on December 13, 2000
This latest effort by renown travel journalist Robert D. Kaplan is, as should be expected from him, a timely, incisive and at times alarming look at the "ideological geography" which is bound to create conflict and instability-the likes of which we have seen in the Balkans-in years to come. This is a book that dares to go to places where the electronic media has very little (if any) interest in. Besides presenting us with places we'd heard very little about, Mr. Kaplan clearly shows us how the old imperialistic foundations, like plate tectonics, are sometimes coming back to haunt the region (this is something he'd pointed in The Ends of the Earth). The fear of Russian "hegemony" is palpable, and oftentimes the urge for Western capitalism enters in conflict with age-old ideologies which are still very present today.
The book also leads us to understand that the "democracy at all cost" approach, so much vaunted by the West, is more often than not the wrong way of assisting countries which for decades found themselves under the unforgiving rule of totalitarianism, with no democratic foundations to start with. Failure to grasp this reality leads to a widening gap between the population and the few cronies who, opportunistic as they are, were able to seize the various help packages that were injected (blindly) into the region after the fall of communism (and other forms of totalitarianism, such as the Ottoman Empire). What, Kaplan asks, is the solution, then? Jordan, he argues, is a good place to start. But again, one country, however stable, cannot dissociate itself from regional currents; and in the Middle East, as in the other places Kaplan visits in this book, instability, fueled by the striated periods of history-Assyrian, Byzantine, Ottoman, etc-is an ever-present danger. One political earthquake (in an earthquake-prone region) could lead to a "domino-like" chain reaction which, it is almost certain, would affect several countries. One could argue that this is where the "real" historical "civilizations," to use Samuel Huntington's theme,-age-old "alliances,"-would reemerge. The places are also filled with many unknowns (and probably unknown unknowns as well). In the Caucasus, the fall of communism created a void which sucks in whatever ideology is fit to fill that void. Which one(s) will? One can feel the nostalgia for the days under Stalin. A very preoccupying symptom. In the Middle East, what will happen after Saddam Hussein either dies or is thrown out, or Syria loses its "avuncular" grip on Lebanon? These, and many others, are some questions you will encounter in this book.
Eastward to Taratry tackles the age-old questions, much debated by historians, scientists and pundits, of religion versus history, and nationalism versus globalism. In a region which has yet to find firm ground to stand on, where few people are extremely rich and most live in poverty, the questions of "market economy" and Western principles of equality and democracy are very far from most people's minds. Thanks to years of repression, geographical distance, scant media attention and misappropriated help from the West and the EU, what matters, for the moment, is putting food on the table, and whoever provides these very basic needs-whether he be a Stalin or a Shevardnadze-will be welcomed open-armed by the population. Let's not kid ourselves: we'd do likewise. Of course there is a marked hankering for a sense of belonging to the West; countries like Romania, which find themselves straddling the ideological faultline between East and West, would give anything to join the ranks of NATO and the European Community, and this is very telling. This line, between East and West, is very real (whether it should even exist is another question), and one must ask whether it ought to be the responsibility of the West (i.e., NATO, the EC) to choose which countries (Hungary? Romania? Bulgaria?) will join the ranks of Western countries and who will be left "behind" in the East. These power politics belong to the elite, the educated, the leaders. What about the people in the streets, who can barely eke out a living but who will suffer the consequences of such political decisions, Kaplan asks?
A great book, well-written, which answers a few questions but asks many more. This is a guide to a region which could feasibly make the news in the future, and unless we start investing politically and intellectually in it immediately, this is a region which most assuredly will cause NATO, the UN and pretty much the rest of the world many a headache. Perhaps this is our best chance to test the principles of preventive diplomacy; the conflicts aren't here yet (at least, not in the real sense of the word), but the sings are. The seismographic needles are quaking a little... The signs are here. Can we avoid a major earthquake? Maybe. A better understanding of the region, which is what this book offers, is a good start.
