Robert Kaplan on the Underlying Forces that Drive our "Post-Modern" World

Aug 30, 2016

"To understand the events of the next 50 years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war." Robert Kaplan wrote these prescient words back in 1994. In this fascinating discussion, he analyses how his predictions are playing out and where we are headed.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I'm Randall Pinkston at Carnegie Council. Welcome to an Ethics Matter interview.

Our guest today is Robert Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan has a reputation for accurate predictions. Perhaps the best known was his prediction of war in the Balkans. He is, of course a journalist, a consultant, a best-selling author, and a frequent speaker at the Carnegie Council on a wide range of topics, including America's military might, the nexus between geography and international conflict, and the inherent dangers of democracy in societies which do not have a tradition of democratic institutions.

His book The Ends of the Earth is summarized: "Kaplan travels from West Africa to Southeast Asia to report on a world of disintegrating nation-states, warring nationalities, metastasizing populations, and dwindling resources." In a review, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Kaplan "expertly [weaved] his precise, vivid observation of facts at hand into a larger context of global social change."

Mr. Kaplan, just that review alone suggests that perhaps you don't have too much of an optimistic view of the state of world affairs today. Is that accurate?

ROBERT KAPLAN: No, it's not, actually. Remember, pessimism is good if it's prescient, if it's founded in facts; optimism is good if it's also prescient and founded in facts. Optimism and pessimism are value-neutral. It depends upon the quality of the analysis that goes into it.

I think the world is moving through a phase. If you go back before the Industrial Revolution, between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, you had a period that is called "early modernism." Early modernism was vastly different from modernism. Modernism, which was from the Industrial Revolution onwards, was about strict, straitjacketed ethnic/racial identities, sectarian identities, whereas early modernism was actually much more flexible. It had overlapping identities, often conflicting, often merging.

I think we're passing out of modernism into a postmodern world that has some relationship to early modernism. It's just that the nation-state system that we all labor under is stuck in modernism. It's stuck in this straitjacketed world of ethnic and sectarian identities, and people have been trying to break out of them.

In Europe it has occurred messily but peacefully. In the greater Middle East it has occurred violently. I think whereas Africa went through a period of tremendous violence and turmoil in the later 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, we see higher economic growth rate, we see greater stability.

So I think what I was describing in those years was the middle-term future, how I saw things for the next five or ten years developing. You know, nobody can predict the future, but what you can do is make people somewhat less surprised by what happens in five or ten years. I think I did that. But looking out on a longer horizon, I don't think the situation for humanity is hopeless.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Let me interrupt you with a quote from your book The Coming Anarchy (1994). You say: "To understand the events of the next 50 years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war."

Let's take each one of those. If you could, give us a thumbnail explanation, beginning with environmental scarcity.


Environmental scarcity—what I meant was shortages of water, of nutrients in the soil, of resources, minerals, etc. Nobody goes to war with their neighbor because there's a shortage of water or poor nutrients in the soil. What occurs is these scarcities make already existing ethnic and sectarian cleavages that much worse. So they're background noises to a lot of the violent conflict that we see.

Now, it's true that the rate at which the world's population is growing is slowing down, but in absolute terms we're putting more people on the Earth than ever before. So before the world population stabilizes in the mid-21st century we're going to have a period of extreme environmental scarcity.

This is really one of the untold stories of the Middle East, that a lot of the violence we've seen is in places that have had climate change, shortages of rain, shortages of water, extreme heat, to the degree that they hadn't in previous eras. These are background noises to the violence we saw.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I believe you've also written that most of the world's population growth in the next 50 years—90 percent I do believe—will occur in countries or in parts of the world that are least able to sustain population growth.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes, that's true. In other words, the places with high birth rates, of high population growth rates, are not Sweden and Finland and Japan, which have negative or zero growth rates. They're places like Yemen, the Gaza Strip, parts of Nigeria, etc.

What this gets to is demographic youth bulges. If you want to look at who causes political violence anywhere, it tends to be males between the ages of 15 and 30; in other words, teenage and early adult males. So what you want to look for is what is the population growth of that contingent within a society. When you look at the population growth of that contingent, you see they're in the places that are already fragile and unstable.

