Although no one can know how world affairs will operate for the rest of the 21st century at the microscopic level of individual events, much can nevertheless be said about the large-scale functioning of the global political system and, specifically, about how it is evolving in ways that decision-makers ignore at their peril. Decision-makers, i.e., precisely those individuals responsible for guiding their societies into the future, also tend to be particularly conservative (read: hide-bound, blind, in denial) about how the conditions under which that future will necessarily come into being are evolving. What sticks in the craw of our backward-looking leaders is a certain “liberal” (read: open-minded, flexible), “leftist” (read: oh-oh, don’t wanna go there) little word that makes self-perceived tough guys feel queasy in the stomach—“evolving.”
In the U.S., at least, most leaders are virtually illiterate and almost totally innumerate because they have focused their lives on winning elections (without any clear reason why) or building fortunes (again, without any clear reason why) or winning legal cases in court (which still leaves one little time for learning about foreign cultures or history). None of these backgrounds provides a very good path to understanding where human civilization has come from, how it got where it is, or where it is headed. Those unusual leaders with a bit of education probably carry around a powerful mental model of one outstanding event (perhaps Hitler or the glory of Rome or the Depression) that shines so bright in their minds that it blinds them to the real tangle of underlying dynamics pushing mankind to and fro. If an individual leader rises above the rest and enters office with a clear comprehension of the past, he or she will still be behind the curve because the world is now changing faster than we can keep up.
So, in the end, our leaders are conservative. A conservative attitude may have been fine during what we perceive as the endlessly predictable Neolithic times when tradition was the best guide (at least until one of those unsettling interglacial ages rolled around). Today, however, conservatism is likely to put one dangerously out-of-touch with reality. A conservative may continue to believe that foreign policy is about regime-to-regime ties, when an Arab Spring suddenly puts the masses in the driver’s seat. A conservative may continue to rely on traditional military force even though current instability results from socio-economic and psychological foundations whose cracks cannot be repaired by bombs. A conservative may continue to view an old ally as a trusted friend decades after it has transformed itself into a pugnacious troublemaker. If “conservative” is to maintain old values, it may be the most admirable of attitudes. But if to be “conservative” is to reject the flexibility required to keep speed with a changing reality, in a world of globalized finance, globalized pollution, and globalized asynchronous warfare, it is suicidal.
This raises two obvious questions:
- What is different about the world today?
- How can we understand it well enough to protect ourselves and continue the long process of building a better life?
To get a sense of what is different, consider the vastly simpler circumstances of the solar system, which lacks ideology, personality, hormone surges, and love affairs. Without going into too much detail about such things as the rotation of the galaxy or the threat of a supernova somewhere in the neighborhood, consider the solar system as the sun, surrounded by eight planets predictably revolving in orbit. With some imagination, consider the solar system thus simplified, by analogy, as your model of traditional world affairs, with the power of gravity symbolizing the political power that makes little societies revolve around big ones, with the superpower sun just sitting there making the rules.
Now consider a different system in space, of which there are many examples: two stars revolving in a dance around…well, around what, exactly? A does not revolve around B, nor does B revolve around A. In fact, the two revolve around a central point in space defined by the relative gravitational pull of each. This is far more complicated, but it is still predictable with what human civilization is pleased to consider standard math.
Let’s move to a three-star system. Such a system still has no personality problems, no ambition, but its motions are now arguably “unpredictable,” though that may just reflect the limits of current mathematics.
Let’s carry this analogy one step further by adding irregular internal variations of some magical sort to each star, such that their gravitational fields evolve dramatically and independently. Now, one begins to sense the meaning of “complex,” or, more precisely, a “complex-adaptive system.” The world of human politics has always been a complex-adaptive system, but for a number of reasons, it is getting more so…and fast enough to have serious impacts on our lives.
The reasons are not really very subtle, and the first reason is “more.” There are more people, more travel, more communication. The second reason is “faster.” None of these changes is really totally new: financial bubbles have occurred through history and a wave of globalization occurred at the end of the 19th century. Today, however, everything really is moving faster, with the computer-driven global financial shifts being the model of this scary new world. The third reason is “more intrusive.” When you have to read the (very) fine print on every single package of frozen vegetables to make sure you are not buying them from potentially pesticide-poisoned farms in a China that remains far from having a reliable national regulatory system (not that the post-Reagan U.S. does either, if truth be told), you know the meaning of “intrusive” global complexity. There is no need to wait for a generation to feel the changes; you are being affected personally and on a daily basis. The network of links is denser, new links are generated faster, and they hit closer to home.
