Like the borders of West Africa, the colonial borders of Syria, Iraq, Jordan,
Algeria, and other Arab states are often contrary to cultural and political
reality. As state control mechanisms wither in the face of environmental and
demographic stress, "hard" Islamic city-states or shantytown-states are likely
to emerge. The fiction that the impoverished city of Algiers, on the
Mediterranean, controls Tamanrasset, deep in the Algerian Sahara, cannot obtain
forever. Whatever the outcome of the peace process, Israel is destined to be a
Jewish ethnic fortress amid a vast and volatile realm of Islam. In that realm,
the violent youth culture of the Gaza shantytowns may be indicative of the
The destiny of Turks and Kurds is far less certain, but far more relevant to
the kind of map that will explain our future world. The Kurds suggest a
geographic reality that cannot be shown in two-dimensional space. The issue in
Turkey is not simply a matter of giving autonomy or even independence to Kurds
in the southeast. This isn't the Balkans or the Caucasus, where regions are
merely subdividing into smaller units, Abkhazia breaking off from Georgia, and
so on. Federalism is not the answer. Kurds are found everywhere in Turkey,
including the shanty districts of Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey's problem is that
its Anatolian land mass is the home of two cultures and languages, Turkish and
Kurdish. Identity in Turkey, as in India, Africa, and elsewhere, is more
complex and subtle than conventional cartography can display.
A New Kind of War
To appreciate fully the political and cartographic implications of
postmodernism—an epoch of themeless juxtapositions, in which the
classificatory grid of nation-states is going to be replaced by a jagged-glass
pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms—it
is necessary to consider, finally, the whole question of war.
"Oh, what a relief to fight, to fight enemies who defend themselves, enemies
who are awake!" Andre Malraux wrote in Man's Fate. I cannot think of a more
suitable battle cry for many combatants in the early decades of the
twenty-first century. The intense savagery of the fighting in such diverse
cultural settings as Liberia, Bosnia, the Caucasus, and Sri Lanka—to say
nothing of what obtains in American inner cities—indicates something very
troubling that those of us inside the stretch limo, concerned with issues like
middle-class entitlements and the future of interactive cable television, lack
the stomach to contemplate. It is this: 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.
"Just as it makes no sense to ask 'why people eat' or 'what they sleep for,'"
writes Martin van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, in The Transformation of War, "so fighting in many ways is not a
means but an end. Throughout history, for every person who has expressed his
horror of war there is another who found in it the most marvelous of all the
experiences that are vouchsafed to man, even to the point that he later spent a
lifetime boring his descendants by recounting his exploits." When I asked
Pentagon officials about the nature of war in the twenty-first century, the
answer I frequently got was "Read Van Creveld." The top brass are enamored of
this historian not because his writings justify their existence but, rather,
the opposite: Van Creveld warns them that huge state military machines like the
Pentagon's are dinosaurs about to go extinct, and that something far more
terrible awaits us.
The degree to which Van Creveld's Transformation of War complements
Homer-Dixon's work on the environment, Huntington's thoughts on cultural clash,
my own realizations in traveling by foot, bus, and bush taxi in more than sixty
countries, and America's sobering comeuppances in intractable-culture zones
like Haiti and Somalia is startling. The book begins by demolishing the notion
that men don't like to fight. "By compelling the senses to focus themselves on
the here and now," Van Creveld writes, war "can cause a man to take his leave
of them." As anybody who has had experience with Chetniks in Serbia,
"technicals" in Somalia, Tontons Macoutes in Haiti, or soldiers in Sierra Leone
can tell you, in places where the Western Enlightenment has not penetrated and
where there has always been mass poverty, people find liberation in violence.
In Afghanistan and elsewhere, I vicariously experienced this phenomenon:
worrying about mines and ambushes frees you from worrying about mundane details
of daily existence. If my own experience is too subjective, there is a wealth
of data showing the sheer frequency of war, especially in the developing world
since the Second World War. Physical aggression is a part of being human. Only
when people attain a certain economic, educational, and cultural standard is
this trait tranquilized. In light of the fact that 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 war (there will be a lot of it) but what kind of war.
And who will fight whom?
Debunking the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, Van Creveld, who
may be the most original thinker on war since that early-nineteenth-century
Prussian, writes, "Clausewitz's ideas . . . were wholly rooted in the fact
that, ever since 1648, war had been waged overwhelmingly by states." But, as
Van Creveld explains, the period of nation-states and, therefore, of state
conflict is now ending, and with it the clear "threefold division into
government, army, and people" which state-directed wars enforce. Thus, to see
the future, the first step is to look back to the past immediately prior to the
birth of modernism—the wars in medieval Europe which began during the
Reformation and reached their culmination in the Thirty Years' War.
