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January 24, 2012


The Context for Strategy: A World of Entropy

by Mike M

I re-read today one of the most provocative articles of recent years on global politics, and was reminded to add it to the required reading list page.  It’s Randall Schweller’s Ennui Becomes Us from The National Interest of 2010.  If you haven’t yet seen it, have a look.  It will challenge you, worry you, confuse you, make you think, and ultimately improve your strategic vision for the effort.

Schweller, one of the most insightful IR scholars writing since the mid-90s, looks to the concept of entropy to describe a world of declining major power warmaking, growing social boredom and ennui, rising corporate and sub-state competition, and generalized confusion and disorder.  The piece mixes political science, psychology, media trends, and other disciplines into a stark, dystopian, and mostly persuasive (but on this view 20 percent too pessimistic) account whose upshot is that “No one will know where authority resides because it will not reside anywhere; and without authority, there can be no governance of any kind. … [T]he specter of international cooperation, if it was ever anything more than an apparition, will die a slow but sure death.”

Bracing stuff.  Brilliant stuff.  The environment for strategy in twenty years is going to look dramatically different, and we need people willing to get out of the “shore up the West and deter China” box and think anew.

Read more from Foreign Policy
2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt J
    Jan 24 2012

    Ugh . . . “Ennui” combines the worst features of the subjective reality arguments from the earlier post with the pitfalls of utterly inappropriate analogy selection. Thermodynamics is just completely the wrong frame for this discussion of social processes engaged in by living beings — far better would be one couched in terms of evolutionary biology. The earth may be a closed system, but it’s not a beaker full of reagents — it’s populated by living beings. Arguably the most fundamental characteristic of life (see Dawkins, et al.) is its ability to overcome entropy through adaptive self-organization under evolutionary pressure. So we are concerned less with “randomness” than with highly complex contingent interaction within a dynamic system. And we won’t end up in some diffuse max-entropic steady state with 10 billion people individually staring dully at their television screens (seriously? In the age of the iPhone?) . . . polities (not necessarily states . . . oddly this contrarian article remains fixated on states in much of its discussion) will change and adapt to the new realities. As I argued in my earlier post, many of these realities will have objective characteristics, the correct understanding of which will advantage those polities that best grasp them. Indeed, the ability to grasp and react adaptively to those realities will be precisely the distinguishing factor among successful and less successful polities (or individuals). What kind of polities? Role of states in the increasingly complex world? Excellent questions . . . but some kind of structure will self-organize out of the apparently chaotic interactions within the living system. So I agree with Mike’s closing sentence, but I don’t think “Ennui” helps much in understanding the actual nature of the environment to which we’ll have to apply that new thinking.

  2. mikem
    Jan 26 2012

    Fair enough, and a superb argument. I tend to agree about self-organizing complexity in response to dyamic system challenges, but to me Schweller’s argument has to do with the proliferation of inputs into the system, I guess, and the ability to manage them, and the legitimacy of various organizations for managing them … I don’t think it’s predetermined that organization has to emerge. It is interesting, though, that there seems to be a contradiction (which I well recognize) in works I otherwise admire for being at least thought provoking, like Schweller and Guehenno: On the one hand they argue that the System of Networks demands order and predictability for its droning sameness in pursuit of profit and consumerism to work; so it hates disorder and instability. On the other hand they worry about constant disorder and instability through disrupted networks and entropy-like effects. If the former is true then we ought to get your effect of self-organizing order.


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