The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

By Nalle, David | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century


Nalle, David, The Middle East Journal


The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, by Robert D. Kaplan. New York: Random House, 1996. xii + 438 pages. Bibl. to p. 460. Index to p. 476. $27.50.

Reviewed by David Nalle

Robert Kaplan is a very good reporter, distinguished from most of his peers by the range and ambition of his coverage. For this book, he crossed the world, from West Africa to Southeast Asia, picking up facts, people, anecdotes and impressions like a carpet sweeper. His initial goal, he writes, was "to find a paradigm for understanding the world in the early decades of the twentyfirst century" (p. 8). Pushing his sweeper after the new paradigm, he exhibits a resolute disregard for his own comfort and even his personal safety. From disease and random violence in Liberia and drunken soldiers manning roadblocks in Sierra Leone, to the threat of night raids by the Khmer Rouge in rural Cambodia, his journey might easily have ended badly.

Kaplan does not purport to be a scholar, but he has done an impressive amount of preparatory homework for this book. His discussion is bolstered by quotes and comments from the likes of Richard Burton, George Curzon and Eugene Schuyler. Getting closer to the paradigm he seeks, he quotes Fu'ad `Ajami to reinforce his own reservations about Samuel Huntington's eminently vulnerable The Clash of Civilizations.l

Presenting the reader with a mass of facts, observations and individual testimony, Kaplan is carefully tentative in the conclusions he draws. The book is, indeed, considerably less confident of its judgments, and less apocalyptic, than the dramatic article out of which it grew ("The Coming Anarchy").2 What is valuable about the book is the mosaic of information the author has put together-enabling the reader to join the millenially fashionable search for a new paradigm. The pieces that make up the mosaic-and Kaplan stresses what he sees as the diminishing relevance of "national" borders-are descriptions of West Africa, the Nile Valley, Anatolia and the Caucasus, the Iranian Plateau, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent and Indochina. Kaplan travels through West Africa by bus, bush taxi and questionable airlines, accumulating for the reader a vision of unrelieved squalor, crime and hopelessness. Everywhere he finds the same mix of miseries, the same accelerating degradation of the natural environment, and he offers no avenue of hope for them. Searching for causes, he notes the deleterious effect the slave trade had on the evolution of early capitalist economies there and its stimulation of inter-kingdom wars, but, in an interesting rumination, he writes "the greatest burden inflicted on Africa by the Europeans was probably the political map, with its scores of countries, each identified by the color of it's imperial master" (p. 83).

For his section on "The Nile Valley" Kaplan volunteers that he "read a lot." Touching down first at the Aswan Dam, he cites Karl Marx on "oriental despotism" and Karl Wittfogel on "the hydraulic society," turning then to John Waterbury and his book, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, to examine the relationship between resource management and political systems. To look more directly at politics and Islam, he interviews an articulate, pseudonymous "Professor Dr. Mohammad Habib," a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also looks at the Copts, their monasteries, their history and their various problems of survival. It is an episodic but effec

1. Foreign Affairs 72 (1993) pp. 23-42. 2. The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994, pp. tive approach to a subject too large to treat as a whole. An important theme is picked up: "[Can politics]...ever exist in a vacuum, outside the larger environment?... [Political upheavals emerge] from the inability of regimes to deal with the problems arising from sustained population growth and natural resource depletion" (p. 117).

In "Anatolia and the Caucasus" Kaplan finds reinforcement for another theme, that the city will be the locus of inevitable future conflict.

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