The Loom of Time is a fascinating book, a work equally of journalistic reportage, travel writing, history, and unconventional geopolitical analysis reminiscent in some ways of George Kennan’s writings at the beginning of the Cold War. Robert Kaplan holds an endowed chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and was for three decades a foreign correspondent for the Atlantic. He has served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and the Chief of Naval Operations’ Executive Panel. Kaplan is also the author of twenty-two books and appears to have traveled nearly everywhere in the world, his experience of which is vast. Now in his early seventies, he concludes that “the world today is fairer and more human, but less interesting.” Critics of American foreign policy and military adventurism over the past forty years may remember him best for his having supported, and indeed urged, President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, he has regretted that support—regretted it so deeply, in fact, that he required medical attention to allow him to reconcile himself with his conscience for years afterward. Today, his view of international policy, the world in the twenty-first century, and indeed of history itself is the diametrical opposite of Western officialdom’s, America’s especially.

It would be an exaggeration, perhaps, to say that Kaplan does not believe in historical progress, but he certainly is no believer in an “end to history,” whether triumphalist or otherwise. Rather, he argues that history is made in the way that Penelope worked at her loom while she waited twenty years for the return of Odysseus, weaving different patterns each day and unraveling them at night, always in the same manner. In this way, “Penelope’s labors, according to [Arnold J.] Toynbee’s interpretation, are not ‘unbearable,’ since each day she is closer to being reunited with her husband, who eventually does return home. The same goes for what Toynbee calls the ‘mightier weaver,’ who suggests the progress of civilizations themselves.” Of the three rules that Kaplan lays down with confidence, the first is borrowed from Spengler: civilizations begin in the desert and end in materialism. The second is that history cycles between empire and anarchy, with variations that may—or may not—represent what historians might call progress. The third is that, as Kaplan says in speaking of Syria and Iraq, “Anarchy [lies] hidden under the carapace of tyranny.”