What is going on in this place we call a world? More specifically, what sort of prospects for peace and security are we looking toward in the years and decades ahead? Will the world become a better place, a place of peace, prosperity and brotherhood? Or will it tank? Or will it just muddle along, providing full employment for the commentariat?
Despite the tendency of many social science and history academics in recent decades to crawl as far inside their navels as possible, some panoptical thinkers have engaged this question. Some are optimistic, believing that liberal norms are deeply set in fertile social soil and will spread afield. In some formulations this is bound to happen regardless of the power, prosperity, and reputation of the guiding actors who have founded, encouraged, and sustained that liberal order. Fat chance. Some are pessimistic, whether because of environmental obsessions or because doomsaying makes the pointy-headed ones feel privately heroic.
Optimism or pessimism is beside the point, however. What matters isn’t the conclusion but the adequacy of the questions one asks and the wherewithal one deploys to answer them. So here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on the uber-question: What the heck is going on, anyway?
It is by now banal in the extreme to say that we are living in a rapidly changing world, and it can be misleading, too: The challenge is to understand how the world is changing, not how fast it is changing. No doubt the frequency of exchanges has grown thanks to the technologies associated with the information revolution. Even so, we perceive greater speed not only because of what technology allows, but also because much of what is occurring is unintelligible to us. This reproduces the same sense of exaggerated velocity we experience upon hearing spoken a language we do not understand.
The analogy to a foreign language is not entirely decorative: We lack an adequate vocabulary for contemporary affairs, a common plight in unstuck times. Just as Newton had to more or less invent calculus in order to think coherently about the physics he was contemplating, so we need new language to think coherently about global security and peace. The intellectual categories we are accustomed to using are obsolete: society, politics, economics, culture; foreign and domestic; international, national and local; corporate and not-for-profit; private and public. They are flowing in and out of one another on a planetary scale arguably for the first time. This has left us with an inherited vocabulary misaligned with reality and, therefore, one that often impedes our understanding of it.
We are not entirely helpless, however, for history, if carefully parsed, can offer some guidance even during times when reality outruns vocabulary. The first lesson it offers is the need to distinguish levels and orders of causality, lest we end up, as Charles A.W. Manning once put it, trying to influence the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow. There are, it seems to me, three such levels of causality: a primary one having to do with the sources of insecurity and violence; a secondary one concerning the modalities of conflict; and a tertiary one concerning the enablers and shapers of warfare.
Sources of Insecurity and Violence
Human societies exhibit both universal and particular characteristics. The universal characteristics can be described in shorthand under the rubric of social organization, the particular ones under the rubric of culture.
Universal social tendencies arise from the fact that societies must organize stable means for fulfilling certain fundamental functions (feeding, sheltering, procreating, securing order and justice within and security from without) that inhere in our physical and psychological nature. Human social organization has doubtless been driven by evolutionary selection; societies that fulfill these functions endure or thrive while those that have not worked so well don’t.
This suggests that how any society takes care of these necessities will give rise to substrata of characteristics held in common. For example, all premodern human societies display a tri-generational child-rearing pattern in which grandparents play critical roles as educators and guardians of culture (among other things). Social organization will still vary from society to society, but within similar technological milieus it will not vary nearly as much as culture.
The particular tendencies of culture arise from a paradox: All societies construct social reality in the same way, through the human capacity for symbolization, of which spoken language is the central shared form. Symbolization, however, is free in the sense that, as Erving Goffman once put it (in the name of phenomenologists as a group): “Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we ourselves have of it.” This means that common understandings of the forces acknowledged to be loose in the world vary widely from society to society, and change within societies from epoch to epoch. Culture, in other words, is capacious—universal in its presence and means of generation, but wondrously diverse in its expression. Think of it metaphorically, if you like, as being a bit like fingerprints or snowflakes.
Thus, every society shares at least some understandings with every other society because we are all members of the same species with the same elemental survival needs; but no society shares every understanding with any other society, or else by definition it would be that society.
