The case for a geopolitics of tragedy

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Iraq

Robert Kaplan fuses literary criticism and international relations in a boldly interdisciplinary and richly intellectual text.

US soldiers wait before going out on a mission under the Crossed-Sabers – a towering 160-tonne, bronze monument of two crossed swords held in Saddam's hands, at the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, December 7, 2008.
US soldiers wait before going out on a mission under the Crossed-Sabers – a towering 160-tonne, bronze monument of two crossed swords held in Saddam's hands, at the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, December 7, 2008. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, Robert D. Kaplan, Yale University Press, 2023

Robert Kaplan has been writing, commentating on and participating in geopolitics for around five decades. His latest, deceptively small book combines his mature reflections on conflicts he has witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere with a thoughtful reading of Greek tragedy to offer a new perspective on geopolitical realism. Geopolitics – the battle of space and power played out over a geographic space – is, he argues, ‘inherently tragic’.

Published just ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the war in Iraq in 2003, its thesis has a special resonance. But what makes the text unusual is that it is, like tragedy, designed not to comfort or explain but to trouble. In that unusual intent it stands apart from, and rises above, the bloated bibliography on the Iraq and Afghan wars. To be troubled is to be fully human. It shows that, like Kaplan, you have both lived and reflected and occasionally got it wrong.

Kaplan’s argument is for the application of what he calls the ‘Tragic Mind’ to foreign and defence policy. For him the tragic mind is the capacity to understand the force of necessity and the limits of humans to affect outcomes. Returning to the Greek tragedians he finds in the austere mindset of Aeschylus and, the marginally more accessible but no less tough, Euripides and Sophocles, the roots and the value of the tragic mind. These are hard and unsunny texts which do not easily accommodate modern readers and while Kaplan acknowledges there are more accessible authors who offer windows onto the tragic mind, his return to the tap-root gives his text intellectual depth and a specific cultural authority.

There is literary relief from the tragedians in the form of, among others, Camus and Melville, and inevitably Shakespeare, as well as splashes of colour from ‘tragic’ artists Goya and Velazquez. In a slightly contorted move he includes as honourable tragedians the authors of the Federalist Papers. Their realism and classicism qualified them to understand how much could go wrong and in so doing they were able to ‘prepare the way for the nation of optimists which followed’.

He lets the literature speak for itself, with lengthy quotes threaded throughout but accompanied by a fluent commentary often infected by the brutal compression of the Greek. Kaplan also manages, largely, to shear his memoirs of too much remorse or sentiment, suppressing the journalism in favour of learning. The book is short but nuclear in its density. Kaplan writes stylishly, alternating epigrammatic brevity with rhetorical passages which shade, towards the end, into the poetic as he finds a place for reflections not just on shame and fear but also love. While the book’s argument has an elegant arc, the short chapters, with their gnomic titles (‘Time is Ungrateful’) can and perhaps should be read separately. They work well as meditations for troubled practitioners of International Relations.

You don’t have to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan to find this book of value. Those campaigns serve for Kaplan as illustrations, as does the Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 BC, of a universally applicable argument. Nor should practitioners who have known other conflicts, or none, feel superior. Kaplan evokes the tragedians’ argument that to believe you will be spared unluck or the impossibility of two bad choices is a vanity the gods will punish later. A hinge text for him is the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles, which explores the catastrophic reversal of fortune suffered by Oedipus, through the acceptance of which he gains wisdom and stature. Kaplan quotes Sophocles’ bleak warning at the close of the play: ‘Until man lies in his tomb never dare to call him happy.’ In an intriguing connection, he goes on to valorise statesmen who have learned from their mistakes and misfortunes, citing Richard Nixon as an improbable, yet somehow credible, modern Oedipus.

Kaplan carries his argument and his voice into a brutally honest reflection on the failures of the campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But he rises above blame, discerning the root of failure in the dynamics of local politics and culture which overwhelmed American optimism. If there was a fault it was optimism and unrealistic ambition: ‘We never learned what the ancient Greeks knew: all things cannot be fixed, so we have to accept much of the world just as it is.’

The fusion of literary criticism and international relations is boldly interdisciplinary and inevitably produces a richly intellectual text. But Kaplan is also a journalist, and the elevated tone of the text is punctuated with passages in which the journalist’s eye and humanity show through. Kaplan writes sympathetically of US Special Forces, with whom he spent time in theatre, seeing in soldiers an instinctive, ‘tragic’ understanding of what can and can’t be fixed in the locations in which they serve. Too often, he laments, they were not listened to by policymakers and bureaucrats who clung to their unrealistic narratives and ambitions.

Kaplan’s realism is marked in the two chapters on order, in which he explores the inherently controversial but stubborn argument that order is the good superseding all others. It seems the logical conclusion of the realist argument, but Kaplan works his way there carefully, less concerned to win the argument than to show how narrow and painful any victory might be. It is an exquisite dilemma human society will not be spared. He balances off the coldness of Creon’s raison d’état (‘for the worst of evils is indiscipline’) against the madness of Coriolanus’ unchecked power; the horror of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq against the chaos which followed him. Kaplan knew Iraq both before and after Saddam and his own bad option was supporting the war in Iraq. But, like Oedipus at Colonus, to have been wrong and to suffer for it is, if turned deftly, a key to wisdom.

His text is peppered not just with quotes from the tragedians but his own quotable insights. It is occasionally difficult to know what has been translated from the Greek and what comes from the author: ‘Tragedy teaches us that no-one should die with a clear conscience,’ he writes. That explains both why he seems to have written this book and what the difficult lesson is he seeks to pass on. It is, as a thought and a phrase, worthy of Sophocles himself.


John Raine