Donald Trump’s New World Order

 What a Kissinger-inspired strategy might look like.

Ten days after the election of Donald J. Trump to be the 45th President of the United States, there is a more or less complete lack of certainty as to which direction his foreign policy will take, but a great deal of speculation—much of it alarmist—based on things Mr. Trump has said in speeches and interviews. Yet few if any Presidents base their foreign policy strictly on campaign rhetoric. Few if any break entirely with the policies of their predecessors. And, indeed, few if any can be said, in practice, to have anything so coherent as a foreign policy doctrine, much less a grand strategy. Experience also suggests that the foreign policy of the Trump Administration will depend a good deal on who gets the key jobs—Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, as well as National Security Advisor—and on who wins the interdepartmental struggle that will inevitably ensue: the battle for bureaucratic priority, the fight for regular access to the President, the war of leaks to the media.

Rather than speculate about such transitional questions, it may be more constructive for now to ask what Trump’s strategic options actually are as seen against the widest parameters that reality may bear. In this context, it is helpful that the nation’s most respected living strategic thinker and practitioner has already aired some of his views. Having endorsed neither leading candidate for the presidency, but having met with both during their campaigns, Henry Kissinger deserves to be heeded. There is, of course, no certainty that his views will be heeded by the President-elect or his national security team. It would be foolhardy to assume that the President-elect does not take his own oft-stated views seriously, and these do not align especially well with those of Henry Kissinger. But Kissinger’s advice is being sought, and prospective cabinet officials may be more amenable to it than not. There is therefore no reason to assume that the embryonic administration is so wedded to a particular strategic doctrine that what follows can be dismissed out of hand.

Let us begin with the geopolitical landscape that Trump inherits from his predecessor. In his most recent book World Order (2014), Kissinger argues that the world is in a parlous condition verging on international anarchy. This is not only because of shifts in the material balance of power from West to East, but also because the legitimacy of the postwar world order is being challenged. Four competing visions of world order—the European-Westphalian, the Islamic, the Chinese, and the American—are each in varying stages of metamorphosis, if not decay. Consequently, real legitimacy inheres broadly in none of these visions. The emergent properties of the new world disorder are the formation of “regional blocs” with incompatible worldviews.[1] These, he fears, are likely to rub up against one another in a way that escalates: “A struggle between regions could be even more destructive than the struggle between nations has been.”[2]

Contrary to those who claim the world has transcended any prospect of major systemic war, Kissinger argues that the contemporary global context is highly flammable. There is a profound tension between economic globalization and the political persistence of the nation-state, which the 2008 financial crisis laid bare. Second, we are acquiescing in the proliferation of nuclear weapons far beyond the Cold War “club.” We also have the new realm of cyberwarfare, a novel version of Hobbes’s “state of nature.” [3] Here and in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, as well as in private conversations with his biographer,[4] Kissinger has outlined four scenarios he regards as the most likely catalysts for a large-scale conflict:

1. a deterioration in Sino-American relations, whereby the two countries tumble into the so-called “Thucydides Trap” that history sets for every incumbent power and the rising power that challenges it;
2. a breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, based on mutual incomprehension and made possible by:
3. a collapse of what remains of European hard power and/or the will to use it, due to the inability of modern European leaders to accept that diplomacy without the credible threat of force is just hot air; and/or
4. an escalation of conflict in the Middle East due to the Obama Administration’s readiness, in the eyes of the Arab states and Israel, to hand hegemony in the region to a still revolutionary Iran.
One or a combination of these threats, in the absence of a coherent American strategy, threatens to turn mere disorder into a conflagration.

In an increasingly “Westphalian” Asia, the United States might be expected to play the balancing role, but it is simultaneously

an ally of Japan and a proclaimed partner of China—a situation comparable to Bismarck’s when he made an alliance with Austria balanced by a treaty with Russia. Paradoxically, it was precisely that ambiguity which preserved the flexibility of the European equilibrium. And its abandonment—in the name of transparency—started a sequence of increasing confrontations, culminating in World War I.[5]

Kissinger does not say explicitly in World Order that the Administration’s abortive “pivot to Asia” represents a repeat of the mistake made by Germany’s leaders after Bismarck; he does not need to.

He is more explicit with respect to the Middle East, where he categorically rejects arguments advanced by Obama himself in his January 2014 profile in the New Yorker. Obama assured David Remnick that his goal was to achieve balance between Sunni and Shia forces.[6] Kissinger’s objection is that “America can fulfill that role only on the basis of involvement, not of withdrawal.”[7] In effect, Obama has combined the rhetoric of Wilsonianism with a strategic retreat driven mainly by domestic political calculation.

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Kissinger goes further. As he puts it, with reference to Obama’s fateful decision not to intervene in Syria when Assad crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, the decision to use military force “should not be a compromise between contending domestic forces.” Whatever the rationale of Obama’s effort to achieve a new equilibrium between Sunni and Shi’a, the President has “created the impression—and the reality—of an American strategic withdrawal from the region.” The Iran deal was simply too favorable to Iran because it lifted sanctions without requiring Iran to curtail “its imperial and jihadist foreign policy” in the region: “The assumption that a weapons-specific negotiation would produce a psychological breakthrough in their thinking did not reflect Iran’s 2,000 years of imperial experience.” Age has not diminished Kissinger’s ability to penetrate the minds of other statesmen. “Obama seems to think of himself not as a part of a political process,” he observes mordantly,

but as sui generis, a unique phenomenon with a unique capacity. And his responsibility, as he defines it, is to keep the insensitive elements of America from unsettling the world. . . . Since [the Administration] believes as well that the global trends are moving in a direction favorable to our values, the overwhelming strategic obligation of the United States becomes to avoid getting in the way of the inevitable. . . . [But] his vision of the arc of history produces a . . . passive policy. . . . [He prides] himself most on the things he prevented from happening. . . . Another view of statesmanship might focus to a greater extent on shaping history rather than avoiding getting in its way.[8]

Donald Trump therefore enters the Oval Office with an underestimated advantage. Obama’s foreign policy has been a failure, most obviously in the Middle East, where the smoldering ruin that is Syria—not to mention Iraq and Libya—attests to the fundamental naivety of his approach, dating all the way back to the 2009 Cairo speech. The President came to believe he had an ingenious strategy to establish geopolitical balance between Sunni and Shi’a. But by treating America’s Arab friends with open disdain, while cutting a nuclear deal with Iran that has left Tehran free to wage proxy wars across the region, Obama has achieved not peace but a fractal geometry of conflict and a frightening, possibly nuclear, arms race. At the same time, he has allowed Russia to become a major player in the Middle East for the first time since Kissinger squeezed the Soviets out of Egypt in the 1972-79 period. The death toll in the Syrian war now approaches half a million; who knows how much higher it will rise between now and Inauguration Day?

Meanwhile, global terrorism has surged under Obama. Of the past 16 years, the worst year for terrorism was 2014, with 93 countries experiencing an attack and 32,765 people killed. 2015 was the second worst, with 29,376 deaths. Last year, four radical Islamic groups were responsible for 74 per cent of all deaths from terrorism: ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.[9] In this context, the President’s claims to be succeeding against what he euphemistically calls “violent extremism” are absurd. Much opprobrium has been heaped on Donald Trump in the course of the past year. But there was much that was true in his underreported August 15 foreign policy speech on the subject of Islamic extremism and the failure of the Obama Administration to defeat it.[10]

The “Obama Doctrine” has failed in Europe, too, where English voters opted to leave the EU in defiance of the President’s threats, and where the German leadership he recently praised has delivered, first, an unnecessarily protracted financial crisis in the European periphery and, second, a disastrous influx to the core of migrants, some but not all of them refugees from a region that Europe had intervened in just enough to exacerbate its instability. The President has also failed in eastern Europe, where not only has Ukraine been invaded and Crimea annexed, but also Hungary and now Poland have opted to deviate sharply from the President’s liberal “arc of history.” Finally, his foreign policy has failed in Asia, where little remains of the much-vaunted pivot. “If you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea,” the President boasted in an interview published in March, “we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”[11] The new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, apparently did not receive this memorandum. In October he went to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to announce his “separation from the United States.”

