Mr. Order Meets Mr. Chaos

We live in an era of unprecedented prosperity, but when the financial bubble bursts we'll plunge into a world depression. Nations no longer go to war, but civil wars are booming. Humanity has embraced the idea of environmental interdependence, but the global ecosystem is in terminal crisis. Depending on your perspective, we stand either on the verge of a golden age or at the brink of disaster. Robert Wright and Robert Kaplan, two of the United States' most perceptive observers of world affairs and the human condition, met recently in Washington, D.C., to offer conflicting views of the path of history.

By and , the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

My Minivan and World Peace
By Robert Wright

My Minivan and World Peace
By Robert Wright

Anyone who knows me would be surprised to find me cast as an optimist, but when you’re juxtaposed with Robert Kaplan, it’s not hard to come off looking pretty chipper and upbeat about the world.

What is the basis for my relative optimism? My prescription and diagnosis are built upon the notion of the non-zero-sum game, which is a reference to game theory. A zero-sum game is what you see in an athletic event like tennis: Every point in the match is good for one player and bad for the other. So the fates of the players are inversely correlated. In a non-zero-sum game, the fortunes can be positively correlated; the outcome can be win-win or lose-lose, depending on how competitors play the game. And, in fact, in a tennis doubles match the players on the same team have a highly non-zero-sum relationship because they’ll both win or they’ll both lose.

Nowadays we’re all embedded in lots of non-zero-sum relationships that we really don’t even think about. For instance, when I bought my Honda minivan I was in a non-zero-sum relationship with workers in various countries. The deal was I paid a tiny bit of their wages and they built me a car. It is characteristic of globalization that it embeds us in these non-zero-sum relationships. It makes our fates more correlated with the fates of people at great distances. It’s a subtle process that we usually don’t think about, but every once in a while this correlation of fortunes becomes glaringly evident, as was the case with the Asian crisis when we realized that a financial downturn can instantly spread around the world; or when a virus spreads across the Internet and you realize that computer users on different continents are all vulnerable, their fates are correlated.

In theory, as globalization makes relations among nations more and more non-zero-sum, you would expect to see more in the way of institutionalized cooperation to address these problems. That is not a pathbreaking insight. For some time now, political scientists have been talking about the growing interdependence of nations and the growing logic behind cooperation. But I believe that this process is now moving so fast that, much sooner than most people expect, we’re going to reach a system of institutionalized cooperation among nations that is so thorough it qualifies as world governance. I don’t mean world government, a single centralized authority. I imagine a looser mix of global and regional organizations. But still I’m imagining some very significant sacrifices of national sovereignty to supranational bodies. We’ve already seen a little of this surrender of national sovereignty with the World Trade Organization, and I would argue there was a little bit of surrender (a well-advised surrender) when 174 nations signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

I fully expect this trend toward global governance to continue, although I’m much more confident about it happening in the long run than in the short run. The zone of non-zero-sumness has been expanding for a very long time: You can go back to the Stone Age when the most complex polity on earth was a hunter-gatherer village and chart the evolution to the level of the chiefdom — a multivillage polity — and then to the level of the ancient state, and then to the system of modern nation-states, and so on. The key element that has driven the evolution of social complexity and of governance to higher levels is technology. Sometimes it is information technology, as when the invention of writing often accompanied the evolution of the first ancient states. Sometimes it is transportation technology and sometimes, ironically enough, it is weapons technology. Weapons technologies can make relations much more non-zero-sum — certainly nuclear weapons make war a very non-zero-sum endeavor in the sense of making it a lose-lose game, wherein the object of the game is never to play. Nuclear weapons thus strengthen the argument for a system of collective security pursued through some supranational institution such as the United Nations.

We don’t know in detail what the future of technological evolution will be, but we have a pretty good idea. Information technologies will continue to evolve and enmesh people in webs of transactions, interactions, and interdependence. Weapons technologies will evolve, but perhaps more important, the information about how to build very lethal weapons of mass destruction will likely be accessible to more and more people. Thus, almost all nations share a common interest in controlling the development and use of these weapons. Technological evolution will continue doing what it has done for the broad sweep of history, which is expanding the realm of non-zero-sumness, making the fates of peoples and nations more correlated, and in the process driving governance to a higher level, to the global level.

