Robert Kaplan, an author and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, was on campus Wednesday January 6 to give a lecture spearheading the January Public Affairs Forum. The talk covered topics ranging from international relations and US foreign policy to the future of democracy.
Entitled “Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War World,” Kaplan’s lecture was at all times acutely aware of the coming century and the mystery tied to it. His work is generally concerned with the future, including his latest book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, which reports on his visits to the cities of the American west. The talk was tinged with darkness, perhaps because his predictions of the coming century are products of his study of the “murky” present. Calling himself a “constructive pessimist,” Kaplan noted that “the evils of the next century may not even have names yet.”
Kaplan, introduced by Assistant Professor of Political Science James McAllister, fixed his sights on what he descried as ill conceived democracies set up in third world nations which lack institutions needed to sustain their own governments. Democracy, Kaplan explained, “works best when it is instituted last.” It should not, he said, be used as a means but rather an end, hopefully avoiding problems which develop in small nations which may be called democracies but are actually much less sophisticated. “Parties become masks for ethnicity,” he said, citing examples such as Rwanda, Algeria, Venezuela, and other political disasters from the late twentieth century.
The fortress of Kaplan’s thought is the middle class, which he believes is absolutely necessary if any democratic system is to be worthwhile. If a certain country is able to expand the size of its middle class, which would lead to higher literacy rates, stronger institutions, and so forth, Kaplan believes that it would be capable of supporting a democratic system. But to use democracy as a road to a stronger middle class is, in Kaplan’s view, a mistakeâ€”“almost never in history has a democracy developed a middle class.”
Leaning on the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Kaplan spoke of the need to have some “coercive, centralized force” in order to develop ideas of justice, peace and prosperity. Following from this, Kaplan idolized the mixed regime.
In Turkey, he said, the military and the western-style parliamentary system both support and check each other, and the country’s general prosperity and stability flow from this balance. He spoke of the United States as a mixed regime as well, citing its division of powers in the governmental system.
Offering a contrasting view, new political science professor Marc Lynch presented a commentary on Kaplan’s remarks before professor McAllister opened the floor to questions. Idealistic to the end, Lynch warned that if democracy is left unchanged, the alternative might be even more dangerous. Stressing the costs of any remotely authoritarian regime, he “believes democracy can lead to true electoral competition, as opposed to people killing each other in the streets.”
Lynch also mentioned the horrors of the Turkish war against the Kurds, an ethnic minority in the mountains of eastern Turkey. He wondered if the politically powerful military might be in a better position to carry out such a war simply because of its position in Turkey’s mixed regime.
In any case, Kaplan finished by restating the tenets of his “constructive pessimism.” Looking into the next century, Kaplan predicted “it will be a world we will have to muddle through with self-interest and balance of power.” As a preemptive strike against critics, Kaplan singled out the idea of self-interest, stating that in pursuing self-interest one must also be aware of another’s self-interest. The audience did not take him up in a philosophical debate about this idea, nor did they seem to take issue with Kaplan’s central thoughts on democracy.
Instead, a fairly short question and answer period hammered out a few of the finer points in Kaplan’s lecture and the night ended when professor McAllister brought the session to a close.
McAllister was aware of the many avenues left unexplored, noting that while he “thought Kaplan’s talk was excellent, there is unfortunately never enough time to address all of the questions that his work raises.”
For the most part the audience reacted well of the talk. “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Seth Earn, ’01. “I had heard a lot of less than flattering things about Kaplan, but he was impressive.”
The evening also promised to enliven a cold and wintry January. It was the flagship of the month-long Public Affairs Forum, which has the overall title of “Peril or Promise? Debating the Contours of the 21st Century.” The next event, on January 12, will be a debate about free speech on the Internet between former Attorney General Ed Meese and the president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen. The forums continue with a lecture by Julian Bond on civil rights on January 15, and will end with an event entitle “The Future of Feminism” on January 20.