9/11 and the theory of everything.
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."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

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.

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