The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan: A Critique


After the fall of the Soviet Union, several scholars attempted to provide a new paradigm for understanding international relations. Francis Fukuyama argued that after the decline of communism, the humankind had reached an end point in ideological evolution, what he called the End of History.  His thesis was challenged by his teacher Mr. Samuel P. Huntington who asserted that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by the clash of civilizations.  

However, there was another intellectual, Robert D. Kaplan who challenged Francis Fukuyama with a different explanation of the future-  He maintained that rather than peaceful coexistence under a liberal democratic framework, the world is now moving towards Anarchy. Based on his experience of witnessing disintegrating social and political conditions in West African states, he asserted that the post-Cold War would resemble the post-colonial African states witnessing lawlessness, tyranny, environmental degradations etc.

This article summarises his views expressed in a series of 9 articles published during 1994-1998.


The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s produced a wave of optimism throughout the world prompting intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama to declare that History had ended. They believed that after the triumph of capitalism over its arch-rival communism, worldwide growth of parliamentary democracy, capitalistic economy, and free trade would ensure peace and prosperity for all. To them, western democratic capitalism had proved itself to be the best socioeconomic and political framework for human societies to organize themselves.

However, in this euphoria, two intellectuals came forward who challenged Francis Fukuyama with a different explanation of the future-  Huntington and Robert D Kaplan. Huntington believed that History had not ended rather taken a new turn towards the Clash of Civilisations in which groups of countries sharing similar cultural heritage would be fighting against other groups not sharing their cultural heritage.

Another notable was Robert D. Kaplan, also a disbeliever of the End of History thesis. He maintained that rather than peaceful coexistence under a liberal democratic framework, the world is now moving towards Anarchy. To prove his point, he wrote nine essays in magazines between 1994 and 1998. The first and the longest essay, titled The Coming Anarchy, was published in The Atlantic Monthly, which attracted considerable comment.

Main Points

Based on his experience of witnessing disintegrating social and political conditions in West African states, he asserted that the post-colonial African states did not manage themselves well after the British departed. In these countries, he maintains, tyranny is now part and parcel of increasing lawlessness, the crime rate is an all-time high as there is no writ of the state; vigilantes dispense justice on the spot by lynching those caught.

With the breakdown of the traditional family support system, young men join other migrants and slip gradually into the criminal process. The situation is exacerbated by the widespread belief in black magic; spirits are used to wreak vengeance by one person against another or one group against another. Designed for a pastoral way of life, polygamy continues to thrive in sub-Saharan Africa. It is responsible for the world’s highest birth rates and the explosion of HIV on the continent.

Desertification and deforestation, also tied to overpopulation, drive more and more African peasants out of the countryside with the result that most of the primary rain forest and the secondary bush is being destroyed at an alarming rate. The deforestation has led to soil erosion, which has led to more flooding and more mosquitoes. Virtually everyone in the West African interior has some form of malaria.

Under these circumstances, Robert Kaplan maintains, West Africa is becoming the symbol of demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic” danger. 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 the norms rather than the exception in most of the post-colonial western African states.

In truth, modern African states resemble the pre-modern medieval Europe before the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Internally displaced and constantly migrating populations migrants have made the borders dividing these countries largely meaningless. Even in peaceful zones, none of the governments maintains the schools, bridges, roads, and police forces in a manner necessary for functional sovereignty.

Kaplan forewarns that West Africa provides an appropriate introduction to the issues, often extremely unpleasant to discuss, that will soon confront our civilization. He sees this as a map of the future of the planet and identifies four areas through which the future of the planet can be glimpsed namely environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war. 

