Few travel books have had as big a real-world impact as Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert Kaplan. Published in 1993, this account of Kaplan’s travels through Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia in the late 1980s and 1990 purportedly influenced President Clinton’s policy in the region during the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. Kaplan’s portrayal of the relations among the peoples of former Yugoslavia created “the sense that nothing could be done by outsiders in a region so steeped in ancient hatreds” (Richard Holbrooke).
The ancient hatreds thesis, which holds that Yugoslavia disinitegrated in war because its constituent peoples have always hated and killed each other, has become a trope of explaining the place. It has also been dismantled over and over by generations of scholars and policy wonks. Balkan Ghosts is one of those books you read so much about you might get a feeling you no longer need to read it because you already know it through and through from all the reviews and critiques.
What does Robert Kaplan think about the criticisms leveled at his famous book over the past nearly 30 years? About how his book has been utilized? Has he ever defended his work and what does he have to say? Does he care about the book’s impact? How have his views evolved?
With Robert D. Kaplan.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your ghostbuster Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Fortunate” by Ian Sutherland]
Few travel books have had as big a real-world impact as Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert Kaplan. Published in 1993, this account of Kaplan’s travels through Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia in the late 1980s and 1990 purportedly influenced President Clinton’s policy in the region during the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, specifically his inaction or refusal to intervene until late in the game. Kaplan’s portrayal of the relations among the peoples of former Yugoslavia created, to use the words of the late Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of state and a chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement, “the sense that nothing could be done by outsiders in a region so steeped in ancient hatreds.”
The ancient hatreds thesis, which holds that Yugoslavia disintegrated in war because its constituent peoples have always hated and killed each other, has become a trope of explaining the place. It has also been dismantled over and over by generations of scholars and policy wonks. To say the ancient hatreds thesis is bunk is almost a rite of passage for people writing about the region. In my master’s thesis at Central European University, published in 2001, I explained Yugoslavia’s and Czechoslovakia’s dissolutions as the result of elite political mobilizations. I listed (and in effect dismissed) the ancient hatreds thesis in the introduction as the first, “popular view” explanation of the dissolutions, using Kaplan’s book as an example.
Writing in The National Interest in the summer of 1993, Noel Malcolm, who has since written definitive histories of Bosnia and Kosovo, absolutely demolished Balkan Ghosts.
Kaplan fit Yugoslavia into his own ready-made explanatory cliches. Quote: “[M]ost extraordinarily of all, the Balkans as a whole are summed up as follows: ‘This was a time-capsule world: a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions and ecstasies. Yet their expressions remained fixed and distant, like dusty statuary.’” Malcolm identifies Kaplan’s purpose as conjuring up, quote “a ghoulish world of mysticism and murder, of irrational, superstitious hatred. The key to the Balkans, we are meant to think, is that people there hate one another with a kind of age-old sacred fury. As an explanatory characterization of Balkan life and history, this is nonsense. But with the war now raging in Bosnia it is worse than mere nonsense – it is dangerous nonsense.” End quote.
Malcolm then goes on to say the peoples of the region have lived peaceably together for most of history, with the two world wars providing an exception and with most conflicts driven by elites. “The Bosnian war was not caused by ancient hatreds; it was caused by modern politicians,” writes Malcolm. “The history may be ancient; but its deployment in the service of hatred is comparatively modern.” In other words, political elites instrumentalized and weaponized ethnic identity to serve their political goals. Which also happened to be the basis of my own argument several years after Malcolm made his.
I’ve now read Balkan Ghosts three times, once in each decade of this century. To be more accurate, I have thrice read the first third of the book which deals with former Yugoslavia. Whether it was lack of interest or exhaustion, I never got past that point, even though travels to Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece in fact form the bulk of Balkan Ghosts.
I’ll also say it’s a difficult book to read. Not because of style; Kaplan is an engaging travel writer and reporter. It’s just that the book is dark, often quite literally: Kaplan speaks to a lot of religious figures, dressed in dark garments as it were, and in dark places like churches and monasteries.
