Beyond Fortress America

As we go through this year’s American election cycle, we hear politicians talk about American power in ways that don’t reflect an understanding of today’s interconnected world. The talk is about how America must be strong on its own – with no consideration of the implications of this connectedness. Consider these statements by current Republican candidates:

Mitt Romney“As President, I will reverse the Obama-era defense cuts. I believe a strong America must–and will–lead the future. I will insist on a military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it.”

Newt Gingrich“We live in a world where if we gamble wrong, and the current proposed defense budget is much too small, if we gamble wrong whether it is a major power like China or Russia, a medium sized power like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, and North Korea is a medium sized power by possession of nuclear weapons. Or it is a fanatic group willing to die in the process of killing us. We live in a world where there are weapons capable of ending civilization as we know it. And we need to be prepared in a very militant and aggressive way to defend America from having a catastrophic disaster of the first order.”

Rick Santorum“I would absolutely not cut one penny out of military spending. The only thing the federal government can do that no other level of government can do is protect us. It is the first duty of the president. And we should have all the resources in place to make sure that we can defend our borders, that we can make sure that when we engage in foreign countries, we do so to succeed.”

These statements might make sense if you view the United States like a fortress in enemy territory. In such a case, having impregnable defenses and overwhelming firepower could be useful in defeating the enemy. (Though military history has many cases of smaller forces overwhelming larger ones.)

But today such views can come across as overly simplistic, not recognizing the much more complex world in which we now live. Countries like Russia and China are not just simply “the enemy.” If they were, why would we be doing so much business with them? Even with countries like Pakistan and Iran, things are complex; at one point or another we have worked with both countries – most notably in the current war in Afghanistan and in the Iran-Contra affair.

Of course this raises the question: what are the implications for America’s security in an interconnected world? Some relevant insights into this question can be found in a couple of TED talks.

Many people have an at least a vague knowledge of the concept of entropy, by which it is said things tend to go from order to disorder. This concept has been used by some to claim that the world as we know it is dying, and that this process is inevitable. However there is another way of viewing things, which Robert Wright addressed in one of his TED talks. He started by talking about evolution:

Because what happened in the beginning, this stuff encases itself in a cell, then cells start hanging out together in societies. Eventually they get so close, they form multicellular organisms, then you get complex multicellular organisms; they form societies.

But then at some point, one of these multicellular organisms does something completely amazing with this stuff, which is it launches a whole second kind of evolution: cultural evolution. And amazingly, that evolution sustains the trajectory that biological evolution had established toward greater complexity. By cultural evolution we mean the evolution of ideas.

What he is describing is the phenomena of complexity: open, dynamic systems have a natural tendency to grow more complex. This is true whether you’re talking about biology, economics, societies, cultures, etc.

Within this context, Wright addresses the implications of complexity for the world as we know it.

Now, I explained this growth of complexity by reference to something called “non-zero sumness.” …the key idea is the distinction between zero-sum games, in which correlations are inverse: always a winner and a loser. Non-zero-sum games in which correlations can be positive, OK. So like in tennis, usually it’s win-lose; it always adds up to zero-zero-sum. But if you’re playing doubles, the person on your side of the net, they’re in the same boat as you, so you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with them. It’s either for the better or for the worse, OK. A lot of forms of non-zero-sum behavior in the realm of economics and so on in everyday life often leads to cooperation.

The rest of his talk is devoted to the implications of this “non-zero” phenomena, which can be either good (win-win) or bad (lose-lose). The point is that as our world has become more complex and interconnected, our relationships with others around the world fall increasingly within this realm. While we often tend to view things in a zero-sum context (e.g., “the more power and wealth China has, the worse off the United States is” or “it’s perfectly OK to get rich by laying off or cutting the pay of workers”), the reality is different.

In today’s world, China’s economic well-being is inextricably linked to that of the US: if Americans don’t have money to buy Chinese goods, China will suffer. By the same token, the more wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, the less economic and financial stability we will all have.

This theme of interconnectedness and “non-zero sumness” is also evident in a TED talk by Paddy Ashdown, a former member of the British Parliament and a long-time diplomat. In his talk he noted:

Today in our modern world, because of the Internet, because of the kinds of things people have been talking about here, everything is connected to everything. We are now interdependent. We are now interlocked, as nations, as individuals, in a way which has never been the case before, never been the case before. The interrelationship of nations, well it’s always existed. Diplomacy is about managing the interrelationship of nations. But now we are intimately locked together. You get swine flu in Mexico, it’s a problem for Charles de Gaulle Airport 24 hours later. Lehman Brothers goes down, the whole lot collapses. There are fires in the steppes of Russia, food riots in Africa.

One implication of this is that many of our current governmental institutions have the wrong kind of structure for the world we live in:

And this tells you something very important. It tells you that, in fact, our governments, vertically constructed, constructed on the economic model of the Industrial Revolution — vertical hierarchy, specialization of tasks, command structures — have got the wrong structures completely. You in business know that the paradigm structure of our time, ladies and gentlemen, is the network. It’s your capacity to network that matters, both within your governments and externally.

This, in turn, leads to a conclusion that is very similar to Wright’s “non-zero” concept:

If it is the case, ladies and gentlemen — and it is — that we are now locked together in a way that has never been quite the same before, then it’s also the case that we share a destiny with each other. Suddenly and for the very first time, collective defense, the thing that has dominated us as the concept of securing our nations, is no longer enough. It used to be the case that if my tribe was more powerful than their tribe, I was safe; if my country was more powerful than their country, I was safe; my alliance, like NATO, was more powerful than their alliance, I was safe. It is no longer the case. The advent of the interconnectedness and of the weapons of mass destruction means that, increasingly, I share a destiny with my enemy.

It’s not yet clear how exactly we should enhance American security in this changing world. That’s part of the price we pay for living in a period of great change.

But what is clear is that the rules have changed – that simply having the biggest and baddest military around is no longer enough. This should have become clear to everyone over ten years ago, when a bunch of fanatics in one of the most isolated countries in the world managed to stage a devastating attack on American soil.

In his talk, Ashdown noted the many security threats a country faces today, from pandemic to food safety to cyber security to immigration of possible terrorists. He observed: “It’s no longer the case that the security of a country is simply a matter for its soldiers and its ministry of defense. It’s its capacity to lock together its institutions.”

What Wright and Ashdown appear to be saying is that building bigger and better walls to protect us is no longer adequate; it’s time we focused on strengthening our networks.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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