This is an interesting book, because it’s a book of (pessimistic) analysis and predictions made long enough ago (mid- to late-1990s) that some judgment can be made of its accuracy. It’s a book of several essays of varying lengths on varying topics, based largely on direct observation from Kaplan’s travels, but all generally focused around the future structure and stability of the world. Kaplan is a very vivid and incisive writer, so just on that basis alone the book is worth reading. He’s also a very pessimistic writer, or realist as he would say.
The first essay is the most famous and the one after which the book is named (subtitled “How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease Are Destroying The Planet”—hard to get more pessimistic than that!). It’s from 1994. Kaplan in essence says that in the Third World, by which he really means Africa, population growth will inevitably lead to continual warfare over critical resources like food, with the sole exception being places where a strong culture prevents it (he specifically focuses on Muslim culture in the incredibly orderly Istanbul slums, which he believes is the one culture that is likely to expand in troubled times, because “it is prepared to fight”). In sum, “Future wars will be those of communal survival, aggravated or, in many cases, caused by environmental scarcity.”
Kaplan relies heavily on ideologically driven sources such as Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon, who basically believe the sky is falling because we have too many people and they are going to use everything up, historical contradictions to that be damned. Kaplan and his sources are definitely not of the opinion that human creativity can or will solve our problems—rather, they are of the deterministic mold that we are all screwed because there are too many of us and we will inevitably use up everything, as supposedly proven by a static, Malthusian analysis. Not that they advert to Malthus being proven wrong in the developed world.
So far none of this pessimism has been borne out by reality—while there’s plenty of warfare in Africa, it’s mostly tribally/religiously driven, not over scarce critical resources, and the population growth impact is, as usual, not what is feared. In this essay, Kaplan has more than a little in common with such totally discredited “scientists” as Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren (Obama’s science advisor—go figure), who have been beating this drum with the solution of more government control over everyone, for decades. Sure, Kaplan is more interesting than those hacks, but in practice his pessimism hasn’t been borne out.
Kaplan isn’t wrong that there’s a huge and growing divide between rich and poor countries. But that war will be the result doesn’t follow and hasn’t happened. In fact, outside of Africa, most poor countries have become vastly richer in the 21 years since this essay came out.
Kaplan continues the pessimism with an essay in essence predicting no future for democracy—“Was Democracy Just A Moment?”. In most countries, he says, it just doesn’t work due to “lack of social development.” In more advanced countries, such as the US, the ruling class lacks purpose and vision, the other classes want convenience and circuses, and anyway corporations really rule, so we are headed back to oligarchy.
Much of this is quite compelling. On the other hand, it’s undermined by (in this and other essays in the book), how Kaplan has an obsession with the political impact of corporations. He does not seem to understand how large corporations work in practice, leading to odd statements like “Of the world’s hundred largest economies, fifty-one are not countries but corporations,” and “Corporations . . . are nothing less than the vanguard of a new Darwinian organization of politics.” He even explicitly predicts universities will die unless they do what corporations tell them and develop the curricula corporations demand. Of course, nothing with respect to universities could be further from the truth in 2015, and more broadly corporations are not nation-states, but instead ultimately subject to nation-states—just see Venezuela. They may have political power in some cases, but no, Halliburton does not dictate US foreign policy (not that Kaplan says that, but that’s the same type of thinking). But certainly in the 18 years since this essay, democratic governance in the advanced world has declined, while there’s no more, and probably less, real democracy in the rest of the world. So perhaps he is right about the end result.
Other essays are very interesting—most notably one on Conrad’s Nostromo, a great and little-read book, and one on Gibbon’s Decline & Fall. He note that Nostromo analyzes crappy Third World societies and how they operate with a clear eye, and that fiction can do analysis of this sort well—without having to be polite, and instead being able to bring up “the very uncomfortably sensitive issues that people are afraid to discuss at dinner parties for fear of what others might think of them”—a relevant observation applicable to today’s neo-Jacobin mobs chasing cultural conservatives from their jobs and public visibility. In another essay, he analyzes and endorses Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy realism across the decades, focusing on analyzing “needless” late-Vietnam bloodshed as justified by demonstrating US resolve to other world powers, with a nod to Metternich (on whom Kissinger wrote his dissertation).
Kaplan ends the book by pointing out that peacetime is not necessarily better for us, particularly if brought about by a strong (perhaps world) government. “Consensus can be the handmaiden of evil, since the ability to confront evil means the willingness to act boldly and ruthlessly and without consensus, attributes that executive, national leadership has in far more abundance than any international organization.” Global bodies merely reflect the actual global elite, most of whom are cretinous people who are rich and powerful because they stole and killed their way to the top. “We think we know what political correctness is: we have no idea how intensely suffocating public discourse could become in a truly unified and peaceful world.” He does not mention the EU, but the EU immediately springs to mind when talking of an organization “lacking accountability because of its received claim to progressive rationality. Such an organization would rule not through violence but by ably delegitimizing—perhaps, with the help of an all-powerful global media—anything and anybody that crossed its path, by defining such opposition as ‘immoral,’ ‘unprogressive,’ ‘provincial,’ or ‘isolationist.’” This is of course what the EU and its cultural elite has done with all opposition, in particular any opposition to the free immigration of unassimilated populations that create most of the crime and violence (e.g., 60% of the convicts in French jails are Muslim, but you’re a pariah if you are opposed to more immigration or have any love for your traditional culture).
Finally, Kaplan points out that “A long domestic peace would rear up leaders with no tragic historical memory, and thus little wisdom. Nor would such future leaders be fortified by a life of serious reading to compensate for their lack of historical experience: permanent peace, with its worship of entertainment and convenience, will produce ever shallower leaders. The mass man will rule as well as be ruled. Nor would such childlike leaders be well advised, due to the inverse relationship between wisdom and specialization.” While this was 15 years ago, pre-9/11, pre-Bush II, and pre-Obama, he could easily have been talking about Bush, or particularly Obama, who surrounds himself with third-rate, unread, un-specialized, and unwise sycophants (like Valarie Jarrett). Or, as Kaplan say, “Think of the mentality of young White House aides after, say, sixty years of domestic peace, and you may grasp why even if peace obtains for sixty years, it could not for sixty-one.” His solution: “The solution for such trends is simple: struggle, of one sort or another, hopefully nonviolent. . . . . Struggle causes us to reflect, to fortify our faith, and to see beyond our narrow slots of existence. . . . What we should be skeptical of are the ‘benefits’ of a world at peace with unlimited natural resources.” A sobering counter to the techno-optimists, who assume a world with nano-scale fabrication would lead to happiness and peace for all.