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Manifest Destiny
An interview with Robert D. Kaplan, whose new book, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect

September 16, 1998

empwild picture For more than a decade now, The Atlantic has published a steady flow of travelogues and political-philosophical ruminations by the foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan. Filed from some of the most strife-ridden and difficult-to-contemplate regions of the globe, and informed by a rich understanding of the undercurrents of history, Kaplan's writings have forced readers to take stock of the dramatic changes that, while escaping common notice, are playing themselves out in the present day, with enormous implications for the future. Lately, Atlantic readers may have noticed that Kaplan has been focusing on North America -- in articles last year about Mexico and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and, very recently, in two consecutive cover stories, one about Mexico and the American Southwest, and the other about Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Kaplan has, in fact, just published a book about the United States and its neighbors, titled An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future.
Previously in Books & Authors:

Fear of Falling (September 1998)
Andrew Todhunter talks about his new book, Fall of the Phantom Lord, about the rock climber Dan Osman, and examines the lure of putting one's life on the line.

Eve's Bible (August 1998)
An interview with Cullen Murphy, whose new book, The Word According to Eve, explores the revolutionary implications of feminism's encounter with religion.

Bittersweet (July 1998)
Roy Blount Jr. looks back at the complicated source of his career as a humorist -- his mother.

Sky Writing (June 1998)
All writers have a point of view. For William Langewiesche -- pilot, Atlantic correspondent, and author of Inside the Sky -- it happens to be an aerial one.

The "What If?" Business (June 1998)
For the novelist John Irving, storytelling has been a "necessity" since youth -- and the mother of three decades' worth of unrelenting literary invention.

The Adventures of Jane Smiley (May 1998)
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Kaplan's vision of America, as laid out in An Empire Wilderness, is unsparingly realistic. As in his travels elsewhere in the world, Kaplan here finds that borders of all sorts -- geographical, political, cultural, economic -- are crumbling, making room for the emergence of a new social order that will inevitably lead to the United States' loss of relevance as a geopolitical entity. "The future is icky," Kaplan quotes an army colonel as saying, but Kaplan himself is not pessimistic. Major changes are inevitable, he feels, and for Americans, whose nature it is constantly to reinvent themselves, this fact represents an opportunity, a cause for optimism -- even if, as he writes, the coming transformations "will be our most difficult as a nation, and ... our last."

Kaplan recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.

kaprobpc picture
Robert D. Kaplan
You write in your first chapter that An Empire Wilderness is "the story of an idea as it emerged." Simply put, what's the idea?

The idea of this book is that America is working its way out of history, slowly and peacefully. We're not going to collapse, we're not going to be overrun or conquered like many great empires of the past. Things are going to happen so gradually that nobody will be able to say when the United States of America stopped being the United States of America. And what we're going to become, rather than a solid nation-state, is a sort of economic and cultural junction point for the world's most talented peoples -- a sort of duty-free zone for trade and commerce and cultural interaction. That's going to allow us to be both some sort of identifiable nation but at the same time to shed part of our identity and to take advantage of a more transnational world.

So what will the cultural and political map of North America -- Mexico, the United States, and Canada -- be like a century from now?

It will look very much like the medieval map of Europe during Charlemagne's empire, when you had strong civilization zones along rivers like the Rhine and in the part of Europe that is today Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, northeast France, and northwest Germany. You won't see big divisions between states. You'll see moving centers of power, which will contract and expand -- instead of hard borders between the United States and Canada and Mexico you'll see a gray area. What is now Canada will certainly continue to have its own, unique English- and French-language cultures, but the economy and the borders will be much more melded than they are now. Similarly, state lines between, say, Idaho, Montana, and Washington will be less important than river-valley lines, so that you'll have one kind of urban area stretching perhaps from Spokane, Washington, through Idaho, and down into Missoula, Montana. The same goes for the whole area of the Pacific Northwest, from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, Canada. A north-south rather than an east-west orientation will dominate.

One theme that comes up again and again in your book -- and has already in this interview, too -- is the idea that major political and cultural changes are taking place so gradually that they've eluded our attention. What are some of the most important changes you've been watching?

A lot of the changes are so gradual that they don't even qualify as news, or even as interesting: they're so mundane that we just take them for granted. But history shows that it's the mundane changes that are more important than the dramatic "newsworthy" events.

Take cuisine and architecture, for example. They're both becoming internationalized. If you look at the food we've got in our refrigerators today as opposed to twenty years ago, the change is absolutely dramatic. We have Middle Eastern food, Mexican food (salsa is consumed more than ketchup now), wines from all over the world. This is obviously very significant in terms of what it tells us about what we're becoming as a people. Another example is architecture. It's increasingly global and insipid. There used to be a distinct regional element to the architecture of different places, but now architecture is not necessarily European or Asian -- you see the same sort of building design in the suburbs of Bangkok as you do in Omaha. So architecture is becoming internationalized in a bland sense, and cuisine is becoming increasingly internationalized in an exotic sense -- and it all suggests that America is melding into a sort of transnational muck.