on December 4, 2000
In "Eastward to Tartary," Robert Kaplan, author of the classic "Balkan Ghosts" and several other excellent books, doesn't sugarcoat things, that's for sure, as he explores the "New Near East" (the corpses of two major empires -- the Ottoman and the Soviet) and writes back to inform us how the rotting is going. Personally, I think we should all be thankful to Kaplan for traveling to some of these hellholes and reporting back to us so, if for nothing else, so WE don't have to go there ourselves (just kidding)! We are also lucky that Kaplan, with his keen eye, tenacity, persistence, courage, and fine journalistic skills, is there to give us the uncomfortable truths that most of us would prefer to ignore or gloss over. As Kaplan modestly puts it, his goal is to "discover the obvious" - obvious, though, only if you are willing (and skillful enough) to really look for it, and most Western journalists aren't willing or able. Luckily for us, Kaplan is both!
"Eastward to Tartary" is bracing, as have been all of Kaplan's books, and not for the weak of stomach! Whether or not you like what he has to say, you have to admit that Kaplan has vast knowledge and wisdom and cuts right to the chase - no bull. Reading Kaplan, I kept thinking: this guy is the anti-Friedman! No cloying cuteness, no wonders of globalization for Kaplan, and no rhapsodizing over the wonders of shopping malls and McDonalds either. Thank goodness! Instead, Kaplan writes clearly, brutally honestly, without sentimentality, glibness, or cuteness. Kaplan is NOT an optimist, and I mean this as a compliment. Instead, Kaplan is a clear-eyed realist, and, as Michael Ignatieff calls him, a "travel writer from hell" (that's a compliment, too, by the way!) Many Americans, steeped in naïve, mushy, rose-colored, and even dangerous optimism, would probably call him a pessimist by way of dismissing him because they don't WANT to believe what he has to say. But just because Kaplan is a disturbing messenger, that doesn't mean that we should shoot him (metaphorically speaking, of course)! As Kaplan himself puts it, "a viewpoint is not necessarily inaccurate because it happens to be morally risky or pessimistic, especially if it helps explain phenomena that are otherwise unexplainable."
Kaplan's stress on the salience of history is a jarring contrast with mainstream American thought, which tends strongly towards the "history is bunk" school. Kaplan also disillusions us of the mushy notion that if only everyone could be globalized, then everyone would be peaceful liberal democrats and we'd be at the "end of history". NOT!
Kaplan is successful in part because of HOW he travels - slowly, by land or sea, mainly. As he puts it, "the essence of travel was to slow the passage of time. One could fly...but "flying from place to place encourages abstractions, whereas land travel brings one face-to-face with basic, sometimes unpleasant truths. I preferred to travel by second-class car and stay in cheap hotels...[because] it allowed me to go on learning."
So what does Kaplan learn? That "national character" matters. That "absurd personality cults" are alive and well in many of these places. That "the idea that the Internet and other technologies annihilates distances is a half-truth." That communism/ authoritarianism are not NECESSARILY all bad (at least they provided pensions, schooling, and social peace), and that liberal democracy/capitalism/free markets are not NECESSARILY all good or an end in and of themselves (especially if it's the local thugs and Mafiosi who benefit). That nothing is "determined in advance," but that leadership, history and geography (the "olive trees" in Friedman's formulation) DO matter. That the West probably could "never muster" the "sheer appetite for power" necessary to remake this part of the world. That "morality is a funny thing," and that sometimes the former "idealistic dissident" can end up destroying his country, while the ex-communist hack or secret policeman can end up saving it. That irredentism (Azeri, Turkmen, etc.) is alive and well at the start of the 21st century. That it may be only "the impermanence of bad governments" that gives one any hope at all for many of these places. That, in many of the places that he visits, Western influence extends for only a few blocks in the capital city, while the countryside is ruled by gangs and thugs, with only the faintest sign of the West. That there are plenty of rootless, unemployed, disoriented young men out there just ripe for the picking of terrorist groups, religious fanatics, mafias, and nationalistic armies. And that ecological and cultural devastation are long-lasting consequences of the collapse the Soviet Union.
