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on May 12, 2004
Robert Kaplan sought to achieve a rather ambitious aim when he set out to research and write this book; he wanted to find a new paradigm to understand the early decades of the 21st century. Kaplan noted that some experts focused on the effects of overpopulation and environmental degradation as the dominant forces (particularly in the developing world), while others spoke of a "new anarchy" (such as former UN secretary-general Perez de Cuellar, he and others noting that of the eighty wars between 1945 and 1995, forty-six were either civil wars or guerilla insurgencies). In 1993, forty-two countries were involved in major conflicts and thirty-seven others were suffering some lesser form of political violence (sixty-five of these seventy-nine nations were in the developing world). Kaplan journeyed through sub-Saharan West Africa from Guinea to Togo and through Egypt, Turkey, Iran, former Soviet Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia in his research for the book.
He found a predictably bleak situation in Africa. While 13 percent of the human race lives in Africa, they contribute only 1.2 percent of the world's gross domestic product. Crime - particularly violent crime - is soaring in much of Africa; for a time the United States suspended direct flights from the U.S. to Lagos, Nigeria due to the rampant violent crime at the terminal and nearby, the first time any such embargo had occurred for non-political and non-terrorist reasons. Soaring malaria in Africa is intensifying the spread of AIDS (as malaria can result in anemia, which requires blood transfusions), just as AIDS and tuberculosis are helping each other's spread.
As bad as the economy, crime, and disease in Africa are though, Kaplan believes the real problem in sub-Saharan Africa is too-rapid urbanization, a problem he comes to again and again in the book. Festering "bush-slums" that appear on few maps border many African cities, where relatively prosperous cities end up being "slum-magnets for an emptying countryside." He visited several such slums in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in West Africa, many packed with migrants from Mali, Niger, and elsewhere (50% of the population of the Ivory Coast is now non-Ivorian). The native forest culture of Africa, however primitive, was being destroyed by soaring birthrates, alcohol, cheap guns, and extremely dense concentrations of humanity in slums that lacked any stabilizing and unifying government or culture. Though he does not believe this to be the only factor in the bloody conflicts in Liberia and elsewhere, he does believe it to be a dominant one.
Though not leading to the level of social breakdown as seen in Africa, rapidly growing cities - packed with peasants drawn in from the countryside - was a dominant feature in other nations he found as well. China, while touted at the time of writing as having a 14 per cent growth rate, really meant that coastal China was growing; this growth did not apply to inland China (and also could be said to favor the cities and not the countryside), leading to a mass migration from the countryside. Migration to shantytowns in Pakistan is tremendous, owing in large part to a skyrocketing population rate (only 9 percent of Pakistani women use contraceptives and the population of Pakistan is close to doubling every twenty years), a situation leading to empty villages and a poorly urbanized peasantry that cities are unable to cope with.
Kaplan found similar problems in Egypt, where urban poverty and newly urbanized peasants, threatened with the loss of traditions, the government unable to help them, with basic services like water and electricity breaking down, having found something to turn to; Islam. Islam is thriving in a time of unregulated urbanization and internal and external refugee migrations. With increasingly militant Islamic Egyptians turning against Christian Arabs (both Coptic Christians, who like the Lebanese Kaplan met in West Africa and the Korean grocers of South Los Angeles, formed a "middlemen minority" in Egypt, as well as the Christian leaders like UN secretary-general Boutros-Ghali who failed to aid Bosnian Muslims) and turning to the Ikhwan el Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) for social services instead of an increasingly overburdened state, Kaplan sees scarcity and woes of the urbanized peasantry of the shantytowns as the driving force in many ways in Egypt.
The growing marriage of Islam and urbanized peasantry was not unique to Egypt. To a somewhat lesser extent Kaplan found a similar process on-going in Turkey, as the Turkish migrants to the gecekondus (literally "built in the night;" shanty-town houses) on the fringes of Istanbul found more aid from the Islamic Welfare Party in the form of water, coal, and food than from the Turkish government itself. In some areas of western China such as Kashgar, overcrowding, unemployment, and the lack of any real middle class was leading to a Muslim resurgence there among non-ethnic Chinese.
So what did Kaplan learn from his travels? He was quite frustrated, and found that the more he traveled the less he felt he knew. Kaplan did grow disgusted with the idea of political "science," paraphrasing Tolstoy in _Anna Karenina_ in writing that while successful cultures are in many ways alike, unsuccessful ones fail each in their own way. He did come to the conclusion that nation-states at least in West Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia were weakening. In some cases organizations and entities outside or beyond the state - such as the various Islamic groups in Egypt and Turkey - were starting to fill in the vacuum, while in other, failed states such as Sierra Leone, nothing was taking its place. Borders in some regions, the legacy of long-gone European imperial powers, were becoming less and less important. Laos and Cambodia were in some sense creations of the French, areas that might have long been swallowed by the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai and were now being divided up economically if not politically by these countries. I think his firmest conclusion though was that poorly and newly urbanized rural poor flocking to the cities represented the greatest challenge.
