The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War by Robert Kaplan (Random House, New York, 2000)

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert Kaplan (Random House, New York, 2017)

In the February 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kaplan published a cover story entitled “The Coming Anarchy” about how “resource scarcity, demographic youth bulges, tribalism, sectarianism, crime and disease were and would fray the social and political fabric of significant regions of the earth.” And while social and political prognostication is a dangerously fraught business, Kaplan had done his homework by traveling to West Africa, in particular Sierra Leone, Benin, Guinea and Nigeria, which at the time were torn by some of the conflicts he cites. At the time, North Africa—Algeria, Libya and Egypt, as well as the Greater Middle East, were torn by conflict and infected with strife as well. In his book, “The Coming Anarchy”, a collection of articles including the one upon which the title is based, argued for a twenty-first century fraught with challenges, not excluding challenges to American democracy from dangers within the system. In his new book, “Earning the Rockies”, Kaplan undertakes to revisit these themes, utilizing a “road trip” across America as a fulcrum for observations about American political and social culture, observations which broaden out, in the last chapter titled “Cathay”, into larger conclusions both about the coming anarchy and American democracy in general.

Kaplan’s point of view is that of the Realist. He holds idealism of the Wilson brand in low regard, considering it fundamentally flawed from a practical point of view. He also holds the view that democracy, however it is constituted, is both fragile and rare, subject to disintegration and devolution to autocracy. In the earlier book he writes, “I submit that the democracy we are encouraging in many poor parts of the world is an integral part of the transformation toward new forms of authoritarianism; that democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before, and from obscure sources, and that many future regimes, our specifically, could resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta more than they do the current government in Washington.” Kaplan endorses (or at least recognizes as particularly realist in tone) the view of the Founders about the “nature” of human nature, falling more on the side of Hobbes in this eternal debate. “American founders,” Kaplan wrote then, “were often dismal about the human condition.” Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, still every Athenian assembly would have been a mob Kaplan quotes Madison as having said. Kaplan’s pessimism is sourced also in the failure of democracies to educate citizens—and in particular, the political class, in literature and history, citing the need to read Gibbon and Hobbes, among other skeptical writers.

And how does Kaplan assess his prognostitory powers from a vantage point twenty years on? In “Gaining the Rockies”, Kaplan’s “road trip”—commencing in western Massachusetts and ending in Los Angeles, is often beside the point. The road trip seems rushed and sails along on a sea of clichés based upon fleeting and transitory observations. He veers occasionally off the beaten path, overhearing (supposedly) conversations in bars, restaurants and the lobbies of chain motels, but he doesn’t tarry any place long. Huge chunks of the trip follow the interstate highways. It isn’t surprising that he finds America plastic and uniform, full of obese people talking crap. “Barstow,” Kaplan says, “is in the midst of the Mojave Desert, a cindery wilderness bleak beyond imagining.” Kaplan had used the term “cindery” to describe central Utah as well, so one wonders if Kaplan actually appreciates western landscapes at all. “The one-story tract homes and low-end chains generate the aura of a n archaeological site, as if the town will one day soon be abandoned. Dining out gets no better than Chili’s.” Having been to Barstow many times, and overnighted there often on the way to LA, I can testify to the clear fact that Barstow has a lot of darn good Mexican restaurants. And, at the eastern end of town, just off I-15’s exit, is a fabulous Italian joint on a hill, founded by original Italian railroad workers whose family still runs the place. The food is great, the ambience original and happy, and the service wonderful. Kaplan, drugged by a meaningless journey and probably anxious to get home, missed the boat. And you’d have to be a dolt to imagine that the Mojave Desert is just a “cindery wilderness” (as if something is wrong with a wilderness..). He missed (just off the Interstate) all the ghost towns and mining towns and the fabulous Joshua Tree National Monument, which he probably cruised right by while he pondered his own eastern style boredom.

In other ways, however, “Earning the Rockies” is a fine book. First, forget the road trip, it’s a fraud. But as a powerful examination of the themes of American Exceptionalism and idealism, political humanism in foreign policy, and the current state of international affairs, Kaplan’s judgments and opinions are vital and important. Using Bernard DeVoto’s books—“The Year of Decision, 1846”, “Across the Wide Missouri” and “The Course of Empire”, Kaplan makes real his judgments about American frontier character, some of which have been discredited as out of date in the academic reformulation of Western history over the past forty years or so. Kaplan leans heavily on Gibbon, Paine, Wallace Stegner and George Kennan to create a guidebook to the new twenty-first century political storms.

“My argument”, Kaplan writes (referring to the earlier book), “was that rising populations, particularly in shantytowns on the outskirts of third-world cities, in addition to resource scarcity—the depletion of water and nutrients in the soil for example—did not on their own cause ethnic and sectarian strife, but did aggravate already existent communal divides. That led, in turn, to armed conflict in which the partitions between crime and war—both conventional and unconventional—were breaking down. Yet, as we look around the world with which America must deal in the early twenty-first century and see a plethora of anarchic and quasi-anarchic situations, there are other background factors, very hard to admit, which must now be owned up to.” Some of these are growing nationalistic autocracies, even in Europe and the United States, which now must be added to the sum of our world troubles. Add to these problems, global warming, and Kaplan’s pessimism about our new century seem justified.

As ever, Kaplan insists that American foreign policy be realist.   What he imagines can be done about our lost democracy, he doesn’t say, beyond arguing for more civic education. But as our public education systems are under attack from the Right there appears little cause for present optimism about a world order in which peace, freedom and justice will prevail. If there is any doubt about this proposition, just read a new piece in The New Yorker Magazine entitled “We Have No Choice” by Ben Taub (April 10, 2017) regarding an entire region of Africa from Nigeria, up to Niger, Chad, Algeria, Libya, in which a massive criminal enterprise engages in human smuggling, human and sex trafficking, gun running, drug selling and murder. Organized around anarchy, these enterprises control huge swaths of the Sahel, making them Hell on Earth.


Earning the Rockies