So what does Kaplan recommend that we DO about this screwed-up part of the world? It's hard to tell...maybe he doesn't really know. Or, maybe, Kaplan is a specialist - he calls `em like he sees `em, but leaves it to other specialists to figure out what to do with `em! Anyway, MY recommendation is that you read this book, if you want to understand the world we live in today, and, most likely, it's future...
I have read several of Kaplan's books and he continues his winning streak in this one. Unlike many travel writers who merely offer westernized descriptions of people and scenery in places that are already well known, Kaplan covers areas that most of us in the western world are unfamiliar with. Interesting places in this book include Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. He also focuses on history and politics, and has remarkable insights into the possible futures of the regions he visits, and how the past influences the present and future to a much greater extent than in the West. Some key insights offered by Kaplan here include the notion that Europe is currently splitting into regions that are eerily similar to the Ottoman and Holy Roman empires of ancient times, with the collapse of communism and the weakening of NATO. Kaplan also predicts that the next Yugoslavia-style bloodbath, which will drag in the rest of the world, will occur in the Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan). Tellingly, Chechnya is not too far away. Kaplan knows what he's talking about, as he predicted the Yugoslavia disaster back in the late 1980's. And throughout the book Kaplan proves that the collapse of communism and the rise of so-called democracy is only a good thing at a high level of international politics. But for millions and millions of regular people, life has become far more dangerous and miserable.
Since the portion of this book covering Romania and Bulgaria is meant as a sequel to Kaplan's earlier "Balkan Ghosts," and since some of the other areas covered are also featured in "The Ends of the Earth," this book is slightly weaker than those two masterpieces. Kaplan also occasionally stumbles into cultural arrogance when dealing with non-Western people and politics. However, these are slight weaknesses in a very strong book that offers highly enlightening insights into the history and peoples in areas that Americans should stop ignoring.
on November 15, 2000
Having read, enjoyed and profited from every one of Kaplan's books, I've recommended many and given several to valued friends. Kaplan has emerged as the best of a fine new breed of journalists, men and women who break out of the capital city circuit to bring us an up-close view of foreign realities. Often, those realities have conflicted with the comfortable diplomatic "wisdom," and Kaplan is unpopular with those who prefer an easy fantasy of mankind to the insistent, often-tragic reality. For my money, Kaplan is a national treasure, a clear-eyed, sure-voiced man of courage who takes risks to bring back an urgent vision of a world "globalizing" at a very uneven rate. And "Eastward to Tartary" is the finest of his many fine books. My only hesitation is in calling him a journalist, since he's so much more than that--he's a genuine strategic thinker whose vision consistently has proven more accurate than the work of any Washington think-tank drone or campus "expert," most of whom are as fearful of the people they wish to analyze as they are of the water from their hotel tap. Kaplan has an explorer's soul and a veteran soldier's eye for the lie of the ground. I have been to seven of the countries Kaplan discusses in this book, and I can attest that his eye is unerring. He has a gift for clear, literate prose that captures in a phrase what another writer could not get in a page. And he talks to everyone, not just to ambassadors and government mouthpieces. A man of boundless curiosity and as restless as Huckleberry Finn, his portraits of states and peoples from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and down into the region long known as the Levant are timely and useful. What you read on these pages is exactly what is there in Georgia, or Turkey, or Lebanon. This book really is a remarkable achievement, for which my praise is insufficient. So, let me simply say this is a valuable, fascinating work that would reward readers on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street, or in Bisbee, Arizona: a wonderful, wonder-filled book!
This book is a detailed political, historical and social analysis of Central Europe, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the countries of the Caucasus. Kaplan begins his journey in Budapest. After visiting with friends there, he boards the train to visit Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Later, he arrives again in Turkey to head east to travel through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. At each stop along the way, he discusses politics and history with political leaders, dissidents, friends, and ordinary people. He combines comments from these sources with skilled observations of how society is working from the ground up in each locale to create extremely well-thought out and informed analyses of the social and political situation in the countries that he visits.
