Bound to Fail

No nation can successfully block out the physical or intangible cross-border challenges imposed by others. Immigrants, disease, radiation, trade in natural resources or radical ideas like democracy leap and bound across borders. With global interconnectedness in so many areas, governance at the national level has become but a quaint endeavor. Any political, economic, military or spiritual system that consolidates power and rejects feedback on changing circumstances cannot expect to adapt and survive, explains Bo Ekman, founder and chairman of the Tällberg Foundation, with a concise history of changing world orders. A rising population, the volatility of a warming climate, declining energy supplies even as they’re needed most, food shortages and unrest are just some of the anticipated pressures. Nations can prepare, cooperating for the next world order, Ekman concludes, or wait until the last minute, allowing chaos to ensue. – YaleGlobal

Bound to Fail

Interconnectedness dooms nations and their arbitrary borders
Bo Ekman
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

STOCKHOLM: The present orders of governance of global affairs are bound to fail in resolving fateful challenges that the processes of globalization have brought upon humanity. The reason: They are based on a past reality that has long been superseded by interconnectedness and interdependence of our world.

The present world order embodied by the patchwork of the UN, the IMF, the WTO, the EU, NATO, the ASEAN, the G20, OPEC and many more is based on the principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention and mind your own business. Globalization, however, evolves by dissolving state barriers, in effect a process of denationalization.

Nations are understood to be free to do what they perceive they must to defend “interests.” The present orders – erroneously called the international “system” – are designed to defend and, if possible, maximize the interests of the system’s fractured collection of parts.

Systems – biological or social – that lack effective feedback loops do not survive. Slow adaptors fail in any evolutionary and competitive environment. This is also the case with world orders.

For a few hundred years the mechanistic worldview has dominated designs of human orders.

The Newtonian world-as-a-clockwork model is behind the West’s assumption that futures are calculable, plannable, predictable and engineer-able. Steady-state physics made generations of scientists, politicians and business people believe that the affairs of the world, even nature, could be controlled by a superior gun, economy, national or religious properties. For a while perhaps, but not for keeps.

This worldview became the foundation of orders – national constitutions, regulatory frameworks of financial markets, oceans or health – all more concerned with consolidating status quo of power positions than with understanding feedback that paves the way for systems’ change and adaptation. The Newtonian worldview succeeded, at least in Europe, the belief that God, the Church by his delegation, was the ultimate order of worldly governance. Rulers, were in place by divine right.

The breakthrough of the secular state came in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War, a religious war in the aftermath of the Lutheran Reformation. The peace treaty, later known as the Peace of Westphalia, was codified in 1648. The legacy of this peace was the codification of the sovereign rights of the nation state and territorial integrity. The worldly state succeeded the idea of omnipresent, God-given governance.

Philosophical and scientific advancements in the 18th century gradually brought new enlightenment as the complexity of human affairs – even if far from fully understood – grew with the realities of new technologies and markets. This evolution brought forth new means, not least capital, and ends of power. New political and power orders emerged.

The Napoleonic wars swept Europe and Russia. Napoleon lost to the British at Waterloo in late June 1815, but post-Napoleonic Europe was underway since 1814 as the Vienna Congress organized spheres of interests for the next century.

In 1914, that world order came to its end. The tragedy of 20 million deaths was followed by the naivety of the 1919 peace treaties negotiated in Paris. The effort to engineer stability, trust and good faith was vain because the parties refused to regard the interests of the whole. US President Woodrow Wilson’s dreams about a world built on the principles of nations’ democratic self-determination were crushed by European egotism, rising fascism and American isolationism.

In fact, the treaties were based on the negation of a systems approach. The League of Nations, supposed to be the guarantor of peace, was designed for its own implosion. The lack of reactions to German developments during the 1920s and 1930s prepared for an even greater disaster than the Great World War.

As a stark contrast to the lack of foresight of his successors, US President Franklin Roosevelt gathered trusted members of his administration within a week after the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack. He asked them to start thinking how to organize the peace after victory. A new world order emerged from the Bretton Woods conference, the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the Japanese capitulation in Tokyo, the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945. The Nuremberg trials in 1946 set standards for crimes against humanity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed December 10, 1948, introduced for the first time in history a common value base for human behavior and its codification by conventions, laws and constitutions.

Slowly, governance started to adapt to the rapidly increasing interdependence and ever-deepening complexity of human affairs. Slowly.

During the 20th century, physics, systems and complexity theories formulated more realistic models than what had been offered by the reductionist mode of the world as clockwork, creating fundamentals for open markets and intensified globalization. Fast, massive technological transformation and a shifting center of gravity ended the certitude of Western dominance. Like a bolt of lightning, the 2008 Wall Street implosion threw into sharp relief the contours of the new world.

Understanding the complexity of social systems and their interactions with technologies release powers of magnitudes never imagined. Yet the insecurity of our time – whether natural resources will suffice to feed consumption, investments and security of a population soon to number more than 9 billion – springs from the deterministic, linear nature of old schools of thought.

The interconnected system we are developing must be designed in the interest of the whole of the planet. The present order is bound to fail, as predictably as its predecessors failed. The deficits fuel the dynamics of the bottom-up revolutions of the Mid-East and Northern Africa. Stagnation proved not to equal stability. A long period of harsh adjustments is in store for Europe, the Arab world and the US.

The breaking of a system will be followed by the codification of the new. The next will follow on the “breaking of nations,” to borrow a term from EU diplomat Robert Cooper.

Required for a new order is a practical platform for providing fundamental social and physical needs of people – empathetic solidarity, freedom, justice, equality, security, and respect, eternal parts of the human spirit and nature. The platform would secure sustainability, defining duties and rights in securing ecosystems and creating a global order to deal with interconnected systems and interdependent global issues.

Of these tasks, the priority is to stabilize ecosystems and return to “normal” levels of CO2, beyond the danger zone of “tipping points.” This requires a world order that can

  • Organize complex global energy grids to provide every human endeavor with clean and safe energy;

  • Ensure access to affordable food for all;

  • Create jobs;

  • Provide honest management of the financial system, meeting needs for investments, consumption and new science capital;

  • Release human capacity and competence to develop, while unearthing the limitless complexity of life. 

In the last and main purpose lies limitless hope. In preparing for a new world order, we must ignore warnings about the end of the world and instead imagine 9 billion well-educated, creative cooperating humans. That is a promise of hope, not threat.

Beware of the sect leaders who try to pit us against them, one God against another, our interests above yours. We need leadership of the whole, not of fragmented interests.

Fellowship must be based on the wisdom of the interest of the commons.


Bo Ekman is founder and chairman of the Tällberg Foundation.

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization