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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 problem.


What 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 order?

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 to violence.


In your view, are there any successful field activities of the international community worth being implemented in such places?

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 organizations?

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 model democracy.

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 reporters might.

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
Roland Schönbauer is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria. He interviewed Kaplan at his home in Massachusetts.


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