Last week in The Atlantic Robert D. Kaplan was advising, albeit guardedly, an "imperial" foreign policy dedicated to defending small democracies against the big bullies of their geopolitical neighborhoods. Kaplan has the cover story in the current (March 31) Time magazine, signaling his return to favor as an analyst of geopolitics. For a time, Kaplan was considered politically incorrect for stressing the apparent intractability of national conflicts in places like the former Yugoslavia. Now that Russia again seems innately domineering toward its neighbors, Kaplan is available to tell us that our post-Cold War idealism was mistaken. As he recalls, "The post-Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism and nationalism's related obsession with the domination of geographic space." The news from Ukraine teaches us differently, Kaplan argues. Like many other nations, Russia still thinks of foreign relations in zero-sum terms -- "those that provide advantage to their nations or their ethnic groups only." Nations still think that their survival, or at least their prosperity, depend on control of resources or trade. But wouldn't globalization have assured everyone of resources and markets? Wasn't it supposed to bring about a global civil society with a secure rule of law and rights for everyone. While Kaplan acknowledges that "civil society of the kind western elites pine for is the only answer for most of these problems," he concludes that "the worldwide civil society that the elites thought they could engineer is a chimera" because "the past never dies and there is no modern world."
For a reputed realist, there's a striking note of naivete in Kaplan's analysis when it comes to the west. Notice how he credits the western powers (the U.S., the EU, etc.) with a desire for a globalized civil society, as if he did not believe that the west was itself pursuing a zero-sum geopolitics. That's not how the Russians see it, of course, and their viewpoint is not to be dismissed out of hand. To Kaplan's credit, he refuses to dismiss it. He doesn't really question western policy toward the Ukraine, but he does insist that "Ukraine can become a prosperous civil society, but because of its location it will always require a strong and stable relationship with Russia." In other words, Ukraine can't simply tell Russia to f*** off the way some Ukrainians and some of their western friends would like. As for those friends, Kaplan advises that "while our foreign policy must be morally based, the analysis behind it must be cold-blooded, with geography as its starting point." A morally based foreign policy, presumably, means we must still object to Russia bullying Ukraine but must give up the idea that Ukraine can tell Russia permanently to f*** off.
The problem with the more utopian notions of global civil society was the belief that it could transcend nationality, if not do without nations. People would trade with whomever they wanted, regardless of proximity or traditional cultural ties, and no nation would have a right to complain about it. Civil society remains essentially a matter of individuals and their ability to form associations within and across borders. But what would a civil society of nations look like? It's easy to say it should be based on mutual respect, and to find our current society of nations wanting in that respect, particularly when it comes to western attitudes toward "authoritarian" countries. But as with civil society within nations, a civil society of nations should be grounded in a "moral" principle that would make it all somewhat less than voluntary -- the idea that everyone must benefit. Both the ideal civil society and the ideal political society should be based on the belief that everyone must live -- that none are to be condemned for being "uncompetitive" by someone's subjective standard. Anything else is zero-sum: some must suffer if the "deserving" are to maximize their rewards. If conflict results from some assuming that they can survive only by taking from others, the only alternative is a society in which everyone's share is assured. As with individuals, so with nations. That may not be what many think of when they talk about civil society, but what could be more civil, or internationally more peaceful, than that?