Friday, April 18, 2008

The Multipolar World

This month the cover story of the magazine Courrier International is entitled “L’Hyperpuissance Américaine c’est Fini”; and I thought I was being hard on the states!

Apparently the issue focuses on the new rules of a “multipolar” world, a startling phrase that essentially rings true. The unipolar world can’t last forever; it’s really just a holdover from the old bipolar world, which lasted much too long itself, but at least made a slight amount of sense. The 1800s weren’t really polar; more like musical chairs on a global scale. You could say that the British Empire was a pole, like the Spanish Empire in the 1500s, but they not for very long; in fact, the 16th through the 19th were really four centuries of jockeying for position. And we can’t forget that Europe was competing with the Ottoman Empire during that entire time period. The “clash of civilizations” idea doesn’t really work though because the “civilizations” were so divided themselves. Before the modern period, you’d have to go back a thousand years to find anything like a pole in the world. A world with poles is a relatively rare phenomenon and a “multipolar” world might well amount to a nonpolar world.

Poles make sense in a world organized along the 20th century company model: there’s someone on top and various levels of subordinates below. There’s a chain of command. The problem, as pointed out by any number of comedians and cartoonists over the years, is that there’s no open communication between levels, because nobody wants to be too honest with their boss, and they’re all keeping an eye on the guy below them. The guy on top is half-terrified of and half-clueless about everyone below them, a situation that the US currently finds itself in. And everyone else wants to come up.

The Internet and the crime world seem to both be organized instead around the cell organizational model. Instead of having a rigid hierarchy, which the police can trace and break down, drug cartels have begun to organize themselves into myriad semi-autonomous cells, apparently having adopted the model from communications networks. (New technologies teach us to think the way they want us to.) The end result is that the cartels are now nearly invulnerable. I assume that groups like Al-Quaida work much the same way and that their “cells” have little contact with each other or with any sort of “middle management”. It’s much easier to get things done when you don’t have a chain of command to go through. Watching superpowers try to fight these ever-multiplying “cells” is like watching King Kong swatting at biplanes: you know that he can’t get all of them. It’s equally impossible to regulate the internet, as many states seem to be learning at once.

I think we’re about to witness what happens after the “invisible insurrection of a million minds” has taken place. The unipower is already fini as far as much of the world is concerned, whether it realizes it or not and maybe so are lone superpowers in general. The globe might well pass through a “multipolar” century and into a “post-power” era. At this point, anything is possible.

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