Sunday 9 February 2014

Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" at twenty

Journalist, travel writer and war enthusiast Robert D. Kaplan's infamous and expansively titled article The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet turned twenty on the first of this month.

Kaplan, writing in his role as Chief Geopolitical Analyst at the 'intelligence provider' Stratfor (they of got-hacked-by-Anonymous fame), reflects on his piece two decades on. He commends his prior foresight, concedes some errors in hindsight and offers some fresh insights into the causes of the "season of anarchy" that we are (allegedly) experiencing at present.

First, and seemingly foremost, "The End of Imperialism":
That's right [yeah, you heard me, liberals! ed.]. Imperialism provided much of Africa, Asia and Latin America with security and administrative order. The Europeans divided the planet into a gridwork of entities -- both artificial and not -- and governed. It may not have been fair, and it may not have been altogether civil, but it provided order. Imperialism, the mainstay of stability for human populations for thousands of years, is now gone.
'And they made the trains run on time,' he doesn't add. (There is an unmistakeable air of disappointment here. It wasn't so long ago that Kaplan was heralding the US Empire as the rightful heir to Rome via Britain, given no choice but to rule the world for the good of all mankind. Kaplan roped in his imperial adventurism a matter of weeks before the election of Barack Obama, acknowledging Iraq as folly and offering an apology of sorts. Wiley pundits anticipate the shifting of the wind...)

The other causes include the weak institutions, "feeble identities" and the demise of post-colonial strongmen. (This last point is deeply ironic given Kaplan's evangelical cheerleading for the Iraq War.)

He also finds much cause for fear in battles over religious doctrine within Islam:
Religion occupies a place in daily life in the Islamic world that the West has not known since the days -- a millennium ago -- when the West was called "Christendom."
('Christendom' as "lands where Christianity is the dominant religion" is only evident from the late 14th century but who's counting?)

It's wrapped up with the obligatory references to Twitter, etc. and a call for greater focus on building strong institutions:
The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.
The apolitical governmentalism evidenced here that is so typical of Kaplan's writing is obnoxious but his call to give more attention to institutions is, I think, valid.

Kaplan may have vigorously propagandised for the Iraq War (and, indeed, been consulted directly by the Bush White House about it) but he never believed that Western-style liberal democracy could be simply parachuted in à la Peter Sloterdijk's deliciously ironic pneumatic parliament. In Iraq Kaplan wanted "a transitional secular dictatorship that unites the merchant classes across sectarian lines and may in time, after the rebuilding of institutions and the economy, lead to a democratic alternative." His wilful ignorance of all history aside (i.e. where does he think Saddam came from? do we need to have The Talk that explains how the US has been installing secular dictators for decades?), he is at least aware that democracy depends upon conditions much deeper and broader than any intrinsic aspiration innate in human nature that only needs to be uncapped by bomb or bullet in order to bloom.

What's the difference between a conservative realist and a neoconservative idealist? Little in practice ‒ they gush, fawn and spite just the same ‒ but it's easy to forget (as a European) how powerful liberal and neoconservative idealisms are in US foreign policy discourse. Realpolitik may have been in the ascendancy under Obama but it is generally seen as being the weaker school of thought in US political circles (though not so amongst military-types). It is against idealism, in the International Relations sense, that Kaplan is often (implicitly) railing.
[...] what is not in dispute is that significant portions of the earth, rather than follow the dictates of Progress and Rationalism, are simply harder and harder to govern, even as there is insufficient evidence of an emerging and widespread civil society.
Indeed. But one must really wonder if there isn't at least the tiniest little gap between the idealism of universalist "Progress and Rationalism" on the one hand and late Victorian geopolitics on the other.  Mightn't there be a meliorist middle sandwiched somewhere between the hateful pessimism of realpolitik and the naïf optimism of idealpolitik?

'If you can't say anything nice then don't say anything at all' ‒ sound advice for much of life but not so much for blogging about neo-imperialist war-mongers like Kaplan. The man is awful, just awful. But, having said that, it's important to see Kaplan as embedded in a political discourse that is by no means dominated by political realists. At least he recognises some of the complexities of the world and his urge to focus on building institutions rather than fixating on abstract, universal ideals is valid.

But small mercies are no saving grace. Kaplan is alternately a nasty, hateful purveyor of geopolitical bile and a clownish pseudo-scholar who isn't sure if Poland is in the EU or not. There's little to recommend him as a human being or as an analyst but he is an unavoidable case study in the power/knowledge economy of US geopolitical discourse over the past quarter of a century.