Unsentimental Journey

The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century.
by Robert D. Kaplan.
Random House. 476 pp. $27.50

Robert Kaplan, who has written interestingly on topics ranging from State Department Arabists to Balkan warlords, attracted national attention early in 1995 with the publication of an article in the Atlantic entitled “The Coming Anarchy.” There Kaplan argued that environmental degradation and conflict over scarce resources were producing political and social breakdown throughout the third world, and that the resulting deterioration of institutions, including the nation-state itself, would become a paradigm for much of the post-cold-war world, eventually touching even the United States.

Though the article was much discussed in foreign-policy circles at the time—President Clinton reportedly ordered his national-security staff to consider how to shape a policy around its themes—it was not really a convincing piece of work. Kaplan, it seemed to me, had simply traveled to the most troubled nations in the world—Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, and so forth—and arrived arbitrarily at the judgment that their problems constituted a pattern for the entire globe. His conclusion ignored the fact that large parts of Latin America and Asia were developing rapidly and moving to ever more advanced levels of sociopolitical organization.

The foreign-policy implications that emerged from Kaplan’s paradigm also appeared wrongheaded: rather than seeing political violence as something caused by specific political actors, he placed the blame on impersonal forces like environmental degradation and population growth, about which outside powers could do little. And instead of providing concrete guidelines for where and how America should involve itself in world affairs, his article laid the basis for a universal and inconsequential do-goodism carried out by international agencies around the globe.

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In The Ends of the Earth, Kaplan has returned to the themes of his earlier essay, but he presents them now in a far more nuanced and persuasive manner. In particular, the overarching Malthusianism of the original article has been replaced by a recognition that the driving forces behind third-world problems are not scarcity and environmental limits, but rather a diverse set of cultural problems. He illustrates this proposition in a vividly written memoir of what must have been an exhausting journey, one that took him from West Africa through Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, various points in Central Asia, China, Pakistan, India, and finally to Thailand and the jungles of Cambodia. As a piece of travel literature alone, The Ends of the Earth succeeds in providing a tangible sense of the sweaty, smelly reality of many exotic points on the map, with glimpses of their cruelty but also, occasionally, of beauty and human kindness. As a piece of analysis, it is deeply thought-provoking.

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By far the most interesting and troubling section of the book is its opening chapters on West Africa. The decline in recent decades of what was already the world’s poorest region has been stunning. The per-capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa has been falling almost every year over this period; even by the optimistic assumptions of the World Bank, it would take four decades for the region to return to the level of income it enjoyed in the early 1970’s. In countries like Liberia, Togo, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, not only the state has broken down but so has virtually every other social institution.

Without, I suspect, explicitly intending to do so, Kaplan presents a stinging indictment of African culture. The traditional system of extended families has combined with a degraded version of Islam to produce a pattern in which fathers take multiple wives, produce tens of children, and see leisure as a mark of social status. While the old model of family structure may have functioned with some degree of success in the communal agricultural setting where it originally developed, once transplanted to the urban shantytowns into which millions of African peasants have moved over the past decades it has helped pave the way for disaster.

In contrast to those Asian societies in which extended families form rotating credit associations to funnel capital into small businesses, West Africa seems to feature rotating consumption circles in which relatives and neighbors join together to dissipate savings. Economic dissolution, moreover, has crossed with traditional beliefs to produce a human cataclysm. Kinship ties have disintegrated; parents take no special responsibility for their biological offspring; and children end up raising other children. The result is a world like that of Lord of the Flies, inhabited by lawless bands of armed children and teenagers, too disorganized even to be labeled militias but dangerous enough to make life in cities like Freetown in Sierra Leone and Monrovia in Liberia intolerable.

In “The Coming Anarchy,” Kaplan had suggested that West Africa was typical of the third world. In The Ends of the Earth, he distinguishes the social disintegration there from the situation in other, stronger societies. Some of these societies are also Islamic. In the poorest sections of Ankara, Turkey, for example,

there is no problem of alcoholism. Crime is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are milder versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt. Slums—in the sociological sense—are rare. . . . Here the mortar within and between family groups is strong: It is a civilization with natural muscle tone.

Or here is contemporary Iran,

a society, like Turkey’s, with a strong social mortar, a society that you didn’t need to feel sorry for. Foreign diplomats and aid workers did not sit around in Teheran—as they did in Lagos and Nairobi—exchanging stories about this colleague who was robbed and that colleague who had just installed iron bars over her windows.

This is not to say that Islam’s darker side, in Iran or elsewhere, is slighted in Kaplan’s account. But the cross-cultural comparisons he presents make a strong case for the superiority of religious cultures that are capable of socializing and disciplining populations into families, neighborhoods, and communities. One might also say that the evidence from Kaplan’s book supports Samuel Huntington’s much criticized thesis that for many regions of the world, cultural boundaries are far more important than actual political ones.

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But how does all this affect us? Even if he no longer adheres to the apocalyptic vision of his Atlantic essay, Kaplan still believes that as social breakdown in the third world intensifies, and the disparities between the world’s rich and poor become vastly greater, wealthy powers like the United States will feel the consequences. But for all the passion with which he advances this point, it is never entirely clear why it should be so. Those societies contending with scarcity and environmental limits are, as Kaplan himself shows, suffering from wounds inflicted by their own incompetence or cultural failure. But the sad truth of the matter is that their institutional and political meltdown has not raised so much as a blip on the radar screens of the first world.

The one striking exception involves the black communities described in Kaplan’s unsentimental journey. At least according to his report, their problems—family breakdown, extreme atomization, lack of social structure—are similar in widely disparate places, whether in Africa, Haiti, or the inner cities of America. In Kaplan’s judgment the causes of this failure are once again cultural rather than racial; he explicitly attacks the racist analyses of earlier travelers like Richard Burton. But in buttressing his assertion that dire conditions in the third world can ultimately affect the United States, he points not only to dangers lurking in America’s future but to one haunting its past: “by taking human booty away from the Slave Coast, America had unwittingly begun the process by which the problems of West Africa could one day become its own.”

Whatever one makes of this striking and controversial assertion, it remains the case that in most respects, the West is immune to the really dire sorts of social decay characteristic of the broken societies Kaplan has toured. Of these societies, however, he is an intrepid and unfailingly clear-eyed chronicler, and The Ends of the Earth is a thoroughly engaging book.

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