Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age


Robert D. Kaplan

The Dalmatian-American Club in San Pedro, California looks out to the Pacific.  Across the street to the south is the Cabrillo Marina, to the east, the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  When the building went up in 1935, it was called the Jugoslav Club, and its members were prominent in the then thriving fishing and canning industries.  In 1949, its name changed to the Yugoslav-American Club.  By the early 1990s, the balkanization of the Balkans reached Southern California.  The club again changed its name, identifying not with Croatia, but with the local community’s home region of the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea.

The Dalmatians consider themselves as such, and like their club, look out to the sea.  Discussing the Yugoslav Wars with a friend who had immigrated to California from near Split as a child, and who had gone back to spend summers with family while growing up, he summed up the Dalmatian attitude toward Zagreb, Croatia, and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.  “We try to stay away from whatever those crazies on the other side of the mountains are doing.”  Dalmatia and the Adriatic littoral, a region with a long history of competing peoples and interests, states, cultures, and religions, provides the setting for Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book. 

Adriatic is structured by Kaplan’s travels along the sea’s coastline, from Rimini and Ravenna, to Venice and Trieste, in Italy, to Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, on to the Greek island of Corfu.  He revisits his previous travels as he reassesses what the past and present can reveal about the future of the region—and what it might mean for Europe and the world.  There are common themes from his previous works.  Geography as destiny.  The manner in which cultures encounter and influence each other.  The organization of societies, by religion and government, and its implications for stability and peace. 

The region is presented as a fault-zone between East and West, presently, historically, and in the future.  It is where Venice, the Hapsburgs, and the Ottomans, along with their predecessors and successors, vied for territory, power, and influence; where Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam intersect; where liberal democracies and Communism met border to border.  The lines between interests here are not so clear.  The cultural geology is as complex as metamorphic rock.

Two of Kaplan’s previous books, Balkan Ghosts and Mediterranean Winter, will likely be his works most often compared to Adriatic.  Both have travels in the same region at their center, one more concerned with policy, the other a memoir.  Two other less obvious books come to mind, Warrior Politics and An Empire Wilderness.  In the first, Kaplan introduces a concept that is implicit if not yet labeled, that of thinking tragically.  Essentially, this is an emphasis on effects not intentions.  Religious morals and civic ethics, guiding principles of humanity, can devolve into self-serving justification, as achieving a positive outcome—avoiding tragedy—requires a measure of hard-headed realpolitikAn Empire Wilderness takes Kaplan, his travels and observations, through North America, covering similar themes and coming to similar conclusions as his books on travels abroad.  Just as he considers the role of empire, encompassing diverse geography and cultures in the Adriatic, he suggests likewise for the Pacific Northwest, with Vancouver, BC and Seattle, across an international boundary but forming a distinct, united region of city-states within a continental empire.

Kaplan is no imperialist.  In Adriatic he directly addresses this criticism.  Empire is not just the acquisition of colonies for exploitation.  Kaplan is correct when compares the positive features of empire—tolerant, cosmopolitan, religiously and culturally diverse—to the monoethnic nation-state.  In Europe, there is the example of the Hapsburgs.  The Ottoman Empire was only the final expression of Turko-Mongolian empire development from the time of the Xiongnu, the Chinggisids and Timurids, up to finally the Turkish Republic, when, as Kaplan relates, empire gave way to nation-state and the horrors of the Greco-Turkish War.

This is his most personal book.  Throughout he questions his previous impressions, assumptions, and conclusions, especially his initial support for the Iraq War and the effect that Balkan Ghosts had on the Clinton administration’s early decision to avoid intervention in the Balkans, only later doing so, delaying much needed relief for affected populations.  He unfavorably compares himself to academic area experts, with their depth of knowledge.  To most of us, this seems absurd, surely.  Kaplan must be as close as it comes to being a self-made individual–widely experienced, traveled, and well-read—starting out on his travels as a youthful undergrad and working at a small town newspaper. 

Here, Kaplan is not only the author of his book, but a guide to the reviewer, anticipating key points and offering comment.  Before reading this book, one point had already made itself plain from reading all his other works.  His bibliographies are works in themselves, courses of reading across a range of subjects, a welcome and appreciated education.  He writes: “The real adventure of travel is intellectual, because the most profound journeys are interior in nature.  That is why travel at its most useful creates a bibliography.”

Reading the first few chapters of Adriatic, finding coherence was difficult.  Its thematic center is obviously geography.  What is its philosophical or conceptual center, its premise?  This review’s initial objective was to identify a general principle and show its practical application, something more defined than the themes common to many of Kaplan’s other books, again, geography as destiny, and the effects of cultural interaction.  Was I at fault, asking the book to conform to my purposes, not to its own?  Kaplan himself again provides the answer.  “So I worry that the book I am writing fits no category.  It is not military strategy, political science, original archival history, conventional long-form journalism, traditional travel writing, memoir, or literary criticism.”

“Migration is the story of humanity.”   In this quote from the introduction, Kaplan is specifically referring to the current migrations from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, and how it is part of a universal pattern found throughout human history.  It is possible to disagree with Kaplan’s conclusions while benefiting from his observations, to say nothing of considerable reading pleasure.  This quote, however, is a welcome gift to the reviewer.  It permits a perfect segue to my own work, a useful perspective on what Kaplan describes in Adriatic.

A bit of theory, an example, and a quote: Rights of Settlement and Migration are Established through Conflict and Convention is the general principle of political theory that describes what occurs whenever claims to a place are contested and resolved.  Expressed as a Hegelian dialectic, in the first term, Venice is an independent city-state with its own empire extending down the opposite coast of the Adriatic.  In the middle term, it encounters a challenge to its sovereignty and control of territory by the Ottoman Empire.  For Hegel, this middle term is not a true antithesis or cancellation of the first term, but an interaction between the two terms, where each is changed by the other.  In the third term, Venice has maintained its basic sovereignty, but new conditions pertain throughout its former territories.  It is aligned with Catholic Europe against the Ottomans even as it reaches accommodation with them, especially as regards trade.

Through a series of succeeding dialectics of the principle, peoples and places come into conflict, they mix and blend, creating new political and cultural entities to resolve at defined places in history on to where arrive at the present.  As Kaplan describes: “And yet broad tidal waves of change and influence are undeniable.  The Greek Orthodox Byzantines helped shape Europe, both in their own oriental religiosity and in the barrier they struggled to maintain for hundreds of years against Seljuk and Ottoman Turks.  The Mongols helped shape Europe…The Arabs helped shape Europe…”  And so on it goes, dialectic after succeeding dialectic…

Adriatic offers something for all its readers, coming to the book with varied interests and expectations.  Not least, there is the pure enjoyment of immersing oneself in well-written prose.  And then there is that back matter bonus, a Kaplan bibliography, alone worth the price of admission.

M. P. Ross    04-15-2022