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

The messiness of this state of affairs contradicts a rare consensus in the field of international relations that concentrated power in the hands of one dominant state is essential to the establishment and maintenance of international order. According to the theory, the demand for international regimes is high but their supply is low because only the leadership of a hegemonic state can overcome the collective-action problems-mainly the huge start-up costs-associated with the creation of order-producing global institutions. The current world has turned this logic on its head. The problem is the virtual absence of barriers to entry. Most new treaty-making and global-governance institutions are being spearheaded not by an elite club of great powers but rather by civil-society actors and nongovernmental organizations working with midlevel states. Far from creating more order and predictability, this explosion of so-called global-governance institutions has increased the chaos, randomness, fragmentation, ambiguity and impenetrable complexity of international politics. Indeed, the labyrinthine structure of global governance is more complex than most of the problems it is supposed to be solving. And countries' views are more rigidly held than ever before.

ALAS, AS entropy increases within a closed system, available or "useful" energy dissipates and diffuses to a state of equal energy among particles. The days of unipolarity are numbered. We will witness instead a deconcentration of power that eventually moves the system to multipolarity and a restored balance. It will not, however, be a normal global transition. Great powers will not build up arms and form alliances. They will not use war to improve their positions in the international pecking order. They will not seek relative-power advantages. That is because they no longer have to obsess over how others are doing-much less over their own survival, which is essentially assured in today's world of unprecedented peace. States will instead be primarily concerned with doing well for themselves. What they will do is engage in economic competition.

The law of uneven economic growth among states and the diffusion of technology will cause a deconcentration of global power. Global equilibrium in this new environment is a spontaneously generated outcome among states seeking to maximize their absolute wealth, not military power or political influence over others. The pace of these diffusion processes has increased during the digital age because what distinguishes economies today is no longer capital and labor-now mere commodities-but rather ideas and energy.

Information entropy is creating fierce corporate competition. Our creeping sameness hasn't led us to the mythical natural harmony of interests in the world that international liberalism seems to take for granted. To the contrary, it's a jungle out there. Global communication networks and rapid technological innovation have forced competitive firms to abandon the end-to-end vertical business model and adopt strategies of dynamic specialization, connectivity through outsourcing and process networks, and leveraged capability building across institutional boundaries. They have also caused public policies to converge in the areas of deregulation, trade liberalization and market liberalization. All of these trends have combined to create relentlessly intensifying competition on a global scale.4 So while we may indeed be looking more alike, what precisely are the traits that we share? Sameness in the "flat" world, where the main business challenge is not profitability but mere survival, breeds cutthroat competitors no more likely to live in harmony with each other than the unfortunate inhabitants of Hobbes's state of nature. So, instead of shooting wars and arms buildups, we will see intense corporate competition with firms engaging in espionage, information warfare (such as the hiring of "big gun" hackers) and guerilla marketing strategies.

 

IN TERMS of the global balance of power, the rapid diffusion of knowledge and technology is driving down America's edge in productive capacity and, as a consequence, its overall power position. Indeed, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now under way-roughly from West to East-is without precedent in modern history in terms of size, speed and directional flow. If these were the only processes at work, then the future of international politics might well conform to the benign, orthodox liberal vision of a cooperative, positive-sum game among states operating within a system that places strict limits on the returns to power. But this is not to be because, in a break from old-world great-power politics, there will be no hegemonic war to wipe the international slate clean. We will therefore be stuck with the bizarre mishmash of global-governance institutions that now creates an ineffectual foreign-policy space. Trying to overhaul existing institutions to accommodate rising powers and address today's complex issues is an impossible task. So while liberals are correct to point out that the boom in global economic growth over the past two decades has allowed countries to move up the ladder of growth and prosperity, this movement, combined with a moribund institutional superstructure, creates a destabilizing disjuncture between power and prestige that will eventually make the world more confrontational. The question arises, with hegemonic war no longer in the cards, how can a new international order that reflects these tectonic shifts be forged? Aside from a natural disaster of massive proportions (a cure most likely worse than the disease itself), there is no known force that can fix the problem.

