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The Coming Anarchy Essay

In 1994, journalist Robert D. Kaplan predicted a world, "in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real 'strategic' danger."[i] His essay published in The Atlantic Monthly identified that the scarcity of resources was the primary driving force behind an impending anarchy. Kaplan's prediction was dire. It was also definitive in tone. Kaplan did not parse words when he suggested the world would follow a similarly demising path that West Africa had been following.[ii]Fortunately his predictions failed with time. Consequently, in 2011, Kaplan revised his predictions suggesting that now the future of conflict rests in the South China Sea.[iii] The problem with Kaplan's anarchy prediction is that he generalizes a wide global outcome based on narrow anecdotal cases in point. In doing so his diagnosis fails to address opportunities in innovation, advances in technology, and an international system capable of self-correcting.

Kaplan argues that as populations increase, environmental scarcity will lead to competing demands on those scarce resources. In his view the environment is the preeminent security threat.[iv] There may be an element of truth to that; however, he fails to recognize man's ability to innovate in the face of necessity. Scarcity in the past created such innovations as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Beginning in the early 1990s, the American agriculture industry saw an emergence of GMOs to influence enormous crop yields of corn and soybean.[v] The use of GMOs was in large part due to significant demands placed on the farm industry to yield crops used for energy and for mass-produced consumables. This innovation has been so successful in terms of creating yields that in many cases outputs now far exceed demands.[vi] This example represents the positive dichotomy of man's ability to create rather than conflict to meet critical needs.

This same ingenuity can be seen in modern advances in petroleum discovery, solar technologies, electrical fuel technologies and other advances in energy. Viewed from a more positive lens, one might instead see a world in which states compete on the basis of innovation to deal with potential scarcity challenges. This kind of innovative competition represents a world system moving forward. By not accounting for innovative advances, Kaplan's view represents a more stagnant global system. His view is wrong. Today's internet revolution, for instance, is anything but stagnant.

Criticizing Kaplan for failing, in 1994, to see a looming internet explosion would be somewhat unfair. However, precisely because Kaplan did not account for ongoing technological advances, he failed to see the potential opportunity technology would play in shaping the future. Thomas Friedman characterizes the opportunity as, "the democratization of technology."[vii] In Friedman's view, technology literally and figuratively breaks down walls fostering the integration of ideas. Through technology, states, corporations, and individuals seek new opportunities. Today's evolving internet represents this tearing down of walls in a positive sense.

In 1994 nobody could have predicted the impact social media would have in driving global issues. A simple LexisNexis search of the terms "social media" in all available news sources in 1994 produces only 275 results. Only a handful of those 275 results deal with internet potential. The same search with a 2011 parameter produces so many results that LexisNexis forces the user to refine the search to a point in which 3000 or fewer results can be displayed.[viii] Today we recognize social media as a tremendous balancer in terms of opening the free expression of ideas and even affecting social change. Events throughout the Arab world from 2009 until today demonstrate in some part the unifying effect of social media mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. While Kaplan may not have been able to predict the internet and social media per say, he failed to acknowledge that man possesses a drive for positive change. While his views are characteristic of realist thinking, even from a realist perspective, Kaplan's anarchic theory falls short.

Kaplan is a neo-realist. His lens is one in which dominant power thrives. So, the strong survive. However, as a realist Kaplan does not account for a global system that self-corrects. A strict realist such as Hans J. Morgenthau argues that the international system seeks equilibrium or a balance of power[ix]. Therefore, regardless of the struggle, states eventually achieve a state of balance rather than indefinite imbalance or anarchy.

Kenneth Waltz, also a strict realist, suggests, "As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power."[x] In effect, a global system of criminal anarchy is a system of political vacuum. Realist theory does not accept a system of total disorder. Instead, realism proposes a system that self-corrects in favor of strength. Kaplan holds on to notions of strength but only insomuch as they pertain to individuals' instincts for survival. States' survival demonstrate similar natural instincts that Kaplan fails to address.