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on August 15, 2003
Those familiar with Kaplan’s work know the author doesn’t exactly travel to the world’s vacation spots. When most Americans go abroad, they explore prefer to Paris or sip espresso in a warm villa in Tuscany. When Kaplan goes abroad he finds himself traveling in countries where underpaid soldiers shake him down for bribes to pass their checkpoints and people live in appallingly squalid conditions. “Ends of the Earth� will give the reader a vivid feel for life in the Third World.
Kaplan’s “Atlantic Monthly� article, “The Coming Anarchy�, is kind of a primer for reading “Ends of the Earth� (portions of it re-appear): much of the world depicted by Kaplan is nasty, brutal and harsh, as the collapse of law and order leads to a repeating circle of violence and chaos. The more the state collapses under the strain of violence, the more the violence increases. Environmental decay, in turn, makes natural resources scarce, which causes people to fight over these ever-dwindling resources. Kaplan concentrates on Africa in the original article but he has expanded on that point in “Ends of the Earth�, by pointing out that his thesis is applicable to other problems in the world: China, India, Egypt, Turkey, etc.
Kaplan basically backpacks around each of the countries, staying in slummier hotels and living with local families. Like any good travel writer, Kaplan gives the writer a vivid feel for the places he goes to. A lot of travel readers might find Kaplan’s focus on history uninteresting, but I appreciate it because I agree that where we’ve been is the closest indicator of where the world is going. Someone once said that a page of history is worth a volume of logic, and I think Kaplan illustrates how history and geography dictate what sort of culture, economy and foreign policy a nation has.
I particularly enjoyed the sections of the book dealing with Iran. I’ve long been fascinated by the Persian land, with its ancient culture. Kaplan presents a country that is misunderstood in the Western world: Iran is a land of rich culture and a deep appreciation of art and beauty. The picture that Kaplan presents to the reader is that, unlike the rest of the Arab world, with its spare and dogmatic adherence to Islam, Iran is a country with a deep appreciation of beauty and a great capacity for tolerance. Its people are intelligent and open-minded, its society is not rife with chauvinism and hatred and there is great possibility in Iran for a meaningful dialogue. The cultural observations Kaplan noted: how open-minded Iranian students were, how Iranian women were treated better and were more assertive than their Saudi counterparts, how tolerant the Shi’ite brand of Islam seemed compared with its more warrior-like Sunni counterparts, are all important clues to Kaplan that Iran is a nation far more willing to break bread with the U.S. and have some sort of partnership. The section on Iran is well-worth the price of the book.
One of the great things about Kaplan’s writing is his ability to smoke out trends or facts that escape the notice of the modern media. His comments about Iranian culture and society are an example of this. Also interesting is seeing how environmental scarcity and ethnic and religious tensions drive history: the growth of the Thai sex industry, for example, has much to do with deforestation in northern Thailand. (In the book Kaplan explains that logging by the Thai military means that rural villagers in the north can no longer make ends meet because their farmland is being destroyed, so many girls in their teens and twenties go to Bangkok to work in the massage parlors and the go-go bars.) Before reading “Ends of the Earth� I didn’t know that, and I doubt that people would make the causal connection between the two.
Liberals, I suspect, won’t have much to cheer from reading “The Ends of the Earth�, and most of Kaplan’s critics sit on the left. Kaplan sees himself as a classical realist, so he has no words of praise for idealists or those who bring their ideological causes to an analysis of the world. These liberals who think U.S. law enforcement customs are possible in the Third World are, Kaplan believes, getting the world wrong by bringing their own ideology to the table.
Unsurprisingly, Kaplan’s unsparing criticism of African politics and government has provoked many to roundly denounce him as a racist, a charge that simply doesn’t hold water. Kaplan is no racist: he sees disorder and writes about it, and he sees the lack of African development and freedom (as compared with Europe and America) as mostly being a function of environment and social factors. Unlike many liberals, Kaplan has actually bothered to try and travel like a native citizen would: no limousines, no private jets. The world that he sees is the world that people live in. There is nothing racist in that.
