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A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy
By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 1997, 496 pages

Part travel writing and part political reportage, The Ends of the Earth is a vivid and disturbing chronicle of Robert Kaplan's journey through a significant part of the third world in search of what he describes as "a paradigm for understanding the world in the early decades of the twenty-first century." The book grew out of an influential 1994 cover story in The Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Coming Anarchy" in which Kaplan argued that West Africa today can be seen a microcosm of the future, dominated as it is by the breakup of nation-states, epidemic crime, the spread of new infectious diseases, and unprecedented destruction of the natural environment.

Here he expands his coverage to include not only West Africa, but Egypt, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India, and parts of Southeast Asia. These are the areas where 90 to 95 percent of all births are taking place today, Kaplan points out, and where the most intractable social, political, and environmental conflicts are being played out at the dawn of the 21st century. While we tend to casually refer to these places as the "ends of the earth," they will play an increasingly central role in shaping international events in coming decades, according to Kaplan. These are the trouble spots where the most important struggles of the coming century are likely to be won and lost.

The long-range future may be bright, Kaplan observes, but the next few decades are likely to be tumultuous in much of the developing world. His forecast is based chiefly on the argument that population growth, migration, environmental degradation, growing economic disparities, and other forces are conspiring to overwhelm poor states, particularly those defined by an outdated political geography. The collapse of nation-states in turn is causing ethnic identities to reassert themselves — often, as he notes, in places where the collision of rapid urbanization and weak social infrastructure has already made matters incendiary. This is happening at such speed, he writes, that "the only really accurate map is one in constant motion," a sort of "weather map" charting identity and conflict.

While people in the West tend to speak of the future in terms of the Internet, satellite TV, and the burgeoning global economy, many of the places Kaplan visits lack electricity, telephones, and plumbing. Thirty percent of the world's inhabitants have no access to any health care whatsoever, he points out. Fifty percent have no toilet to use. In a particularly graphic illustration of these disparities, he describes television antennas rising from mudhuts to "allow the poor to see how the rich live." It is as if one part of world were going in one direction, while a large swath of humanity were going in another. Population pressures, catastrophic poverty, rampant plagues, environmental destruction, unfettered trade in addictive drugs, and cultural dysfunction mean that some parts of the developing world may never be able to catch up.

Kaplan sees the greatest hope for those countries and regions with deep and stabilizing reserves of tradition, culture, and belief, where some degree of social capital and civil society have been established. But he is careful not to draw any quick conclusions, citing the example of Cambodia, a tradition-rich society which nevertheless succumbed to anarchy and political violence during the 1970s.

Kaplan eschews systematic political analysis or grand theories, always mindful, as he puts it, of "how culture, politics, geography, history, and economics [are] inextricable." In his view, it is our very reliance on outdated theories and simplistic models of political order that have kept us from appreciating the magnitude of the challenges facing the third world today. He believes that America cannot afford to retreat into a cozy isolationism. "Many of the problems I saw around the world — poverty, the collapse of cities, porous borders, cultural and racial strife, growing economic disparities, weakening nation-states — are problems for Americans to think about. I thought of America everywhere I looked. We cannot escape from a more populous, interconnected world of crumbling borders."

All the same, he concludes, we must beware of quick fixes and the belief, still widespread in international development circles, "that a global elite like the UN can engineer reality from above.... Only in a few cases will an organization like the UN make a truly pivotal difference."

Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.