Things Fall Apart, Review of Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

September 1, 1996 Topics: Society Tags: Bosnian WarYugoslaviaIslamSerbs

Things Fall Apart, Review of Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

Mini Teaser: Kaplan has interesting things to say about what it is like to travel by public conveyances and rub shoulders with ordinary, common people in some of the earth's poorest and most stressful human environments.

by Author(s): William McNeill

Review of Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 1996).

Intrepid traveler as he is, Robert D. Kaplan wrote his latest book, The Ends of the Earth, to report on an "unsentimental journey" through parts of West Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. His plan was to "see the present in terms of the future", thus folding "international studies into a travelogue." Ominous forebodings of nasty things to come haunted him throughout his trip, but he also came to recognize "that all my 'answers' might eventually be proven wrong." Perhaps so, but along the way he has interesting things to say about what it is like to travel by public conveyances and rub shoulders with ordinary, common people in some of the earth's poorest and most stressful human environments.

Kaplan sets the tone of the book in its very first words, as he reports on West Africa: "'The thieves are very violent here. . . .' warned the Liberian woman in fine, lilting English. Night had fallen. My protectress gripped my arm, then walked me to the hotel. . . . The little feet of a baby, wrapped snugly around her back, bobbed at her sides." The woman had fled from violence in her homeland to the comparative safety of the Ivory Coast, where, Kaplan informs us, no less than three-quarters of the capital city's inhabitants and half of the entire country's population have come from beyond the country's frontiers.

The flow of peoples across political borders is, indeed, one of Kaplan's principal themes, matched by his emphasis on the decay of the state as the real authority over actual human communities. "It was in Sierra Leone", he says, "that I first considered the possibility that just as states and their governments were meaning less and less, the distinctions between states and armies, armies and civilians, and armies and criminal gangs were also weakening." After all, as a diplomat informed him, "The police have no gas for their vehicles. The government of Sierra Leone has no writ after dark."

When Kaplan begins his journey, he is inclined to believe that geography and culture explain most of what he sees. For example, he attributes the extreme violence prevailing in Liberia (which he could not visit for political reasons) to "the wettest, densest forest in tropical Africa" and the disruption of its "forest culture: a land of spirits" brought on by population growth, migration to coastal cities, and "erosion of customs and values." Insofar as traditional values do hang on, they obstruct the economic changes needed to keep up with population growth. "It is dangerous to save anything", one of his informants remarks, "because everything must immediately be shared. The African social system works to level everybody down to the same standard. It is a system that works against ambition." Kaplan concludes, despairingly, that West Africa is reverting to violent and chaotic localism. "Instead of reconstituted tribal kingdoms modeled on the past", he writes, "what was emerging were neo-primitive shanty domains."

In North Africa, by contrast, as an anonymous West African politician explains to him, "Islam provides a social anchor of education and indoctrination." But when Kaplan visits the Islamic lands of Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Pakistan he finds that politicized Islam is also prone to destabilize existing states and governments, even when, as in Iran and Pakistan, Muslim religious identity and commitment are official, part of the panoply of the state. In all these countries, he concludes, "Islamic extremism is the psychological defense mechanism of urbanized peasants threatened with the loss of tradition." This gives much needed meaning to private life, and in Turkey Kaplan finds that "Islam filled the gap evacuated by a political establishment that could not keep up with the changes overtaking a society in the midst of upheaval." As a result, "the ideals of community and self-help were being reinvented by newly settled migrants" whose search for a better life had once again made Istanbul into the largest city of Europe.

In Egypt, officially persecuted Islamic extremists attract widespread support for the same reason: they focus on the grassroots community level. But neither they nor Hosni Mubarak's oppressive government can cope with environmental problems created by the rapidly growing population and unsustainable new methods of irrigation. These methods were introduced when basin irrigation, which had kept Egypt's fields fertile for millennia, was abandoned after the Aswan High Dam was finished in 1970. The new style of irrigation uses special channels to distribute Nile water over a much enlarged area. But instead of draining surplus water off onto adjacent fields, as before, smaller amounts of the life-giving water are now allowed to sink in and evaporate, leaving salt behind. In addition, the silt that used to fertilize Egypt's fields each year is now piling up behind the Aswan Dam. Chemicals can substitute, but add a new cost to agriculture. The result, according to Kaplan, is a ticking time bomb. "Almost all of Egypt's irrigated land is now on the verge of being 'salt affected.' As much as 10 percent of Egypt's agricultural production may be lost each year to deteriorating soil fertility."

The political augury Kaplan derives from his encounters with Egyptians is almost as dismal as his forecast for West Africa. "A political era marked by scarcer resources, increased cultural sensitivity, unregulated urbanization and refugee migrations is an era divinely created for the spread and intensification of Islam, already the world's fastest growing religion." The choice for Egypt is to replace "a dying socialist kleptocracy" either with immediate and violent political fragmentation (as in West Africa), or with an intensified Islamic despotism, since real democracy in Egypt "could lead to chaos." Yet Kaplan does not think such a despotism would find "answers to humanity's struggle with the environment", and when that becomes clear such a government "would die slowly. . . . The Nile Valley is geographically friendly to a cohesive state. But a few decades of semi-anarchy would not be unprecedented in Egypt's long history; nor would a tyranny far, far worse than that of the late twentieth-century Nasserist pharaohs."

