Connectivity and Strategy: A Response to Robert Kaplan

Bob Kaplan’s monograph on “Marco Polo’s World” is a very worthy sequel to his seminal “Coming Anarchy” essay published nearly a quarter century ago shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It will not surprise anyone that I am strongly in agreement with many of the observations made by one of my most cherished mentors who has provided steady intellectual guidance for most of the past two decades. Let me use this response as a constructive opportunity to reinforce some of his arguments with additional evidence, while also providing an alternative prism to reflect on some of his more tentative assertions. Kaplan generously cites Connectography and some of its maps; those as well as many other info-graphics and supporting data for the views presented here can be found in that book. Taken together, the more rigorous the scenarios we produce, the better prepared we will be for those that ultimately unfold.


Let us start with Europe, which schoolchildren continue to be falsely taught is a continent rather than a region. Kaplan writes elegantly of a civilization that is becoming more “diluted and dispersed” by the ambitious forces with which it is reckoning. It is an apt metaphor for Europe’s eroding centrality in global affairs. Indeed, European security is not global security. While Europe’s massive economy and large collective population make it a crucial anchor of the emerging pan-Eurasian continental system, Europe’s present populist predicament, and the visceral anxieties in evokes, is not necessarily a global reality. Western media speaks of “walls going up” around the world while this is in fact a far more limited regional phenomenon. Even within Europe, Germany alone has just taken in one million refugees, while the Schengen agreement has not been ripped up as many nationalists hoped or predicted. Outside of Europe, in the same 2014-15 period where nationalist retrenchment was presumed to be the new global norm, 53 heads of African nations representing more than one billion people pledged to move towards a visa-free continent by 2020. In Southeast Asia, a free mobility agreement went into effect covering a dozen nations with nearly 700 million people. Every year more countries grant visas on arrival rather than through cumbersome application procedures at consulates. In China’s quest to absorb the technical and create knowledge of foreigners it is granting five-year entrepreneur visas, as are many other countries. As the quality of life in once hardship posts such as Dubai and Singapore exceeds that of the West, and as such as hubs and gateway cities crop up around the world, we can expect far more opportunistic migration rather than less. Just ask any of the record nine million Americans now living abroad.

Simple arithmetic and a dose of non-Eurocentric humility dictate that we appreciate the actual global picture: Amongst billions of people living across the world’s fastest growing economic regions, borders are opening, not closing. The vast majority of human cross-border migration is not “them” (meaning Arabs, Africans and Latinos) coming to “us” (meaning America and Europe), but rather the flows of laborers and migrants across the post-colonial world spanning Africa, the Gulf states, South Asia and the Far East. After several generations of anti-colonial nationalism, Cold War stagnation, corrupt governance, infrastructural decay and rampant over-population, it is only natural that these former (mostly) British colonial regions would seek to bury the hatchet with their neighbors and graduate towards the fluidity they enjoyed a century ago.

Returning to Europe, it is not foreordained that the region will succumb to waves of desperate refugees and death by the thousand cuts of ISIS jihadists or radicalized lone-wolves. Migration flows wax and wane with the economic fortunes of the originating states. For example, contrary to the nativist sentiments animating America’s right-wing populists today, Mexican migration to the US is net neutral today as the country’s economy has experienced steady growth. The same is true of Turkish migration to Europe. Attending high school in Germany in the mid-1990s, I vividly recall the supposed ascent of the xenophobic neo-Nazi NPD party….which no longer even registers politically. Even with the refugee crisis and alarmist media amplifying the voice of Europe’s far-right political movements, I expect the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) to meet the same fate. The fact some some nationalist parties may gain ground now and again doesn’t invalidate the deeper point: World history tells us that populist movements always fail to successfully govern, and the most suffering is usually inflicted on the electorates who voted for them. Far from becoming a global tide, they become — as Latin America has — an object of pity.

What is more, the astounding growth in global migration flows — nearly 300 million people now living outside their country of origin; more than one billion people crossing borders each year — underscores that in the medium and long-run, it is not tribal certainties that dictate immigration policy but a far more powerful law of history: supply and demand. And since both America and Europe have sub-replacement fertility rates and significant labor shortages at both the low and high ends of the value chain, we can fully expect Western migration policy to return to rationality, as painful as the path may be. The quantitative problem of demand for migrants will overpower the qualitative fear of them, and rather than invest in walls and barricades, we will invest in assimilation at home and modernization abroad. Ultimately, these are the forces that stabilize migration patterns and turn today’s barbarians at the gate into tomorrow’s trade partners.


