Infused with a big-picture optimism that often strikes me as out of character, I have long glommed onto arguments and evidence that humanity is growing steadily healthier, wealthier, smarter, more democratic, and more ethical and compassionate. I haven't yet started Steven Pinker's magnum opus making this case at length, but I am favorably disposed. And yet...it's hard to feel (or at least fear) that we aren't heading for some kind of cataclysm. Maybe it's the widespread discussion and perception of U.S. and European decline (which could fade like morning dew with the next economic upswing), or the looming 100th anniversary of the start of World War I -- that is, the end of another protracted period of accelerating globalization and great-power detente. Maybe it's the big picture behind the big picture: while human wealth, security (in the sense of the average individual's chance of meeting a violent end), lifespan, intelligence and freedom have increased rapidly in recent centuries, that progress has been regularly punctuated by catastrophe. In fact, the worst outbreaks of violence have spurred progress, not only technological but social and moral. Centuries of religious war in Europe led to the 'discovery' of religious tolerance; World War I spurred the concept of self-determination; World War II, collective security.
"America still hasn't quite understood that we are opening Pandora's box. Take drones. We feel we can use them anywhere, soon others will be using them against us. There are dozens of countries around the world developing their own drone technology or buying what is out on the market. The same is true for technologies like those associated with Stuxnet," said the former senior diplomat who has worked closely throughout his career with the military and intelligence communities. Or as another journalist friend of mine put it who has been covering the issue closely, "The day after Stuxnet was like the day after Hiroshima. We had the technology and no one else did. But within a matter of a few years that had changed." So had the nature of modern warfare...and by extension of modern diplomacy and that's what is going to happen here.
Imagine wars that were conducted constantly, wars in which both sides might not be bent on destroying one another but would rather focus on capturing resources or slowing down economic performance or producing popular frustration or distributing misinformation or manipulating elections or markets. Shutting down power grids or stealing money from bank accounts or spilling pollutants into a river are old hat with current technologies. Imagine what the future might hold.
This is already triggering an arms race but unlike past such races, new technologies will be deployed all the time and small groups of non-state actors will be able to produce almost identical results as massive state-sponsored efforts might. Technological advantages will also have a much shorter shelf-life. Launch a worm and you provide your enemy with the means to replicate it or defend against it the next time. And because this really is Phantom War, retaliation is going to be challenging and international treaties about respecting borders or sovereignty will be worthless. In many respects, they already are, vestiges of another era in which conflict wasn't invisible and conducted at the speed of light.
So: one can be a big-picture optimist and still be braced for terrible upheaval. As Tyler Cowen wrote in response to Pinker's Better Angels:
Both greater wealth (weapons are more destructive, and thus used less often, and there is a desire to preserve wealth) and the nationalization of violence point toward that pattern. That would help explain why the two World Wars, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and the Holocaust, all came not so long ago, despite a (supposed) trend toward greater peacefulness. Those are hard data points for Pinker to get around, no matter how he tries.Brrr.
We now have a long period between major violent outbursts, but perhaps the next one will be a doozy.