9/11 and the theory of everything.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Nov. 19 2001 4:21 PM

The Big Idea

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

My fellow Slate ster Anne Applebaum has declared the post-9/11 world a disturbingly complicated place, one that can't be captured by any grand unified theory of history or international relations. She reviewed two bigthink paradigms—Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" and Francis Fukuyama's "end of history"—and pronounced them inadequate. She concluded glumly that, though she would love to have "one big idea" around which to organize policy, she was "afraid that in the complicated, interlinked, globalized modern world, one big idea isn't going to be enough."

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Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

I disagree. I direct her attention to the word she uses to describe the world—"interlinked"—and a corollary concept, interdependence. Both of these words have become clichés, and both can be used in a semi-vacuous, Hallmark-card kind of way. But when applied with nuance, the interdependence paradigm provides the most concise guide available to post-9/11 policy. In fact, notwithstanding its connotations of harmony and order, this paradigm has been pointing toward the current spasm of chaos for some time—and suggests strongly that it won't be the last.

The idea that modern history makes the peoples of the world increasingly interdependent goes back at least as far as Kant and includes such contemporary writers as Joseph Nye, Robert Keohane, and, lately, me. Interdependence theory has a reputation on the right for being a namby-pamby doctrine for naive lefties. And some on the right doubtless find Sept. 11 a devastating dismissal of the idea. Is "interdependent" really the best way to describe our relationship with a cave-dwelling man who is bent on destroying our civilization? No, but Osama Bin Laden is just the foam on the ocean. He is the guy that history happened to cough up as a surface manifestation of underlying forces of growing interdependence. He is also a handy reminder that interdependence isn't all sweetness and light.

Central to interdependence theory is the idea that, more and more, the world's nations and peoples are playing "non-zero-sum games." In a non-zero-sum game, there needn't be a winner and a loser, as there is in such zero-sum games as tennis and chess. There can be "win-win" outcomes—or, for that matter, "lose-lose" outcomes. Either way, the point is that the players' fates aren't inversely correlated. If the players grasp this fact and play their cards right, they can cooperate to their mutual benefit.

An important example comes from economics—when two people or groups can benefit from exchange and so coordinate their behavior accordingly. This simple game, in conjunction with technological evolution, has done much to shape the modern world. Transportation technology draws people into networks of exchange, information technology lubricates this exchange, and the result is an expanding web of prosperity, as people cooperate in the quest for mutual profit. It's a win-win world! At least, this is the upbeat version of interdependence theory.

And this version is indeed a big part of the story—but only part. Peoples and nations sometimes need to cooperate not to reap common benefits but to avoid common perils. And often the perils are the flip side of the benefits. Yes, transportation technology eases exchange, but it also abets global warming. And the non-zero-sum game that global warming creates isn't the "win-win," positive-sum kind of game, where the players cooperate to improve their lot. Rather, it's the negative-sum kind—where the object of the game is just to keep things from getting worse, to avoid the lose-lose outcome. (Of course, cooperation to avert global warming makes things better than they would be in the absence of cooperation and is in that sense win-win, but here we get into terminological issues that are of interest mainly to game-theory aficionados.)

You might put it this way: When nations unite to address global warming, technology isn't pulling people together in the pursuit of mutual gain but rather pushing them together as they try to avoid mutual loss. This does amount to growing interdependence—nations need each other more, and cooperation makes more sense—but interdependence of a not-too-cheery sort.

Transportation technology has other downsides that create negative-sum games. It spreads viruses—the AIDS virus, the Ebola virus—that give nations a common interest in nipping such things in the bud, wherever they show up. Information technology, too, for all its upside, can spread a type of virus—and these electronic viruses, like the biological kind, give nations cause to unite in combating them. Another upside-downside of information technology: It helps spread prosperity but also makes regional economic downturns more contagious—as with the Asian financial crisis of 1997 or, for that matter, the downturn going on now. Here, too, there is cause for international cooperation—coordinated monetary policy, or whatever.

The general principle is this. Technological evolution draws people into larger and larger non-zero-sum games that promise common benefit—win-win outcomes. But the ensuing integration can bring the threat of common peril, of lose-lose outcomes. Either way—win-win or lose-lose—the fortunes of people who live at great distances become more closely correlated. Increasingly, good foreign news (say, a Japanese economic rebound) is good domestic news, and bad foreign news (the spread of AIDS in Africa) is bad domestic news. And very often this correlation of fortunes—this non-zero-sumness—is an argument for more international cooperation.

In this light, the first link between interdependence theory and Sept. 11 is obvious. Global terrorism, like AIDS and global warming, puts most of the world's nations, especially the richer ones, in a non-zero-sum game of the negative-sum variety. To stave off a common peril—to keep things from getting worse—they must cooperate. And they know it. Just look at the rare consensus shown by the U.N. Security Council in validating military intervention in Afghanistan.

