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.

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. 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….” 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 …

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