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"Over the next 50 years the earth's population will soar from 5.5 to more than 9 billion . Though the optimists have hopes for new resource technologies & free market development in the global village, they fail to note that, as the National Academy of Sciences has pointed out, 95% of the population increase will be in the poorest regions of the world where governments now - just look at Africa {...or Russia...} - show little ability to function, let alone implement even marginal improvements." - Robert D.Kaplan. The Coming Anarchy : Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (NY: Random House, c2000) p.22.
Not entirely shocking (given the title), The Coming Anarchy by Atlantic Monthly correspondent & author Robert D. Kaplan is by times an exceptionally chilling read, a plea for realism, an indictment against sloppy thinking and a tragic reflection on the lessons of history. The author has been a US foreign policy commentator & war reporter for over 20 years and (having traveled throughout the 1980s & 90s to some of the more remote and violent parts of the planet) has now compiled a compelling grim mosaic of the planet's current state and possible future. Kaplan is a fierce critic of both idealistic do-gooders (who, in his experience, end up wasting tragically limited humanitarian resources by aiming too high) and neo- conservative isolationists (who believe the rest of the world and its problems can be kept at bay if the walls of defense are high enough) who seem to him patently deluded about the true nature of the world's problems :
"...it is time to understand the environment for what it is : the national security issue of the early 21st century. The political & strategic impact of: will be the core foreign policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate..." Ibid. p. 19-20.
In the end, Kaplan endorses a pragmatic approach to the difficulties confronting the planet, one 'adopted by some Catholic theologians on certain vexing moral issues, Proportionalism provides a useful approach to the Third World...doing or accepting a certain amount of 'Evil' to make possible a proportionately greater amount of 'Good'." (p. 122) He even quotes Aristotle at one point, as a defense of pragmatism, who wrote 'Whether the few or the many rule is incidental to oligarchy and democracy - the rich are few everywhere, the poor many."

Kaplan is a interesting advocate of environmental action (being a traditional conservative and neo-realist) and convincingly points out most pundits1 on North American environmental & industrial policy have never even visited the Third World (with the exception of a resort or two) and so have little idea of the true impact upon the lives of billions that environmental degradation is actually having. He also frequently cites the work of an expert in Environmental Conflict Studies at UofT, by the name of Thomas Homer-Dixon (author of Environment, scarcity, and violence-Princeton, 1999 & The Ingenuity Gap- Knopf, 2000) who also has a way with cutting to the chase :
"Think of stretch limo on the streets of NYC, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned, post-industrial regions of North America, Europe and the emerging Pacific Rim, with their trade summitry and computer information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction."
The book itself focuses on the living conditions, quality of life and economic potential of the under -developed world and challenges some fairly fundamental scared cows of the international development ethos, like, a) maybe most of the world isn't ready for democracy and it's cruel to push it on them, b) maybe the whole notion of national sovereignty, easily-defined borders and the nation state in general are just quaint 18th European constructs which it is now time to turf, c) literacy and education2, not Western computers, not Western agriculture, not Western medicines or machines, but straight-forward education on a people's own terms, is the only route to real, stable democratic reform, and finally, the most disturbing, d) the argument that for much of the world's populace an existence mobilized for war and a 'barracks existence' is a step up, rather than a step down (meaning that fighting is often the only chance to escape poverty for a growing number of people on this planet). All these are realistic, no-nonsense, get-shit-done approaches, since Kaplan and his neo-realist compatriots have little time for Good Intentions and Sanctimonious promises, and Kaplan even goes so far as to quote Henry Kissinger (of all people), who wrote 'The fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness...nothing is more dangerous than people convinced of their moral superiority." (p.135)

Amen.
Notes:
1 "A person raised in a middle or upper middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where this is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or drafty army barracks constitute an improvement in material and emotional security." (p.157)
2 "...what really separated the rulers from the ruled in the ancient world was literacy : the illiterate masses were subject to the elites' interpretation of documents and law. Analogous gulfs between the rulers and the ruled may soon emerge not because of differing abilities to process information and master technology but because of globalization itself. Already barely literate Mexicans on the US border, working in dangerous Dickensian conditions to produce our VCRs, computers, jeans and toasters, earn less than 50ยข/hr., with no benefits or rights. Is than Western democracy, or Ancient style Greek oligarchy?" (p.97)

If I may offer a divergent view of this book, I would have to say that reading this book reminded me of a Neal Stephenson novel, if Neal Stephenson lacked insight, intellectual rigor, careful research and was a really boring, bad writer. Oh yeah, and if Neal Stephenson tried to pass off his fiction as non-fiction.

The basic thesis of this collection of scattered essays is that the majority of the world's people are poor, ignorant and violent, and that society will eventually disintegrate into various feuding clans and gangs, with the only exception to this chaos being a new system of interlocking corporate and national interestes in America and Europe. He does mention the phenomenea of gated communities and transnational gangs. He doesn't quite go as far as proposing mafia ran pizza delivery, however; probably because he is not creative enough.

All of this book seems rather interesting, and some of the ideas about the gloomy coming century are somewhat interesting, but I think Robert D. Kaplan doesn't really have the background to discuss them. They would be interesting ideas in dystopic science fiction, but I find his support for such ideas rather narrow. In some areas of the world that he speaks of, I don't have the back ground to judge his rantings, but when he says:

Large-scale population movements are under way, from inland China to coastal China and from villages to cities, leading to a crime surge like the one in Africa and to growing regional disparities and conflicts in a land with a strong tradition of warlordism and a weak tradition of central government-again as in Africa.
Page 25-26
Thus, he neatly compresses the worlds largest and oldest nation's history down into a pat little sentence, which while true (in the past 4000 years, China has been ruled by warlords at times) very much ignores the traditional Chinese focus on education and the social contempt for the military in Chinese society.

He does make some good points. He says, and I do believe, that certain areas of the third world's continued inability to lift themselves out of war and poverty is not due to the effects of capitalism and colonialism, but due in some part to the illiteracy and tribalism of various countries; and that those countries becoming "democratic" overnight is an idle dream, when what they need first is institutions to build an educated middle class.

However, whatever good points he makes are irrelevant due to his overwhelming inability (quite common amongst American thinkers) to realize the difference between a prescriptive and descriptive truth, and his inability to make a case that the world situation he describes makes it at all morally acceptable to engage in the types of war and politics he favors. In addition, his personal air puts me off: Mencius said: there is no difference between killing a man with a sword, and killing a man with a government policy. That Kaplan would suggest oppressing people in the ways he does, without realizing that he might as well be killing them personally (something he is probably incapable of doing) makes me discount his thinking.

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