Nepali Times
Here And There
Stealthy superpower


The latest edition of the American highbrow magazine, Atlantic Monthly, features as its lead essay an eerie version of diplomatic "kiss and tell" by the widely read Robert D Kaplan, one of the most influential writers on foreign affairs in the world. Influential because his thoughts on once arcane topics like the Balkans were said to inform the opinions of Bill Clinton and other White House types. Influential then, and somewhat worrisome, because Kaplan's latest essay, and he's been producing hosts of them lately about America's future interaction with the world, is called 'Supremacy by Stealth'.

I have much admiration for Robert Kaplan. And I have many disagreements with much of what he writes. Not because I don't admire his style or scope-I do, no one in centrist American thinking works harder on developing a thesis or a theme, or approaches them with more wit or verve-but because I deeply deplore the premise of 'Supremacy by Stealth'.

In this essay, and I fear it's founded very much on American official thinking of the moment, Kaplan is telling the United States to accept its role as the world's sole imperial power and to go about things more subtly, nicely if possible. Thus the title. We have supremacy, he's arguing, it's de facto. Now we need stealth to maintain and expand that.

American decency and generosity should be reflected more in foreign and security policy. The founding principles of the United States are inspiring to many Americans and to the rest of the world. Given a choice, who wouldn't choose freedom, the pursuit of happiness and concern for community over feudalism, class hatred or pure greed? The American military and its foreign policy elite, Kaplan writes, must inject more of this into the country's behaviour on the international stage. It's already there in the behaviour of many individual soldiers, officials and diplomats, he says. People like army 'civil affairs officers', and we have them in Nepal training our RNA on decent behaviour in counter-insurgency, need to have their roles strengthened. Human rights, social justice and egalitarianism need to be enshrined as benchmarks for reform of troubled societies. American policy should be to push this on an official level in word and in deed. Okay, I'll buy some of that.

But where my two-man consensus with Kaplan breaks down is the reasoning behind all of this sweetness and light. America should be nicer, he says, not because it's the nice thing to do, but because it's the best way to achieve "supremacy by stealth": a policy of we can rule the world longer and better if we're nicer about it. To be fair, this is the crudest possible distillation of his thesis and apologies to a far more distinguished political thinker than I for my crudity. But as a working class guy from an insignificant background, I like to distill arguments down to their basics-what my dear departed mother used to call "boiling out the bullshit". So when I turn up the heat on Kaplan, this is what remains in the pot.

America rules. It should continue to. To do so, it must be nicer. Then we're okay for another thousand years.

I don't object to the fact that Robert Kaplan is writing this. By doing so, he is earning his living as an essayist and thinker. He is doing his duty. But I quake at the notion that he represents: American liberal opinion of the moment. Is this the best we can do? George Bush and his neo-imperialists assume their roles with just a few simple goals in mind, and apparently they include enriching cronies in the oil, security and defence industries. Oh yes, and national security too, and protecting citizens against another outrage like 9-11.

But his recent African visit aside, Bush's presidency since the beginning has also been about expanding the role of private capital in the public sphere at home and abroad. Witness Vice President Dick Cheney's alma mater, the oil service multinational Haliburton, and its expanding role as the US military's largest single private sector provider of just about every logistical service that a modern army requires. At home, in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world, American businesses have become as important as the American government-exactly the way Bush Corp would like it.

Which is why writers like Kaplan need to switch their attention from tinkering with the extremes of imperial cynicism to considering the real implications of current policy. Having a nice military regime or a nice imperial power in charge of the world makes little or no difference when the slavering warlords of private defence firms and the security industry are hiding behind the smiling faces of the 'civil affairs officer'.

Wake up and smell the coffee, Robert.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)