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The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan
Robert Kaplan On The Tragedy In Geopolitics

Robert Kaplan On The Tragedy In Geopolitics

The globetrotting reporter is sobered by what he's seen over the decades.

Bob is a foreign affairs and travel journalist, and a scholar of the classics. For three decades he reported for The Atlantic and wrote for many other places, including the editorial pages of the NYT and WaPo — and TNR back in my day. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is a senior adviser at Eurasia Group. He’s the author of 21 books, including The Coming AnarchyBalkan Ghosts and Asia’s Cauldron. His new book is The Tragic Mind.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app — though Spotify sadly doesn’t accept the paid feed). For two clips of our convo — why anarchy is worse than tyranny, specifically in Iraq, and the question of whether Taiwan is worth going to war over — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Bob’s working-class upbringing; his global travel as a young reporter; his complex views of humanity after visiting Soviet Europe and the Balkans; Reagan’s talent and good fortune; H.W.’s record of averting disaster; the optimism and hubris of the US after the Cold War; the series of US victories in the ‘90s — ending in Iraq and Afghanistan; the evil of Saddam; Obama’s love of Niebuhr and his overcompensation on Russia and China; Biden’s deft balancing act in Ukraine; how the Afghan exit actually benefitted the US against Russia; Greek tragedy vs. Shakespearean tragedy; Sophocles and Oedipus; the Christian understanding of tragedy; Hobbes and his Leviathan; Zionism as the lesser of two evils; Spengler’s Decline of the West; American decadence and the poison of social media; and Bob’s clinical depression after the Iraq invasion.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another discussion you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety). Upcoming guests include Mark Lilla on liberalism, Susan Neiman on how “left is not woke,” Tabia Lee on her firing as a DEI director, Chris Stirewalt on Fox News, Nigel Biggar on colonialism, and John Oberg on veganism (recorded already but I’m sampling a variety of plant-based meats to comment on when the episode is released). As always, please send your guest recs and listener feedback to

Here’s a listener on our episode with Michael Lind on populism and elites:

I trust you had a blessed Easter Sunday, Andrew, knowing that Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection and our sincere belief therein will bring us an eternity of peace with Him. In the meantime, we have to deal with the idiocy of this world.

Your conversation with my fellow Austinite, Michael Lind, was superb. While I have never met Lind, I have admired his work for many years. I believe his observation that Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting Taliban victory will come back to haunt the West, and particularly the US, to be profoundly foretelling. I fear the price we will pay in American blood — civilian and military — may be catastrophic. I hope Lind takes you up on your offer to appear again on your show.

A dissent:

I enjoyed this pod, but a couple of points. You sounded like a couple of conspiracy theorists when talking about DEI being used by corporations. While DEI programs are often silly and time-wasting, they are more a result of corporate virtue-signaling and an attempt to compete with other businesses to recruit and retain the best staff. I’d like to see a shred of evidence that there’s some group of evil board members in a smoke-filled room, calculating how they can take down unions or prevent collective bargaining through DEI. You two were simpatico in pushing this as an evil plot rather than an unfortunate byproduct (i.e. the way most conspiracy theories develop — errantly assigning intent to consequences).

At one point Lind dismissed out of hand (and entirely unchallenged) Biden’s green energy spending as an unfortunate waste of money on “solar panels and windmills.” This displayed real ignorance. If the world is moving toward net zero, the investment will put the US ahead of many countries in renewable energy — not just solar and wind, but also hydrogen and storage. This could very well be seen in the future as a key turning point in the race to not only reduce carbon emissions but greatly lower energy costs and eliminate the reliance on the murderous OPEC+ mafia states. You and Lind may want to invest a little time in thinking about these potential outcomes rather than dismissing them as lefty money pits and being stuck in an economic past. 

Otherwise, great chat!

I disagree with Mike on energy policy, and favor aggressive non-carbon policies. And I don’t think the “dark conspiracy” charge is fair. What’s happened is that corporations are mandating these indoctrination sessions in critical theory to appease elite opinion, and protect against lawsuits. Some, of course, believe in it as well. Not a conspiracy, but a grotesque abuse of corporate power.

Here’s another clip of Mike, describing how political donors snuffed out populism in the 1990s:

Another listener has a question:

You and Michael Lind discussed the absence of centrist liberal magazines that aren’t in lockstep with the laundry list of progressive NGO causes. What do you think of Compact magazine? It is more economically leftist, to be fair, but it is quite centrist and reasonable when it comes to many of these “woke,” generally speaking, concerns.

I enjoy it a lot, but it’s very new. The best current magazine, in my opinion, is The Tablet — the closest to TNR in its glory days. This next listener looks to gun violence and invokes our episode with Jon Ward on evangelicals:

I want to response to recent reader comments about mass shootings. I am a native Texan in my 50s. Even though I grew up mostly in the suburbs, guns were part of the culture. When I was a kid, I learned how to shoot in summer camp, did some hunting, and got a .22 rifle. Most of us young people back in the ‘70s and ‘80s agreed that people ought to be able to own guns, but we were thinking about hunting. This was before the days many people carried for self-defense or owned assault-rifle-type firearms. Growing up and living in Texas, it’s been fun to feel part of the state’s epic history and to enjoy the bragging rights that go along with being a native. 

