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Diverging before Converging?

I vividly remember a surprising thing coming out of Stewart Brand's mouth the week after September 11th when a group of GBNers gathered together to try and make sense of what had happened. We had Kevin Kelly, Paul Hawkin, Peter Schwartz, among others. It was a good crowd with an animated discussion. I spent most time with my mouth slightly agape, in shock still, having spent the previous five months doing national security scenarios. I never imagined my work would become an occupational hazard, but when you've been paid to write about disasters and they in fact strike, your worst scenario starts stalking you. I was not hitting on all fours, as they say.

But what got my intention and snapped me out of my gloom was when Stewart suggested, rather counter-intuitively and perhaps coyly, that it was actually a good thing for the world that George Bush happened to be the man at the wheel during this moment in time. Because, he marshaled, one of the things that happens when we don't have a good leader (and Bush's Presidency was flailing at this point) is that it forces everyone else to be a leader. Sometimes moments like these force people from all walks of life to take greater responsibility for the politics in their midst and thus shaking off the yoke of apathy. (Btw, Stewart didn't put it exactly this way, being much more pithy and concise than I.) By "everyone else" he meant both people inside the U.S.and externally -- Europe, Latin America, Asia: basically the rest of the world.

(Of course, many people underestimated Bush's ability to turn this tragedy into a triumph politically. No one sensed just what a strong and radical leader he would be. If he and his team were truly incompetent, that might have been better. A "do no harm" by default isn't always a bad thing.)

Looking back, I think Stewart's comment might have been influenced by this sentiment and a particular scenario Peter Schwartz (and others) developed during this work I mentioned on the future of national security. This scenario was called the "Rogue Superpower" scenario. This language was later scotched from the commission; too sensitive it was.

But taken from an interview Peter did, he explains the scenario like this:

Last summer in the Hart-Rudman Commission we developed the scenario of the rogue superpowerthat the United States, because of its great success, would be seen as the Microsoft of the world: hugely successful, triumphant, proud to let everybody know that we’re the No. 1 top dog and prepared to play rough when we don’t like what you do. Nobody much loves Microsoft, and nobody much loves us.

This is a world in which we end up isolated rather than isolationist, because the rest of the world aligns against us. In fact, one of the things we said in it was that we would end up being thrown out of United Nations bodies led by the French, which, of course, is exactly what has happened with the UN Commission on Human Rights. The French led the charge to throw the United States off the Commission. And why did we do the scenario? We said, "Look, if the United States continues to behave as it does, this is a very likely scenario." And, in fact, when it was presented to the Commission, they said, "Oh, you’re right. This is exactly what we’re doing. You know, this is where we’re headed if we don’t change something fundamentally.

Now, I will say I think we still are headed in that direction. But it has created a new language around Washington. In fact, some people are not allowed to put the word "rogue superpower" in print because they find the term so scary. They’re afraid that the French and everybody else will pick it up. But it is clearly the language in which it is being debated: How can we avoid being seen as the rogue superpower? And the way we framed it is: Can you lead from the back rather than the front? Can you enable others rather than take the top-dog role all the time yourself? And we took what it would mean to do that. Now, of course, so far, to be candid, we’ve had little influence in the Bush administration in this respect.

Interestingly, that report was done in August 2001. Prescient yes -- and that was only part of it -- and unfortunately fairly on target in terms of what happened. (Peter also discusses this scenario in Inevitable Surprises.)

The View From the Outside in

From an external perspective, the election confirmed to the rest of the world that the US will resume its Rogue Superpower trajectory. For many leaders in the other world blocks and networks -- Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Drug Cartels and especially Al Queda-- this is perversely good. For Al Queda, this is good because this is precisely the vision of American that they are selling to their constituencies. What a better way to fuel the rank and file and bump up the recruits? Remember, Osama's real objective in 9/11 was to get America to hastily invade a Muslim country, bugger it up as they invariably would, so they could then use the fall out to convert moderate Muslims to their cause and dislodge the "sold out" leaders from their positions of power. I don't think he's succeeding, necessarily, but why help him out?

For the Europeans, Chinese, et. al, this is timely because it opens up more strategic room for them to advance their own projects without having to dilute their energies with America-lead global projects, something which we saw during the Clinton era. And the great European project needs a great deal room. Clearly, a Rogue Superpower world also gives added legitimacy to the Chirac's and Hu's of the world who seek to balance America's cultural and economic influence on the world. (See Chirac warns of catastrophe of world choked by US values.) But this would have happened anyway, regardless of who is in the White House. As Peter said, part of this dynamic is "structural" and locked in, which is something we may all have to face right now, whether we like it or not.

