Mises Daily Articles

Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Twitter icon
Home | Mises Library | The Statist Ethos

The Statist Ethos

  • Soldiers Marching

Tags Big GovernmentGlobal EconomyLegal SystemWar and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryPolitical Theory

03/14/2002H.A. Scott Trask

In late January, the diligent Internet surfer might have come across a chilling exchange of letters between Robert Wright and Robert D. Kaplan, the latter a respected foreign correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly; an author who has written a number of books based on his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, and North America; and war guru of the moment. Kaplan's books blend history, current affairs, and forecasts of future world trends.  

The first two letters reveal that Kaplan favors some form of "benevolent global hegemony" exercised by the United States. He instructs Wright that "nation-building requires the implicit assumption that we will only have one or two nations at a time to rebuild."  This sentence reflects what Kaplan believes to be humility and realism.

Kaplan goes on to write, "we need to be involved everywhere, but deeply imbedded almost nowhere, so that our policymakers have the flexibility to deal with surprises all the time."  Here is another example of Kaplanite "realism." We can and should be "involved" everywhere but "deeply embedded almost nowhere."  

It is hard to say whether Kaplan thinks whether the presence of U.S. combat troops along the DMZ, fifty years after the end of the Korean War, is an example of being "deeply imbedded," or whether our ongoing and open-ended military occupation of Bosnia with the construction of Camp Bondsteel is another example. At any event, he supports both commitments, so evidently he does not think them a problem.

Kaplan's third letter is more ominous. In it, he admits his emphasis is "operational" (a curious word for a journalist). "One employs the methods and ground-level emphasis on experience--emblemized by the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes--in order to achieve the principled goals of Kant." The principled goals of Kant would be things like free trade, universal peace, and the rule of reason.  If you are thinking that Kaplan might be endorsing the ancient doctrine that the end justifies the means, you would be right; but more on that later.  Kaplan saves his best for last, and he deserves to be quoted in full:

I am not concerned with being on the right side of history. That tends to be an obsession of Marxists and other utopians. Rather, I am concerned with the United States maneuvering in a wily enough fashion to preserve its power for enough decades, so that interlocking global institutions can mature in the meantime, leading to the world governance--not government--that I know you and I both support.  And world order of some moderate, virtuous kind can only be fostered by the organizing principle of a great power, driven by its own self-interest.  Patriotism will have to survive long enough in our country to support a foreign policy that will ultimately make such patriotism obsolete.

One might be forgiven for thinking that there is little difference in practice between world government and "world governance."  Kaplan's newest book, Warrior Politics:  Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House, 2002), includes the details and elucidation of the program boldly announced in the paragraph above. In many ways, it is the successor volume to his widely read Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000). Kaplan's new book, and the doctrine contained therein, is endorsed by Henry Kissinger, William J. Perry (Clinton Sec. of Defense), William S. Cohen (Clinton Sec. of Defense), Newt Gingrich, Denis Bovin (the vice chairman of Bear Stearns), and Norman Augustine (the CEO of Lockheed Martin)

 In Coming Anarchy, Kaplan warned that the twenty-first century could develop into a Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation, resource depletion, famine, water shortages, pandemics, chaotic mega cities, and growing income divides between rich and poor--all of which would nurture increased terrorism, ethnic conflict, religious extremism, and worldwide civil conflict, a kind of Hobbesian state of nature.

Kaplan denied that technology and economic growth could avert such a catastrophe by themselves, for he believes that many of the most beneficial trends of our day--the explosion of information and communication technology, economic development in the Third World, even democracy--have a down side and are themselves contributing to "the coming anarchy."  

What then is to be done?  How are we to continue to enjoy the fruits of progress without succumbing to the anarchic forces unleashed by capitalism, technology, and freedom?  Kaplan's Pagan Ethos provides the solution. It is nothing less than "a global Leviathan," which he defines as "global governance" through a system of "converging globalist institutions" administered by a "new global upper class."  

Kaplan admits that he is extending Hobbes's justification for absolute monarchy to the whole world, with the exception that "global elites," rather than a single national monarch, shall exercise power. However, before this system is fully in place, there is a need for "a global hegemon" to safeguard order, punish the recalcitrant, and help build and strengthen the globalist institutions that will eventually take over.  That hegemon is, of course, the United States of America.   

What if the American citizenry and/or soldiery object to paying taxes and spilling their blood for this hubristic project of centralized world order?  Not to worry, says Kaplan. They simply shall not be told.  On the contrary, elites shall make "primitive" appeals to patriotism in order to elicit the requisite sacrifice by the American people.

In Kaplan's words, "American patriotism--honoring the flag, July Fourth celebrations, and so on--must survive long enough to provide the military armature for an emerging global civilization that may eventually make such patriotism obsolete."  Kaplan has in mind such institutions as the International Criminal Court at the Hague, which he describes as the entering wedge for world government:  "The court (along with other supranational authorities) is only the start of a process to create an international Leviathan."

