An Empire Wilderness

By Robert D. Kaplan

As long as it keeps re-inventing itself, the United States will have to be re-discovered. And the best way of doing this will likely remain going “on the road.”

In An Empire Wilderness, acclaimed travel writer Robert Kaplan sets out to do just this. His journey through the western United States, Canada, and Mexico tells the story of the latest evolutions in the American experiment.

The key to understanding America’s future lies in understanding what is happening to its cities. The United States is no longer an urban nation, but a suburban one, with more of its population living in its suburbs than in its rural and urban areas combined.

What this migration reflects is a social division between “two Americas.” The first of these is the unskilled “Greyhound underclass,” trapped in dead-end jobs (if employed at all) and living in inner city wastelands or rural backwaters. The other America is the one that lives in “posturban pods”: low-tax, high-income, often gated communities that have more in common with their virtual neighbours on the other side of the world than with the people living a couple of miles, or even blocks, away.

This part of Kaplan’s analysis is well-observed, but at other times the book’s argument seems too optimistic. The idea that super-affluent Orange Country, California can be a model for the future development of America seems to me to be far-fetched. And what, I would like to know, is the “bright promise” of the maquilladoras? A paradoxically regenerative kind of exploitation has always been part of that vague concept known as the American Dream, but this is going too far.

The question Kaplan sets out to answer is whether a strong, federal United States can survive the de-centralizing, anarchic tendencies of its contemporary politics. He observes that the ongoing increase in both the size and complexity of America’s population (which may grow by as much as 50 per cent by 2050) “will require regulatory tyranny” in order for the U.S. to survive. In the 21st century, a military may be all the “nation” the United States will have. (Canada, alas, is doomed to dissolution. But then it is “not a stimulating place” anyway.)

But while Kaplan often draws a rough parallel between the American and the Roman Empires, he doesn’t see imperial decline as inevitable. He hopes that “America might escape that fate by shedding its skin as a nation altogether and revealing an international civilization based on a single continent.” Nationalism “may slowly give way to a combination of traditional religion, various types of spiritualism, and loyalty to the planet rather than a specific country.”

In this new world order both Canada and Mexico will be effectively absorbed into economic super-regions, while the U.S. federal government will recede to a position of mere “imperial oversight.” Under such a dispensation the American Empire might even last as long as Rome’s. Then again . . .

We are all going on a trip into the future, and we should do all we can to be prepared. Although some of the details on this road map may turn out to be wrong, it does provide a stimulating guide for anxious travelers.

Review first published September 5, 1998. After 9/11 Kaplan became, not surprisingly, one of the leading apologists for American imperialism.


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