RANDALL PINKSTON: The next item you mention that needs to be understood is what you refer to as "cultural and racial clash."

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. Remember, cultural clash is a relative term. I was writing at a time—this was the mid-1990s—when I saw nation-states start to weaken. If national identity weakens, people are thrown back on their other forms of identity, which can be sectarian, cultural, ethnic, regional—whatever. So it's not that people become more aware of their cultures; it's that it's all they've got left as the state identity weakens.

In fact, in the famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Sam Huntington, one thing he writes that most people get wrong about him is that cultural and sectarian clashes are not primordial, they're not age-old; they're part of the very process of modernism itself.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You also say—and hopefully we're going to come back to these topics—that some people find war is a step up and not a step down.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. What I meant was for someone of a middle-class background, who's gone to a nice school, grew up in the suburbs, the idea of suddenly going into basic training and sleeping in an army barracks—well, that's like a step down, that's roughing it—and getting up at 4:00 in the morning, in a structured group, and being yelled at by a drill sergeant, that's nothing to look forward to.

But if you grow up in a village somewhere where there's no food to eat, where there has just been violence and theft and armed robbery and other things, and suddenly you're thrown in a barracks-like situation where there's discipline, where there's order, where there's regular three meals a day, and where they mold you into some sort of a person different than you've been before—the best example of this, of course, is Marine Corps basic training—then it becomes a step up.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Is that mindset in any way connected to the likelihood of cultural and racial clash?

ROBERT KAPLAN: It can be. What we're seeing in so many places, especially in the greater Middle East, and in some places in sub-Saharan Africa, is never-ending war—in other words, war is a way of life almost—wars that never conclude, never get settled; they're low-level insurgencies. So that warfare for young males—and this was written about during the Lebanese Civil War, which went on for 16 years between 1975 and 1991—that rather than go play basketball all day or play soccer, young males became accustomed to just fighting, to being in militia groups. It was their way of life.

Because these groups were often defined by their sectarian identity, their religious identity, their other forms of identity, which were not secular and not tied to the state, the two were connected.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I'm wondering. I just did a little quick math here. That was a 16-year conflict that you just mentioned, which happens to be the same number of years almost that the United States has been involved in Afghanistan.

ROBERT KAPLAN: That's right, yes. So it's interesting then to go back and say, "Why did the Lebanese War suddenly end? What brought it to an end? Was it a peace treaty? Did people get tired of fighting? Was it diplomacy?" No, it was none of those things really. It was really that the Syrians invaded Lebanon and they made the peace in a very violent and physically intimidating way. So the Syrians essentially ended the war by non-democratic means.

RANDALL PINKSTON: What does that portend—if you want to give us your thoughts about this—in Afghanistan?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Well, it's going to be hard for Afghanistan to really truly stabilize, unless there is a strong state or a collection of very strong regional warlords who monopolize the use of force, and by monopolizing the use of force nobody else can use force in the region, and therefore you have a stable environment where business can take hold, commerce can take hold, roads can be built, and you can have some stability.

The money for this may come from mineral extraction, which the Chinese would do, which some of the hydrocarbon-rich nearby Central Asian republics might fund for the sake of a pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. But essentially, someone is going to have to monopolize the use of force, or some group of people, and it's going to take more than just the evolution of a democratic system.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You know, I spent a very brief time in Afghanistan not too, too long ago, really at the outset of America's involvement there. What Afghans told me was that the Taliban had managed to provide them with a period of stability after the Soviets left and after the warring mujahideen warlords had fought each other to a standoff, that it was the Taliban who—

ROBERT KAPLAN: That's true, that's absolutely true, because remember, when the Soviets left around 1989–1990, there was absolute chaos in Afghanistan for a few years.

RANDALL PINKSTON: And the warlords went at it.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Right. The Taliban essentially stabilized the country. This is the mid-1990s now we're talking about.

The problem though, of course, was Taliban rule stabilized the country but it was so suffocating, it was so sterile, it was so autarkic isolationist so to speak, that everyone was miserable even if they were safer.

