With only ten essays and in only 189 pages, Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy casts a pall over all the bright and shiny hopes of our new millennium, a pall that may prove difficult to dispel. Like an Old Testament prophet, Kaplan delivers his premonitions of the future with ghastly eloquence and uncompromising honesty. Worse yet for optimists everywhere, Kaplan's credentials seem impeccable. He is the pre-eminent travel correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of US bestsellers Balkan Ghosts, An Empire Wilderness and The Ends of the Earth. He is a highly-respected lecturer to US Special Forces and an extremely influential consultant to international corporate security managers. He has steadfastly witnessed and poignantly described the worst horrors that the expiring 20th century could produce in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and central Asia. He argues convincingly that more horrors are irrevocably on their way.
The horrors about which Kaplan writes so capably are not new. Famine. Plague. Pillage. Mass rape. Genocide. What is new, however, according to Kaplan, is the terrifying ease and speed with which these evils now combine and ultimately enhance the magnitude of their respective consequences: synergies of destruction.
For Kaplan, old horrors will become incomprehensibly worse because they will occur within the context of a world that is more interdependent than ever before in our waking history. In his science-nonfiction account of the immediate future, the air-giving forests crash to the ground and the ice caps melt and the toxic seas began to rise and the millions of displaced and desperate people are subsequently force-fed into Third-World cauldrons of hate and slaughter. The images evoked by these catastrophes make those cast by The Book of Revelations seem quaint and vague by comparison.
Kaplan adds insult to this already apocalyptic injury, however. He seems to suggest that both short-sighted, moralistic governments and self-interested, materialistic corporations have contributed to the accelerated arrival and unparalleled impact of 'the coming anarchy'. But what does Kaplan propose as the salvation of the impending tooth-and-claw world?
Answer: more formidable tooth-and-claw organizations.
Kaplan indeed sees world stability contingent upon the successful implementation of strictly self-interested, market-based, balance-of-power policies: the triumph of power politics or Realpolitik. To Kaplan, the entities that can best create and articulate such market-based policies to the people -- and subsequently enforce these policies through omnipresent electronic surveillance and through the use of highly-mobile covert security forces -- will literally inherit the earth. For Kaplan, these entities will more than likely not be governments, and particularly not governments that are elected democratically. According to Kaplan, the most effective coercive forces of the future -- the new "Leviathans" -- must be and will be multinational corporations.
At this point, you may be asking yourself some questions, the most salient of which being why should I read this gloomy book in the first place? The essay titles, alone, are enough to cause a run on the local supplies of Prozac and Zoloft: "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" "Idealism Won't Stop Slaughter." "The Danger of Peace." Also, all of the essays except "The Danger of Peace" have appeared before in print, and many of the world conflagrations from which Kaplan drew his inspiration have either burned themselves out or failed to ignite. So, a second question may arise: how relevant is this book, anyway?
Then there's Kaplan's significant endorsement of the very corporate juggernaut whose destabilizing rapacity towards world resources now threatens the life of the planet itself. Kaplan can be extremely frustrating on this point. On the one hand, he seems to acknowledge the corporate monomania for short-term profit that has caused such profligacy in human, animal, mineral and vegetable life. On the other hand, he appears to be incapable of taking corporations to task for their fundamental inability for self-correction and self-limitation. Since Kaplan's courage seems unquestionable, perhaps it is the integrity of his vision that has been compromised, here.
At times, it is almost impossible to reconcile this man's trenchant cultural analyses with his half-hearted attempts at reassuring us that our nation's profit-driven, media-saturated, status quo-seeking political mediocrity is better than the alternatives out there -- whatever they might be. That's why some of Kaplan's most visionary moments hit you in the face like so much cold vomit.
Yet the logical and practical effects of his argumentation are never so traumatic as to keep you from admiring the author's keen powers of observation, or from envying his masterful style and compelling diction. Truly, Kaplan's arguments are so forceful that some readers, for reasons of self-preservation, might ignore this important work altogether. Others might decide that its blood-written themes are better suited to members of military thinktanks, corporate strategists, evangelical churches, survivalist newsgroups on the Internet, or anyone else that seems to thrive by ingesting such moral and intellectual broken glass.
This is not a book to marginalize because of the militancy of its message, however. Nor should it be shunned solely because of its unapologetic enthusiasm for power politics. That would be a disaster. Indeed, because Kaplan's strongest defense of Realpolitik might unintentionally harbor, ironically enough, his most eloquent argument for possibly abandoning this pernicious and ineffectual political philosophy. In his essay 'Kissinger, Metternich and Realism', Kaplan admits to struggling with the task of recasting in a favorable light Kissinger's and Nixon's "spectacularly brutal and unnecessary" bombing campaigns of 1972 and 1973, which occurred during the last years of US involvement in Vietnam. Kaplan also attempts, here, to personally come to grips with the assertion that the peace terms the US accepted in 1973 were similar to those that Nixon and Kissinger rejected in 1969 -- yet with the addition of 22,000 more U.S. combat deaths. Kaplan writes:
In effect, Nixon and Kissinger caused copious bloodshed in Vietnam for the sake of our reputation among our Cold War adversaries. . . . What strains credulity is the idea that our Cold War adversaries would not take into consideration Kissinger's and Nixon's bloodthirstiness in Indochina in the face of fierce criticism from the American public.
Is Kaplan's saying that power politicians pay the ultimate price for their brutal deceptions--the untimely death of those for whom the political treachery was undertaken in the first place? Perhaps the well-hidden theme of The Coming Anarchy is that "anarchy" is at best a relative term, considering the extent to which this nation has consistently mistaken the power to destroy for the power to control?
The title The Coming Anarchy may be misleading -- because anarchy might be here now -- but the book as a whole certainly is not. Kaplan's collected essays offer the most succinct and unsparing assessment of the geopolitical chaos created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and by the end of the Cold War proper that I have ever read.
Copyright 2001 by K.N.S. Maré