Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Disputing Robert Kaplan's Essay "The Coming Anarchy"

In 1994, journalist Robert D. Kaplan predicted a world, "in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real 'strategic' danger."[i] His essay published in The Atlantic Monthly identified that the scarcity of resources was the primary driving force behind an impending anarchy. Kaplan's prediction was dire. It was also definitive in tone. Kaplan did not parse words when he suggested the world would follow a similarly demising path that West Africa had been following.[ii]Fortunately his predictions failed with time. Consequently, in 2011, Kaplan revised his predictions suggesting that now the future of conflict rests in the South China Sea.[iii] The problem with Kaplan's anarchy prediction is that he generalizes a wide global outcome based on narrow anecdotal cases in point. In doing so his diagnosis fails to address opportunities in innovation, advances in technology, and an international system capable of self-correcting.

Kaplan argues that as populations increase, environmental scarcity will lead to competing demands on those scarce resources. In his view the environment is the preeminent security threat.[iv] There may be an element of truth to that; however, he fails to recognize man's ability to innovate in the face of necessity. Scarcity in the past created such innovations as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Beginning in the early 1990s, the American agriculture industry saw an emergence of GMOs to influence enormous crop yields of corn and soybean.[v] The use of GMOs was in large part due to significant demands placed on the farm industry to yield crops used for energy and for mass-produced consumables. This innovation has been so successful in terms of creating yields that in many cases outputs now far exceed demands.[vi] This example represents the positive dichotomy of man's ability to create rather than conflict to meet critical needs.

This same ingenuity can be seen in modern advances in petroleum discovery, solar technologies, electrical fuel technologies and other advances in energy. Viewed from a more positive lens, one might instead see a world in which states compete on the basis of innovation to deal with potential scarcity challenges. This kind of innovative competition represents a world system moving forward. By not accounting for innovative advances, Kaplan's view represents a more stagnant global system. His view is wrong. Today's internet revolution, for instance, is anything but stagnant.

Criticizing Kaplan for failing, in 1994, to see a looming internet explosion would be somewhat unfair. However, precisely because Kaplan did not account for ongoing technological advances, he failed to see the potential opportunity technology would play in shaping the future. Thomas Friedman characterizes the opportunity as, "the democratization of technology."[vii] In Friedman's view, technology literally and figuratively breaks down walls fostering the integration of ideas. Through technology, states, corporations, and individuals seek new opportunities. Today's evolving internet represents this tearing down of walls in a positive sense.

In 1994 nobody could have predicted the impact social media would have in driving global issues. A simple LexisNexis search of the terms "social media" in all available news sources in 1994 produces only 275 results. Only a handful of those 275 results deal with internet potential. The same search with a 2011 parameter produces so many results that LexisNexis forces the user to refine the search to a point in which 3000 or fewer results can be displayed.[viii] Today we recognize social media as a tremendous balancer in terms of opening the free expression of ideas and even affecting social change. Events throughout the Arab world from 2009 until today demonstrate in some part the unifying effect of social media mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. While Kaplan may not have been able to predict the internet and social media per say, he failed to acknowledge that man possesses a drive for positive change. While his views are characteristic of realist thinking, even from a realist perspective, Kaplan's anarchic theory falls short.

Kaplan is a neo-realist. His lens is one in which dominant power thrives. So, the strong survive. However, as a realist Kaplan does not account for a global system that self-corrects. A strict realist such as Hans J. Morgenthau argues that the international system seeks equilibrium or a balance of power[ix]. Therefore, regardless of the struggle, states eventually achieve a state of balance rather than indefinite imbalance or anarchy.

Kenneth Waltz, also a strict realist, suggests, "As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power."[x] In effect, a global system of criminal anarchy is a system of political vacuum. Realist theory does not accept a system of total disorder. Instead, realism proposes a system that self-corrects in favor of strength. Kaplan holds on to notions of strength but only insomuch as they pertain to individuals' instincts for survival. States' survival demonstrate similar natural instincts that Kaplan fails to address.

For example, Kaplan argued that, "as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot, making more and more places like Nigeria, India, and Brazil ungovernable."[xi]While in 1994 those countries and many others like them displayed signs of serious decline, those states today comprise some of the strongest emerging economic and political powers. Brazil today is arguably Latin America's economic and political superpower. In Asia, India along with China remain the two largest rising global powers. And in West Africa, Nigeria, although fraught with political trouble, remains the West African petroleum powerhouse. What these cases in point indicate is that Kaplan's assessment was shortsighted. He miscalculated general global impacts based on a few personal experiences in Sierra Leone. Kaplan so miscalculated his predictions that he has since recalculated them, narrowing future conflict only to the South China Sea.[xii]

Robert Kaplan's 1994 theory in which he generalizes a broad global anarchy based on narrow examples has not stood the test of time. He failed to recognize the innovativeness of man to overcome challenges. He did not see the potential for a technological revolution in which game-changing technologies such as the internet and social media would shape the global landscape. And, as a realist himself, Kaplan strayed from general realist thought by not accounting for a self-correcting international system. These problems with Kaplan's theory offer instruction for practitioners of international policy. International theory and the policies derived from theorist should be carefully considered. The world is too broad to apply single, narrowly based viewpoints to policy decisions. Practitioners should instead consider more holistically the adaptable nature of man to overcome future challenges.


[i] Kaplan, Robert D. "The Coming Anarchy." The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994: 44-76.
[ii] Kaplan, 1994, p. 46. Specifically he characterized West Africa as "the symbol" of coming anarchy (his emphasis on the).
[iii] Kaplan, Robert D. "The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict." Foreign Policy, September/October 2011: 76-85.
[iv] Kaplan, 1994, p. 58. He again emphasizes "the" to argue that environmental issues will be "the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century".
[v] Rodale, Maria. Organic Manifesto. New York, NY: Rodale Inc., 2010. The preface by Eric Schlosser describes the history of GMOs into American farming as introduce primarily by companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemicals.
[vi] Rodale, 2010, p. 98.
[vii] Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. See pp. 44-47 for Friedman's explanation of how the "democratization of technology" is the driving force behind his theory of globalization.
[viii] The author conducted a LexisNexis Academic power search through the University of Kansas using the specific phrase "social media" and the years 1994 and 2011. Searches were conducted of all available news sources. The 1994 search produced 275 results. Most of those results had nothing to do with the internet. The 2011 search produced so many thousands of results that LexisNexis could only handle displaying results fewer than 3000.
[ix] Morgenthau, Hans J. as cited in Kaufman et al. Understanding International Relations. 2004: 237-287.
[x] Waltz, Kenneth N. as cited in Kaufman et al. Understanding International Relations. 2004: 339-348.
[xi] Kaplan, 1994, p. 54.
[xii] Kaplan, 2011.


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