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Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House, 2010, 366 pp.

For much of the last 2,500 years, we found most of the world’s great powers in the Northern Hemisphere along a longitude line running through Europe, where even the world clock begins its timing each day. Post–World War II, such a line of power ran through the United States. According to Robert Kaplan in his latest book, Monsoon, in the future one could expect to see such a line running through the middle of the Indian Ocean (IO), dividing an expanse stretching from the Horn of Africa to the western Pacific Ocean. In this region, Kaplan says, the United States will vie for power and prestige.

Kaplan writes this book as a journey from west to east threading the storyline with perspectives from three great powers—the United States, India, and China—and one of the world’s great religions, Islam. He frequently returns to a US lens to offer regional insights he believes American policy makers must understand to accrue continuing advantage in the future. Kaplan examines India and China from a dual perspective as influential elements, where India expands horizontally across the IO and China vertically into it as well as across it. Driving this growing interest in the Indian Ocean is the expanding trade in goods, raw materials, energy resources, and religious ideas transiting this area.

The journey begins with the intertwined histories of Islam and Christianity moving from west to east across the IO. Reflecting the tension between sand and sea—the interior versus coastal tribes of Oman and the Saudi Arabian peninsula—Kaplan describes the movement of Islam’s early converts down the coast of Africa and across the IO as they established a trading zone connecting the West with India and on to China. A missionary zeal coupled with practical trade opportunism led to a profitable system of trade across the region. The Portuguese disrupted this “balance of sea and sand” upon their arrival in the IO during the fifteenth century. Kaplan observes that their religious zeal produced an empire of militarism and slavery, disrupting much of the profitable trade across the region as they spread out from Africa to Malacca and beyond.

As he travels to the Indian subcontinent, Kaplan contrasts the great tension of the region resulting from increasing capitalism, varied ethnicity, and religion with a description of India as a bridging power trying to find its way between issues of global and regional power, hard versus soft power, economic change and poverty, and weak borders he portrays as artificial constructs. He weaves a fascinating story of regional history to explain why India views Pakistan as its close threat—one that results from fears of rising nationalism and nuclear weapons—and provides a rationale for why problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be resolved in isolation from one another.

Kaplan also addresses other threats, while at the same time offering hope for a positive future for India. The primary “over the horizon” threat for India is China. Remembering the 1962 war with the Chinese, yet noting that China is a major trading partner, the Indians find themselves faced with many challenges. Kaplan surmises that the Indians will opt for a practical path—one designed not to alienate the Chinese, while at the same time tilting toward the United States. Throughout this section, he maintains that India’s “ultimate strength” is its democratic spirit—one that tolerates Hindu and Moslem. If there is a shortfall in this section, it may be that there is more than a bit of “hope” in the strategy perspective for India’s future.

In his two chapters focused on Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), Kaplan articulates a future for India, drawing from history and current condition. The Carnatic Wars in the 1700s began a British expansion that linked an Indian empire from the Iranian border to the Gulf of Thailand. A future “Greater India,” according to Kaplan, must overcome its internal disunities and provide interconnectivity based upon commercial cooperation without resorting to the destructiveness of nationalism. In addition, he observes that the dichotomy of toughness and survival versus crushing poverty shows how far India must yet travel in becoming a great power. If there is one shortcoming in his text here, it is that it waxes a bit too poetic for the subject of great power strategy; however, this seems a small price to pay for the ideas he puts forth.

In his chapter on the heart of maritime Asia, Kaplan refers to the Strait of Malacca as the “Fulda Gap” of this century, and around it lie the four countries that comprise this heart—Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. While each country has its own unique history and characteristics, they all have several things in common. First, China overshadows all of them and, to varying degrees, all have important Chinese immigrants within their populations. Second, each country is wrestling with democratic transitions within a context of weak democracies. This condition makes each country vulnerable in unique ways to Chinese pressure. Kaplan emphasizes this point when he writes, “the dislike of ethnic Chinese throughout much of Southeast Asia does not necessarily carry over into the foreign policy realm." Lastly, each nation wants US involvement in the region to balance the dominance of China. Taken together, these points create a complex environment for US policy makers.

The final three chapters in Monsoon focus on trends in the area. Kaplan observes that US power and influence is trending downward, while China is rising in both elements across the region, including the western Pacific. Although he notes that America’s decline is not inevitable, the trend in China’s rise is slow, sure, and inexorable. Kaplan argues that China will pursue a two-ocean strategy in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, and as its influence grows, America’s will diminish. Other trends include instability (anarchy, per Kaplan) in failed or failing states in the region; for example, Somalia and Zanzibar. He is concerned that such factors divert US focus from a holistic, “integrated whole” perspective to over-focus on terrorism and piracy. Kaplan’s main point in these chapters is, “Trade delivers peace and prosperity . . . [and] is the great equalizer among people and nations; it does more than perhaps any other activity to prevent war.”

The shortcomings in Kaplan’s text are few, but the previous quote highlights the kind of sweeping conclusion and/or generalization he offers on occasion without requisite evidence or logic of argument. These generalizations include the idea that in the West, democracy is an end to itself, while in the Middle East the goal is (not democracy, but) justice through religious and tribal authority. In another chapter, he opines that to resolve problems in Afghanistan or Pakistan, one must solve for both countries to effect a solution for either. Later in the text he states the United States must take the lead in solving global warming or be blamed for the phenomenon itself. A final example is his describing US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan as a quagmire. In fairness to Kaplan, any or all of these points could be true; however, he does not attempt to support the assertions in his text, leaving the readers to their own devices to accept or reject the proposition. Overall, my critique is minor, and I find Kaplan’s book a superbly written, intriguing, and compelling argument.

Stephen E. Wright, PhD

Professor, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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