The Pentagon concludes that it no longer enjoys the luxury of global dominance. Is this the beginning of a new era?
While my interests by choice are business and the economic sphere of things, by necessity thinking on the body politic at times is useful if for no other reason but to take a step back and reassess my business viewpoints.
The other day I took a break from the FT, Economist and WSJ and read a new study released by the US Defense Department, "At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World".
The bottom line was understandably predictable, essentially a call to increase the defense budget, and further increase spending on a very broad array of areas, from conventional and nuclear through to cyberwarfare. The reasoning, albeit somewhat on the fringes caught my attention when it stated that the U.S. framework of international order that was established post World War II is both "fraying" and “collapsing." That sounded like a real double whammy. This study was released by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute to evaluate the DOD’s approach to assessing risk and policy.
Apparently, the study finds that the nation's power is in decline because the world has entered a new phase of transformation, where the US led international order is unraveling, and in fact, the authority of traditional governments everywhere is increasingly unstable.
The report further finds “global events will happen faster than the Defense Department is currently equipped to handle,” and that the U.S. “can no longer count on the unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence it enjoyed for the 20-plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
At conclusion, the study mentions that it is not only the U.S. that is seeing a decline, “All states and traditional political authority structures are under increasing pressure from endogenous and exogenous forces. The fracturing of the post-Cold War global system is accompanied by the internal fraying in the political, social, and economic fabric of practically all states.”
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, all manner of pundits and “experts” have been predicting that the hegemonic glory days of the US are ending. It looks like this world is no longer seeking a single superpower with a wallet, or group of superpowers, to bring some globalized order to international politics. This void will be filled by various powers. Hopefully among which will be independent sovereign nations, as certainly multinational corporations, ideological movements of variously tinted extremes, and a rainbow of rights organizations to suit myriad tastes will make their cases noisily.
International politics is changing before our eyes from a system anchored in predictable, relatively constant, staid positions to a system that is more erratic, unsettled, and mostly devoid of behavioral norms and regularities. It is quickly losing the dignitas once ascribed to affairs of state. In terms of geopolitics, we have moved from an age of order to an age of political entropy. In looking around the world I do not see heightened threats coming from some self-immolating global Armageddon, rather I see increasingly strident disagreements and localized conflicts over geopolitical, monetary, trade, societal and perhaps even environmental issues. The majority of these conflicts are not found along the borders of the US, rather they are kept comfortably distant at many points of the world.
Rudyard Kipling perhaps best summed up the old political order, when he coined a brilliant term for it, which caught at once the athletic, masculine, goal-oriented and sentimental components comprising the “Great Game”. It is now a quaint memory of a distant time. Compared with today’s complexities it is akin to a classic game of chess, contrasting with a three-dimensional game of chess played in the digital realm assisted by AI.
The second law of thermodynamics, the entropy law, states that in closed systems, randomness, disorder, chaos tended to prevail over the long term. Centers do not hold; all systems disintegrate. A nation is a system; disintegration is its fate. As Clausius demonstrated in 1865, entropy grows out of all proportion to the energy expended in producing it.
His famous example is the cue ball: shot into a racked set of billiards, it transfers the energy of the cue into the formation of the balls; and while the energy of the system is in this way transformed and briefly increased, the entropy is amplified far more, as demonstrated by the balls careening madly across the surface of the table. This example takes place on two dimensions. Imagine this concept as applied in three dimensions: the complications are immeasurable.
The other aspect of entropy is the tendency within chaos to gravitate towards homogeneity. Keeping heterogeneous things that are in contact from becoming homogenous takes a lot of effort. We see global systems become more alike as they come into contact, loss of biodiversity, loss of cultural diversity, loss of political diversity, loss of economic diversity, and loss of the protections that come with diversity.
There is not much to be done about it either - as we accept homogenous globalization, as our culture becomes a single closed system, rising entropy is inevitable. We saw this at work at the end of the last century with the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Soviet Union, the Warsaw pact. We are seeing political entropy ongoing today within the gaggle of dissonant nations comprising the EU, and we see the stresses worldwide economically and politically under the umbrella of political and financial alliances with the US from Asia to Africa to Europe and Latin America. Perhaps because the fallout from entropy has only recently played out a hand with Russia and China, they are less exposed yet certainly are not immune over time.
There is a wildcard in this and that it the human spirit (yes, a bit of the metaphysical) and the ability to make choices. We apparently have the potential to choose between homogeneity and heterogeneity. The problem, as always, is that whenever our attention wavers and we go with the flow, the tide sweeps us a little further toward homogeneity, and the way back may never appear in similar ways again. We must fight perpetually for heterogeneity if we want it, as it is at permanent risk of fading away if we do not.
The political clashes of the 20th century were largely focused on the perceived battle, simply stated between individualism vs; collectivism, the haves vs; the have nots, the informed vs; the oblivious. This has a 21st century sequel today as heterogeneity vs homogeneity within a historically unique globally accessible and responsive information field.
All this conceptualizing can bring on an epic headache, choices everywhere, and which one to choose? Some will find their own water, others will expect to be led to a stream. Over the years, I have noticed a constant in this world, and that is “size matters” in the affairs of state. A nation can grow massive muscles, get pumped up to huge proportions, become solidly in thrall to financial steroids, become a global champion world eater, yet at the end of the day should the massive infusions slow down or stop the ripped body simply deflates and flops around with not much to show. There is also the possibility that it may choose to “go down fighting” perhaps taking a competitor or two down with it, not fair, but that is life.
What is the optimal “size that matters”? I believe it to be the independent sovereign state without the trappings and costs of projecting its influence globally. There certainly is room for good neighborly relations between sovereign nations which share common borders or regions. That is not isolationism. It is common sense.
The emergent social power of the internet would seem to provide for all the globalization that is truly needed, hopefully at a “virtual” level, a simple guidepost or weathervane. The rest is up to sovereign nations to agree, one on one, between themselves and in the interests of their own citizens living and voting within its borders.
Largely due to this digital age, it is likely that citizen involvement will increase and, barring monumental upheaval, will not stop or be reversed. What may be the key is the sample size of the citizenry in any given sovereign nation, which will enable the distinct historic and cultural drivers to serve the distinguishing interests and resources of each country without being homogenized into some obscure nameless mediocrity.
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