war wouldn’t have ended evil, but we could have avoided losing 400+ thousand dead Americans and turned our civilian economy into a war economy. And assisted in the deaths of 60 million others in Europe and Asia using American supplied weapons.

    But we never seem to learn. I am no pacifist, but war should always be a last resort.

  3. Commentar

    May 8, 2023 at 3:51 pm

    Biden, who recently told the media in a very confidential manner, that he’s got one big hell of wisdom.

    That was exactly what LBJ did in 1964, and also what Clinton did in 1964, and exactly what Obama performed in 2009.

    Confidentially full of wisdom. Indeed.

    Instead of pursuing peace and progress, all the actors singlemindedly pursued America’s expansion of influence and power.

    The result was chaos and turmoil in the lands directly affected by their wisdom plus secondary long lasting effects on the rest of the world.

    Of all of them, Biden is definitely the worst. He’s now peddling the newest religion which is full of wisdom.

    The religion of globalist apostate woke imperialism that all nations must now accept or else.

    Thus the danger of ww3 suddenly erupting upon humanity has never been greater like today.

    It’s crystal clear globalism + wokeism + imperialism = ww3.

  4. David Chang

    May 8, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Thanks Dr. for the morality question.

    We study justice by Ten constitutions that God gave to Moses, but Professor Kaplan’s thought violates Ten Commandments. The civilization he talks about is not justice, but is worshiping reason and is for desire, so it means that people are under democracy, and people are under people.

    Greek philosophy opposes justice, and Greek people think themselves as good, which is the cause of Greek tragic thought, such as Sisyphus, which is also the cause of Roman people worshiping presidents or kings as gods, such as Deo Invicto. The late wrong thought as the same of Greek people is Gnostic School.

    Although Sun Tzu’s political opponent has immoral actions on Sun Tzu, making Sun Tzu to be disabled for life, some of Sun Tzu’s military thoughts are also immoral. He encourages soldiers to rob foreign people, and encourages kings to use his people.

    The more immoral people is Machiavelli, he teaches king to use his people and murder foreign people for king’s benefit, and teaches king to murder parents, brothers, sisters and children for the throne, because he does not trust God, and he thinks himself as wise people of the country, then teaches king to worship the country. So his wisdom, like the wisdom of people in Greece and Rome, is sin. Moreover, most political scholars in the world don’t obey Ten Commandments and teach students to be Machiavelli.

    Because God created the universe and people, and granted us life and property, the U.S. military should obey moral law and achieve justice, so that soldiers will understand the reasons for the failure of the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the Afghan War is worshiping democracy. So people will not join the antiwar political party after failure. For example, Bertrand Russell encouraged the murder of Russia People before World War II. and cooperated with Communist Party to judge the military behaviors of the U.S..

    There are also military thoughts in Old Testament, not to rob or usurp the property of foreign peoples. “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”

    So Augustine promotes just war theory to show that Greek and Roman philosophy are the cause of the ruin of Rome. Because of the same reason, it is impossible for Sun Tzu’s to protect the country, even if he defeats enemies with his military thoughts, his strategy is to encourage the king to keep fighting, which will only lead to the ruin of the country. Machiavelli’s thought is the same as Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, they only believe the survival of the fittest.

    Finally, we shall know the law and order is of God, but not of democracy.

    Gravity and Ten Commandments are laws and order dictated by God. Therefore, Captain Mahan’s sea power theory is not a theory for the CCP to occupy the South China Sea. The CCP’s theory of occupying the South China Sea is related to UNCLOS article 92. They think that ship is an artificial island, so they occupy the South China Sea with artificial islands by UNCLOS article 92.

    But, the law and order of God is the cause of peace, and is the reason for politics, and is the theory of government.

    God bless America.

  5. David Chang

    May 8, 2023 at 4:34 pm


    God bless people in the world.

    “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”

    When I saw the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani worshipping God in the annual Eid al-Adha, I think the president does not obey ten commandments, he forget the law and order of God, so the other socialism party occupy Afghan.

    God bless America.

  6. Ceiphied

    May 8, 2023 at 6:00 pm

    “Would that Vladimir Putin had taken an anxious, fatalistic attitude before marching Russia into its military misadventure in Ukraine last year. The world would be a better place. ”

    Sadly not ! Ukraine’s leader said he wanted to retake the Donbass (and Crimea) by force. (which is why the Minsk Accord were so important, to create a great Ukrainian army in several years to finally be powerful enough, with Nato weapons&ammo&logistic support&intelligence, to challenge Russia

    -Donbass is one thing but Crimea is seen as protected by nuclear weapons in Russia so any successful attack… we know how it work, that’s nuclear dissuassion)

    So the war would happen no matter what. Even if Russia didn’t foolishly declare it and instead declare it would end the bloodshed in the Donbass -and making the Donbass’s “republics” whole-, the moment Crimea was attacked or the Donbass was (or about to be) lost, Russia would have no choice but to intervene.