If you travel around America you see different sections of highways donated by this or that person, and that's a slow beginning of what may end up being a situation common in the Third World: some sections of highways in wealthy areas are beautifully maintained and other parts are just dirt-strewn potholes.

We're seeing private security over public police, too. This is pronounced not just in America but all over the world, and it will continue, because we're seeing the privatization of space. Americans are opting out of public venues like the playground and the sidewalk for private venues like the healthclub and the mall. We're living our lives inside one form of corporation or another. And remember: a corporation can be a gated community -- it's not just a business, a place you go to work.

So we're increasingly placing ourselves within a corporate sphere, and in that sphere people are more willing to give up their personal rights for the sake of economic and physical-safety advantages than you are in a public sphere. We talk a lot about individual rights, but in fact Americans are very willing to give up our individual rights if it means our property values will be protected, and so on.

Along these same lines, you point out in your book that in America, unlike in most of the rest of the world, cities have evolved primarily as business ventures.

America has always been one big subdivision, marketed to outsiders who come here to make their lives better. We've been driven by technological change to a degree that no other great civilization has been. Liberals don't like the word "Darwinian," but in fact that's what American society has always been: survival of the fittest, whatever works best is adopted. And that's because each new generation of immigrants demands that. They demand a clean slate, where there are no favors for anybody, where they can reinvent the world, so to speak.

And that's why, ultimately, you're optimistic about this country's future?

Yes. One of the things that is frustrating me in the reviews of my book so far is that even though they're positive they're painting this book as very dark and pessimistic. That's not the case. This is one frustration I have as a writer. I see myself as a classical realist -- someone who's influenced by ancient history, who knows that the world can never be better because human nature never changes, but that it's all okay. The problem is that we've been through a kind of post-Cold War silly season of Wilsonian idealism, where both the right and the left believe that democracy and human rights are going take over the whole planet.

I don't see this book as presenting a negative vision of America. It's negative only for people who are afraid of change. We're going to be much different in fifty years, in ways that people alive today will be terrified of. But people will adapt. The reviewers don't like what I'm predicting, but the average person in the future will probably like it quite a lot. The average person just wants a high standard of living, physical safety, and convenience. They don't demand aesthetics.

You frame your travels with visits to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, where most of the military's top people are schooled at one point or another, and the changing role of the military comes up again and again in this book. How important is the evolution of the military in your vision of the future?

None of the reviews of my book thus far has even mentioned the military. This frustrates me, because for some reason the intellectual media class in America is just uncomfortable with the whole subject of the military. They try to bypass it; they don't want to talk about it.

The military itself is not going to determine our future, but it is an icon, or a reflector, of this transition I've been talking about. Our society is evolving -- in the upper reaches, at least -- into many rarefied subcultures. The military is just one of them. They're like the doctors, the lawyers, the academics: increasingly high-tech, increasingly specialized, with more and more code words that only they know and only they can explain, and so they feel increasingly isolated from the rest of society.

As I said earlier, we're becoming less and less of a traditional nation-state and more and more of a kind of cultural-economic junction point. The military is going to evolve likewise: rather than being a kind of ox-and-cow army of tanks and aircraft carriers that defends just American national interests, gradually it will become a lean-and-mean primary element of a global constabulary force that will be high-tech, with a high degree of intelligence and spying capability, and it will go around with other members of this force, like Britain and Germany, and hunt down bad guys. We're facing too many problems overseas for us to handle alone. Multilateral military events are going to be more prevalent, and our army is going to get increasingly used to working with other armies. It's going to end up having a sort of corporate style.

Do you see it as becoming a private force altogether?

Actually, the army is already surprisingly privatized when it comes to almost everything except fighting. That's one of the changes that's occuring this decade that the media has not written about much. Things that have traditionally been government functions are now being turned over to the corporate sector -- all sorts of the mundane details that make up the military machine. Only a small part of any military machine has to do with fighting; most of it is some sort of bureaucratic element or another, and a lot of that is being handled privately.

You write that geography, primarily in the form of continental isolation, has played a defining role in this country's development. But now that physical borders no longer limit the flow of money and ideas, you say, America may have reached a "critical mass of intimacy" with the outside world. How will this affect life in the next century?

We're going to be closer to the world at large, and closer to our immediate communities, but we're going to be farther and farther away from the nation. This sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. It's similar to what's happening in Europe, where we're now seeing small regional states coming into being, even as the European Union as a whole is coming into being. Despite all that, notions of entities like Germany and Spain, for example, are being slightly diminished.

The same thing is occuring in America. The neighborhood is becoming more important, the outside world is getting more important, but the nation-state is getting less important. The best way to visualize this is to think of city-states emerging. Take a place like western Omaha, where there will continue to be strong community ties, where there will be more and more trade with the outside world, where the business elite will go to Tokyo and Paris -- its psychological connection to the United States is going to diminish. Geography will become more important in a local sense and an international sense but less important in a national sense.

