Saturday, September 13, 2014

The challenges of living in a transitional era


David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column that recorded a conversation with Gail Collins, "Our Reluctant National Security President" (September 9, 2014) argued that recent US presidents were wrong not to have tried to strengthen the nation state system.

What neither Brooks nor Collins notes, however, is that the world is in a transitional era, moving from nation states defined by the Westphalian Peace toward an emerging global identity.

Ideological currents that transcend states (e.g., fascism, communism, religion, etc.) represent one manifestation of that transition, though these currents will probably not be definitive in the long term.

Huge multinational corporations (Apple, Royal Dutch Shell, Alibaba, etc.) that have little loyalty to any one nation and function with an increasing degree of independence from national control are another factor driving the transition.

Obviously, the internet and modern ease of transport (for goods, people, services, and ideas) are another factor driving the transition. The growing demand to protect human life (perhaps all life on earth) by responding to climate change, and perhaps to the spread of difficult to control, devastating diseases such as the Ebola virus, are other potential factors, though neither seems to have yet made much of a difference.

International organizations, (e.g., the UN, EU, OPEC, and NATO) may become another factor.

Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia University professor, argues for the existence of market states of consent (non-geographical organizations to which people voluntarily belong and hold a common value system, e.g., large scale terror groups like al Qaeda and multinational corporations) that represent the leading edge of what will replace sovereign states defined by geographic borders.

Transitional eras are inherently challenging. Old rules are of diminishing utility; new rules are not yet accepted, perhaps not even defined (e.g., in the early stages of a transition).

The same holds true for old approaches to problems. An era of nation states in which hegemonic powers exert their influence to limit evil, reduce threats to the global order, and benefit at least them and their allies is rapidly ending. The US and its allies lack the political will and resources to replicate the influence and control that European colonial powers exercised over the Middle East prior to the middle of the twentieth century.

Living in a transitional era compounds the challenges that groups like ISIS pose, limits options for responding to those challenges, and demand the risk taking inherent in trying new and untested approaches. For example, what would happen if the US and its allies declined to involve themselves in defeating ISIS, insisting that the people and states ISIS directly threatens respond?

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