Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap

Mini Teaser: The new world of foreign policy is neither a unipolar world nor a multipolar world, but an integrated global system, in which the United States plays a central, but constantly tempered, role.

by Author(s): Patrick Glynn

It is no coincidence that the sweeping changes in international politics today have occurred side by side with an equally radical "paradigm shift" in the physical sciences. On the contrary, there is a causal link between the two developments. The radical changes we have witnessed in foreign policy, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, have come about largely as a result of the information revolution. This revolution, in turn, has come about largely as a result of a revolution in scientific understanding generated by quantum mechanics. At first glance, there might seem to be little connection between contemporary foreign policy dilemmas and the arcana of subatomic physics. But in reality the mysterious new laws governing the quantum universe closely parallel the new principles governing political life in the information age--and the new rules shaping the conduct of foreign policy in the post-modern era.

The analogy between politics and physics, between political experience and the scientific worldview, has always been a close one in the West. Modern political thought and experience were essentially born of a conscious marriage between politics and physics--a synthesis of Machiavelli's political insights with the new science of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The very term "political science" commemorates this union. Several famous figures, including Francis Bacon and RenŽ Descartes, contributed to the new science of politics. But the scientific political vision was first fully crystallized in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, a thinker who still casts a heavy shadow on foreign policy analysis. Hobbes was the earliest modern thinker to posit that politics could be understood entirely mechanically, that society could be viewed as a massive artificial creation, a machine. The state, according to Hobbes, was an "artificial" body, analogous to the human body, in which, as he put it, the "heart" was no more than a "spring," the "nerves" but so many "strings," the joints, "wheels." Human society essentially resembled a "watch, or some such...engine" in which the "motion of the wheels" could be known through a kind of mental dissection. Hobbes' Leviathan and Sir Isaac Newton's Principia--both published in the second half of the seventeenth century--together inaugurated the "modern" worldview, in which both the physical universe and the political world were seen as governed by mechanistic laws.

It is precisely the long-reigning metaphor of mechanism that has been overthrown by physics in recent years. And it is precisely the overthrow of mechanism--as the dominant mode of both political experience and political explanation--that defines the puzzling new world in which we now live. Mechanistic patterns and forces have not entirely disappeared from world affairs, but they are increasingly subordinated and submerged in a new and fundamentally different kind of order. This rapid shift from one basic paradigm to another helps explain much of the confusion in present day commentary on foreign policy, which continues to view "post-modern" international politics, anachronistically, through a basically "modern" or mechanistic lens.

In place of mechanism today we confront a new set of principles, in politics as well as physics, which can be summarized as instantaneousness or "non-locality," observer participation, and holism. The application of these principles in the political world is readily apparent. Increasingly, national leaders--and especially U.S. presidents--are forced to operate in a holistic international environment where the full global ramifications of any foreign policy action (or inaction) are instantaneously known and fed back through a global information network, and where a global audience effectively "participates" in the drama, affecting its ultimate outcome. Such an environment necessitates a new style, and even a new concept, of leadership, and is pushing U.S. foreign policy in certain very systematic and novel directions. Indeed, it is changing the nature of foreign policy itself. This new political universe very closely parallels the new vision of the physical universe yielded by the quantum theory--a view of the cosmos, in effect, as a holistic "information system" in which events occurring in one locale in principle immediately affect events in a distant corner of the universe billions of light-years away, and in which observation affects, indeed in a sense "creates," our common reality. The common denominator, in both cases, is information.

Scientific vision, political thought, and technology move in tandem. The reality we "see" in the universe is also the reality we construct and experience in the human world. Newtonian physics gave us modern, mechanistic political thought as well as the machines that produced the Industrial Revolution. This marriage of powerful machines and mechanistic political thinking in turn produced modern mass society and the characteristic international politics of the industrial era: a politics, ultimately, of confrontation between great states and empires, mass mobilization, and total war. Quantum mechanics has given us the silicon chip and, through information technologies, a fundamentally new kind of political experience--as well as the necessity for a new kind of political thinking.
Newtonian physics is human-scale physics, ideally suited to the manipulation of objects in our immediate physical world. However, it is not a complete account of reality: it is valid only for medium-sized objects traveling at moderate speeds. As Albert Einstein showed early in this century, Newtonian laws of motion do not hold for very large objects or very large speeds (i.e., speeds approaching that of light). If Newtonian physics grows inaccurate as we move to the large scale, then it also becomes irrelevant as we move to the tiniest scale, as quantum mechanics has demonstrated. At the subatomic level, the laws of Newtonian physics are broken, or, it may be more accurate to say, transcended. Through a combination of relativity and (especially) the quantum theory, we have moved from a mechanistic to a far more holistic and complete understanding of the universe. Something similar has happened in politics and foreign policy: today we "see" events immediately and in a much wider and more holistic context than before.

