Photo by Drew Hays
Robert D. Kaplan’s February 1994 Atlantic article “The Coming Anarchy” was one of the most influential articles of the years immediately following the Cold War. The subtitle captures the essence of Kaplan’s argument: “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.”
“The Coming Anarchy” is filled with dire predictions that were never realized. Kaplan foresaw the breakup of China, endless battles waged by “re-primitivized man: warrior societies operating at a time of unprecedented resource scarcity and planetary overcrowding” and a kind of global Balkanization in which the “classificatory grid of nation-states is going to be replaced by a jagged-glass pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms.” He anticipated that fixed boundaries between countries would devolve into an “ever-mutating representation of chaos.” “To see the future,” Kaplan writes, “the first step is to look back to the past immediately prior to the birth of modernism—the wars in medieval Europe which began during the Reformation and reached their culmination in the Thirty Years’ War.”
Kaplan predicted that Spanish-speaking Americans would “discover a greater commonality with Mexico City” than with their fellow citizens and replace the “precise U.S.–Mexican border” with a “Latino buffer entity.” He anticipated the “peaceful dissolution of Canada” as “people in Alberta and Montana discover that they have far more in common with each other than they do with Ottawa or Washington.” With all this disintegration would come a glut of violence: “In Abidjan, effectively the capital of the Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast,” he writes, “restaurants have stick- and gun-wielding guards who walk you the fifteen feet or so between your car and the entrance, giving you an eerie taste of what American cities might be like in the future.”
While some of Kaplan’s observations have held up—such as his prediction of the emergence of “loose and shadowy organisms such as Islamic terrorist organizations” and the implications of climate change for international security—“The Coming Anarchy” outlined a terrifying and chaotic future that never materialized. Unsurprisingly, Kaplan also failed to anticipate the long list of remarkable improvements that have taken place in the past quarter century.
Africa loomed particularly large in Kaplan’s analysis. He argued that the continent was a harbinger of what was to come for the rest of the world: “Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.” While Africa has certainly seen its share of horrors since the end of the Cold War (the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, for instance), the continent also made unprecedented gains in health and income in the years after “The Coming Anarchy” was published.
Kaplan expected the developed world to look like the most fragile and fractured states in Africa a quarter of a century after he wrote “The Coming Anarchy,” but he had it backwards: Africa would end up looking more like the developed world. The years after the mid-1990s saw dramatic improvements in health and longevity among Africans. Life expectancy on the continent surged from 52 years in 1994 to over 63 years in 2019, while infant mortality in the 16 countries that comprise West Africa dropped from 18% in 1994 to 7.8% in 2017. This reflected an international trend: in 1990, 12.6 million children died before the age of five worldwide, many from preventable conditions. By 2018, that number was down to 5.3 million.
In “The Coming Anarchy,” Kaplan cites political scientist Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon, who argued that global inequality would only get worse: “Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.”
The rest of the planet hasn’t just been moving in the same direction as the developed world—it has been catching up. While there were 1.85 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1990 (a few years before “The Coming Anarchy” was published), that number had shrunk to 736 million by 2015: from almost 35% to only 10% of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the years between 2008 and 2013 were the first since the industrial revolution to witness a decline in global inequality. Granted, these changes were largely due to rising incomes in huge countries like China and India, but the proportion of Africans living in extreme poverty is far lower than it was in 1994. Inflation-adjusted per capita GDP in Africa increased from $2,870 in 1994 to $4,680 in 2016.
“Most people believe that the political earth since 1989 has undergone immense change,” Kaplan wrote in 1994. “It is minor compared with what is yet to come.” But the anarchy never came. While nobody could describe the past twenty-five years as uneventful, we also haven’t seen anything like the widespread breakup of states, third world collapse or clash of civilizations Kaplan was expecting. Instead, we’ve seen drastic improvements for the most impoverished people on the planet, an explosion in international trade and a trend toward greater integration around the world.
As Covid-19 ravages the global economy, increases tensions between China and the US and forces governments to take unprecedented measures to control its spread, Kaplan has developed another grim theory: “Coronavirus is the historical marker between the first phase of globalization and the second,” he writes. We’re now entering a “new age of decreasing free trade and global cooperation, and rising nationalism and geopolitical rivalry.”
