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Doomsterism

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In February 1994 The Atlantic Monthly shocked its readers—as it loves to do from time to time—with a lurid front cover depicting a crumpled and burning globe, above which were the words:

THE COMING ANARCHY: NATIONS BREAK UP UNDER THE TIDAL FLOW OF REFUGEES FROM ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL DISASTER. AS BORDERS CRUMBLE, ANOTHER TYPE OF BOUNDARY IS ERECTED—A WALL OF DISEASE. WARS ARE FOUGHT OVER SCARCE RESOURCES, ESPECIALLY WATER, AND WAR ITSELF BECOMES CONTINUOUS WITH CRIME, AS ARMED BANDS OF STATELESS MARAUDERS CLASH WITH THE PRIVATE SECURITY FORCES OF THE ELITES. A PREVIEW OF THE FIRST DECADES OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.1

The author of the apocalyptic piece referred to was Robert Kaplan, a reporter and travel writer who had previously contributed to The Atlantic and written three books on regional conflicts, most notably Balkan Ghosts—an anecdotal but insightful account of the deep-seated rivalries that were tearing apart Bosnia and its neighbors.2 Now Kaplan had altered his focus, to West Africa, Kurdistan, and the Indian subcontinent. Just as his Balkan book was influenced by Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the new article reverberated with echoes of Conrad, Burton, and Greene: disease, criminal anarchy, putrefaction, corruption pervaded the unfortunate regions he had visited. What was more, Kaplan argued, these phenomena were not confined to the burnt-out cases of West Africa: they were also detectable in the Middle East, in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Moreover, as the social cohesion of such weak though turbulent states crumbled, they were exporting their troubles—migrants, disease, drugs—to other parts of the world. Even a country as strong as the United States could not escape the foul consequences.

It is difficult to think of an article which more disturbed policy-makers’ minds in recent years than Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy.” Perhaps Samuel Huntington’s provocative Foreign Affairs essay “The Clash of Civilizations?,” also forecasting a gloomy global future, is closest; but nothing is exactly comparable. President Clinton was reported to have talked about it for weeks afterward, telling one listener that Kaplan’s “stunning article…makes you really imagine a future that’s like one of those Mel Gibson ‘Road Warrior’ movies….”3 Vice-President Gore ordered the CIA to consult with a team of regional, environmental, and security experts and undertake a large study of around seventy “countries at risk.” And high officials in the United Nations Secretariat—already completely overworked by the plethora of Somalias and Rwandas that were landing on their laps—convened meetings to consider the further, gloomier implications of what Kaplan was saying.

The next step was predictable: as with Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” essay and Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” article, the author was pressed to expand the ideas into a book. The result, in Kaplan’s case, is a serious and detailed work entitled The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century. It is a formidable undertaking, and shows the writer’s commitment, curiosity, and just plain stamina. In twenty-nine chapters Kaplan takes the reader from West Africa to the upper Mekong river via dozens of developing countries in a sort of extended traveler’s tale. Acute observation is mixed with anecdotes, interviews, and references to secondary sources. This is beyond doubt Kaplan’s most important book. One finds many passages like the following, from his visit to Egypt, in which a great many facts are accompanied by dark but not implausible speculations:

Demographic pressures never reveal themselves as such: People don’t demonstrate in the streets or attack others because they believe their region is overcrowded. The crush of humanity invites scarcity, whether in food, water, housing, or jobs. Scarcity fuels discontent, wearing the mask in this case of politicized Islam. Was it only accidental that attacks on Christians, as well as on passing tourist trains and boats, occurred mainly in the most polluted and badly urbanized part of the Nile Valley? In recent decades, the Assiut area had become home to petroleum refineries, cement factories, and food processing plants. Farmland is disappearing as once-distinct villages meld into each other. Assiut’s population of 300,000 is three times what it was in the Nasser years. The state, whatever its problems in 1957, when a census revealed the city’s population to be 104,000, is even less able to govern now. No wonder Arab nationalist regimes have failed to satisfy their populations! The specific problems of Arab nationalism notwithstanding, there are larger forces at work.

[Fouad] Ajami, too, in an earlier part of his book, notes that of three hundred Moslem conspirators arrested by the Egyptian authorities in the wake of Sadat’s assassination, over 90 percent came from urban centers, and particularly from the urbanized peasantry living in shantytowns.