The theme of the Newtonian worldview was the subjugation and manipulation of matter and the physical environment--precisely the theme of mutual efforts at domination that characterized the international politics in the industrial age. The themes of the quantum worldview are information, observation, and holistic coordination--precisely the realities that dominate post-modern political life.

Indeed, under the influence of quantum theory, physicists have ceased to think of the universe itself as "matter" and more as "information." What we call matter, quantum mechanics has shown, is actually something rather fuzzy and without space-time dimensions, something that "unfolds" into three-dimensional solidity as, and because, we observe it. Matter normally exists in a fuzzy "wave" state which "collapses" into solidity only upon observation. Unobserved, for example, an electron exists as a wave--which is actually a multidimensional mathematical equation describing its probable location around an atomic nucleus. But the moment we try to "find" the electron, the moment we observe it, it "becomes" a particle and the wave disappears. (Physicists speak of "observation" as "the collapse of the wave function.")

Which brings us to the second major revelation of quantum mechanics, namely that reality is observer-dependent. In observing we both change and, in a sense, create what we observe (though this process unfolds according to very regularized probabilities).

Third, all matter is holistically coordinated on a massive scale. An observation of a photon or light-particle by a scientist on earth could in theory instantly affect an observation by a scientist on a planet in a distant galaxy billions of light-years away (though the two scientists could never coordinate their activities or communicate their findings to each other). A crucial 1982 experiment proved that "paired" photons coordinate their polarities or "exchange information" over vast distances instantaneously. This faster-than-light coordination shows that the universe is knitted together by some fundamentally nonmaterial principle that we do not understand. "Information" is the best metaphor we have. That is, quantum mechanics reveals the universe as essentially an intelligently and intricately coordinated information system which unfolds into three dimensional space and time--into what we call "matter"--in the act of being observed.
What are the laws of the new "information universe" of international politics? I have alluded to several of them already. But the dominant principle seems to be holism--the increasing awareness of the interconnectedness and interaction among seemingly disparate considerations and geographically distant events (an awareness that expresses itself most clearly perhaps in the omnipresence of the term "interdependence" in current discussion of world affairs). The new information environment, in its very interconnectedness, militates against the kind of sharp, brute, mechanical manipulation of events--especially through all-out confrontation and war--that dominated international politics throughout the modern era. Leaders of major states, including the U.S. president, are forced to coordinate their actions as never before--with each other, with their own publics, and with a global television audience which is in a position to follow the action on a play-by-play basis.

Take the Gulf War, the first major military struggle to be played out in this new, postmodern political environment. At first glance, there was much about the Gulf War that partook of traditional power politics. There was a confrontation, an ultimatum, and ultimately a massive application of military force. But the fact is that the Bush administration's efforts to manage the intricate global "information environment" around the confrontation proved almost as massive and strenuous as the military undertaking itself.

To confront and eventually make war on Saddam Hussein, without at the same time disrupting other crucial global processes or jeopardizing other U.S. vital interests, it was necessary to manage carefully and simultaneously a host of different regional and political relationships. Most crucial, of course, was the then-Soviet Union, whose support for the U.S.-led initiative against a Soviet ally was critical to forestalling a reversion to cold war. The price for Soviet support, in turn, was bound to be a collective-security approach and the formal approval of the UN Security Council. Beyond that, there was the problem of managing delicate relations both with various Arab countries and with Israel (with potentially damaging political ramifications at home). Then there was the vital need for NATO's active cooperation--for military-logistical and political reasons--and, ultimately, the political and financial support of Japan. And this was only the beginning, for during the several-month-long crisis the Bush administration was forced into a series of public relations maneuvers, dramatic diplomatic initiatives, and domestic political efforts to secure reluctant approval for the war from both the American, and to some degree, the global public. The effort continued through the end of the conflict: the war was finally terminated prematurely out of concern that the wholesale slaughter of Iraqi troops trapped on the famous "highway of death," and its depiction on television, would have adverse repercussions at home and abroad.