Van Creveld writes, "In all these struggles political, social, economic, and
religious motives were hopelessly entangled. Since this was an age when armies
consisted of mercenaries, all were also attended by swarms of military
entrepreneurs. . . . Many of them paid little but lip service to the
organizations for whom they had contracted to fight. Instead, they robbed the
countryside on their own behalf. . . ."
"Given such conditions, any fine distinctions . . . between armies on the one
hand and peoples on the other were bound to break down. Engulfed by war,
civilians suffered terrible atrocities."
Back then, in other words, there was no Politics as we have come to
understand the term, just as there is less and less Politics today in
Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, among
Because, as Van Creveld notes, the radius of trust within tribal societies is
narrowed to one's immediate family and guerrilla comrades, truces arranged with
one Bosnian commander, say, may be broken immediately by another Bosnian
commander. The plethora of short-lived ceasefires in the Balkans and the
Caucasus constitute proof that we are no longer in a world where the old rules
of state warfare apply. More evidence is provided by the destruction of
medieval monuments in the Croatian port of Dubrovnik: when cultures, rather
than states, fight, then cultural and religious monuments are weapons of war,
making them fair game.
Also, war-making entities will no longer be restricted to a specific territory.
Loose and shadowy organisms such as Islamic terrorist organizations suggest why
borders will mean increasingly little and sedimentary layers of tribalistic
identity and control will mean more. "From the vantage point of the present,
there appears every prospect that religious . . . fanaticisms will play a
larger role in the motivation of armed conflict" in the West than at any time
"for the last 300 years," Van Creveld writes. This is why analysts like Michael
Vlahos are closely monitoring religious cults. Vlahos says, "An ideology that
challenges us may not take familiar form, like the old Nazis or Commies. It may
not even engage us initially in ways that fit old threat markings." Van Creveld
concludes, "Armed conflict will be waged by men on earth, not robots in space.
It will have more in common with the struggles of primitive tribes than with
large-scale conventional war." While another military historian, John Keegan,
in his new book A History of Warfare, draws a more benign portrait of primitive
man, it is important to point out that what Van Creveld really means is
re-primitivized man: warrior societies operating at a time of unprecedented
resource scarcity and planetary overcrowding.
Van Creveld's pre-Westphalian vision of worldwide low-intensity conflict is not
a superficial "back to the future" scenario. First of all, technology will be
used toward primitive ends. In Liberia the guerrilla leader Prince Johnson
didn't just cut off the ears of President Samuel Doe before Doe was tortured to
death in 1990—Johnson made a video of it, which has circulated throughout West
Africa. In December of 1992, when plotters of a failed coup against the
Strasser regime in Sierra Leone had their ears cut off at Freetown's Hamilton
Beach prior to being killed, it was seen by many to be a copycat execution.
Considering, as I've explained earlier, that the Strasser regime is not really
a government and that Sierra Leone is not really a nation-state, listen closely
to Van Creveld: "Once the legal monopoly of armed force, long claimed by the
state, is wrested out of its hands, existing distinctions between war and crime
will break down much as is already the case today in . . . Lebanon, Sri Lanka,
El Salvador, Peru, or Colombia."
If crime and war become indistinguishable, then "national defense" may in the
future be viewed as a local concept. As crime continues to grow in our cities
and the ability of state governments and criminal-justice systems to protect
their citizens diminishes, urban crime may, according to Van Creveld, "develop
into low-intensity conflict by coalescing along racial, religious, social, and
political lines." As small-scale violence multiplies at home and abroad, state
armies will continue to shrink, being gradually replaced by a booming private
security business, as in West Africa, and by urban mafias, especially in the
former communist world, who may be better equipped than municipal police forces
to grant physical protection to local inhabitants.
Future wars will be those of communal survival, aggravated or, in many cases,
caused by environmental scarcity. These wars will be subnational, meaning that
it will be hard for states and local governments to protect their own citizens
physically. This is how many states will ultimately die. As state power
fades—and with it the state's ability to help weaker groups within society,
not to mention other states—peoples and cultures around the world will be
thrown back upon their own strengths and weaknesses, with fewer equalizing
mechanisms to protect them. Whereas the distant future will probably see the
emergence of a racially hybrid, globalized man, the coming decades will see us
more aware of our differences than of our similarities. To the average person,
political values will mean less, personal security more. The belief that we are
all equal is liable to be replaced by the overriding obsession of the ancient
Greek travelers: Why the differences between peoples?
The Last Map
In Geography and the Human Spirit, Anne Buttimer, a professor at University
College, Dublin, recalls the work of an early-nineteenth-century German
geographer, Carl Ritter, whose work implied "a divine plan for humanity" based
on regionalism and a constant, living flow of forms. The map of the future, to
the extent that a map is even possible, will represent a perverse twisting of
Ritter's vision. Imagine cartography in three dimensions, as if in a hologram.