It’s pessimistic, bleak even. His outlook reminded me of the saying, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Oftentimes it feels Kaplan indeed came with an agenda and only used sources that conformed to it. Noel Malcolm again: “Kaplan has picked again and again on the most extreme and untypical moments of twentieth-century Balkan history and done his best to dress them up as archetypes.”
Writing in the New Yorker in 1996, Brian Hall, whom you may remember from the episode about travel writing, concluded, quote, “Kaplan is a fine, vivid writer, and he loves narrative, and his narrative is compelling. He is an arch-romantic. He believes in national essences. He has epiphanies in which small things, like a fresco, seem to him to illuminate the whole history of a people. But essentialist narratives, with an emphasis on ‘story,’ tend to be fatalistic. Nations, trapped in their unchanging personalities, must act as they have always acted. Having prepped by so devotedly reading books, Kaplan sees what he has been prepared to see, and concludes that little changes in the Balkans, because he is seeing the same things he read about in fifty-year-old books.” End quote.
And like Malcolm, I simply do not recognize the place in Kaplan’s descriptions (though to be fair I first started traveling there after the wars ended in 1995). Of course, every traveler will have a different experience and every writer will choose to write about something else. If anything, Balkan Ghosts has inspired me to write my own book about traveling in former Yugoslavia.
Balkan Ghosts is a must-read and if not also a must-hate then definitely a must-take-with-a-grain-of-salt. It’s one of those books you read so much about you might get a feeling you no longer need to read it because you already know it through and through from all the reviews and critiques. It’s really a dead horse of a book and one that’s still being kicked at that.
But there’s something else that I’ve always found peculiar about Balkan Ghosts. Now, I’m one of those people who appreciate the art and care much less about the artist. But what I never seem to have noticed is Robert Kaplan himself. As all these people, myself included, piled on Balkan Ghosts and its author, I’ve wondered, what does he think about the criticisms leveled at his famous book? Has he ever defended his work and what does he have to say? Does he care about the book’s impact?
So I decided to ask him. As I did my research, I found that Robert Kaplan had, in fact, written about the reception Balkan Ghosts received. He deflected the criticisms, sometimes convincingly, other times not so much; he defended his record of hawkish calls for intervention in the Yugoslav wars; and he indeed turned the mirror the other way, at people who misused the book for their own political and academic ends. It’s just that his voice may have been lost in the din of war and all the newfangled experts like me parsing it. Even one of my intellectual idols, a most definitely well-read and well-informed Timothy Garton Ash, wrote in response to Kaplan’s response to his 1995 review of Balkan Ghosts in the New York Review of Books that he hadn’t been aware of Kaplan’s calls for military intervention in the Balkans.
In speaking with Robert Kaplan I did not intend to counter argue about or critique Balkan Ghosts; it had been done for decades now and by people much smarter and better read than me. Just as I don’t focus on Yugoslavia but rather the memory of Yugoslavia, I wanted to hear from the man himself what he thought of Balkan Ghosts nearly 30 years after it was first published, how the book was utilized, and what he thought of his critics and their arguments. I wanted to know how, if at all, his views had evolved. And I also wanted to know about some of his later works; I mean Kaplan is a writing machine, with a book out every two or three years. Which, as a slow if not lazy writer, I too find quite inspirational.
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: an annotated conversation with Robert D. Kaplan.
Before we turn the page and bust the ghosts of Balkan Ghosts, remember that it is your quite material support that makes this conversation and this podcast possible. Thank you and welcome new Patreon sustainers, Anna, Greg, and Milica.
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[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Testarossa” by Detective Spook]
Robert D. Kaplan vs. Rebecca West
PETER KORCHNAK: This year marks 80 years since the publication of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The episode about that book will be a sequel to this one so stay tuned, or subscribed as the case may be. Anyway, in Balkan Ghosts, Kaplan writes that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was the book that “drew” him to former Yugoslavia. He also wrote, “I would rather have lost my passport and money than my heavily thumbed and annotated copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.”
