The Frighteners

Jeremy Harding

  • The Ends of the Earth by Robert Kaplan
    Macmillan, 476 pp, £10.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 333 64255 4

The world according to Robert Kaplan has arrived in Britain. The Ends of the Earth is a piece of blockbuster journalism by an American reporter/traveller of some influence whose thinking has shaped the way that other people, more influential still – in the White House, the State Department, the United Nations and the international aid agencies – go about their business. The US edition will already be on a few desks here, and despite the fact that much of it reads like a long assignment by a man in a flak-jacket for other men in suits, this relentless survey of the fate of the world circa the millennium looks set for a wider readership. The sooner it is opposed, the better.

The Ends of the Earth is about the global disaster unfolding before our eyes, if only we were not disastrously incapable of seeing it – a jeremiad whose caveats and qualifications, inevitable in a writer of such high seriousness, are made in coy asides. It is also a burial ground of honourable journalism: the kind that runs on curiosity and intelligence, records what it sees and, wrong or right, fades away without much pretension. Kaplan isn’t interested in that. He’s a forecaster: he wants the future and he wants it bad – misery, degradation, over-crowding, demographic segregation by ‘walls of disease’, warring fiefdoms and ethnic retrenchment. The Ends of the Earth is about putting on the frighteners at a time when there is much to fear but more to be said for keeping one’s nerve (as Tom Nairn reminds us elsewhere in this issue).

Kaplan is the author of Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History, which made Clinton’s bedside reading list and was said to have shaped White House thinking, such as it was, about the former Yugoslavia. Three years ago, the Atlantic Monthly ran his famous cover-story, ‘The Coming Anarchy’. It was a lament for the New World Order. The terms of The Ends of the Earth were set out in that piece: population pressure, the death of the nation-state, the self-service style of Third World government, influx into the cities and ‘a pre-Modern formlessness’ in remote, late 20th-century battlefields about which no one cares but the protagonists. Cantering through this slow-motion apocalypse were two new horsemen: environmental degradation and a culture of crime. The article is recycled in the book, with politic changes and elaborations, and the itineraries are much the same.

In Atlantic Monthly, Kaplan swished through Egypt to the Middle East, via Turkey, and across to the Caucasus; he dipped a by-the-by toe in India. Nowhere were his findings encouraging: balkanisation, division upon division, disease, rivalry, violence. ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, the equally famous article which Samuel Huntington published in Foreign Affairs in 1993, was acknowledged, but Kaplan was more intent on his own woeful findings (Egypt, for example, as the likely site of religious upheaval after a ‘truly biblical fashion’; Ivory Coast as ‘an African Yugoslavia’). ‘The Coming Anarchy’ was nonetheless the work of an honest journalist, given to exaggeration, who had been around and was ready to grope in the dark, in haste, in a magazine piece that tried to sketch out the worst of all possible worlds. Within a year of publication, everyone in Britain and the US who worked in Kaplan’s countries had got hold of it. Whatever their reservations, his vision of irreversible hopelessness was hard to shake off. For a time, because it read like a perfect forty-minute documentary treatment, xeroxed copies were also fizzing on the desks of TV editors. The Ends of the Earth comes to Britain with this history.

There were early rumblings from the margins: from scholars, specialists and human rights groups with a more intimate knowledge of West Africa than Kaplan could offer in a lead story for Atlantic Monthly, and from others with longer, first-hand experience of his showcase country, Sierra Leone, where everything that could go to the bad appeared to have done so. At the time of his visit, Sierra Leone was entrenched in military dictatorship. Statistically, it was one of the poorest countries on earth. There was a reciprocal spillage of refugees and militias across the border with Liberia (the site of a ruinous, complex war) and a largely homespun insurgency which turned into another, very Kaplanesque war after his departure. In ‘The Coming Anarchy’, Sierra Leone was the paradigm of a Post-Modern badlands, ‘a microcosm of what is occurring ... throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war’; its future would ‘also be that of most of the rest of the world’.

In Britain, the best objection appeared in a xeroxed paper, datelined ‘Hackney, September 1995’ – not Kaplan territory. The author was Paul Richards, who works in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. Richards accused Kaplan of arguing ‘that there is no political problem worthy of note in Sierra Leone’ and the piece of being ‘poorly researched’. He took Kaplan to be saying that because more and more areas of activity, including military activity, were criminalised, there was no distinguishing political from criminal culture and it troubled him that the political origins of the war in Sierra Leone should be brushed aside.

Richards was unhappy, too, with the idea that demographic pressure had led to the collapse of law and order. ‘This well-resourced country,’ he wrote, ‘is one of Africa’s less likely candidates for neo-Malthusian disaster.’ A glance at recent statistics, post-‘The Coming Anarchy’, suggests that Richards is right. High population growth rates in Sierra Leone at the time of Kaplan’s visit and Richards’s paper (around 2.7 per cent, though Kaplan ventures up to 3.9) have since been averaged out at 2.2 per cent between 1991 and 1995, significantly less than the continental average, which is also decreasing.

It is true that in roughly the same period, two of the main warning indicators about the safety of Sierra Leoneans, food production per capita and infant mortality, show that things have got significantly worse, while a third – debt servicing costs as a percentage of export earnings – has soared from 9.1 to 100 per cent since 1991. But these readings, and particularly the last one, are better understood as consequences, not causes, of the conflict between the military regime and the Revolutionary United Front: between 1991 and 1995, Sierra Leone’s debt rose from 1.3 to 1.4 billion dollars, which could not account for the drastic deterioration in debt service ratio unless exports had plunged – and that is exactly what happened, as rebel activity and an unscrupulous army ate into civilian productive capacity. There is a logic to every catastrophe.

To Kaplan, however, separating cause and effect is chicken-and-egg stuff: he prefers the model of the vicious spiral where all material difficulties are whisked together in a dizzying descent. The result is a roux of awfulness. The Ends of the Earth barely alludes to debt; in the chapters on Africa not at all. The World Bank is invoked, but only for its figures, which show that ‘sub-Saharan Africa has the highest urban growth rate on the planet.’ Yet debt is one of the big predators in Africa, dividing governments from citizens, farmers from their livelihoods, cities from hinterlands and vast numbers of people from access to a modicum of modern health care and literacy. For Kaplan to swan through West Africa – Ivory Coast in particular – with no sense that debt has a bearing on high population growth, high infant mortality rates, unemployment, displacement and the kinds of violence that haunt him looks like carelessness.

There is very little first-hand evidence of violence in this book. Instead, there is a clammy, correlative fear of impending world catastrophe, of the criminal surge, of an encircling gloom, which gives little sense of the difficulties that many people in Kaplan’s countries are already facing. His comparisons with the US, sometimes instructive, sometimes not, quilt each assignation with stark anxieties about home. In Accra, it is safe to walk around after dark, ‘which was not true of ... many American cities’; moving along the Nile also feels safe: ‘Egypt’s is a far more civil society than America’s’; Iran is ‘a society in some ways ... far more civil than my own’.

Kaplan’s victims of outright criminality, indeed many of his informants, tend to be drawn from national or expatriate élites. ‘The Coming Anarchy’ set the tone for this. To support the assertion that ‘the cities of West Africa at night are some of the unsafest places in the world,’ it cites ‘an American man’ in Sierra Leone whose house was burgled (‘they tied him up and stole everything of value’), ‘an Italian ambassador’ in Ivory Coast who was killed by gunfire in a restaurant robbery, and the family of a Nigerian diplomat, ‘tied up and robbed at gunpoint in the ambassador’s residence’. At the same time, there is an irascible told-you-so reaction to paramilitary thuggery, which fails to align us with the people most often prey to it. ‘Anybody who has had experience with Chetniks in Serbia, “technicals” in Somalia, Tontons Macoutes in Haiti, or soldiers in Sierra Leone can tell you, in places where the Western Enlightenment has not penetrated and where there has been mass poverty, people find liberation in violence.’