In short, the Bush administration was everywhere constrained by the necessity of immediately accommodating a host of domestic and global constituencies, and keeping the public apprised of its every move. It had to approach the crisis holistically, taking the entire range of global consequences and global audiences into account. The effort, by all appearances, was exhausting. One reason, it has been suggested, that the Bush administration was so reluctant to take on Yugoslavia--the second major challenge to its "new world order"--was sheer fatigue.

The Gulf War epitomized the new world in which foreign policy is now made. It is a world where developed nations are connected by a vast network of instantaneous informational links and economic interests; where national leaders enjoy close collaborative relations, as often as not bypassing foreign ministers and ambassadors by picking up the telephone or jetting to a foreign capital; and where just about everything of major international significance is instantly relayed to a global audience via CNN.

Such an environment places an enormous premium on cooperation, fine-tuning, and the avoidance of sudden, unilateral actions, or for that matter large-scale conflicts that could disrupt the total system. The restraint comes both from the ability to "see" the global ramifications of any action immediately, and from the ability of a host of different global constituencies to observe, and thereby also to participate in, the decision-making process.

International politics in the post-modern era is characterized by what may be called "the primacy of observation." In contemporary global politics, as in quantum physics, observation, and especially observation by television cameras, changes reality; indeed, it creates reality. On any given day, our shared global experience exists, in effect, as a kind of fuzzy "wave function," until the tv cameras begin to make their observations, and the wave function "collapses" into what seems a definite reality. What the cameras may observe is somewhat unpredictable on any given day, though we have enough experience of the media to sense what they will probably see in any given situation (much as quantum observations are probabilistic). There is, to be sure, a certain inconsistency resulting from this observational orientation: suffering in Bosnia seen on television is more real than unseen suffering in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nonetheless, because of the extensive feedback of information into the system--through such devices as opinion polling--all of us, even simply as television viewers (and potential voters), in some way contribute to the reality with which the president must cope. American scientist John Wheeler, describing the quantum reality, has spoken of the "participatory universe." Politics and foreign policy today also take place in a "participatory universe," one radically transformed by the ability of the average citizen to observe it so extensively and directly.

One of the most striking features of this "participatory universe" of contemporary foreign policy is that its logic ultimately seems altruistic--it tends to push national leaders, and especially American presidents, toward an increasing emphasis on humanitarian involvements and toward a minimization of violence. To be sure, during the Gulf War, Americans warmed to the spectacle of "smart" missiles zooming through the windows of Saddam's military complexes. But the spectacle was entertaining only so long as it remained sterile. The moment the cameras showed Iraqi civilian casualties--as in the case of the mistaken bombing of civilians in a command bunker/air raid shelter in Baghdad--there was a public relations crisis. General Colin Powell insisted on ending the war early--at some strategic cost--rather than risk taking responsibility for the sight of massive Iraqi military casualties on the "highway of death." By the same token, the Somalia intervention was popular when the footage was of a humanitarian character and became totally unpopular the moment it began to involve killing (especially the killing of American military personnel).

Interestingly, Boris Yeltsin, too, has gotten a taste in Chechnya of what it means to conduct an old-fashioned, brutal, Soviet-style war of suppression in the new information environment. Extensive and unprecedented Russian television coverage of the carnage has guaranteed that the episode will be a political debacle for the Russian president, whatever the military outcome. Thanks to the information environment, there is a kind of global consensus today--including among Russians--on the unalloyed folly of Yeltsin's action, placing his political future in serious, perhaps fatal, jeopardy.
In short, the information culture is "drawing us together" in more than one sense: it is removing some of the distance in human experience that makes it possible for us to caricature and dehumanize our enemies, and it is intensifying the sympathy we feel for human suffering in distant locales. The sympathies generated by television are "non-local," cutting across ethnic, racial, and national lines.