Perhaps even more significantly for this narrative, in the Winter 1991/92 issue of The National Interest, that is a year before the publication of Balkan Ghosts, Kaplan wrote this in his review of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: “…the hatred between Croats and Serbs is not a normal ethnic hatred. It has no blood and soil basis. And until the end of World War I, Croats and Serbs generally got along. This is a hatred without a long past, born solely of the collapse of empires; in other words, of historical process. Dame Rebecca put it thus: “I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” End quote.
So the first question I had to ask Kaplan was in fact about that earlier classic, what it was about that book and what its legacy is today.
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Actually I began covering Yugoslavia from my base in Greece in 1981. This was a few years before I read Rebecca West’s book. What drew me to Yugoslavia and the Balkans in the early 1980s, where I would go back and forth to Yugoslavia throughout the 1980s, was the fact that while there was no news in the Balkans, the Cold War security structure was demonstrably weakening. And there was already a kind of economic war between the various ethnically based republics in Yugoslavia. There was like to deal with shortages of oil, gasoline, electricity blackouts. Each year, I went back to Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the situation got worse and worse and meaner and meaner.
In the mid 1980s, I encountered Rebecca West’s book. And I think it is one of the great travel books of the 20th century because she has a novelist’s instinct, she can weave subtleties. And she also knows that the purpose of travel is ultimately intellectual, to discuss ideas. It’s not just about adventures or food or culinary things, which people think of travel today. It was sort of like T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s companion books on Mani and Roumeli in Greece. You know, the literary quality was very high. and I thought, you know, the perception of the country, and its and its divisions and its tensions was, you know, made it a kind of classic that what you know, that deserved to be rediscovered.
You know, and I’d like to mention that, in 1989, in July, this was a full two years before the war started. I wrote a long essay in the Atlantic Monthly, which was a work in progress for Balkan Ghosts, where I said that, whereas the world saw the limits of the superpower stability in Vietnam and Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s would see the Western Balkans become a venue of conflict that the superpowers would have trouble containing.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 1996 edition of Balkan Ghosts contained a new foreword by Kaplan. He wrote: “The story behind Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History provides a cautionary tale for writers. This is, essentially, a prewar, 1980s travel book that has, in the years of violent conflict in the 1990s in Bosnia, acquired a public policy significance which I never intended.”
And, “The history of ethnic rivalry I detailed reportedly encouraged [President Clinton]’s pessimism about the region, and—so it is said—was a factor in his decision not to launch an overt military response in support of the Bosnian Moslems, who were being besieged by Bosnian Serbs. That was disconcerting for two reasons. First, there is exceedingly little about Bosnia in Balkan Ghosts. As the reader will see, it is a subjective, broad-brush travel book about the whole Balkan peninsula, not a policy work. That policy makers, indeed a president, might rely on such a book in reaching a momentous military decision would be frightening, if true. My personal suspicion is that back in 1993, at the beginning of his term, Clinton had so little resolve that he was casting around for any excuse not to act. But that only highlights the second reason why it is frustrating to find Balkan Ghosts cast as an anti-intervention tract: I myself have been a hawk on the issue. Since the first half of 1993, I have publicly advocated military action in support of the Bosnian Moslems.” End quote.
In June 1999, Kaplan wrote this in the New York Times: “Books are misused when the reader lacks context. The first book on any subject overwhelms one, but by the tenth the reader awards it its proper place in his emerging view…. But because so many readers lack context, the author has the responsibility to set the context for them—especially the policy context at the book’s beginning. This is where I failed in Balkan Ghosts, never imagining that my travel book on a region in its last moments of obscurity might later be read as a policy tract.” End quote.
The book’s 2005 edition contains this and an additional five opinion pieces by Kaplan published in the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1996 and 2000. Bottom line: people, including President Clinton and his advisers, read too much into the book and politicized it.