That the fates of the world’s people have grown more and more correlated over time is not by itself especially good news. As you may have noticed, many examples of non-zero-sum dynamics are actually negative-sum games, lose-lose games, where the object of the game is to break even. Global warming is an example of such a negative-sum game — where we just want to fend off the bad outcome — that I think calls for institutionalized cooperation and some real, if small, sacrifice of national sovereignty.

So when I argue that history features more and more of this non-zero-sumness, that statement isn’t by itself good or bad, it just is. It’s just something we have to reckon with. But there is one feature of the direction of human history that is at least mildly upbeat, in some ways redeeming. It’s what I call the expanding moral compass. Philosopher Peter Singer has written about this. If you go back to ancient Greece, there was a time when members of one Greek city-state considered members of another Greek city-state literally subhuman. They would slaughter and pillage without any compunction whatsoever. Then the Greeks underwent a process of enlightenment and they decided that actually other Greeks are humans, too. It’s just the Persians who aren’t humans. (Okay, it was limited progress, but it was progress.) And today I think we’ve made more progress, especially in economically developed nations. I think almost everyone in such countries would say that people everywhere, regardless of race, creed, or color, deserve at least minimal respect.

If you ask why that has happened, I argue that it gets back to this basic dynamic of history, this growth of non-zero-sumness. If you look at Greece at the time of their limited enlightenment, relations were growing more non-zero-sum among Greek city-states because they were fighting a war together against the Persians. They needed each other more, they were in the same boat, and to cooperate they had to accord each other at least minimal respect. And if you ask why an ethos of moral universalism now prevails in economically advanced, globally integrated nations, I would say it’s the same answer. If you ask me why don’t I think it’s a good idea to bomb the Japanese, I’d say, "For one thing, because they built my minivan." I’m proud to say I have some more high-minded reasons as well, but I do think this basic, concrete interdependence forces people to accord one another at least minimal respect, to think a little about the welfare of people halfway around the world. I expect this dynamic to grow and persist in the future because in a world where disease can spread across borders in no time at all, it’s in the interest of Americans to worry about the health of people in Africa or Asia. In a world where terrorists can wield unprecedentedly lethal technologies, it’s in the interests of Americans to worry about political grievances before they fester to the point of terrorism. One feature of a globalized society is that disaster can happen at the global level, so we’re now in this process where either we grasp the moral and political implications of this increasingly shared fate we have with other people or very bad things will happen.

The modern world is in many ways a disoriented and disturbing place. Things are changing very fast, but I think if you look at the broad sweep of the past it offers a way to orient ourselves. History is not just one damn thing after another, it’s a process with a direction; it has an arrow. And I think if we use that arrow to orient ourselves then I would predict that the coming decades will not be characterized by chaos.

Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst
By Robert Kaplan

Well, Bob, while you’ve been looking ahead to discern the broad, cosmic sweep of history, I’ve been looking ahead just 10 or 15 years in terms of foreign policy — which is often most effective when it’s conceived of in light of worst-case scenarios, in the hope that those scenarios don’t occur. I should remind you that constructive pessimism is profoundly in the American tradition. It’s the basis for the U.S. Constitution. If you read The Federalist Papers, you can see that Americans have become a country of optimists over 225 years precisely because we’ve had the good fortune of having our systems of government founded by pessimists. The French Revolution conversely was founded on optimism, on the belief that elites could engineer positive results from above, and it devolved into the guillotine and Napoleon’s dictatorship. Alexander Hamilton, whom I consider the greatest of the Founding Fathers, said don’t think there will be fewer wars in the world simply because there will be more democracies. In Federalist Number Six he said there are as many wars from commercial motives as from territorial aggrandizement. So it is in that spirit of The Federalist Papers that I’m going to present a scenario about what worries me over the next 10 or 15 years.

I wrote in 1994 that even as part of the globe was moving toward economic prosperity, another part — containing much of the population — was marching in another direction due to issues such as demography, resource scarcity, and disease. So let me tell you how I see things now, seven years later. The European colonialists did a lot of terrible things, but they did bring a certain degree of order to much of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia. That colonial grid work of states started dissolving in the 1990s when we saw the weakening or outright collapse of several marginal places. I use the term "marginal" not because their well-being wasn’t important, but because they had low populations, their economies were small, and they didn’t really affect the region around them all that much. Somalia, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Haiti, and Rwanda were not core regional states in any sense, but look at how they disrupted the international community.

