Robert D. Kaplan

The Coming Anarchy

  • This summary of The Coming Anarchy includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Coming Anarchy Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Coming Anarchy by Robert D. Kaplan.

The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000) by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan is based on an influential magazine article he wrote in 1994 for The Atlantic Monthly. The thesis of both the book and the article is that the post-Cold War period will not herald an era of unprecedented global peace as many commentators expect. Rather, Kaplan argues that the weakened powers of the nation-state in the wake of the Cold War will make most countries ill-suited to tackle the problems of the future, chief among them environmental scarcity. When Kaplan’s article was first published, U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly recommended it to members of his staff.

To diagnose the problems facing the post-Cold War global structure, Kaplan focuses heavily on West Africa. “West Africa is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger,” he writes. “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.” In Sierra Leone, for example, the government has lost control of wide swaths of the countryside. The situation is similar in neighboring Guinea, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast, the borders of which have become porous to the point of becoming meaningless, and it has made “functional sovereignty” impossible for these countries. The primacy of tribal and regional domains over central governments have caused these countries to revert to pre-modern chaos that can do little to maintain schools and bridges, let alone stop the spread of deadly diseases and warlords, Kaplan argues.

Kaplan goes on to list the chief calamities that stand to wreck the world over the next fifty years, listing them in order of the threat each poses, starting with the largest threat, “environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war.” For Kaplan, the environment is “the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.” Resource scarcity and rising sea levels in already-overcrowded areas will lead to mass migrations within and across borders, inciting violent conflicts between disparate groups all over the world. On a broader geopolitical scale, Kaplan quotes the political scientist Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon who identifies Indonesia, Brazil, and Nigeria as countries at risk of becoming increasingly aggressive on the world stage, because they are countries with comparatively strong military strength that are also poised to face resource shortages.

Kaplan moves on to discuss the second major challenge the world will face: cultural and racial clash. Here, he quotes extensively from Samuel P. Huntington’s landmark essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Throughout the twentieth century, Huntington argues, the world’s chief conflicts have evolved from ones that exist between nation-states and ones that exist between ideologies to, finally, conflicts between different cultures, often those living in the same country. “As refugee flows increase,” Kaplan writes, “and as peasants continue migrating to cities around the world—turning them into sprawling villages—national borders will mean less, even as more power will fall into the hands of less educated, less sophisticated groups. In the eyes of these uneducated but newly empowered millions, the real borders are the most tangible and intractable ones: those of culture and tribe.”

Kaplan also discusses what he calls “the lies of geography.” Maps, he says, don’t show slums or territories where state control has been all but ceded to guerrillas and organized crime. Borders, as they appear on world maps, are a strictly Western construct informed by colonial thinking that sought to “count” the rest of the world so the leaders of Western empires might fool themselves into believing they are in control. Relying on maps for our belief in world stability disregards various stateless people like the Kurds, who effectively control the border between Iran and Turkey despite officially belonging to neither country. Stateless people, he adds, are in a unique position to destabilize various nation-states as they exist on maps.

Finally, Kaplan addresses what he calls “A New Kind of War.” By this, the author isn’t talking about tactics or technologies but motivations: “A large number of people on this planet, to whom the comfort and stability of a middle-class life is utterly unknown, find war and a barracks existence a step up rather than a step down.” Fighting, he says, is not a means but an end in itself for these people. As for who will fight whom and how, Kaplan finds the Thirty Years War fought in Europe between 1618 and 1648 to be highly instructive. During that conflict, dozens of factions aligned only loosely by politics or religion fought one another resulting in the deaths of eight million people, many of whom were non-combatants killed by mercenary soldiers. The result was an extremely dispiriting calamity in which “war” and “crime” became indistinguishable from one another.

Although much of The Coming Anarchy is outdated—particularly in the ways Kaplan could not have predicted the rise of global digital communication—his warnings are still highly resonant.