In this hologram would be the overlapping sediments of group and other
identities atop the merely two-dimensional color markings of city-states and
the remaining nations, themselves confused in places by shadowy tentacles,
hovering overhead, indicating the power of drug cartels, mafias, and private
security agencies. Instead of borders, there would be moving "centers" of
power, as in the Middle Ages. Many of these layers would be in motion.
Replacing fixed and abrupt lines on a flat space would be a shifting pattern of
buffer entities, like the Kurdish and Azeri buffer entities between Turkey and
Iran, the Turkic Uighur buffer entity between Central Asia and Inner China
(itself distinct from coastal China), and the Latino buffer entity replacing a
precise U.S.-Mexican border. To this protean cartographic hologram one must add
other factors, such as migrations of populations, explosions of birth rates,
vectors of disease. Henceforward the map of the world will never be static.
This future map—in a sense, the "Last Map"—will be an ever-mutating
representation of chaos.
The Indian subcontinent offers examples of what is happening. For different
reasons, both India and Pakistan are increasingly dysfunctional. The argument
over democracy in these places is less and less relevant to the larger issue of
governability. In India's case the question arises, Is one unwieldy bureaucracy
in New Delhi the best available mechanism for promoting the lives of 866
million people of diverse languages, religions, and ethnic groups? In 1950,
when the Indian population was much less than half as large and nation-building
idealism was still strong, the argument for democracy was more impressive than
it is now. Given that in 2025 India's population could be close to 1.5 billion,
that much of its economy rests on a shrinking natural-resource base, including
dramatically declining water levels, and that communal violence and
urbanization are spiraling upward, it is difficult to imagine that the Indian
state will survive the next century. India's oft-trumpeted Green Revolution has
been achieved by overworking its croplands and depleting its watershed. Norman
Myers, a British development consultant, worries that Indians have "been
feeding themselves today by borrowing against their children's food sources."
Pakistan's problem is more basic still: like much of Africa, the country makes
no geographic or demographic sense. It was founded as a homeland for the
Muslims of the subcontinent, yet there are more subcontinental Muslims outside
Pakistan than within it. Like Yugoslavia, Pakistan is a patchwork of ethnic
groups, increasingly in violent conflict with one another. While the Western
media gushes over the fact that the country has a woman Prime Minister, Benazir
Bhutto, Karachi is becoming a subcontinental version of Lagos. In eight visits
to Pakistan, I have never gotten a sense of a cohesive national identity. With
as much as 65 percent of its land dependent on intensive irrigation, with
wide-scale deforestation, and with a yearly population growth of 2.7 percent
(which ensures that the amount of cultivated land per rural inhabitant will
plummet), Pakistan is becoming a more and more desperate place. As irrigation
in the Indus River basin intensifies to serve two growing populations,
Muslim-Hindu strife over falling water tables may be unavoidable.
"India and Pakistan will probably fall apart," Homer-Dixon predicts. "Their
secular governments have less and less legitimacy as well as less management
ability over people and resources." Rather than one bold line dividing the
subcontinent into two parts, the future will likely see a lot of thinner lines
and smaller parts, with the ethnic entities of Pakhtunistan and Punjab
gradually replacing Pakistan in the space between the Central Asian plateau and
the heart of the subcontinent.
None of this even takes into account climatic change, which, if it occurs in
the next century, will further erode the capacity of existing states to cope.
India, for instance, receives 70 percent of its precipitation from the monsoon
cycle, which planetary warming could disrupt.
Not only will the three-dimensional aspects of the Last Map be in constant
motion, but its two-dimensional base may change too. The National Academy of
Sciences reports that "as many as one billion people, or 20 per cent of the
world's population, live on lands likely to be inundated or dramatically
changed by rising waters. . . . Low-lying countries in the developing world
such as Egypt and Bangladesh, where rivers are large and the deltas extensive
and densely populated, will be hardest hit. . . . Where the rivers are dammed,
as in the case of the Nile, the effects . . . will be especially severe."
Egypt could be where climatic upheaval—to say nothing of the more immediate
threat of increasing population—will incite religious upheaval in truly
biblical fashion. Natural catastrophes, such as the October, 1992, Cairo
earthquake, in which the government failed to deliver relief aid and slum
residents were in many instances helped by their local mosques, can only
strengthen the position of Islamic factions. In a statement about greenhouse
warming which could refer to any of a variety of natural catastrophes, the
environmental expert Jessica Tuchman Matthews warns that many of us
underestimate the extent to which political systems, in affluent societies as
well as in places like Egypt, "depend on the underpinning of natural systems."
She adds, "The fact that one can move with ease from Vermont to Miami has
nothing to say about the consequences of Vermont acquiring Miami's climate."
