Robert Kaplan usually looks outward from the United States. Ever since President Bill Clinton was spotted with a copy of Balkan Ghosts under his arm (and it was devoured by the entire White House staff) Kaplan’s career has skewed towards precarious situations abroad. Now, in his latest book Earning the Rockies, the foreign policy expert rediscovers America on a cross-country drive all the way from Massachusetts to San Diego.
It’s the spring of 2015 and amid all the noise and confusion of the coming election, Kaplan seeks reconnection. “The landscape beckons,” he writes. “I want to contemplate nothing less than the American continent.” He rolls westward, the way of America’s frontier expansion. He loves the immensity of the space, its beauty and its silence. His enthusiasm is infectious. “This is the ultimate journey,” he writes, “a landscape meditation about America’s place in the world.” His travel narrative pays homage to pioneering Americans (some who would become presidents) who settled the East, crossed the Middle West, survived the “Great American Desert” and surmounted the Rockies. The communal experience of settling a frontier, Kaplan writes, is behind everything from Midwest politeness to the nation’s democratic process. In a very short book, with very short sections, Kaplan covers a wide swathe of territory.
In particular, he chronicles the United States’ rapid, contemporary shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In small towns like Wheeling, West Virginia and Portsmouth, Ohio, he finds folks left behind. As companies outsource unskilled jobs, Kaplan writes, Americans are migrating to a handful of metropolises with international connections. This “network of massive city-states [is] more intimately interconnected with other continents than with their own hinterlands,” he explains. “America is being diluted into the wider world.” Still, Kaplan’s characters, however downtrodden, are imaginative, shrewd, industrious, results-oriented doers whose “frontier character” is still evident (and who are still extremely generous and polite).
As he follows the trails of previous generations into the grand landscapes of Wyoming, Utah and California, Kaplan meditates more on America’s experience abroad, how the competition for land shaped the fledgling nation and how America competes for space today. In the 21st century, he argues, America needs to be in touch with her roots. “America is primarily about experiencing space and vastness,” Kaplan writes, “the answers to our dilemmas overseas lie within the continent itself.”