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Title: The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, by Robert D. Kaplan

Completed: January 1, 2012 (#2)

Recommendation: Essential

This anthology of Mr. Kaplan’s writings up to circa 2002 includes, of course, his eponymous 1994 essay from the pages of The Atlantic. One is tempted to review both the essay and the larger work by simply quoting a string of Mr. Kaplan’s penetrating aphorisms.

Indeed, let us succumb to temptation:

WE ARE ENTERING a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not.

And whilst our “new-caught sullen peoples / half devil and half child” work out their water shortages, what is a Last Man to do with himself?

The mood of the Colosseum goes together with the age of the corporation, which offers entertainment in place of values. The Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz provides the definitive view on why Americans degrade themselves with mass culture: “Today man believes that there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone.”

Sated with live-blogging and Twittering the Superbowl on his iPhone, the Last Man turns his attention to tilting at windmills:

The conviction is gaining ground that mass murder, like other deadly diseases, can be prevented by that remedy in which all bourgeois societies, ours above all, deposit their faith, Progress. In this case, progress in global public education: if only Americans spread our values and the international community holds spectacular tribunals of war criminals, then genocide might become a thing of the past. Such an approach is both noble and naive. Institutionalizing war-crimes tribunals will have as much effect on future war crimes as Geneva Conventions have had on the Iraqi and Serbian militaries.

And, in the final analysis, the Last Man is damned if he do and damned if he don’t:

Of course, there is often nothing worse than war and violent death. But a truism that bears repeating is that peace, as a primary goal, is dangerous because it implies that you will sacrifice any principle for the sake of it. A long period of peace in an advanced technological society like ours could lead to great evils, and the ideal of a world permanently at peace and governed benignly by a world organization is not an optimistic view of the future but a dark one.

As the above quotations illuminate, the book is an essential read—and given all that has happened since its publication in 2002, it is surely overdue for an update by the prolific Mr. Kaplan.

Although he approvingly cites Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) for the proposition that the Realist school of international affairs (see, e.g., Henry Kissinger) is “a political sensibility driven by needs rather than ideas,” one suspects that Mr. Kaplan is selling Realists of his caliber short—this is a challenging book and not for the intellectually faint of heart. (N.B.: I do realize that I am taking Musil out of context in the previous sentence—the claim is that Realists, contra Wilsonian Idealists and Neoconservatives, are not consumed by ideés fixes as to the whys and hows of international affairs but rather are guided solely by raison d’état in formulating policy.)

I intend to return to this book later this year to grapple with Mr. Kaplan’s engaging essay on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard, which was added to my Kindle inventory (gratis, thanks to the timely expiry of copyright) on Mr. Kaplan’s recommendation.