Be Careful What You Wish for

Be Careful What You Wish for,

With the hoped for shift in power from US hegemony the world will be even more fearful and anarchical.


Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple, by Randall L. Schweller. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 216 pp. €20.15.

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge isn’t What it Used to Be, by Moises Naim. Basic Books, USA, 2013. 320pp., $27.99.

Networks and Hierarchies, by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest, 9 June 2014.

G. John Ikenberry, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, says of the Schweller book: “This is the most original and thought-provoking forecast of the future of world politics to be published in recent years.” [Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014.]

Schweller sees the global system changing dramatically from a US-led era of relative order to chaotic and pervasive disorder. Using principles from the field of thermodynamics, Schweller forecasts a form of global entropy, (an irreversible process of disorganisation that governs the direction of physical changes taking place in the universe) in which the current and future diffusion of power reduces the amount of energy in the international system and therefore its ability to cooperate to solve major global problems. An ever-increasing cast of individuals, states and groups will pursue their own narrow interests and agendas, with no one with the power to foster collective action or address the common good. In his view, in the absence of a hegemonic power (irrespective of who that might be), global politics will therefore become both decentralised and disorganised, with no global leaders, very few followers, and no states capable of generating cooperation to address the major issues facing us. In summary, a world that is ungovernable, highly unpredictable, and extremely atomised.

Schweller’s book reaches similar conclusions on the changing power landscape, to those identified by Moises Naim in his book on The End of Power.This much misunderstood book shows how the large vertically organised institutions and bureaucracies that have controlled the world for much of recent history, are now being forced by the intervention of numerous smaller (usually networked) groups (“micropowers”) to cede much of their power.

Naim shows how power has generally been defined in terms of size and scope-in essence to be powerful in the world of the past required you to be bigger than anyone else. This long-standing power structure is now been challenged by three interrelated phenomena – the “more, mobility, and mentality revolutions.”

In this “More” revolution there is “more of everything now… more people, countries, cities, political parties, armies; more goods and services, and more companies selling them; more weapons and more medicines; more students and more computers; more preachers and more criminals.” What you have now is a greater number of healthy people whose basic needs have been fulfilled. They are therefore less easy to control and, acting in even reasonable unison, can start overwhelming various systems and power structures.

The “mobility” revolution refers to the fact that people, capital, ideas, and fads move around the world much quicker now for a host of reasons including the Internet, social media, etc.

The “mentality” revolution is in essence the outcome of the “more”and “mobility” revolutions. With increasing exposure to more ideas, people, and places, the population of the world is now showing decreasing respect for traditional forms of power – be it in governments, churches, companies, or other hierarchiel organisations. While governments and hierarchical organisations appear the same, the environment in which all power now operates is fundamentally and irreversibly changed. Their ability to operate effectively, and in particular to exercise power as before, has been fundamentally eroded. We see this already in much of the diminution of the power of churches, various institutions, and the government itself , not only in Ireland, but worldwide.

Naim shows convincingly that this erosion, or decay as he puts it, also applies to the era of hegemonic power (by the US, China, and commercial organisations,) which is decisively over: “Looking for a current or new hegemon or a committee of elite nations to reassert control is a fool’s errand. The solutions to the new challenges of international cooperation – ultimately, of sharing the planet – will emerge in a landscape where power is easier to obtain and harder to use or even to keep.” The ongoing debate about whether the 21st-century will be a U.S.-led one or a Chinese-led one misses the point totally. Relative power may reside in the hands of the US, China, or others, but the conclusion from Naim‘s extensive research and analysis is that the very framework within which we have defined power as intrinsically hegemonic has broken down. The old world has gone and will not return. We need to adjust to a new reality.

This new reality is a muti-edged sword:. “The world faces increasingly complex challenges that require the participation of even more diverse parties and players to solve. The decay of power is an exhilarating trend in the sense that it has made space for new ventures, new companies, and all over the world, new voices and more opportunities. But its consequences for stability are fraught with danger. How can we continue the welcome advances of plural voices and opinions, initiative and innovation, without at the same time driving ourselves into a crippling paralysis that could undo this progress very quickly?” So while the decay in power enables a whole range of new ideas and sentiments, some of these may not be positive – separatism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant campaigns, religious fundamentalisms, piracy, and vicious terror campaigns. To paraphrase Churchill, in this new world, never before in the field of human conflict have so few had the potential to do so much damage to so many at so little cost.

