Why did Robert Kaplan choose the title, Balkan Ghosts, and does this choice lead the reader to the wrong interpretation of Balkan history?
Well, Robert Kaplan has certainly lamented the misuses to which his 1990 travelogue Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History was subjected. In a preface newly written to accompany the paperback version of his book, Kaplan was adamant that Washington, D.C. policy-makers, most prominently, then-President William Clinton, misread and misunderstood his intention. A journalist who covered the Balkans extensively, Kaplan was drawn to the major political and social transformations then percolating throughout Central and Eastern Europe, all of which would result in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disintegration of the Russian Empire. Of particular concern to Kaplan, given his posting in Greece, which sits at a major geopolitical crossroads, was the potential for the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, a hybrid state composed of multiple independent nations held together through the force of Josef Broz Tito’s personality. Kaplan was sufficiently sensitive to the vagaries of modern history to appreciate that a century that began with a massive war in which the Balkans played a major role could very well end with, if not a massive war, with at least a level of political turbulence and instability unknown to current generations. This was the basis for his selection of the title Balkan Ghosts. The spirits of the past could very well reappear in the newly-emerging Europe. That said, Kaplan emphasizes in his preface that his book needs to be considered in the proper context – a context would include, within two years of the book’s publication, the outbreak of war in the region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the consequent policy debates about whether the United States should intervene to stop the fighting:
“. . .there is exceedingly little about Bosnia in Balkan Ghosts. As the reader will see, it is a subjective, broad-brush travel book about the whole of the Balkan peninsula, not a policy work. Only four of nineteen chapters are specifically devoted to the former Yugoslavia. . .That policy makers, indeed a president, might rely on such a book in reaching a momentous military decision would be frightening, if true.”
Kaplan intended his book to inform and enlighten readers regarding a relatively obscure region of Europe that nevertheless held the potential to affect the continent in a potentially adverse way. The ethnic diversity and history of animosities that pervades that geographically beautiful region will forever hold the potential for violent conflict, as the 1990s demonstrated. That his book was incorrectly interpreted as a warning against engagement, however, troubled the author greatly.