By happenstance, I read this book immediately after reading Peter Theroux's Great Train Bazaar. What a contrast- - although their journey followed the same route for much of the way, Theroux told us little more about the countries he visited than the wines available within easy reach of the train station- -Kaplan sees so much more. Theroux sets off on his trip because he wants a trip to write about and he likes trains. Kaplan also takes his trip to get material to write about, but Kaplan first begins by writing a very clear list of questions that he plans to research during the trip. He wants to understand "the future borders of Europe, the underpinnings of the coming meltdown of Arab dictatorships, and the social and political effects of new Caspian Sea energy pipelines." He also wants to know "how people saw themselves. Were national or ethnic loyalties giving way to new forms of cosmopolitanism, through globalization? If so, what did that mean for the future of authoritarian regimes? If dictatorships gave way to more democratic rule, would that mean more stability or less- -more civility or less- -in the countries through which [he] would pass?" These are very heavy questions, and answers to them should be of interest to all global citizens, (especially policy makers, we would hope).
Kaplan's observations and quotations cut to the quick of global society and culture. Kaplan's phrases like "social anarchy", "kleptocracy," and "moral vacuum" are brilliant descriptions of so many parts of the new Eastern Europe-Western Asia. In Romania, he is told "When we buy computers, compact disks, and clothes, we borrow the material consequences of the West without grasping the fundamental values that created such technologies in the first place." In Turkey, a human rights activist tells him "Westernization here is interpreted as secularization, not as democratization." In Bulgaria, his observations lead him to comment "The illusion that human progress is inexorable arises from the accident of one's historical and geographical good fortune." In Syria, he notes "Arab society was a conundrum: Among themselves, and in the privacy of their own homes, honesty, civility, and cleanliness reigned, yet none of these attributes overflowed into public life and spaces." After exploring the ritzy facades and partially hidden poverty of post-war Lebanon, he notes "Lebanon suggest that the 'end of history' is not democracy or humanism but materialism. People wanted goods and the money with which to buy them more than they wanted the rule of law." Later, "Middle East politics are like those of the ancient world- -a Greek or Roman could understand them better than an American." (Could this be why we're having so much trouble in Iraq?) Near the end of his journey in Turkmenistan, he looks back "But what were my conclusions after almost four thousand miles of travel?... That power and self-interest would shape the immediate future, at least in this part of the world." On the bright side, he states that the greatest lesson that he learned in Israel was that "Self-interest at its healthiest implicitly recognizes the self-interest of others, and therein lies the possibility of compromise." But he goes on to warn "A rigid moral position admits few compromises."
This is a scary book, and many of its comments and conclusions are out of alignment with "political correct" ideology. But after traveling through parts of this region, and living on the margins of it for five years where I was in constant contact with people from this region, I find Kaplan's observations to be incredibly accurate. They are based on thorough research and observation, not wishful thinking or armchair travel. Is Kaplan a pessimist? No, he's just well traveled.
on August 13, 2001
Robert Kaplan revisits some of the countries of his previous books, and the end result is a fascinating Hungary-to-Central Asia itinerary, mainly by train and bus. Through it all, he describes how these places have changed and what he predicts for their future. Kaplan's tragic flaw is that he's never content to be a mere travel writer; he's always seeking out deep truths about the world's future, and it is this overreaching that creates the flaws in his books. His normal approach is to describe interviews he's had with local (self-serving?) experts, and from this shaky foundation, extrapolate into the future. In short, this book is not the equal of his earlier work, 'The Ends of the Earth.'
In this book, Kaplan's itinerary took him through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan. Very little has been written in English about the last few countries, and Kaplan's book, despite its drawbacks, does introduce the reader to the political and ethnic dynamics of the region.
The subtitle of this book, "Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucusus" lets you know which countries are covered. It was written in 2000 and misses things like the latest NATO countries. However, these places are showing up more and more often in the news.