Speaking of Balkan Ghosts, it will soon be 30 years since the publication of that book. Say there’s an anniversary edition, what would you write in the preface?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Actually I’m not sure because I already have two prefaces in the book, in the latest edition, where the main theme of the later preface is that the book took on a policy significance that I never intended in the first place. Remember, not only did I warn about Yugoslavia in 1989, but four months later, after The Atlantic article came out, the Berlin Wall fell. And I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal saying you know that right now, the media is obsessed with Central Europe, it keeps repeating the term Central Europe and the collapse of communism. But the Balkans is another concept that has emerged from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s a concept that the media has yet to discover. And this was still 19 months before war started. So, you know, I think I warned in advance several times prominently in print, and the fact that it took on a policy significance which I never intended, and which has caused me you know, as you can imagine, tremendous remorse, is already in the preface.
So I’m not sure what I would write except for this. I have another book coming out next April called Adriatic and it’s intended to be a sort of literary travelogue and it deals about 40 percent of the manuscript deals with Croatia, with Slovenia, with Montenegro, with Albania. This is like, you know, several decades on after I wrote Balkan Ghosts. And what I would say is what I found out this time in this new book that’s coming out in April.
What I found is there’s a kind of, among the intellectuals in Croatia in Slovenia, especially, there’s a kind of nostalgia for Yugoslavia. It’s interesting, Tito is seen among the global, you know, elite intellectuals in all of those countries in very favorable terms. To say you’re Yugoslav now, or that you identify with the word Yugoslavia, in Croatia, in Slovenia is a sign of being a member of the global elite, of being open-minded, of being a humanitarian. Because with all of its repressive faults, you know, Tito did keep the peace and there was a sense of a cosmopolitanism. You know, a prelude to cosmopolitanism in the Yugoslavia that existed between the end of World War Two and about the early 80s when things started coming apart, even though the media would not be alert to it until the following decade, there was a sense of a cosmopolitanism, you could be an ethnic Bosnian or Croat or Serb or whatever, but if you believed in the Yugoslav system that made you rise above ethnic awareness.
PETER KORCHNAK: To go back to Balkan Ghosts, you already remarked on the political significance the book took on and maybe a sense of remorse you feel about that. So how do you view with the distance of time, with this hindsight of a quarter century, the impact on US policy in the Balkans overall of that book?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Well, remember the Balkan interventions of the 1990s, specifically 1995 in Bosnia and 1999 in Kosovo happened between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. And this was a period, we can call it the post-Cold War. And the post-Cold War was, with the exception, of course of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, was generally a very optimistic time for journalists and intellectuals. I mean, everyone was talking about globalization. You were supposed to be in favor of democracy everywhere, democracy was in ascendance. You know, the idea of authoritarianism, populism, all the things we discuss now [were] way over the horizon. So the Balkan interventions happened, remember this, before the rise of the Chinese navy was on the horizon, before the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia. So the idea of Great Power conflict or Great Power rivalry with which we’re now obsessed, meant that the US at that time did not perceive any real threats. So getting militarily involved in the Balkans was sort of a luxury at the time. You know, though, very few people kind of saw it, you know, at the time that way, because nobody would know, yeah, about the rise of the Chinese navy, about the global war on terrorism, all of that was in the future.
PETER KORCHNAK: Then, in addition to the political impact the book had, it has influenced in many ways the West’s perception of the region and its people. So, you know, the book’s critics maintain that the ancient hatreds thesis, quote unquote, has helped perpetuate harmful stereotypes of the Balkans, for example. So what’s your response today to those [critics].
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: My response is you do not need to idealize the region or a landscape in order to take action on its behalf. You should go into anywhere with your eyes wide open. Had we looked deeper into Iraq the way I looked at the Balkans in Balkan Ghosts we might not have gotten involved in Iraq in the first place. And keep in mind Balkan Ghosts did not cover Bosnia and Herzegovina at all. The Yugoslav sections were limited to Croatia and Serbia and Kosovo, and there were large sections of the book about Romania, Bulgaria, and other places where the freeze-frame poverty instituted by communism, kept ethnic awareness alive. In other words, people did not migrate into the middle class in which case ethnic tensions could be diluted. And in fact, in the prelude, in the preface rather to Balkan Ghosts, I write about how southern Austria’s economic prosperity has basically dampened ethnic tensions.