All of this means that merely by changing Obama’s foreign policy President Trump is likely to achieve at least some success. The question is, how exactly should he go about this change?

Kissinger’s analysis of Trump’s victory is that it was “in large part a reaction of Middle America to attacks on its values by intellectual and academic communities.” As such, it presents an opportunity to close or at least narrow the “gap between the public’s perception of the role of U.S. foreign policy and the elite’s perception.” However, there are clear and present dangers. Terrorist groups may seek to provoke an inexperienced and impulsive President into an overreaction. Unfriendly states have been biding their time, waiting for the U.S. election result before making their next move. In other words, Trump may be only a few months away from his first foreign policy crisis. Between now and then, he needs not only to staff his Administration, but to formulate some kind of strategic framework, without which crisis management will quickly degenerate it into the kind of institutional free-for-all that followed 9/11, when (as we now know) the Vice President and Secretary of Defense successfully launched from the rubble of the twin towers an invasion of Iraq that was one of the great non sequiturs of U.S. foreign policy: a crypto-imperial project that (as some of us correctly predicted at the time) the American public lacked the appetite—or attention span—to pursue to a successful conclusion.[12]

Kissinger’s recommendations to Trump may be summarized as follows:

1. Do not go all-out into a confrontation with China, whether on trade or the South China Sea. Rather, seek “comprehensive discussion” and aim to pursue that policy of dialogue and “co-evolution” recommended in World Order. Kissinger sees the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, quite regularly. When he says that Xi regards “confrontation as too dangerous” and thinks that “adversarial countries must become partners and cooperate on a win-win basis,” he speaks with authority. The questions the Chinese want to ask the new President, according to Kissinger, are these: “If we were you, we might try to suppress your rise. Do you seek to suppress us? If you do not, what will the world look like when we are both strong, as we expect to be?” Trump needs to have answers to these questions. The alternative, as Kissinger has said repeatedly, is for the United States and China to talk past each other until they stumble into 1914 in the Pacific, not to mention in cyberspace.
2. Given a weakened, traumatized, post-imperial Russia, the recognition Putin craves is that of “a great power, as an equal, and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system.” Kissinger’s message to Trump is well calibrated to appeal to his instincts: “It is not possible to bring Russia into the international system by conversion. It requires deal-making, but also understanding.” The central deal, Kissinger argues, would turn Ukraine into “a bridge between NATO and Russia rather than an outpost of either side,” like Finland or Austria in the Cold War, “free to conduct its own economic and political relationships, including with both Europe and Russia, but not party to any military or security alliance.” Such a non-aligned Ukraine would also need to be decentralized, increasing the autonomy of the contested eastern regions, where there has been intermittent conflict since separatist movements received Russian support in the wake of the Crimean annexation. The alternative to such a deal is that we may inadvertently over-use our financial and military superiority, turning a post-Putin Russia into a vast version of Yugoslavia, “wracked by conflict stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.”
3. Treat Brexit as an opportunity to steer the continental Europeans away from bureaucratic introspection and back to strategic responsibility. (“They’re talking about tactical matters while they’re in the process of giving up the essence of . . . what they’ve represented throughout history.”)
4. Make peace in Syria rather as we made peace in the former Yugoslavia nearly twenty years ago. Kissinger now recommends a “cantonization” of Syria similar to the federalization of Bosnia under the Washington and Dayton agreements, with an “off-ramp for Assad” lasting around a year, all under the “supervision” of the interested outside powers. Iran must be contained, much as the Soviet Union was in the Cold War, because it poses a similar threat, acting as both an imperial state and a revolutionary cause. But keep the Iran agreement because to abandon it now “would free Iran from more constraints than it would free the United States.” And finally take advantage of the new-found, albeit tacit, anti-Iranian and anti-ISIS alignment of the Arab states with Israel to achieve a new kind of Arab-sponsored peace deal that would “improve the lives of Palestinians to the greatest extent possible, perhaps including quasi-sovereignty . . . that is, de facto autonomy without a legalistic superstructure.”

Might there be a role model for the new President, should he choose to heed Kissinger’s advice? Not surprisingly, he and Goldberg talked a good deal about Richard Nixon. Yet for all Nixon’s qualities as a strategic thinker, the context of 2017 is unlikely to sufficiently resemble that of 1969 for the analogy to be helpful. By comparison with Vietnam, U.S. forces today are engaged in only a few conflicts, and rarely in frontline roles. The opening to China lies in the past, not the future; what is at issue today is a potential closing. Xi is not Mao. Likewise, Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, which only seven years before Nixon’s inauguration had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba and continued to foment global revolution around the world throughout the 1970s. Europe is not divided as it was in 1969, with Soviet troops still in the streets of Prague. And the Middle East has been profoundly transformed, not least by the rise of Shi’i and Sunni fundamentalism, a far more potent force than Iranian or Arab nationalism ever was. With the passage of nearly half a century, perhaps Quneitra, on the Israeli-Syrian frontier, is the only fixed point in the region.

If not Nixon, then who should serve as Donald Trump’s strategic role model? Although his name did not come up in Kissinger’s interview with Goldberg, there is an obvious answer, clearly articulated in the former Secretary of State’s classic work of synthesis, Diplomacy. That answer is Theodore Roosevelt, the antithesis of Woodrow Wilson, Kissinger’s bête noire.

“Roosevelt,” wrote Kissinger, “started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries, America had the obligation to draw on its strength to prevail.”[13] Roosevelt did not build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, but he did formulate the “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the right of the United States to exercise “however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of . . . wrong-doing or impotence . . . an international police power” in Latin America and the Caribbean. That principle became the basis for interventions in Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba—and for the acquisition of the territory on which the Panama Canal was constructed: one of the great infrastructure projects of the early 1900s.

Moreover, Roosevelt was dismissive of liberal designs such as multilateral disarmament and collective security, enthusiasms not only of Woodrow Wilson but of the three-times-defeated Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan:

I regard the Wilson-Bryan attitude of trusting to fantastic peace treaties, to impossible promises, to all kinds of scraps of paper without any backing in efficient force, as abhorrent [wrote Roosevelt]. It is infinitely better for a nation and for the world to have the Frederick the Great and Bismarck tradition as regards foreign policy than to have the Bryan or Bryan-Wilson attitude as a permanent national attitude. . . . A milk-and-water righteousness unbacked by force is to the full as wicked as and even more mischievous than force divorced from righteousness. [14]

For Roosevelt, the principle of Cardinal Richelieu held: “In matters of state, he who has the power often has the right, and he who is weak can only with difficulty keep from being wrong in the opinion of the majority of the world.” He sympathized with Japan when it attacked Russia in 1904. He acquiesced in the Japanese occupation of Korea four years later. For Roosevelt the only real law of geopolitics was the balance of power, and he relished the opportunity to play the powerbroker. Thus it was at Roosevelt’s home at Oyster Bay that Russia and Japan began the peace negotiations that culminated the Peace of Portsmouth (1905), a treaty intended to limit Japan’s gains from victory and re-establish equilibrium in the Far East. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt at first hesitated to take sides, but then concluded that a German victory would pose a more serious threat to the United States than a British one, because “within a year or two” a victorious Germany “would insist upon taking the dominant position in South and Central America.”[15]

