Robert D. Kaplan: Europe, the US and early-stage globalization

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 9, 2018 11:16

Robert D. Kaplan: Europe, the US and early-stage globalization

Story Highlights

  • Kaplan’s work over the course of three decades has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc., as well as has accredited him as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers” by the Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 and 2012. His areas of interest took him from the US to Israel and then a multitude of hot-spots for reporters, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans. His firsthand experience as a reporter coupled with his research and publications portfolio make his positive outlook on the current situation in the country a trustworthy, and welcomed, point of view.

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By Sidonja Manushi

The first time Robert D. Kaplan was in Albania, the country was still isolated, deprived and unknown. Although communism was in its final throes, it had not officially fallen, and so nobody from the West had been in the capital, let alone rural areas, for decades.

Passing through the now modern Skanderbeg Square with a tour group from Greece, Kaplan, who was no stranger to the Balkans, then saw a very different image from what one sees strolling down Tirana’s center today: a number of gangs, made up of ten-year-old boys, harassing and pickpocketing around old stores, most of which poor, empty and surprisingly standing despite the cheap quality everything was made of.

“It was like going backwards in time,” says Kaplan now, 28 years later, “and I hadn’t been back since. It is different, like coming to a new country, but having the advantage of having known how far it’s come.”

For Kaplan, renowned American author whose books on foreign affairs and traveling are read from university students to former US President Bill Clinton, distinguishing the sometimes subtle causes and effects of the Hoxha regime in Albanian society makes up part of his life’s work.

“I can see the incredible change and although I have read about it, what strikes me, with people asking my impression of Albania now, etc., is that the worst, the more oppressive the communist system, the harder it is to recover from,” he says, drawing parallels with Romania, from where he was reporting until the 1980s.

Romania, Kaplan notes, was by far the worst communist system in Eastern Europe – apart from Albania. Throughout the 90s, the country was far behind Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic and, although you could still enter Romania and leave its borders, it took 20 years for it to reach normality.

“There are different degrees of hell, and if Romania was in the 8th and a half circle, Albania was in the 9th. So, I’m really sympathetic to the problems, because there was nothing to build on.”

Kaplan’s work over the course of three decades has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc., as well as has accredited him as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers” by the Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 and 2012. His areas of interest took him from the US to Israel and then a multitude of hot-spots for reporters, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans. His firsthand experience as a reporter coupled with his research and publications portfolio make his positive outlook on the current situation in the country a trustworthy, and welcomed, point of view.

“I know there are still problems with the rule of law, crime, smuggling, but to me, it all comes from the regime,” he says, sipping his lemon tea at the Rogner Hotel main lobby. “First, the extreme underdevelopment of the Ottoman world in this region, then the 30s and 40s were really bad, because of foreign geopolitical factors, and then the Hoxha regime. It will take a generation or two more, for this to be a normal country.”

Now well in his 60s, Kaplan is once again traveling the Balkans to gather material for his new book – The Adriatic – which he says won’t be out for another two years, but will focus on the last 25 years while aiming to be of relevance even in ten years. His way to achieve that? Ignore the news; see where the region has gone in a quarter of a century.

His last book on the region, Balkan Ghosts, was published in 1993. Reporting what people on the ground told him in the late 80s as a young journalist, the book’s narrative that the historic, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the Balkans could not be solved by outside intervention were perceived as fatalistic by many at the time.

Kaplan, however, says it was misinterpreted.

“The book wasn’t published until 1993, but it was serialized in The Atlantic in the end of the 1980s…and what was going on at the time? The media was obsessed with El Salvador, Lebanon, Nicaragua, war in all those places…it was just beginning to get interested in Poland, the Baltic states. The wall didn’t fall until the end of ‘89, Yugoslavia didn’t start to collapse till the beginning of ‘91, and the first shot was not fired until June 1991. By that time I had posted excerpts of Ghosts at the Atlantic, so I was doing my job, I was saying this is a region where there are serious, unresolved, ethnic national disputes, and therefore pay attention to it, it has a great future in the news. And in fact what happened, more or less, was an ethnic war, a large number of people were killed and made refugees, and I did my job as a young reporter, so I think Balkan Ghosts was a perfectly valid book for the time when I wrote it.”