PETER KORCHNAK: In an interview for C-SPAN in June 1993, shortly after Balkan Ghosts was first published, Kaplan describes the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina as “part two of the civil war that transpired between 1941 and 1945.” (War in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the period Kaplan was a go-to expert of American media and gave a lot of interviews.) He went on to say that “communism put all these problems in a freeze frame state for 45 years,” and “what I find is especially interesting is how little effect Tito had on Europe, on Yugoslavia in history. It was as if he didn’t exist” because “Tito held it”—meaning Yugoslavia—“together by force. And a lot of little good things came out of it. But basically nationalism was suppressed.” So hatreds, perhaps not so ancient but certainly suppressed. Still, it sounds like little to nothing could have been done about the fighting since it was going to happen anyway.
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: And in Chapter One, I talked openly that nothing was decided in advance, that the people of Croatia had a choice to make between going towards a future of ethnic peace, epitomized by Cardinal Strossmayer, Archbishop rather, Joseph Strossmeyer, or a future of ethnic tensions, epitomized by Cardinal Alois Stepinac. So there was a moral choice put to the reader and to the people of the region in Chapter One.
So I reject the notion that the book was all about ancient hatreds. In fact, if you do a word or phrase check of the Kindle manuscript, I don’t think you’ll find the phrase ancient hatreds at all.
I wrote about Balkan hatreds as a modern phenomena, having to do with the weakening and collapse of the Habsburg and then Ottoman empires.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is true, by the way. Kaplan did see a lot of hatred wherever he went in former Yugoslavia. “Ethnic hatreds,” “savage hatreds,” “Balkan hatreds,” and “racial hatred” all make an appearance in Balkan Ghosts. “Ancient hatreds” may not join the hatred parade but you’d be hard pressed to get from the narrative anything other than an overall sense that these hatreds have a long and deep history.
The phrase “ancient hatreds” seems to have appeared later as a summary or label of Kaplan’s argument. Noel Malcolm uses it in his review of Balkan Ghosts, just a few months after the book’s publication. I could be wrong but this may just be the first instance of the term being used in a scholarly text.
How do you wish the book would have been interpreted or used? And what should people have been saying about it instead?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: What people should have been saying, “Hey, things are really bad there. There’s real dislike, the real tensions, you just can’t wish them away. So that if we do intervene”—and by the way, I was in favor of intervention earlier—”if we do intervene, we should do so with our eyes wide open and plan for every contingency.”
PETER KORCHNAK: I want to know if Kaplan could disprove the dead horse theory. Is there anything new to say about Balkan Ghosts that has not been said?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: The only thing new that can be said are the things that I’ve been talking to you about today about The Atlantic article in ‘89, the Wall Street [Journal] op-ed in 1989, both works in progress for Balkan Ghosts, about the fact that the month that Balkan Ghosts was published, March 1993, I had an essay in Reader’s Digest, which at the time had a circulation of 18 million people. And it basically argued and supported the idea of intervention in order to save people’s lives. On the front page of the Washington Post Outlook section, in 1994, still a year before the Clinton administration intervened, I argued for intervention. So I guess what has not been said is kind of the side of the story that I’m presenting to you now.
From Balkan Ghosts to Today
PETER KORCHNAK: How have your views overall evolved on the region?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: My views have evolved this way—and this is based too on my reporting there in the past few years in Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro—is that the war continues but without the shooting and without any violence. By that I mean that ethnic tensions are still there. Good parts of the region have not taken off economically, it’s still beset with organized crime, with corruption. It’s still a poor part of Europe, the way it was when I researched Balkan Ghosts. And I think that the only ultimate solution to all these national problems in the Western Balkans is the complete incorporation of the former Yugoslavia and Albania into the European Union.
Under the umbrella of the European Union, a lot of these disputes can be settled, and concessions can be more easily made. So you know, it’s interesting when you’re in Albania, when you’re in Montenegro, everybody’s in favor of joining the European Union these days. But they also know it probably won’t happen. Because, you know, the European Union is out of gas. It suffered significantly with the Greek debt crisis. It has Ukraine on its hands. It has the, you know, the economic effects of the coronavirus. It has basically weak leadership from Germany, Britain has left the European Union. The European Union is in no position psychologically or politically to keep expanding. And yet it’s only expansion, I think, that can make the Western Balkans or the former Yugoslavia a happy place.