For Roosevelt, too, the cultural affinity between the United States and the United Kingdom was not unimportant. His only regret was that his fellow Americans—who opposed his call for increased armament to counter the German threat—could not be more wholeheartedly warlike, like their Old World cousins. “Our people are short-sighted, and they do not understand international matters,” he complained to the English novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling during the World War. “Your people have been short-sighted, but they are not as short-sighted as ours in these matters. . . . Thanks to the width of the ocean, our people believe that they have nothing to fear . . . and that they have no responsibility . . .” [16]

obama-kissingerIn short, Theodore Roosevelt favored an American foreign policy that was firmly based on the national interest, the build-up of military force, and the balance of power. “If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water,” he told a friend, “I am for the policy of blood and iron. It is better not only for the nation but in the long run for the world.”[17] Wilson’s League of Nations reminded him of Aesop’s fable “of how the wolves and the sheep agreed to disarm, and how the sheep as a guarantee of good faith sent away the watchdogs, and were then forthwith eaten by the wolves.” [18]

Perhaps the only thing Roosevelt and Kissinger have in common with Barack Obama is that all three won the Nobel Peace Prize—which of course says a great deal more about the Nobel Committee than it does about peace.

Following Rooseveltian principles, then, what grand strategy might we expect President Trump to pursue? It seems clear that, like Theodore Roosevelt, Trump conceives of an international order no longer predicated on Wilsonian notions of collective security, and no longer expensively underwritten by the United States. Instead, like Roosevelt, Trump wants a world run by regional great powers with strong men in command, all of whom understand that any lasting international order must be based on the balance of power. In short, Trump already has more than he knows in common with Roosevelt. “To him,” wrote Kissinger of the latter, “international life meant struggle, and Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest was a better guide to history than personal morality. In Roosevelt’s view, the meek inherited the earth only if they were strong. To Roosevelt, America was not a cause but a great power—potentially the greatest.” That does sound familiar.

“In a world regulated by power,” Kissinger argued, “Roosevelt believed that the natural order of things was reflected in the concept of ‘spheres of influence,’ which assigned preponderant influence over large regions to specific powers.” The reader will notice that this is precisely the kind of world that—according to Kissinger—we now find ourselves in, more than a century after Roosevelt’s presidency.

A literal application of this analogy would of course imply a policy of orientation toward Japan against Russia in Asia, and towards the United Kingdom and France against Germany in Europe. However, that fails to take account of the great changes in the balance of power that have occurred in the intervening hundred years. To imagine a Rooseveltian strategy for 2017 we need to consider a different set of possible alignments.

As I reflected on Trump’s options in the immediate wake of the election, I ran the following thought-experiment. What if Trump, against all expectations, decided to seek better relations with both Moscow and Beijing? This would combine both his own Russophile leanings with Kissinger’s argument for a new policy of partnership with China. Such an arrangement would theoretically be achievable if Trump engaged only in kabuki theater with China over trade (which is what many influential Chinese expect him to do).[19] It would also be consistent with the tough line on Islamic extremism that has been such a feature of Trump’s campaign, for on this issue the three great powers—each with their worrisome and growing Muslim minorities—share an interest. And it might be consistent with a re-ordering of the Middle East that re-imposes the ancien régime of kings and dictators in the Arab world and reinforces Israel, all at the expense of Iran, which has no historic reason to expect Russian fidelity, much less Chinese.

As a corollary, the three powers might agree on the demotion of Europe from great power status, taking advantage not only of Brexit but the increasingly fragmented and introspective character of EU politics. One possible way to do this would be for Trump to propose replacing “little” NAFTA with “big” NAFTA—the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which would bring the United Kingdom directly into a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere, while at the same time delivering on Trump’s anti-Mexican (though not anti-Canadian) election pledge. At the same time, Trump could credibly apply pressure on other NATO members to increase their currently risible defense budgets. Finally, he and Putin could work together to help continental populists such as Marine Le Pen to win the elections of 2017. As Roosevelt put it in 1906: “France ought to be with us and England—in our zone and our combination. It is the sound arrangement economically and politically.”

One striking feature of such a strategy is that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council would ultimately all be either populist or authoritarian controlled, assuming Le Pen can somehow be helped across the line against the French pacte républicain. Thus might the institutions of Wilsonian collective security end up serving the interests of the great powers as never before: the ultimate revenge of Realpolitik.

Self-evidently, the rest of the world would be the losers of such a great power condominium. Japan and Germany would be the biggest losers, just as they were the biggest beneficiaries of the postwar international architecture designed simultaneously to disarm, constrain, and enrich them—although Kissinger would doubtless urge the new Administration to adopt a Bismarckian approach to Japan, maintaining the U.S. commitment to its defense despite the new partnership with China, while encouraging Germany to remain European rather than nationalist in its outlook.

The new American-Chinese-Russian tripartite arrangement would be looser than the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia but, like their predecessors two centuries years ago, liberals would denounce it as an Unholy Alliance of populists and authoritarians, indifferent to human rights and international law. Other autocratic rulers would rejoice; their opponents would find themselves undone not only by a lack of Western support but, more fatally, by exposure through cyber-espionage. In economic terms, too, the new Greater Northern Hemisphere Co-Prosperity Zone would thrive at the expense of the other BRICS—Brazil, India, and South Africa—as well as many smaller countries that have been major beneficiaries of the age of globalization. For the Baltic States, this would be a calamitous turn of events. The Republic of Ireland, too, would find its position—a European island in an Anglo-American ocean—suddenly forlorn. It would be bad for Mexico, worse for Ukraine. But for the world as a whole, it would at least be an order of sorts. And no world war would be likely to break out under its aegis.

What might stand in the way of such a Rooseveltian solution to the problems identified by Kissinger as the ones facing a newly elected President Trump? One obvious objection might be that a combination of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as Great Britain and France, is without precedent, but that is plainly nonsense: It was precisely that alliance which won World War II. A second might be that such an alliance is unsustainable in the absence of an aggressive Germany and Japan. Yet the Cold War did not begin until 1948 and the Communists did not come to power in China until a year later: Up until that point, many reasonable people had hopes of sustaining the wartime coalition. Indeed, that had been Franklin Roosevelt’s intention when he envisaged the permanent members of the UNSC as “four policemen” (plus France). He underestimated Stalin’s malignancy and Chiang Kai-shek’s incompetence. A third objection might be that Russia and China, with their 2,600-mile common border, are bound sooner or later to quarrel again, as they did in the late 1960s. Perhaps: but whatever frictions might have been anticipated from China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy of economic expansion into Central Asia have yet to materialize.

Let us consider more plausible counterarguments. First, the Trump Administration is committed to increasing the defense budget, reversing the “sequester” cuts, and building hundreds of new ships to police the western Pacific. The momentum within the U.S. Navy is to escalate freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and to challenge Chinese claims to the Paracels and Spratlys. Trump may opt to go along with that as part of his shadow boxing with Beijing. This would be a golden opportunity for the Japanese government to exploit Trump’s opening anti-Chinese stance. From the point of view of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—of all world leaders the quickest to secure a meeting with the President-elect—the first hundred days of the Trump presidency is the brief period during which he must get Trump not only to reaffirm the U.S.-Japanese alliance but perhaps also to back the constitutional amendment that Abe wants, ending Japan’s renunciation of war. Earlier this year, Beijing drew a “red line” of its own when it threatened to retaliate if Japanese ships joined the United States in freedom of navigation operations.

