It is cold here, in the middle of the Tennessee mountains where I have come; Christmas vacation for my little boy with grandma and grandpa. The little houses are picture perfect, the mailman knows everybody’s name and the community center is full of old people singing Christmas carols and toasting hot chocolate. Christmas music tinkles everywhere, the mall is full of shoppers.
Little do we know, those of us for whom this hamlet is the whole world, that just beyond the fringes of our consciousness the anarchy came. Little do we know that the wars of the future are already here; fought in borderless ‘buffer zones’ in the third world over dusty patches of ground and desiccated lakes. Tribe, religion, diminishing natural resources; overpopulation and corruption and the collapse of government systems imposed by the technocrats designing for the third world the structures that mirror only what they know, places cold and clean and kind – though they do not know why. Theirs is not history, it is only a vague recognition of how things are, not how they got there: “the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere,” as if that was what brought the prosperity, as Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote.
“The Coming Anarchy” by Robert D. Kaplan is about this. It is a book, written 25 years ago, about what would happen in our post-Cold War world if we as the great superpower, the ‘winner’, did not make policy prescriptions with a dose of humility and realism. The book was written as a warning, a warning which alas went unheeded as we have plunged headlong into mistake after mistake product of hubris and an all-pervading anti-culture which caused us to think of all people as the same. That geography and culture and language do not matter; if only they correctly apply the “packages” designed for them by we the victors. The book is a desperate plea for “progressive conservatism”; for the understanding that rapid change is dangerous and revolutions always bring more harm than they allay.
It is a clarion’s call for an adult foreign policy.
There is much I appreciate about this book. It is rich with understanding that we who live on this wide planet have different cultures and traditions and beliefs. It eloquently captures Kaplan’s critical eye regarding imposed democracy and how foreign assistance can unbalance local communities by empowering the wrong people or introducing a resource too good to pass up which causes conflict (anybody see “The Gods Must Be Crazy”?). And I love his shout out to literature. “Literature, alas, may be the only salvation for the policy elite, because in the guise of fiction a writer can more easily tell the truth.” This after all is why I write fiction.
Finally I don’t think that it is a mystery why Kaplan chose to end his masterful book with Jose Ortega y Gasset. The ‘mass man’, brutally efficient in his technocracy, the absolute master of his miniscule domain who knows (nor cares to know) nothing outside of it; the historyless, cultureless, pastless, futureless entity who can code a computer to perfection or always produce winning returns on your 401k portfolio but cannot tell you which nation played host to the first official Christian religion or why the First World War was far more devastating than the Second. That man is destroying our world. His ignorance, his utopianism, his naïve anti-culture in which the world is ‘progressing’ towards a perfect peaceful supervised society; a broad global cul-de-sac from Marrakech to Mumbai which mirrors his own neat little house in a Portland suburb and where his brief forays into the ‘otherness’ are only to reinforce the world’s pressing need to forget too their pasts and their futures and embrace the constant pleasant comfort of now. This is the man who has prepared the world for “The Coming Anarchy”; an anarchy which has already arrived.