Take the Middle East and Syria for example. Syria has all kinds of things going on with their disputed withdrawal from Lebanon. This book gives you a first-hand account of Syria, its people and history of the last century. Understanding of this region is not just a cursory view of Islam, Shiites and Sunnis. Who'd have thunk Iraq would pick a Sunni Prime Minister for example?
And Israel and Turkey continue to play large regional roles. Turkey is a complicated country that has been kept more or less in line by its military which seems to be tiring of the task. What happens in such countries is illustrated by places like Brasil and Argentina where now that the military has stopped being so involved, Marxist terrorists are elected as head of the country. Scary stuff.
This book contains excellent information on the "Stans" - countries ending in 'stan'. They are also making the news daily with revolts and resignations of leaders. The US is investing huge amounts in this region and building what seem to be permanent military bases. Ask some military friends what they know about these bases. You'll be surprised how many have been there or know someone who's been there. Why? Better read this book. And new sources of oil and US$55.00/barrel oil prices are not all that is going on.
The sections on the Balkans are also wonderful history-based observations of an area in rapid change, mostly ignored by the average American.
I could go on and on citing the importance of information in this book. One of the main themes to me is that Democracy is not necessarily a panacea for all that's wrong in the world. In fact, our own founding fathers thought democracy was one of the worst forms of government. That's why we're not a democracy - we're a republic. This book points out that democracy without a people suited to this and a Constitution to guard against its excesses does not work.
Excellent overview with a solid historical background of an increasingly important area of the world.
on July 20, 2006
Every author brings some baggage with him when he writes a book. Robert Kaplan brings a caravan. Variously known as "Mr. Anarchy" and "Mr. Chaos," Kaplan is a prolific writer of books on foreign relations and has written many articles for The Atlantic Monthly. He is best-known in foreign policy circles for his 1994 essay and subsequent book entitled "The Coming Anarchy." In them, Kaplan asserts that the world is on the verge of a crackup of Malthusian proportions. A recurring shortcoming of his writings, however, seems to be a lack of solutions for the problems he meticulously details. He has the ability to describe the human condition but has a singular inability to suggest fixes.
What is Kaplan's purpose, then, in writing "Eastward to Tartary?" His mission seems to be to warn policy makers, and anyone who will listen, about the perils brewing in far off lands that may one day affect U.S. interests. He is more subtle and less bombastic in this book than in "The Coming Anarchy," but one can still clearly detect his world view that, "the end of the Cold War (has brought) on a cruel process of natural selection among existing states." His writings excel at describing a Hobbesian world where realist power politics must rule, but beyond that, he lacks any concrete prescriptions for what ails humanity. Suggestions for action are few. He is like a doctor who describes a disease, but has no treatment plan, other than to tell you what not to do. In Kaplan's case, he frequently suggests not introducing Western-style democracy too quickly. Kaplan makes this point by warning us that, "Democracy may not necessarily remain enlightened, or civil, in the decades to come."
"Eastward to Tartary," is a travelogue about the Near East, where Kaplan chronicles the woes of local nations and populations but once again comes up with few solutions for their suffering. That essential part of the political equation is apparently left for someone else to solve. Taking his readers on an arduous 330 page journey through some of the most fragile and chaotic states on the planet, Kaplan obligingly relates all the social, economic, ethnic, religious and geographical ills befalling each country he visits, but offers scant solutions to the problems. A typical Kaplanian non-solution is to point out that many countries are simply not ready for democratic ideals and are incapable of supporting the institutions required for Western-style democracy. So, Kaplan's primary contribution is that democracy is not likely to be the sole solution for what ails the Near East, particularly in the trans-Caucasus area.
Despite its lack of therapeutic action and its abundance of description rather than prescription, the book is an excellent overview of the vast and complex problems facing the U.S if America indeed wants to continue playing the role of global hegemon. In the trans-Caucasian region alone, we see through Kaplan's eyes that the task of U.S. management of global interests can be overwhelming. Kaplan's "You are there" descriptions of feral cities and states does a great service to readers - the book should be read by anyone who thinks that continued U.S. global dominance will be a cake-walk. If undertaken, the U.S. role of global Leviathan truly will not be easy, as we are seeing today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon and possibly one day in the Caspian Basin.