I believe that, for a number of reasons, we’re going to see the weakening, dilution, and perhaps even crackup of larger, more complex, modern societies in the next 10 or 15 years in places such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Pakistan. And we’re going to see severe crises in countries like Brazil and India. This dissolution of the colonial grid work is going to create the kind of crises where there will be no intervention scenarios, or the intervention scenarios will be far worse than they were in Bosnia or Sierra Leone. The problem is not that these places have particularly bad governments. They’re coping as best as any could. The reasons are far more complex and intractable.

First of all, these societies are modernizing. Although history teaches us that modern democratic institutions provide stability, history also reveals that the process of creating and developing modern democratic institutions is very destabilizing. As free-market democracies develop, more and more people are brought into the political process. And all of these people are full of yearning, ambitions, and demands that governing institutions very often cannot keep pace with. So things start to break down here and there. It is economic growth that typically fuels political upheavals, not poverty.

The other challenge to the stability of the nation-state is demography. You hear a lot about how the world population is aging, but that’s over the long term and throughout the world as a whole [see "The Population Implosion," Foreign Policy, March/April 2001]. But when you look ahead at just 20 or 30 countries over the next 10 or 20 years, you see dramatic rises in the youth population (what demographers call "youth bulges"). When you watch your television and you see unrest or rioting in Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Gaza, and the West Bank, what’s similar about all of them? All of the violence is typically conducted by young men, ages 15 to 29, who are unemployed and frustrated. The sector of the young male population within this age group is going to grow dramatically in the countries that already have tremendous unrest and are already on the edge. In other words, the places that will have a population pyramid that is bottom-heavy with the youngest members of society are the ones that can least afford it.

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve got urbanization. The 21st century is going to be the first century in world history when more than half of humanity will live in cities. Even sub-Saharan Africa is almost 50 percent urban. Urban societies are much more challenging to govern than rural societies. In rural societies people can grow their own food, so they are less susceptible to price increases for basic commodities. Rural societies don’t require the complex infrastructure of sewage, potable water, electricity, and other things that urban societies have. Urbanization widens the scope of error for leaders in the developing world while simultaneously narrowing the scope for success. It is harder to satisfy an urban population than a rural population, especially when that population is growing in such leaps and bounds that governing institutions simply cannot keep pace.

Then you have resource scarcity, particularly water. I spent the summer in a small village in Portugal where we only had running water about eight hours a week. We had to drive about half a mile to a local fountain to fill pitchers of water. Anyone who has not gone without water has no idea what it’s like not to be able to flush your toilet or take a bath. There’s been a drought for the last four years across a swath of South Asia from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India. Dams are low, so there is not enough water for drinking or generating electricity. So in these hot cities of the subcontinent you have less and less air conditioning in the summer. This kind of stuff doesn’t necessarily cause political crises, but it’s all part of the background noise that aggravates existing crises. This frustration worsens ethnic tension and makes social divides harder to resolve. In short, people get angry. There was a spate of riots in Karachi, Pakistan, not long ago that was preceded by an extended period when there was very little electricity due to water shortages.

Then there’s the issue of climate change. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that this whole global warming issue has been exaggerated, that it really doesn’t exist, that it’s not going to be a problem. Well, even if you factor out global warming, the normal climatic variations of the earth during the next few decades will still ensure devastating floods and other upheavals because, for the first time in world history, you have hundreds of millions of human beings living in environmentally fragile terrain — where perhaps human beings were never meant to live at all. So even without global warming you’re going to have natural events that can spark political upheaval.

And finally, the other factor that’s going to spark serious institutional crises in a lot of states is democracy. Everyone wants to be democratic, no use denying it. But democracy tends to emerge best when it emerges last. It should be the capstone to all other types of development, when you already have middle classes that pay income taxes, when you already have institutions run by literate bureaucrats, when the major issues of a society (such as territorial borders) are all resolved and you already have a functioning polity. Then, and only then, can a society cope with weak minority governments. Then, and only then, can democracy unleash a nation’s full potential. Right now, we’re seeing democracy evolve in many places around the earth accompanied by unemployment and inflation rates every bit as dire as Germany in the 1930s, when Hitler emerged under democratic conditions, and in Italy, when Mussolini came to power in the early 1920s. I’m not arguing against democracy, but I believe democracy will be another destabilizing factor.