Kaplan argues that “Globalization 2.0 is about separating the globe into great-power blocs with their own burgeoning militaries and separate supply chains, about the rise of autocracies, and about social and class divides that have engendered nativism and populism, coupled with middle-class angst in Western democracies. In sum, it is a story about new and re-emerging global divisions.” While the fact that Kaplan was wrong in 1994 doesn’t mean that he’s wrong today, there are good reasons to doubt his pessimism about the future of globalization.
For example, why should we assume that the upheavals of Globalization 2.0 will be worse than the shocks and crises of Globalization 1.0? Kaplan observes that there has been “overlapping and intermingling between the two phases” of globalization, but this makes it all the more difficult to isolate COVID-19 as a uniquely transformative event or “historical marker.” Couldn’t the new phase of globalization have begun on September 11, 2001? Or during the Great Recession and the European debt crisis? After the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War? Or when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea? How about when the Brexit referendum passed in 2016? Or when President Trump took office? There will always be crises, but the claim that we’re witnessing a fundamental shift in a phenomenon as vast and complicated as globalization requires more evidence than a list of scary-sounding problems.
Kaplan mentions the fact that Covid-19 has “intensified suspicion between an authoritarian regime in China and a populist administration in the US.” While Covid-19 will “further aggravate great power competition” with China, the move from a unipolar post-Cold War world to one in which the United States is in competition with a rising China has long been inevitable. What isn’t inevitable is a “U.S.-China cold war,” which Kaplan says is already underway (though he specifies that he’s using “cold war … in the lower-case sense of the term” without explaining what that means).
Kaplan warns of a potential conflict over the South and East China Seas, but this isn’t a new concern, either. He believes that the United States’ rivalry with China is “starkly different from the straightforward, sepia-toned struggle over ideology that marked the Cold War.” But there was nothing straightforward about a global ideological struggle between two nuclear-armed superpowers that lasted for nearly half a century and almost resulted in nuclear war several times. To the extent that the conflict with China is different, it’s less threatening: China has nowhere near the military strength of the US, its political and economic model isn’t built around the destruction of liberal capitalist democracy and it isn’t interested in exporting that model to the rest of the world. Sure, there could be a confrontation over Taiwan—but would it be as frightening as the Cuban Missile Crisis?
It’s also true that Covid-19 will exacerbate the rise of authoritarianism and xenophobia on both sides of the Atlantic. Several European leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, have adopted draconian emergency powers, which they could continue to exploit after the virus has been brought under control. Covid-19 will also have a significant negative impact on globalization—severed supply chains and increasing nationalism are certainly in our future. The global economic recovery will be arduous and it would be complacent to assume that there won’t be any lasting consequences. But the pandemic is also a powerful reminder that viruses (and many of the other problems we face, such as climate change) don’t respect borders—an argument for stronger international institutions and more cooperation between countries.
In 1994, Kaplan predicted that the world would soon plunge into anarchy, as states fell apart and civilizations clashed. In fact, states spent the following two decades coming together. “The Coming Anarchy” was published two years after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, establishing the modern European Union. Between 1995 and 2013, EU membership grew from 12 countries to 28 (before the United Kingdom left earlier this year). Meanwhile, NATO expanded from 16 countries to 30 over the same period. The value of global exports rose from $4.4 trillion in 1994 to almost $20 trillion by 2018, while the value of exports as a proportion of GDP increased dramatically as well.
These are the tectonic forces that have been shaping the international system for decades, and nothing in Kaplan’s article gives us any reason to believe countries have an interest in fundamentally undermining that system. Globalization is often maligned these days, but its benefits—from trillions of dollars in trade and investment to the free movement of goods and people and the open exchange of ideas—will continue to far outweigh its costs.
Kaplan predicts that the new era of globalization will be a period of “decreasing trade and global cooperation,” “geopolitical upheaval,” the “rise of autocracies,” “social and class divides,” “nativism” and so on.
This bleak picture of the world may seem plausible today—but let’s see how it holds up twenty-five years from now.