We all strive to do what we are best at. Kaplan seems to be best at and most comfortable with identifying trouble spots and trends that may affect U.S. vital interests. He does not spend much time or energy looking for answers to the problems - he implicitly leaves that to other experts. He does a great service for Americans interested in making sense of a chaotic world. He does this by visiting and reporting from some of the most dangerous places on the planet. For this he is to be commended. Through his eyes we can see that simple platitudes are not enough to maintain U.S. hegemony in the world. It will continue to take much blood and treasure. Kaplan is preparing us for our possible future. Are we ready?
on January 17, 2008
I thought this book was written beautifully and I can see why Kaplan has such a large following. However, like other reviewers, I found his opinions on politics rather excessive. He seems to think that "one size fits all" and perhaps misunderstands that the American way is not the way for everyone else.
The travelling and the characters are all excellantly described, but I think he focussed too much on his own political analysis. Also as an avid reader, I thought it profoundly odd when he (himself a journalist) critised members of the Azerbejani press as "impolite" for asking difficult questions to the authorities. I think that this has validified other writers opinions that I have read on the American media, claiming that large sections of the "liberal" press are becoming mute and embedded with the powers that be, gaining "access" which is so vital there.
My only other problem with this book was Kaplans coverage of the occupied territories in Palestine. The way it was described, one would think that there were no human rights abuses and that not even potential conflict was on the horizon.
Other than these observations, I found Kaplans travel writing to be exquisite. His trips east of the Balkans opened up worlds to me that are rarely conveyed through other mediums such as TV, Radio etc. I had known about the wars in the Caucuses, but Kaplan rightly highlights the international press' apathy to this region as opposed to the Balkans, which at the time was a lesser conflict.
All said, a good read which I would give 3.5 stars...if I could
on November 17, 2015
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus is a documentary-style travelogue in three parts. The first section is The Balkans, Part II is Turkey and Greater Syria, and Part III is The Caucasus and Tartary.
Kaplan commences his travels in 1998 from Budapest, Hungary, with his first stop in Debrecen, until he reaches his most eastern destination, Merv, in Turkmenistan in 1999. In between, he visits Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. After his last stop, Kaplan returns to America and ‘shortly thereafter’ in October 1999 he flies to Armenia (which he covers in the Epilogue).
He writes of each countries’ history from ancient feuds to contemporary politics, their wealth and poverty, their religion, their lifestyle from food to alchohol, and their ideologies. He writes of ‘old-new’ nations and of irredentism – the political movement to reclaim and reoccupy a lost homeland – and of blood loyalties. He focuses on everything from the military, economy, culture, agriculture, architecture, geography (from flatlands to mountains), lifestyle, and politics, to passions.
I was mostly interested in the chapters on Ajara and Georgia, and also of neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan – the Caucasus Region. Of Georgia, Kaplan writes, ‘Few places, with the possible exception of Romania, were to move me as deeply as Georgia. But like Romania, Georgia was an acquired taste.’
The Epilogue on Armenia is also interesting: from the capital Yerevan – also mentioning Ararat (in Turkey) – to Stepanakert in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The name of the book is not quite accurate. First, Kaplan travels west, and only eastward when he is in the Caucasus. Second, Tartary incorporates the areas of the Volga-Urals, Caucasus, Siberia, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Manchuria – but in this book’s context it is only Turkmenistan.
On a personal level, Kaplan concludes that everywhere ‘the human spirit seemed to me indomitable.’ While he comments on people he meets, it is less about the citizens and more about the history and politics. He answers questions, but also poses his own questions – usually global political questions about the regions.
Kaplan travelled with his notebook and sought out high-level government officials to interview, as well as a few general citizens. Hence instead of an informal travelogue, the documentary-style writing is dense, political, and speculative (about what might happen in these regions in the future). However, considering he travelled in 1998-1999, it is interesting to read his ‘journalistic’ view.