Critics also fail to note that Kaplan has criticized Western nations like France, England, Portugal, and Germany for drawing borders in Africa without any sort of concern for having them actually make geopolitical sense. As a consequence, Kaplan notes, often ethnic tribes are cut in half by European borders, contributing to the lack of unity and the social strife that has engulfed West Africa.
Finally, I wish that Kaplan had devoted a bit more time in his travels to India and Southeast Asia, instead of Central Asia. As Kaplan notes, he’s been to Pakistan ten times in his life, so he has written volumes about the country. I was fascinated to read about India, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand because they were so different from the places Kaplan usually goes culturally and politically. After I got done reading the final section on Indochina, I thought: “I want to know more!�
In the final analysis, “Ends of the Earth� is a terrific book. Those interested in the world around us will be fascinated. I highly recommend.
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on July 5, 2002
I read this on my flight to Turkey, as I experienced my first entry into a truly foreign country. Although I didn't take the risk of travelling outside of the "bubble" that Kaplan talks about, sections of this book definitely pertained to my trip. It altered the way I perceived the world around me. Instead of seeing some Istanbul neighborhoods as helplessly impoverished, I looked for signs of the middle-class ambition that Kaplan spoke of. I also realized that my standards of living are not available to most of the world, and The Ends of the Earth was a good introduction to this concept.
I find particularly interesting the political context in Kaplan's travel writing. Not only do you get the direct visceral experience of travelling through so-called "third world" countries, but you get the political history. My friend said that the book itself is a journey through thought as it is a journey through countries. There is no final answer to why certain cultures develop in one way and others develop in other ways - but you'll certainly appreciate the process as Kaplan visits developing nations across the world and attempts to analyze the past's impact on the present.
This book is highly readable. You simply do not get bored, and I can't think of another non-fiction book that I didn't want to put down at some point.
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on April 14, 2002
This book is not your average travel memoir. It is an introspective analysis of the social and political conditions of developing countries from West Africa to Thailand. Typical travelogues can be titillating, but because the authors actually know so little about the cultures that they are visiting for a short time, readers learn more about the authors themselves than about the countries being described. However, this book is quite different in that respect--Kaplan obviously knows this region well, having worked as a journalist in the region for years. As a journalist, he knows which questions to ask and from whom. He describes conversations with high government officials (many of which wish to remain anonymous), as well as tidbits that he picks up from traveling companions and encounters with ordinary people. He backs up all of these personal anecdotes with hard facts and statistics footnoted to hundreds of resources listed in the bibliography. What he has to say can about the countries and cultures that he visits can be quite disturbing.
One of Kaplan�s goals for his trip is to try to discover why some regions of the developing world are bordering on anarchy, or have actually slipped over the edge, and others seem to be working well for the community. By observing societies and talking to leaders as well as ordinary people, he attempts to discover what works to build a civil world. He considers the varying influences that tradition, religion, education, government, and environment may have on a society. While he points out that education, particularly literacy, seems to be vital for maintaining civilization, he finds that there are no absolute factors that can predict which societies will succeed and which will devolve into barbarism.
Many of Kaplan�s observations are quite disturbing, such as when he points out entire regions where per capita income has fallen dramatically since the 1960s, yet population has risen, in contrast to other regions with similar levels of development in 1960 where exactly the opposite has happened. What�s more, Kaplan points out that many of the reasons for these problems are internal to the societies themselves, such as corruption and traditional practices. The people are understandably frustrated, they have little or no education, and they have easy access to powerful weapons. Unscrupulous or ill-educated leaders can easily point the blame for these problems entirely at the �West�, redirecting the anger of the masses so that the society does not implode with its own violence.
Some readers may find some of Kaplan�s comments racist or bigoted, but having lived for 4 years in a place where the majority of the population comes from the countries that Kaplan describes, I find that every word rings true for me. Kaplan has put into words my own observations and speculations about what I see around me. The book is filled with hundreds of short remarks that capture so much of my experience here, such as when he quotes an Indian educator as saying �Only when children are taught to categorize and to analyze, rather than merely to memorize, can they achieve anything in the modern world. Intercommunal and tribal hatreds�arise from too much faulty oral memory and too little self-motivated analysis.� But the one that will stick with me for years is his point that you can�t give wealth, and you can�t pump it out of the ground. You can only create wealth. This book will be of interest to anyone who is trying to understand the forces behind current world events. It should be read by all top-level policy makers.
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on February 4, 2002
I was introduced to Robert Kaplan's work through his articles for Atlantic Monthly. His analysis of the world stage is so insightful and realistic it makes most of the other things I've read in the area seem like Fairy Tales and Demagoguery. In a previous book he successfully foretold the crisis in the Balkans, in this book he brings his pen and his observational acumen to the edge of civilization.
