Review of “Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age” by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan is the best selling author of Balkan Ghosts (1993), a book that Bill Clinton said shaped his perception of the war in Bosnia. In Adriatic, Kaplan returns to the Adriatic Sea, but this time covers countries on both the eastern and western shores. Kaplan describes how the Adriatic over the last 1,000 years experienced a frequent shifting of the boundaries of three once powerful empires — Habsburg, Venetian, and Ottoman — and how that history still influences modern Europe.

Traveling through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, Kaplan gives more specific details about the geopolitics of each country, and what lessons the rest of the world can take away from the region. He covers the rise of populist politics, as well as issues arising from migration, trading, and energy resources, observing the changes in the three decades he has been studying the area. He laments the decline of empires, which often were able to control violent nationalist aspirations [until they weren’t able to, whether through leadership changes, internal revolutions, or outside wars].

This is by no means an easy book to categorize — it is much more than a travelogue. Kaplan uses particular locations to ruminate on literature (especially books set in the places he goes), architecture, history, and religion. In each place he visits, he points out the influences of both West and East. He also learns, and educates readers, through interviewing politicians, journalists, historians, and others as he travels.

He makes the observation that in the current era, China has targeted the region with its Belt and Road Initiative by which Chinese leaders seek to expand their influence, particularly through significant investments in port facilities. He warns that the new and vast maritime empire of China and its burgeoning global trade threatens to overwhelm Europe. What this will mean for its identity is anyone’s guess.

Evaluation: Adriatic is a highly readable and informative book on a fascinating part of the world.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2022

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