The Coming Anarchy

“The Coming Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan (Vintage Books, 2001)

“Remember the Alamo (1836)!” “The Battle of the Boyne (1690)!” “Kosovo Field (1389)!” Ambitious demagogues will encourage those who feel powerless to develop a greater affinity with their ancestors, and the latter’s victories (or defeats), than with their fellow-citizens across the street. Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which traced the course of ethnic friction in the Balkans, was reported to have influenced President Clinton’s view of the conflicts on Yugoslavia, and thus prevented U.S. military action in Bosnia. His 2001 book, The Coming Anarchy, picks up those themes in forecasting a dismal future ahead for mankind.

The Coming Anarchy is a collection of essays that were written between 1994 and 1999. In many ways, the title piece is the weakest  – a description of at least Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse that suffers from emotional overload, and, incidentally, misidentifies the Islamic fundamentalist threat. You have to be more selective to be a successful futurist. Conrad’s “Nostromo” and the Third World is a short but incisive account of how Conrad anticipated the post-colonial traumas in Africa. Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism, while not salvaging Kissinger from the many attacks on him for his role in the Vietnam war, gives profound credit to him for his realpolitik, and his awareness that the U.S.A. needs to show muscle to ward off potential threats. The Dangers of Peace is a contrarian, but convincing, account of how societies deprived of a “good fight” become flabby and complacent. Special Intelligence sagely reasons how a more integrated approach to organizing U.S. Intelligence and the Military is required: three other short essays also show a canny degree of pragmatism for U.S. policy that would not be welcomed by the liberal elite or the crusading right.

But the essay Was Democracy Just a Moment? is the book’s highlight, and makes  compulsive reading. Kaplan’s style is crisp, energetic, allusive, and his thesis is straightforward. He believes that U.S. attempts to introduce its style of democracy to countries where civic institutions have not gradually evolved, and where there is no middle class, are doomed for disaster. Political parties will exist only as tribal definitions: democracy will harden existing divisions. He uses examples from around the world to reinforce his point, reminding us how a more authoritarian China is outstripping countries struggling with democracy (e.g. India and Russia.) The West is now pestering General Musharraf of Pakistan to initiate democratic elections, but Kaplan was prescient enough, in 1997, to state that his kind of benevolent dictatorship was best for the country. Similarly, the recent London gathering of potential post-Saddam leaders for Iraq hints at probable fragmentation of rule along ethnic or religious lines.

Kaplan has little time for the United Nations: indeed he believes that the notion of the nation-state is disappearing – even in the U.S.A. And while he talks glowingly about “American values” (which tribe’s?), he thinks poorly of the type of moral campaign that President Bush now seems to have adopted as foreign ploicy. If Bill Clinton pored over Balkan Ghosts, Condoleezza Rice should be pointing her boss to this essay, even if does end on a woolly and ambiguous note, criticizing the American public for their absorption in shallow entertainment, but vaguely ending by stating that “we are the very essence of creativity and dynamism.”

This essay in particular should strike a chord with most of us. How often have we read in the newspapers of multi-ethnic communities (Hindus and Moslems in Gujarat, Serbs and Muslims in Yugoslavia, even Jews and Arabs in Israel) where spokespersons state: “We used to live peacefully side-by-side, until……”  The U.N. started preaching about the self-determination of “peoples”?  The autocrat was felled? The demagogues started rabble-rousing? The extremists took over?

Which is where I came in. And now back to College Bowl football…….

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