When he gets to Anatolia, Iran, former-Soviet Turkestan, and Chinese Turkestan (or Sinkiang), Kaplan encounters a different and more hope-filled, yet no less turbulent, part of the Islamic world. More than half of his book, in fact, is devoted to the complex cultural and economic encounters now underway among Turks, Iranians, Russians, and Chinese, with Armenians, Kurds, Afghans, and the diverse peoples of the Caucasus region thrown in for good measure. He knows a lot more about this part of the world than he does about the other lands he visits, and he brings an impressive historical understanding to bear on the variegated scenes that pass before his eyes.

As always, Kaplan tries to detect the solidarities that unite, and the hostilities that divide, the populations he visits. He regards existing state boundaries as evanescent and artificial because vanished empires and ancient cultural patterns influence human reality more pervasively than today's administrative accidents. For example, he views the rich and complex ethnic tapestry of these lands as the outcome of a millennial struggle between Iran and Turan. Beginning as a simple conflict between farmers and nomads, repeated migrations and conquests have now created ugly, overgrown cities, where ethnically diverse migrants from the countryside try, with scant success, to maintain village solidarities in urban contexts. This unstable ethnic mix confronts growing water shortages and the rapid salinization of irrigated fields, especially in the river basins that flow into the Aral Sea. In addition, vast oil reserves around and under the Caspian Sea contribute an inflammatory element to the geopolitics of the region. Russia, Iran, and Turkey each has a plan for constructing a pipeline through its territory so as to control the delivery of Caspian oil to world markets, and American oil companies have recently started negotiations for access to these oil fields as well.

As always, Kaplan is alert to signs of governmental breakdown. For example, the revolutionary regime Khomeini instituted in 1979 "is far more flexible and chaotic than the Iran of the Pahlevis", with the result, he says, that "the borders . . . between Iran and former Soviet Turkmenistan in the northeast and between Iran and Afghanistan in the east are porous and bristling with trade and the movement of peoples. Persia thus expands as its central government weakens and Turkic races renew their historic infiltration of the Iranian plateau."

As the Islamic revolution slowly wears itself out in Iran, Kaplan suggests that the emergence of "a murky world of deals and mutual favors where written laws had yet to be invented" may foreshadow "the implosion of political Islam and the rise of the Islamic bazaar state." Overall, Kaplan believes that "Turkic culture (secular and based on languages adopting a Latin script) is battling Iranian culture (religiously militant as defined by the Tehran clergy, and wed to an Arabic script) across Central Asia and the Caucasus." But there is another trend as well, for Turks are also "identifying themselves increasingly as Moslems, betrayed by a West that for several years did so little to help besieged Moslems in Bosnia and which attacks Turkish Moslems in the streets of Germany."

When he crosses the Chinese border into Sinkiang, Kaplan encounters unmistakable signs of a far more powerful, centralized state than he has met before. But he remains unconvinced even of China's political stability, pointing to population pressures and the all too familiar phenomenon of disastrous salting of fertile soil on newly-irrigated land. Moreover, "Though Turkic and other minorities account for roughly 6 percent of China's population, they occupy over half of China's land area." Or at least they did until very recently, for as he also points out, "The real demographic story in Sinkiang was the Chinese, whose numbers had grown from about 240,000 in 1948 to 5.4 million in l986." Urumqi, the capital, is a bustling city with a million inhabitants, four-fifths of whom were Chinese newcomers. Its "department stores with crowded shelves, reminiscent of 1950s America, and hard-angled skyscrapers" rose from "a baked desert plateau in Chinese Turkestan, without enough ground water to sustain the growing population." Despite such outward signs of recent success for the Chinese, Kaplan suggests that "Regional warlord-business elite alliances could reshape China as they have in the past. At the same time, the breakup of the Soviet Union has led . . . the two parts of Turkestan [to] begin to unify, de facto." And, after noting a Canadian geographer's prediction that Turkestan and China will not remain the same on the map, he concludes his reflection by asserting, "It is in Central Asia, I suggest, that the political eruptions emanating from Iran, China and the Indian subcontinent will usually spill over."

To map the relevant "political eruptions" of the future, Kaplan travels down a precipitous, newly-opened road over the Pamirs connecting China with Pakistan. On arriving in the Indus River plains he finds Pakistan to be "a decomposing polity based more on criminal activities than on effective government." All the familiar factors--rapid population growth, intensive irrigation and resultant salting, together with complex ethnic frictions--make for chaos.