    Maybe then, Russia’s attritional war would then work better with a shorter frontline. (by not sacrifying soldiers with the stupid attack from Belarus -stupid because it didn’t work, because there were saboteurs harming logistic, because Putin didn’t thought Ukraine’s army was training since 2014 with Nato’s help while Russian’s army didn’t -since Russia’s intervention in Syria gave intelligence about what to expect)

  7. Jim

    May 8, 2023 at 6:39 pm

    Another concept in the school of Realism thought is expressed by the word ‘Restraint.’

    It’s not used in the article, but the related idea is certainly there in the phrase, “anxious foresight.”

    Tell me the last time Neoconservatives used or respected ‘restraint’ in any of their policy prescriptions?


  8. pagar

    May 8, 2023 at 9:08 pm

    There was once a famous person who allegedly said that if fate is stronger than your will then that’s destiny.

    But today many leaders who purportedly have massive mountains of wisdom in their tiny withered brains think or believe they are the god on earth. The hell with destiny.

    Heck, they can’t even solve the galloping issues happening right at home yet profess to have god-like answers to problems far off abroad.

    Revelation chapter 18.
    The whole world is worshipping the apostate.
    All the nations are caught up in the craze of his amazing authority.
    He has wiped out the religious and put forward his own.
    He has the world worship him as God.

    But a strong warning comes for that leader of the land of babylon – the babylon of the future will become a haven for demons and scavenger birds during the appointed time of its desolation.

    Now, does that leader who professes to have great wisdom in his withered head understand that message.

  9. David Chang

    May 9, 2023 at 7:08 am

    Because of sin, realism or liberalism or whatever the academy noun that scholars say is unknown. The foresight, vision, gaze, or sight is not real.

    Because of sin, even if foresight is true, even if foresight is said to be prophecy or prophet in Bible, murder and robbery from ancient times to the present are never changed, although atomic energy, hypersonic or directed energy weapons look like science fiction or magic.

    Most China people, including people in Taiwan Province, do not believe a nuclear war in the future, they always mock and say: I bet it is not. 

    So Admiral Charles A. Richard talk to people about the major risks in the future, which are prohibited by Democratic Parties in East Asia. People in East Asia don’t discuss the warning of the US Strategic Command on newspapers and television.

    God bless America.

  10. David Chang

    May 9, 2023 at 10:01 am

    God bless people in the world.


    The book of Revelation is not truth, the author of Revelation does not confess his sin and repent to God, so the Revelation is the same as the Gnostics School.

    This is also the reason for many debates after Vietnam socialism warfare. People who oppose Democratic Party and Mr. Kerry should comment on the war behavior of Democratic Party and Mr. Kerry by Ten Commandments, and first accuse Democratic Party of cooperating with Communist Party to occupy Asia and making a socialism alliance. Then talk about the moral responsibility of the Democratic Party provoking the Communist Party and causing the Vietnam socialism warfare.

    Also because the Democratic-Republican party do not obey Ten Commandments, they do not talk about socialism warfare when they talk about strategy competition or competition strategy or competitive strategy or strategic competition. Only talking about competition, only promoting atheism, so they are promoting socialism and evolution.

    But Mr. Lincoln remind us to obey Ten Commandments, because the judgements of God are always true and righteous alltogether.

    God bless America.

  11. David Chang

    May 9, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Thanks Doctor for the morality question of how we should explain the Vietnam War and the Iraq War is right or wrong. This question is the same as the right and wrong of the crusaders, chivalry and the rules of warfare, as the sin of hero worship, Iliad, Odyssey, Zeus and Hera.

    Because of sin, people who call themselves anti-racism, anti-imperialism, or anti-fascism are propagating the worship of democracy and science which is the same as Nazi and Communist Party, so they do not obey Ten Commandments, nor do they believe that God created the universe and people.

    They make the League of Nations and the United Nations, and help Communist Party to convince Asia people of atheism, and help to establish the Communist Party of various countries, and to be the Socialism International or the Workers’ International. The Iran-Iraq War is a war of competing for socialism representation between two Islamic socialism countries, and the Jordan River War is a socialism war between these two socialism countries, Israel and Palestine. However, these socialism wars are instigated by Democratic Party and Communist Party, but the Republican Party also do not obey Ten Commandments, thus helping Democrats and Communists to expand socialism warfare, accumulate hatred, and cause more wars.

    So they led to Bush and Cheney’s atheism defense policy and preventive war. Although there is a difference between preventive diplomacy and preventive war. The former makes financial policy to be an alternative for war, while the latter makes war to be an alternative for financial policy. However, both policies are determined by psychology and sociology. These are atheism, so it is impossible to stop war, but cause more hatred, which the Communist Party says is a humanitarian crisis. But humanism is to worship people.

    Therefore, the Iraq war is one of socialism warfare. However, if people in Iraq obey Ten Commandments and swear to God that they would never believe socialism and evolution, and oppose the worship of democracy and science, then the Iraq people would establish a good and peaceful country by themselves.

    God bless America.

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