Travel writing is a dismal art. From Herodotus, wide-eyed (and perhaps more than a little disoriented) in an India of man-eating ants and black sperm; to Ibn Batuta, the fourteenth-century Arab wanderer who endured the thirst and marauding tribesmen of the Sahara; to Graham Greene in lawless Mexico and Redmond O’Hanlon on the untamable Amazon: The classics of the genre are journeys into the night, tales of loneliness and hardship and danger. As Ian Jack puts it, no traveler has written a better–or more exemplary–sentence than Captain Scott, who stood at the South Pole in January 1912 and wrote in his diary, “Dear God, this is an awful place.”
Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find many finer sentences in Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan’s latest installment of gloom and hopelessness, an account of his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Kaplan likes to quote Shakespeare and Gogol, and he has elsewhere extolled the usefulness of Conrad’s writing in political analysis, but his own prose chokes on stilted aphorisms and anodyne observations. “Relative change, more than absolute change, is what history is often about,” he concludes at a Romanian border post. Traveling by train between Bulgaria and Turkey, Kaplan comes to the realization that “the idea that the Internet and other new technologies annihilate distance is a half-truth.” “You see, Robert,” one of his informants tells him, “Hungarian nationalism, Romanian nationalism–they’re all bad.”
Perhaps the best that can be said about Kaplan’s writing is that what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in earnestness: As V.S. Naipaul–another traveler with a dyspeptic view of the world–has written of Conrad, his vision is flawed and unremittingly “dismal, but deeply felt.” As in his earlier books–cataclysmic travelogues with titles like The Coming Anarchy, The Ends of the Earth and An Empire Wilderness–Kaplan shrouds the world in darkness, lamenting the “imprisoning desolation” and “Brezhnevian gloom” of the lands he visits. In the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, even in his own United States, whose decline he predicted in An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan has never met a society that wasn’t falling apart. This dogged credo has earned him much notoriety and a considerable degree of influence: A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his essays are circulated in the White House and National Security Council, and his portrait of intractable “ancient hatreds” in Bosnia famously led President Clinton to conclude that intervening in the Yugoslav war would result in a quagmire (a dubious achievement that Kaplan has himself disowned). Over the course of two decades, Kaplan has established himself as the leading chronicler of the post-Communist Pax Americana, a grim reaper whose seamy version of globalization contrasts sharply with so many of the sunny–and often flippant–promises of global culture and prosperity.
Like those of many doom-mongering travelers–and like Conrad, memorably called a “bloody racist” by Chinua Achebe–Kaplan’s jeremiads against the rot of the non-Western world have drawn charges of ill-informed prejudice. The Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has even suggested that Kaplan’s forlorn vision of Africa was the result of a mefloquine-induced hallucination. But while it is true that Kaplan sometimes slips into mortifying disquisitions on “Asiatic” despotism and “the exotic confusion of the Orient,” he deserves to be taken more seriously. In retrospect, what’s striking about his books is not so much their bleakness as their prescience. Balkan Ghosts, written in 1989 and rejected by fourteen publishers before it was finally published at the start of the Yugoslav war, was an unheeded warning of the disintegration to come. In 1997, as the West was only beginning to awaken from its “end of history” delirium, Kaplan published a provocative essay in which he asked if “democracy was just a moment.” (The essay coincided with an influential article by Fareed Zakaria, then the editor of Foreign Affairs, in which he similarly lamented the rise of “illiberal democracy.”) The Coming Anarchy, whose eponymous essay has earned Kaplan the greatest opprobrium, was less pessimistic than downright hysterical. But it, too, evinced a remarkable ability to pierce the self-serving delusions of an African revival being bandied about by Western policy-makers. Today, as Central Africa burns amid what Madeleine Albright has called “Africa’s first world war,” Kaplan’s portrait of civil war and disease and institutional meltdown is sadly accurate.