This book is essentially a travel journal; Mr. Kaplan joins up with backpackers, gets hassled at borders, gets overcharged for train tickets. Fortunately for the reader, Mr. Kaplan's travels have the singular, though somewhat opaque purpose of divining the state of the societies in which he travels. The things observed, though interesting in their own right, are weaved by Mr. Kaplan into a roughly hewn picture of the cultures in which he travels. Things as simple as the look in the eye of a street urchin or the way in which a woman covers her head contribute to this picture in invaluable ways.
Kaplan's assessments are, on the whole, fairly pessimistic and he is skeptical about the efficacy of foreign assistance. One of Kaplan's overarching themes is that many of the dynamics that are at work in these places are nearly impossible to disarm from the outside, and that attempts to do so often cause more harm than good.

There is a tinge of fatalism in the accounts of many regions, West Africa, for one. But Kaplan does leave his readers with a mere series of plaintive elegies. His reification of the mechanics of chaotic polity offer many constructive lessons on how to offer modest assistance, and more important, how to avoid exacerbating these situations through well-intentioned meddling.
My understanding of the volatile regions of our world was greatly improved by this book. For that reason alone, I recommend it to all readers.
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on December 6, 2001
Robert Kaplan has made a name for himslef by combining the page turning, easy-reading style of many (unfortunatley factless) journlists into authoritive accounts of humanity's struggles in the developing world.
As he points out throughout "To the Ends of the Earth," the authorities that we in the developed world have come to depend and rely upon to inform us and thus provide assistacne to ailing peoples and economies in the world seem to have lost sight of the reasons for their being in places such as Sierra Leone, Iran and Cambodia. From my own travels in the developing world, I have seen that, even more than in the United States or anywhere else in the developed world, foriegn elites can live a rich and privelaged life away from the general populace. This is exactly what has happened among residents of embassies, development projects and expatriate businesses.
The result of this distance is the complete inability to understand the complexity of world issues. Our expatriate elite publish well - manicured reports about wrongly subsidized bread prices, backward cultures, governmental authorities reaching totalitarian existences and lazy local workers. Yet, these issues are all analyzed and dealt with as unrealted issues. Kaplan's strength is the insights he gains by travelling on the ground in bush taxis and dusty pensions; he recognizes that these economic, political, cutlural and geogrpahical issues are inextriacbly inked and must be dealth with as such.
Kaplan paints an amazingly grim picture of the world's future. From my travels through some of these countries I agree with many of his observations, but despite his efforts to be objective, I find many of his comments to be very quick-handed and made in a very judgemental manner as if he just arrived at the local bus station, fresh after reading his first travel book about the country. Nevertheless, I greatly recommend this book as it reveals the discrepancy in the way the news is covered today and how we must begin to consider third world issues seriously connected to our very being as connected human beings.
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on July 12, 2001
If you ever wondered why the U.S. Intelligence Community tries so desperately to keep its annual budget secret from Congress and the citizens, this book might provide a clue: one man, very well-grounded in historical and contextual reading, is capable of reporting extremely valuable insights that neither a $30 billion a year spy world nor a $3 billion a year diplomatic community seem capable of either comprehending or communicating to the public.
Robert D. Kaplan gets three big things right: he studies history before visiting; he is firmly grounded in a geographical or geophysical appreciation of every situation; and he travels on foot and at the lowest common level. The world he sees and reports on is not the world that the pampered and sheltered diplomats, businessmen, and journalists see or understand.
Reading Kaplan is a treat for anyone who takes the rest of the world and America's naivete with some seriousness. He is correct when he posits a new World War, "a protracted struggle between ourselves and the demons of crime, population pressure, environmental degradation, disease, and culture conflict."
He is at his best when mixing his historical reading with his personal intellect and observations, to arrive at conclusions that contradict conventional wisdom--for instance, his appreciation of Iran as a structured and stable society, and of Turkey as the next mega-power and the keeper of the Islamic flame. His extremely sharp observations about Saudi Arabia as the hidden enemy of the United States of America are very very provocative, especially when one realizes that we are providing them with an extremely generous military and economic program at U.S. taxpayer expense. Saudi funding of terrorism, including Bin Laden, is increasingly documented in the public domain, and U.S. taxpayers need to begin questioning U.S. policy in this specific area.
