The Ends of the Earth
Robert D. Kaplan’s cover article in the February, 1994, issue of The Atlantic Monthly “The Coming Anarchy”—claiming as it did that large areas of the world were fast going from bad to worse and that West Africa was succumbing to neotribalism and war for its own sake—sparked a storm of controversy, bringing down on its author ire from across the political spectrum. Writing in the establishment Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee (in an essay reprinted in World Press Review, July, 1994) took care to speak respectfully of Kaplan and his work before massaging an assortment of dubious official statistics to support his comforting counterargument. “Africa is an exception to the rule, a dark chapter in a much larger story,” claimed Gee. “Despite all the looming troubles, so eloquently recounted by Kaplan, life for the majority of the world’s citizens is getting steadily better in almost every category.”
Alexander Cockburn on the other hand, writing in the leftist weekly The Nation (March 28, 1994), wasted no time with courtesies, launching directly and unabashedly into an anti-Kaplan diatribe. Citing Kaplan’s “lurid predictions” and “catastrophist impressionism,” accusing him of “data-free” analysis and, tacitly but unmistakably, of racism, describing him as a “rabid Malthusian” and calling his analysis “vacuous to the point of imbecility,” Cockburn wrote: “Above all, Kaplan has no faith in people or politics.” At a time when the rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas against Mexico’s central government had been under way less than three months, Cockburn concluded: “Scenarists of horror like Kaplan cannot imagine that political will might challenge and repel the evils they discern or predict. Most recently the Maya of Chiapas put the lie to all that.”
The responses of Gee and Cockburn, mutual anathema though they certainly be, share several telling traits. Both reflect a belief that the world should be and can become a better place than it is. Both prescribe instrumental solutions to human ills—“progress” in a bland, liberal sense in Gee’s case; social revolution in Cockburn’s—and purport to demonstrate that such solutions are possible and desirable. And, in marked contrast to Kaplan’s article, both are based more on wishful speculation than on experience.
The shrillness of Cockburn’s attack—and “attack” is the only appropriate word—prompts a suspicion directly contrary to what he would like us to believe: that Kaplan may well have articulated disturbing, genuinely prophetic insights that fundamentally challenge notions and categories that prevailed during the half-century following World War II. Evidently, writers of Cockburn’s persuasion would rather defend a long-cherished ideology than debate Kaplan’s case respectfully and on its merits.
The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the Twenty- first Century is Kaplan’s fleshing-out of “The Coming Anarchy,” but it is more than that; he goes several steps further, discussing and depicting his visits to parts of the world not treated in the article. Kaplan’s only mention in the book of “The Coming Anarchy” is admirably diffident, expressing at once both called-for humility and well- earned pride, and nicely highlighting the contrast between his approach to understanding the world and those of many of his detractors:
In 1994, immediately after this article was published, I began a journey by land—roughly speaking—from Egypt to Cambodia: through the Near East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. While “The Coming Anarchy” was being debated at home, I was already engaged in the mop-up operation. This mop-up operation did not so much disprove “The Coming Anarchy” as it showed me how culture, politics, geography, history and economics were inextricable. Rather than a grand theory, the best I could now hope for was a better appreciation of these interrelationships.
The Ends of the Earth is the account of a particular journey of global scope by an experienced, thoughtful, and impressively well-informed journalist, at a particular historical moment. It is important to make this observation, because the book’s true subject is a cluster of big, complex patterns and truths. Kaplan himself emphasizes the particularity of what he has done. “This is a travel book,” he writes in a preface. “It is concrete to the extent that my ideas arise from personal experience. It is subjective. . . . It is idiosyncratic. . . . Think of it as a brief romp through a swath of the globe, in which I try to give personal meaning to the kinds of issues raised in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty- first Century.”
Tactically, and rightly, Kaplan thus scales down the rhetorical scope of his claim to authority. His authority nonetheless remains substantial, because of both the very particularity of the journey he narrates and the extent of knowledge and previous experience he brings to it. Thus, when he arrives in Pakistan, he is able to...
(The entire section is 2106 words.)