Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of European History at Yale University. His most recent book is “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.”
‘I was basically unemployable,” Robert Kaplan writes of his younger self, and so naturally he made for communist Romania. The man and the country have changed a good deal since 1981: Kaplan is not a struggling journalist but one of America’s leading geopolitical thinkers, and Romania is not an impoverished society under the rule of the national Stalinist Nicolai Ceausescu but a pluralist democracy within the European Union. This unusual book is a work of biographical and geopolitical reflection, asking what in fact happened when the world seemed to turn after the revolutions of 1989, and reflecting on what Kaplan and other Americans learned, thought they learned or simply got wrong.
His first appealing gesture is toward what he did back then, as a poorer and freer man: He bought and read academic works of history, followed them where they led and recorded what he saw in a notebook while eating dinner alone. It was a chance encounter with the work of an eminent historian of communism, Gordon Skilling, that led him toward Bucharest, on the first of several journeys to Romania, where, at least in the early days, “nobody from any other place can contact you.”
Kaplan reveals enough of his life and thoughts as a younger man that the reader can inquire about the relationship between his psychic needs and his geopolitical conclusions. Despite his avowed search for solitude, he also seems to have wanted a new community, a pure nation to contrast with a tainted world. He flew to Romania on an impulse right after leaving the Israel Defense Forces, and it is hard not to see Romania, in his more naive portrayals, as a kind of second Zion, a home for a wanderer. For an American Jew such as Kaplan, the road to Israel is always open, but it is the road more traveled. To opt for Romania was to choose a nation of one’s own, one without a prior claim on the self, one that could be watched from a safe cultural distance. As Kaplan presented his American rather than his Israeli passport to pass through the security checks of communist-era Bucharest, he was making an individual choice for an unfamiliar society.
He did not speak Romanian, and so his perceptiveness and penmanship were pushed to (and sometimes past) their limits, as in bludgeoning generalizations such as: “History is never so real as in the candlelit faces of Romanians at Easter.” Kaplan found his own exotica in Europe and sought to master it by describing how it looked. His first aesthetic impulse, as a writer and thinker, is to fix the Romanian nation as timeless, a place whose “historic territories” have endured “millennia of history” despite regular “violation” by foreigners.
And yet he catches himself. Kaplan has learned, in the intervening decades, that the language of innocence violated is the language of ethnic nationalism. Of course we are right to be charmed by the beauty of distant cultures and to celebrate difference — but just how should our intuitive reactions to other nations influence our sense of ourselves, of how history works and how (in Kaplan’s case) we recommend that superpowers behave in the world? Unlike almost every other strategist one reads, Kaplan makes no bones about learning from his own mistakes and from the scholarship of others. He discusses his readings of the Romanian fascists, an undeniably gifted group of writers, who celebrate the Romanian past as an unbroken and almost physical reality, and compares them with scholarly historians of nationalism (such as myself), who generally take a step back and ask how political activists of the 19th and 20th centuries had to channel and alter the more distant past to create a sense of continuity and solidarity that would appeal to larger publics. Kaplan correctly recognizes that understanding the nation involves two sensibilities, the sympathetic and the critical, and he now wishes to put his own aesthetic and romantic impulses into perspective. When he describes the history of the Romanian 20th century he recognizes, to his credit, that the conceit of an innocent nation violated by outsiders has moral implications.
He writes, and writes well, about Romanian fascist excesses of the 1930s and the communist repressions of the postwar period, and after some slips early in the book (where, for example, he incorrectly speaks of wartime Romania as a Nazi puppet rather than a Nazi ally), he assigns these deeds to Romanians rather than outsiders. When he returns to the Jewish question, contemplating the site of a mass murder of Jews by Romanians in 1941, he has no trouble raising the issue of responsibility. Romanian fascists spoke of Jews as outsiders who violated the national community, and the mature Kaplan, the visitor who returns in 2014, understands the need for another language, a more pluralistic one, in which sympathy for an ethnic group must be part of a larger emotional and political range rather than the final stroke of a pen.
Writing after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, during a time when the European Union itself is threatened, Kaplan considers a situation that might have seemed unthinkable back in 1981: that Romanian sovereignty might depend upon association with some larger and friendly institution, one that accepts multiple nationalities and binds them through free trade and travel and the support of certain universal values. The mature Kaplan makes a wise case for the politics of ink and compromise over the aesthetics of blood and innocence. Precisely because he traveled in recent years throughout Romania, he has a very robust sense of how European Union membership has transformed the country for the better. He also has come to see Romanians as a society with interests rather than only a culture with traditions. Exotic cultures are more conducive to travel writing than European bureaucracies, but the Romanian state (like all European states) has “geographic, economic, and demographic limitations” and needs Europe for security, trade and culture. The European Union, Kaplan says, is a “tireless protector of the existing, compromising, pancontinental order.”
Just as a younger Kaplan might have needed to shift among identities that are more personal and more universal, so Romanians need a European sense of themselves. The threat to that order is Russia, which exploits the old idea of ethnicities against the new order of cooperative European states. Traveling in Romania during the Russian occupation of southeastern Ukraine, Kaplan recalls that Moscow used bogus ethnic arguments to justify its aggression, and he cannily points to similar risks in Romania and Moldova.
Kaplan still takes an admirable pleasure in history, and the only mistakes he condemns are his own. He sees now that it was his misunderstanding of the revolutions of 1989, of the end of communism in Romania and Eastern Europe, that led him to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He might have pointed out that this error, like the underestimation of the importance of the European Union, was almost universal on the American right, but he takes no cover behind accepted opinions. Instead, almost alone among influential public figures, he tries seriously to diagnose his errors. He looked at Saddam Hussein and saw the Romanian dictator Ceausescu. He did not distinguish between social movements and foreign invasions, between the shelter the European Union could offer Romania and the naive faith that violence itself could bring democracy to Iraq.
This book reveals the confident, poetical Kaplan, striving as ever in his writing for the proverbial, but also a reflective, political Kaplan, seeking at times to submerge his gift for romantic generalization in respectful attention to the ideas of others. That tension — between an aesthetic sense of wholeness and the intellectual acceptance of complexity — is the real subject of the book, both as autobiography and as geopolitics. Sharp and sudden intuition might be necessary for seeing the world, but it is not sufficient for policy recommendations. And while nations do feel subjectively necessary to the people who identify with them, nation-states are not objectively sufficient for political rectitude — or even political survival. As Kaplan concludes, for “a better century than the last one, a European Union in some form will be essential.”
By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House. 287 pp. $28