As it happens, different societies exhibit different levels of tolerance for shocks, whether the shocks come in the form of foreign invasions, pandemic diseases, large-scale natural disasters (sudden ones like volcanic eruptions or more gradual ones like desertification), or relatively sudden but pervasive technical change. Shocks can generate unstructured migratory behavior, which is simultaneously a sign of social disruption and an accelerator of it because migration, now at very high if not unprecedented levels, causes pluralization—one people coming into contact with others whose cultural understandings differ from its own.
No society is completely brittle or it could not endure for long; but, clearly, some cultures handle the challenges of change and pluralization better than others. We are not sure why this is. Some societies may privilege entrenched elites more uncritically than others, reducing social flexibility under duress. It could be, too, that attitudes and institutions in more resilient societies reflect cosmologies in which change is associated with a positive, unfurling teleology, while those in less resilient ones conceive a cosmology based on cyclical or static conceptions of the world. Or perhaps something entirely different is at work; as I say, we don’t really know.
Whatever the reasons for observed differences in social adaptive capacities, it follows that some societies will be roiled more and others less when significant change and associated accelerated pluralization occur on a planetary scale, as is occurring today. Some societies are thus bound to be seen as causing or “owning” the sources of change while others are seen, and will often see themselves, as being on the receiving end of forces believed to threaten their corporate identity and dignity as individuals. Such a world will tend to polarize into core and periphery: that part of the world seeming to manufacture and “manage” change, and that part composed of largely unwilling recipients of the consequences.
It is no fun being on the receiving end of changes one does not understand and can neither control nor defend against. It causes stress, anxiety, and insecurity. Insecurity leads to fear, and fear, we know, often engenders violence. This sequence is part and parcel of human nature, and society’s ability to control it has changed only by degree since the emergence of modern humans some 200,000 years ago.
Insofar as human societies have been able to limit the social consequences of fear and insecurity, they have done so largely through the universal cultural phenomenon of religion. Whatever else it is and does, religion disciplines individuals and groups though the power of moral conscience, teaches hope and patience, and, perhaps above all, restrains individual behavior through collective sanction. Whenever fear and uncertainty reach levels that threaten to dissolve the cultural glue holding societies together, religion forms a shield for collective sanity. In other words, it usefully raises the threshold of social disintegration.
Over the past few centuries in the West, reason has vied to replace religion as a conceptual template for society’s defense against shock and uncertainty. Science offered hope of a more effective means of controlling risk, and so of reducing the frequency and magnitude of social shocks. It also privileged two key orienting assumptions that differed from those proffered by most earlier religious cultures: Reason took pride of place among the various functions of the human central nervous system; and the individual rather than the community became the elemental unit of measure on which attention focused. These are, of course, among the main definitional hallmarks of modernity. How has science done in providing balm and buffer for social disruption over these past few “modern” centuries?
The record has been mixed. Some kinds of shocks have been dramatically mitigated, to be sure, by medical advances and rising material standards of living. But other kinds of shocks both extant and potential have been created by inadvertent, man-made phenomena based in applied science (weapons of mass destruction, for example, and whole classes of affluence-enabled non-communicable diseases). Only over the past few decades has doubt about science as a means of reducing social risk and uncertainty risen into general consciousness. Within Western societies, therefore, debate continues over the relative utility of religion and science as templates for organizing human understanding and knitting societies together—in other words, for generating culture, the meaning-making, metaphorical externalized signposts that members of a society hold in common.
This debate has recently acquired a surprising aspect. Again, the archetypal paradigm of the scientific worldview insists on reason as the best means to generate functional social arrangements, and that the individual, not the group, is what matters first and most. Alas, both of these predicates have come under attack from within the scientific estate itself. A growing body of research suggests that humans do not readily separate reason and affect in their behavior, and that this is not “irrational.” Related research, including research into the composition and evolution of the brain itself, suggests as well that the proper level of analysis to study human behavior is the group, not the individual.
What this means, at the least, is that science now increasingly credits the orientation of traditional religious worldviews with having positive evolutionary functions. Human culture is now seen as being within the evolutionary process, and religion is, as all anthropologists know, a key element of most cultures. It may further suggest that even in post-pluralized, supposedly secular societies the functions once satisfied in traditional societies by religion remain, only they take forms that self-described secular people in their “natural attitude”—I mean here precisely Alfred Schutz’s Lebenswelt—do not recognize as having any kindred function with religion.
