An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House, 393 pp., $27.50.
September 27, 1998        

In February 1994 the bull market was galloping along, the global economy was intact, the “2000” problem was not yet on the cyber-horizon, Bill Clinton was not yet a smutty joke, and the Republican congressional majority was only a gleam in the beady eyes of Newt Gingrich. Onto this tranquil scene burst “The Coming Anarchy,” a terrifying essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Robert Kaplan. A widely-travelled journalist with an exceptional appetite for background reading, Kaplan plausibly portrayed the future of the Third World -- and of expanding enclaves within the First World -- as a maelstrom of “environmental degradation ... disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels.” The map of this future, he concluded, “will be an ever-mutating representation of chaos.”

In a less sensational but equally disturbing essay last December (“Was Democracy Just a Moment?”), Kaplan deduced some of the political consequences of his earlier analysis and of subsequent travels. Celebration of the apparent worldwide triumph of democracy was, he warned, premature. Moreover, it was misguided in principle. “Democracy emerges successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements.” Deep democracy and superficial democracy are, he pointed out, quite different. The former -- the First World variety, roughly speaking -- means effective institutions, accountable officials, informed citizens, and a high level of civility and mutual trust. The latter -- the Third World variety -- means sham elections and phony rhetoric. Deep democracy, like any complex and delicate equilibrium, has many essential prerequisites: for example, high literacy rates; low birth rates; physical, commercial, legal, and technical infrastructures; public-health facilities; and no more than a moderate degree of social and economic inequality. These prerequisites take generations, even centuries, to develop. Until they do, only superficial democracy is possible. And if, in response to such historic stresses as economic globalization, they decay -- as may be happening in the United States -- deep democracy can degenerate into superficial democracy. Kaplan did not actually recommend benevolent authoritarianism as a way of managing these historic stresses in the First World and guiding social and economic development in the Third World. He did not, either in this essay or in “The Coming Anarchy,” recommend much of anything. He seemed mainly interested in scaring hell out of his readers. In my case, at least, he succeeded.

An Empire Wilderness is a record of Kaplan’s travels in and reading about North America, as his previous books were in the cases of West Africa and Central Asia (The Ends of the Earth) and southeastern Europe (Balkan Ghosts). North America is not, of course, headed for anarchy; we are too rich for that. A more likely political future for us is oligarchy: an affluent, cosmopolitan, symbol-manipulating elite serviced and surrounded by an unskilled, low-wage, dark-skinned underclass, neither of them rooted in or loyal to a national political community. Robert Reich called this phenomenon “the secession of the elites.” Kaplan’s reporting indirectly but dramatically confirms Reich’s thesis.

In tandem with this class stratification, the character of urban life is changing. St. Louis, Omaha, Tucson, Orange County, and other cities Kaplan visited are becoming hollow at the core, with downtowns deserted after five or abandoned to crime and drugs, suburbs burgeoning and often incorporating, and gated communities proliferating. The metropolis is being replaced by the “pod.” Pods are “neither cities nor towns nor even suburbs in the known sense,” but rather “vast conglomerations of minifortresses hooked up to satellites above as much as to similar pods a few hours away.” They are “not dominated -- nor even very much controlled -- by central municipal administrations.” But this civic withdrawal exacts a price: homogeneity. The cities of the future will no longer be culturally and architecturally distinctive , but will all likely consist of “the same borrowed fragments: standardized corporate fortresses, privately guarded housing developments, Disneyfied tourist bubbles, restaurants serving the same eclectic food, and so on.”

Kaplan glimpses an alternative to this bleak urban destiny in the Pacific Northwest. Portland and Vancouver have kept their downtowns vital and minimized suburban sprawl. But they are too abundantly blessed by history and geography to serve as a model for the rest of America, he concludes. The conservative vision of unlimited growth “will triumph almost everywhere else on the continent.”

Kaplan’s travels and speculations are by no means limited to cities. He drives up the Pacific coast of Mexico to Nogales and Tijuana, investigating immigration, the drug business, and the cultural roots of Mexico’s failure. He makes a persuasive case that Canada will not hold together. He crosses the Great Plains by bus with the “Greyhound underclass.” He drives around the Oklahama panhandle, meeting some colorful people in dwindling communities whose sole, forlorn hope is the arrival of a huge corporate pig farm. He reports on the development wars in Montana. He visits the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. He tours two of this century’s most notable public works -- the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River and the immense Pantex nuclear weapons facility near Amarillo, Texas -- with fascinating results. He gets to know the faculty and students of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and accompanies them on a field trip to the Civil War battlefield of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where that war was, arguably, won. Throughout, Kaplan’s energy and curiosity are impressive.

An Empire Wilderness is flawed by an uneven prose style, narrative rough edges, analytical thinness, and occasional dollops of bigthink. If Kaplan displayed the fierceness and focus of, say, Mike Davis (Prisoners of the American Dream) or Michael Lind (The Next American Nation), and the moral and psychological sophistication of, say, the late Christopher Lasch, An Empire Wilderness would be a less amiable but more formidable book. Still, it will surely turn out to be one of the most useful books about the twenty-first century to have been written in the twentieth. In the confusion ahead, Kaplan’s will be a voice worth listening for.