The Ends of the Earth is also, however, a troublesome and most uneven work. Some of this is to be explained by the sheer overload of what Kaplan has attempted. The reach of his “unsentimental journey” (with a deliberate play on Sterne) through such ends-of-the-earth countries as Togo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, western China, Pakistan, southern India, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia was almost bound to make many of his comments seem superficial and impressionistic. Already those sympathetic to non-Western cultures are making powerful criticisms of Kaplan for drawing premature or banal conclusions,4 and other scholars will react to his own strictures against academic specialists and disparagement of political “science” as being a long way from the real world.

Perhaps in anticipation of the attack on his intellectual credentials by a Ph.D.-toting clerisy, or because he was worried that his general thesis about global chaos would be questioned, Kaplan peppers his chapters with references to people who have written about the various countries he visits:

As British expert Christina Lamb painstakingly documents in Waiting for Allah: Pakistan’s Strugle for Democracy

In Uzbekistan, writes scholar Nancy Lubin, “between 1970-1986, infant mortality rose by almost fifty percent”….

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, of Cornell University, shows how the map enabled colonialists…

It is near the equator, says the Nobel laureate and analyst of human crowd behavior Elias Canetti, that the effect of the forest is most extreme…

Yet in seeking to buttress his work by such references, Kaplan may well produce an opposite effect upon the reader, namely, a sense of journalistic insecurity; the effort to protect oneself from the charge of superficiality by invoking so many names merely calls attention to the same characteristic.

On the whole, I think that Kaplan is correct: that is, the demographic and environmental pressures building up in certain parts of the globe are weakening their social systems so much that we may well see more and more of what he called “collapsed states”—including some very large countries—in the years to come. The effects of deep poverty, population growth, pollution, and corrupt, selfish government, as well as, in some cases, fanatical fundamentalism, could cause more than a few societies to break apart. But he hurts his case by his methodology and, most important of all, by his habit of generalizing from a limited number of cases.

This latter weakness is best illustrated by considering the two maps on the next page. Although Kaplan sometimes describes places (Turkey, Thailand) where things still seem to be working, his unsentimental journey is indeed to the most troubled parts of the globe, as the first map indicates.

Yet as the second map suggests, one could conceive of an entirely different world tour, beginning perhaps in Costa Rica, the “model democracy” of Central America, then going on to Chile, the trailblazing economic reformer of South America, then Botswana, the prosperous and stable democracy in Africa’s southern cone, then Bangalore, now the second-largest producer of computer software in the world, then Singapore, with a standard of living equal to Europe’s, then Taiwan…

The point is, of course, that the use of the term “developing world,” like the “third world” before it, to describe more than one hundred and twenty countries is far too sweeping and misleading, obliterating more than it illuminates. At the very least, we need to think of three separate categories: the first is made up of the still few (but growing) number of “success stories,” chiefly in East and Southeast Asia and in South America, that attract the attention of US management gurus and pundits who write about “Megatrends Asia.” The second are the fifty or so countries at the bottom of the pile, whose desperate condition Kaplan captures so well in this book, nations that are functioning so badly that even USAID is abandoning them. The third category, the most interesting of all, includes a number of “swing states” that simultaneously possess the middle classes, entrepreneurs, and venture capital of Singapore and the horrendous demographic and environmental problems of West Africa. How these countries—Turkey, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia among them—will fare in the next two decades is probably the most significant indicator of our planet’s future.^5

Approaching the close of the twentieth century, most writers on global affairs are struggling to understand and explain what is going on. The end of the cold war has made much of world politics unfamiliar, messy, and difficult to assess. Most schools of thought sense that change is occurring, and will occur, faster than ever before. To the cornucopians, like George Gilder and Julian Simon, the world is clearly getting better, thanks to the growing acceptance of free-market principles and economic interconnectedness. To pessimists like Kaplan—but also to a large number of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens—the activities of nearly six billion human beings are bringing us dangerously close to thresholds that, if breached, would cause immense damage to societies and their habitats. One school of thought points to “breakthroughs,” the other to “breakdowns.” What all are agreed upon is that things will not stay the same.

