Robert D. Kaplan
By Roland Schönbauer
American writer Robert D. Kaplan
has been reporting from war zones and disaster areas for many
years. In this interview he comes to alarming conclusions both
for humankind and humanitarians.
You travel frequently to crisis-stricken areas. How
do you feel about humankind when you listen to the news?
I take a different view from many humanitarians. I believe
that human-kind is wholly unimprovable. We will not become
better behaved as a species. We are going to continue to have
wars and catastrophes, and kill each other, because that is
what we have been doing for thousands of years.
The best way to prevent or alleviate suffering is to think
always of the worst-case scenario, to look around the world
objectively and say: is this place going to perform any better?
Well, it probably will not. The world is becoming increasingly
populated, increasingly urbanized, increasingly complex in
financial markets and interconnectivity, with increasing strains
on the environment. So the idea that we can control it or
somehow grandly improve it is misplaced. We just need to try
to make progress here and there and deal with this or that
kind of problem, what general tendency do you see?
The world as a whole is developing socially and economically
at a faster pace than at any time previously. And historically,
whenever societies go through rapid social and economic change,
violence and political upheaval always accompany it.
If you look at major catastrophes, you find they were caused
precisely because of some kind of uneven development rather
than stagnant poverty. It is not poverty that causes social
unrest, it is rising expectations.
In books like “The Ends of the Earth”,
you describe many different problems. Which of these should
be the major concern of humankind?
The single biggest issue is “failing State capacity”.
Although population growth rates may be coming down in some
countries, in absolute terms there are still more and more
people being added to the earth, especially in those countries
that can least afford them. And not only are there more and
more people, but they are rushing into Third World cities.
Sewage systems, water systems, police systems are all breaking
down. If the country is a democracy, the democrats have to
be that much more ingenious in order to govern, and if it
is a dictatorship, the rulers have to be that much more ruthless.
So the big problem of the next 10, 20 or 30 years is going
to the failing ability of the State in the developing world
simply to function. The slow transformation of the State is
going to be very violent or unstable and it is going to cause
a lot of hardships for people.
The ability of the aid community is going to be very limited.
What, if we were to see the breakdown of not just one relatively
small place with a small population like Rwanda, but a big
urban society such as Kenya, Nigeria or Pakistan?
Maybe in some parts of the world smaller entities
rather than existing States would manage to keep a certain
No, the issue is not just size. It is: is there a middle
class or not? In places where there is a middle class, there
is stability, no matter what happens to the government.
So was the middle class in the former Yugoslavia
not of sufficient strength to maintain stability?
Yugoslavia had other problems. It was a place where different
ethnic groups had been held together by a regime that was
ruthless on the one hand and denied the country economic development
for 40 years on the other. While Italy, Belgium and other
places developed middle class prosperity after World War II,
that did not happen in the former Yugoslavia. You still had
a vast population of urbanized peasants, of poor people with
conflicting ethnic claims. All this is not deterministic.
Political decisions affected how things turned out and contributed
In your view, are there any successful field activities
of the international community worth being implemented in
The idea of a global elite like the UN or World Bank or even
the Red Cross engineering reality from above is nonsense.
You are going to succeed in places where you come up with
local solutions. And in the process of finding those solutions,
outside help can always make a difference. Knowledge has to
be self-created or it is not going to be sustainable.
What humanitarian agencies can do is provide emergency relief
and try things on a small scale. The aid projects that I have
seen that worked the best were a matter of local people solving
their own problems.
Still, there may be situations where people cannot
help themselves sufficiently.
Then there may be no solution. It takes a very shallow interpretation
of history to believe that there is a solution to every problem.
Reflecting on different areas of crisis, do you see
any new challenges coming up for the Red Cross or other humanitarian
Yes, it is that democracy is going to lead to more problems
than it resolves, and that many disasters ahead may precisely
be in democratic societies. Democracy has been spreading to
many places with weak institutions, with little or no middle
class, and that is going to lead to breakdowns. We have seen
it already in Sierra Leone, which eight months ago was a so-called
We are going to see more places that are struggling to be
democratic, because they cannot go back into military authoritarianism,
but are not quite developed enough to go forward into any
sort of democratic stability.
What the Red Cross needs to do is stay really close to basics,
to improve rural development, women’s literacy, birth
control, emergency relief in as many places as possible, and
not to try to get too clever or sophisticated. So you get
a healthier environment for a more civil government to naturally
emerge over the decades.
The man behind the words
As a journalist, he has covered numerous wars and armed conflicts.
He has seen the suffering of countless poor, wounded and sick
people. He has been in Afghanistan. He has travelled throughout
Africa and the Balkans. Yet, despite having visited more than
70 countries and spending three months of the year on the
road, Robert D. Kaplan is no run-of-the-mill reporter. If
he goes to a place where news is breaking he does not carry
a camera in his small backpack because it would only get in
the way. He wants to seize the moment as an outsider without
becoming emotionally involved in what is happening, as other
Back in the sprawling cities of the industrialized world,
he is frustrated by the lack of understanding of the reality
of the human suffering that he has witnessed in developing
countries or in eastern Europe. He complains, “Washington,
in particular, is a very artificial place where everyone has
a solution to every problem. I try to check out the situation
on the spot, travelling on local buses to be able to tell
it like it is.” “Now,” he says to decision-makers
in his readership who would never actually approach the victims
of a crisis, “do whatever you like with this, but you
can’t say that you don’t know what is going on.”
He withdraws to his study in his family home in a sleepy
little town in Massachusetts to reflect on his experiences
and then describe them. History books line the walls of the
room,which also has a wood stove, a computer and picture windows
affording a panoramic view of the mountains from his desk.
Kaplan is the author of several books, most notably the visionary
Balkan Ghosts, written just before the conflict in
the former Yugoslavia broke out, and The Ends of the Earth
about collapsing States and other organized societies. He
has also published numerous articles in The Washington
Post and The New York Times, in addition to
his regular column in The Atlantic Monthly, for which
he wrote the controversial article, The Coming Anarchy.
At 45, he speaks like someone who knows the impact of his
words. “Hundreds of articles are published every day
and they are forgotten two days later. When I am criticized
for something I wrote three years ago I am extremely flattered,”
he admits. “I take it as a compliment.”
Roland Schönbauer is a freelance journalist based in
Vienna, Austria. He interviewed Kaplan at his home in Massachusetts.
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