Entropy in Geopolitics

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by Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

A hundred and fifty years ago, a German physicist derived the concept of “entropy” from the second law of thermodynamics.  Since then, entropy has stood for the idea that everything in the universe eventually moves from order to disorder, from structure to formlessness, and from predictability to uncertainty.  Entropy is the measurement of that change.  It is also the most fitting description of current trends in geopolitics and geoeconomics.

The strategic stabilities of the old order are all in various stages of decay.  Some in my country and abroad had come to view the United States as the next best thing to a world government and global policeman.  But, even before tweets replaced policy papers in Washington, this conception had become preposterous.  The established presumptions no longer operate.

Washington led the way in creating global institutions after World War II.  It fathered the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the G-7, among others.  But these institutions have ceased to rise effectively to the challenges before them.  The world increasingly ignores them, bypasses them, or seeks to replace them with new deals struck at the sub-global or regional level.  New organizations, banks, and coalitions are emerging to address new needs.

Think of the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the various Silk Road funds, China’s initiative to connect everything on and adjacent to the Eurasian landmass,  the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, the G-20, and the Pacific Alliance.  More often than not, institutional  innovation has been taking place despite the United States, which has diminished credibility and seems to have run out of ideas for global governance, the money to fund it, and the will to lead it.  President Trump’s bilateral and transactional approach to foreign policy is dealing a final, fatal blow to the United States as the global rule-maker.

The European Union, whose coalescence was a major contributor to world order, is now shrinking rather than expanding.  According to President Trump, it could even disappear.  Britain has set itself adrift.  Turkey and Russia have ended centuries of effort to redefine themselves as “European.”  Turkey has given up on the EU accession process and is affirming a non-European, authoritarian, and Islamist identity. Russia now emphasizes its civilizational distinctiveness.  Ukraine continues to wobble in place.  War in Europe is no longer unthinkable.

Ankara and Moscow have begun to work together with Tehran to pick up the pieces of a Middle Eastern order shattered by ill-conceived U.S. interventions and their aftermath.  The region is further shaken by Saudi-Iranian rivalry.  (Iran appears to be coming out ahead.)  Former US client states (Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) are only somewhat less estranged from the United States than Iran has been.  The Middle East is less pivotal to a global economy in which concerns about peak demand –not peak oil — predominate.  But the rise and spread of transnational Islamist terrorism has put the region at the center of worldwide anxiety about homeland security.

After a few bad centuries, Asia is back as the global center of economic gravity.  It is home to three of the world’s great economic powers – China, India, and Japan – as well as formidably competitive societies like south Korea and a flourishing group of Southeast Asian countries.  It is also full of intensifying rivalries and potentially explosive confrontations, including some that pit China against the United States.  China is fast becoming a technology leader.  India is now the largest destination in the world for foreign direct investment.  Despite its amazing earlier success, Japan remains economically becalmed.  Korea is in political distress.  The Association of Southeast Nations is increasingly divided.  The sound of jet engines and gas turbines in the East and South China Seas foretells the possibility of catastrophic armed conflict between major powers that could erase decades of socioeconomic progress.

Meanwhile, Africa is on the rise.  It has some of the world’s fastest growing economies.  What it blessedly does not yet have is a direct role in the escalating rivalry between the great powers of America, Asia, and Europe.

This brings me to where I stand – en México, una ciudad , una cultura, y un país que llegué a admirar hace más de medio siglo, cuando estudié aquí en la UNAM.  This is a city, a culture, and a country for which I have had special regard since I studied here at the national university fifty-six years ago.  No nation matters more to the United States than this one, and none is so sadly misunderstood or neglected.  México está a punto de descubrir que tiene muchos más amigos y simpatizantes en el extranjero de lo que sabía.  ¡Afortunado México!  Tan cerca de los dioses del comercio y tan lejos del pantano en Washington.

Like the president of this country, I do not believe in walls.  As a great poet from Vermont once urged:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

“Antes de levantarlo, yo quisiera
saber a quién incluyo, a quién excluyo
a quién, quizás, ofendo con el muro.
Algo hay que no es amigo de los muros,
que quiere derrumbarlos.”

But some sort of wall on the border is the opening gambit of the Deal-maker-in-Chief who has just taken up residence in the White House.  This should be treated as a proposal for more effective border control.  That is something that is in the interest of both Mexico and the United States.  In diplomacy, the best answer to an unwelcome proposition is to reframe it so that both sides can gain.  There is a bargain to be struck, perhaps including commitments from the United States to finally do something about the uncontrolled demand for illegal narcotics and traffic in guns that have been so  disastrous for domestic tranquility in Mexico.

