The Coming Anarchy

by Robert D. Kaplan

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160

"The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet" was an article by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan (born June 23, 1952). It was first published in the February 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It was expanded and published with related essays in a nonfiction book on Feb 13, 2001.

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The book's overarching argument is that the period of the Cold War was an unprecedented and atypically positive one in world history and that the "Pax Americana" and general peace and prosperity of the post-war years would prove impossible to sustain.

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Rather than see the conflicts and famines in sub-Saharan Africa as anomalies, Kaplan sees them as bellwethers, pointing to how environmental degradation, overpopulation, migrations due to resource scarcity, and cultural and political conflicts will eventually spread across the world. He foresees a growth in various forms of conflict, especially civil wars and terrorism, and the spread of religious and political conflicts as inevitable.


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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan comprises of nine essays. Each of the articles focuses on themes, such as crime, poverty, and pollution, which the author believes will have an adverse impact on the world in the future. Through his essays, Kaplan gives the readers a glimpse into what he predicts will happen to the world and offers various policy recommendations.

The author discusses the post-cold war era and the problems with democracy in developing countries. According to the writer, authoritarian rule is more applicable to developing countries than democracy, as the middle class in these nations have little economic influence. The author makes predictions about the forms of government there will be in the future. For example, he claims that traditional political order will change as people begin to embrace other systems such as anarchy, which will result in the complete devolution of power.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179

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 reflect “a jagged-glass pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms.”

The final element in the future global situation is a change in the nature of war. Kaplan holds out no hope that humanity may outgrow such a barbaric enterprise. His premise is that in many places in the world, “people find liberation in violence” and “physical aggression is a part of being human.” The question, therefore, is not whether there will be wars, but what kind of wars there will be. Kaplan envisions a decline in large-scale conflicts between nation-states, but an increase in transnational terrorism and conflicts sparked by religious fanaticism. He also foresees low-level, ongoing conflicts in urban areas in which the distinctions between crime and war become blurred. These conflicts may coalesce along racial, political, and cultural lines, and national governments may find themselves unable to guarantee the safety of their citizens. This will produce a growth in private security businesses and urban mafias.

In Kaplan’s view, all these rapid changes will have a major impact on the United States. He believes it possible that because the United States is not culturally homogenous, it may not survive the century in its present form. Since the 1960’s, the United States’ cohesion as a nation-state has been in decline, and even though it will gain territory following the peaceful dissolution of Canada—Kaplan is being deliberately provocative here—it will still look very different from how it does today: “As Washington’s influence wanes, and with it the traditional symbols of American patriotism, North Americans will take psychological refuge in their insulated communities and cultures.”

In his second essay, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” Kaplan punctures the balloon of post-Cold War optimism and complacency by pointing out that democracy is neither the last nor, in many cases, the best form of political organization. The defeat of Communism is no guarantee that peace and democracy will triumph over the long term. With the kind of illuminating historical parallel that permeates the book, Kaplan points out that in the fourth century, when Christianity conquered Europe and the Mediterranean world, it was also believed that a peaceful era, under the sway of one dominant ideology, was at hand. The reality proved to be somewhat different.

Kaplan claims that the kind of democracies the United States is encouraging in the developing world are in fact authoritarian regimes in disguise. He argues that stable democracies depend on the existence of a middle class and well-established civil institutions. In the absence of these, democracy will fail. In such cases, authoritarian regimes may even be preferable; they may be able to supply stability and economic growth that cannot be produced by nations in which the necessary conditions for democracy have not been met. Kaplan cites the recent examples of democratic Russia—poor and violent—and authoritarian China, which has managed to improve the quality of life of its people. Another contrast is between the material and social achievements of authoritarian Singapore compared to the dismal record of newly democratic South Africa, now one of the most violent places on earth, with a murder rate six times that of the United States.

Kaplan’s second main point is that democracy in the United States is at risk largely because of the power of international corporations. As American cities are redefined as new “Singapores, with corporate enclaves that are dedicated to global business and defended by private security firms adjacent to heavily zoned suburbs,” rule by oligarchy, as in ancient Greece, becomes a possibility. Kaplan notes that American universities are also increasingly tied to the needs of corporations. His argument is not that corporations per se are bad, but that so many of the changes in modern society are the result of corporate decisions over which the majority of the people have no say. It is conceivable, Kaplan suggests, that “corporations will, like the rulers of both Sparta and Athens, project power to the advantage of the well-off while satisfying the twenty-first century servile population with the equivalent of bread and circuses” (by which he means the mindless and sometimes brutal entertainments of mass culture).

These first two essays take up half the book, and the remaining seven are in a sense footnotes to Kaplan’s primary thesis. In “Idealism Won’t Stop Mass Murder,” Kaplan argues that Western efforts to set up war crimes tribunals in order to prevent future genocides rest on idealistic notions of moral progress and education. What is really needed, however, is a return to hard-nosed, balance-of-power politics (Kaplan calls it “balance-of-fear-and-intimidation”) that do not make the mistake of thinking that human behavior is in any way improvable.

Another essay sings the praises of Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth century masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), not only for its merits as history and literature, but also for its usefulness as a guide to what is happening in many parts of the world today. Kaplan points to many parallels between Gibbon’s Roman Empire and the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century.

In “Proportionalism: A Realistic Approach to Foreign Policy,” Kaplan pleads for an approach to the Third World based on a common-sense assessment of what can and cannot be done successfully to improve the quality of life in developing countries.

“Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism” is a defense of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger as an intellectual, diplomat, and global strategist. Kaplan argues (among other things) that Kissinger and President Richard M. Nixon were justified in extending the Vietnam War for several years after 1969, even though that decision resulted in thousands more American and Southeast Asian deaths.

Finally, in “The Dangers of Peace,” Kaplan argues that “peace, as a primary goal, is dangerous because it implies that you will sacrifice any principle for the sake of it.” A long period of peace is unrealistic and not even desirable, since it would mean that leaders would lose their tragic sense of history and become incapable of making wise decisions. Kaplan regards society as a whole as having fallen “under the numbing and corrosive illusion of peace.”

Once more, Kaplan is being deliberately provocative, perhaps because he thinks Americans need to be jolted out of their complacency. The same willingness to make people sit up and think is apparent in his comment that “The Cold War may have been as close to utopia as we are ever likely to get” because it allowed the West to define its own values of freedom, which, in the absence of an enemy representing different values, would have been far more difficult to accomplish.

Kaplan’s analysis in this essay certainly merits some serious thinking, although when he gets around to proposing solutions he reaches some odd, even alarming conclusions. These include the suggestion that the United States should in effect take over the United Nations and make it a “transparent multiplier of American and Western power.” Kaplan admits this is hardly likely to lead to peace but says it would be a good thing anyway, since the vacuous United Nations would then be filled “with at least someone’s values—indeed, ours.” One would be hard pressed to cite a better example of American arrogance than this, and it seems completely at odds with Kaplan’s position in his earlier essay, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” Equally alarming is his suggestion that the reauthorization of assassinations by the U.S. Congress would do more to contain evil than an expansion of the U.N. Security Council. Others may not be so willing to appoint the U.S. Congress as the international arbiter of what is evil, still less give it power over life and death.

These criticisms aside, The Coming Anarchy makes compelling and somber reading. The average American would be well advised to switch off the television and study it.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 125 (February 1, 2000): 104.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 19, 2000): 27.

Publishers Weekly 246 (December 20, 1999): 63.

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