What if anarchy is merely what we make of it?

Craig Perry, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the anarchy in the light of international relations. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The international system has changed considerably since the appearance of the modern nation-state in the 17th century. Over time, more and more countries around the world have discovered the advantages of democratic governance, economic integration, and political cooperation in multilateral forums—and their interactions with each other have evolved as a consequence. Although anarchy continues to lurk behind the scenes, many actors on the international stage no longer seem bound by scripts of power politics or structural imperatives.

 

In recent decades, a new theory has emerged to explain this evolution. Constructivism asserts that international relations are not the immutable result of human nature or material structures, but instead are socially created through shared ideas. Alexander Wendt and other constructivist scholars contend that social interactions give meaning to ideas, which in turn shape the identities and interests of international actors—and it is these social constructions, not anarchy itself, that determine the nature of international relations. In other words, anarchy is what states make of it—and while some may respond with self-help schemes, others increasingly choose international cooperation and collective security.

 

If anarchy really is what states make of it, then their changing worldviews ought to have some effect on international relations. There are many schools of thought as to what drives such social change, but one of the more intriguing was advanced by Ken Wilber as a “theory of everything.” Building on the “spiral dynamics” model of human development first formulated by Clare Graves, Wilber contends that individuals pass through discrete developmental stages—from egocentric to ethnocentric to “worldcentric” and potentially beyond—as they mature, contributing to the aggregate mix of developmental levels present in the larger society. If enough people within a society begin exhibiting emerging levels of consciousness, its developmental “center of gravity” may shift toward this higher-order worldview.

 

The impact of such social evolution on international relations could be profound. Referring to developmental levels as color-coded “memes,” Wilber suggested that societies where an ethnocentric worldview (“blue” meme) prevails would likely see others as threats, while those at the next higher level (“orange” meme), embracing autonomy and scientific materialism, might treat them as competitors. Among those societies in Europe and North America where a pluralistic, postmodern  “green” meme is more pronounced, international cooperation has become the norm. However, upward progress is not inevitable; even in “advanced” Western societies, approximately 70 percent of the population remains at the “blue” level or below, making regression to previous levels of development an ever-present possibility.

 

The corollary of shared ideas shaping international relations is that not everyone is always reading from the same script. States where the “green” meme is manifest still have to deal with countries operating at the “orange” and “blue” levels—not to mention the occasional power-hungry, egocentric “red” regime. Put another way, while liberal democracies like the United States and its allies traditionally see international relations in cooperative, “win-win” terms, states whose worldviews center around competition and conflict cannot be easily ignored.

 

Unfortunately, until all the great powers embrace a more cooperative, less confrontational vision of international relations, war among them remains a real possibility. There are few signs that Chinese or Russian societies are developing in this direction—or that their autocratic political systems would respond well to such social change. Meanwhile, U.S. advocacy for the liberal world order it helped create has become lukewarm in recent years, while less lofty ethnocentric and authoritarian sentiments are making a comeback across the globe, threatening to drag a number of nations back down the proverbial development spiral.

 

Even if we suppose that further progress in international relations is simply a matter of shared belief, getting all the great powers to imagine anarchy in the same way is no simple matter. And until they each construct worldviews centered on international cooperation and mutual interests, conflict among them is far easier to envision.

 

© Craig Perry 2018