 

THE PRIMARY cause of these tectonic shifts is American decline. Hegemonic decline is inevitable because unchecked power tends to overextend itself and succumb to the vice of imperial overstretch; because the hegemon overpays for international public goods, such as security, while its free-riding competitors underpay for them; and because its once-hungry society becomes soft and decadent, engaging in self-destructive hedonism and overconsumption. In recent years, the America-in-decline debate of the 1980s and early 1990s has reemerged with a vengeance. Despite the fact that the United States is the lone superpower with unrivaled command of air, sea and space, there is a growing chorus of observers proclaiming the end of American primacy. Joining the ranks of these "declinists," Robert Pape forcefully argued in these pages that "America is in unprecedented decline," having lost 30 percent of its relative economic power since 2000.5 To be sure, the macrostatistical picture of the United States is a bleak one. Its savings rate is zero; its currency is sliding to new depths; it runs huge current-account, trade and budget deficits; its medium income is flat; its entitlement commitments are unsustainable; and its once-unrivaled capital markets are now struggling to compete with Hong Kong and London. The staggering costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the financial bailout and stimulus packages doled out in response to the subprime-mortgage and financial-credit crises, have battered the U.S. economy, opening the door for peer competitors to make substantial relative gains. The current bear market ranks among the worst in history, with the Dow and S&P down almost 50 percent from their 2007 peaks. The major cause of our troubles, both in the short and long term, is debt: the United States is borrowing massively to finance current consumption. America continues to run unprecedented trade deficits with its only burgeoning peer competitor, China, which, based on current trajectories, is predicted to surpass the United States as the world's leading economic power by 2040. As of July 2009, Washington owed Beijing over $800 billion, meaning that every person in the "rich" United States has, in effect, borrowed about $3,000 from someone in the "poor" People's Republic of China over the past decade.6 But this devolution of America's status is truly inevitable because of the forces of entropy. No action by U.S. leaders can prove a viable counterweight.

 

AND AS power devolves throughout the international system, new actors will emerge and develop to compete with states as power centers. Along these lines, Richard Haass claims that we have entered an "age of nonpolarity," in which states "are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations." Of course, there is nothing especially new about this observation; cosmopolitan liberals have been pronouncing (prematurely, in my view) the demise of the nation-state-the so-called "hollow state" and a crisis of state power-and the rise of nonstate actors for many decades. What is new is that even state-centric realists like Fareed Zakaria are now predicting a post-American world, in which international order is no longer a matter decided solely by the political and military power held by a single hegemon or even a group of leading states. Instead, the coming world will be governed by messy ad hoc arrangements composed of à la carte multilateralism and networked interactions among state and nonstate actors. One wonders what order and concerted action mean in a world that lacks fixed and predictable structures and relationships. Given the haphazard and incomplete manner by which the vacuum of lost state power is being filled, why expect order at all?

 

THE MACROPICTURE that emerges from these global trends is one of historically unprecedented change in a direction consistent with increasing entropy: unprecedented hegemonic decline; an unprecedented transfer of wealth, knowledge and economic power from West to East; unprecedented information flows; and an unprecedented rise in the number and kinds of important actors. Thus, the onset of this extreme multipolarity or multi-multipolarity will not herald, as some observers believe, a return to the past. To the contrary, it will signal that maximum entropy is setting in, that the ultimate state of inert uniformity and unavailable energy is coming, that time does have a direction in international politics and that there is no going back because the initial conditions of the system have been lost forever. If and when we reach such a point in time, much of international politics as we know it will have ended. Its deep structure of anarchy-the lack of a sovereign arbiter to make and enforce agreements among states-will remain. But increasing entropy will result in a world full of fierce international competition and corporate warfare; continued extremism; low levels of trust; the formation of nonstate identities that frustrate purposeful and concerted national actions; and new nongeographic political spaces that bypass the state, favor low-intensity-warfare strategies and undermine traditional alliance groupings.

Image: Essay Types: First Draft of History