Globalization, you argue, will inevitably lead to "cultural grafting," which in turn will mean that in the near future "the important distinctions will be not racial but between classes." Why will questions of class return to the fore?

It's an issue of relativity. Class will become more important and race will become less important, and the reason is that there are two kinds of America coming into being: an upper-middle-class, global, nouvelle-cuisine America, and a lower-middle-class, nation-state-oriented, mobile-home America. If you look at the statistics, the middle class is splitting into an upper middle and a lower middle, into a part of the nation that's anchored in the country and another part that's international. These differences are going to be accentuated, whereas race will be less so, because, first of all, there's an incredible amount of intermarriage between Latinos, Asians, and whites. We're heading toward what I call a Mestizo-Polynesian America. Even among blacks the intermarriage rate with other races, though it's much lower than among Asians and Latinos, is still higher than it's ever been.

What's happening now is that if someone acts and looks as though they're part of this global, nouvelle-cuisine culture, they are accepted, whatever their race, and if not, they're not accepted, whatever their race.

You talk a lot about how influential Asians and Latinos will be in America's future, but you seem very pessimistic about what's to come for blacks. Why?

It's not that blacks will not matter -- it's that demographically they're becoming stagnant. They're now about twelve percent of the nation, and in a few decades they'll be about fourteen or fifteen percent. That's not a great increase. Also, as I mention in the book, blacks are making their way into the middle class. What this all boils down to is that destroyed inner-city cores may be tragic and terrible, but they're not affecting the destiny of the nation.

In talking about the dynamism of the Pacific Northwest, you quote Gordon Price, a member of the Vancouver City Council, as saying, "The Asian-British -- that is to say, Asian-WASP -- cultural mix is the most potent in the history of capitalism." Do you agree?

I think so. What you see on the Pacific Coast these days is the merging of the Confucian ethic with the British administrative practices. Now, I know that it doesn't sound very intelligent to talk about Asian dynamism today, but forty years ago Asia did not have a middle class. Asia now has a big middle class, and that's going to stay. What Asian immigration has done is added some vigor to an old-style Anglo-America.

At several points in this book you refer to John Gunther's enduringly valuable Inside U.S.A., an on-the-road report on the United States by a well-respected foreign correspondent, published almost exactly fifty years ago. In writing your book, were you -- a well-respected foreign correspondent working on an on-the-road report on the United States -- envisaging it as a sequel to Gunther's book?

I was very aware of the book. I knew that Gunther had done Inside U.S.A. after the Second World War, about fifty years ago, and it seemed a nice idea to do it again after the Cold War, fifty years later. But there's a big difference. I wouldn't ever want to replicate Gunther's book, because that book written today would be boring and dull. Nobody would read it. If you go back to his book, you'll find that there's a lot of stuff in it that you'd now find in The New York Times and on National Public Radio. It was written during a much more primitive state of the media. A book had to do a lot more then than it does now. I had to provide a high level of provocative, forward-looking thinking -- otherwise there'd be little to distinguish what I had to say from the wonderful NPR reports you get from all over the country nowadays.

The other difference is that Gunther could deal with the forty-eight states and "do America." Now you cannot do America unless you take Canada and Mexico into the equation. Also, doing the fifty states wouldn't have made sense for me, because we're much less varied than we used to be. To do all fifty states would have meant repeating myself, which is why I ended up only visiting fifteen or so.

President Clinton apparently is a fan of yours. Is that intimidating or distracting? Do you find yourself striving to affect policy at all in what you write?

I'm aware that the President reads my material, and I find this a decidedly mixed blessing, for the following reasons. Obviously, it's good for sales, it's good to know you have an influential reader, it's good for your ego. But the negative side is more interesting. All of my books are essentially broad-brush, subjective travel writing. They are never -- ever -- meant as a specific guide for specific policy decisions, and thus it has hurt me that my books have been said to have had an influence on particular policies. The best example of this is Balkan Ghosts. That book was overwhelmingly a creation of my 1980s reporting and travel writing, which happened to be published just as the war was brewing. It was only meant to provide a broad picture of what the region looked like in the 1980s. The fact that the President might have used it in a momentous policy decision on specific military challenges in 1993 and 1994 is horrifying to me.

You regularly cite Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in your work. Why so? What lessons does Gibbon offer contemporary Americans?

There are only three references to statements from Gibbon in this book. However, in my other writings I have regularly referred to Gibbon, and the reason I do is that by reading Gibbon you learn that human nature never changes; that humankind has a tendency for division, based on culture, language, class, whatever, and that unity never happens; that the dramatic "newsworthy" events are always less important that the gradual, insidious transformations; and that the patterns and unintended consequences in history are always more important than people's directing things. In other words, the future is merely good intentions with unintended consequences.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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