If it seems like I’m deliberately cultivating a sense of the tragic it’s because that’s how you avoid tragedy in the first place. Remember that Klemens von Metternich was so brilliant in creating a post–Napoleonic order that Europe saw decades of peace and prosperity — so much so that politicians in France and England lost their sense of the tragic. All they saw ahead were optimistic scenarios and, as such, they stumbled and miscalculated their way into World War I. Take my concern in that spirit.

In the Long Run, We’re All Interdependent
Robert Wright reponds.

Well Bob, I’m actually something of a fan of pessimism myself. I think it focuses us on the problems that need our attention. I find it particularly heartening that your books have a sizable American readership, since that suggests that Americans increasingly realize their fates are intertwined with the fates of people around the world. But I don’t want to overdo the pessimism. And in particular I don’t want to make it sound like globalization and its attendant technological fluctuations are part of some kind of uniformly bad force. I’m actually something of a cheerleader for globalization. It has problems, but I think on balance it’s a good thing.

You said that the world was increasingly dividing into two parts, echoing the common refrain that globalization exacerbates income inequality worldwide. But that conclusion actually depends on how you examine the data. If you look at the number of rich versus poor nations, then you can certainly make that argument. But if you look at the total number of people in the world, ignoring where the borders fall, then what’s happening in absolute terms is that there are fewer poor people than there used to be. And even in relative terms, it’s far from clear that income inequality is growing, and a number of people have argued that the income gap is actually shrinking worldwide. It turns out that many of the world’s poor people are concentrated in a few very large countries (like China and India) that have seen more progress than some of the smaller countries (notably those in Africa). But even in Africa, globalization has seen a kind of vindication: The countries that have seen the most economic advancement are the ones that are most open to trade and investment.

Another virtue of globalization is that it is basically an antiwar activity. I think as peoples and nations become more economically intertwined, war becomes more of a lose-lose kind of non-zero-sum game that it doesn’t make sense to play. There still are wars in the world, but there is a very interesting feature of the modern world that is insufficiently noted: We increasingly think of wars between nations as something that poor countries do. Nobody expects any of the most economically advanced nations to go to war with one another, which represents a real shift of mind-set. If you look back at most of history it was really standard procedure for the most powerful polities to go to war with one another. Nowadays, most interstate fighting breaks out in parts of the world that could be termed "underglobalized" areas. I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s not their fault that they’re underglobalized. There are various quirks of history or geographical circumstance that explain why some parts of the world have advanced faster economically than others. But the fact is that wars are mostly a threat in the poorest parts of the world.

Now, when you get to subnational conflict, war within nations, I agree, Bob, that’s a problem that may grow more serious. You argue that conflict is often exacerbated by economic development. I’d add another way in which modernization has given rise to intranational conflict, and that is through the propagation of information technology. As I suggested earlier, information technology has certain globalizing effects, but it also has fragmenting effects because whenever you lower the cost of communication you make it easier for small groups with meager resources to organize. It’s no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation roughly coincided with the invention of the printing press. After Martin Luther had tacked up his 95 Theses, printers took it upon themselves to start printing them in various cities. That is how Luther first organized the masses, because printing was suddenly so cheap.

You’re seeing the same thing in the modern world thanks to the Internet. Inevitably, information technology is going to empower separatist groups such as Muslims in the west of China and Basques in Spain. But, in the long run, you can imagine this secessionist frenzy working itself out, because as some of these subnational groups choose to drop out of nations they can at the same time cement themselves into supranational bodies. In fact, the Quebec separatists have said they plan to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as soon as they get out of Canada, and I would expect that European separatist groups would be strongly tempted to join the European Union. So, I certainly agree that globalization presents us with all kinds of short-term difficulties, but I do still think it’s a process that is fundamentally beneficial and will lead to a new equilibrium in the long run.

Passion Play
Robert Kaplan responds.

