(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980’s produced a wave of optimism throughout most of the Western world. Despite the fierce regional conflicts that scarred the 1990’s, that optimism seemed to endure in the American public consciousness. The way forward, it appeared, was clear: The worldwide growth of democracy and free trade would ensure peace and prosperity for all; democratic capitalism had proved itself to be the best way for human societies, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, to organize themselves.

Put like this, the naïveté and complacency of such notions are easily apparent. They demonstrate the human tendency to see one’s own way as the only way and to underestimate the lessons of history. Robert D. Kaplan, however, is determined to blow a hole in the current optimism about the direction of global affairs in the twenty-first century. He is like the biblical Jeremiah pointing grimly to realities that most people are either unaware of or simply choose not to think about.

All but one of the nine essays in this volume were published in magazines between 1994 and 1998. The first and longest essay, which supplies the provocative title of the volume, was published in The Atlantic Monthly, where it attracted considerable comment.

Kaplan takes as his focus the disintegrating social and political conditions in West Africa, including such nations as Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, and suggests they are the way of the future for most of the planet:

Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.

Kaplan points out that Sierra Leone is a nation-state in which the government no longer controls much of its own territory (which has fallen back into the hands of tribal chieftains). Diseases such as malaria are rampant because deforestation has led to soil erosion and flooding and hence more mosquitoes which carry the disease. AIDS spreads unchecked, and war is a constant reality. Kaplan’s conclusion is that West Africa is slipping back to conditions that prevailed in the nineteenth century, in which contact with the outside world was limited to a few disease-ridden coastal trading posts, while the vast interior remained impenetrable. Kaplan sees this as a map of the future because the trend everywhere is toward the weakening of the nation-state, and this is tied in with critical levels of environmental and demographic stress. According to this argument, the world is rapidly heading back to a situation that resembles medieval Europe before the rise of the nation-state.

Kaplan identifies four areas through which the future of the planet can be glimpsed. The first is environmental scarcity, which he claims will become the preeminent national security issue of the early twenty-first century. He cites elements such as soaring population growth (over the next fifty years, world population will rise from 5.5 billion to 9 billion); spreading disease; deforestation leading to soil erosion; water depletion (including in the southwestern United States); air pollution; and possibly rising sea levels in places such as the Nile Delta and Bangladesh, which will produce mass migrations and result in social conflict.

As a result of such environmental pressures, only a small minority of the world’s population will live in the security of cities and suburbs where the environment has been mastered. The rest will be involved in a fight for survival. Kaplan quotes the scholar Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon, who gives a vivid if disturbing picture of this planetary future:

Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned postindustrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.

Environmental crises will aggravate cultural and racial clashes. These will replace the former bases of conflict, which were between competing nation-states and competing ideologies. Citing Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Kaplan points to emerging conflicts between Hindu, Muslim, Slavic Orthodox, Western, Japanese, Confucian, and Latin American cultures, which are likely to become more intense and socially disruptive over the next few decades. These clashes will be felt even in the United States, Kaplan points out, where African Americans already “find themselves besieged by an influx of competing Latinos.”

The third element that will define the next century, according to Kaplan, is a decline in the validity of the nation-state as the measure of a cohesive political or social unit. Global maps, which are the invention of European colonialism, will have to change to reflect new realities. Colonial borders, which still in theory apply in much of the Arab and African world, are contrary to political and cultural realities, which are not so neat and orderly as a glance at the map might suggest. The true map of the twenty-first century will have to...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)