The words anarchy and chaos are everywhere in the news. Iraq has collapsed. Syria collapsed some time ago, as did Libya and Yemen—even as Yemen now threatens to enter deeper depths of implosion with al-Houthi insurgents having entered and virtually surrounded the capital of Sanaa. Civil war in Lebanon periodically threatens to reignite. Egypt has required a rebirth of authoritarianism to keep order there. Afghanistan and Pakistan are never far from the abyss. Ukraine is a weak state threatened with further Russian military aggression. A wall of disease has been erected in West Africa in states that collapsed into anarchy in the late 1990s and have been limping along ever since. Nigeria faces an Islamic insurgency that is, in turn, indicative of regional tensions between Muslims in the north of the country and Christians in the south. South Sudan, midwifed into existence by Western elites, has been in a circumstance of tribal war. The Central African Republic, beset by religious violence that has killed thousands, can in no sense be called a functioning state. The same can be said of Somalia, though the worst of the threat posed by Islamic extremists there may be past. New shortages of rationed food items in Venezuela may mean more upheaval there. And there are other places around the globe — called states in the polite language of diplomats and development experts — that travelers’ accounts away from the capital cities reveal are no such thing.
I worried aloud about such a world in a lengthy 1994 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Coming Anarchy.” The core of my argument was that with European empires gone, not every place in the world will necessarily have the capability to maintain functioning institutions in far-flung countrysides, and that absolute rises in population, ethnic and sectarian divides, and especially environmental degradation (i.e., water shortages) will only make such places harder to govern. My argument only seemed hopeless if you believed in the first place that elites could engineer reality from above. Of course elites can affect destiny at pivotal moments, but the actual character of large geographical swathes of the earth will only be determined by the masses living there.
But what if such chaos as we have seen in small- and some medium-sized states over time happens in larger states? What if, for example, the two dominant territorial forces on the Eurasian mainland, Russia and China, prove deeper into the 21st century to be ungovernable by centralized means? I am not predicting this. I personally do not think this will happen. But I believe it is a worthwhile thought experiment to conduct and entertain. For even the partial unraveling of Russia or China would have dramatic geopolitical effects far beyond their borders. Europe, after all, has throughout its history had its fate substantially determined by eruptions from the east — in Russia. Southeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula and even the island nation of Japan have often had their fates substantially determined by changes in China. If we do not think the unthinkable, therefore, we are being irresponsible.
The fear of chaos has always been central to Russian history. Russia’s landmass encompasses half the longitudes of the earth, with the result that central control must be oppressive merely to be effective. Adding to this sense of oppression is the perennial fear of invasion. Indeed, Russia is a land power with few natural borders in any direction. Oppressive, autocratic regimes have a tendency to foster weak institutions, since rule in such circumstances is personal rather than bureaucratic. Of course, the stories of Russia’s impenetrable and inefficient bureaucracy are legion, but this reality has only caused its rulers — czars and commissars both — to be even more oppressive in their attempts to overcome it. To wit, the way in which President Vladimir Putin rules Russia is merely a culmination of how Russia has been ruled for more than a millennium. Putin rules in Politburo style, with a somewhat opaque circle of advisers who control all the major levers of power, military and civilian. Natural resource revenues, especially those of oil and natural gas, become tools of central authority in this case.
Russia is not a world of stable, impersonal and rules-based institutions but a world of rank intimidation and of whom you know. If this is the case — if Putin has created a rule by a camarilla, which by its mere existence weakens institutional checks and balances — what will happen to Russia after he leaves or is forced from office? Voices in the Western media wax hopeful that Putin can be toppled if he miscalculates on his military intervention in Ukraine. But were that to occur, it is more likely that Russia itself could weaken or fall into chaos, or that an even more brutal dictator would emerge to forestall such chaos. And were there to be a crisis in central authority in Moscow, expect far-flung regions such as Siberia and the Russian Far East to gain more autonomy, formally or informally. In other words, the partial breakup of Russia may be more likely than the emergence of Western democracy in Russia. The years of former President Boris Yeltsin’s incompetent rule in the 1990s should be a warning of what to expect from Russian democracy.
The fear of chaos has often been prevalent throughout history in China. For thousands of years, one Chinese dynasty has followed another. But not every dynasty has been able to control all or most of Chinese territory, and between the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another there has periodically been chaos. The Chinese Communist Party is just the latest Chinese dynasty, which itself emerged following a long period of war and chaos. Now this latest dynasty faces a tumultuous economic transition from an Industrial Age, smokestack economy driven by low wages and a massive volume of exports to a postindustrial, cleaner and high-tech economy featuring higher wages and a somewhat lower volume of exports. Chinese President Xi Jinping is using an anti-corruption campaign as a sort of great purge to re-centralize the Party for these economic rigors ahead. It is highly unclear whether he can succeed. Meanwhile, democratic tendencies stir, as we have seen in Hong Kong.
If Xi only partially succeeds, let alone fails, there is the possibility of sustained ethnic unrest at increasing levels among the Muslim Turkic Uighurs in western China and the Tibetans in southwestern China. So do not necessarily expect China to be as stable over the next 30 years as it has been for the last 30.
In sum, just because autocracy has failed does not mean that democracy can work. And just because the tumultuous, dramatic weakening of central control in big states has not happened yet does not mean it is implausible.