A Kamajor, wearing a wig and carrying a rocket propelled grenade and spare grenades, guards Tokpombu, Sierra Leone Oct. 9, 1998, a village recently attacked by rebels. The Kamajors are a civilian paramilitary force fighting for the government against the rebels in Sierra Leone's civil war.Christine Nesbitt/ AP

Today’s Issue

  • “To understand the events of the next fifty years … one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war,” wrote The Atlantic’s Robert D. Kaplan in 1994. His essay “The Coming Anarchy” quickly made that issue of the magazine a best seller.

  • Kaplan’s story provokes strong feelings even 25 years after its publication. For some of its critics, those years were not a descent into chaos but a modest stabilization of global problems.
  • Today, one of those critics, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, revisits “The Coming Anarchy.” You can listen to the full interview on SoundCloud, or you can get it directly in your podcast player.

By Matt Peterson

In 1994, The Atlantic published a story that, in the words of its author, was pessimistic and “decidedly unAmerican.” Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” describes “how scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” And it was a hit. “U.S. President Bill Clinton was drawn in; he referred to ‘The Coming Anarchy’ as ‘stunning’ and passed it around as recommended reading in the White House,” the journalist Toby Lester wrote two years later.

Kaplan’s article is polarizing as well as popular. Harvard’s Steven Pinker recently called it a “cautionary tale on glib doomsday prophesy.” The reporting that underlies the story is not generally in question—Kaplan visited places such as civil-war-era Sierra Leone, which matched his dire predictions for the globe. He and his critics diverge most meaningfully on the reach of the inferences that he drew from his travels. Twenty-five years later, a look back at “The Coming Anarchy” reveals clashing stories about the course of human progress.

For this week’s episode of The Present Past, The Masthead brought in a thinker whose ideas about the world are perpendicular to Kaplan’s. Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, is a former World Bank official. He nodded along as I described him as an optimist about the course of human development. You can listen to our conversation about Kaplan’s story on our members-only audio feed. Here are the highlights. And below, I share some of Kaplan’s thoughts about the fate of his story.

1. Scarcity is a bogeyman. Just take one environmental constraint: water. “In the twenty-first century water will be in dangerously short supply in such diverse locales as Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and the southwestern United States,” Kaplan wrote. He was right to raise early awareness of environmental dangers, Kenny said, but the old story oversold the immediate danger of the planet’s fixed quantity of resources. Water shortages haven’t produced widespread famine and war for two reasons: Humanity has gotten better at producing food, and that food can be traded. “Basically, moving food is moving water,” Kenny said. “Ninety percent of global fresh water goes for agriculture. When you grow crops, you are putting water into them. And then if you trade the crops the water moves with [them], if you will.” When the rest of the world has plenty of water, “trade is a powerful force for dealing with the problem of water scarcity in some areas.”

2. The sources of wealth have changed. Kaplan expected scarcity to aggravate deep conflicts of identity and culture. He compared living in affluent parts of the world to riding in a limousine. “Outside the stretch limo would be a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors,” Kaplan wrote, “battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents and intersect in no discernible pattern.” Parts of the world resemble that ugly portrait, said Kenny, but on the macro level, the state of the world is trending toward more peace between nations, less poverty, and longer life spans. “The amount of [the world’s] total wealth that is about ideas and education has shot up worldwide to be, by far, the largest component of global wealth,” he said. “We've moved from a world which really is about zero-sum, and resource competition, and so on, to a world which is much more actually about collaboration and cooperation being a way for wealth to grow.”

3. Humanity’s income divide has narrowed. “We are entering a bifurcated world,” Kaplan wrote. The occupants of that limousine “will adjust to the loss of underground water tables in the western United States”; those outside of it will have no choice but to fight for what’s left. There are certainly haves and have-nots in the world, but it’s not true that they have only grown further apart, Kenny said. “If you look at the global distribution of income in the 1990s, there were kind of two peaks, if you will. There was the peak of the very poor—China, India, sub-Saharan Africa. And then there was the peak of people who lived in rich countries.”The graph of global income distribution has gone from looking like a two-humped camel to a one-humped dromedary, particularly as China and India have gotten wealthier. That basic trend line tells a far more optimistic story than the one Kaplan projected in 1994.

I got in touch with Kaplan after my interview with Kenny to offer him the chance to discuss these issues. Kaplan pointed me toward a November 2018 essay he wrote for The National Interest, in which he revisits “The Coming Anarchy.” I’ll quote it at length. Kaplan acknowledges that he didn’t get everything right. “In particular, I drew too close a link between dissolution in the developing world and instability in the United States and the West,” he writes. But he believes that other aspects of the analysis hold up.

His 1994 article, he writes,

focused on how elites would increasingly come to see the natural environment, especially water shortages and soil erosion—in addition to shifts in the earth’s climate itself—as a major foreign policy concern. This was far less obvious in 1994 than it is today. Moreover, I said that future wars would be motivated by communal survival, aggravated in some cases by environmental scarcity … Of course, this was very Malthusian. And few thinkers are as regularly disparaged as Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 wrongly predicted that as population increased, the world would effectively run out of food supplies. However, what critics fail to note about Malthus is that merely by introducing the subject of ecosystems into discussions of contemporary political philosophy, he immeasurably enriched such discussions.

No one can accurately predict the near-term future, Kaplan writes. “What a journalist or analyst can do is make the reader measurably less surprised by what happens in a given place over the middle-term future: five-years, ten-years, or fifteen-years forward, say.” And held against that benchmark, Kaplan writes, “The Coming Anarchy” fares well.

Sierra Leone was in an extremely fragile political state when I visited there [in mid-1993], and Cote d’Ivoire, though imperceptibly deteriorating, was then still seen in the West—according to the cliché—as an African success story. Articles in major world newspapers through the second half of the 1990s painted an optimistic picture for the prospects of these places as fledgling democracies …

But my point in ‘The Coming Anarchy’ … was that elections by themselves didn’t matter nearly as much as the building of modern bureaucratic institutions. And West African countries had developed virtually none. That made me pessimistic. In 1999, half a decade after my essay was published, Sierra Leone had descended into utter anarchy … During the same time-frame, a coup rocked Cote d’Ivoire, and the country descended into a period of civil war and chaotic, geographically based political fractures lasting a full decade until 2011. War in Liberia continued through 2003, and Nigeria never arrested its decline as a coherent, centrally governed state … Of course, further afield in the Middle East, the chaotic meltdowns of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen following either American-led interventions or the rigors of the Arab Spring indicated that beneath the carapaces of tyranny in those places lay complete institutional voids, comparable to what I had found in West Africa.

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