Anarchy Undelivered

Twenty-five years ago, travel writer and journalist Robert Kaplan wrote an article for The Atlantic, headlined “The Coming Anarchy.” It was an apocalyptic account of Kaplan’s visit to West Africa and his dark vision that much of the world would end up looking like war-torn Sierra Leone. The piece attracted a lot of attention—it was passed around the Clinton White House and turned into a book.

Kaplan suggested recently that he thought “The Coming Anarchy” had stood the test of time. I disagree, and think the fact that Kaplan was wrong matters: global jeremiads are a force for isolationism. I discussed why with The Atlantic’s Matthew Peterson on a new podcast.  

A different time

At the time Kaplan wrote his Atlantic piece, Sierra Leone was the worst of failed states. Cote d’Ivoire was to go through two painful civil wars. And Liberia was convulsed with vicious conflict that continued until 2003. The journalist wrote that “West Africa is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger.” 

Kaplan went on to list a set of threats that would go global: “Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states... the rise of tribal and regional domains... the growing pervasiveness of war.”  The endpoint would be a ““rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents.”

The proportion of people living in extreme poverty in Cote d’Ivoire is about the same as it was when Kaplan wrote, and West Africa remains home to some of the world’s poorest countries and most fragile states. The article’s warnings over the potential for climate change to harm developing countries were prescient. Nonetheless, the piece as a whole reads more than somewhat alarmist when compared to what we have witnessed over the past quarter century, and a number of trends in the quality of life are heading in precisely the opposite direction from Kaplan’s predictions.

Take his forecasts of famine: “Thomas Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday... is now the prophet of West Africa's future... Africa faces cataclysms that could make the Ethiopian and Somalian famines pale in comparison.”  In fact, famines are increasingly rare—in the 1960s, nearly 17 million people worldwide died in a famine. In the 1990s the number was 1.5 million, and between 2010-16 about 255,000. In a world of global food abundance and trade, any famine death is a war crime, and those quarter of a million deaths are a moral stain. But the trend has not been towards “demographic doomsday.” 

In fact, despite continued population growth, incomes have been climbing rapidly. In 1993, the year before Kaplan’s essay, 34 percent of planet lived in extreme poverty, under $1.90 a day. Today that proportion is under 10 percent. Africa, too, has seen progress: the proportion was 59 percent in 1993 and 41 percent in 2015. The period since 1990 is the first since the 1950s when poorer countries actually grew more rapidly than rich ones.

Here is Kaplan on infection: “a more impenetrable boundary is being erected that threatens to isolate the continent as a whole: the wall of disease.”  In fact, that boundary has been dissolving–global causes of death are converging towards non-infectious conditions like cancer and heart disease. Malaria deaths in Africa have about halved since 2000. The decline of infection has slashed child mortality in particular across the developing world. When Kaplan was writing Nigerian life expectancy was 46 years, now it is 53 years. That is still far lower than rich countries or than it should be, but the fact is that infectious risk is dropping.

Regarding violence, Kaplan stated that “the question is not whether there will be war (there will be a lot of it) but what kind of war. And who will fight whom?” There were about 15,000 battle-related deaths in Africa in 1993; that fell to 9,000 in 2016. The world total is higher today than in 1993 because of the war in Syria. But while 87,000 battle-related deaths worldwide is a tragedy it remains a fraction of the deaths that we saw during the Cold War. And global homicide rates are also down.

On state collapse, the list of countries Kaplan saw set for dissolution includes Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and China. There have certainly been cases of rising regional pressure for independence or greater autonomy since the 1990s—from Kurdistan to Scotland. But none of those countries have broken apart, and South Sudan is the only new member of the United Nations in the past 10 years. The centrifugal forces behind state breakup appear to be considerably less powerful than “The Coming Anarchy” predicted.

While the article suggests the rich world will be comparatively robust to Malthusian challenges and state collapse, Kaplan was hardly sanguine about its prospects, either. Canada was another country headed for dissolution, and the United States was already in decline: “During the 1960s, as is now clear, America began a slow but unmistakable process of transformation. The signs hardly need belaboring: racial polarity, educational dysfunction, social fragmentation of many and various kinds.”

Once again, the evidence doesn’t fit. Not least, the idea that the 1950s saw racial harmony is hard to reconcile with Jim Crow. In 1958, only four percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage according to Gallup polling. Today that figure has reached 87 percent. Meanwhile average test scores from national assessments aren’t a lot higher than in 1970, but the trend is upward—to say nothing of college graduation rates. The US homicide rate was above 9 per 100,000 when Kaplan wrote, now it is below 5 per 100,000. And while both economic inequality and political polarization may have worsened, the country as a whole has moved toward greater acceptance of equality on a range of important dimensions—not least between racial and ethnic groups, genders, and people of different sexual orientation.

Back to the present

Of course the last US Presidential election saw the victory of a candidate who played on racial grievance during the campaign. But the exit polls suggest his supporters skew old—they represent the past, not the future. The same is true of Trump’s views of the world outside the United States, which echo Kaplan’s (paraphrased): Mexico is a hotbed of drug dealers, criminals, and rapists; African countries, El Salvador, and Haiti are “shit holes.”    

Still, that coincidence of views demonstrates the dangers of apocalyptic travel writing: it encourages the nativists and the isolationists. If the rest of the world is going to hell, the best response is to turn away from it, to lock it out.

In fact, the developing world has never been as prosperous, or as peaceful, healthy, and educated as it is now. The opportunities for mutual gains through the movement of goods, people, and ideas have never been greater. And that means the costs of embracing Kaplan’s inaccurate narrative of collapse have never been higher. Both America and the rest of the world will suffer if misplaced fear of global anarchy leads us to build walls when we should be tearing them down.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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