The Ends of the Earth is an attempt by an honest and enterprising writer to capture his own impressions of these dizzying changes. While, as I have suggested, its prose is too verbose and self-conscious, and its concentration on the “burnt-out cases” of contemporary politics ignores many of the things that are going relatively well in the developing world, it was still worth doing.

In his final paragraphs, Kaplan confesses that he was “overwhelmed by the complexity and apparent hopelessness of what I had seen.” Although claiming that “the more I saw of the world, the less I felt I could fit it into a pattern,” in fact he very clearly suggests that there is deep trouble ahead. Like AIDS, the threats to the environment, among others, will, he predicts, find the way “to the wealthiest suburbs. We are the world and the world is us.” Pessimistically, he also believes that there is no prospect of a coordinated international response to these challenges and that “the idea that a global elite like the UN can engineer reality is…absurd.”

Kaplan may well be right. Still, if one assumes—as this reviewer does—that we are in fact approaching a period of great sociopolitical turbulence and environmental degradation, is not the argument for doing something better than that for doing nothing? Are the challenges facing global society today really any greater than those confronting the world’s leaders in the chaos of 1945? Perhaps they are different, but are they greater? Isn’t the real problem we encounter now the lack of political leadership, rather than ignorance of the global pressures themselves?

We are a year away from marking the first half-century of the United Nations, which was a truly remarkable and imaginative attempt to handle international problems through international organization. Despite the bizarre worries of Michigan Militiamen about enforced global government, and the efforts of Republican congressmen to embarrass the Clinton administration by depriving the UN of promised funds, it still remains the only functioning organization we have to deal with global problems in a manner acceptable to its 186 member-states.

Is it in a position right now to handle the fearful developments that Kaplan predicts? Of course not. Underfunded, overwhelmed by the many and conflicting demands placed upon it, operating through organizations with little power (e.g., the Economic and Social Council [ECOSOC]) that in no way capture the intention of the founding fathers, the world organization is in desperate need of reform. During the past year, many intelligent studies have suggested what those reforms might entail. The two best-known, by the Commission on Global Governance and the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations,6 are full of good ideas that deserve consideration by governments, especially those of the larger powers.

Suppose, for example, that the world’s leaders, appreciating both the seriousness and the interconnectedness of our global condition, agreed to equip the world organization with the capacities to respond to the pressures that are threatening the viability of member-states. Suppose that they had the foresight to make the Security Council more representative, by adding such countries as India, Brazil, and South Africa, for example. Suppose they were also willing to enhance both the measures for preventing conflict and for resolving conflict, and to have better peacekeeping and peace-enforcement mechanisms, and ready-to-go UN forces. Suppose the ECOSOC was replaced by a really authoritative permanent body (on the lines of the Security Council) that encouraged global economic cooperation on the most pressing issues of trade, technology, aid, and sustainable development; and suppose that there was another body, or bodies, to oversee international efforts to promote improvements in the social institutions of states, in human rights, and on gender issues. Suppose, finally, that these newer structures were run efficiently and adequately funded—perhaps by innovative forms of financing.7 Is it not possible, and in many respects likely, that these reforms would make a difference? Can’t we try?

Kaplan ends his important, frustrating work, as have many writers before him, by quoting Gibbon. The author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire observed that, for the Empire’s inhabitants, there really was only a relatively brief “happy period,” from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius, before “many wearisome centuries of violence and chaos.” The cold war years, Kaplan hints, may have been just such a happy interlude, with a sea of troubles ahead. If that is so—or if he is only half right, with some societies collapsing in the future while others prosper—a serious amount of prudential investment in improved international organizations and greater international cooperation could be well worth while. It is not too late to do something.

  1. 1

    Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy,” The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1994, pp. 44-76, and front cover.

  2. 2

    St. Martin’s, 1993.

  3. 3

    The Boston Globe, July 20, 1994.

  4. 4

    For an early example, see Nader Mousavizadeh, “The Occidental Tourist,” The New Republic, April 15, 1996, pp. 32-37.

  5. 6

    See Our Global Neighborhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance (Oxford University Press, 1995); and The United Nations in its Second Half-Century: A Report of the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations (The Ford Foundation, 1995).

  6. 7

    See the list of recommendations in The United Nations in its Second Half-Century, pp. 51-53. Among them is the creation by the IMF, a part of the UN system, of special drawing rights to finance UN activities.

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