The Anarchy That Came

October 21, 2018 Topic: Global Governance Region: Africa Tags: WarAnarchyAfricaPoliticsTribalism

The Anarchy That Came

What I said was provocative, or at least deemed to be, by complacent champions of globalization.

My take was that Turkish geopolitical power would grow in coordination with a rising Islamic identity. At the time, Turkey had been a secular republic for sixty years already. The idea that Turkey would emerge as an Islamic power—with a religious, authoritarian firebrand in control—was not on the horizon in 1994. As I wrote then:

Islam’s very militancy makes it attractive to the downtrodden. It is the one religion that is prepared to fight. A political era driven by environmental stress, increased cultural sensitivity, unregulated urbanization, and refugee migrations is an era divinely created for the spread and intensification of Islam . . . 

Moreover, in the course of arguing how maps lie, and how legal borders would become increasingly less meaningful, I stated that the Turkish-Kurdish frontier dispute would eventually become more central to the Middle East than the Israeli-Palestinian one.

“The Coming Anarchy” also focused on how elites would increasingly come to see the natural environment, especially water shortages and soil erosion—in addition to shifts in the earth’s climate itself—as a major foreign policy concern. This was far less obvious in 1994 than it is today. Moreover, I said that future wars would be motivated by communal survival, aggravated in some cases by environmental scarcity. The Middle East’s diminishing water table would never be mentioned in reports of armed conflict, but would operate as a silent indirect factor, nonetheless.

Of course, this was very Malthusian. And few thinkers are as regularly disparaged as Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 wrongly predicted that as population increased, the world would effectively run out of food supplies. However, what critics fail to note about Malthus is that merely by introducing the subject of ecosystems into discussions of contemporary political philosophy, he immeasurably enriched such discussions. Humankind may be nobler than the apes, but we are still biological. Making nature itself part of the argument when it comes to geopolitics is something we owe to Malthus.

I also referred to the work of an Israel-based military historian, Martin van Creveld, to describe a “pre-Westphalian vision of worldwide low-intensity conflict,” in which “technology will be used [by warrior bands] toward primitive ends.” This was twenty years before isis would use the video camera to publicize its beheadings of hostages. Major interstate conflicts like the two world wars were not necessarily in the offing, in my view. Rather, the future would be “bifurcated”—between populations “healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology”—and therefore decidedly optimistic about the human condition; and others condemned to low-level violence and instability in many parts of the globe from which I had reported in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There were also a number of things that I got quite wrong. In particular, I drew too close a link between dissolution in the developing world and instability in the United States and the West. The American political system may now be in trouble, but it is for reasons—like the impact of video and digital technology on politics and society—that have little to do with the factors that I discussed then. Finally, though in almost all cases I wrote specifically about “West Africa” in the essay, it was quite understandable that people would conflate “West Africa” with “Africa” as a whole. But that was wrong. For example, whereas what happened in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire was a consequence of the virtual absence of institutions and authority, the genocide in Rwanda was unconnected to Hobbesian chaos. In fact, Rwanda was the opposite of West Africa. With a tightly organized political and security apparatus, which perpetrated a crime with a distinctive modernist and systematized aura, Rwanda represented the evil possible under a strong state. Indeed, race was an ideological weapon in Rwanda, as it had been in Nazi Germany; in West Africa ideology simply did not exist.

UNSURPRISINGLY, “THE Coming Anarchy” suffered the same fate as other essays and books that have become famous: they are alternately praised and criticized for the wrong reasons. Whenever the headlines are especially dreary anywhere for whatever cause, “The Coming Anarchy” is periodically invoked. Conversely, whenever something good happens, especially in Africa, “The Coming Anarchy” is periodically disparaged. What happened five years, ten years and fifteen years later in the specific places I wrote about has now been forgotten; so too have the details of the essay itself, and thus all that remains is a vague, general impression. For as news cycles become more vivid and intense, they also become more quickly erased from memory, as fresh images replace old ones. Wait long enough and a news cycle will come around that will prove any big idea either wrong or right, depending on the circumstances. Fukuyama’s essay has suffered a similar fate: his nuanced, brilliantly argued thesis has been reduced to a bumper sticker. The truth is, “The Coming Anarchy” accurately captured the beginning of an arc of dissolution and upheaval in significant regions of the world that may now be completed and is thus transforming itself into something new.

Nearly a decade ago, in my book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, I wrote about a whole new cycle of economic development that was just starting to characterize significant tracts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially East Africa, which I included in an emerging Indian Ocean prosperity sphere. In fact, it is becoming more and more superficial to think of Africa as Africa. Globalization is producing more identifiable regions: as the Persian Gulf, India and China have been able to invest increasingly more money in East Africa; as southern Africa attempts to garner more Western investment following the end of the disastrous reign of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and that of Jacob Zuma in South Africa; as the West African sub-region of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia continue to struggle following decades of real and incipient anarchy; and as the vast, often-densely forested tracts of the continent’s interior—far from any coastline and thus less effected by globalization and the outside world—remain trapped in ethnic-tribal disputes and overwhelming underdevelopment, from the Central African Republic and South Sudan clear through the whole of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Modernism has been especially cruel to both West Africa and the wider African interior, where ethnic, tribal and linguistic boundaries “crisscross and overlap, without the neat delineations so much beloved by Western statesmen since the treaties of Westphalia,” observes the French Africa scholar, Gerard Prunier. Here, he says, borders work best as “porous membranes” that are not set in the “cast-iron” lines favored by Western imperialists. “The Coming Anarchy” happened to describe West Africa at a moment when traditional culture was still being shredded by modernism and by modernism’s false boundaries, but before new political and societal forms could take hold.

Yet evolution is inexorable. Technology in particular is not so much defeating geography as shrinking it. This means the geopolitical world is becoming smaller, that much more claustrophobic, and consequently more nervous, with the fate of the West increasingly tied to that of Africa and other places. While Europe’s indigenous population stagnates, Africa’s population could grow from one billion to as much as four billion by the end of the century—and that is even with declining rates of population growth. Nigeria, whose population stands at 200 million, could reach 750 million by then, with concomitant erosion of agricultural soil. Thus, an era of migration from south-to-north may be only just beginning. This at a time, when, as experts suggest, the combined effects of automation, artificial intelligence and so-called 3d printing could make Western companies far less dependent on cheap labor in poor countries, further destabilizing them. Though middle classes are emerging in a number of African countries, that will only empower more people to vote with their feet and migrate. Peasantries rooted in place are far more politically stable than newly literate and empowered masses with rising expectations.


Don’t think even for a moment that economic development, where it does happen, will assuage political upheaval in Africa or anywhere else. In fact, it will only lead to great upheavals of a different kind. As Huntington wrote in his most important book, Political Order in Changing Societies, social and economic change in the developing world creates demands for new institutions and drastic reform of institutions that already do exist, leading to ever more sophisticated forms of political turmoil. An increasingly interconnected world, beset by vast technological change and absolute rises in population in the poorest countries, simply cannot be at peace. This means that I may have been wrong about downplaying major interstate wars as I did, especially given the hardening of military power in authoritarian states like China and Russia. Tumultuous change, both positive and negative—some of it violent and greatly so—must occur. For there will be no night watchman to preserve world order (and the established hierarchies upon which order depends). Of course, that is the very definition of anarchy, as intimated by the late Columbia University political scientist Kenneth Waltz. My vision—then and now—of vast geopolitical disruption is not ultimately pessimistic, but merely historical. n