Imagine a network; suddenly it is becoming denser as more and more of us have more and more connections. This exponential growth in links is changing the world faster than we can learn how to manage it: the explosion of global jihad jumping from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Chechnya to Indonesia back to Afghanistan and then, courtesy of the U.S. invasion, to Iraq is one example. The virulent spread of, well, dengue fever throughout South America is a second. The equally virulent spread of the 2008 financial crisis from country to country as a result of such activities as the bundling of sub-prime U.S. mortgages into packages purchased by foreign banks, is another example.
Buy a mortgage and suddenly you, dear American, have a direct link to a Chinese bank, but don’t imagine that anyone is going to inform you of that fact. Now, how should that affect your decisions about taking out a second mortgage or paying off the first or selling the house at a discount just to get out? I hope you are happy knowing that the state of politics and economics in the People’s Republic of China directly and personally affects your ability to own a home. And of course your ability to make your mortgage payments on time directly affects the economy of China. Welcome to the complex-adaptive world of 21st century international affairs, where every component (e.g., you and the People’s Republic of China) affects every other component. Please note: “affect” does not just mean that it might help or hurt you but also that it will change you. You may become more risk-averse and move into an apartment or more insecure and vote for a bloody-shirt-waving politician who will launch a war of choice in pursuit of personal glory with the excuse that he is protecting you from foreign threats. You and your neighbors may decide that giving up civil liberties is the price of survival. Invade someone, sacrifice a few principles for temporary convenience, and suddenly you find you live in a different society with different values. Multiply these complicated choices a million times and you see the problem facing decision-makers in the nice, new 21st century world.
To summarize the answer to the question--“What is different about the 21st century world?”—even over the short-term (even a term as short as a four-year presidential term, for example) unpredictable change is predictable. Decision-makers can no longer quietly make plots for fame and profit; the world will not wait for them to take action. Instead, levee-smashing hurricanes, thousand-year floods, asynchronous warfare attacks on the American homeland by non-state actors are predictable. Of course, which one will happen next and where and how remains unpredictable.
So how do we understand all this new and threatening dynamism well enough to cope? Rather than assuming the world is a target waiting for us to shoot, assume it is an evolving system of which we are a small part. Rather than assuming we are whatever we are, with an immutable nature, realize that everything we do or others do has some impact on our nature. From this it follows that all the good guys can lose that cherished goodness and all the bad guys can be nudged in some less nasty direction. This is not an argument in favor of naïve trust but simply an effort to point out that, to put it positively, opportunities exist for someone wise enough to search for them.
This new world will caution a wise ruler (if we happen to find one) to make preparations, build capacity, avoid overreach, find friends before they are needed, search for positive-sum solutions in a world where victory is always ephemeral, and put a bit of seed corn in the barn.
Perhaps it is easier to say what not to do. A wise leader would not tell his people that they should continue enjoying life without regard to a war he is about to launch, as though war were some sort of cheap video game one could just walk away from when the quarters run out. A wise leader would not consider an old ally that tried to push one into a needless war on the ally’s behalf to be any longer worth having as an ally. Indeed, a wise leader would grant no other state a blank check – support, much less alliance, would always be granted in the context of an understanding that certain limits exists and that the other party would be expected to adhere to certain standards. A wise leader would not follow a policy that forced all one’s adversaries to join together in opposition. A wise leader would not borrow to the hilt from an adversary in order to engage in a foreign adventure that could not otherwise be afforded; to do so is to put the nation’s security in the hands of the creditor. A wise leader would not pursue foreign adventure at all under conditions of declining domestic educational standards and collapsing domestic economic conditions for the productive working class that constitutes both the source of national productivity and the primary customer of the national product. A wise leader would never plug his ears and refuse to listen to an adversary’s point of view: there is always something to be learned and knowledge is advantage. A wise leader would not assume that “they will welcome us with flowers,” for merely to make the assumption (even if initially correct) will be to invite a carelessness that will put too much salt in the broth. A wise leader will understand that in a complex-adaptive system, neither "we" nor our "friends" nor our "adversaries" are fixed in place: the best one can hope for is to move in a desired direction without ever having any assurance of being able to maintain a desired position. Cliffs exist, and people fall off: carry a parachute.