I think that Robert Kaplan gets a few things wrong but most things right in his recent musings on why there’s so much anarchy around the world. Let’s start with what I agree with.
The most important observation he makes is that institutions matter:
Here we come to the key element. The post-colonial Arab dictators ran moukhabarat states: states whose order depended on the secret police and the other, related security services. But beyond that, institutional and bureaucratic development was weak and unresponsive to the needs of the population — a population that, because it was increasingly urbanized, required social services and complex infrastructure. (Alas, urban societies are more demanding on central governments than agricultural ones, and the world is rapidly urbanizing.) It is institutions that fill the gap between the ruler at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom. Thus, with insufficient institutional development, the chances for either dictatorship or anarchy proliferate. Civil society occupies the middle ground between those extremes, but it cannot prosper without the requisite institutions and bureaucracies.
That isn’t limited to the Arab world. The Soviet Union as a matter of policy tried to pound down any institutions other than the Communist Party, the military, and the KGB. They were largely successful but two institutions eluded them: organized crime and the Orthodox Church. No wonder that when the Soviet Union collapsed largely taking the Communist Party with it the remaining institutions controlled the creation of the economy and the state that followed it. Even less is the wonder that Russia is now headed by former KGB.
China has much the same problem and when the Chinese Communist Party loses control of the country as will inevitably happen, the institutions that will remain—largely families, organized crime, and the military—will be in a position to control the outcome.
Consequently, I fully agree with this observation:
The real question marks are Russia and China. The possible weakening of authoritarian rule in those sprawling states may usher in less democracy than chronic instability and ethnic separatism that would dwarf in scale the current instability in the Middle East. Indeed, what follows Vladimir Putin could be worse, not better. The same holds true for a weakening of autocracy in China.
Now onwards to the observations of his with which I disagree.
First, I think most of the world has always had anarchy. It’s not a new development. In particular there’s a broad swathe of territory from the Bosporus to the Hindu Kush in which there have never been strong states other than for very short periods if at all.
My second criticism may sound like a quibble but it’s more than that. States don’t have identities:
With feeble institutions, such post-colonial states have feeble identities. If the state only means oppression, then its population consists of subjects, not citizens. Subjects of despotisms know only fear, not loyalty. If the state has only fear to offer, then, if the pillars of the dictatorship crumble or are brought low, it is non-state identities that fill the subsequent void. And in a state configured by long-standing legal borders, however artificially drawn they may have been, the triumph of non-state identities can mean anarchy.
People have identities. When people have identities, expressed through institutions like tribes and religion, that oppose the formation of strong states, they won’t have strong states.
And I disagree with his conclusion:
The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.
Because identity and institutions matter the future of world politics will be about how the rest of the world deals with the large areas of ungoverned and ungovernable territory.