RANDALL PINKSTON: And yet the Taliban is still around.

ROBERT KAPLAN: They're still around because they emerge out of the landscape. They are Sunni Pashtuns. You know, they're the face of what you might call a Pashtun ethnic nationalism at this point.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Would they be a candidate for monopolizing the force that you indicate would be needed to stabilize—

ROBERT KAPLAN: I don't think so. They could monopolize the use of force over part, or significant parts, of the country but not the whole country because Afghan society has evolved in the last quarter-century. It's more urbanized. It's more sophisticated, with cosmopolitan media. It's a much more complex social environment than the undeveloped agricultural country of the 1980s and 1990s.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Let's get back if we can to the concepts that you have spelled out in The Coming Anarchy. We've talked about environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash. What about geographic density?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. What I mean is people have this idea—and it's the wrong idea—that technology has defeated geography. No, no, no. All the technology—meaning everything from cyber to jet airplanes to new ports and roads—what technology has done is made geography not disappear; it's made it more claustrophobic.

If you think of a planet with more and more people on it, more and more tied together through technology, where every place interacts with every other place like never before, geography doesn't disappear. It just becomes more claustrophobic and more almost impossible to deal with.

So that we're all interconnected; a conflict in Ukraine can affect the conflict in Syria, that can in turn affect the conflict in Europe. And yet, at the same time, when you burrow deep into those conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, in Syria, where refugees are in Europe, you find again the principal issue is geography.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You have talked about the irrelevance of maps when it comes to understanding destabilizing forces. I recall you were specifically talking about West Africa. Now the map lines are vertical, but the cultural/social/ethnic connected lines are horizontal.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. I meant the irrelevance of colonial and political maps, not of maps. Maps are great.


ROBERT KAPLAN: Geography, I like to say, is not the end of a discussion but it's the starting point of any discussion on international affairs.

Yes, West Africa. If you look at the map of West Africa—and I'm trying to make this clear because people can't see a map in the podcast—they're arranged vertically. You have Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast or Côte d'Ivoire, etc., and they're all arranged next to each other like men standing up.

But yet, when you look at a demographic map of the region, rather than vertical it's horizontal, meaning almost everyone in these countries lives along the coast. As you get further away from the coast, the population density diminishes. So that the real human community is horizontal, it's coastal, while the political community is vertical. So that somebody living along the coast in Benin has more in common with someone living along the coast in Togo than they have with people in their own particular country living far north into the borders of the Sahara Desert.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You've said that Africa in some ways represents the future character of world politics, much akin to the way the Balkans was seen a century ago.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. I wrote that in 1994. I used Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire as deliberately exaggerated metaphors for processes that I saw happening. Now, they were most acute in those three West African countries. And indeed, while The Coming Anarchy was published in 1994, all of those countries collapsed by 1999 and 2000 and have been essentially on the mend ever since.

So what were the issues? The issues were weakening state administration, stronger sectarian tribal identities, populations that were becoming too big for the soil and for the water resources to sustain them.

And also, another factor, which was not in that article, which I could add, is the breakdown of earlier forms of the material order, so that in the Middle East we have now the Ottoman Empire is gone, the British and the French are gone, the Soviet empire is gone, the Americans are less influential than they used to be, and the post-imperial strongmen, like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi, are virtually gone too. So there's nothing left. There's a vacuum.

Those were the issues that I was trying to get at while using two or three countries in West Africa in the early/mid-1990s as laboratories.

RANDALL PINKSTON: And now you're saying that the same kind of conditions that existed there are being manifested in what we see as the breakdown of Syria, the situation in Libya?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Well, some of the same conditions, obviously, because every country has its own specific conditions.

Yemen is probably closest to the West African condition, in terms of an extreme environmental scarcity, a geography that separates people into various tribes with very little of a common history or destiny.

Of course, Iraq collapsed because the United States invaded. An interesting thought experiment is, what would have happened had the United States not invaded and the Arab Spring came along in 2011 in Iraq; would Iraq have crumbled like Syria? We don't know.