PETER KORCHNAK: Given that the accession of these countries to the European Union will not take place or most likely will not take place, that kind of eliminates the one solution that you propose to what’s going on. So what’s the alternative?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: The alternative is economic development. People with two cars in their driveway in a suburban house or money in the bank don’t get involved in ethnic disturbances as much as poor people do. Because they have property to protect. You know, that was the fault of communism, even Tito’s diluted version of it: it kept the former Yugoslavia in a state of freeze-frame poverty. Yes, there was cosmopolitanism in the cities, in Zagreb in Sarajevo, etcetera. But the countrysides at the time were much poorer. And in fact, what’s sad about Croatia today is the out migration of the youth. All the young, most cosmopolitan, the most best educated youth of Croatia are deserting the country. They’re moving to places like Ireland to get high tech jobs. The people you most want to stay there to build a future are in fact, leaving.
PETER KORCHNAK: The author of Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova, got to see that book has a burden because it essentially overshadows everything else she’s done. Can you relate to that? I mean, here we are talking about Balkan Ghosts. So how do you feel about Balkan Ghosts, the book you’re best known for in the context of your entire bibliography?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Keep in mind, I wrote Balkan Ghosts during the Cold War. And when I went to Sarajevo, when I went to Zagreb, there was not even one journalistic stringer there. And when I went to Belgrade, I remember having lunch, or a coffee, a late afternoon coffee, rather, with a Reuters correspondent who told me that this place is coming apart and my editors aren’t interested, you know, there’s very little interest in the media in what’s occurring here. This was in the late 1980s. So I think I did my job.
One of the jobs of a journalist is to write about places in a way that will make it more relevant in the years to come. It’s not exactly prediction or prognostication, but to identify trends that will remain for the next five or 10 years, because beyond that, it’s all speculation anyway.
So, you know, the reason why Balkan Ghosts had such an impact, one other reason, is that it came out at a time, in 1993, when there were no other books about the Balkans to come out, because the journalists had only started to cover it. It was only in 1990 or so that attention shifted from Central America, where the American media was obsessed throughout the 1980s with the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. They were only starting to become less obsessed with the Lebanese civil war. And just barely getting interested in Poland and Central Europe and the Baltic states around 1989. Yugoslavia would not appear on the journalistic radar screen until the first months of 1991.
PETER KORCHNAK: There are a lot of people in or from the region who draw parallels between what happened in their country, their former country in the 80s and the 90s and what’s happening now around the world, particularly in the US, for example, especially with the January events. What’s your take on that?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: My take is, Yugoslavia, the wars of the Yugoslav secession of the 1990s actually are most relevant to today’s Ethiopia. Because Ethiopia, you have you know, an ethnically dominant group of Amharas and Tigrayans who are Eastern Orthodox like the Serbs. They run a mini empire of different peoples of different ethnic groups, like Yugoslavia was a sort of mini empire. In fact, Claudio Magris the great literary writer of Trieste, in Italy, calls Tito the last of the Habsburg emperors because he governed Yugoslavia and kind of a Habsburg kind of mini empire of Yugoslavia in a Habsburg fashion. And you know, this is very much like Ethiopia today. You know, Ethiopia has a dominant ethnic group of Amharas who nevertheless feel themselves oppressed the same way that the Serbs were dominant but felt themselves oppressed. And Ethiopia could also come apart like Yugoslavia. So I think that’s the best comparison today, not to America, but to Ethiopia.
PETER KORCHNAK: You can read Kaplan’s extended take on Ethiopia in his July article for Foreign Policy. I’m not an expert on that country but his arguments have already been criticized by those who are, along the same lines as Balkan Ghosts: historical reductionism and selective reading of history.
In Balkan Ghosts Kaplan takes a number of other big swings. To pick a notorious example, he dropped, in a kind of a I’m-just-gonna-leave-it-here fashion, perhaps the most preposterous claim I’ve ever read about the Balkans: “Nazism, for instance, can claim Balkan origins. Among the flophouses of Vienna, a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the southern Slav world, Hitler learned how to hate so infectiously.”
