I’ve been a fan of Robert D. Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. Later, in 2018 I read his acclaimed 2016 offering In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. This time around Kaplan shifted his focus from the Indian Ocean region to a slice of Eastern Europe. Called “poetic” and “reflective” by Timothy Snyder in his review for The Washington Post, to me hinted a departure for Kaplan. After successfully tackling the wide with Monsoon, he shifted towards the deep with In Europe’s Shadow, augmenting his new approach with extra attention to historical background thanks to his research and personal experience.
His latest book, published this spring Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age is a continuation of that approach. A fusion of travelogue, history, memoir and geopolitical analysis Adriatic is a leisurely yet learned journey down the Adriatic Coast. Making his way from Trieste to Corfu Kaplan travels geographically as well as chronologically. The erudite and well-traveled Kaplan concludes the key to predicting the region’s future is first understanding its past.
For much of the 20th century the lands of the former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war, begging with the first two Balkan Wars in the years before World War I. (A war that was sparked by Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia.) During World War II, German-occupied Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war as various factions, both ethnic and ideological fought for control. Tito and his fellow Communists’ eventually victory in 1945 would lead to authoritarian, one-party rule but also a half century of peace. But with the fall of Communism the nation unravelled and the fighting returned. Today, a precarious peace prevails throughout a region populated by relatively small nation states. With many weak, both politically and economically, plagued by high degrees of corruption and ripe for border conflicts they’re easy prey for outside players ranging from organized crime syndicates to regional powers like Turkey and Russia. No surprise Kaplan and others feel the best chance for lasting stability is to bind the region into some sort of supranational entity. Possible candidates range from a kind of a neo-Yugoslavia to a more robust EU recast like a latter-day Hapsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire.
For the last hundred years or so we’ve perceived the lands of the Adriatic, and for that matter Europe in general as geographically, culturally and politically distinct. But that always wasn’t the case. From Roman times to the early Middle Ages North Africa, together with Europe were seen as one region, anchored by the Mediterranean Sea. Only after the Arab conquests of North Africa and the Middle East did Europe did a sense of separateness sink in. 700 year later, after the Ottomans’s conquest of Byzantium and neighboring lands this notion of distinctness would only deepen.
But while Europe might have been hemmed in by Muslim forces, trade flourished. Their horizon’s broadened from the Crusades, Europeans soon developed a taste for fine fabrics and spices. Later, high end goods from China began to flow from East to West with the Adriatic a primary entry point. Not only would this greatly enrich Italian Genoa and Venice but in the process help bankroll the Renaissance.
Today, the Adriatic, along with the rest of Europe is being reconnected with the rest of the word. Wars, grinding poverty and oppression are driving refugees from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond onto the shores of the Adriatic. Populations, for good, bad or otherwise are mixing and bringing Europe closer to its ancient neighbors. Throughout the Adriatic Kaplan noted evidence of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a modern version of the storied Silk Road. Just like hundreds of years earlier, one wonders which parts of the Adriatic will once again profit handsomely from the increase in trans-Eurasian trade.
While the Middle East, the Taiwan Straights, North Korea and Ukraine might dominate our current headlines, Kaplan and others believe in the coming years major geopolitics will be playing out in the Adriatic. All the more reason to read Kaplan’s excellent book.