Ennui Becomes Us

December 16, 2009 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: BalkansIslamismToryWar In AfghanistanIslam

Ennui Becomes Us

Mini Teaser: Chaos and randomness abound. The increasing disorder of our world will lead to a sort of global ennui mixed with a disturbingly large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing by states.

by Author(s): Randall L. Schweller

 CONTEMPORARY INTERNATIONAL relations is moving toward a state of entropy. Chaos and randomness abound. Now, the story of world politics unfolds without coherence, unfettered by classic balance-of-power politics, a plotless postmodern work starring a menagerie of wildly incongruent themes and protagonists, as if divinely plucked from different historical ages and placed in a time machine set for the third millennium. We live in an era in which unprecedented globalization and economic interdependence, liberal-democratic hegemony, nanotechnology, robotic warfare, the "infosphere," nuclear proliferation and geoengineering solutions to climate change coexist with the return of powerful autocratic-capitalist states, of a new Great Game in Central Asia, of imperialism in the Middle East, of piracy on the high seas, of rivalry in the Indian Ocean, of a 1929-like market crash, of 1914-style hypernationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, of warlords and failed states, of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, and of a new holy war waged by radical Islamists complete with caliphates and beheadings reminiscent of medieval times. In short, we live in a Thomas Pynchon novel.

The increasing disorder of our world will lead eventually to a sort of global ennui mixed with a disturbingly large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing by states. It is the result of the unstemmable tide of entropy. A world subsumed by the inexorable forces of randomness, tipped off its axis, swirling in a cloud of information overload. Who would have thought a mere half decade ago we would be turning to physics for the answers to international politics.


ROOTED IN the second law of thermodynamics, entropy measures the disorganization in a system. It is essentially a commonsense law of probability: events with a high frequency occur more often than events with low frequency. Systems proceed from initial states of low probability to end states of highest probability or final equilibrium. Once this equilibrium or maximum state of entropy has been reached, the system stays there forever, never returning to its initial configuration. Imagine for example two separate containers of the colors blue and yellow with a valve connecting the two closed systems. When the valve is opened, molecules of each color advance to the other side. Over time, the two colors blend together to form a uniform green. Once the system reaches an equilibrium of greenness, there is no going back to the initial states of separate yellow and blue.

It is much the same when shuffling a deck of cards. Even with a well-defined initial sequence, this "closed system" quickly becomes disordered and confused. For the sake of simplicity, the act of shuffling consists of removing the top card and placing it back in the deck at random. After one shuffle, the deck has changed to one of fifty-two alternatives, each strongly resembling the original order. After many repetitions, however, the original sequence will have been completely destroyed. In this manner, order is relentlessly replaced by increasing disorder as closed systems degrade to more probable, less informative states. Simply put, entropy is a measure of lost information.


PRESUMABLY, THE second law of thermodynamics is valid always and everywhere. One might suppose, therefore, that it must have been valid at the time of early civilizations; at the time of the Roman Empire and Han dynasty in China; and during the era preceding the First World War, when the British Empire reigned over the globe and competed with other European great powers.

So why should the theory of entropy be invoked now to explain international politics? The reason is that the second law only applies to closed systems (systems where no new information is yet to be discovered, where all actors are known and the space is clearly defined). International politics became a closed system susceptible to increasing entropy when it subsumed the entire earth, such that nothing remained outside of it. This process began roughly one hundred years ago, after the Age of Discovery that witnessed European expansion across the oceans to new lands. It was then that English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder proclaimed the birth of a "closed political system" of "world-wide scope."

The modern state system became fully defined with the completion of decolonization in the mid-1960s. It was then that the world-every territorial inch of it-was composed of states and nothing but states. The process of increasing entropy in international politics, therefore, commenced a mere forty years ago-a relatively short time period in the larger scheme of things.


IN INTERNATIONAL politics, the fewer the constraints on state behavior, the greater the level of entropy. This is why much of our current state of randomness can be laid at the doorstep of unipolarity, which has shown itself to be an "anything goes" international structure. The United States is king and the world beneath it does not behave in the predictable ways of traditional multipolar or bipolar systems in which classic balance-of-power politics rule the day. Consistent with increasing entropy, unipolar dynamics are random because the structure neither constrains the choices of the unipole nor anyone else. No longer is it a world of the Cold War threat über alles. No longer must states scurry to find patrons and allies for fear of war. And with no great-power rivals, the dominant state makes choices relatively unfettered by the imperatives and constraints of its external environment. The United States enjoys the luxury of choosing with whom to align based on nonpower considerations: ideological affinity; economic wants; or the vagaries of domestic politics. And when it so desires, the United States can simply go it alone, cobbling together ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" when needed. Boundless freedom breeds randomness. The idiosyncratic beliefs and capricious choices of unconstrained American leaders tell us more about recent U.S. foreign policy than does international structure.

Unipolar systems have less glue to hold things together than other international structures. Under unipolarity, capabilities are concentrated; threats and interests, diffused.1 Alliances, the act of choosing friends and enemies that defines not just international politics but all politics, are built on shared interests and threat perceptions, two things in short supply today. World politics matter most to the unipolar power, the sole actor with global reach. For everyone else, all politics are local. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the U.S. National Intelligence Council asserting that "at no time since the formation of the Western alliance system in 1949 have the shape and nature of international alignments been in such a state of flux as they have during the past decade." Stable and meaningful geographic groupings are the stuff of multipolar and bipolar systems, where a small number of great powers interact with each other in fairly predictable ways, balancing one another through arms and allies, controlling regions through spheres-of-influence arrangements and the rest.

In the new non-balance-of-power politics of unipolarity, traditional geographic groupings have lost salience. There is no East versus West anymore, and it can scarcely be used as an intellectual justification for U.S. engagement in Europe or the creation of a League of Democracies to replace the United Nations.2 The very idea of a like-minded group of states known as the West is little more than a myth-one that gainsays the growing philosophic divisions between the United States and Western Europe over sovereignty, multilateralism and the use of force. Even the traditional concept of a North-South divide is of little utility, as China and India continue to rise. These archaic, Cold War groupings have been replaced by an arc of instability ranging from Southeast Asia, where the possibility exists of growing radical Islam and terrorism, to Central Asia, where the future threat of failed states looms. And as technology turns the world into a "global village," that globe shrinks. The digital revolution has brought about an entropy in the information world as well.


IN SPITE of information's increased quantity and speed of transmission, modern people may feel as psychologist and philosopher William James did in 1899 that an "irremediable flatness is coming over the world." Here, I do not mean to suggest that the world is becoming flat in Thomas Friedman's sense of greater connectivity and a leveling of the global competitive playing field. Rather, flatness refers to an increasing banality and loss of meaning in life. Surprisingly, information overload produces not a heightened sense of stimulation and awareness but rather boredom and alienation. A creeping sameness or, at the other extreme, variation that approaches randomness causes the brain to shut down. This is what is known as information entropy: the degradation of information through monotonous repetition and meaningless variety. To illustrate how these opposites produce the same result, consider the average listener's response to the minimalism of Philip Glass and the random dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg. Most people are put to sleep by the music of both composers but that is because in the case of Glass the repetition and slow pace of new information loses our attention, whereas the endless atonal variety in Schoenberg's compositions comes across as simply random noise. What we find missing in both Glass and Schoenberg is significant variation or surprise. Monotony and boredom set in from too little or too much variety. Entropy, as loss of meaning and communication, always lurks at both ends of the continuum.

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