It will do no good to remind Kaplan that his methods are deceptive, for he is a confessed disciple of Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu.  He believes that politics is "the art of deceit" and that actions should be judged by results, not by some internal morality inherent in the actions themselves. He writes: "as Machiavelli says, in an imperfect world men bent on doing good--and who have responsibility for the welfare of a great many others--must know occasionally how to be bad, and to savor it" [emphasis mine].

Kaplan is quite specific about the kinds of means that shall be necessary. They include deceiving the news media, overthrowing democracy, political assassinations, torture, bombing civilians, waging unjust war, ignoring public opinion, acting without democratic approval, and supporting brutal, autocratic regimes.  

Kaplan is well aware that such practices, as well as the theory which purports to justify them, violate traditional ideas of morality and hence present a kind of problem.  His solution is to discard all ethical scruples informed by Christianity as a childish impediment to energetic and creative statecraft.  He dismisses the just war tradition as na├»ve, hopelessly subjective, and foolish, for unjust wars sometimes have to be waged.  

He argues "the Mexican War was probably unjust--motivated as it was by sheer territorial aggression."  However, "it was a war worth fighting" because the United States gained an enormous new territory. Kaplan is not only saying that unjust wars can be justified by their beneficial consequences. He is saying that wars of territorial aggression should be judged by who is invading whom. Countries that seem to have Kaplan's permission to invade their neighbors include ancient Rome, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, and the United States; countries that do not are Sparta, Germany, Japan, and Italy. Similarly, Kaplan believes that there are "good" empires (Rome, Great Britain, the USA) and "bad" ones (Germany, Japan).

Kaplan praises the following statesmen for practicing "Machiavellian virtue" and following a "morality of consequence": Lincoln ("sufficiently ruthless to target the farms, homes, and factories of Southern civilians"); Roosevelt (lying and plotting to involve his countrymen in a war they opposed); Churchill (making an alliance with Stalin); and Kissinger (cutting a deal with Communist China). He praises the following recent leaders for suspending Western values in order to maintain order: King Hussein of Jordan (dissolving a democratic parliament and violently suppressing the Palestinians), Hosni Mubarak (ignoring human rights), Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (disregarding individual liberties), Perez Musharraf of Pakistan (overthrowing democracy), Richard Holbrooke (bombing Serbia), and Yitzhak Rabin (urging his troops to break the bones of the Palestinians).  However, Chile's Augusta Pinochet employed "excessive violence and thus lacks Machiavellian virtue."  

Kaplan clearly sees himself standing in what he describes as the realistic and pragmatic tradition of Western political theory and statesmanship: Thucydides, Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Malthus, Kant, Reinhold Niebuhr, Raymond Aron, and George Kennan.  Kaplan claims all of them as authority for his "pagan ethos" and globalist world order.  

Against such tough-minded realists, Kaplan contrasts Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch jurist and classical liberal, whose just-war doctrine and devotion to a system of sovereign states under "international law" Kaplan derides as "fundamentally utopian."  Kaplan wants to overthrow sovereign states, and he sees just-war theories and international law as obstacles to this end.  

Assessment and Analysis

Pagan Ethos is a deeply dishonest and contradictory book, in addition to its monstrous ethic.  Let us begin with the Western thinkers whom Kaplan claims as authorities for his project of Machiavellian ruthlessness and Hobbesian world government.  Kaplan does not honestly represent their views.  

Thucydides was not an apologist for the Athenian empire. On the contrary, he was loyal to the decentralized city-state system of his native Greece, and he regarded Athenian defeat during the Peloponnesian War as divine retribution for her imperial ambitions and hubris. Augustine would have regarded his "pagan ethos" and plans for "world governance" as nothing less than demonic.  Machiavelli was not a theorist without a country but an Italian nationalist who wanted to see his country free of foreign political control. George Kennan opposed every one of Clinton's "humanitarian" interventions (every one of which Kaplan endorses), and he still believes in sovereign states. 

Kaplan's analysis of various world leaders, past and present, is marked by a heap of contradictions. He extols Winston Churchill for realizing that because "Britain was near sunset," she should support the rising global hegemon--the United States of America.  By doing so, his country could "recede gracefully from history." Yet, just three pages later, he writes, "it was the virtuous patriotism Churchill took from those like Livy that helped him maintain the British Empire."  

Apparently, Kaplan seems to be saying that Churchill saved the British Empire long enough to hand it over to the United States and the Soviet Union, the new progressive hegemons.  What an accomplishment!  