A different kind of dialogue has ensued between Western societies and others, for whom the rise of modern science has not been an organic social development. In this dialogue Westerners have tended to claim that science is a qualitatively different kind of symbolic system from religion, but not everyone is convinced. Science sounds as faith-based to many non-Westerners as any religious system they know. Moreover, many non-Western observers, as well as some within the West, have noted that the headlong de-spiritualization of Western political and social life attending the “age of reason” has not ensured the peace and toleration so many predicted would come of it. That de-spiritualization, some have argued, rather underlay the totalitarian enormities of the 20th century.
In short, while it may seem esoteric in discussions of international peace and security, it is nevertheless undeniable that the symbol systems societies have always used to define and defend their corporate integrity against risk and uncertainty are now, perhaps for the first time, the subject of very widespread conscious and contentious questioning. The wholesale pluralization of templates may be undermining the heretofore taken-for-granted “natural” credibility of all templates, thus lowering the threshold of social disintegration in the face of potential shock and challenge.
If so, an increased sense of insecurity and fear flowing from what is increasingly a global condition will spawn efforts to reassert traditional templates. That, it seems clear, is what has ignited ethno-linguistic and sectarian identity politics in much of the world, in place of the broadly ideological templates of an earlier time. It is also what appears to have stimulated certain chiliastic movements, of which al-Qaeda has proved the most telegenic example, just as similar circumstances brought forth such movements in earlier centuries. As always, much chiliastic energy is directed inward and produces devout quietism, but some, also as always, is projected outward in suicidal violence. A propensity for violence thus seems likely to increase on a global scale as the rapid pluralization of heretofore “natural”, innocently accepted cultural templates proceeds.
Modalities of Conflict
Aworld divided into core and periphery, to the extent that it is prone to violence, will generate varying forms of violence. These forms constitute the modalities of conflict in today’s world, which take five basic forms: national, subnational, transnational, anomie/small group, and what may be called, for lack of a better term, the “imperialism of the commons.”
Fear can congeal, drive action, and be manipulated at the national level by states. Even wars in the Westphalian era that seem to have been wars of aggression, like those caused by 20th-century fascism, were seen by their fomenters as defensive wars. All were generated by the perverse inversion of the Golden Rule under the spell of the security dilemma: Do unto others before they can do unto thee. States have often used violence against weaker states in defense of their interests, for fear that small or latent problems might grow larger and become dangerous. That, ultimately, has been an important contributing factor in U.S. involvement in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today the prospect of war among the great powers is probably lower than it has been since the advent of modern times. One reason concerns the spread of the core Enlightenment notion that competition can be a multi-sum (as well as a zero-sum) game. But great power stability and peace is not tamper-proof and may not be permanent. Nor do regional balances come into being all by themselves; if they did, the historical record would not be so rich with chronicles of war. State elites may still conclude that the use of violence is their least-bad option in given circumstances. That may be because of resource competitions in which some states are put at a decided disadvantage on account of technological or geographical factors. It may be because of fears that internal control is disintegrating on account of what other actors do to mobilize populations in rival states. It may be on account of ethno-linguistic chauvinism. Or it may be because ideological or religious—that is to say, creedal—reasons take pride of place. All such reasons may look better to governmental elites when accompanied by the withdrawal or apparent passivity of the state or states that have been providing global security goods, as has the United States since the end of World War II.
Fear can also congeal and be manipulated at the subnational level, by groups that feel abandoned, exploited or humiliated by their national government or by the actions of other states against kith and kin. Civil war became much more prevalent in the second half of the 20th century than great power war, particularly in regions in which the state (mainly a Western construct whose origin lies in part in the development of print-driven literacy and the collective consciousness flowing therefrom) is not organic to their historical development. It is hardly a surprise that state structures artificially imposed on societies not accustomed to them tend to be fragile, and that the explicit or implicit social contract defining the relationship between rulers and ruled is weak. A dynamic of resistance to authority and coercion by authority to command obedience has generated endemic violence in many countries, the more so to the extent that the societies themselves are ethnically or culturally heterogeneous. The shock of change washing over such weak states tends to accelerate and deepen the fears and insecurities that lead to violence within them.