In the process, much of the distance, secrecy, and formality that made traditional great-power politics possible has disappeared. It is interesting to contrast the information environment surrounding the Gulf War with that surrounding the origins of World War I. In the heyday of great power diplomacy, governments communicated through laborious, formal, and secret channels, relying on foreign ministers and ambassadors to convey and receive messages. Notably, in the Sarajevo crisis of 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany deliberately exploited the communications lags among capitals, foreign offices, and ambassadors so as to escalate the crisis and confuse opponents. Messages were deliberately delayed and garbled. Deceptive replies were issued. Throughout the crisis, the publics in nearly every great state were essentially kept in the dark. Exploiting the "information-poor" environment of the day, Germany was able to intensify the European crisis while persuading the German people that Russia was to blame for the war that the German government deliberately unleashed. War came to Europe essentially as a surprise. World War II arose, and the Cold War transpired, in much the same sort of "information-poor" settings.

It is instructive that virtually every war raging on the planet today is transpiring in such "information-poor" environments--either in states too undeveloped to have a large media audience (e.g., in Africa) or in states such as Serbia and Croatia, where television is under strict state control and used for the grossest propaganda. (The one exception which, in a sense, proves the rule is Chechnya.) In such environments, lack of accountability goes hand in hand with a certain blindness, even stupidity, regarding long-range and holistic interests. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic may have conquered a third of Croatia and (by proxy) two-thirds of Bosnia, but in the process he has blackened the name of his country and brought Serbia's economy to its knees. Partial relief from international sanctions will not undo the damage. Saddam Hussein exhibited a similar blindness when he attempted to blackmail the international community into lifting sanctions against Iraq by mobilizing troops against Kuwait. North Korea, too, was on a path toward counterproductive confrontation, when it sought to become a nuclear state at the very time when the currency of economic and military power was shifting decisively to information technologies and global telecommunications. It has since altered course. Johnny-come-lately practitioners of power politics may do others a lot of mischief, but as long as they remain on a path toward confrontation, they cannot help themselves.

The great fissure line in international politics today is between those developed states that partake of the information environment and those states still locked in the mechanistic, information-poor world of traditional power politics. The days of the latter states are clearly numbered. We know from the fate of the Soviet Union that societies which strive to maintain themselves as information-poor, closed systems are not terribly survivable in this new holistic global world. Even Japan, whose elite continues to harbor a somewhat anachronistic, power politics view of interstate economic competition and to conduct business sub rosa, is gradually succumbing to the transparency of the information age. The "primacy of observation" has dealt some serious blows to its oligarchical ruling party in recent years, in the form of repeated exposure of corruption, and set in motion a virtual "participatory" revolution in governance.

But in the meantime, it would be a mistake to assume that the postmodern states--and especially America--can successfully employ the old-fashioned principles of power politics in subduing the genuinely hostile forces that remain around the globe. Such an approach overlooks the fundamentally new rules of the international game.

It is far from accidental that, since the Gulf War, the major calls for violent U.S. intervention against renegade states--calls for major air attacks against Serbia and Serb forces in Bosnia, for arms shipments to the Bosnian Muslims, and for pre-emptive strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities--have gone unheeded. In every case, the information environment has militated against such abrupt actions. In every case, unilateral measures by the United States would have disrupted a host of more important relationships. And in every case, a "holistic" view of the problem has suggested that the potential negative consequences of such intervention would far outweigh any positive ones.

To be sure, when Saddam Hussein began massing Republican Guard divisions near the border of Kuwait, the United States--buttressed by a pre-existing international consensus--was able to rush forces to the Gulf. But it is not surprising that the Clinton administration sloughed off the many calls from experts for pre-emptive military action to "finish off" Saddam--however opportune the moment may have seemed. Such action would have exceeded the international consensus and damaged relationships with other states, especially Russia. The United States could still act against Saddam's forces, but only if he were to move his forces in a way that explicitly violated Security Council resolutions.

The situation has been clearest in the example of Korea. In many ways, it is astonishing that several prominent American foreign policy experts in 1994 urged a pre-emptive strike on North Korean nuclear facilities. In the first place, it was common knowledge that Washington lacked the intelligence on North Korean facilities to execute such a mission effectively. But beyond that, such an undertaking could only have brought disaster. One need only think of the "information environment" surrounding such a confrontation.