Yet the flaw with this argument is that China would be unwise to risk a naval war with the United States, or even with Japan alone. The Chinese fleet is incapable of winning such a war. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army’s one and only aircraft carrier is said to be vulnerable even to Vietnam’s naval capabilities. Historically, in any case, China tends to use force in territorial disputes only when it sees a shift in the balance of forces in favor of its adversary. That is not the case today. On the contrary, with the death of the Obama Administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership and the improving prospects of the Chinese-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the economic tide now runs in China’s direction. A naval showdown, even if it did not end in humiliation for China, might undo the good work that has been done recently to conciliate countries like the Philippines and South Korea. In any case, Beijing’s strategy is not to build up to a South China Sea version of Jutland. The Chinese are focusing their investment not on capital ships but rather on Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems and cyber. In due course, the mighty carrier groups of the U.S. Navy will become vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes, especially if they attempt to operate in or near Chinese coastal waters.

The only possible reason Xi would risk a naval showdown would be if he became convinced that it was necessary to bolster the legitimacy of the one-party state in the face of sharply falling growth. The two major wars in the history of the People’s Republic—the Korean and the Vietnamese—helped the then leaders of the Party to consolidate power at home, even when the military results were unsatisfying. Yet even allowing for the mounting challenges facing China’s economy, it seems doubtful that the social or domestic political situation could deteriorate enough in 2017 to justify what would be a gamble worthy of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 1914 Germany—and Chinese leaders know enough Western history to remember how that ended.

A further set of objections relates to the situation in Europe. Trump likes Putin and seems indifferent at best to the EU and NATO. But what if Putin overreaches? An obvious wrong move would be some kind of Ukraine-like incursion into one of the Baltic States. Could Trump resist the outcry from the foreign policy establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, urging him to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty? Likewise, Trump likes Brexit and may well imagine offering the United Kingdom a trade agreement. But a major problem with a “big” NAFTA scenario is that Britain’s divorce from the EU is far from over and may never be entirely complete. Indeed, it has not even begun, in the sense that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has not yet been triggered, and even after that the terms of Brexit are likely to take at least two years to hammer out. It seems unlikely that Theresa May (who managed to become Prime Minister despite half-heartedly opposing Brexit) would risk breaching Britain’s existing treaty obligations, much as Nigel Farage might like to.

Finally, let us consider the potential problems of a Rooseveltian strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. A harder line toward Iran makes some sense: Trump can and should threaten to retaliate militarily if Iran continues to violate the terms of the nuclear deal, for example by conducting ballistic missile tests and retaining more heavy waster than the agreement allows. However, the coming defeat of ISIS in Iraq may unleash anew the centrifugal forces that have long threatened to tear the country apart. Iran will be the beneficiary, as usual. Moreover, the Trump Administration will soon face some complex choices with respect to the Kurds, who have done much of the heavy lifting against ISIS. Does he back the various Kurdish factions in the region, perhaps to the extent of recognizing an independent Kurdistan? If so, it is hard to see any future for relations between Washington and Ankara. This might obviate the kind of settlement of the Syrian conflict that Kissinger has envisaged, since Turkey would need to be party to it.

Nevertheless, these objections, too, may overlook a fundamental historical reality. The current amity between Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems unlikely to become a permanent feature of the region’s geopolitics; it resembles a mere marriage of convenience, the utility of which will vanish the moment Donald Trump sets foot on Moscow tarmac. The longest-standing rivalry in the Greater Middle East is, after all, between the Russians and the Turks. And another obvious loser of a U.S.-Russian entente would be Turkey.

That would be less than tragic. For too long, Erdoğan has feigned an interest in EU membership, while all the while eroding the secular legacy of Atatürk, weakening the country’s military leadership, and steadily pushing Turkey in the direction of political Islam. Yet his pretensions to neo-Ottoman regional power have largely foundered on Arab suspicions, while his domestic power has come to depend on draconian repression of free speech and a massive purge of the public sector. Far from being a future member of the strongman club, Erdogan looks like another of the weaklings of the new order.

As I write, the key positions in Donald Trump’s national security team are only beginning to be filled. What we know of the President-elect’s own strategic thought is largely confined to stump speeches and interviews. Much that I have written here must therefore necessarily be speculative. I do believe, however, that a new American foreign policy—if not a new world order—is already taking shape. Not only is it foreshadowed in the recent, and not so recent, writing of Henry Kissinger; it is also implicit in the current constellation of geopolitics. And Mr. Trump need look no further than Theodore Roosevelt for a congenial role model.

Trump’s August 15 speech may one day be read as the first draft of a Trump Doctrine. With its explicit farewell to “the era of nation-building” and its declaration of intent “to halt the spread of radical Islam,” Trump explicitly drew an analogy between it and the 20th-century threats posed by fascism and communism. “The fight will not be limited to ISIS,” he declared. “We will decimate al-Qaeda, and we will seek to starve funding for Iran-backed Hamas and Hizballah.” And Trump made it clear with whom he intended to fight this war:

We cannot always choose our friends, but we can never fail to recognize our enemies. . . . We will work side-by-side with our friends in the Middle East, including our greatest ally, Israel. We will partner with King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Sisi of Egypt, and all others who recognize this ideology of death that must be extinguished. We will also work closely with NATO on this new mission. I had previously said that NATO was obsolete because it failed to deal adequately with terrorism; since my comments they have changed their policy. . . . I also believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS. They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terrorism. [20]

Today President-elect Trump is loathed by nearly all American liberals. Yet it was Trump who in August pledged that his Administration would “speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different faith” in the name of Islam. While the Obama Administration has shunned proponents of Islamic reform, Trump pledged to “be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East, and [to] amplify their voices. This includes speaking out against the horrible practice of honor killings,” as well as establishing as “one of my first acts as President . . . a Commission on Radical Islam which will include reformist voices in the Muslim community.”[21]

Trump’s declaration that “we should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people”—screening would-be immigrants for links not just to terrorism but also to political Islam as an ideology that promotes sharia law and all that goes with it—is entirely consistent with the measures the United States took and continues to take to exclude Communists from its territory. It is also precisely the way Theodore Roosevelt spoke when anarchists posed a threat to American values. After all, Roosevelt became President only because the anarchist Leon Czolgosz murdered President William McKinley in September 1901, and Roosevelt himself narrowly avoided assassination in 1912. He was unsparing in his condemnation not only of the terrorists but also of the ideology that inspired them:

The teachings of professed anarchists, and probably also by the reckless utterances of those who on the stump and in the public press, appeal to the dark and evil spirits of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred. The wind is sowed by the men who preach such doctrines, and they cannot escape their share of responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped. . . . The man who advocates anarchy directly or indirectly, in any shape or fashion, or the man who apologizes for anarchists and their deeds, makes himself morally accessory to murder before the fact.[22]

He called for legislation to exclude and deport anarchists—legislation duly passed by Congress and signed into law in March 1903. Today, for anarchism read radical Islam.

In a speech he gave in St. Louis in May 1916, Roosevelt summed up his views on immigration in language that resonates today, a century later. “If the American has the right stuff in him, I care not a snap of my fingers whether he is Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant,” he declared. “But unless the immigrant becomes in good faith an American and nothing else, then he is out of place in this country, and the sooner he leaves the better.” The target of Roosevelt’s rhetoric was the wartime habit of accentuating the identities and supposedly divided loyalties of “Irish-Americans” and “German-Americans.” The context was different, but the issue is as relevant today, when Islamists assert that American Muslims owe a higher loyalty to their religion, if not to the caliphate.[23] “Our duty,” Roosevelt said,

is to the United States. This duty should constrain us . . . to treat the other nations primarily according to the way such treatment serves American interests. . . . The attempt to keep . . . a half citizenship, with a divided loyalty, split between devotion to the land in which they were born and which their children are to dwell, and the land from which their fathers came . . . is certain to breed a spirit of bitterness and prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens.[24]

If it is this spirit that animates the Trump Administration, then its new order will not be so new, nor altogether so bad as many fear.

