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The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War

05.23.2000 | BOOKS

The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War
by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2000

Conservative journalist Robert Kaplan single-handedly offsets those fifty or so Republican lawmakers who brag about not owning passports. His extensive travels--which have produced six highly acclaimed books--run through the poverty stricken war zones of Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, through every famous and not so famous no-no land where a Kalishnakov is more practical than a Lonely Planet guidebook. The title of his 1996 travelogue The Ends of the Earth pretty much says it all.

But Kaplan is more than a hard traveler and serious journalist. He is also a competent historian and amateur political theorist. The key to Kaplan's fame in the last decade resides in his knowledge and experience as well as his highly pronounced philosophical bent towards a classically conservative pessimism. Indeed, it is this Hobbesian temperament that makes Kaplan's work so titillating and bold. In an age characterized by satisfied complacency and New Economy greed, Kaplan has created a niche for himself as a sort of mild mannered doomsayer gadfly darkly taking the long view in a society that would rather not have its enjoyments disturbed or its happy illusions questioned.

Kaplan started hacking at these illusions about seven years ago, when his essay "The Coming Anarchy" crashed the post-Cold War triumphalist consensus like Mad Max screaming his death rod into the middle of a faculty cocktail party. The famous essay leads off in the newly published collection of the same name, and sets the tone for the rest of the articles, most of which were published in The Atlantic Monthly throughout the 1990s.

"The Coming Anarchy" invokes a near future defined by suffering and strife. West Africa, not West Palm Beach, is Kaplan's symbol for emerging global trends. Extreme environmental pressures, diminshing resources, growing inequality within surging populations, and the spread of weapons and criminal syndicates will undermine the coherence of the nation state and send geopolitical stability tail spinning into the unknown. Particularly important in Kaplan's analysis is the environment, and the author accepts predictions that we are moving into an epoch of climactic instability. He goes so far as to claim that a 1991 International Security article entitled "On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict" will one day be seen in the same light as George F. Kenan's famous Foreign Affairs essay which laid out the doctrine of containment; both set the parameters for the central security issue of an epoch, one past and one future. But his pessimism is tempered by a call to action that distinguishes his thoughtful conservatism from the know-nothing conservatism of GOP congressmen who consider environmentalists to be Chicken Littles. Kaplan approvingly quotes the ecologist Thomas Frazier Homer-Dixon in saying that "we have to bring nature back in" and even quotes Gary Snyder, who he calls "one of our best living poets."

But this is no hippie tract. Kaplan is a cold blooded realist, and believes that "the end of the Cold War merely set the parameters for the next struggle for society." This new struggle will make us nostalgic for the stability, relative peace and ecological coherence of the Cold War. One of his more provocative statements about the future posits that "those people's whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future's winners." Arab cultures will do well; secular immigrant societies will disintegrate. Gated communities will flourish in the new century, as will private security forces, the prison industry, and electronic surveillance. As elites seek to protect their position in a world of scarcity and violence, "hybrid regimes" will emerge--formally democracies but lacking democratic substance--in which citizenship no longer means anything. Governments will not strive to produce guns and butter so much as individuals will privately hire guns to protect their own limited butter. In an essay titled "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" he foresees a society where a handful of corporate Leviathans lord over "an elite with little loyalty to the state and a mass society fond of gladiator entertainments."

Kaplan thinks that a stark two-tier system will become the dominant fact within and between countries. Like an air-conditioned limousine driving through a pot-holed and polluted ghetto street on a 104 degree afternoon, the rich countries will keep their tinted windows rolled, as will the top 10% within the rich countries. Rhetorical goodwill and talk about world peace among a community of nations will not survive in Kaplan's future. Efforts to save the Third World are doomed to failure unless they are kept within very narrow limits, and he lays out a theory of "proportionalism" which he admits "accepts a certain amount of evil." In short, the gloves are about to come off.

Kaplan worries that the current generation of statesmen is growing up soft, that their mettle is not being forged hard enough to adequately deal with the challenges of the near future. He worries that in an entertainment dominant society populated by effete Last Men, the necessary lessons for intelligent and firm leadership in a dangerous world are not being learned. In "The Dangers of Peace" he praises the discipline imposed by active struggle:

Struggle causes us to reflect, to fortify our faith, and to see beyond our narrow slots of existence. A world of natural limits, in which clean air and water and fecund soil were highly prized commodities, might impose a sense of warlike reality upon us, preventing us from becoming barbarian mass men, yet without requiring us to fight. What we should be skeptical of are the "benefits" of a world at peace with unlimited natural resources. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us: "nobility is synonymous with a life of effort."

Kaplan often sounds like the philosophical equivalent of a wrestling coach. He admires martial virtues and doesn't like pussy wimp idealists, whether they are in the White House or the United Nations or the Kennedy School. His only two lapses into something that might be called idealism are the already mentioned call to arms concerning the environment, and the Cold War, which he describes as a "totemic struggle of enlightened values versus despotic ones," sounding like an editorial from the Saturday Evening Post circa 1955.

But these are rare. Kaplan's consistency regarding the primacy of struggle and great power politics is sound. And it is this power lifting brand of Realism that puts him squarely in the conservative camp. If it advances US strategic interests, then Kaplan can defend it. One of the essays in The Coming Anarchy is a flat out apology for Nixon/Kissinger diplomacy, including the Christmas bombings and the doctrine of "irrational action." He dubiously defends the unnecessary carpet bombings of North Vietnam and Cambodia on the grounds that they paved the way for Nixon's breakthrough with China. This is a highly debatable point; but the fact remains that agression and mass murder is defendable in Kaplan's world.

Which might have something to do with the dean's list of establishment hard liners that grace the jacket of the book. Kaplan's message is tasty to those who promote American hegemony and advance the cause of overwhelming military superiority. His message of impending doom is music to the ears of those who would rather not be encumbered by international agreements or multilateral institutions. If we live according to the law of the jungle, and are surrounded by intractable enemies, then what good are institutions and pieces of paper? This is the line of thought easily encouraged by Kaplan, and it is dangerous. Kaplan is a good antidote to those still getting high reading The Greening of America, but left to itself swings too far in the opposite direction.

For someone who so wholeheartedly defends the victory of markets in the Cold War, he can't seem to muster much opposition to their consequences. Where is the chapter on the World Bank? There is none. Rather, he accepts the grim fate awaiting us under the reign of unbridled capital, and merely asks that we brace ourselves, and implicitly suggests a good handgun might not be a bad investment.

Kaplan's map of the future is useful for both the left and the right insofar as it offers a broad outline of the terrain both sides will inherit. His belief that an ugly future is unavoidable may in fact be accurate, but does not require that the rest of us give up and go work for the Army's Special Forces and the CIA, as Kaplan has. For there are other kinds of struggle than the ones Kaplan has in mind, and they are just as important to the soul of a civilization. I can't help but feel that if more people of Kaplan's intelligence spent their energy in the fight for a just global economy, then the future might not be so bleak.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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