This is Robert D. Kaplan's vision of America's future: a collection of city-states where political power and decision making are concentrated locally. Rather than set broad policy and enforce law, the federal government would provide a protective shield against such hazards as global terrorists and computer hackers and supply aid such as specialized military units for floods and earthquakes. This new political arrangement is what Kaplan describes as an empire wilderness, vast, remote, decentralized. And this outlook forms the cornerstone for Kaplan's new book, An Empire Wilderness.
It is best described as a political travelogue, one pilgrim's impressions formed while progressing down his country's interstates and back roads. The journey is set in the West, where Kaplan shakes his East Coast shackles and witnesses America's still-open, still-developing vistas. He travels some of the same trails as Kerouac. But where Kerouac wrote for the Beat Generation, Kaplan writes for a Baby Boom Generation which approaches the 21st century harboring worries about old age and the future of its offspring.
Kaplan, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has established a niche for himself with this style of writing. He traveled through Bosnia and made controversial political observations in his best-selling Balkan Ghosts. And he roamed from West Africa to Central and South East Asia to pen The Ends of the Earth. In An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan visits such places as Fort Levenworth, Kansas, Orange County, California, Tucson, Arizona, Nogales, Mexico, and Vancouver, Canada, developing some intriguing insights into America's future: Foreign policy will, over the decades, be increasingly influenced by the military, as war, peacekeeping, famine relief, and the like grow too technical and complex for civilian managers to control. Despite attempts to curb the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, large scale immigration may have to continue, if for no other reason than to provide an army of younger workers to support America's retirees. Efforts to revive decaying urban downtowns are threatened by suburbanization and computerization. No one needs to go [downtown] to shop, see a movie, or go to a fancy restaurant. And the residents can be hooked up to the world from their homes. Thus, the essence of An Empire Wilderness is a glimpse at a horizon that Kaplan sees as neither too bright, nor too bleak. Recalling Rome, Athens, and other empires that have risen and fallen, Kaplan somewhat cryptically predicts that the changes being experienced in America are part of an evolution toward finality. The next passage will be our most difficult as a nation, he writes, and it will be our last. John T. Slania is a writer in Chicago, Illinois.