It usually does so, however, in a characteristic way. States on the periphery of the world system do not produce cutting-edge science and technology; do not generate indigenous wealth from human capital, social trust, and institutional coherence; and cannot control the increasing porosity of their physical and virtual borders. Thus they tend to divide within themselves over how to deal with the pressures from without (and sometimes within, as generated, for example, by growing rates of literacy and urbanization). Usually societies under pressure divide into three factions: modernizers who want to align their society with the ways and means of the core; nativists who reject change for fear it will destroy their corporate identity and dignity; and traditionalists who seek ways to adapt to new opportunities, but on their own cultural terms. These different reactions to pressure sometimes align with ethnic and sectarian divisions in society; sometimes, however, they cut across them.
Fear can also congeal and be manipulated at the transnational level. Imagined communities of religious believers or ethnic diasporas can now organize themselves as has never before been possible. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Some earlier examples, like the anarchist epoch of the late 19th century, were based on ideological communities constructed around utopian conceptions of a classless society. Episodes of anti-Semitism arose from the unusual history and transnational social organization of Jews in diaspora. The possibilities of potentially violent transnational communities in the future, however, are vast: Note just one already existing example in the nature of Islamist extremism in Western Europe.
Fear can congeal and be manipulated at the anomic and small group level, as well. This is what Islamist apocalyptical terrorism is, but it hardly subsumes the class of possibilities. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan is an example, too, and so are Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber in the United States: cults or cultic individuals who have organized their fear and insecurity into attacks against the perceived agents of indignity or threat.
Such behaviors are commonly articulated in creedal terms, and almost always proliferate in times of disorienting change. They dot the history of nearly every recorded age and of every inhabited continent. Contrary to popular belief, the violence of chiliastic movements is not caused by poverty, by discrete political grievances or by authoritarian repression. Its expression may be enabled or channeled by these factors, but they are not the true causal agents of the violence they propagate.
There are also links among the national, the subnational, the transnational, and the anomic levels at which violence may take place. Generally speaking, the less cohesive a society is at the national level—in other words, the less effective its state organization and the less congealing its culture are for accomplishing core social tasks—the more prone it will be to spawn subnational and transnational impulses to separation and violence, and the more those impulses will stimulate anomic impulses to separation and violence. The loop then feeds back: The more impulses to separation and violence there are at levels other than the state, the more confidence in the state’s ability to govern and provide security will wane.
There is one other level at which fear can congeal and be manipulated into violent behavior. It appears to be new, so we do not have an agreed term with which to label it. We will therefore describe first, name second.
In recent decades many educated people have come to believe that the world is more tightly interconnected and interdependent than it used to be. Whether and to what extent this is true and why are interesting questions; but the belief that it is true has an autonomous impact—it is, in other words, a force loose in the world in the form of a belief. As global social life takes up and freezes into itself this conception of interdependence, what happens?
Possibly, good things happen. At least some people are apt to think through the consequences of their behaviors for others and hope that others reciprocate. To the extent they do, we may expect more empathy and cooperation. But other things happen, too. When do people start caring about property taxes and municipal services? After they purchase a home. When does a cotton farmer in the Sahel start to care what the U.S. Congress does? After U.S. agricultural subsidies drive down the value of his labor. In short, the more interconnected we think the world is, the more moving pieces we feel obliged to pay attention to, and the more influence we will seek over them. After all, if these moving pieces impinge on our livelihood and safety—if what chicken farmers do or don’t do in Thailand or China can cause avian flu in Texas or California—what’s wrong with wanting to have influence on or, in extreme cases, exert control over them?
But, of course, others will feel the same way, giving rise to competitions to influence global interconnectedness. These competitions may take at least two forms.
First, they can result in powerful states, coalitions of powerful states, or international organizations directed by powerful states trying to exercise governance functions over groups who are, for whatever reasons, not interested in being influenced. So, for example, the powerful say to the indigenous inhabitants of some timber-rich land that they must not destroy their forests for the benefit of our common biosphere, and the locals answer, in effect, you mind your business and we’ll mind ours.1
Second is the problem of devising transnational governance mechanisms to deal with threats to the commons. Everyone knows this is increasingly necessary, and few fail to understand how sovereignty can coexist with cooperation: It merely requires that clear lines of democratic accountability be respected in deciding how much sovereignty to lend out in given cases. The problem is that the interests of states in transnational governance functions overlap but do not coincide, and some large and powerful states do not particularly care about respecting lines of democratic accountability, either within or among societies. This is how the question of regime type can morph into a potential barrier to effective international governance.