This is pulling rank, in every sense – as the hardened journo, the student of world decline, the sage returning, after thousands of grimy miles clocked up with an unerring eye for squalor, to a hot shower and ‘a wonderful home environment in which to work’. Replying in the journal Transition, the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah confessed to an ‘elemental distrust of essayists who pull the Western Enlightenment out of their holdall’. In the case of Sierra Leone, doubt and distrust should be redoubled by a cursory knowledge of the country’s history – founded on the gains of abolitionism, its independence fiercely championed in the law courts and assemblies, its political culture nurtured by a stream of eloquent doctors, clerics, teachers, barristers and activists. If Kaplan had returned for the elections last year, he might have seen a little of this history reasserted. He didn’t. His account of Sierra Leone remains a piece of bravura shorthand, uncannily close to the description of his own country attributed to Clemenceau – a place that went ‘from barbarism to degeneration’ without the intervening phase of civilisation.

Like all reporters, Kaplan has several run-ins with the military in Sierra Leone, which endorse his nightmare vision: at road-blocks, for instance, where ragged infantry nudge guns through the car window and stare with ‘swollen, bloodshot, groggy eyes, the eyes of a drug user’. Reporting in volatile parts of Africa is frustrating and intimidating; there is no end of bullying by armed men; almost all of it is memorable and bears repeating. But for the purposes of skirmishing with Kaplan, one very memorable day in Sierra Leone will do fine. Election day, just over a year ago: a big moment for foreign observers, including the press, all of us with dog-eared photocopies of ‘The Coming Anarchy’ grimly carried in bags or pockets like the stuff of minor gastro-intestinal emergency. A critical time, too, for the voters, going to the polls during a war between a forest insurgency, much disliked in the capital, Freetown, and a military regime, no less disliked, whose democratic credentials had been thrust upon it by international pressure. Not all the barracks were thought to favour elections.

It was nonetheless a decisive twelve hours in Freetown, which small packs of journalists spent on the move – in my case, in a serviceable Mercedes, courtesy of Mr Alusine Conteh, Transport Operator, listening to voters and officials, trying to read the mood of the Army and, in the late afternoon, accompanying a journalist from For di People, a scurrilous newspaper equally hostile to soldiers and rebels, as he put together a final election bulletin before going to press. On Circular Road, a parade of Freetown voters was already chanting good riddance to the military – ‘Soja, you go go, soja you go go’ – and as we left the car to walk on Kissy Road in a poor, rather militant neighbourhood of the city, a flash flood of demonstrators, a hundred or more, parted slightly, flowing either side of us: Kaplan, I think, would have called it a mob. Clearly some sections of Freetown thought the election was on course.

So did Conteh’s driver, who was laughing as we made the steep ascent to the hotel at the end of the afternoon, and were drawn up short by a soldier, perhaps seventy yards ahead, in the middle of the road, with his rifle levelled at the car. There was no other traffic; the sun was behind him; only the crudest of intentions was visible in the difficult light. Nothing here of the firearm as a precursor to the pocket calculator or the blade as an incentive to sighs of hypocritical solidarity. This was a more sombre, non-negotiable encounter, the distance between us being too great to sue for terms. The driver’s good spirits turned to anger: it was a blow against the gains of the day and he pressed on, with very adverse reactions, until in the end we prevailed on him to stop.

I admire journalism that is transfixed by these moments and works them into the fabric of things observed, but not as evidence of a relentless anarchy, or of global incivility, or of an Exxon-Valdez-like spillage of ‘testosterone’ on troubled waters. That is all too drastic and unwieldy. Nor do we want to hear it for the indignant foreign observer and his inalienable rights – there are no rights in situations of this kind, only lessons, and they are easily grasped. The first is that back-lit scenes are the least intelligible. Kaplan’s hostile figures are nearly all back-lit, and his thoughts, as a result, are curdled with anxiety. His lighting, moreover, is artificial, an omnipresent effect of uneasiness: in The Ends of the Earth entire countries are back-lit – including Sierra Leone, and of course it soon seems terrifying and unspeakable, which in turn makes it easier for Kaplan to cling onto his craggy overview, with its prophetic foot-holds in demographics, criminality and the ruin of nations.