For example, Kaplan argued that, "as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot, making more and more places like Nigeria, India, and Brazil ungovernable."[xi]While in 1994 those countries and many others like them displayed signs of serious decline, those states today comprise some of the strongest emerging economic and political powers. Brazil today is arguably Latin America's economic and political superpower. In Asia, India along with China remain the two largest rising global powers. And in West Africa, Nigeria, although fraught with political trouble, remains the West African petroleum powerhouse. What these cases in point indicate is that Kaplan's assessment was shortsighted. He miscalculated general global impacts based on a few personal experiences in Sierra Leone. Kaplan so miscalculated his predictions that he has since recalculated them, narrowing future conflict only to the South China Sea.[xii]

Robert Kaplan's 1994 theory in which he generalizes a broad global anarchy based on narrow examples has not stood the test of time. He failed to recognize the innovativeness of man to overcome challenges. He did not see the potential for a technological revolution in which game-changing technologies such as the internet and social media would shape the global landscape. And, as a realist himself, Kaplan strayed from general realist thought by not accounting for a self-correcting international system. These problems with Kaplan's theory offer instruction for practitioners of international policy. International theory and the policies derived from theorist should be carefully considered. The world is too broad to apply single, narrowly based viewpoints to policy decisions. Practitioners should instead consider more holistically the adaptable nature of man to overcome future challenges.


[i] Kaplan, Robert D. "The Coming Anarchy." The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994: 44-76.
[ii] Kaplan, 1994, p. 46. Specifically he characterized West Africa as "the symbol" of coming anarchy (his emphasis on the).
[iii] Kaplan, Robert D. "The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict." Foreign Policy, September/October 2011: 76-85.
[iv] Kaplan, 1994, p. 58. He again emphasizes "the" to argue that environmental issues will be "the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century".
[v] Rodale, Maria. Organic Manifesto. New York, NY: Rodale Inc., 2010. The preface by Eric Schlosser describes the history of GMOs into American farming as introduce primarily by companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemicals.
[vi] Rodale, 2010, p. 98.
[vii] Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. See pp. 44-47 for Friedman's explanation of how the "democratization of technology" is the driving force behind his theory of globalization.
[viii] The author conducted a LexisNexis Academic power search through the University of Kansas using the specific phrase "social media" and the years 1994 and 2011. Searches were conducted of all available news sources. The 1994 search produced 275 results. Most of those results had nothing to do with the internet. The 2011 search produced so many thousands of results that LexisNexis could only handle displaying results fewer than 3000.
[ix] Morgenthau, Hans J. as cited in Kaufman et al. Understanding International Relations. 2004: 237-287.
[x] Waltz, Kenneth N. as cited in Kaufman et al. Understanding International Relations. 2004: 339-348.
[xi] Kaplan, 1994, p. 54.
[xii] Kaplan, 2011.
First Chapter: 'The Coming Anarchy'

Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War.
By Robert D. Kaplan.
198 pp. New York:
Random House. $21.95.

here can be little doubt that Robert D. Kaplan is one of America's most engaging writers on contemporary international affairs. It is inevitable, then, that the appearance of a new book by such a prominent journalist -- even a book mostly made up of previously published essays -- ranks as not only a literary event but as one bound to jostle the broad community of policy intellectuals as well. This is because Kaplan is more than engaging; he is also accident-prone.

His ''Balkan Ghosts,'' fallen into the hands of a certain novice denizen of the Oval Office, contributed much to a sharp if temporary aversion to involving the United States in a caldron of ''ancient hatreds.'' This was not the intention of the author, nor did it accord at all with his own policy predilection. Kaplan's 1995 book, ''The Arabists,'' tripped off a darkly comic accident, which is that a certain segment of the American Jewish community took just one look at the title and the author's last name and presumed that the book was a slam against those eternal State Department anti-Semites. Of course, it isn't. The lead essay in this collection, ''The Coming Anarchy,'' which appeared in multiple photocopy around the White House and National Security Council not long after appearing in the February 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, had similarly demobilizing effect. Good heavens, people thought, if things are really that bad in the third world, we've no hope of promoting change. This, too, was not the author's intention.

