September 7, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Spooky Action at a Distance: The Entanglement of National Interests Part I

As of early September 2012, with the increasing globalization of regional economies and expanding global interest in regional conflicts, there is a question of growing importance as it relates to any given nation's future foreign and economic policy: In a progressively interconnected geopolitical landscape, what is the real meaning of "national interest"? To be clear, this question is not one of national identity or sovereignty, nor is it a question of sports allegiance or the waving of national flags at the Olympic Games. And it is most certainly not a simple reframing of the long-acknowledged truism that economics plays a large role in foreign affairs (the British East India Company, as one of many examples).

Rather, this question seeks to launch a far more material exploration into the meaning of national interest in a time when any problem generated by a single nation will likely demand a multinational solution. How each nation — or, as appropriate, a bloc of nations — answers this question will, in large part, profoundly influence whether the decades ahead promise the potential of stability-and-prosperity or portend a struggle with instability-and-hostility. Laying the groundwork for either path will be intractably informed by how well policymakers define and advance internal goals while being mindful that these goals are inextricably tied to actors who are not only performing different roles but who are acting in an altogether different play.


The Geopolitics of Entanglement

The emergence of regional economic-and-conflict interdependences causing distant — and often instant —  international responses has so greatly complicated any individual nation's planning efforts that it has effectively reduced policy and strategy formulation to the level of tactical responses (at best) and reactions (at worst). Why this is so stems from the gap caused when the outdated understanding of national interest as something internally controlled and tangible has left the stage while the new understanding of national interest as something externally wild and amorphous still waits in the wings.

In theoretical physics, the principle of entanglement suggests that two particles, once they have interacted with each other, remain correlated no matter how far they are separated by time or distance (two qualities that are inseparable in the quantum world, and increasingly so in the geopolitical world as well). Incredibly, the act of measuring one of these particles causes an instantaneous and opposite action in the other. To an odd degree this is precisely what is happening with current strategies that attempt deal with regional economies and conflicts with a regional (or national) perspective: everything that ever was connected seemingly remains connected, no matter how distant the actors.

In a very real sense, modern life can seem even more complex than quantum physics, because attempts by one nation to define and advance its national interests through strategic policies will inevitably cause instantaneous but unpredictable actions in countless other actors around the globe. When this involved subatomic particles as in the example above, Einstein called this instantaneous effect "spooky action at a distance," and he spent his later years unsuccessfully attempting to disprove a phenomenon that he himself had helped prove. But this faster-than-light action can be seen not just in physic experiments but in the interdependent financial markets, interwoven social media, and interconnected conflicts and responses.

Take, for example, the Arab Spring. A dramatic rise in food prices and a regional economic crisis created additional irritants in unstable albeit longstanding regimes (Egypt's Mubarak is a prime example). These regimes, from Tunis to Cairo, had been propped up by various global powers because, at least at the time, it fit those powers' national interests. The speed-of-light distribution of the image of a Tunisian merchant setting himself ablaze caused instantaneous and unpredictable reactions in distant places still connected  — entangled — by history and economics. The governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen would soon fall (with Syria still falling although at seemingly glacial pace). Nations, such as the United States and Russia, along with blocs of nations, such as the European Union (EU) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), attempt to define and protect what they view as their respective national interest in the revolutions and their aftermath, but these attempts are less and less effective because leverage means less and less in an age of entanglement (think of a person's right arm wrestling with the left arm).


Spooky Transnational Actions

Jumping forward nearly two years to the autumn of 2012, in what surely is an example of spooky action at a distance, the United States is now concerned that Iraq — the country it toppled, occupied, and helped rebuild from 2003-2011 — is allowing Iran, once Iraq's primary enemy, to use Iraqi airspace to fly weapons and supplies to Syria, the Ba'athist neighbor of formerly Ba'athist Iraq. In a cascade of second and third order effects, international oil prices rise in correlation with the regional tension. In turn, the rise in oil prices further reduces the remaining leverage the U.S. can have with oil-rich Iraq, a rise caused in part because Iraq is helping Iran to arm Syria, a country that Russia also supports, while the United States, the GCC, and the EU stand in opposition. The individual nations unilaterally demand multilateral conflict resolutions all the while underutilizing preventative approaches that embrace the reality that everything is multilateral now.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank (ECB) announces on September 6th its intention to indefinitely buy short-term bonds in an effort to lower borrowing costs for member nations such as Spain and Italy. These national economies had been crushed by the distant but connected 2008-2009 collapse of the U.S housing and financial markets that stemmed, in part, from reckless borrowing and dubious financial products that were traded across global markets. As a result of the ECB decision, the United States financial markets instantaneously rise to their highest level in four years, and oil prices rise to US $96 per barrel because more growth is now expected and such predictions advance national interests. Spooky actions at a distance!

While it may be impossible to conceive of the underlying matrix of strategies that set about these events, it is even more difficult to imagine that those strategies were based on the goal of protecting or even advancing the national interests of individual countries. And that is because the entangled quantum nature of regional economies and conflicts has been the death of conventional strategy. As long as policymakers define — and design — national interest as something apart from all that swirls around it, they will produce little more than reactionary tactics. And that is not strategy…it is sovereign suicide.  



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