Looking at the big picture of global demographic and migration patterns is suggestive of the broader de-Americanization of globalization. Kaplan describes globalization as “the worldwide adoption of the American form of capitalism and management practices.” Allow me to make a distinction here. Globalization is most fundamentally the entire universe of worldwide transactions that leverage the rapidly expanding connectivity of our transportation, energy, communications, financial and other infrastructures. Globalization is a 70,000 year human and technological story that has in recent millennia been accelerated by imperial expansions but doesn’t depend on any one particular superpower for its sustenance. More bluntly, it long predates and will endure far beyond the American era.

China today is the top trading partner for 124 countries, while the US is only number one for 52 countries. Europe collectively leads the world in terms of both total trade and investment volume, with Asia ever closer behind and America third. Asia in general (and Japan and China in particular) are now also aggressive capital exporters, providing credit for everything from highways to banks to tech start-ups. (Don’t forget that it is Europe and Asia’s hundreds of billions of annual investment into the U.S. that finance part of our enormous deficit and will sponsor some of desperately needed infrastructure upgrades America needs in the years ahead.)

Where once it was the case that globalization was aesthetically tantamount to Americanization, Samuel Huntington astutely reminded us not to confuse the goal to modernize with the desire to Americanize. The former exists to a far greater degree than the latter. Much of the world is moving towards market-based economies with a strong role for the state, not the American laissez-faire orthodoxy (which in any case is hardly an accurate reflection of America’s political economy since the financial crisis). There is a great deal of good that has and can be learned from America’s successful blend of rule of law, corporate meritocracy and risk-taking entrepreneurialism. Every country I travel to with absolutely no exception wants these virtues….but absolutely no place wants to have an “American system” as such.

Where these financial and ideological trends converge is on the Eurasian mega-continent that is Kaplan’s central canvas and the geography where our passions most overlap. The new Eurasian connectivity represents a strategic departure from American globalization both in form and content. It is not American-style hyper-financialization but more bricks-and-mortar infrastructure. It is not premised on historical alliance and cultural affinity but supply-and-demand complementarity. Germany has massive trade surpluses being absorbed by Asian demand–it cares little for the US Treasury’s call to reign them in. China is dangling billions of dollars in infrastructure finance–Europe has dozens of the world’s biggest and most skilled engineering and construction companies that have generations of experience building western Europe’s world-class infrastructure and the past two decades elevating former Warsaw Pact and Balkan states that are now EU members.

Europe is not a military superpower but it has an independent commercial mindset: Culture across the Atlantic now firmly competes with connectivity across Eurasia. Only the most myopic Washington mind would have believed that Europeans could be convinced not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) when it was inaugurated two years ago. The bank now has 70 members across Europe and Asia. Europe’s total trade with Asia–meaning the sub-regions of India, China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and Australia–already exceeds the $1 trillion total annual trans-Atlantic trade, and this is the case before the EU even has free trade agreements with most of Asia or the proposed “One Belt, One Road” infrastructures are even built!

Witness the strategic opportunism already taking place in both directions. In the wake of its economic freefall, Greece took its largest ever foreign investment from China’s shipping behemoth Cosco, which now runs the Piraeus port of Athens while building internal railway corridors through the Balkans to Hungary and Slovakia, where European and Chinese automotive manufacturers have flourishing joint ventures and are speeding up their ability to meet car demand from eastern Europe to Central Asia. Then there is Turkey, a NATO ally which rather than suffer any more humiliation by way of European rejection, recently mooted the idea of becoming an observer in China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Such diplomatic promiscuity is the norm in a world returning to the multi-imperial fluidity of the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, neither Europeans nor Asians can stand America’s sanctimonious approach to Russia and Iran, other crucial powers lying along the new Silk Roads. Official sanctions merely retard the inevitable flood of investment that will absorb these empires into the flourishing Eurasian commercial system. Indeed, what political change have sanctions delivered in comparison to what integration has been proven to deliver in the long-run?