 

1. Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Press, 2014), p. 93f.
2. Ibid., p. 371.
3. Ibid., pp. 340, 347, 368.
4. See Niall Ferguson, Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).
5. Kissinger, World Order, p. 233.
6. David Remnick, “Going the Distance: One and Off the Road with Barack Obama,” New Yorker, January 27, 2014.
7. Kissinger, World Order, p. 169.
8. Jeffrey Goldberg, “World Chaos and World Order: Conversations with Henry Kissinger,” The Atlantic, Nov. 10, 2016.
9. Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index (2016), p. 4.
10. “Full Transcript of Donald Trump Foreign Policy Speech,” August 15, 2016.
11. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016, 89.
12. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
13. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster 2011), 42.
14. Ibid., 43.
15. Ibid., 46.
16. Ibid., 47.
17. Ibid., 48f.
18. Ibid., 59.
19. Eric Li, “How Trump Is Good for China”, New York Times, November 14, 2016.
20. “Full Transcript of Donald Trump Foreign Policy Speech,” August 15, 2016.
21. Ibid.
22. Theodore Roosevelt, “First Annual Message to Congress,” December 3, 1901, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. XIV.
23. Theodore Roosevelt, “America for Americans,” in The Progressive Party: Its Record, from January to July 1916, n.p.
24. Ibid., 59.

The False Prophecy of Hyperconnection

 How to Survive the Networked Age

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world is connected [3] as never before. Once upon a time, it was believed that there were six degrees of separation between each individual and any other person on the planet (including Kevin Bacon). For Facebook users today, the average degree of separation is 3.57. But perhaps that is not entirely a good thing. As Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, told The New York Times in May 2017 [4], “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.”

Speaking at Harvard’s commencement [5] that same month, Facebook’s chair and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, looked back on his undergraduate ambition to “connect the whole world.” “This idea was so clear to us,” he recalled, “that all people want to connect. . . . My hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact.” Zuckerberg has certainly done that, but it is doubtful that it was the impact he dreamed of in his dorm room. In his address, Zuckerberg identified a series of challenges facing his generation, among them: “tens of millions of jobs [being] replaced by automation,” inequality (“there is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in ten years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans”), and “the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism,” which oppose “the flow of knowledge, trade, and immigration.” What he omitted to mention was the substantial contributions that his company and its peers in Silicon Valley have made to all three of these problems.

No businesses in the world are working harder to eliminate jobs such as driving a truck than the technology giants of California. No individuals exemplify the spectacular growth of the wealth of the top 0.01 percent of earners better than the masters of Silicon Valley. And no company did more— albeit unintentionally—to help the populists win their political victories in the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016 than Facebook. For without Facebook’s treasure house of data about its users, it would surely have been impossible for the relatively low-budget Brexit and Trump campaigns to have succeeded. The company unwittingly played a key role in last year’s epidemic of fake news stories.

Zuckerberg is by no means the only believer in one networked world: a “global community,” in his phrase. Ever since 1996, when the Grateful Dead lyricist turned cyber-activist John Perry Barlow released his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he asked the “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel,” to “leave us alone,” there has been a veritable parade of cheerleaders for universal connectivity. “Current network technology . . . truly favors the citizens,” wrote Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in 2013. “Never before have so many people been connected through an instantly responsive network.” This, they argued, would have truly “game-changing” implications for politics everywhere. The early phase of the Arab Spring [6] seemed to vindicate their optimistic analysis; the subsequent descent of Syria and Libya into civil war, not so much.

Like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” utopian visions of a networked world are intuitively appealing. In his Harvard speech, for example, Zuckerberg contended that “the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever-greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.” Yet this vision, of a single global community as the pot of gold at the end of the arc of history, is at odds with everything we know about how social networks work. Far from being new, networks have always been ubiquitous in the natural world and in the social life of humans. The only thing new about today’s social networks is that they are the biggest and fastest ever, connecting billions of people in seconds. Long before the founding of Facebook, however, scholars had already conducted a great deal of research into how smaller and slower social networks operate. What they found gives little ground for optimism about how a fully networked world would function.

NOT MANY MEN ARE ISLANDS

Six fundamental insights can help those without expertise in network theory to think more clearly about the likely political and geopolitical impacts of giant, high-speed social networks [7]. The first concerns the pattern of connections within networks. Since the work of the eighteenth-century Swiss scholar Leonhard Euler, mathematicians have conceived of networks as graphs of nodes connected together by links or, in the parlance of network theory, “edges.” Individuals in a social network are simply nodes connected by the edges we call “relationships.” Not all nodes or edges in a social network are equal, however, because few social networks resemble a simple lattice, in which each node has the same number of edges as all the rest. Typically, certain nodes and edges are more important than others. For example, some nodes have a higher “degree,” meaning that they have more edges, and some have higher “betweenness centrality,” meaning that they act as the busy junctions through which a lot of network traffic has to pass. Put differently, a few crucial edges can act as bridges, connecting together different clusters of nodes that would otherwise not be able to communicate. Even so, there will nearly always be “network isolates”—individual nodes that are not connected to the main components of the network.

At the same time, birds of a feather flock together. Because of the phenomenon known as “homophily,” or attraction to similarity, social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attitudes. The result, as researchers found when they studied American high schools, can be self-segregation along racial lines or other forms of polarization. The recent division of the American public sphere into two echo chambers, each deaf to the other’s arguments, is a perfect illustration.

A common error of much popular writing about social networks is to draw a distinction between networks and hierarchies. This is a false dichotomy. A hierarchy is simply a special kind of network with restricted numbers of horizontal edges, enabling a single ruling node to maintain an exceptionally high degree and exceptionally high betweenness centrality. The essence of any autocracy is that nodes further down the organizational chart cannot communicate with one another, much less organize, without going through the central node. The correct distinction is between hierarchical networks and distributed ones.

For most of history, hierarchical networks dominated distributed networks. In relatively small communities with relatively frequent conflicts, centralized leadership enjoyed a big advantage, because warfare is generally easier with centralized command and control. Moreover, in most agricultural societies, literacy was the prerogative of a small elite, so that only a few nodes were connected by the written word. But then, more than 500 years ago, came the printing press. It empowered Martin Luther’s heresy and gave birth to a new network.

Luther thought the result of his movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church [8] would be what came to be called “the priesthood of all believers,” the sixteenth-century equivalent of Zuckerberg’s “global community.” In practice, the Protestant Reformation produced more than a century of bloody religious conflict. This was because new doctrines such as Luther’s, and later John Calvin’s, did not spread evenly through European populations. Although Protestantism swiftly acquired the structure of a network, homophily led to polarization, with those parts of Europe that most closely resembled urban Germany in terms of population density and literacy embracing the new religion and the more rural regions reacting against it, embracing the papal Counter-Reformation. Yet it proved impossible for Catholic rulers to destroy Protestant networks, even with mass executions, just as it proved impossible to wholly stamp out Catholicism in states that adopted the Reformation.

THE STRENGTH OF WEAK TIES

The second insight is that weak ties are strong. As the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter demonstrated in a seminal 1973 article [9], acquaintances are the bridges between clusters of friends, and it is those weak ties that make the world seem small. In the famous experiment with chain letters that the psychologist Stanley Milgram published in 1967, there turned out to be just seven degrees of separation between a widowed clerk in Omaha, Nebraska, and a Boston stockbroker she did not know.

