The Age of Entropy, or Why the New World Order Won’t be Orderly

Guest Post by Randall L. Schweller
Excerpted from Foreign Affairs online, June 16, 2014

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, foreign policy experts have been predicting that the United States’ days as global hegemon are coming to a close. But rather than asking themselves which country will assume world leader status, they ought to be asking themselves whether the concept of global hegemony still applies in our era.

It increasingly seems that the world will no longer have a single superpower, or group of superpowers, that brings order to international politics. Instead, it will have a variety of powers—including nations, multinational corporations, ideological movements, global crime and terror groups, and human rights groups—jockeying with each other, mostly unsuccessfully, to achieve their goals. In terms of geopolitics, we have moved from an age of order to an age of entropy.

Entropy is a scientific concept that measures disorder: the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. And disorder is precisely what will characterize the future of international politics. In this leaderless world, threats are much more likely to be cold than hot; danger will come less frequently in the form of shooting wars among great powers than diffuse disagreements over geopolitical, monetary, trade, and environmental issues. Problems and crises will arise more frequently and, when they do, will be resolved less cooperatively.

How did we get here? The shift began in the twentieth century, with the advent of nuclear weapons and the spread of economic globalization, which together have made war among the great powers unthinkable. However, hegemonic wars—now considered obsolete—also obliterated the old orders, wiping the institutional slate clean so that a new global architecture, better suited to the times, could be built from scratch. In war’s absence, we no longer have a force of “creative destruction” capable of resetting the world. And just as seas become foul without the blowing of the winds, prolonged peace allows inertia and decay to set in.

Interactions between political actors are also characterized by greater entropy. The digital revolution has allowed information to spread farther than ever before, empowering average citizens, celebrities, corporations, terrorists, religious movements, and shadowy transnational criminal groups. The power these groups can exert, however, is unconventional. They have the power to disrupt, to stop things from happening, but they don’t have the power to enact their own agendas. Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging have allowed citizens to organize massive demonstrations and topple dictatorial governments. But there is little reason to believe that citizens organized via social media are able to institute political changes.

None of this is to suggest that we will inhabit a miserable world of endless gloom and doom; that we and future generations are fated to endure wretched lives of perpetual unhappiness. While we cannot reverse the process of information overload, we can figure out how best to adapt, go with the flow, and maybe even learn how to turn floods of information into useful and reliable knowledge. Creating order from disorder is, after all, humankind’s most essential and ubiquitous task. We are constantly pushing back against the natural forces of dissipation, chaos, and randomness; fighting against the rising tide of entropy that threatens to engulf us. The key to success within this confused and messy external environment is learning how to manage discontinuous changes shaped by external forces—technological, competitive, and regulatory innovation or the decline and rise of whole industries and regional economies—that engineer radical breaks with the past. There are many strategies for reducing complexity and productively adapting to rapidly changing environments (for instance, decentralized and self-organizing innovation networks); none, however, guarantee success.

The age of entropy will not be a utopia, but it need not bring us to despair. Disorder does not suppress all that is good in the world. Without great wars, we have enjoyed prosperous and peaceful times. Nor is disorder itself something to fear or loathe. “The struggle itself,” as Albert Camus famously pointed out, “is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Like Sisyphus, we need to embrace the unknowable, to accept our unintelligible world and our futile struggle, to come to terms with its incomprehensibility. For better or worse, we have no other choice.

SchwellerRandall L. Schweller is a professor of political science at The Ohio State University and the author of Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple: Global Discord in the New Millennium, published by John Hopkins Press, from which this essay is adapted.