Power, even in its most negative expression, has frequently been “accepted” over the centuries as long as it provided order. One of the five risks arising from the decay of power that we are already experiencing that Naim identifies is the risk of increasing disorder. As he puts it: “… it is not that hard for a society to become paralysed by too high a level of power decay. This can turn even advanced and mature democracies into stagnant entities incapable of responding to the challenges and demands of the 21st century.”

“ Europe’s inability to respond in a timely and effective way to its devastating economic crisis offers a painful example of the corroding effects of the decay of power. With even more perilous consequences, so does our inability to act decisively to limit emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming our planet.”

The other four risks he identifies that we begin to see already are:

  • de-skilling and loss of knowledge,
  • banalisation of social movements,
  • boosting impatience and shortening attention spans and
  • alienation.

The risk to democracy and liberal societies in the 21st-century is less likely in his analysis to come from a conventional modern threat (China) or a premodern one (radical Islam) than from within societies where alienation becomes prevalent. Current examples, movements that express or exploit social anger (such as the new far right and far left parties in Europe and Russia, and the Tea Party movement in the US) are a manifestation of the decay of power, as the barriers that sheltered incumbents decline. The inchoate rage they express results in large part from alienation as traditional markers of order and economic security have declined or collapsed. Their search for a compass from the past (nostalgia for Stalin and the old USSR, particular interpretations of the American Constitution, the restoration of the Sunni Muslim Caliphate, or the deification of Simon Bolívar) shows just how much the decay of power, if we fail to adjust to its and move it in a direction for social good, may backfire and turn destructive.

Schweller reaches similar conclusions, but from a very different perspective. Like Naim he can see much that will increase alienation in this future world, including long-term structural unemployment. Talking about Europe and Japan, and their significant demographic challenges from declining and ageing populations, he notes: “What little growth they can reasonably hope to achieve will need to come from increased labour productivity, which means boosting automation, developing and adopting innovative products and services, and shedding low-skilled workers… [He then notes that over the next two decades the developing countries will be adding 932 million new workers to the global labour pool.] Pitted against this external competition, even the shrinking labour forces of Europe and Japan may not be fully employed.”

Schweller’s book provides an original explanation for why international politics is now transforming from a system anchored for centuries in enduring patterns into something far more erratic, unsettled, and devoid of behavioural regularities  “a state of chaos and randomness, a change consistent with the universal laws of rising entropy.” Schweller goes into considerable detail showing that the (usually) implicit assumptions many make about the benign future following on from US relative hegemonic decline and the increase in network power etc are fundamentally and extensively wishful thinking.

His title draws from Greek mythology where the Golden Apple of Discord led directly to the Trojan War, while the hoped for saviour, the Demon, represents an allegorical creature from a thought experiment by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, where the Demon reverses the entropy-rising process inherent in all closed systems. Entropy may be thought of as a measure of disorder in the universe (or, in a thermodynamic sense, of the availability of energy in a closed system to do work): the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards a thermodynamic equilibrium –a state of maximum entropy. Maxwell’s Demon achieves the impossible –- it intervenes in this highly negative state and restores the potential energy available for work, thereby, increasing order in the universe.

Social systems and institutions similarly originate with an outburst of energy that runs down over time. Thus, companies, churches, and empires arise from the energised activities of gifted entrepreneurs, prophets, and political leaders. They may flourish for a period, but “all will eventually decline and sometime disintegrate altogether as the initial energy that created them dissipates.” In summary, the performance of work or the expenditure of energy diminishes the system’s ability for future activity. As the system runs down, it eventually reach the point of maximum entropy, when no more work can be done. Schweller notes that “entropy can also be thought of as a measure of chaos, which is… the most probable state of a system.” There are many ways that a system (of whatever nature) can become disordered, chaotic, and unpredictable. There are unfortunately very few ways that a system (particularly a complex one) can exhibit order. As disorder increases and entropy rises people become more disoriented and disconnected from each other and the world around them.