Like the Reformation, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were network-driven phenomena, yet they spread faster and farther. This reflected the importance of acquaintances in correspondence networks such as Voltaire’s and Benjamin Franklin’s, communities that might otherwise have remained subdivided into national clusters. It also reflected the way that new social organizations—notably, Freemasonry—increased the connectedness of like-minded men, despite established divisions of social status. It is no accident that so many key figures in the American Revolution, from George Washington to Paul Revere, were also Freemasons.

GOING VIRAL

Third, the structure of a network determines its virality. As recent work by the social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown, the contagiousness of a disease or an idea depends as much on a social network’s structure as on the inherent properties of the virus or meme. The history of the late eighteenth century illustrates that point well. The ideas that inspired both the American Revolution and the French Revolution were essentially the same, and both were transmitted through the networks of correspondence, publication, and sociability. But the network structures of Colonial America and ancien régime France were profoundly different (for example, the former lacked a large, illiterate peasantry). Whereas one revolution produced a relatively peaceful, decentralized democracy, albeit one committed to a transitional period of slavery, the other established a violent and at times anarchic republic that soon followed the ancient Roman path to tyranny and empire.

Hierarchical order was not easily restored after the fall of Napoleonic France in 1814. It took the great powers that dominated the Congress of Vienna, which concluded the next year, to reestablish monarchical governance in Europe and then export it to most of the world in the form of colonial empires. What made the spread of imperialism possible was the fact that the technologies of the industrial age—railways, steamships, and telegraphs—favored the emergence of “superhubs,” with London as the most important node. In other words, the structure of networks had changed, because the new technologies lent themselves to central control in ways that had not been true of the printing press or the postal service. The first age of globalization, between 1815 and 1914, was a time of train controllers and timetables.

NETWORKS NEVER SLEEP

Fourth, many networks are complex adaptive systems that are constantly shifting shape. Such was the case even for the most hierarchical states of all time, the totalitarian empires presided over by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. With his iron grip on the party bureaucracy and his ability to tap the Soviet telephone system, Stalin [10] was perhaps the supreme autocrat, a man so powerful that he could effectively outlaw all unofficial social networks, even persecuting the poet Anna Akhmatova for one illicit night of conversation with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In the 1950s, Christian democratic Europe and corporate America were hierarchical, too—just look at the midcentury organizational charts for General Motors—but not to anything like the same extent. A network-based reform campaign such as the civil rights movement was unthinkable in the Soviet Union. Those who campaigned against racial segregation in the American South were harassed, but efforts to suppress them ultimately failed.

The middle of the twentieth century was a time that lent itself to hierarchical governance. Beginning in the 1970s, however, that began to change. It is tempting to assume that credit goes to technology. On closer inspection, however, Silicon Valley was a consequence, rather than a cause, of weakening central control. The Internet [11] was invented in the United States and not in the Soviet Union precisely because the U.S. Defense Department, preoccupied with a disastrous war in Vietnam, essentially let the computer scientists in California build whatever system for computer-tocomputer communication they liked. That did not happen in the Soviet case, where an analogous project, directed by the Institute of Cybernetics, in Kiev, was simply shut down by the Ministry of Finance.

The 1970s and 1980s saw two great phase transitions within the superpowers that waged the Cold War, marking the dawn of the second networked age. In the United States, the resignation of President Richard Nixon seemed to represent a major victory for the free press and representative government over the would-be imperial presidency. Yet the Watergate scandal, the defeat in Vietnam, and the social and economic crises of the mid-1970s did not escalate into a full breakdown of the system. Indeed, the presidency of Ronald Reagan restored the prestige of the executive branch with remarkable ease. By contrast, the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was brought about by networks of anticommunist dissent that had almost no technologically advanced means of communication. Indeed, even printing was denied to them, hence the underground literature known as “samizdat.” The Polish case illustrates the role of networks well: the trade union Solidarity succeeded only because it was itself embedded in a heterogeneous web of opposition groups.

NETWORKS NETWORK

The fifth insight is that networks interact with one another, and it takes a network to defeat a network. When networks link up with other networks, innovation often results. But networks can also attack one another. A good example is the way the Cambridge University intellectual society known as the Apostles came under attack by the KGB in the 1930s. In one of the most successful intelligence operations of the twentieth century, the Soviets managed to recruit several spies from the Apostles’ ranks, yielding immense numbers of high-level British and Allied documents during and after World War II.

The case illustrates one of the core weakness of distributed networks. It was not only the Cambridge intelligentsia that the Soviets penetrated; they also hacked into the entire old-boy network that ran the British government in the twentieth century. They were able to do so precisely because the unspoken assumptions and unwritten rules of the British establishment caused telltale evidence of treachery to be overlooked or explained away. Unlike hierarchies, which tend to be paranoid about security, distributed networks are generally bad at self-defense.

Likewise, the 9/11 attacks were carried out by one network on another network: al Qaeda against the U.S. financial and political system. Yet it was not the immediate damage of the terrorist attacks that inflicted the real cost on the United States so much as the unintended consequences of the national security state’s response. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in August 2002, before it was even clear that Iraq was to be invaded, the political scientist John Arquilla [12] presciently pointed out the flaws in such an approach. “In a netwar, like the one we find ourselves in now, strategic bombing means little, and most networks don’t rely on one—or even several—great leaders to sustain and guide them,” he wrote. Faulting the George W. Bush administration for creating the Department of Homeland Security, he argued, “A hierarchy is a clumsy tool to use against a nimble network: It takes networks to fight networks, much as in previous wars it has taken tanks to fight tanks.”

It took four painful years after the invasion of Iraq to learn this lesson. Looking back at the decisive phase of the U.S. troop surge in 2007, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal summed up what had been learned. In order to take down the terrorist network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, McChrystal wrote, his task force “had to replicate its dispersion, flexibility, and speed.” He continued: “Over time, ‘It takes a network to defeat a network’ became a mantra across the command and an eight-word summary of our core operational concept.”

THE INEQUALITY OF NETWORKS

The sixth insight is that networks are profoundly inegalitarian. One enduring puzzle is why the 2008 financial crisis [13] inflicted larger economic losses on the United States and its allies than did the terrorist attacks of 2001, even though no one plotted the financial crisis with malice aforethought. (Plausible estimates for the losses that the financial crisis inflicted on the United States alone range from $5.7 trillion to $13 trillion, whereas the largest estimate for the cost of the war on terrorism stands at $4 trillion.) The explanation lies in the dramatic alterations in the world’s financial structure that followed the introduction of information technology to banking. The financial system had grown so complex that it tended to amplify cyclical fluctuations. It was not just that financial centers had become more interconnected, and with higher-speed connections; it was that many institutions were poorly diversified and inadequately insured. What the U.S. Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and other regulatory authorities failed to grasp when they declined to bail out Lehman Brothers in 2008 was that although its chief executive, Richard Fuld, was something of a network isolate on Wall Street— unloved by his peers (including the U.S. treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, formerly the head of Goldman Sachs)—the bank itself was a crucial node in a dangerously fragile international financial network. Economists untrained in network theory woefully underestimated the impact of letting Lehman Brothers fail.

