Robert Kaplan's 1994 predictions of coming anarchy were based on spurious statistics and powerful metaphors. Alex de Waal welcomes a mellowing of his viewsby Alex De Waal / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
After publishing his famous Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, Thomas Malthus decided it might be a good idea to do some research into the subject. It speaks much for the history of ideas that Malthus’s predictions of “gigantic inevitable famine” stalking the inexorably rising population of the world is well remembered, but the same author’s more sober later conclusions are forgotten. When Malthus began to examine the record, he was obliged to abandon his thesis: the final 1826 edition of his book can be read as a refutation of the first Essay.
Robert Kaplan is halfway along the same path. His celebrated article in the Atlantic Monthly, (February 1994) “The Coming Anarchy,” hit a nerve in the US. Under the subtitle “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet,” the author declared his intention “to remap the political earth the way it will be a few decades hence.” He began with Sierra Leone, then in the opening round of a war that could lead only to national disintegration. “It is Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday, who is now the prophet of west Africa’s future. And west Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world.” The apocalyptic counterpoint of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man, Kaplan’s description of his travels was of faraway anarchy-a picture at once terrifying and reassuringly familiar.
“The Coming Anarchy” was published three months after the “high tech search, low tech hide” contest in Mogadishu between the US special forces and General Mohamed Farah Aideed ended in humiliation for the former. One reader in the US department of global affairs faxed copies of Kaplan’s article to American embassies across the globe; it is widely credited with influencing President Clinton’s reluctance to intervene to halt the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis three months later.
It was a case of verdict and sentence first, evidence later, and the imaginative writer as acknowledged legislator. In The Ends of the Earth we have some more considered evidence. Not enough, and not considered enough, but a beginning.
Kaplan deals with enormous themes. But personal anecdote and lively metaphor stand in place of social inquiry. This is particularly striking in his opening chapters on west Africa. Kaplan takes Richard Burton’s side against the eminent Africanist Basil Davidson, who had…