There is therefore no truer statement than Kaplan’s claim that Eurasia is becoming “one fluid and comprehensible unit,” taking on meanings it never had before. Europe–to remind our schoolchildren–is the western region of the Eurasian supercontinent, not a continent itself. And while Europe has been busily expanding eastward since the Soviet Union’s collapse, China too has been marching westward. In the next twenty-five years, the two will meet in the middle, reinforcing what Kaplan calls the “semblance of Eurasian unity.”


However, the question at the very heart of Kaplan’s analysis is this: Can Europe and Asia steadily order the chaotic space between them?

Europeanization has proven successful at grabbing post-Communist countries by the scruff of the neck and elevating them into investment grade markets. (There is some irony indeed to Greece’s financial collapse while Poland and other Visegrad countries clock robust growth.) A splintering of the EU won’t make Europe’s peripheral nations more stable but simply add even more volatility to the present situation. Pending the outcome of Europe’s 2016 elections and the unfolding UK “Brexit,” the time may finally have come for Europe to write-down southern Europe’s crushing debt and double-down on the next generation of institutions of solidarity such as a Banking Union, Capital Markets Union and other mechanisms that would restore the European project’s credibility. If done right, Europe need not succumb to internal division or Russian manipulation as Kaplan worryingly forecasts.

For its part, China heeds Kaplan’s dictum that “to invade is to govern,” and thus it wisely chooses not the path of subjugation and colonial administration but more tactical and neo-mercantile supply chain control. For China, most of the countries between itself and the Caspian and Black Seas are merely resource-rich passageways, sources of raw materials and conduits to large markets such as Europe. It has thus far avoided active pacification–though from Kazakhstan to Pakistan, its increasing covert military presence, use of peacekeepers and private military forces, and relations with foreign militaries and proxies are surely a sign of what instruments are at its disposal to protect terrestrial supply lines. Not only has China replaced Russia as the going concern for all countries on the eastern two-thirds of Eurasia–which is to say well over half the world’s population–but Russia itself, particularly the more than three-quarters of its vast domain lying east of the Ural mountains, is being gradually absorbed by China in commercial form if not administrative practice. China does not have to become a military peer competitor with America to reorganize most of the geographies that matter. And remember that infrastructural neo-colonialism is a benign approach to geopolitical domination that cannot be deterred through conventional military means.

Whether or not this light-touch imperialism can succeed is deeply intertwined with a core issue Kaplan raises, namely whether state capacity is declining across Eurasia. Here I will diverge more clearly from Kaplan because I fear we too often view the fate of Eurasia through the prism of its Arab underbelly. While the West is justifiably preoccupied with the post-9/11 landscape in which it perhaps unwisely chose to become so deeply insinuated, the region is objectively trivial compared to Asia. (I say this despite having traveled extensively from Libya to Syria, and serving as a senior advisor within US Special Operations Forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.) The populations of the Arab world number in millions, not billions as in Asia. Arab economies measure in billions, not trillions as in Asia. We need to appreciate the order of magnitude difference between isolated pockets of fanaticism and disconnected failed states on the one hand and the spectacular phenomenon of Asia’s strategic rise on the other. Not even the Middle East’s anchors such Turkey or Iran is anywhere near the “cockpit of history,” Halford Mackinder’s fabled phrase to describe capture the East Asian super-region.

While Arab post-colonial states fell into the abyss, Asia is climbing the ladder and never looking back. The fact that America has become politically distracted and confused by the Middle East does not justify the excessive analytical weight accorded to it. If anything, Asia’s strategic clout has only grown as a result. Rather than expending treasure on conflict, Asia’s leaders see too much at stake for their billions of citizens to be anything other than hyper-pragmatic. India, Indonesia and the Philippines–Asia’s three largest democracies with a combined population of nearly 1.7 billion people–have elected a range of no-nonsense doers (governors, strongmen, technocrats) to break with decades of stagnation and corruption and invest massively in infrastructural modernization. Non-democratic China and Vietnam and hyper-technocratic Singapore are the role models for the dozens of emerging powers and transition societies of Asia.