In the period after the financial crisis, everyone else caught up with the financial world: the rest of society got networked in the ways that, ten years ago, only bankers had been. This change was supposed to usher in a brave new world of global community, with every citizen also a netizen, equipped by technology to speak truth to power and hold it to account. Yet once again, the lessons of network theory had been overlooked, for giant social networks are not in the least bit egalitarian. To be precise, they have many more nodes with a very large number of edges and many more with very few edges than would be the case in a randomly generated network. This is because, as social networks expand, the nodes gain new edges in proportion to the number that they already have. The phenomenon is a version of what the sociologist Robert Merton called “the Matthew effect,” after the Gospel of Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” In science, for example, success breeds success: to the scientist who already has citations and prizes, more shall be given. But the trend is perhaps most visible in Silicon Valley. In 2001, the software developer Eric Raymond confidently predicted that the open-source movement would win out within three to five years. He was to be disappointed. The open-source dream died with the rise of monopolies and duopolies that successfully fended off government regulation that might have inhibited their growth. Apple and Microsoft established something close to a software duopoly. Beginning as a bookseller, Amazon came to dominate online retail. Google even more swiftly established a near monopoly on search. And of course, Facebook won the race to dominate social media.

At the time of this writing, Facebook has 1.17 billion active daily users. Yet the company’s ownership is highly concentrated. Zuckerberg himself owns just over 28 percent of the company, making him one of the ten richest people in the world. That group also includes Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Carlos Slim, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg, whose fortunes all derive in some way or another from information technology. Thanks to the rich-get-richer [14] effect, the returns to their businesses do not diminish. Vast cash reserves allow them to acquire any potential competitor.

At Harvard, Zuckerberg envisioned “a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.” Yet Zuckerberg personifies what economists call “the economics of superstars,” whereby the top talents in a field earn much, much more than the runners-up. And paradoxically, most of the remedies for inequality that Zuckerberg mentioned in his address—a universal basic income, affordable childcare, better health care, and continuous education—are viable only as national policies delivered by the twentieth-century welfare state.

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

The global impact of the Internet has few analogues in history better than the impact of printing on sixteenth-century Europe. The personal computer and the smartphone have empowered the individual as much as the pamphlet and the book did in Luther’s time. Indeed, the trajectories for the production and price of personal computers in the United States between 1977 and 2004 look remarkably similar to the trajectories for the production and price of printed books in England from 1490 to 1630.

But there are some major differences between the current networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obvious, today’s networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press.

Second, the distributional consequences of the current revolution are quite different. Early modern Europe was not an ideal place to enforce intellectual property rights, which in those days existed only when technologies could be secretively monopolized by a guild. The printing press created no billionaires: Johannes Gutenberg was no Gates (by 1456, in fact, he was effectively bankrupt). Moreover, only a subset of the media made possible by the printing press—newspapers and magazines—sought to make money from advertising, whereas all the most important network platforms made possible by the Internet do. That is where the billions of dollars come from. More than in the past, there are now two distinct kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks and those who merely use them.

Third, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in Western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the Internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics, and it has truly disrupted just one religion, Islam, by empowering the most extreme version of Sunni fundamentalism.

Nevertheless, there are some clear similarities between our time and the revolutionary period that followed the advent of printing. For one thing, just as the printing press did, modern information technology is transforming not only the market—for example, facilitating short-term rentals of apartments—but also the public sphere. Never before have so many people been connected together in an instantly responsive network through which memes can spread faster than natural viruses. But the notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of netizens, all equal in cyberspace, was always a fantasy—as much a delusion as Luther’s vision of a “priesthood of all believers.” The reality is that the global network has become a transmission mechanism for all kinds of manias and panics, just as the combination of printing and literacy temporarily increased the prevalence of millenarian sects and witch crazes. The cruelties of the Islamic State, or ISIS, seem less idiosyncratic when compared with those of some governments and sects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The contamination of the public sphere with fake news today is less surprising when one remembers that the printing press disseminated books about magic as well as books about science.

Moreover, as in the period during and after the Reformation, the current era is witnessing the erosion of territorial sovereignty. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was plunged into a series of religious wars because the principle formulated at the 1555 Peace of Augsburg— cuius regio, eius religio (to each realm, its ruler’s religion)—was being honored mainly in the breach. In the twenty-first century, there is a similar phenomenon of escalating intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Consider the Russian attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moscow’s hackers and trolls pose a threat to American democracy not unlike the one that Jesuit priests once posed to the English Reformation.

For the scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter, the “hyper-networked world” is, on balance, a benign place. The United States “will gradually find the golden mean of network power,” she wrote in these pages last year, if its leaders figure out how to operate not just on the traditional “chessboard” of interstate diplomacy but also in the new “web” of networks, exploiting the advantages of the latter (such as transparency, adaptability, and scalability). Others are less confident. In The Seventh Sense, Joshua Cooper Ramo argues for the erection of real and virtual “gates” to shut out the Russians, the online criminals, the teenage Internet vandals, and other malefactors. Yet Ramo himself quotes the three rules of computer security devised by the National Security Agency cryptographer Robert Morris: “RULE ONE: Do not own a computer. RULE TWO: Do not power it on. RULE THREE: Do not use it.” If everyone continues to ignore those imperatives—and especially political leaders, most of whom have not even enabled two-factor authentication for their e-mail accounts—even the most sophisticated gates will be useless.

Those who wish to understand the political and geopolitical implications of today’s interconnectedness need to pay more heed to the major insights of network theory than they have hitherto. If they did, they would understand that networks are not as benign as advertised. The techno-utopians who conjure up dreams of a global community have every reason to dispense their Kool-Aid to the users whose data they so expertly mine. The unregulated oligopoly that runs Silicon Valley has done very well indeed from networking the world [15]. The rest of us—the mere users of the networks they own—should treat their messianic visions with the skepticism they deserve.

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For Trump it’s a stellar moment — or epic fail

 

History can hinge on a single decision. One is near over North Korea

If you are stuck for a book to read on the beach (or the grouse moor) this August, I recommend Stefan Zweig’s Decisive Moments in History. Published in 1927, Zweig’s book is now largely forgotten. My interest was piqued when a friend in Beijing told me it was the latest western book to be recommended by Wang Qishan to his colleagues on the standing committee of the politburo. (A few years ago it was Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution; more recently the Australian historian John Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe.)

It always pays to know what Mr Wang is reading. As the head of the Communist Party’s anti-corruption commission, he is seen as the second most powerful man in China after President Xi Jinping. As the supreme decision-making body in the People’s Republic (population: one-fifth of humanity), the standing committee is certainly the world’s most influential book club. As we approach what may be the next decisive moment in history, we too should probably know what to look out for.

“Usually,” wrote Zweig, “history indifferently and persistently does nothing but add link to link in that enormous chain that stretches through the millennia.” Very occasionally, however, “a critical moment occurs in the world” that is “decisive for decades and centuries . . . a single moment that determines and decides everything: a single yes, a single no, a too early or a too late makes that hour irrevocable for a hundred generations.” Zweig, a Viennese, called such moments Sternstunden— “star hours”, best translated as “stellar moments”.

Part of the charm of Decisive Moments in History is the idiosyncrasy of Zweig’s selection. Three are famous events in political history: the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. Others are less obvious but still significant in the history of exploration and economics: Balboa’s first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, John Sutter’s discovery of gold in California and the fatal race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole.

As a literary man, Zweig was also attracted to stellar moments in the arts: Handel’s “resurrection” from a severe stroke to write his immortal Messiah, the final love affair that inspired Goethe’s “Marienbad Elegy”, Dostoevsky’s last-minute reprieve from execution, and Tolstoy’s strange death at Astapovo station. Yet it is to the first three turning points that the reader returns.

The fall of Constantinople, in Zweig’s telling, is mainly the triumph of ruthless calculation by the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror — but the fatal breach in the city’s defences is the result of a humble gate, the Kerkoporta, inadvertently left ajar. “A minute chance happening . . . the forgotten door decided world history.”

Napoleon’s final defeat is the result of a fatal hesitation by Marshal Grouchy, who sticks to his orders to pursue the Prussian III Corps instead of (as his subordinates urge) riding to Waterloo when loud cannon fire heralds the battle’s decisive moment. “For one second Grouchy considers it, and this one second determines his own fate, that of Napoleon and that of the world.”

Lenin’s return to Russia is the result of an even bigger miscalculation: the belief of the German high command that the Bolshevik revolution will disrupt only the Tsar’s empire, whereas by November 1918 Germany too is in the grip of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. “No shell was more far-reaching and fatal than that train . . . loaded with the most dangerous, determined revolutionaries of the century.”

A Jew, a pacifist, a Freudian and a pan-European, Zweig was what today’s alt-right would call a “globalist”. He shrank from both Lenin’s revolution and the fascist counter-revolutions that followed it — in Italy, in Germany and then in his native Austria. In 1934 he and his wife left Austria for England. In 1940, as Hitler swept all before him, they fled to New York, but opted to settle in Brazil rather than the US. In February 1942 they committed suicide together, despairing — wrongly — of Europe’s future.

A certain type of unimaginative historian fondly insists there are no decisive moments in history; that events unfold inexorably on the basis of vast socioeconomic forces. Everyone else knows from their own experience that this is nonsense. There are moments of decision; there are fateful sins of omission and commission. In every life there is at least one Kerkoporta, at least one moment of Grouchian hesitation that changes everything.

The question of the summer is whether or not the Korean missile crisis will be President Donald Trump’s Sternstunde — his decisive historical moment. The conventional wisdom is that his rhetoric last week — the threat of “fire and fury”, the warning that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded”— was yet more evidence of his recklessness. Perhaps.

But Trump is not handling this crisis much differently from the way John F Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK also talked tough. At the same time, he applied diplomatic and military pressure, showing himself willing to take the world to the brink of war if the Soviets did not back down. That is pretty much what Trump is doing — or did you miss the unanimous UN security council resolution his ambassador, Nikki Haley, secured last weekend? And I see no evidence that his national security adviser or defence secretary opposed what he said last week.

This crisis is the result of three previous presidents’ inability to stop the tinpot totalitarians of Pyongyang acquiring fissile material and missiles. According to US intelligence, Kim Jong-un has achieved two things that experts had believed would take him five years: he has an intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the end of it. It is not so much that he will fire a nuke at San Francisco next week. It is more that his success is a signal to the world: the non-proliferation era is over. Have nukes, have impunity!

Confronting Kim is risky, but not as risky as confronting Khrushchev and Castro in 1962, when a third world war really was a possibility. Moreover, unlike in 1950, I believe China will not intervene if the US takes military action against North Korea, provided the US does not attempt regime change and reunification of Korea.

It is hard to have any confidence in a president so impetuous, so undisciplined. Yet, as Zweig understood, you do not have to be a nice guy to change history. Indeed, sensible types tend to be the ones (like Grouchy) who miss their historic moments.

No one knows how this will turn out: stellar moment or epic fail. Socioeconomic forces will not tell you. And that is why, these days, China’s leaders are reading not Karl Marx but Stefan Zweig.

Trump slips and slides; the real US tyrants strike

 America’s intolerant left imperils free speech more than the president

With every passing week, those who predicted the tyranny of Donald Trump look sillier. Blocked by the courts, frustrated by Congress, assailed by the press, under mounting pressure from a special counsel, and reduced to re-enacting The Apprentice within the White House, the president has passed from tyranny to trumpery to tomfoolery with the speed of a fat man stepping on a banana skin.

So does that mean we can all stop worrying about tyranny in America? No. For the worst thing about the Trump presidency is that its failure risks opening the door for the equal and opposite but much more ruthless populism of the left. Call me an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, but I find its tyranny far more alarming — and likely.

With few exceptions, American conservatives — even flag-of-convenience Republicans such as Trump — respect the constitution. Read it and you’ll see there’s nothing in that document that prohibits building walls along the border or raising tariffs on Chinese imports.

The modern American left, by contrast, thirsts to get rid of one of the most fundamental protections that the constitution enshrines: free speech. The first amendment bars Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise thereof [of religion]; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.

If you want to see where those fundamental freedoms are currently under attack in America, you will have to leave Washington and accompany me to some institutions where you might expect free expression to be revered.

Almost every month this year has seen at least one assault on free speech on a college campus. In February the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, the British alt-right journalist and provocateur, after a violent protest. You may say that Yiannopoulos is an unserious publicity-seeker who welcomed the furore. But the same cannot be said of my old friend Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist and pillar of the American Enterprise Institute, whose book Coming Apart so brilliantly anatomised the social origins of Trumpism.

In March students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had been invited to speak, shouted Murray down. When he and his faculty host, Allison Stanger, moved to another room, protesters set off fire alarms. When speaker and host left the building, the protesters pushed and shoved them. Stanger suffered concussion after someone grabbed her by the hair and twisted her neck.

In April a speech at Claremont McKenna College in California by the conservative writer Heather MacDonald had to be live-streamed when protesters blocked access to the auditorium. Berkeley struck again that same month, cancelling a speech by the pro-Trump journalist Ann Coulter because of “security concerns”.

In each of these cases, the target has been on the political right. This probably does not surprise you as most US universities now have something close to a left-wing monoculture. However, there are exceptions.

Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington state, always thought of himself as “deeply progressive”. In May, however, it was his turn to fall victim to the unfree speech vigilantes. Weinstein refused to acquiesce when “white students, staff and faculty” were “invited to leave campus” for a day because (in the words of the Evergreen student newspaper) “students of colour” had “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election”. Weinstein objected, saying this racially targeted “invitation” was “an act of oppression in and of itself”.

In response, a group of about 50 students shrilly accused him of “supporting white supremacy”. The college police, under orders from Evergreen’s president, told Weinstein they could not guarantee his safety. When he held his biology class in a public park, the names of the students who attended were put online, with photographs.

No one could accuse Richard Dawkins of being right-wing. Among my academic friends, he is second only to Simon Schama when it comes to anti-Trump tweets. Yet last month it was Dawkins’s turn to be silenced. A public radio station in — you guessed it — Berkeley cancelled a discussion of his latest book because (in the words of a spokesman) “he has said things that I know have hurt people”, a misleading allusion to the atheist Dawkins’s forthright criticism of Islam, which — along with all religions — he regards as irrational. The station’s general manager declared: “We believe that it is our free speech right not to participate with anyone who uses hateful or hurtful language against a community that is already under attack.”

These are weasel words similar to those published in The New York Times in April by Ulrich Baer, a professor of comparative literature at New York University who also glories in the title of “vice-provost for faculty, arts, humanities and diversity”. “The idea of freedom of speech,” he wrote, “does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognised members of that community . . . Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute . . . it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters.”

Sorry, mate. Freedom of expression is an unchanging absolute and, as a free speech absolutist, I am here a) to defend to the death your right to publish such drivel and b) to explain to as many people as possible why it is so dangerous.

Freedom is rarely killed off by people chanting “Down with freedom!” It is killed off by people claiming that the greater good / the general will / the community / the proletariat requires “examination of the parameters” (or some such cant phrase) of individual liberty. If the criterion for censorship is that nobody’s feelings can be hurt, we are finished as a free society.

Where such arguments lead is just a long-haul flight away. The regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela used to be the toast of such darlings of the American left as Naomi Klein, whose 2007 book The Shock Doctrine praised it as “a zone of relative economic calm and predictability” in a world of marauding free-market economists. Today (as was foreseeable 10 years back) Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, its opposition leaders are in jail and its constitution is about to be rewritten to keep the Chavista dictatorship in power.

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: the real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

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