A president contemplating such an abrupt action would have faced the concerted opposition of Japan, Russia, and China--to say nothing of the South Koreans themselves, who were adamantly opposed to such a move. The moment such a raid were undertaken without the prior approval of these and other powers, he would have been besieged by phone calls from disconcerted Russian, Japanese, and European leaders. He would have put in jeopardy a host of U.S. interests in relation to these states, to say nothing of his personal relationships with their leaders. He would have faced lurid television coverage of the nuclear fall-out from damaged North Korean facilities likely to be blown over Japan. And he would have confronted day-by-day, indeed moment-by-moment, coverage of the horrendous civilian and military carnage, including U.S. casualties, resulting from the North-South war that would be almost certain to ensue. The disastrous economic impact of a war on the Korean peninsula would be immediately registered in stock prices and economic forecasts. Criticism--from Congress, from TV anchormen, from pundits, from foreign capitals, and from the hoards of talk-radio listeners--would be legion and incessant. Indeed, a president who deliberately provoked such a war would be regarded as a madman or a fool.

It of course remains possible (though increasingly unlikely) that North Korea could launch an unprovoked attack on the South, necessitating U.S. intervention on the South's behalf, but the president had better be in a position to demonstrate that the war is not his fault. No president today--Republican or Democrat--could have afforded to solve the problem of North Korean nuclear ambition by a premeditated, mechanistic application of force. In the present interconnected global environment, the costs of such action are simply too high. Moreover, the nature of the global information system is such that these costs are fed back to everyone in advance; they would be immediately apparent to every viewer of CNN. The compromise solution ultimately achieved with the North Koreans--trading verifiable bars to their development of a nuclear arsenal for economic considerations and an opening to the outside world--is precisely what one would have predicted under present-day circumstances.

Does this mean the new global environment always influences a president toward simple inaction or paralysis? Not necessarily: the media environment sometimes seems to push him toward action--as has been true intermittently in the cases of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Haiti. But, as a practical political matter, any action chosen must be harmonized not only with U.S. global interests, holistically understood, but with the desiderata of other major states with a stake in the situation. Of course, in theory, a president can always choose to go his own way and "take flak" from the international community, as Ronald Reagan so often did; but today, when the world is no longer divided into two camps and interests are so intertwined, the price for such unilateralism is becoming prohibitive. For example, an attempt by the U.S. unilaterally to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia might well result in parallel action by Russia and France toward embargoed Iraq, as indeed the Clinton administration has sometimes argued. The facts of international life are that the United States requires multilateral cooperation on a host of issues and simply cannot afford to go its own way on Bosnia.

In a holistic international system, the tendency of U.S. presidents, and other leaders of the developed world, will be to seek fine-tuned approaches to these pockets of instability, designed to isolate or contain the disruption at minimal cost and with minimal confrontation, while moving gradually through negotiation toward some kind of compromise solution. Whatever the differences in their respective tactical instincts or persuasive abilities, this is essentially the approach taken by both George Bush and Bill Clinton to such hot-spots as Bosnia and Korea. And certainly, Clinton's Haiti finesse neatly fits the model I have described (though how it may ultimately resolve itself is not clear).

Of course, as long as there remain "information-poor" corners of the globe, such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, the possibility of a major military conflict cannot be completely excluded. But it is becoming less likely. Information technology now increasingly dictates military power, leaving information-poor states at a decisive military disadvantage. Information-poor states are also unlikely to find allies or sponsors for aggression among the information-rich. States participating in the information universe have a powerful disincentive to engage in counterproductive confrontations with states outside it. And states outside the information economy have a powerful incentive, over the long run, to find their way in.

Despite all this, there remains a certain nostalgia among many foreign policy analysts today for the world of traditional great power or superpower politics--a world defined by the brute mechanisms of power balances, military competitions, and distinct national interests, a world in which the United States was free to pursue confrontational policies and take bold unilateral steps. This is no longer the world in which foreign policy is being made. The concept of "national interest" has not entirely lost its relevance, but, in a world made "non-local" by information, it is gradually being submerged in a much broader understanding of common global purposes. The American presidency, in its foreign policy dimension, is less a national office today than a global one, answerable to global constituencies--and ruled by global constraints. The definition of leadership itself has changed. What is required is no longer the heroic single-mindedness of the great power era, but conviction combined with technical mastery and, above all, an ability to accommodate the many constituencies or "stakeholders" that effectively "participate" in decisions and their outcome, whether leaders like it or not.

The new world of foreign policy is neither a unipolar world nor a multipolar world, but an integrated global system, in which the United States plays a central, but constantly tempered, role. The good news is that this new universe of foreign policy may also prove to be a more intelligent universe, one in which the massive stupidities of traditional power politics and interstate violence can largely be avoided.

Essay Types: Essay