And looking back, no one can say it wasn’t. The reason it was perceived as fatalistic, according to Kaplan, is because, after the Cold War, the intellectual community believed liberal democracy was the solution to all problems, and that making any reference to national and ethnic issues was to be fatalistic.

In an article titled The Necessary Empire published in the New York Times last May however, Kaplan said that “only if Serbia, Albania and Kosovo all become members of the union can the ethnic dispute between Serbs and Albanians truly be solved.” In this respect, his view on the Balkans hasn’t changed.

“These states are weak states – some may be stronger than others, but they are not strong like Germany or France, and so their future has to be in what I call a post imperial order, which is the EU.”

As for the backward Balkan mentality, which seems to remain unchanged after years of conflict, lack of proper education and isolation respectively, Kaplan believes the process of EU membership itself “will help Balkan countries along the path of virtue”. Though Albania, Montenegro, Serbia may never reach the level Spain or Italy, the situation will be better than it is now.

In addition, Kaplan, as a geopolitical expert, could list a number of other reasons defending the region’s almost certain future in the EU.

“I think American influence is declining, Russian influence is growing – with little effort from Russia, because it doesn’t need to recreate the Warsaw pact, all it needs is a soft, traditional zone of imperial light influence in Central – Eastern Europe. And the weaker the rule of law, the weaker the institutions, the better it is for Russia. Now the EU has had a difficult ten years – it’s kind of lost its confidence, wrapped up in its own problems, which makes it harder to project power to the next geographical level of states whether it’s Serbia, Albania… Though the US has little direct influence on the daily actions of the EU, American power and values were always like a foundation for both NATO and the EU, it was all part of a system.”

In this context, Kaplan sees the EU in a position of difficulty it hasn’t been in a long time. Lacking visionary leaders, crowded with technocrats and failing to project power, he says even the developments in the other side of the ocean are influencing the course of events in the continent.

“People will disagree, will say oh no, Trump has been good for Europe, he’s letting EU do things on its own; I say this is nonsense. The sense of mission, of American liberal mission, which existed under the most different kind of presidents, whether it was George W. Bush, or his father, or Barack Obama, it was all different levels but it existed. For the first time now, I feel it does not exist.”

And for him, isolation is not where we should be heading, but globalization is yet to be achieved. Kaplan describes the present world order as early-stage globalization, as opposed to the cosmopolitanism most people believe we have achieved.

“We think of globalization as an end-state. The world is globalized, we’re all cosmopolitan people, I’m Singaporean, I’m married to a German, my children speak 3 languages, we travel around the world by plane, we go to fancy conferences, but this is a very early, superficial stage, because it only affects the highly educated and people who are successful at the top end of academia, of business, of politics…”

The rest – the majority – still has to grapple with cultural, national barriers and these things shape the way people perceive reality. Kaplan believes a later stage of globalization will wear these perceptions away and, consequently, shape and change the identities that might now hinder interstate relations. What speeds things up is the great technological developments which, as Kaplan describes, enable people to see what is happening in the rest of the world.

“The first stage of change is to know what the outside world is doing. Throughout the Cold War nobody knew what the outside world was doing; now everybody knows. And then comes the hard part, to make it more like the outside world, and that takes a generation or two, or more.”

But the final lesson from Kaplan is that while we are heading towards real globalization, every country should find – and keep – its own speed.

For Albania, this could mean maintaining a certain pace in joining the EU – not flying too close to the sun.

“The best example I can give you is Greece. In the 1830s, after Greece got its independence from the Ottomans, there was this Greek leader, Kapodistrias, whom Albert Rakipi mentioned over dinner a couple of days ago; he said ‘Greece will be like France, we have to make Greece like France’. 200 years later, Greece is not like France. Don’t move too fast.  Forget for the moment about Schengen, forget about the euro, the economy has to develop much more, the rule of law institutions must develop much more before you can get to that stage…not everyone has to be on the same lane, in terms of speed.”

Quality, according to him, is more important than speed and although Albania will not be like Italy in ten years, it will still go a long way – because it has already come a long way. Europe will have its stronger states and its weaker states, its better governed states, and its worse governed states and, while the world is heading towards elimination of cultural and national barriers, chances are next time Kaplan visits Albania, the country will present itself even more altered to him.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 9, 2018 11:16