Book review: Robert D. Kaplan, “In Europe’s shadow: two Cold Wars and a thirty-year journey through Romania and beyond”, New York: Random House, 2016, 269 pp.)

Robert D. Kaplan’s last chapter in this engrossing European history of Romania begins, “From Cluj I drove north into Maramures, which had the calm purity and femininity of a New Testament landscape…” (p. 212) What? From where did that image arise in Kaplan’s mind? And why the New and not the Old Testament? And what is the feminine quality of the Holy Land? Is a calm purity the most striking characteristic of the feminine sensibility, as least in Kaplan’s view of it?

Kaplan’s writing is like the places he visits. It’s a terrain, a concentrated expression of a particular part of the world as he sees it, a very personal account though steeped in broad historical knowledge and familiarity with a wide range of sources. Kaplan’s sentences are like streets that lead us around a place we come to know through his eyes, either only through his eyes if it’s a place few people know (such as Romania), or his powerful rendering that we can integrate with our own understanding of a region such as the Mediterranean, the Middle East or the Far East (see Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the end of a stable pacific, 2014).

It’s not a question of whether he’s got it right or wrong (Does the landscape really look as he describes it? Is his history of a town or a local population or a people accurate?). There is no right or wrong in this kind of writing. What we get is Kaplan’s view of the world and what matters is whether it compels our attention, becomes memorable and integrated into our own understanding. After all, we all know so little of it first-hand. Maybe one day we’ll go here or there, or at least in the neighborhood, and we’ll know if it looks and feels familiar.

Kaplan is not a tourist, he’s a traveler. He doesn’t look, he sees. He’s not a visitor going from monuments to battlefields but one who lives his travels, immersing himself in every new surroundings, picking up—what makes us envious—new friends and colleagues that continue with him through decades. There can’t be many Americans who know as many Romanians or as well as Kaplan, who is, so far as an outsider can get, inside as well as outside Romanian society and politics. And there may be no American who is so much simultaneously a travel writer and a geopolitical analyst, and happy to be so. When he discovered Romania in 1981 during the Ceausescu Communist years, “I felt that I was finally beginning to do what I always was meant to.” Kaplan, in other words, became not just a travel writer or a serious scholar. He had a vocation.

In Europe’s shadow amounts to a kind of historical anthropology plus geopolitics, a deep study of a particular country and people. The point is to understand Romania itself and to use it as a way to apprehend Europe’s complex past. Romanian history involves the West and East, the geography between Western Europe and Greater Russia, more precisely the web of historical patterns and contemporary geopolitics between Central Europe and Eastern Europe. It’s a story that continues to be relevant today.

Those familiar with Kaplan’s work know that he’s as much a travel writer in the grand style as a geopolitical Realist whose studies of international relations and political leadership are also in the grand style, stretching intellectually over centuries and continuities of ideas. One of his many talents is to bring together the ancient and the modern, not always in favor of the latter. A good example is his 2002 book, “Warrior politics: why leadership demands a pagan ethos,” which discourages the confident American assumption that a moralistic approach to world peace and stability is best. In fact, moral concerns can easily become too much of a good thing. An obsession with moral international behavior can lead to disastrous consequences.

Given all this, Kaplan’s many books (there are sixteen) are not always uplifting reading. It’s well-known that his powerful Balkan ghosts: a journey through history (1993), “depressed an American president (Bill Clinton) on the possibilities of stopping a war in the former Yugoslavia” in the 1990s, as he himself recalls. Yet even with his depressing view of the situation, Kaplan from the first supported armed intervention. It was not despite but precisely because of what he wrote. For him, “the worst about a place should be known in advance” so American foreign policy is realistic rather than optimistic.

As for the focus on Romania, it “was my master key for the Balkans… the Poland of southeastern Europe in terms of size, demography, and geopolitical location…” In Europe’s shadow is a demanding book for the lay reader but it shows how, at one and the same time, Romania is distinctive and a key to a broader and deeper understanding of contemporary Europe. Most of all, Kaplan’s work exemplifies rare intellectual, moral and political engagement with the political order—and disorder—of our world.