Kaplan praises Thucydides for "introducing a comprehensive pragmatism into political discourse" and Isaiah Berlin for defending "bourgeois pragmatism," yet on the previous page, Neville "Chamberlain's pragmatism" is contrasted unfavorably with Churchill's "moral passion" and "sentimentality."  Earlier, Kaplan had praised Churchill's "skepticism" and "realism."  Later in the book, Kaplan confesses to being an "idealist" in the tradition of Churchill and Kant.  

He praises Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for his Machiavellian "ruthlessness against the Palestinians" because such ruthlessness enabled him to rise to power and "make peace with the Palestinians." Yet, by Kaplan's own mercenary standards, Rabin was an abysmal failure.  His great "peace" lasted only a short time before being shattered by a new and far more violent intifada.  Israel remains in a state of war with the Palestinians.

Kaplan claims the mantle of realism and denigrates utopianism, yet he endorses every ideological and moral crusade from Lincoln's war against the South to Clinton's terror bombing of Belgrade.  He tries to cover his tracks by claiming that American intervention in the Balkans was dictated by both moral and strategic considerations. Clinton, Albright, and Clark made the same claim.  Neither they, nor Kaplan himself, have ever bothered to offer a rational argument why intervening in the Balkans was in the national interest. Their persistent failure to do so, coupled with Kaplan's in this very book, indicates that it was not in the national interest.  Furthermore, one may well ask what is more utopian: Grotius's system of sovereign states regulating their affairs by means of the law of nations, or Kaplan's project of "world governance" and "universal society"?  

Kaplan also wants to have it both ways with democracy.  On the one hand, he is against it.  He describes it as a "destabilizing" factor in today's world, "as prone to war as other regimes," as granting too much power to the "masses," and as an impediment to the process of strengthening globalist institutions and rendering the nation-state a thing of the past.  Thus, he thinks it necessary to overthrow democracy from time to time, and the U.S. government has been justified in doing just that repeatedly in the past.  

On the other hand, he claims that his system of global government will be "democratic" and that the U.S. government has the right to overthrow nondemocratic regimes and impose democracy by force everywhere in the world. Kaplan writes, "greater freedom and more democracy may be the outcomes of a universal society, but its creation cannot be wholly democratic." His book closes with this gem:  "Indeed, the restraining power of our own democracy makes it hard for us to demand and orchestrate authentic democratic transitions elsewhere.  Only through stealth and foresight can America secure a secure international system."  In other words, we must repress democracy at home in order to impose it abroad, only to have that eventually supplanted by a "democratic" world state.  

Kaplan goes on at great length about the fallacies and follies inherent in various forms of historical "determinism," yet he argues that an effective foreign policy requires "a limited degree of determinism."  Likewise, he assures his readers that "I am not saying, pace Marx, that there is a rigid direction to history." Yet, just a few sentences later, he announces, "the emergence of some kind of loose world governance is probably inevitable."  The distinction seems to be that Kaplan's determinism is of the Leninist Bolshevik variety rather than the pure Marxist one.  In other words, one must take bold and innovative action to speed the process of history along toward its preordained end. 


Kaplan's book seems to be, at bottom, a briefing book to justify the switches and turns, contradictions, and conflicting rationales for American foreign policy and the domestic political control to which it is tightly bound. The Pagan Ethos aims to provide a kind of pseudo-intellectual and historical cover for the governing class of the United States to do anything it wants, anywhere in the world it wants, all the while claiming the moral high ground and demonizing any opposition. Likewise, U.S. allies have a free rein to overthrow democracy, violently suppress independence movements, sell narcotics, and engage in torture, mass rape, and ethnic cleansing, while designated "enemies" of the United States can be bombed and invaded for doing the same things, or even for simply being accused of doing them.  

To object to the crimes committed, often with U.S. complicity, by U.S. allies is to be unrealistic or utopian. On the other hand, to object to the latest U.S. armed crusade is to be guilty of appeasement and complicit in genocide. Thus, Kaplan's pagan ethos depends on who is doing what to whom. U.S. allies (Israel, Egypt, Saudi, Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, the KLA and NLA, Pakistan, Afghani war lords) have a free reign, while U.S. enemies have not even the right to their own independence.

The U.S. can impose multi-ethnic democracy by force on Bosnia one year, and support an ethnocentric Islamic gangster state in Kosovo the next.  The U.S. can invade Bosnia to stop Serbian troops from raping Muslim women, but then allow its allies in Turkey and Afghanistan to rape Kurd and Pashtun women.  To Kaplan and his sponsors among the U.S. ruling elite, it is all about being a clever pagan with the desire to bring the world into compliance with his vision of how it should work.  

The wisdom of the old liberal tradition--that the societies and economies and nations require no central management and that the attempt to ignore this reality nearly always backfires--is lost on Kagan, but not on Mises, who wrote during World War II: "History has witnessed the failure of many endeavors to impose peace by war, cooperation by coercion, unanimity by slaughtering dissidents. . . . A lasting order cannot be established by bayonets."


Image source:
Shield icon interview