Atlantic Monthly editor talks war-zone experience

For Atlantic Monthly Editor Robert Kaplan, the most satisfying topics a journalist can cover are those that get the least attention.

Kaplan shared his insights about some of those topics with a roomful of about 40 students at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea on Monday. Kaplan, who has traveled to over 100 countries and covered war zones around the world, spoke about the changing face of the American military, especially in relation to Asia, and his experiences as an embedded journalist in war zones around the world.

Robert Kaplan addressed students yesterday at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea.  Kaplan discussed his experiences working as a journalist in conflict-ridden nations.
Pete Martin
Robert Kaplan addressed students yesterday at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea. Kaplan discussed his experiences working as a journalist in conflict-ridden nations.

During his career writing about global conflicts, Kaplan realized that the nature of warfare is changing, he said.

“War doesn’t always follow a straight pattern,” Kaplan said. “In the future, we might see other types of military operations.”

Kaplan said he suspects that the U.S. Navy will play an increasingly important role in foreign policy and international warfare. Right now, over 90 percent of all goods travel by sea, and 75 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the ocean, he said. As a result, he said, warfare is shifting toward the seas.

Other countries have realized the increasing need to develop strong navies, Kaplan said. Although the United States is still the world’s dominant naval force, it is losing its lead, he said.

“Our navy is far and away the strongest navy in the world, but it’s dwindling,” Kaplan said. “For the past 50 years, the U.S. has treated the Pacific like its own private lake. But now, Asian nations are able to exact consequences if we move too uncomfortably close to their shores.”

As Asian nations such as China, Japan and India modernize at an increasing pace, their increased access to weapons has allowed them to begin developing more powerful militaries, he said.

“As the ground shifts underneath our feet, we’re going to find it much harder to exert our power,” Kaplan said.

In the future, the distinction between warfare and disaster relief will dissolve, he said. Nations that fight well also do disaster relief well, and the Indonesian tsunami rescue effort is more indicative of the American military’s future than the war in Iraq is, he said.

But Rebecca Levenson ’09 said Kaplan’s theories about the future of warfare ignore much of the nuance that characterizes world conflict. Levenson said she read a number of Kaplan’s pieces in a Yale class on warfare.

“I have a hard time believing that you can look at war on a macro level without looking at the specifics around those wars,” Levenson said.

In addition to sharing his ideas about war, Kaplan also described his experiences as an embedded journalist in battle zones from Iraq to Sierra Leone. Being embedded gives a reporter a profound but confined understanding of a situation, he said.

“They start to treat you like a father figure,” Kaplan said. “You get a very deep, narrow, vertical perspective when you’re embedded.”

Kaplan has written 11 books to date, covering topics such as the Cold War, the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.

Kaplan’s 1993 book, “Balkan Ghosts,” influenced former President Bill Clinton in his decision not to involve the U.S. military in the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, political journalist Elizabeth Drew has said.

“I frequently read his articles in the Atlantic Monthly, and I’ve always found them interesting and insightful,” Ari Evans ’09 said.

In addition to the Atlantic Monthly, Kaplan has also contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

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