Robert D. Kaplan first gained national recognition nearly 25 years ago with publication of his third book, "Balkan Ghosts," part history and part travelogue, which explored the social, political and cultural complexities of the Balkans, just as that region was about to descend into Europe's worst spree of violence since World War II.
It was said that Mr. Kaplan was so compelling in his description of the hopeless hatreds of the old Yugoslavia that President Clinton, upon reading the book, resolved to stay out of the region.
"Balkan Ghosts" was noteworthy for its evenhanded treatment of the Serbs, and Mr. Kaplan's effort to convey to readers the historical, cultural and geopolitical factors that drove Serbian aims and fears as regional stability disintegrated. It didn't take, for as events unfolded and Serbian atrocities became known, the West embraced a regional narrative that cast the Serbs as villains in the drama.
Mr. Clinton eventually embraced that narrative, as attested by his 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia aimed at ripping the Serbs' ancestral lands in Kosovo, now majority Albanian Muslim, out of the hands of Serbia. Throughout that drama, Mr. Kaplan's book offered a compelling historical framework for tragic current events.
Now, 12 books later, Mr. Kaplan is out with "Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific." Like "Balkan Ghosts," the latest book is the product of considerable historical analysis tied to journalistic observations emanating from extensive travels through the region.
It is a region, writes Mr. Kaplan, that will assume huge import in coming decades in geopolitical and demographic terms. It will also spawn some of the world's most intense geopolitical maneuvering.
To understand the significance of the South China Sea, we must elevate ourselves and look at a bigger map of the surrounding maritime territory. By 2050, Mr. Kaplan tells us, nearly 7 billion of the world's 9 billion people will live generally in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. This constitutes a "global demographic heartland," with its central organizing principle being the Greater Indian Ocean, along with the Western Pacific.
This map unites by sea what the noted British geopolitical scholar Halford Mckinder called the globe's "Eurasian Heartland," the world's most significant strategic territory. Mr. Kaplan sees this greater region as stretching from the Horn of Africa across the Indian Ocean, bending around Indonesia, then up to the Sea of Japan.
The outer points in this map are South Asia, Japan and Australia. But, says Mr. Kaplan, "the countries of the South China Sea constitute the inner points, or strategic core of it. The South China Sea is the Mitteleuropa of the twenty-first century.''
This has an ominous ring to it. It suggests that Europe and Western Civilization, after half a millennium of global dominance, will no longer enjoy that status. By suggesting that the South China Sea soon will assume the role of Mitteleuropa, Mr. Kaplan is saying this is where wars are most likely to start. After all, it was events in Mitteleuropa that ignited Europe's most bitter and debilitating wars of the last century.
"The South China Sea,'' writes Mr. Kaplan, "whether in peace or in war, allows one to imagine the world as it is, and as it is to become. It is a nervous world, crowded with warships and oil tankers, one of incessant war games without necessarily leading to actual combat: a world in which actions taken by a country such as Vietnam ... can affect the highest decisions of state in Beijing and Washington."
It also is a world in which sea denial is far easier than sea control, so that lesser sea powers such as China or India will be able to check the ambitions of a major sea power such as the United States. Submarines, mines and land-based missiles could neutralize aircraft carriers and other large surface warships. This suggests a means for China, if it wishes to pursue such a course, to force the United States out of the region.
Mr. Kaplan argues that this is a world "in which it is just not good enough for American officials to plan for continued dominance." He adds that they almost surely will have to allow "in some measure, for a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region's largest indigenous power." True, America still will have a responsibility to "safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms," but with a greater appreciation for balance-of-power realities and imperatives.
"But the era of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond will likely have to pass," concludes Mr. Kaplan, "A more anxious, complicated world awaits us."
Can America meet this looming challenge? It isn't clear, but one thing we know: Such a challenge, involving raw power and relentless geopolitical forces, will require an imaginative, forceful and sophisticated approach, unencumbered by extraneous or frivolous distractions that have little bearing on vital U.S. strategic interests. One such extraneous and frivolous distraction is the current administration's obsession with events in Ukraine and its efforts to check Russian actions within its own traditional sphere of influence. Events in Asia are gaining momentum very quickly, and if America doesn't engage effectively there, it could find itself buttressed by forces beyond its control.
Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author most recently of "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians" (Simon & Schuster, 2012).