There are, of course, broader questions raised by the surge of  populist, protectionist politics in the United States and some other industrialized democracies.  Mexico is not alone in its concern about the implications of these policies for trade, investment, and the global energy economy.  Neither the United States nor the world can afford to dismantle global supply chains.  There is a limit to how many trade wars any country can manage at once.  If the United States takes on the world, the world is likely to unite in pushing back.  Mexico will have many allies.

I don’t want to take any more time from my fellow panelists.  I was asked to speak about geopolitics.  But, since this conference is about the transformation of oil and gas markets, let me offer a parting observation about energy in the new world disorder.  As is the case with many other issues these days, no one is in charge.  Saudi Arabia is now the swing producer for OPEC but not for the world.  The role of a global swing producer has fallen to US frackers, a motley group driven by market forces rather than policy.  They can and will rapidly increase or reduce production in response to shifts in demand.  Barring civil strife and terrorist attacks that prevent oil from coming to market, this heralds lessened price volatility in future.

To conclude:  Increased entropy in geopolitics means that the world will either return to respect for the UN Charter, international law, and the sovereignty of nations or anarchy will allow might to make right in world affairs.  In either case, middle-ranking powers, like Mexico, have no choice but to seek greater independence, to  maneuver internationally, to seek new allies, and to play a larger role in global and regional governance.  We are entering an era in which regional, not global balances will clearly be the dominant feature of the international state system.

The last century was claimed by the United States.  My country is voluntarily forfeiting its claim to this one.  The 21st century is now up for grabs.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Reprinted with permission from Middle East Policy Council.

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3 Comments

  1. I submit that trump’s presidency is a challenge but mainly an opportunity. The US seems to be returning to an isolationist position. That leaves a vacuum for other actors to step in. The EU for instance is not in great shape with Brexit and the limits to EU federalism. But at the same time, with the UK out of the EU and the single market as well, the remaining EU states can move further towards that federalist goal and remain the most important regulated market place in the world. The EU is also a great model of multilateralism. The emergence of the asian infrastructure bank is another example of the diminishing role of the US hold on world politics. The power is shifting away from the US and trump is a gross symptom. There will need to be more reliance on multilateral institutions to create accepted global norms and regulations in various fields and the EU can become a global leader in that respect. It projects strong moral and ethical power and is predicated on compromise between different people towards a common endgoal. That can be a model for the middle east. I therefore believe that the trump’s presidency is an incredible once in a lifetime opportunity for the rest of the world to organize itself. The era of the US dollar as the world currency is fading, the era of US unilateralism is being resisted. The extraterritorial application of US laws is being resented whether on the financial sphere or in the Iran nuclear deal or else. Trump reminds of president antarinejad of iran whose bombastic and deplorable claims worked against the country and helped bring about a coalition of the willing against him. The same is true with trump

  2. I read this the day Ambassador Freeman uploaded it on his website and I’m still processing it. I’m still having trouble with his conclusion:

    “Increased entropy in geopolitics means that the world will either return to respect for the UN Charter, international law, and the sovereignty of nations or anarchy will allow might to make right in world affairs.”

    This is a binary that oversimplifies the history this article has patiently outlined. The precedent for disrespecting the UN Charter happened a long time ago, when the US cast its first veto on behalf of the rogue state of Israel, and Israel became the model for the rest of the world of what a state could get away with if it had friends in high places. There were plenty of other examples of the US (and the other 4 veto-wielders) undermining the UN, but for me the pathological relationship between Israel and the US came to symbolize the long slide of the UN from one of the greatest achievements of humankind to irrelevance.

    Today, there is almost certainly no chance of a “return to respect for the UN Charter [and] international law,” given that the US has for decades been demonstrating that “might make[s] right in world affairs.” As for “anarchy,” that depends upon Washington and how it plans to use its gargantuan military machine, including those hundreds of US military bases it has built around the globe and populated with offensive weapons for the purpose of containing those nations it considers a threat to its (crumbling) hegemony.

    So here’s a more meaningful binary: Will Washington graciously surrender its imperial hegemony in a controlled fashion while it joins with several other large powers (P5+?) peacefully to transition to a multipolar world, or will it trigger the biggest military (perhaps nuclear) conflagration humankind has ever known?

  3. Brilliant, eloquent essay on one of the most dire threats we face today: the rising right-wing assault on international legal regimes, democracy, and global norms of trust, mutual respect, and cooperation.

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