Imbalance of Power
Will Anarchy Reign In The Not-So-Distant Future?
By Emil Franzi
The Ends Of The Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage Books). Paper, $15.
THIS IS A scary book--The New York Times writes that Kaplan's is "travel writing from Hell": He writes travel like Breughel paints peasants. This isn't the official State Department tour.
Kaplan has a Pulitzer nomination for his best-selling Balkan Ghosts, an excursion through the former Yugoslavia, and is a regular contributor to several national magazines including the Atlantic Monthly. He has a Tucson connection via several close friends and family members--Jeff Smith and I both spent time with him last fall for his book on the American Southwest.
The Ends of the Earth starts in West Africa and moves through Egypt to Turkey, Iran, and all the "stans" that used to be part of the Soviet Union, then on to China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Southeast Asia. All face similar problems from environmental destruction to overpopulation, and most have governments so corrupt they make even Mexico look pretty good. Many places seem hopeless. But just when the highly descriptive Kaplan has you ready to give up, he finds a place running counter to the trends. There's a wonderful interlude in a reforestation area in India called the Rishi Valley, a glorious place we in the West know little about.
Kaplan travels light, and not very fancy. Bus, car, train--planes only for long hauls and as a last resort. And he doesn't stay in the nice hotels. Some of these countries don't have any nice hotels.
One major question he addresses is what caused the larger social retardation and destruction of local cultures--being part of the former European colonial empires in Africa and parts of Asia, or being part of the former Soviet empire as in Central Asia. Each created artificial boundaries, eliminated inherent cultural props, moved ethnic populations around either forcibly or through economic upheaval, left massive voids behind upon their political disintegration.
Two regions with many similarities are West Africa and Central Asia. Both contain artificial countries created by others, both have massive poverty and tribal strife, and both possess nations that may never be more than gaggles of people semi-controlled by whatever local thug is in charge.
Kaplan makes many brilliant observations, such as that those nations that are geographically rational such as Egypt, India, Iran and Turkey, and that also possess a degree of cultural homogeneity, are better at surviving massive population shifts. He notes the conversion of the big cities of the world to huge villages. Millions of peasants leaving rural Egypt for Cairo doesn't mean Cairo absorbs them. They absorb great parts of Cairo, making it one vast village. The same for Ankara and Delhi and hundreds of other places.
Kaplan points out that fundamental Islam brings both civilizing virtues and orderly behavior as opposed to the Hobbesian "state of nature" present elsewhere, where tribalism is ascendant. He expects a much brighter future for Iran than he does for much of the former Soviet Union.
Kaplan sees centrifugal force, not a New World Order, as the future for most of the world. He expects many nation states, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, to dissolve and break into city states, with the future of a united China as one of the most fragile and interesting questions.
...Maybe those separatist wackos in Texas were ahead of their time.
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