'Coming Anarchy': A very grim world

February 13, 2000|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

"The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War," by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House. 198 pages. $21.95.

In these big-thinking essays about the future of the world, Robert D. Kaplan sometimes comes across as your grumbling uncle who can find a new cloud inside every silver lining.

The Cold War, during which every American lived with the threat of annihilation, "may have been as close to utopia as we are ever likely to get." The spread of democracy -- worldwide -- is an ominous harbinger of instability and bloodshed. Even peace itself, in Kaplan's grim analysis, presages trouble: "A long period of peace in an advanced technological society like ours could lead to great evils," he declares.

Such outlandish statements may lead a reader to dismiss Kaplan as merely perverse. But despite an outsized ego and a tendency to follow his theories beyond the bounds of common sense, Kaplan offers a profound challenge to conventional thinking about the direction of the world.

Two decades as a reporter and travel writer in 60 countries give him vivid stories. He has read widely and writes superbly. Even if you shake your head at his extreme prognostications, you may catch yourself fearing that he is right.

That's because what Kaplan describes as his "realist" analysis -- he rejects the pessimist label -- fits recent history uncomfortably well. The collapse of communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union spawned a half-dozen wars from Armenia to Tajikistan and actually increased poverty and crime. The United States' costly interventions in such places as Somalia and Haiti have not produced significant economic or political progress. The round of elections in sub-Saharan Africa, hailed as a hopeful trend just a few years ago, has led to warfare and chaos. "Africans want a better life and instead have been given the right to vote," Kaplan wryly remarks.

In the title essay, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1994, Kaplan expresses his immodest ambition: "to remap the political earth the way it will be a few decades hence." There will be, he says, no inexorable spread of bourgeois prosperity and civil peace. Since 95 percent of the world's population growth in the next 50 years will occur in its poorest regions, what awaits is "shantytowns where attempts to rise above poverty, cultural dysfunction, and ethnic strife will be doomed by a lack of water to drink, soil to till, and space to survive in."

Americans' fixation on free elections, Kaplan says, may actually impede the creation of a social and economic foundation for lasting democracy: "My point, hard as it may be for Americans to accept, is that Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy and China may be succeeding in part because it is not." He praises Henry Kissinger for "a grimly convincing view of the human condition" that helps him avoid the romanticism about world affairs that Kaplan sees as leading to catastrophe.

Steeped in history and literature, Kaplan may underestimate the ways in which information technology and global trade have made historical precedents less relevant. He ignores the Internet. His world view was shaped in the caldrons of the Balkans and Africa; it might be different if he had spent more time in, say, Southeast Asia.

And yet, when Kaplan interrupts our pleasant reverie with the admonition that "The clock ticks toward something unpleasant ...," it is hard not to wake and start paying close attention.

Scott Shane is a reporter for The Sun and author of "Dismantling Utopia," an account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He covered the Soviet Union for The Sun from 1988 to 1991 and traveled widely among what now are independent post-Soviet states.

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