The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017


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

intellectual meditation,

Earning the


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

military installations.

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