This personal travel narrative is invaluable as a means of contemplating the realities of nations that exist (e.g. the Kurds) alongside states that continue to persecute and deny these nations a right to live. Although another hundred pages follow, the real end of the book is on page 336 where he discusses a living map of the future world, one that is constantly changing and that reflects several realities--a reality of overlapping group identities such as those of language and economic class; a reality of legal boundaries and overlapping and sometimes conflicting cultural boundaries; a reality of power distributed and often shared openly between police, criminals, terrorists, white-collar thieves, and politicians; and a reality of population growth, disease, refugee migrations and genocide; as well as soil and water scarcity.
His bibliography is quite worthwhile, and helps make his personal reporting even more valuable. I have but one disappointment, and that is that this prolific author and policy commentator, a major force (indeed, the only continuous voice on foreign policy matters for The Atlantic Monthly), has failed to provide a concluding section that pulls it all together in an executive briefing suitable for policy consideration. There are many valuable lessons and observations in this book, I recommend it highly, but I fear that the policy-makers who most desperately need to be educated will never, ever actually read the book.
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on October 28, 2000
I give this book five stars for one reason: it is important to read it and to keep thinking about its main subject: the future of the nation-state and the possible consequences of its demise. Kaplan knows he is going to be subjective. That's fine. He is well-read and travels with a good piece of luggage: previous knowledge of the history of the places he's going to -unlike most of the backpackers he correctly mocks at-. Kaplan is a good writer. He goes to fascinating and really different places. But the important thing about the book is his reflections on the future of the world, from the standpoint of these societies. This book takes us to some of the places where the future of humanity will be decided, within the next decades. These are regions in crisis, in its clinical, primary meaning: artificial borders, paper-States, overpopulation, an exhaustion of natural resources, forced and vertiginous urbanization, and one more thing: the rapid increase in violent religious fanatism, as a consequence of the erosion of identity in the misery-ridden slums of the Third World. The rank-and-file of the fundamentalist threats is formed by poor peasants who suddenly had lo leave their land and become lumpen-proletariats in Cairo, Ankara or some other megalopolis. West Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeastern Asia, are "fracture lines". These regions are living the beginning of the end of the Nation-state as the basic cell of human political organization, only in the other end of the spectrum, compared with the European Union. And yet there is hope. As in Rishi Valley, what we still call the Third World need not be lost for peace, prosperity and a promising future. At least, not all of it. For that outcome to happen, the West has to turn its eyes and minds to help. Clearly, the West can not do what these peoples themselves are not willing to do. But the West must help when it is possible. The elites of these nations must come to terms with their responsibilities in leading their peoples out of the bleak way in which some of them are embarked. It is possible, but first we have to know the problems. And Kaplan is helping with his books.
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on April 26, 2000
Don't buy this book thinking it's merely a travelogue of some of the world's poorer and lesser-known nations. (In fact, if that's all you're looking for, then I highly recommend Pico Iyer's Falling off the Map instead.) No, it's a cleverly disguised sociopolitical analysis, but unlike most such works, it's refreshing in that Kaplan freely admits his observations are subjective and possibly wrong. But that's exactly the problem. Despite physically travelling to all these destinations, Kaplan seems to spend precious little time actually TALKING with real citizenry in most places. Instead he whisks from Western hotels in the capital to meetings with various pols and officials before scuttling off to the next country, sometimes just days later. And therein lies the failure of an otherwise worthy effort from an outstanding writer: the superficiality of most of his experiences in these places. Give him a few days in a country, coupled with a bit of background reading and perhaps a few conversations with experts at home, and Kaplan feels justified in making sweeping generalizations about where these nations have been, and where they are going. Had Kaplan just stopped country-hopping and stayed in one region for a longer time, I think his conclusions would have been much improved. A side note: having travelled to a number of these countries (as one of the "backpackers" that Kaplan scornfully derides throughout the book), his constant dramatizing of the mundane grows tedious after a while...I think the only person surprised that the third world can be dirty, smelly, and unpredictable is Kaplan himself.
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on May 3, 1999
As Kaplan writes in Balkan Ghosts "The past is yesterday's present and the future tomorrow's past". Therefore, the events of today's headlines are less significant than the global trends. However, in his unsentimental journey, Kaplan is careful to avoid the pitfalls of endism, producing what is instead an informed, educated and nuanced account of the threats to development in the twenty-first century. Even he admits that it is but one person's account and therefore subject to bias and flaws (which are certainly present), but the very nature of his "unsentimental journey" (a concept which is invaluable to those of us trying to understand the paths which developing societies take), he is enlightening the reader about many parts of the world, and in fact the nature of social transformation itself. By emphasizing the nature of population growth and combining this with an examination of the state and its legitimacy, he goes beyond the traditional modernist paradigm to examine the dark heart of "progress". A great read which sustained and informed me through 3 months in Latin America (an area I wish he would address).
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