Fear subverts political stability

February 22nd, 1994
Category: 

The character of the post-Cold War world is the subject of a sobering, doomsday cover story by editor Richard Kaplan in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. 

Kaplan doesn't dwell on the usual post-Cold War themes: regional conflicts, the role of the UN, growth of trading blocs. Kaplan is a Malthusian and a pessimist, not a strategist with faith in man's ability to transform or accommodate social and physical limits. 

Kaplan sees the future through his experiences in the urbanized regions of the Third World, and especially West Africa. He views Thomas Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday, as the prophet of West Africa's future where crime, pollution, overcrowding, scarcity, poverty, disease and tribalism are destroying the fabric of urban society. Examples: Lagos, Nigeria; Freetown or Gondoma, Sierra Leone; Abidjan, the effective capital of the Ivory Coast. 

Kaplan's story: Lawlessness is pervasive in many West African (and other Third World) cities where predatory governments overcontrol everything during the day -- oppressive regulations, overzealous customs officials, and bureaucrats who demand bribes and pay-offs before they will permit otherwise lawful activity -- and control nothing after dark. Result: Perpetual, low-grade violence undermines the legitimacy of government and allegiance to national leaders. 

Second, governments atrophy as people increasingly follow tribal and regional warlords who provide safety and security. Result: Warlord power and influence often exceed that of a central government that is increasingly viewed as just another of many warring factions in an artificial state to which no one is loyal. 

Third, corruption is widespread as warlords exact tribute in return for the safe movement of people and goods, and government officials plunder private and public treasure to fill their own coffers. Result: New investment and new wealth creation -- keys to increasing living standards, improving literacy, igniting hope and reducing birth rates -- are stymied. 

Fourth, cities continue to grow at alarming rates and are increasingly dominated by shantytowns where loose family structures, animist beliefs and communal practices brought in from the countryside leave people ill-prepared for life in a big city. 

Kaplan's punchlines: Criminal anarchy, found in many of West Africa's major cities, is the likely fate of many other global cities. The real strategic danger of the post-Cold War world: a two-tier society of the wealthy and well-fed protected by high fences, armed gatekeepers and private security forces and the rest -- for whom, in Hobbes's words, life will be "nasty, brutish and short." 

This is not a new scenario. When governments lose their ability to protect people (as in West Africa) or sidestep their responsibilities to provide personal safety and public security (as in many American cities), people and communities that can afford it will take steps to protect themselves. 

You don't have to buy into Kaplan's central arguments (I do not) to appreciate a lesson of his analysis: People want personal safety and will cashier leaders and institutions and even regimes until they get it. 

Number: 
185

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