In sum, states could fall into conflict over the terms of transnational functional regimes, and perhaps even fight over them if they are deemed important enough (how to deal with a looming pandemic, for instance). Even if they do not fight but merely cause policy paralysis, we are willy-nilly back to reliance on self-help: powerful countries trying to coerce smaller ones, or groups within other countries, to either do or stop doing something the more powerful state believes threatens its interests in an interdependent world. Let us call this, as hinted at above, the imperialism of the commons.
Enablers and Shapers of Warfare
We have so far sketched lightly the basic sources of instability and violence in global human society manifest in the early 21st century, and then limned five interlocking forms they can take. We are left with describing the instruments of warfare, and how those instruments may double back to affect the modalities and even the sources of instability and violence.
It is by now a commonplace to observe that the conventional military forces of powerful states cannot so readily be used to secure political results in a host of unconventional contingencies ranging from insurgency to terrorism. There is nothing new about this either: The British learned as much in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the French learned it in Algeria, and if the Americans had not forgotten what they learned in the Indian Wars and in the turn-of-the-20th-century Philippines, they would not have had to learn it all over again in Vietnam, and yet again in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is new about the impotence of force is new only in degree. What is new, specifically, is that formerly passive populations in many parts of the world are no longer so passive, and politicized groups are harder to intimidate and pacify than disorganized and divided ones.
What is new is therefore not the impotence of the seemingly mighty but the capacity of the underdog, the dispossessed, the stateless, and even the insane to seriously harm nominally far more powerful actors. We saw this on 9/11, as we awoke to a possibility previously smothered by a failure of imagination. Now we know: Just as the Colt 45 enabled a weakling to be just as deadly as a hulking giant more than a century ago, now and in the future a growing range of instruments will enable small, weak groups to be as potentially deadly as many a state.
Much attention today focuses on the danger that Islamist terrorists might get hold of nuclear weapons. This is not likely. More worrisome is that suicidal, chiliastic fanatics might get their hands on biotoxins. Controls over biogenetic research, in America and in the world, are scandalously inadequate; unlike nuclear science and engineering, too, bioscience and bioengineering are still unbounded and hence much harder to predict; and the raw materials for evil bio-deeds are cheaper and easier to fabricate, hide, and deliver.
Then there is cyber-terror and related ways to wreck the nerve centers of modern societies. Attacks on information systems and nodes of communication and transportation can cripple an advanced modern economy. People will not just be inconvenienced when such things happen; they will die, too. The key to dealing with potential threats to strategic system nodes is devising hedging strategies for investment in resiliency, not making old ladies take off their shoes before they’re allowed to board an airplane. We have been obsessing over improbable, near-term Islamist nuclear threats when we should be concerning ourselves with longer-term bio- and cyber-threats of far more diffuse potential origin.
The inversion of who can harm whom—of individuals and small groups being able to jeopardize states, while states often seem powerless to stop them—could have profound effects on international security. There are, most obviously, the literal effects: bombings, mass murders, and paralyzed economies. But such literal effects, if there are enough of them, could redouble into qualitatively distinct social-psychological effects. States are in the protection business: They protect people from each other in civil society, and they protect society as a whole from other states. If states are widely seen as being unable to do these things effectively and consistently, the silent conspiracy of presumption that enables them to function in the first place will evaporate. States that cannot monopolize the control of violence within their boundaries, and a state system that cannot monopolize the control of violence in the wider global arena, will not very long endure.2
If that happens, the devolution of de facto decision-making to levels other than those of the national state will accelerate. Some devolution of state control both downward and upward is a good thing. The wars of the past few centuries, together with the centralizing impetus of industrial-age technologies, created a more state-centric political order than at any time in the past. Now that this centralizing impulse is abating somewhat, fractionated “states” or would-be states, such as Bosnia, Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps Lombardy, seem to be emerging. The problem is that the formula for democratic accountability has only been worked out on the level of the state, and the deterioration of democratic states will probably deepen the ambient sense of fear in the world, making change appear more frightening to many societies. The trick is to carefully and by consent selectively devolve the social and political authority of states to loci where it can be both more effective and possibly even more legitimate. That is not the same, obviously, as a headlong, near-simultaneous crumbling of that authority among states, a situation best described not as state failure but state-system failure.
