Although it is a blunt word, disruption nevertheless characterizes the age in which we live. Old formulas are dissolving. Traditional systems are disintegrating. Established orders are fragmenting. Dependable alliances are sundering. All of this is synonymous with disruption. We know what revolutions are. Like traditional wars, they have a beginning and an end. But the disruptive age of the early 21 century had no official beginning, and we do not know when and how it will end.
Arguably, this age of disruption and revolution, much of it occurring below the visible surface like tectonic plate shifts, began in 1973-74 with the OPEC oil embargo. Then America’s defeat in Vietnam. Domestically in the United States, there was the civil rights movement, the women’s equality movement, the dawn of the age of environmentalism, and wide-spread shedding of traditional social norms. Variations of these cultural shifts were experienced in much of the West. But the world also was experiencing the disintegration of national borders. Economically, this came to be called globalization. Socially, it was the beginning of mass south-north migrations. The dissolution of the Soviet Union then led to the end of the Cold War and the end of the bipolar world divided between democracy and communism. On top of all this was the information revolution. Some have argued that the fax machine played a central role in the collapse of the Soviet Union because authoritarian governments demand control of information. When information is widely shared, centralized political systems lose authority. Economically, the explosion of information technologies, especially in the United States, signaled the shift of our economic base from traditional manufacturing to the silicon chip and all the technologies that grew from it.
As the geographic center of economic power in the United States was shifting from Detroit and Pittsburgh to the Silicon Valley in California, Asia was awakening to dominate the production of mass-market consumer goods and low value technologies. Trade barriers and protectionism could not stem the tide of container ships. On they came with automobiles, television sets, textiles, shoes, appliances, and an endless stream of consumer products.
When policy is the latecomer
A survey of public policy in the United States from the mid-1970s until today reveals a pattern of delay in responding to the forces of disruption. A few younger US political leaders urged economic policies, including education reforms, a focus on laboratories, science, and technology, and job retraining for older workers, to ease the transition from an industrial to an information-based economy. The call for these initiatives was not heeded. Likewise, during the Mikhail Gorbachev years in the Soviet Union, a few American elected officials urged new thinking about America’s role in a post-Cold War era. However, traditional defense and foreign policies, often fostered by Cold Warriors, prevailed, as some came to miss the certainty of the bipolar world and to look for opportunities to recreate it. Where the military and US national security were concerned, efforts to institute serious military reforms in anticipation of the rise of unconventional conflicts and irregular warfare, as nation-state borders and sovereignty eroded, met with resistance and traditional thinking. Even in a nation such as the United States, which prides itself on innovation, leaving behind traditional policies to address disruptive events meets with resistance. The status quo takes strong roots in the minds of conventional thinkers committed to preservation of things as they are. Machiavelli observed “the incredulity of mankind who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” And the American Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of “gravity, custom, and fear” making experimentation and innovation difficult to bring about. All these disruptions contributed to the beginning of erosion of nation-states, the basic global political building blocks since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. As finance and economics became ubiquitous and outside the control of national financial ministries, so political sovereignty began to weaken. The nation-state demands a monopoly on violence, but this monopoly crumbled as disaffected peoples shifted their loyalties from states to religious fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism and even tribes, clans and gangs.
Given the declining ability of nation-states, including the powerful United States on 9/11, to provide security for their citizens, a vast new international industry of private security for individuals and communities arose virtually overnight. New mafias arose out of the Soviet collapse. Drug cartels emerged as substitutes for state authority in parts of Central America. Cold War weaponry became available to stateless nations. The rise of terrorism as a form of warfare seems almost inevitable. Old 20th century ideologies of National Socialism and communism gave way to religious fundamentalism and in parts of the Muslim world became a central organizing principle, especially for masses of unemployed youths.
