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.

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