But Uvalde has changed all that for me. As you recall, last May one of our state’s children went to his old elementary school and used an as-usual AR-15 (legally purchased because he was a few days over 18 when he bought it) to kill 21 people and injure 19 others.

Now, I’m over Texas. I don’t care anymore. Those things that used to be fun — the legends, the bragging rights, the humor — just aren’t there anymore. How can they be? Uvalde has opened my eyes and I can’t unsee the reality of this state. Like many parts of America, Texas culture has become a gun culture, where there are vastly more handguns and assault-rifle-type firearms than there ever were when I was a kid. People walk around fully armed and fully suspicious.

Sure, some people live or work in dangerous areas. But for most of us, arming yourself against your fellow man may benefit you on the very small off-chance you need to defend yourself, but you’re guaranteed to pay the heavy price of living in constant fear. That’s what’s become of the culture of this state: it’s fearful and brutal.

We’ve arrived at this place because our politicians know they can win elections by emphasizing these fear-based cultural issues, and because the gun lobby, including the manufacturers, have shaped our laws to make it easier to push more, and more deadly, guns into our hands. The entertainment industry has played its part, with its inexorable ratchet toward ever-increasing violence. This is simply seeing reality as it is.

To say that this culture is sinful, or that there is systemic sin — to use a phrase by Jon Ward in your discussion with him — that leads to events like Uvalde, is simply to repeat the traditional Christian notion that the world has sin in it. Human systems — institutions, cultures, societies — don’t have agency and can’t themselves sin, but they are sinful because they’re comprised of humans who do have agency and do sin. The question isn’t whether a system can sin, but whether it is sinful.

Ward is absolutely right about your commitment to seeing reality as it is. Though he may not have said this directly, this is a commitment to courage — to admit that something may be true even if you don’t want it to be, whether it’s about yourself, your tribe, or your beliefs. If Christ teaches anything, it’s that we are to approach other humans with love. So having faith in Christ means acting in love. This is where courage comes in again, because having faith — acting as if other people are worthy of love — means having the courage to accept the consequences of faith. 

So Jon is correct that we should have empathy for Evangelicals, who live in great numbers in Texas and often own guns. We all deserve empathy, maybe especially when we’re afraid. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t call people out. 

I understand, even though it’s impossible for someone from the UK to truly understand the gun culture of the US. That this type of celebration of violence and the fetishization of instruments of death has intensified in the 21st century is a grim fact. That a governor of Texas could pardon a man convicted for murdering a protestor for reasons of ideological hatred merely compounds the evil.

Early this year we posted a hefty collection of reader reflections on dying and assisted suicide, prompted by the Dish piece “Boomers In The Twilight Zone.” The thread continues with this reader:

Thank you, Andrew, for a very important and thought-provoking piece. I’m generally against euthanasia, as I’m skeptical that the medical establishment can administer it in a humane and ethical manner. I’m concerned that as we see the inevitable financial burden from caring for the rapidly growing elderly population, there will be greater pressure on medical providers to push for an American version of MAID.  

I say all of this as a 56-year-old man with stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer. I’ve undergone a significant amount of treatment since my initial diagnosis in early 2020, including two surgeries and more than 60 radiation treatments. I’m now on hormone therapy and may have to remain on it for the rest of my life.

My quality of life is pretty good now, but I can’t be certain what my quality of life will be over the next decade as the disease progresses, as the long-term impact of hormone therapy takes effect, and as more aggressive treatments, like chemo, are required. Despite whatever suffering I may go through in the future, I think it is dangerous to expand and normalize what amounts to assisted suicide. I don’t want the medical staff who treat me to be complicit in my death. There will be natural progression to my disease and palliative measures to lessen my suffering.

I’m not Catholic, but I agree with the Pope that we have a culture of death, or at least a depraved indifference to the value of human life. 

From a Canadian who is less opposed to the MAID program:

I’ve started many emails to you over the years, about some Dish post or another, but this time I’m actually going to hit send. My mother is one of those boomers entering the twilight zone. A few years ago, a degenerative illness forced her to retire early from a long career in nursing and health research. Mom hadn’t lost her edge, but she had lost reliable control of her limbs. After a few falls — bumps and bruises at first, but later a broken hip — she came home to her little apartment and started collecting her pension. 

She’s always been prone to depression, but I’d never seen her so low. It wasn’t long before she started talking about how she didn’t think she’d be around much longer. She felt useless, she said — no longer needed by anyone, so she might as well die.

We live in Canada, where MAID has been available since 2016, and she investigated the process in detail. We talked about it several times; she wanted to make sure that if the progress of her illness made life unbearable, I would advocate for her right to choose the time and manner of her death. For a while, I expected her to present me with paperwork to sign or witness, but she never quite got around to it. 

A few years later, Mom’s illness continues to worsen — a sneaking erosion of balance and sensation and control. She spent several weeks in the hospital this summer after breaking her leg in a fall, and when I first got the call, I felt dread. She’d been doing much better for the past year or so, settling into her new life of tending to her animals, devouring paperback thrillers, trading household junk with other seniors, and pressing Tupperware containers of food on her adult children. A serious injury and a long hospital stay could undo all that. 

But when I visited her there, she wasn’t moping. Instead, she was pissed.

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