Not all disruption is immediately political or economic. This new century brings with it the postponed costs of the industrial age. Mankind is altering the very climate upon which its well-being depends. We are depositing carbon in our biosphere faster than it can be absorbed, and we have been doing so for some time. There seems insufficient political will, particularly in the developed world, to substantially alter our consumption patterns. On top of this, the developing world seeks to catch up and requires more carbon combustion to do so. Serious climate scientists predict rising sea levels across the globe even as desertification brings drought and famine inland. We have dodged pandemic bullets with HIV and the Ebola virus, but modern air travel makes it virtually inevitable that new viral outbreaks will occur and spread faster than modern medicine’s ability to contain and quarantine them. And few, if any nations, including the United States, have the personnel and equipment, including inoculations, on hand to deal with unknown viral mutations. Scientists now say that we are nearing the threshold of an age of synthetic biology when viruses unknown in nature can be manufactured in small hidden laboratories and dispersed by individuals and groups of ill-will among the healthy populations of their enemies. The new information age carried with it magical transformations. Critical infrastructures—communications, transportation, financial, and energy systems—are now all operated by computers. But we now know that those same magical computerized operating systems are vulnerable to state and non-state hackers and disrupters. The critical systems upon which the developed world depends are now more efficient, but also more vulnerable, to the new threat of cyber warfare. It is difficult to imagine what might happen if interlocked international banking systems or entire air traffic control systems were suddenly disrupted or shut down. This surface sketch of the revolutions—disruptions if you will—makes the future seem grim.
Revolutions: what improvements they have brought
A fair accounting, however, must also note the rising standard of living, including in much of the developing world, across the globe. Science and technology are bringing new devices such as cell phones to multitudes, and they make masses of people healthier and more able than ever before to participate in local market economies. Education and health standards are on the rise, and birth rates in many large nations are settling into more sustainable patterns. New sustainable sources of energy, wind and solar in particular, are increasingly available at the community level. Major oil producing nations, including significantly Saudi Arabia, see the solar era arriving more quickly than they would have believed even a few years ago, and experiments with micro-geothermal energy sources are occurring in parts of the world. Considered cosmically, it is possible to view our age of disruption as a race, a race between the destructive forces unleashed in the past three of four decades and the constructive human inventive genius capable of avoiding natural or man-made disasters. We have science, technology, imagination, and invention on our side, but we do not have unlimited time. We are lacking in statecraft, in moral leadership, and in our appreciation for our common humanity. To transcend these disruptions, we must rethink systems of governance. National and international declarations of independence, of human rights, and of democratic freedoms are the building blocks. But these principles must now be put to the service of finding new ways of governing ourselves and addressing our common and universal needs. For example, we need now to think of the world as a Global Commons, a virtual place created out of mankind’s universal desire for economic and physical security. No single nation or existing treaty organization can stop global warming. No regional alliance alone can stop a viral pandemic. No democratic coalition can stamp out extremism and terrorism.
These are threats requiring whole-hearted participation of all nations, ethnic groups, religions, and tribes. The Global Commons approach to the challenges of 21st century disruption is based on one central principle: all humans have more interests in common than they have differences. Those interests transcend race, ethnicity, historic identities, political ideologies, geography, and traditional cultures. In the arena of international security, the core of a Global Commons coalition would be composed of advanced democracies mutually committed to collective security, suppression of terrorism, and elimination of criminal syndicates. Other nations committed to the rule of law and protection of human rights would be welcome under the Global Commons security umbrella. The advantages of joining the coalition would outweigh outmoded notions of sovereignty, and only renegade nations such as North Korea would remain alone and isolated. Where national sovereignty is concerned, it became quickly apparent to North American Treaty Organizations (NATO) nations at the dawn of the Cold War that they could participate fully in a collective security alliance without sacrificing national authority and sovereignty. Globalization, information, eroding borders, and mass migrations represent threats to the old order, but they also represent opportunities for common understanding. Most needed now are statesmanship, moral authority, and leaders with courage, integrity, and vision.
The strategy is to anticipate revolutions
In our complex world, there will never be absolute stability. But new systems of governance can reduce disruptions and achieve a greater degree of stability than we are experiencing today. The key is anticipation rather than reaction. Too often in the early 21st century, even the most advanced nations have waited for a disruptive event to occur and then responded with whatever resources might be at hand. Events are happening faster, however. Warning times are shrinking as are reaction times. Delay and the search for remedies have become a luxury. Anticipation and preparation have now become a necessity if the world is to avoid being victimized by more disruptions. Years must pass before we or future generations can adequately assess the multiple epic transformations we are now experiencing. A century ago, Joseph Schumpeter welcomed the “gales of creative destruction” in economic transformation. Out of it, he believed, new and sometimes even better economic opportunities and economic systems might arise. This is the attitude we must take about our age of disruption. We may not welcome gales of creative disruption, but they have come to visit us anyway. If we are able to disenthrall ourselves from past policies and programs, while maintaining our commitment to timeless principles, and use our collective imaginations to invent new systems and policies, the 21st century might yet emerge as one of the most enlightened eras in human history. Disruptions must be turned to our advantage. We have no other choice.
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