THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
comes from more,
however, than a state of
mind. Kaplan stresses
that the United States
is endowed with the
“most impressive polit-
ical geography in the
world, or in history for
that matter.” The colo-
nists were fortunate
to gain possession
of the last resource-rich part
of the temperate zone settled during or
after the Enlightenment.
In addition to our ocean boundar-
ies and stable, friendly neighbors, the
United States benefits from having more
navigable inland waterways than the
rest of the world combined. This helped
power breakneck economic develop-
ment and lowered barriers to commu-
nications and migration, keeping the
country cohesive even as it spread west.
Other countries complain that geogra-
phy has cursed them; it’s given nothing
but blessings to us.
Kaplan meanders west, riffing as he
visits the homes of Teddy Roosevelt,
Abe Lincoln and James Buchanan,
Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam.
Every landmark contributes to the story
of westward expansion, bringing Amer-
ica closer to its geopolitical destination.
Along the way he likens the early
frontiersmen who battled with Native
Fated to Lead?
Earning the Rockies: How Geography
Shapes America’s Role in the World
Robert J. Kaplan, Random House,
2017, $27/hardcover, $13.99/
Kindle, 224 pages.
Reviewed By Eric Green
Who are we? Americans have asked
this simple question since before we
became an independent nation, and
foreign policy thinkers have struggled
to use the answers to explain why the
United States ascended to predomi-
nance in the international order.
Robert Kaplan, the author of 16
(really!) previous books on international
affairs, offers his own perspective with
a short volume that is both a history of
ideas and a master class in American
Written as a memoir, travelogue and
opens with Kaplan recalling
childhood road trips and tales told by
his truck-driving father. These kindled
in him a fascination with American
historical landmarks and the epic geog-
raphy of Appalachia, the central rivers,
the Great Plains and beyond.
Seeking renewed inspiration, he sets
off on a coast-to-coast journey to revisit
the continent’s landscape and to reflect
on how the settlers’ encounters with it
remade the country into an outward-
looking imperial colossus.
Kaplan reveres Bernard DeVoto, a
historian of westward expansion who
identified America’s embrace of “Mani-
fest Destiny” as the moment when
the country’s mental horizons about
its place in the world expanded in the
same way that our physical boundaries
stretched to the Pacific.
America’s expansive self-conception
American tribes to today’s U.S.
Special Forces, and suggests that
the experience of crossing the
limitless prairie prepared Ameri-
cans for their future vocation of
policing the Pacific Ocean.
By the time Kaplan reaches San
Diego, the United States is not a
normal country, but a world power
that has developed “longstanding
obligations, which, on account of
its continued economic and social
dynamism relative to other powers, it
Though Kaplan ranges far outside
the Beltway to explain America’s role in
the world, his conclusions are comfort-
ably within mainstream establishment
thinking. Kaplan is an unapologetic
champion of projecting American
power, rhapsodizing on the benefits of
our 300-ship Navy, global diplomatic
presence and more than 100 overseas
While he celebrates America’s rise as
a net positive for the world, Kaplan does
not sugarcoat the process, pointing out
the “morally ambiguous” legacy of the
conquest of Mexico and the brutal treat-
ment of Native Americans, as well as the
counterproductive foreign adventures
in the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq.
Kaplan’s book was completed prior
to the start of the Trump administra-
tion, but it includes a few digressions on
Kaplan meanders west, riffing as he visits the homes of Teddy
Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln and James Buchanan, Mount Rushmore
and the Hoover Dam. Every landmark contributes to the story of
westward expansion, bringing America closer to its geopolitical