"The finely cut 'map-maker' borders between the ex-Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are gradually being replaced by a Turkic world, a Persianized world, a Pathan world, and a Punjabi world meeting and shading into one another. Afghanistan is becoming a memory and Pakistan could yet devolve into what the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica called the 'lesser frontier states'. . . . What we are increasingly seeing in Central Asia is the weakening of conventional states and relative strengthening of what geographers and ethnographers call 'ecoregions' or 'bioregions': specific landscapes . . . which for centuries have nurtured specific ethnic groups. Simply stated: Whatever can be managed at the local level will be."

Kaplan comes to the same conclusion about India. Here, however, he finds a ray of hope during a visit to a small southern valley where local leaders acting on the principle that "ecological renewal is essential to cultural renewal" had reforested a desolate, overgrazed landscape, created a school for village children, and converted the Rishi Valley into "a big organic farm carrying out a 'post-Green Revolution' revolution by reinvesting money raised by sale of its own produce." The achievement was the work of followers of an Indian sage, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), whose ideas about human responsibility for cherishing the earth inspired a handful of refugees from Madras to establish a school for children from upper class urban families in the valley where Krishnamurti was born. This in turn became the base for reorganizing the landscape when initial small-scale practical successes with reforestation and water management helped the school's leaders win active cooperation from local villagers. On the strength of this demonstration of how to overcome environmental degradation, Kaplan concludes that "wealth creation is more a matter of culture than of politics."

When he finally gets to Cambodia, Kaplan is suddenly baffled:

"I had assumed that the random crime and social chaos of West Africa was the result of an already fragile cultural base . . . coming further undone as a consequence of rapid population growth and urbanization. But here I was in the heart of Buddhist-Confucian Southeast Asia, in a land where the written script was one thousand two hundred years old, and every surrounding country was in some stage of impressive economic growth. Yet Cambodia was eerily similar to Sierra Leone: with random crime, mosquito-borne disease, a government army that was more like a mob, and a countryside that was ungovernable because of guerrilla insurgents."

His laboriously achieved insight that cultural heritage was the main determinant of local capability for creating wealth thus came a cropper. Rather engagingly, he confesses, "The effect of culture was more a mystery to me near the end of my planetary journey than at its beginning."

Accordingly, it seems, Kaplan concludes with a muted trumpet call. What is happening in the countries he visited must concern all Americans. "I thought of America everywhere I looked. We cannot escape from a more populous, interconnected world of crumbling borders. . . . But I would be unfaithful to my experience if I thought we had a general solution to these problems. We are not in control. . . . Foreign aid will make less and less difference in coming decades. . . . People will either solve or alleviate their problems at the local level, as in Rishi Valley, or they won't." He sums up what he had learned by remarking on the very last page: "No one can foresee the precise direction of history, and no nation or people is safe from its wrath."

I heartily agree that we do not control what is going on in the world. Unforeseen consequences of our own actions, not to speak of those of nature, dominate human lives, and have always done so. What is new today is our increased power to alter natural processes, upsetting older balances globally as well as locally. Largely because of our enhanced power over nature, drastic change--political, cultural, ecological, and epidemiological--is rapid, irresistible, and quite definitely out of control. Kaplan makes vivid for his readers how harshly current changes can impinge on some poor and crowded parts of the earth.

On the other hand, Kaplan does not persuade me that local self-help of the kind he stumbled upon in the Rishi Valley is a cure for what ails the world. Even if new, gentler ways of treating the landscape satisfy the local inhabitants as thoroughly as Kaplan says, jealous or greedy outsiders can quickly destroy what decades of hard work have accomplished. Lasting solutions require a political regime that can prevent destructive violence, yet Kaplan sees nothing but political breakdown wherever he looks.

It seems to me one could argue the opposite, that the need for effective government actually increases in a turbulent world. Brutal violence can indeed destroy whole populations, and has often done so in times past. But political chaos of the sort that now prevails in Liberia cannot long be borne. Violence always runs its course, and effective government resumes, presumably--if modern communications have not been wiped out--in a manner even more powerful than before.

In general, in unstable situations the weaknesses of centralized authority that Kaplan emphasizes so much are soon countered by an intensified need for security, and it is not clear how the actual balance will tip, even in the worst governed states he has visited. Uninhibited local violence is simply too costly for anyone to want. Such a regime is therefore unlikely to last very long. After all, struggles among local gangs can rapidly turn into an effective monopoly of violence when one gang prevails. And as long as the existing state framework retains even a shadowy legitimacy, it sets a boundary for local tyrannies that is difficult to cross, for the apparatus of international peacekeeping frowns on cross-border aggression far more effectively than on internal fighting.

States, even tatterdemalion ones, are a lot tougher--and more necessary--than Kaplan thinks they are. His emphasis on population growth, runaway urbanization, and cultural and ecological disruption is worth pondering. But his account of the places he has visited and of the people he has met along the way offer a more heartening glimpse of human resilience under the duress of drastic change than he likes to admit.

Essay Types: Book Review