One of those things that I could never find a way to dignify with a response. But I had to ask about a related claim.
At the end of the section on former Yugoslavia, you say that, essentially, communism was fascism without fascism’s ability to make trains run on time? What did you mean by that? And do you still believe that?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Yeah, what I meant was that even Tito’s you know, you know, what I call low-calorie version of communism, you know, still made no economic sense and denied people a middle-class economy. This was the case also in Bulgaria and Romania, you know, places that I also wrote about at length in Balkan Ghosts, and which did not have low calorie versions of communism, but in Romania’s case, a Stalinist version of communism and a near Stalinist version in Bulgaria. Communism kept people poor, and at the same time wasn’t efficient, because it bred so much corruption, because the system didn’t work well. So alternative networks of getting things done through payoffs and bribes had to happen. So that’s what I meant about it.
Revenge of Geography on Yugoslavia
PETER KORCHNAK: Kaplan’s 2017 book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate is much less known than Balkan Ghosts. In that book he argues that it is a country’s geographic, topographic, and climatic location that explains, if not determines, the course of its history. Plenty to critique again, as a few have, from the “geodeterminist” arguments to fear-mongering narratives to old-school realist geopolitics. I want to know how that book’s thesis applies to former Yugoslavia.
What was geography’s revenge to use your terms, on former Yugoslavia?
ROBERT KAPLAN: People thought in 1989 that they had escaped history. And what is geography? Geography is history, it’s landscape, it’s culture. Because what is culture? Culture is a people’s experience and ways of behavior that have evolved over living on a specific geographical landscape for hundreds and thousands of years. Intellectuals thought that they had left geography, culture, history behind in the heady time right after the Berlin Wall fell. Where in fact, Yugoslavia demonstrated that geography was very much alive, you know, in the sense it was imperial like the Habsburg Empire. It was a culture that had evolved, it was various cultures that had evolved over time in a specific geography. There was, you know, there was an ethnic awareness over an individual awareness, people thought of themselves as members of a group, you know. All this demonstrated the strength and the holding power of what I call geography.
And the revenge of geography was really about the 19th century way of the term, the 19th interpretation of the term, which was a starting point for studying history, culture, natural resources, trade routes, etc. And I started the book, I started the Revenge of Geography, dealing with the wars in the Balkans because it brought people back to the world that was unreconstructed, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then went on to discuss China, Russia, other parts of the world.
The word imperialism or Empire are dirty words today. You know, you can’t use them in academia without denouncing them, etcetera. But in fact, we still live in an imperial world. The United States of America has military bases and embassies in every country in you know, in many countries of the world. And, you know, America has found itself, since the end of World War Two, in an imperial-like situation, and unless you understand the Indian Empire, or the Chinese dynastic empires, or the czarist and, and Soviet empires, or the various Iranian empires of antiquity, you cannot understand the mindset that today drives the aggression of Russia, of Iran, of China, and I might add of Turkey too, which very explicitly is following a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. So you may not like Empire and you may consider the word retrograde, but an understanding of Empire is very, very critical to today’s world.
PETER KORCHNAK: In Balkan Ghosts you didn’t deal with Bosnia and Herzegovina, so let’s use that country as an example of geography’s revenge. What is that impact on today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina in your view?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: Well, historically, Bosnia and Herzegovina were very mountainous, you know, they’re just very mountainous and that has dampened, you know, economic development and therefore, political development. You know, mountainous countries, like Kurdistan have often had challenges in terms of political unity. Parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina had come under various imperial rules. And those empires, the Habsburg, you know, the Habsburg, the Ottoman empires were less developed, you know, they lead to a lot, you know, a lesser form of development, of economic development than say the Prussian and Carolinian empires in Northwestern Europe, in Northern Europe. So there was relative poverty, relatively lack of development. And then you had, you know, various, you know, religions were there, you had Catholic Croats, you had Muslims, Bosnian Muslims. So you had various religious tensions as well, particularly with theCroatian church was a Catholic Church on the border with Orthodoxy, and thus its Catholicism was particularly fervent. So all of this plays a role.
