To: Graham Allison
From: Ralph E. Melcher
Dear Mr. Allison,
I am one of the two winners of the Belfer/Politico Bet Book prize for predicting the state of the world after almost a year into the Trump administration. It has taken me too long to thank you for the gift of your book, ‘Destined For War,’ along with your very kind inscription and the check.
Your book gave me considerable insight into both the present global alignments and their historical antecedents. It helped me to appreciate the potentials and the dangers of the present from a much wider perspective than the daily dramas that inflict our political institutions. I’ve always tried to be a wide system thinker and have found that history gives us an opportunity to pull back from the apparent crisis of the present and appreciate the landscape of choices and possibilities that emanate toward various futures.
The factors in play between the United States and China are of bewildering complexity. Are we truly ‘destined for war,’ or are we actually already in the midst of one? It occurs to me that our common conception of war, which involves ships and planes and missiles and troops on the ground, has been overtaken on the larger stage of world powers by the tools of weaponized information flows. On this level it appears to me that the ‘next’ world war is already being waged with ever increasing fury. While more conventional ‘proxy’ wars are fought in developing nations that find themselves caught between the boundaries of more powerful actors who themselves are often proxies for bigger powers, the information war could result in more far reaching destruction.
It appears to me that the whole conception of ‘nation states’ is under assault, as the interests of corporate players that transcend all national boundaries has begun to erode the boundaries of language that historically defines the divisions between people’s self-identity as ‘citizens’ or ‘patriots.’ Ironically, as state powers attempt to exercise military or political dominance through the manipulation and exploitation of corporate entities like those of social media, they actually contribute to the erosion of their own identities.
America, the ‘melting pot’ where all national and regional identities are subsumed under a collective mantle based on a set of common principles, may provide the template within which a new world order will be forged. While we generally speak of ‘identity politics’ as a factor at play in racial and sexual relations, I contend that the term has a much wider and deeper application on the world stage. When foreign players interfere in an American election in an attempt to erode the cohesive social agreements to which Americans ascribe, and successfully do so by using the tools of corporate influence and profit, the particulars of national policy and politics can no longer be seen as separate from our ability to define ourselves as a nation apart.
I recently watched a series of Chinese ‘Independent’ documentaries that illuminate the sectors of society that one never sees in officially approved media. What they show are the true conditions of those on the margins of a rapidly developing society, the rural and urban poor, the harsh exploitation of workers, the ‘ghost’ cities, the bureaucratic incompetence leading to tragedies, in short the darker side of the succession of ‘Five-Year Plans.’ As quickly as China has grown, it’s encountering in spades the enormous challenge of maintaining long-term stability in the face of rapid growth. However, through all of the tribulation one has a sense that the Chinese are less challenged in terms of their sense of national identity. At the same time, one can see in the artifacts of popular Chinese culture the powerful influence of American culture. Even in remote communities the walls are plastered with images from American movies and fashion magazines, the t-shirts are covered with American logos and American franchises abound. Significantly, the physical infrastructure of rapidly growing cities and towns dosn’t appear to be much different from that in America.
It’s been suggested that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ can be applied to the corporation, an entity governed and regulated by a set of laws (like algorithms) that determine the parameters of its activity. As corporations grow to blanket the world with their functionality they aggressively reshape the manner in which states relate to one another, weakening traditional boundaries forged by common identity and common language. Indeed, the international order is redefined by a common language defined by business and increasingly dominated by images rather than words.
On the surface, America and China embody contrasting responses to this challenge. As a liberal democracy, the United States opens itself with less hesitation to influence from outside its borders, assuming that this results ultimately in an enrichment of culture and strengthens its influence on other nations. China more strictly enforces the cultural, commercial and technological boundaries that enable it to respond to development and its challenges in a more unified and centralized manner. The advantage of the American model is its encouragement of innovation through the constant creative mixing of disparate elements and ideas. The strength of the Chinese model is in the managed response of the collective to altered conditions. In America the social fabric is continually challenged by conflict between competing social and political philosophies. In China an enormous centralized bureaucracy is continually challenged by internal corruption as its members look for more ‘flexible’ options.
I believe that all political change is driven by cultural change, and that cultural change arises out of technological innovation. The world of nation states arose out of the technology of print and the ability to communicate through a common language. The new world is emerging out of a digital revolution in which the language of sound and image transcends the limitations of the printed or spoken word.
The wars of tribal and national identity that characterizes the struggle of civilizations since long before the Greeks is perhaps being overshadowed by a new struggle. The increasing dominance of artificial intelligence in the form of international corporations and their structural links is a growing challenge to state systems that aren’t able to adapt to the new international environment.
War is the most rapid driver of innovation. While some states find ways to weaponize parts of the new structure, in response those weapons are modified and weaponized by their enemies. The effect is a steady state of degradation within the familiar international order. Meanwhile a new order is relentlessly emerging and most of the wars raging in the world are the result of cultural resistance to this emergence.
Well, this turns out to be a longer ‘thank you’ letter than I originally anticipated, but I’m happy to take the opportunity to give a glimpse of the thinking to which your book has contributed.
With deep regard,
Ralph E. Melcher
Santa Fe, 2018