The second lesson is that what didn’t happen to you, the foreigner, has already happened, or is about to happen, to one or more of the nationals. A half-hearted mortar attack on the head of state’s residence, rumours of a putsch in the offing: at the end of the first day of elections in Freetown, these had made things tense for inhabitants and visitors. But in a brief calm, we crept back into town to see For di People’s Election Special rolling off a thirty-year-old Heidelberg printing machine at the John Love Press, a small works where the centre-spread of an eight-page edition was already flouncing onto the delivery table. (This little engine-room of populist exasperation was another non-Kaplan place.) Paul Kamara, one of the paper’s editors, drove down a while later and stayed for some time. As he left, he was attacked by a group of soldiers. They fired on his car, dragged him from the driver’s seat and shot him in the thigh at close range. Lesson three, perhaps the most important: violence is seldom ‘mindless’. The misfortunes of dissenters can say as much as any population statistics, and should persuade us of Richards’s point that a country like Sierra Leone is not just a listless terrain on which the shadows of enormous forces slant and intersect: local brutalities are highly discriminating. Kamara was in London undergoing round after round of surgery when the civilian government of Sierra Leone was sworn in. The end of military dictatorship may turn out to be a modest, short-lived gain, or it may not. In any case, it would not be a significant change, in Kaplan’s olympian perspective.

Reportage can be informed by scepticism, it can probe, and disbelieve, but in the end it’s a way of going about things that takes the world at its word. It is also a job for madmen, who, unlike the specialists, can’t always see wood for trees. But Kaplan is neither a sceptic nor a terribly attentive traveller – his ideas make him unobservant and keep dragging him away from journalism towards the temptations of the lecture hall. Once he’s out of West Africa (a world closer to Europe, in its Jamesian lack of innocence, than it is to the ‘wonderful home environment’ in Washington), he is no longer so disquieted and in Egypt he begins to calm down. A blunt dialogue with Islam gets going in earnest when he is told (by a US diplomat) that ‘neither the Mubarak Government nor any other in the Arab-Islamic cultural sphere has ever been “secular”.’ And as he heads east, across Anatolia and the Caucasus, an argument unfolds to the effect that in modern political terms Islamic cultures are non-convertible currency: their genius is precisely ‘cultural’ and no attempt to translate this into stable, consensual or benign forms of government that the West would recognise as such has so far succeeded. Later, at Isfahan, inside the Sheikh Lutfullah mosque – whose ornamental richness was thought by Robert Byron to outstrip that of Versailles or the Doge’s Palace – Kaplan sees ‘a frightening beauty’, ‘authority without wisdom or balance’: ‘the calligraphy suggested such an overabundance of the word that language itself seemed to lose meaning ... This dome was yet another lesson in the victory of culture over politics.’

Again, the lines of thought are sweeping; there is hectic ellipsis where one wants exposition, but the stunning notion of a community that can never accede to politics allows him to think of the revolution in Iran, and clerical government, as a travesty of Iranian culture (though far less illiberal or absolutist, he believes, than the Shah’s) and thus to dispatch the idea of Islamicism – or ‘fundamentalism’ – as a long-term threat to Western democracy. The quarrel here is with Samuel Huntington: it began earlier, in Egypt, among the Muslim Brotherhood, where Kaplan found some basis for the view that there might be a ‘civilisation consciousness’ known as Islam – members of the Brotherhood identify ‘more with Muslims in the Balkans than with their Christian neighbours’ – but he could not quite take ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ seriously. In Sultanbeyli, on the fringes of Istanbul, he comes to think of Islam as a kind of makeshift, filling ‘the gap vacated by a political establishment that could not keep up with the changes overtaking a society in the midst of upheaval’. In the Caucasus, and now Iran, he is convinced that Huntington is wrong to see Islam squaring off against Christianity: the real divisions are more specific – not Christian against Muslim, so much as Armenian against Azeri – and emerging alliances, notably between Armenians and Iranians, cut across Huntington’s global realignment.

