Lessons of the Pagans
Nagorski, Andrew, Newsweek International
Precisely because we are militarily superior to any group or nation, we should expect to be attacked at our weakest points, beyond the boundaries of international law." So writes Robert Kaplan in "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos" (198 pages. Random House). He completed his newest book before September 11, but that's not a bad description of what happened on that fateful day. And it's more evidence that in his writings for The Atlantic Monthly and earlier books like "Balkan Ghosts" he demonstrates an impressive ability to blend travel writing and foreign-policy analysis, offering insights into past, present and probable future. His latest offering is a distillation of his conclusions about the links between history and the challenges ahead, which could have easily been written as a post- September 11 summation. His main thesis: "The closer we look at antiquity, the more we learn about this new world."
Harking back to the writings of Sun-tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Kaplan argues that the "pagan ethos" of old has been both misunderstood and undervalued. So far, so good. But in making what is clearly a deliberately provocative case, he largely dismisses as ineffective or, worse, as counterproductive, moral idealists from Immanuel Kant right up to Woodrow Wilson and the human-rights activists of today. And, more fundamentally, he believes that politicians who dwell on values rather than self-interest are doomed to failure. Progress, he insists, comes in abandoning the religious for the secular.
Kaplan maintains that self-interest, as explained by the early political and military theorists, was a recipe for virtue in the broadest sense. Put simply, a ruler who cares for the many while sometimes trampling on the rights of others serves his subjects well. That's at home. Abroad, this entails projecting power; only then can values follow. Kaplan argues that Judeo-Christian morality is preoccupied with the individual--or abstract moral principles. Pagan morality, by contrast, focuses on public morality--or the morality of results. In popular shorthand, the ends justify the means. But Kaplan is convinced this shouldn't be seen as pejorative. After all, there are practical reasons for powerful rulers to exercise restraint, since otherwise they overreach and are likely to fail.
Kaplan points to modern rulers who have displayed the cunning that he identifies with the pagan ethos. There's Winston Churchill, the arch- colonialist who stood up to Hitler, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who deceived Congress while pulling his country into a war his countrymen didn't want. …