Most books that include a map at the beginning do so mostly for show: It isn’t really necessary to navigate what’s being unfolded. For his new book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power, national security and defense-policy expert Robert D. Kaplan doesn’t need just one map: He needs roughly one per chapter, and readers will too. Touring the perimeter of the Indian Ocean to explain why the area will geopolitically be to the 21st century what Europe was to the 20th—the main site of conflict, no matter the players—he offers up part history lesson, part dense series of predictions, along with a smattering of observations on the ugliness of Soviet-bloc-esque architecture. The result is crisply authoritative and riveting, in spite of the overwhelming flood of occasionally tedious data.
The title Monsoon is Kaplan’s guiding metaphor: As predictable trade winds united whole areas from pre-Christ times onward, the 21st century’s metaphor is Kaplan’s own gloss on what globalization might be. His viewpoint is somewhere between realpolitik and the desire for human rights when they’re pragmatically achievable; an unspoken, depressing given is how the need for oil will dominate for at least another 50 years. Democracy isn’t a one-size-fits-all prospect: Over and over, Kaplan hammers home how other loyalties (clan, ethnic, religious) can fragment arbitrarily cobbled-together geographic territories, and how any attempt to build solid infrastructure must factor in those considerations.
To make dry policy tangible, Kaplan offers focused, on-the-ground reportage, from the prospective Pakistani port of Gwadar—which aims to be the next Dubai, but for now is just a fishing town—to Somalia’s pirate state. (Actually, as Kaplan points out, it’s the autonomous sub-state of Puntland rather than the whole country.) Kaplan blends scrupulously fair-minded historical recaps with profiles of local movers and shakers. His predictions emerge organically from his scene-setting rather than from the top down. Even in Kaplan’s torrent of place-names, sharp portraits emerge: His profile of Narendra Modi, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, is particularly engaging. Modi—a near-fascist Hindu nationalist in Kaplan’s telling, but with formidable administrative skills—is an exemplary figure for Kaplan, who’s constantly checking the balance between getting things done and what can be accepted in the name of gradual progress.
Kaplan takes some strange detours: He insists on beautiful architecture for morale, which seems to be demanding too much too fast. A detour on Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore is particularly tangential; “anything that is not moral and universal cannot be beautiful” is a nice thought, but it’s hardly germane. For the most part, though, Kaplan couches wonky policy in thorough history that’s evocative enough to balance out his cold, hard calculations.