The present collection, however, seems less prone to such uses, if only because all but one of these nine essays have already seen the light of day in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The National Interest. What unites them is not their probable contribution to another Rube Goldberg-like public policy escapade. It is rather that a set of essays so apparently dissimilar in length, topic and even tone tells us more about the writer than any integral book can. The very diversity of the individual items allows us to triangulate not only Kaplan's worldview but something more important: his method.

Kaplan's worldview is clear: he is an enemy of the conceit of the contemporary. He scowls at those who define their age as specially pregnant with ebullient hope for mankind. We've heard it all before, he observes, and it was wrong then too. Kaplan is the sort who would visit Woodrow Wilson's tomb at the National Cathedral just to make sure Wilson's still there. He warns us against the cognitive hubris to which we lucky denizens of the post-cold-war West are prone, and he shows us the very worst of mankind's plight, as he paints West Africa in ''The Coming Anarchy,'' to supply a reality check. He does more or less the same thing over a wider geographical canvas in ''And Now for the News: The Disturbing Freshness of Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall.' ''

Jerry Bauer/ Random House
Robert D. Kaplan
Does he overdo it? Maybe, but it's still too soon to say. Even if Kaplan has overinterpreted the calamities of West Africa, and exaggerated their general relevance for world politics, he has been usefully wrong. On rereading the essay that gives this collection its title, the implied determinism of Kaplan's emphasis on the environment and demography seems even more pronounced. He should have paid more attention to the enormous power of bad government, about which there is, in the end, nothing inevitable, not even in Sierra Leone.

But it is Kaplan's method that deserves special attention. Kaplan characterizes himself as a realist. That is why he believes that we ignore the merciless ironies of history at our own peril (the thesis of ''Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism''); that too much democracy and even too much peace can be bad things (the points of ''Was Democracy Just a Moment?'' and ''The Dangers of Peace,'' respectively); that we can best help those in dire circumstances when we assume them to be basically unimprovable (the argument of ''Idealism Won't Stop Mass Murder''); and that, appreciating our limitations, we can often do more when we try to do less (the gist of ''Proportionalism: A Realistic Approach to Foreign Policy'').

Kaplan isn't just any sort of realist, however. He is, informally at least, a Straussian realist. He believes that there is an accumulated wisdom of the ages, and that an effort to tap that wisdom is well worth the labor. Who else these days tries to popularize Gibbon, Metternich and Gaetano Mosca in a mass circulation monthly? Best of all, Kaplan realizes that much of that wisdom lies not in books of philosophy, history and memoir, but in fiction. The best piece of this collection depends on the brilliant use Kaplan makes of Joseph Conrad's ''Nostromo'' to counsel American policy toward the most troubled of nations (''Conrad's 'Nostromo' and the Third World''). ''Literature,'' he writes, ''may be the only salvation of the policy elite, because in the guise of fiction a writer can more easily tell the truth. Now listen to the scintillating opening of ''The Coming Anarchy'' and Kaplan's method emerges: ''The Minister's eyes were like egg yolks. . . . Flame trees, coconut palms and a ball-point blue Atlantic composed the background. None of it seemed beautiful, though.'' Kaplan merges literature and analysis, storytelling and philosophy, observation and history in a way that few writers even dare nowadays. Such an ambitiously eclectic approach is bound to cut a few scholarly corners.

Serious scholars do not always appreciate Kaplan's take on their pet subjects, and sometimes they have a point. But they miss the bigger point in what Kaplan is up to. This remarkable man has found himself a large and sometimes powerful audience, and he is determined to convey some very practical, big-picture warnings to the more efficacious members of that audience before they get us all into terrible trouble. We should pay close attention, and hope for a reduced accident rate.

Adam Garfinkle is a senior associate of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a staff member of the Hart-Rudman commission on national security.

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