All this is interesting; and for seventy pages or so, Kaplan guides us through Iran with an obvious sympathy for the culture, profiting from the best encounters in the book. It is the most assured section, largely because he seems happy and engaged where he is. He is chilled by justifications of the Rushdie fatwa and by his conversations with Khomeini’s former bodyguard, who took part in the elimination of the post-revolutionary opposition and is now one of the most powerful people in the country, presiding over the Foundation of the Oppressed, an enormous holding company with 800 different firms, founded on sequestered funds from the Shah’s family. But he is far more engrossed in the contradictions and nuances of Iranian society and in the distinctions to be made between demotic and high Islam, the populist religion of the urban working class and the snatched devotions of the petty bourgeoisie, above all, between the puritanism of the clerics and the liberalism of the upper middle classes, in a country where satellite transmission has made Baywatch the most popular viewing. Iran is the place where Kaplan should have hung up his flak-jacket and told us more.

Instead, he pushes on through Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and China, where his hold on things, and on the reader, is feeble by comparison. Ideas collapse in the reiteration – they can go no further – and journalism shivers helplessly in the bomb-craters of the big thoughts that were once so deafening. Kaplan, meanwhile, is bleary-eyed with travel. The problems of getting through airports and into clean hotels are mistaken for the difficulties faced by entire countries. The coming anarchy has given way to a desultory speculation. In a Bangkok taxi, on wealth creation: ‘it occurred to me that rapid economic development in the Far East was ... partly the outcome of a cultural pattern that could probably spread to Laos and Cambodia, but was less likely to be exportable to India, Central Asia, the Near East and Africa.’ Up country in Cambodia, on aid workers: ‘As I drank Coke with filtered ice cubes, it occurred to me that these people ... were the international army of the future.’ In the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents’ Club, on poverty and prosperity: ‘it occurred to me that Cambodia was moving in both directions simultaneously.’An interest in Bangkok prostitution elicits only one sentence from a prostitute – a girl ‘with a red kerchief ...: “I’m Khmer Rouge, darling. Aren’t they cool!” referring to the Marxist guerrillas who murdered over a million people in Cambodia in the late Seventies’. The story is filled in by an American progamme officer for an Aids control project ‘over dinner one night at a quiet Japanese restaurant’: thirty thousand child prostitutes, but ‘Asian efficiency and adaptability’ give Thailand ‘defence mechanisms against Aids that Africa lacks’. Elsewhere, but it might as well have been here: ‘What a difference geography makes! I thought.’

In defeat, and throughout the book, two rather low-key questions go unaddressed. The first is why we should not be entitled to revise our sense of what is happening to ‘nation-states’ on a case-by-case basis post-1989. ‘Weak’ states and ‘ethnic’ siege mentalities there certainly are – especially in Africa. But since that date, the worst atrocities in the world have been committed in Rwanda, a strong state, while Somalia, a state with a single linguistic identity, has all but ceased to exist; and the two biggest breakthroughs have come not for some writhing newborn ‘Post-Modern’ formation but for ‘national liberation’, in Eritrea and South Africa – a doctrine whose models of citizenship and national identity seemed, everywhere else in Africa, to be lying in ruins.

Second, if the hypothesis of a coming anarchy is even half-correct, and if there are parts of the world where informal and official economies are inextricably bound up, where government resembles crime and crime is an instrument of government, we must be about to see a shrinkage of international lending and aid flows, for the very good reason that there will be no representatives in Kaplan’s transgressor-states with whom lenders and debt-managers can deal and no stability which can justify large-scale transfers of funds. The advocates of higher investment and aid to states in difficulty, like those who wished to see dramatic Western disbursements to the remains of the Soviet Union, would soon be isolated. Multilateral lending and overseas aid allocations are already starting to resemble precision-weapons strikes, but in Kaplan’s 21st century, even smart loans by the World Bank or bilateral lenders would generate unmanageable overheads in monitoring and supervision. At which point, one of the most familiar ways in which ‘sound economies’ and poorer countries have conversed, unequally and often recklessly, for most of this century would begin to break down. Why, then, after all that Robert Kaplan has to say about the coming anarchy, does the end of that vexed conversation still seem such a long way off?