“We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not.”
Robert Kagan, The Coming Anarchy, 1994
Thirteen years ago, with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the darker side of the End of History was brought home to our shores. We have yet to come to terms with its implications, choosing foolishly to fight these new threats with outdated tools and methods. The frequent comparisons to Pearl Harbor are worse than inapt, they are deceptive. In reality, 9/11 could be best thought of as the opposite of our experience in World War II, our introduction to a world in which freedom has become a dominant value but order is the most precious resource on Earth.
The world is rapidly growing smaller, freer, and richer, but the same forces behind this happy trend are wreaking havoc on some corners of the world. And those same forces mean that the misery festering in forgotten hellholes can neither be ignored nor contained.
We often think of evolution as a genetic process, but like many other creatures human beings evolve along three planes simultaneously. To speed up our adaptation beyond the pace of our genetic mutations, we have also evolved the capacity to adapt through our social structures and technology. Over the past ten generations or so the pace of technological adaptation has suddenly accelerated, putting pressure on us in numerous other ways. Cultures are struggling to keep pace with the new landscape of demands, but though they evolve faster than our genes, many of them are falling behind or even blinking out of existence.
Accelerating technological progress has placed amazing new power in the hands of individuals, weakening or destroying oppressive institutions that once exploited millions. Like attacking a cancer with chemotherapy, this same cure has weakened virtually every kind of institution regardless of merit, rendering the social and cultural institutions on which civilization depends more brittle almost everywhere.
Where core institutions are traditionally strong and dense, as in Europe and North America, these forces have brought increasing government dysfunction and political polarization, but basic order remains largely unthreatened. Where public institutions have been weak or few, as in parts of the world once dominated by empires or monolithic dictatorships, this dynamic has bred a technology-infused chaos.
This is an age of mass extinctions, driven by an explosion of human technological evolution. Those extinctions are not limited to rare frogs or charming songbirds. Social institutions, cultures, entire political frameworks are collapsing under pressure from new, more adaptive innovations. As these less durable frameworks collapse they create little black holes of chaos, murder and disease that contain the potential to undermine the entire environment.
Terrorism, Ebola, mass immigration of unaccompanied minors – these are all essentially the same problem. Pockets of anarchy created by the collapse of poorly adapted institutions can be the birthing ground of new, freer, more liberal institutions. Or they can become poison factories. For those of us in rising Asia and the traditional West, decisions we make about how and when to intervene in these evolutionary episodes will grow increasingly complex and consequential as the world shrinks and only the hard cases remain to be worked out.
This is not a military problem, though the problem has a military dimension. The first order of civilization is to monopolize the use of violence in order to make it accountable and therefore legitimate.
Our enemy, per se, is not ISIS any more than the enemy is Ebola or unaccompanied migrant children. The enemy is chaos. Battling chaos might begin by using violence to thwart an organization like ISIS, but to accomplish any useful objective the fight must extend beyond the reach of the military. Using air power to combat ISIS is roughly equivalent to using fighter jets to stop the gangs on the west side of Chicago. It amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the situation. Violence does not create order, though it sometimes can be used to remove forces that stand in the way.
We will not be secure from the reach of roaming terrorist gangs in Syria until some accountable structure exists to govern the place and channel the needs of its people into policy. We will not be free from the dangers of Ebola, or the diseases coming in its wake like Marburg or nature’s as yet undiscovered surprises, until some credible order exists in the places where these diseases arise. No drone yet invented can bomb Ebola. It can only be stopped by a minimally effective public health system.
‘Foreign policy’ has become a quaint concept, evoking an age when the term ‘foreign’ referred to matters that were distant and only relevant in exceptional circumstances. We now operate in two political categories: matters under our direct legal jurisdiction and matters outside the reach of our legal sovereignty. There is no ‘foreign.’ There is ‘legal’ and ‘extralegal.’
To add to the complexity of the challenge, rising chaos is not a geographically distant problem. Sometimes it emerges in places under our legal authority.
Detroit is a laboratory for domestic social collapse as the institutions that tentatively supported that long-troubled place have dipped below the water line. Depressed rural areas of the Great Plains, the Deep South and Appalachia face similar challenges as the economic value of labor for mining and farming continues to decline. Many of the same basic political tools we will need to combat the expansion of chaos abroad might be sharpened in our own back yard. Our first order of business is to protect the viability of our social institutions.
What can we do to promote our interests in this changing landscape? First, we must begin to recognize the limits of military hegemony as a policy tool. We are exquisitely prepared for problems that can be bombed away – so prepared that those problems have largely disappeared.
In light of that recognition, we must begin building international institutions capable of doing more than talking about problems (the UN) or bombing those problems (NATO). The world’s free countries should be working together much more closely, likely starting with the nations of NATO and extending to Asia, to build government-sponsored organizations that look less like the army and more like Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Trans-national organizations in the shape of the Peace Corps, backed by the political and diplomatic force of free governments while supported and protected by military alliances, are the next evolutionary step in fighting the breakdown of social institutions in fragile places. They could succeed where the US military failed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or Haiti, Liberia and Honduras.
There may be no better symbol of the need for such a force than the US military’s recent deployment to Liberia. Using troops to ‘fight’ a disease is expensive and it’s a mission for which they are poorly suited on almost every level. Yet we have no appropriate force, no US or transnational medical or political reserve, ready to respond to such scenarios.
At home, our response to this challenge requires us to protect the viability of our own fragile institutions. Weakening social institutions are creating instability and feeding the rise of dangerous extremism and malaise. Our most important global challenge, the declining effectiveness of social institutions and the resultant rise of chaos, is not a foreign problem.
For at least the next couple of generations the most precious resource supporting human life will be organization – and in some places it will be perishingly scarce. We are living through an unprecedented shift in human evolution, in which the pace of evolution of our technology has overwhelmed our cultural and genetic evolution.
For those lucky enough to live under institutions with the resources and flexibility to weather the storm this is likely to be a time of wonder, wealth and freedom. Elsewhere in the world there is going to be trouble and that trouble will not stay put. We will either take intelligent calculated actions to limit the growth of chaos in distant places or the consequences will find us.