None of the numerous major war scenarios in Asia–between China and Taiwan, China and Japan, China and India, North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, South China and others–has escalated to the point of actual conflict. Even as military budgets expand and nationalist rhetoric flares, Asians’ trade and investment intensity and supply chain linkages have expanded to substitute for slower exports to the low-growth West. When the US ill-advisedly pulled out the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade framework, all Asian participants (including American allies such as Australia and New Zealand) decided to move forward with it anyway, while rekindling efforts towards a super-Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). I spend every week rotating around Asian countries and rather than state weakness, I see only growing commitment to this trajectory of investment-led growth, trade expansion and political moderation.

Eurasian cooperation around the “One Belt, One Road” vision will reinforce this process in the post-Soviet and Southwest Asian contexts. Low oil prices are forcing statist petro-economies like Kazakhstan to aggressively pursue massive privatization, the kind of sober pragmatism one would not have expected from authoritarian regimes of the past. The allure of billions of dollars in Chinese aid and infrastructure finance is forcing regimes to clean up their acts and create jobs. In Pakistan, where Kaplan forecasts a potential crumbling into a rump Greater Punjab with quasi-independent Sindh and Baluchistan satellites, I see (finally) peaceful succession among civilian authorities, a gradual restoration of disciplined civilian-military relations, development-focused ministers such as Punjab’s Shehbaz Sharif (the prime minister’s brother and likely eventual successor), and law and order being established in the mega-cities of Lahore and Karachi and imposed in the tribal areas. Again, so many Asian countries are moving towards stronger state-ness and better governance, even if their democratic characteristics can be called into question. By now we should know that this is a more reliable path to liberalism than White House speeches.


The legacy of the 20th century Cold War struggle and post-Cold War unipolar moment is a historical amnesia about the patterns of geopolitical power distribution that characterize world history. There is no systemic requirement that we live in a hierarchical order in which US hegemony must either persist or be replaced–through either peaceful or violent power transition–by another hegemon such as China. American officials and intellectuals speak about accommodating China’s rise as if the global system has an entrenched essence that prefers American leadership. This false subconscious assumption animates both conservative and liberal strands of American grand strategy. The former holds that either restraint or containment can ensure the longevity of American primacy, while the latter believes that the binding character of Western institutions is the source of America’s de facto centrality to world order. Neither is correct. Grand strategy literature has become such a stultifying dead-end because it is normatively focused on what the U.S. should do without first appreciating the dynamics driving the system, the forces beyond its singular control–even though the US originates and propels so many of those same drivers.

There is a more neutral but revealing prism that I call global strategic thought, an approach to which honest intellectual pioneers such as Kaplan have already made indelible contributions. This method appreciates that the deepest attributes of our complex global system are a growing entropy (de-concentration of power) and rising connectivity across all regions. Globalization diffuses power and resists centralization. It is a world of symmetry, not hierarchy. The 21st century resembles a geopolitical marketplace in which supply can always meet demand. If America doesn’t do trade deals, others will. If maritime passageways such as the Suez Canal are blocked, shippers will use the Arctic. If the World Bank won’t finance a project, China will. If American banks won’t do business with Russia, Chinese ones will. Any force or flow anyone seeks to block will simply move around it.

This logic forces us–kicking and screaming–towards the realization that every power believes it is exceptional, yet “the system” does not care, for it only wants one thing: more connectivity. The churn of history has no regard for which power is the most connected, but the most connected power will have the most leverage. This is why when we map functional geography—layering transportation routes, energy grids, forward operating bases, financial networks, and Internet cables on top of our natural and political geography—we are mapping both globalization’s pathways but also the routes by which power is projected. Ethereal concepts such as “soft power” are a pale substitute for the power of connectivity.

In a world where no single power dominates globally, America cannot influence what it is not connected to. Rather than the amateurish second-guessing of the virtues America’s global presence, US grand strategy should be doubling down on it. The world’s financial system still relies on the US dollar; the US military provides security and reassurance to allies while policing hotspots; America is the world’s largest oil and gas producer (even selling oil directly to China); America’s tech sector produces most of the world’s best software and social media tools; and American English has become a nearly universal language. These are the principal ways in which America is not a hegemon but a utility, an indispensable source and conduit for the connectivity that advances global society as a whole. Used wisely, these are the tools America can deploy to remain an anchor of the global system even as Eurasia unites. America can remain the smartest spider in the web.

Parag Khanna is a Senior Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School at the National University of Singapore and author, most recently, of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (Random House, 2016).

read more: