Security Studies Program Seminar

Time's Entropy: The Coming Ennui of World Disorder

Randall Schweller
Ohio State University 

 Wednesday, October 13, 2010


This talk attempts to imagine the international system in 20-25 years.

In the 1980s, Americans were worried about the rise of Japan.  In the 1990s, we had won the Cold War and were triumphant.  After September 11th, the dot com burst, and the recession, we are asking about our continued economic growth.

Pape has argued that America is in unprecedented decline.  Most people think that the world is moving toward a multipolar system.  I agree, but, I don’t agree that the polarity of the system tells us much other than the number of actors in the international system.

Pessimists, like Mearsheimer, think that the future will be a time of insecurity and competition.  This assumes that history will be repeated.   Optimists, like Ikenberry, see a new concert system emerging. 

Both sides are overstating their arguments.  Fear of a war between the U.S. and China is unwarranted because of interdependence and nuclear weapons.  Liberals are right that hegemonic war is over.  But they are wrong that we will be able to manage the system without a hegemonic war to produce a constitutional moment.  So, I don’t see a future of cooperation, but rather of disorder.

Without a hegemonic war to cleanse the order, we are going to a system more like purgatory than heaven or hell.  It will be a world of increasing disorder, increasing uniformity, and increasing entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that there is useless and useful energy.  Over time, useful energy dissipates.  We can also think of it as saying that things that are most probable occur most of the time.  Things tend toward the mean over time.   You get missing information over time.   The macro state doesn’t tell you much about the micro state. 

This metaphor of an international system moving toward entropy should not be taken too literally.  It is, however, applicable.  Is the international system closed?  Yes, after decolonization.  There are only states left.  There are no territories remaining that are not part of a state.

Time’s entropy is an alternative way of thinking than time with an arrow (progressive) or time with no direction.  Thinking about increasing entropy with time means that things are becoming more disordered over time.  What does increasing entropy mean?  It means that there is an absence of constraints on actor in the system.   

Wohlforth and Brooks were right to argue that the U.S. is not constrained in unipolarity.  I would add that other states are not constrained either.  There is no threat to constrain their behavior, so their behavior looks random.  American capabilities were more important in a bipolar system.  Under unipolarity, capabilities do not translate into influence.  Other states in the system have the option of following you or not.

States were constrained by insecurity in the past.  They behaved in predictable ways under this constraint.  Nuclear revolution and information revolution mean that balance of power logic is no longer applicable.

Elements of the balance of power logic that no longer exist:

  1. States expect to settle differences by fighting.  War is possible and anticipated.
  2. Territorial concerns dominate foreign policy goals.
  3. Territorial expansion is a legitimate goal of states.

Territory no longer gives power and seeking expansion will make you less safe. When was the last time that a state got security through conquest?   Not for a long time.   This is a huge change in international politics.  Glaser’s new book is all about territory.  State motivations are all defined in terms of territory.  That way of thinking belongs in the past.  States will not think that way in the future.

In the age of entropy, the multipolar system will be global rather than a regional European system.  The great powers of the future will be much bigger than the great powers of the past.  States will be motivated by consumption maximization rather than balancing or fighting wars to achieve security.  In this system, states will worry about absolute, not relative, gains.  The problem of the future system will be states that shirk their responsibilities rather than spoilers.  Power in this system will come from the ability to connect with other states and steer complex networks.  Though there will not be great power war, chaos and insecurity will flourish.

In the past, hegemonic war resulted from a power growing faster than prestige (Gilpin).  Historically, prestige meant controlling the entire world and it was zero sum.  Many claim that rising powers inherently seek prestige comparative with their power.  Is that actually true?  The US wanted to go home after WWII.  In reality, there is a tradeoff between prestige and responsibilities.  Rising states are doing great, so they don’t want to overthrow the system.  They will shirk rather than trying to overturn the system.

There is also likely to be the rise of powerful, non-state actors.  The result of this dissipation of power will be that power is unusable.  There will be so many actors that it will be difficult to create stable cooperation.  There will be more ad hoc bilateral or multilateral agreements.  States will go forum shopping to elicit decisions that they are looking for and very little will get done.

Keohane’s theory told us that regimes were supposed to be expensive to start up and long-lasting.   Now, there are no barriers to entry.  All kinds of organizations emerge and you can’t get rid of them.  Only a hegemonic war can establish authority among these.  New actors will want institutions to be more representatives.  But, these institutions will become less efficient.

In the future international system, geography will become increasingly irrelevant.  Geographic groupings will be replaced by amorphous global divisions.  Alliance patterns will be more fluid and unpredictable.  Virtual space will supplant geographical space.

The entropy of information will cause many other changes.  Selective targeting requires pattern recognition and data mining.  How will we make sense of it and process it?  Cyber bots will be used by America’s adversaries.  Most people can be tracked with cell phones.  This will mean all new kinds of data.  But do we want that?  How do we escape?

What strategies are available to states in this world of randomness and chaos?

We should not be talking about types of realism or security dilemmas anymore.  States still want primacy and influence.  But, these states will be consumption maximizing rather than power or security maximizing.

How will hegemonic wars by accident be avoided? 
States do not stumble into war.  It’s not hard to know who is an aggressor and who is status quo.  There is no such thing as the security dilemma. The only time it can happen is when offense has a huge advantage over defense and offense and defense are not distinguishable.  That is the only case that looks like a one-time prisoner’s dilemma game.  All other international situations are all stag hunts.  The costs of war and benefits are too high now to have war. 

Is entropy the right metaphor?
Entropy means no constraints.  Complexity makes things less predictable.  You can make the same outcome with different combinations.

What is the connection between unipolarity and entropy?
Polarity is meaningless.  The world today is driven by democratic liberalism more than unipolarity.

Isn’t this type of world more fragile?
We didn’t have a war from this recent financial crisis.  We are not in the WWI age anymore.  Its more complex today than it was then.

Are you saying states are extremely rational?
States are minimally rational.  It’s not hard to see the high costs of war. What is the rationale for a major power war?   Realists should think about consumption maximizing instead of security.  It doesn’t drive states anymore.

What kind of outcomes do you envision?
The future world is one in which nothing can get done.  No transnational issues can be solved.  On a personal level, there is a lot of alienation and boredom.   War is not totally bad.  As Hegel said, states in perpetual peace become corrupt.

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2010