RANDALL PINKSTON: The next concept, the transformation of war.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. The Coming Anarchy was a long piece, it was 15,000 words, and it had, broadly speaking, three parts. The first part described the conditions in parts of West Africa. The middle part described Turkish slums and how they taught different lessons.

The third part was more broad. Rather than focus on a specific country, it focused on what you just said, the transformation of war. I saw in that article war becoming more criminalized, more irregular, moving away from the organized mass armies of the Industrial Age that started with Napoleon and ended really with World War II and the Korean War, with a few little micro examples afterwards like the 1967 tank battles between Israel and the Arab countries, and going back to an older age of warfare, which was, as I said, more irregular, more guerrilla-oriented, more mixed with crime, the way war had been often in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, and was now going to come back as a force in that way.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You have indicated that—in fact you've just described—von Clausewitz's description of military conflict as being between nation-states is now passé.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. Well, I say that with a caution because we don't know what the future holds. When I see conflict in the South China Sea, tensions between the United States and Russia in the Baltic Sea and in the Black Sea, I don't want to rule out inter-state warfare in the 21st century.


ROBERT KAPLAN: But certainly in the last two decades in the greater Middle East and in some other places, what we've seen is warfare within states themselves, between groups that identify themselves by sect, by religion, by ethnicity, by region, rather than by formalized state identities.

RANDALL PINKSTON: So going from nation-state clashes to ideological clashes to cultural conflict, would that include something like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think it would, actually. Nobody likes to say this, but when you read the whole book, not the article, the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, he more or less got the era we're living in very accurately.

ISIS is what's called a millennial movement. It wants to go back to a lost golden age. Boko Haram is similar, and there are other movements like that. It wants a more purified, ancient form of Islam, which is not tied to national identity, which sort of replaces pan-Arabism and becomes a pan-Islam so to speak.

We see them as extremists. They see themselves as some form of idealists harking back, as I said before, to a lost golden age of Islam, which of course did not exist in the way that they imagine.

RANDALL PINKSTON: What does that suggest for America's political leaders who have to make decisions about how to confront ISIS's threats against America and her allies? What does it suggest?

ROBERT KAPLAN: It means that the United States is going to face a moderately anarchic world in the greater Middle East while at the same time dealing with aggressive large powers in Russia and China.

The United States has more power than any other individual state. But though it has considerable power, it does not have dominating power. It cannot fix the world's problems. It cannot dominate the whole Earth. It has to be very cautious where it chooses to intervene, because in an era of nonstop crises, getting bogged down in one place undermines your performance and your ability to deal with crises in other places because there are going to be more of them.

I think we are going to go back. Despite the fact that in the media you get a lot of praise for being idealistic, I think foreign policy practitioners in order to commit fewer mistakes in the future than we have in the past, and at the same time to be reasonably close to America's ideals, are going to have to be very, very realistic.

I think what people in the elite are looking for—I think this is a consensus—is something more forward than Obama's foreign policy but certainly not as forward as George W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan.

RANDALL PINKSTON: But it does mean—I think I hear you saying this—more boots on the ground?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Not necessarily. To get a bit technical on this, we have to be comfortable operating at lower than the brigade level, at the battalion level. A battalion is 800, 900 men. A brigade is several thousand. A division is like 11,000. I don't think we're going to be putting many divisions, or even brigades, on the ground, barring some catastrophe with Russia or North Korea.

But we will be comfortable putting company-sized and battalion-sized forces here and there to train and equip proxy armies, other groups that are closer to our values than other groups which are not close to our values. In other words, our influence will be indirect, it will be imperfect, but that will be the best we can do.

And of course we will emphasize sea power because having a great navy and air force allows you to project power around the world in peacetime as well as wartime, but without sustaining casualties and without acting in an imperial manner.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I would like to continue this conversation, but I'm being told that our time for this session has come to a close.

Mr. Kaplan, I want to thank you again for sharing your insight and your wisdom on what this country and the world face as we look forward.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you very much.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Thank you, Robert Kaplan.

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