Indeed, it is not clear that the United States will survive the next century in
exactly its present form. Because America is a multi-ethnic society, the
nation-state has always been more fragile here than it is in more homogeneous
societies like Germany and Japan. James Kurth, in an article published in The
National Interest in 1992, explains that whereas nation-state societies tend to
be built around a mass-conscription army and a standardized public school
system, "multicultural regimes" feature a high-tech, all-volunteer army (and, I
would add, private schools that teach competing values), operating in a culture
in which the international media and entertainment industry has more influence
than the "national political class." In other words, a nation-state is a place
where everyone has been educated along similar lines, where people take their
cue from national leaders, and where everyone (every male, at least) has gone
through the crucible of military service, making patriotism a simpler issue.
Writing about his immigrant family in turn-of-the-century Chicago, Saul Bellow
states, "The country took us over. It was a country then, not a collection of
During the Second World War and the decade following it, the United States
reached its apogee as a classic nation-state. During the 1960s, as is now
clear, America began a slow but unmistakable process of transformation. The
signs hardly need belaboring: racial polarity, educational dysfunction, social
fragmentation of many and various kinds. William Irwin Thompson, in Passages
About Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture, writes, "The
educational system that had worked on the Jews or the Irish could no longer
work on the blacks; and when Jewish teachers in New York tried to take black
children away from their parents exactly in the way they had been taken from
theirs, they were shocked to encounter a violent affirmation of negritude."
Issues like West Africa could yet emerge as a new kind of foreign-policy issue,
further eroding America's domestic peace. The spectacle of several West African
nations collapsing at once could reinforce the worst racial stereotypes here at
home. That is another reason why Africa matters. We must not kid ourselves: the
sensitivity factor is higher than ever. The Washington, D.C., public school
system is already experimenting with an Afrocentric curriculum. Summits between
African leaders and prominent African-Americans are becoming frequent, as are
Pollyanna-ish prognostications about multiparty elections in Africa that do not
factor in crime, surging birth rates, and resource depletion. The Congressional
Black Caucus was among those urging U.S. involvement in Somalia and in Haiti.
At the Los Angeles Times minority staffers have protested against, among other
things, what they allege to be the racist tone of the newspaper's Africa
coverage, allegations that the editor of the "World Report" section, Dan
Fisher, denies, saying essentially that Africa should be viewed through the
same rigorous analytical lens as other parts of the world.
Africa may be marginal in terms of conventional late-twentieth-century
conceptions of strategy, but in an age of cultural and racial clash, when
national defense is increasingly local, Africa's distress will exert a
destabilizing influence on the United States.
This and many other factors will make the United States less of a nation than
it is today, even as it gains territory following the peaceful dissolution of
Canada. Quebec, based on the bedrock of Roman Catholicism and Francophone
ethnicity, could yet turn out to be North America's most cohesive and
crime-free nation-state. (It may be a smaller Quebec, though, since aboriginal
peoples may lop off northern parts of the province.) "Patriotism" will become
increasingly regional as people in Alberta and Montana discover that they have
far more in common with each other than they do with Ottawa or Washington, and
Spanish-speakers in the Southwest discover a greater commonality with Mexico
City. (The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau, a book about the
continent's regionalization, is more relevant now than when it was published,
in 1981.) As Washington's influence wanes, and with it the traditional symbols
of American patriotism, North Americans will take psychological refuge in their
insulated communities and cultures.
Returning from West Africa last fall was an illuminating ordeal. After leaving
Abidjan, my Air Afrique flight landed in Dakar, Senegal, where all passengers
had to disembark in order to go through another security check, this one
demanded by U.S. authorities before they would permit the flight to set out for
New York. Once we were in New York, despite the midnight hour, immigration
officials at Kennedy Airport held up disembarkation by conducting quick
interrogations of the aircraft's passengers—this was in addition to all the
normal immigration and customs procedures. It was apparent that drug smuggling,
disease, and other factors had contributed to the toughest security procedures
I have ever encountered when returning from overseas.
Then, for the first time in over a month, I spotted businesspeople with attache
cases and laptop computers. When I had left New York for Abidjan, all the
businesspeople were boarding planes for Seoul and Tokyo, which departed from
gates near Air Afrique's. The only non-Africans off to West Africa had been
relief workers in T-shirts and khakis. Although the borders within West Africa
are increasingly unreal, those separating West Africa from the outside world
are in various ways becoming more impenetrable.
But Afrocentrists are right in one respect: we ignore this dying region at our
own risk. When the Berlin Wall was falling, in November of 1989, I happened to
be in Kosovo, covering a riot between Serbs and Albanians. The future was in
Kosovo, I told myself that night, not in Berlin. The same day that Yitzhak
Rabin and Yasser Arafat clasped hands on the White House lawn, my Air Afrique
plane was approaching Bamako, Mali, revealing corrugated-zinc shacks at the
edge of an expanding desert. The real news wasn't at the White House, I
realized. It was right below.