Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington were hardly the only ones to attempt Big Think in the 1990s. Robert D. Kaplan’s 1994 Atlantic essay “The Coming Anarchy” also made waves, enough to lead to a subsequent book. If Fukuyama and Huntington focused on the big picture, Kaplan took a more pointillist approach to explaining how the world worked. Offering journalistic accounts of marginal places in West Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Kaplan argued that environmental degradation, corruption, poverty and famine were weakening the states in these conflict areas — and those same dynamics would soon stalk the developed world as well.
Almost 25 years later, Kaplan has written an appraisal of his work in the National Interest called “The Anarchy That Came.” In it, he suggests that his hypothesis was unpopular because it was such a downer:
Critics said that my dark vision was demoralizing. But I was merely following the dictum of the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, who said that the job of a scholar or observer is not necessarily to improve the world, but to say bluntly what he or she thought was actually going on in it. To do that meant focusing on matters that would be inappropriate to raise at a polite dinner party—that would elicit an embarrassed silence among the guests. For I have always believed that the future often lies inside the silences, inside the things few want to discuss.
As someone who reviewed his book in the 1990s as well, I remember the reaction to “The Coming Anarchy” a bit differently. It is certainly true that no one wanted Kaplan to be right. But no one wanted Huntington to be right either, and his “Clash of Civilizations” thesis did not exactly get short shrift in public discourse.
Kaplan’s argument got its fair share of attention as well, and the critique of it was not that it was overly pessimistic, but rather that he overgeneralized his argument. As I wrote in 1997:
Kaplan “discovers” that countries with corrupt governments, stagnant economies, and short histories of statehood are falling apart. In other words, he looks only at failed states and concludes that all states are failing. He believes these trends can be generalized to the rest of the world, yet his own descriptions contradict him. In the countries where statehood has a longer tradition, such as Turkey, Iran, and Thailand, Kaplan finds a stronger state and a less fragmented populace. This distinction severs the contagion effect Kaplan wants to ascribe to events in West Africa and Central Asia.
As he looks back at his argument in 2018, it is to Kaplan’s credit that he acknowledges that some aspects of the world have turned out better than he expected. He notes, “Over the past few years, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire have gradually gained a modicum of stability, even as political violence, tribalism and crime continue to rear their heads.” This is true despite the severe Ebola outbreak that occurred in 2015. Kaplan also acknowledges that despite significant pockets of instability, Africa writ large is in a far better place now than it was in 1994.
It is also cheering to note that Kaplan acknowledges his biggest error: “I drew too close a link between dissolution in the developing world and instability in the United States and the West. The American political system may now be in trouble, but it is for reasons — like the impact of video and digital technology on politics and society — that have little to do with the factors that I discussed then.”
That said, Kaplan’s pessimism can never be fully contained. He concludes that “'The Coming Anarchy' accurately captured the beginning of an arc of dissolution and upheaval in significant regions of the world that may now be completed and is thus transforming itself into something new.” What is the something new? For Kaplan, it would appear to be something very old: more anarchy. He warns that as Africa develops, there will be more instability on the continent while also triggering more destabilizing migration flows from South to North. He warns that “an era of migration from south-to-north may be only just beginning. This at a time, when, as experts suggest, the combined effects of automation, artificial intelligence and so-called 3-D printing could make Western companies far less dependent on cheap labor in poor countries, further destabilizing them.”
This is one possible outcome, but it is truly odd for Kaplan to double down on African instability when the most obvious sources of instability in 2018 are located in the advanced industrialized democracies. One of the proximate causes is near and dear to Kaplan’s heart: the disruption that can come from large refugee flows. Even here, however, the refugees that polarized European politics came from Syria and not West Africa. As for the United States, we face the paradox of migrants triggering some nasty identity politics even though immigration flows from Mexico slowed significantly during the past decade.
To be honest, however, I wish Kaplan would redirect his gaze from the developing world to the developed world. Writing about dysfunction in the developing world is easy. Writing about dysfunction in the developed world is harder but nonetheless more important. And if anarchy is truly coming, its key source will be developed-country paralysis in the face of global challenges.
Correction: This post has been updated to clarify the role of refugees in European politics.