“They become depressed, have problems concentrating, and tend to exhibit, among other things, something known as high “flow duration entropy”-meaning that they frequently switch among internet applications like email, chat rooms, music players, browsers, and games.” A troublingly accurate summary of much of the world today.

Whether one likes it or not, or views the tactics and strategies used positively or negatively, since the Second World War the US as the reigning liberal hegemon has provided vital global public goods that no other major power could or would supply. These included the U.S. Navy safeguarding the world’s most important trade routes; the US dollar provided a global currency, a global means of exchange, allowing trade and business to develop worldwide; providing the most open and deepest stock market and source of finance for business; etc. With the expected relative decline in US power who will provide those public goods in future? Schweller observes that when it comes to the provision of global public goods, “one is better off free-riding than contributing to the public good.” Individual rationality produces collectively suboptimal outcomes.

This is the future we face, particularly when: “the ordering principle of international politics is anarchy.” In the absence therefore of a powerful hegemonic state that is willing and able to provide global public goods through its own efforts alone, and occasionally that of its allies, the provision of global public goods depends on the voluntary efforts of states  on international cooperation under conditions of anarchy.One can therefore predict that in future global public goods will either be underprovided or not provided at all. Bad news for all small states such as our own.

Surely the news is brighter with respect to the growth of network power?

There is no doubt that in this brave new world the average citizen, particularly acting with those of like mind, will be empowered. So also however will be NGOs, multinational corporations, religious movements, terrorists, transnational criminal gangs and people who believe that the world is flat. Those actors that best understand how to operate within and exploit networks will exert disproportionate influence, relative to their actual power, on state and global policies. Schweller shows that network power differs from conventional power in the way it can be used – it is more about veto power than positive power. “Network power is mostly about negative power, about disrupting and blocking policies, about constraining leaders choices and frustrating compromise. Paralysis rather than action is, and will continue to be, the name of the political game.”

A further, and more focused, reality check to much of the hype about the positive impact of networks is contained in Niall Ferguson’s recent paper on Networks and Hierarchies. Ferguson shows that the clash between the two is anything but new: “Clashes between hierarchies and networks are not new in history; on the contrary, there is a sense in which they are history. Indeed, the course of history can be thought of as the net result of human interactions along four axes [time, nature, networks, and hierarchies].” Hierarchies, which exist primarily because of economies of scale and scope, and which began for self-defence purposes arising out of family-based clans and tribes, are characterised by centralised top-down command control and communication. The ultimate example today is the modern nation-state, and history has shown that those nation-states could not have been conceived, launched, and sustained without drawing on the energies unleashed by social and economic networks. These networks of innovators and entrepreneurs, dreamers and renegades – forces that hierarchies have often struggled to contain and control because they engender frighteningly transformative possibilities have been the source of huge global cross-fertilisation, both in the past and today.

The challenges that current networks pose to established hierarchies are threefold: they vastly increase the volume of information which citizens can have access to; they empower individual citizens to publicise things that might otherwise remain secret or known only to a select few; and perhaps most importantly, they expose by their very performance the inefficiency of hierarchical government.

Historically however, the hierarchies have inevitably prevailed. “The Reformation, which was printed as much as it was preached, unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only after a prolonged and bloody conflict that the monarchies were able to re-impose their hierarchical control over the new Protestant sects.”

Today it is clear that when governments fail dramatically,new networks increase the probability of successful change or revolution, the Arab Spring being a classic example. However looking at the outcome of the Arab Spring, the result today is a victory for the established hierarchy in Egypt, anarchy and mayhem in Syria and perhaps also in Libya, with a possible positive outcome in Tunisia alone.

The lessons of history, recently reinforced, show that the hierarchical states are quick to appreciate the opportunities that today’s networks present to them to help maintain their control. As Ferguson notes: “Edward Snowden’s most startling revelation was the complicity of companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook in the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs, notably PRISM.”