Bob, let me draw some distinctions here, just in the spirit of argument. You tend to put a lot of emphasis on the ability of people to make good, rational choices. But if you think that people are always going to behave according to their best, rational self-interest, read Mein Kampf. As Hamilton said, "the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint." The U.S. Constitution was established to slyly organize and control our passions. I’m not convinced that we’re going to act any more rationally than we have in the past. It is true that there is a movement toward world governance, but a single, unifying thread is not necessarily a good thing. For instance, the European Union could readily devolve into a benign bureaucratic despotism that will ignore the interests of the lower middle classes. I think the nationalist movements popping up throughout Europe are already a reaction to this benign bureaucratic despotism from Brussels. If there is to be world governance, it has to be a kind that doesn’t only appeal to the elites.

And those who feel marginalized have resources at their disposal that go way beyond the Internet. The Industrial Revolution was about bigness — big aircraft carriers, tanks, and railway grids — so that only large states could take advantage of the power the Industrial Revolution had to offer. But when you’re talking about cyberwarfare, biological weapons, and this whole new gamut of weaponry in the post–Industrial Revolution, when you live in a world where just a telephone jack and a petri dish give you power, then it’s not just large nations that can benefit. Nonstate actors who feel shut out can also magnify their power through this new technology. Power relationships are going to be more complex than ever. You were right when you said that technology drives history, but it doesn’t necessarily do so in an orderly manner.

As for the moral universalism that you mention, I think we have to be a bit careful because the West is now using the term "global community" in the way we used to use the term "free world." We’re trying to define the whole world in terms of our own moral outlook and what we want. There may be other powers and other cultures that have different views of how the world should be organized, so we have to be careful not to sound triumphalist. And although inequality might be decreasing, I believe the most significant form of inequality is not what we see between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa, but the income gap you see between the wealthy coastal community and poor interior of a place such as Ghana. The biggest divides are between these globalized communities within the poorest countries — with their own electricity generators, their own water wells, and their own private security guards—that are hooked up to the world economy and surrounded by people with whom they have less and less in common.

You’re right Bob, history is not one damn thing after another, but neither is it on a direct, predetermined course à la Karl Marx. The philosopher who captures it all best is Charles de Montesquieu who, in The Spirit of the Laws, sees the course of history as just a gradual improvement, punctuated with a lot of ups and downs.

But, lest I sound too contrarian, allow me to point out that I’ve been concentrating on the zero-sum games that occur within your vast non-zero-sum game. So, in that sense, there is no contradiction between us.

Coffee, Tea, or Apocalypse
Robert Wright responds.

I would hate to let stand the accusation that I think people behave rationally. I’ve long argued that people are really quite spotty on this particular front, and the saving grace of history has been that whenever people screwed up in one part of the world, there were people in another part of the world who picked up the torch. So when the Roman emperors messed up and began exhibiting the sort of increasingly autocratic rule that people are prone to given the opportunity, and the barbarian hordes did us the service of dismantling the Roman Empire, there were other empires that could continue to grow and thrive.

But I agree that once we reach the global level of organization, we face exactly the threat you describe in that there is no longer a plurality of experiments going on around the world. Increasingly it’s one big experiment, and if it collapses that is bad news on a very large scale. That is one reason why I always say that history almost reads better than any novel. The protagonist of this story, that is to say the human species, has been driven more or less inexorably to a moment of fundamental moral and political choice. Making the right decision really depends on our level of moral enlightenment, an understanding of the commonality of all human beings. And if we fail to make the right moral choice, then apocalypse could well ensue. We live at a time of great drama and I absolutely acknowledge that chaos is one of the prospects we face. 

A Whiff of Medievalism
Robert Kaplan responds.

Bob, I think chaos is more than a prospect. As divisions within societies and nation-states become greater, chaos might very well be inevitable. A new global community is taking root, but it is doing so at the top. Right now that community is so small that it’s still a Potemkin village, but it’s not going to be that way forever. The middle and upper middle classes, what I call the "nouvelle cuisine classes," are merging together at the pinnacle. If you’ve ever been to the annual Davos conference, you are struck by how medieval it has become: You see the world’s elites gathered together, just like the aristocrats of Germany, France, and England 200 or 300 years ago, who had more in common with each other than with their own peasants at home. Our sense of identity is being driven more by what economic class we belong to than what country we live in. The world is moving very slowly and inexorably out of the nation-state phase. That may ultimately lead to something better, but the process of leading to something better is very chaotic.

Robert Wright, author of NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000) and The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), is visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Human Values and Seymour Milstein senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of 20 books, most recently Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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