You know, when you arrive in a country, history doesn’t start the moment you get there. There are all these, you know, plethora of chapters that come earlier.
PETER KORCHNAK: Your book, Adriatic, when can we look forward to that?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: April 2022. And the subtitle is “A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.” And the reason the subtitle is because with the Adriatic, you’re dealing with Catholicism in Italy and Croatia, you’re dealing with Eastern Orthodoxy, you know, the legacy of Eastern Orthodoxy in Ravenna, in Montenegro, and also Islam in the case of parts of Albania.
And it’s a place of interweaving, you know, where you have Venice versus the Ottoman Empire, you have various imperial traditions set one up against the other. And it’s essentially an optimistic book. It’s done several decades after Balkan Ghosts and the whole tone is different.
PETER KORCHNAK: In what way?
ROBERT D. KAPLAN: It’s optimistic in the sense that I don’t see the populist nationalisms, the virulent populist nationalisms that we see in places like Hungary today under Viktor Orbán as permanent. I see them as a passing phase, as an epiphenomena, because globalization will continue and will eventually overpower them. And you’re going to have more sectors of populations going deeper and deeper down, influenced by cosmopolitanism.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Fortunate” by Ian Sutherland]
PETER KORCHNAK: I had a lot of prepared questions for Robert Kaplan and even more follow up questions and comments that arose during our conversation that I simply did not have the time to ask. So make your own conclusions, as I’ve made mine—about the questions left unanswered or answered insufficiently, questions answered that I didn’t ask, and answers that raised even more questions, if not objections. There’s plenty to argue with and I would like to know what you think. So head over to RememberingYugoslavia.com and let fly with a comment on this episode’s blog post slash transcript.
What I do know, what the biggest takeaway for me was from this conversation is this. You can argue the fine or not so fine points of the work. You can agree or disagree with its conclusions, explicit or implied. You can appreciate or dislike the writing style, debate the angle, question the choice of subjects and sources.
You can direct your accolades and criticisms of the work to the author. In case it isn’t clear, Balkan Ghosts is not my favorite, to say the least, and my dislike has only grown with repeated readings and visits to the region.
But once the work is out there, it takes on a life of its own and it can spiral out of the author’s control, and no matter how many retractions or corrections or counters the author puts out there, sometimes the book’s path is just incorrigible.
You could certainly read Balkan Ghosts in the 1990s—and you can certainly read it now that way, too—and conclude no one can do anything because these Balkan people indeed have always hated each other and always will. You can certainly blame the author for the words he wrote and how those words were later interpreted. Again, plenty to disagree with, criticize, or dismiss in Kaplan’s writing and spoken word. I just don’t think you can lay blame on the author for how his book would be used in driving policy decisions. Used or perhaps scapegoated.
As you’ve heard, Kaplan is well aware he quote unquote failed in his responsibility to set the context for the story of Balkan Ghosts and he feels remorse for the book’s real-world effects. In speaking with him I saw he was going to great pains to reiterate that and set the record straight, yet again for the zillionth time.
The ghost of Balkan Ghosts still haunts him and it perhaps always will.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: As I traveled and I went to these individual specific places, I would open up the book to where she writes about that part. And it was illuminating.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s been 80 years since the publication of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. The book influenced not only Robert Kaplan but also a myriad of other writers. What was that book about? And what is its legacy today?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon through the ages.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. And remember to comment on what Robert Kaplan has said, I’d like to hear from you and I’ll definitely invite him to comment back.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Audio clip by Detective Spook; additional music by Ian Sutherland and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Billie Addleman, Aida Hozić, Sanjin Pejković, and Martin Petkovski.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Hall, Brian. “Rebecca West’s War.” New Yorker, April 7, 1996
- Malcolm, Noel. “Seeing Ghosts.” The National Interest, No. 32 (Summer 1993): 83-88
Robert D. Kaplan photo credit: John Stanmeyer