The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Melowdrama, thy name is Schweller

December 23, 2009

The opening of Randall Schweller’s latest article for The National Interest:

CONTEMPORARY INTERNATIONAL relations is moving toward a state of entropy. Chaos and randomness abound. Now, the story of world politics unfolds without coherence, unfettered by classic balance-of-power politics, a plotless postmodern work starring a menagerie of wildly incongruent themes and protagonists, as if divinely plucked from different historical ages and placed in a time machine set for the third millennium. We live in an era in which unprecedented globalization and economic interdependence, liberal-democratic hegemony, nanotechnology, robotic warfare, the “infosphere,” nuclear proliferation and geoengineering solutions to climate change coexist with the return of powerful autocratic-capitalist states, of a new Great Game in Central Asia, of imperialism in the Middle East, of piracy on the high seas, of rivalry in the Indian Ocean, of a 1929-like market crash, of 1914-style hypernationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, of warlords and failed states, of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, and of a new holy war waged by radical Islamists complete with caliphates and beheadings reminiscent of medieval times. In short, we live in a Thomas Pynchon novel.

The increasing disorder of our world will lead eventually to a sort of global ennui mixed with a disturbingly large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing by states. It is the result of the unstemmable tide of entropy. A world subsumed by the inexorable forces of randomness, tipped off its axis, swirling in a cloud of information overload. Who would have thought a mere half decade ago we would be turning to physics for the answers to international politics.

Well, considering that IR scholars have been heavily influenced by theoretical physics for decades I don’t think it is all that hard to imagine. It’s just that Schweller’s application is off the mark.

The international political system is no more “closed” than most social systems (Patrick–come in, Patrick…). If one looks to complex adaptive systems theory (which I did very early in graduate school) you’ll find that entropic systems will reorganize and settle into a new equilibrium and demonstrate a period of stability until the process repeats itself. You’ll also find that no system is truly ‘closed’. I think this is more applicable to social systems than the classic physics model–no system is ever free of potential perturbation and reorganization. We cycle through various new equilibriums and entropic states. (Would love to hear more from Drew Conway, etc, on this point.)

To be fair, there is a lot of interesting commentary and thought in Schweller’s piece. However, it does seem a bit over-the-top. Furthermore, given that his preferred paradigm is neo-classical realism (with its emphasis on how domestic politics can disrupt the theoretically predictable workings of the international system) I am surprised that he would focus on the international realm as closed. The thing I like about neo-classical realism is that it (implicitly and explicitly) emphasizes how the domestic system can act as a perturbation for the international system (and vice versa).

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.