And this is just the beginning. In the long run, police and spies in different nations will routinize deeper data sharing; new international norms and laws for tracking illicit cash will evolve; and, God willing, nations will finally get serious about collectively controlling the flow of biological and nuclear weapons. You will see more and more international cooperation—the logical response to non-zero-sumness among nations—and some of it will be robust enough to warrant the label "supranational governance ."

This international cohesion is in part due to the geopolitics of this particular form of terrorism. Osama Bin Laden's agenda makes him a threat to lots of powerful nations for various reasons, ranging from his sponsorship of Islamic separatists in China and Russia to his distaste for modern global capitalism to his abhorrence of current Islamic regimes. But even terrorism of less sweepingly global aspiration can have an internationally unifying effect. For one thing, in today's economy, serious disruption in any affluent nation has bad consequences for other nations. For another thing, even terrorists with local grievances will use the global communications and transportation system to organize their attacks. So a nation threatened by terrorists will need the help of other nations, and the natural thing to offer in return is help with their terrorist problems. International policing structures will evolve whether or not the agenda of terrorists is itself international.

This isn't just a retrofitting of interdependence theory to Sept. 11. We interdependence theorists have long been predicting  that terrorism would make the world more interdependent, encouraging nations to sacrifice bits of sovereignty to supranational bodies.

How have we been so sure that the threat of terrorism would grow? In part because the same technologies that let nations play non-zero-sum games let terrorists play them. The Internet and other micro-electronic technologies help terrorists organize cheaply, invisibly, and, sometimes, internationally. Information technologies also offer easy access to knowledge about massively lethal technologies. And these technologies are themselves evolving, becoming deadlier and more compact. For these reasons and others, it has long been likely that terrorism would grow, making relations among nations more non-zero-sum, driving interdependence upward; and it has long been clear that the logical outcome is movement toward global governance.

There is another, and subtler, sense in which Sept. 11 signals the world's growing interdependence. The threat of terrorism means not just that Americans are playing a non-zero-sum-game with the British and Japanese and all others who, by virtue of their affluence, have a stake in preserving global order. It also means that Americans are playing a non-zero-sum game with millions of discontented and largely poor Muslims abroad. These people, after all, form a big part of the pool from which tomorrow's terrorists will be recruited. If they get poorer, more alienated, more hateful—or, in the case of discontented middle-class Muslims, just more alienated and more hateful—then Americans will be worse off, because there will be more terrorists. If these Muslims instead become better off, then Americans will be better off. This correlation of fortunes constitutes interdependence regardless of whether the eventual outcome is win-win or lose-lose.

Of course, the West's relationship with Osama Bin Laden himself, and some other confirmed terrorists, is almost entirely zero-sum. When people are implacably devoted to the destruction of your way of life, there isn't much common ground; the sadder—or, in some cases, deader—you can make them, the better. And one of the things that would make Bin Laden sad is for Muslims disenchanted with the West and globalization to become less disenchanted.

All of this points to the sense in which Bin Laden is just the foam on the ocean—the sense in which what happened on Sept. 11 runs deeper than him, even deeper than Islam. As time goes on, and information technology and biotechnology and munitions technology evolve, more and more non-state actors that feel violently aggrieved will have the theoretical capacity to wreak large amounts of damage. And since non-state actors aren't susceptible to the kind of deterrence that keeps states behaving civilly, this means it is in America's interest to address grievances before they fester into terrorism. People who want to focus on terrorism's "root causes" have gotten some abuse since Sept. 11. And, obviously, a long-term campaign against root causes shouldn't be the only focus. But if it isn't a big part of the focus, the future will be ugly. We are in a non-zero-sum game with various sub-national groups whose existence most Americans aren't even aware of, and the sooner awareness dawns, the better.

Grand summary of grand unifying theory: The sort of terrorism we saw on Sept. 11 1) makes most of the world's nations, especially affluent ones, more interdependent, implying more supranational governance; 2) makes the world's affluent nations more interdependent with the people whose current disenchantment is the wellspring of tomorrow's terrorism, since the unhappiness of the latter implies the unhappiness of the former; 3) is just the first blindingly powerful sign of what is to come—more and more, even fairly small groups with intense grievances will have the power to disrupt the world, so more and more, it will be in the interest of nations to perceive and address simmering discontents, not just the discontents of Muslims, even if these discontents are the most pressing right now.

More than a century ago Herbert Spencer wrote the words: "No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy." This may be an exaggeration, but it's less of one now than it was back then. Thanks to technological evolution, it has long been the fate of human beings to have their fates increasingly shared. And now, being at a watershed in technological evolution, we are at a watershed in the growth of this interdependence, for better and for worse.

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