Years ago during one of my visits to the public library a came across a copy of Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Contained in this collection of essays on democracy, international relations and assorted global hotspots was a considerably pessimistic article originally written for The Atlantic magazine. In his lengthy piece, “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan predicted a bleak future for the developing world. Already cursed with fragile governments and limited resources, these countries face a bleak future of overpopulation, resource depletion and explosive urbanization. Unable to cope with such challenges many of them will descend into anarchy while armed conflicts, flights of refugees and human misery become all more common. According to Kaplan the future looked grim. And it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.
Fast forward to 2011 when I read his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power finding it even more insightful and fascinating. According to Kaplan, the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow in importance as India and China rise, leading to an increase in global trade but also the potential for greater international rivalries and possibly even armed conflicts. I happily devoured Monsoon and had no difficulty including it in my year-end Best Nonfiction list.
So I guess it should be no one’s surprise once I learned Kaplan’s newest book was about the Eastern European county of Romania I immediately went about securing a copy from my public library. Even though I took a six month break before starting it back up I found it excellent. As high as my expectations might have been, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond did not disappoint me.
Much like Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia In Europe’s Shadow is the end result of Kaplan’s many visits to Romania, going all the way back to the 70s when he was a young aspiring foreign correspondent. Until the early 90s, the Romania Kaplan visited was an impoverished Communist backwater ruled with an iron hand by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. While other Warsaw Pact countries were ruled by drab Leonid Brezhnev kind of leaders Ceaușescu’s autocratic regime was a twisted mix of Stalinism, hard-core Romanian nationalism and North Korean-style cult of personality. After Ceaușescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising the country former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu became president. In retrospect Iliescu’s somewhat authoritarian rule served as a transition period between the dark days of Ceaușescu and the freer Western-style rule the country’s citizens enjoy today. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2007, Kaplan’s most recent trips to Romania show a country that despite the curses of the past eagerly desires to move closer towards the West, politically, culturally and economically.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from In Europe’s Shadow is the understanding that depending how you look at it, Romania is blessed and cursed by geography. Throughout its history Romania has had to deal with Russians, Ottomans and Central Europeans (be they Germans, Hapsburgs or Hungarians) trying to impose their will. Traditionally, especially in modern times the solution has been for Romania’s leaders to play one powerful neighbor against the other resulting in varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, as these powerful empires have washed over Romania throughout centuries they’ve left indelible marks. While Romanian is a Romance language written in Latin script one can find influences from Hungarian, Turkish and assorted Slavic languages. Thanks to Byzantine and Russian influences the county’s majority religion is Romanian Orthodox. Depending on the region, years of Hungarian and Turkish rule have flavored everything from cuisine to native dress.
Just as I proclaimed Monsoon should be required reading for the politically engaged and globally minded I’ll do the same for In Europe’s Shadow. As Putin’s Russia continues to flex its muscle especially in Ukraine and the Middle East and Turkey asserts itself Romania navigates between East, West and South. That being the case, In Europe’s Shadow should be required reading.