Are these new networks really emancipating us from the tyranny of the hierarchical empire states? The concern has to be that, despite all the hype about the Information Age and its positive benefits, the old hierarchies and the new networks are in the process of reaching a quiet accommodation with one another, as the state and networks did repeatedly in the past.

In today’s networked world, the danger is not popular insurrection but profound indifference; the real political challenge may not be to withstand popular anger but to transmit any kind of signal through the noise. Rather than becoming engaged or involved , you have “ the man slumped on his sofa, his attention skipping fitfully from television to laptop to tablet to smartphone back to television. And what gets his attention? The end of history? The clash of civilisations? The answer turns out to be the narcissism of small differences.”

Schweller, while acknowledging the difficulties and threats, thinks there is potential good news around the new networks – power over others, and particularly absolute rule, will become much more difficult and expensive, to exert. I am not so sure. The successful use by Russia of frequently inane and ridiculous propaganda appears at this stage of the Ukrainian crisis to have been broadly “successful” in Russia itself, and to a surprising extent in the West, at least in the latter case until the shooting down of MH17.

China’s use of nationalism, frequently spread through networks, also shows the dangers that the new technologies can provide for police state type control. In that regard China went through a landmark transition last year with little fanfare – for the first time in modern history the cost of controlling its own population exceeded the cost of external defence.

Another downside of network power is that the growing power of private citizens or groups operating in cyberspace will seriously undermine state sovereignty and power which “portends a global trend of control, authority, and effective governance being increasingly replaced by incapacity, powerlessness, and vulnerability.” Power is diffusing and dissipating at the same time: more actors have power but just enough to thwart the effective rule of others-with too little to exercise political authority themselves. We are fast approaching a point where no actor or group of actors will be able or disposed to rule – -or as Schweller puts it, not a time of heaven or hell, but something akin to a perpetual state of purgatory, a chaotic realm of unknowable complexity, with increasing global disorder, a form of global ennui mixed with a large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing.

When order breaks down, democracy is usually an early causalty, witness the rise of fascism and communism in the early part of the 20th century.

Accepting that creating order from disorder is humankind’s most essential and ubiquitous task, Schweller reminds us that it was Kierkegaard who pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. “Disorder does not suppress all that is good in the world and is not necessarily something to fear or loathe: We may,…, embrace the unknowable, embrace our unintelligible world, our futile struggle to come to terms with its incomprehensibility.” This may of course be asking too much of most. With the oldest part of our brains with significant fear hard- wired into it from our hunter/gatherer ancestors, this “Brave New World” may in fact be a disastrously psychologically dislocating one for many if not most of the population of the developed world. This may require not some technological revolution only, but a major revolution in how our brain is hard-wired and/or how we use it.

Perhaps therefore , facing into this extraordinary challenge, our main obligation in life, and perhaps realistically all we can do, is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order around ourselves with our family and friends, and in our workplaces, and hope for the best about our countries and the broader world itself. Or as Schweller puts it, quoting Michael Stipe of REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Ferguson’s short paper on Networks and Hierarchies is a very good summary of the broad history of the relationship between the two, and of recent such developments, a sobering antidote to the euphoria of many about the possibilities of increased freedom and autonomy from the development of the new networks. Naim’s book on The end of Power is a brilliant analysis of the need to think of power in fundamentally new terms, and of why that is the case, let down by a series of conclusions (increasing our trust in government, strengthening political parties etc) which ignores the implications of many of the points already made by him in his book.á

Schweller’s book, Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple must be one of the most frustrating books I have read in years. Out of date with respect to China, the Iranian nuclear discussions, the BRICS, Egypt, the Arab Spring, and the US energy revolution and its impact on relative US power, and poorly edited (to put it nicely), it contains some highly original and thought-provoking ideas with respect to the future of world politics. One despairs at the thought of what might have been! But perhaps, on reflection, Schweller’s book is a perfect illustration in itself of the frustrating, energising, provocative and anarchical world we all face into today.

Be careful what you wish for!

[Richard Whelan is the author of Al Qaedaism The Threat to Islam the Threat the World (Ashfield Press, Ireland; Platin, Turkey) and a geopolitical analyst.]