  • Environmental Scarcity: Firstly, environmental scarcity will become the pre-eminent national security issue as soaring population growth, spreading disease; deforestation leading to soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution and possibly rising sea levels will produce mass migrations and result in social conflict.
  • Cultural and Racial Clash: Secondly, because of such environmental pressures, only a small minority of the world’s population living in post-industrial regions will live in the security of cities and suburbs where the environment has been mastered. The rest will be involved in a fight for survival. Taking a cue from Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations which had been published only a few years ago, he maintains that environmental crises will aggravate cultural and racial clashes. These will replace the former bases of conflict, which were between competing nation-states and competing ideologies. Instead, he predicts, there will be emerging conflicts between Hindu, Muslim, Slavic Orthodox, Western, Japanese, Confucian, and Latin American cultures.
  • Geographic Destiny: Thirdly, the next century, according to Kaplan, will see a decline in the validity of the nation-state as the measure of a cohesive political or social unit. Global maps, which are the invention of European colonialism, will have to change to reflect new realities. Colonial borders, which still, in theory, apply in much of the Arab and African world, are contrary to political and cultural realities, which are not so neat and orderly as a glance at the map might suggest.
  • Transformation of War: Because 95 percent of the earth’s population growth will be in the poorest areas of the globe, the question is not whether there will be a war but what kind of war. And who will fight whom? Future wars will be those of communal survival, aggravated or, in many cases, caused by environmental scarcity. These wars will be sub-national, meaning that it will be hard for states and local governments to protect their own citizens physically.

Critique of the Coming Anarchy

Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy got widespread publicity because of its lucidity of narration, the amount of anecdotal evidence along with the wealth of data he presented in support of his prediction that the world was moving towards a state “in which criminal anarchy emerges due to the scarcity of resources.” The Environmentalists welcomed it with open arms for obvious reasons. To be fair to him he accurately described socioeconomic and political conditions prevailing in most of the West African states in the 1990s and rightly concluded that the future was bleak for these states.

However, in his enthusiasm to present a grand theory, he erred the same way Huntington did in his Clash of Civilisation thesis. Both generalized a long term global outcome based on narrow anecdotal evidence with the help of selected facts and figures. Both took linear projection of history and maintained that history could move forward only in one direction-the one they have prophesied. The sceptics pointed out its shortcomings- the sweeping generalisations he made as well as its dire and definitive tone, particularly his assertion that the world would follow a similarly demising path that West Africa had been following. Fortunately, history determines its own course; his predictions failed with time.

While in 1994, many countries 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. Consequently, in 2011, Kaplan revised his predictions suggesting that now the future of conflict rests in the South China Sea.

When he argues that the environment is the pre-eminent security threat because of the population’s increase leading to competing demands on scarce resources, he is dead on spot accurate. But, then, in his exuberance to validate his thesis, Kaplan underestimates man’s ability to respond to natural or man-made challenges through inventions and innovations. In this respect, he was committing the same mistakes as were committed by Thomas Malthus two hundred years ago or the authors of The Limits to Growth made in the 1970s-failure to appreciate man’s ingenuity to cope with shortages through invention and innovation

He fails to appreciate that scarcity in the past created such innovations as the Green Revolution of the 1950s and the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the 1990s. In fact, GMO technology has been so successful in increasing the productivity of the crops that in many cases outputs now far exceed demands. Modern advances such as robots, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, etc are testimony to humankind’s ingenuity to cope with stress and shortages.

Similarly, his diagnosis also fails to appreciate the human ingenuity to cope with disasters through mutual help and the self-correction capability of the international system. One may agree with his contention that there is ruthless competition among the nation-states for acquiring the maximum share of the scarce resources but it is also true that these very nation-states also cooperate when faced with a common danger. For example, there may be differences in the approach towards climate change but there is unanimity among the states about its inevitability and the necessity to take preventive and mitigation actions

Related to the above is the global cooperation on technological advancements for common good. Universities and research institutes funded by their respective governments all over the world cooperate in joint research and development-information technology is an obvious example. That’s why almost every year, Noble Prizes are jointly shared by the scientists working in different countries. Thomas Friedman characterizes this global cooperation on technological advancements as “the democratization of technology.” In his view, technology literally and figuratively breaks down walls fostering the integration of ideas enabling states, corporations, and individuals to seek new opportunities.

Kenneth Waltz has rightly pointed out that “as nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power. “In effect, a global system of criminal anarchy is a system of a 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 demonstrates similar instincts that Kaplan fails to address.


What these cases in point indicate is that Kaplan’s assessment was short-sighted. He miscalculated general global impacts based on a few subjective experiences in Sierra Leone. These problems with Kaplan’s theory offer instruction for practitioners of international policy. International theory and the policies derived from theorists 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.

Kindly do read the other three articles on this debate by clicking the following icons

  • Sources of Soviet Conduct by X (George F. Kennan)
  • End of History by Francis Fukuyama
  • Clash of Civilisations by Huntington

From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at

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