Planned subsidiarity, therefore, may be the best protection against state and state-system failure. Indeed, a generic problem inherent to globalization today, as it functions within a state-centric context, is that it often works at cross-purposes with subsidiarity. One gains economies of scale from amalgamations of various kinds, but loses flexibility in the process. Nature is resilient because it is both diverse and in a sense modularly designed. When successful, it balances itself in ever expanding loops or concentric circles of dense interdependence, but failsafe mechanisms built into the connections ensure that if something goes awry on one level, others levels can adjust without collapsing. Even fish are “smart enough” to do this. But when financiers and bankers aggregate a host of regional business cycles into one massive global cycle, everything collapses if that megacycle collapses. (Sometimes this happens in a single, massive financial corporation: JPMorgan, for example, is so huge that no chief executive officer can possibly know what the company as a whole is doing at any given time.) It amounts to doubling down on a bet when one cannot even read clearly the cards in one’s own hand. This is not a formula for resilience; it’s a thumbnail description of what happened to Humpty-Dumpty.
Many have complained that U.S. foreign policy in recent years has suffered from the absence of a strategy process. No one is looking at the big picture or asking whether the structure of the government, designed in and for a different era, suits current circumstances. The same observation holds for the governance, such as it is, of the planet. The world is over-institutionalized in the sense of having an alphabet soup of aging organizations whose functions no longer align with the environment, but it is under-institutionalized in the sense of not having the functional systems it needs to manage emerging or growing problems effectively.
The only way systems that will actually work can be instituted is through the voluntary association of sovereign states in some way or other accountable to those they rule. If this happens, it could lead to a more orderly and less fear-inducing pace of change, hence less instability and violence. If it doesn’t, the growing mismatch between the dwindling capacities of most national political units, on the one hand, and the real, effective space in which economic and cultural exchanges are taking place, on the other, will expand.
That would not be so good for peace and security, either within or among societies. How do we know this? Because there is a long history of shifting “fittedness” (please excuse the term) between polities and economic and social space. One way strong polities endeavored to recreate a fit has been through contiguous territorial expansion: land empires, a favorite pastime of the ancient and not-so-ancient world. A second way has been through overseas empires, facilitated by the operational method of mercantilism. A third way has been through cross-polity regimes of free trade that resolve discrepancies not through force majeure but through agreement on a system of ongoing material exchange and reconciliation that involves, inter alia, some means of devising a form of legal tender—money, in other words. These trading systems have tended to be rare, limited, imperfect, and short-lived, but territorially contiguous and overseas empires have had their downsides, too—slavery and war, for example. This is perhaps what led Hegel to define history as “a butcher’s block.”
We need to do better. We need to devise a large-scale means of preserving and expanding the reach of accountable government in forms other than the Westphalian/Weberian territorial state—not just for moral reasons, but also because such government tends to be more stable, efficient, and legitimate in mutually reinforcing ways. In the meantime, we need to figure a way for economic interactions, at the very least, not to undermine existing accountable institutions via technical bypass, social exit, or large-scale criminality.3 Don’t worry; I’m working on it.
1A recent example is described in Joshua Partlow, “A Jungle Struggle Heats Up in Mexico”, Washington Post, July 7, 2014.
2It should go nearly without saying that the viability and effectiveness of states vary widely and for several reasons. Many of the 192 sovereigns recognized by the United Nations never achieved the status of Weberian states in the first place. Others did but less than fully, and some states have witnessed institutional decay. Still others differ in terms of the distribution of their executive, legislative, and judicial components, creating a distribution of effectiveness among both democratic and non-democratic states. See Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) and Political Order and Decay (forthcoming in October); and John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution (Penguin, 2014)
3See Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgency”, The American Interest (July/August 2014).