Less cynically and more in the non-zero sum vein, as Brand suggested, the enduring impact of this election may force everyone to be stronger leaders at both the micro and macro level. It might trigger a deeper and faster and more systemic articulation of alternative paths to how we might live, the launching of new experiments that prove through their success to be vastly superior to the unilateral interventionist vision of the neocons in Bush's camp. I don't care if they are done on the side, below the radar screen, outside the power structure. This is par for the course. But without this wake up call, these alternatives might have languished in mixed-muddle land too long.

At the same time, if progressives feel that they are right -- that this model of doing politics, that this view of the world is so wrong, that the electorate was seriously misguided (The Daily Mirror, no great rag, put this quite crudely and baldly, by saying "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?") -- we have to trust that this approach will be self-defeating and eventually discredit itself. Another four years might give enough time for this to happen. In trying to find the silver lining in this election, I've heard people argue that if Iraq and its consequences are to blow up in America's face in a way that matters to an internal audience, it's much better to have this happen on Bush's watch. We all like it when people sow what they reap. Sadly, this doesn't happen very consistently in the hurly burly of politics, especially when you have master deflectors in your back room.

The View from the Inside-Out

Today, one headline in Le Monde in the middle of the paper shouted "Americans are for the War in Iraq". This was revealing. What Europeans quickly forget -- and my partner struggled with this today at work -- is just how many Americans voted against this President. Europeans will quickly assume that America is speaking with one voice, instead of many. Some papers acknowledge that America is divided, but I don't think they really understand what this means yet. Indeed, I think Americans themselves are only dimly perceiving what this means. Also, as the headline suggests, what many Europeans don't understand yet is that this election wasn't about foreign policy. It was about moral issues. It was about gays, guns, and a guy whose faith guided the country through a time of terror. That the impression of being steadfast, even if the President made a mistake, was enough to reelect him. So this outcome will only entrench the growing divide between Europe and the US. But again, these planetary paths, Venus and Mars, were already diverging. And it's the lack of historical memory that spins them apart the most. After thousands of years of sectarian violence and hideous Church versus State politics in Europe, the fact that the US is now a faith-based nation will be the hardest thing for the secular world to swallow.

Lessons from the Religious Right?

Back to that meeting at GBN, circa September 2001. I also remember another zinger of comment from Kevin Kelly. He asked the question: if Islam is now a growing and successful religion, what can we learn from them ? What is it doing better and more successfully than the West? Than secular society? It strikes me that progressives in the US need to ask a similar question of the religious right. The sheer visual mass of all of those red states surely compels us to engage in this form of self-inquiry. Instead of assuming that a secular path is intrinsically better and self-evident, maybe we need to confront the fact that perhaps there is something very compelling about this way of living?

I'm in the uncertainty management business, so I've thought about this a bit. I help people live with uncertainty and ambiguity; we argue that this is the "new competency of the future." This may be right, and a path to a different kind of consciousness. But I can tell you, if people had their choice, they would rather not live this way. I'm sure this is why I constantly see leaders/managers/policy-makers seek answers like a heat-seeking missile, even when it's clear there aren't any. A world clearly defined in black and white is so much easier than living in one that's a thousand shades of grey. Cognitive scientists will also tell you that the human mind will find ways to make categories and divisions, create zones of clarity, even if there aren't any, so there may be a biological driver here as well. Lastly, the topic of much art, literature, and cultural criticism in the 20th century has been about the failures of the Enlightenment project; that this highly rationalistic, partial view of living has undernourished the human spirit in many ways and created untoward consequences for society. Part of the Progressives renewal, I think, lies in a revised humanistic vision, the "whole systems for whole people" ethos we find creeping up in many places. Again that's just a hunch.

Another good place to start would be an investment in new progressive language and metaphors so that they can frame the agenda and gain the poll position in the public psyche. Indeed, the conservatives' dominance today is in part due this kind of language investment (witness "tax relief", the "war on drugs") that started after Vietnam. Years and many right-wing think tanks later, the Democrats are now in the weak position of responding to Conservatives using their constructs, their newspeak, and we all know what Orwell had to say about that. A wee hint: this is a bad place to be. (See New Frames).

The language-is-political-power issue also underscores another thing progressives forget about how people vote, which Karl Rove knows only too well. The dirty little secret I discovered as a pollster in the early 1990s was that the public arrives at its most serious judgments not through information, but through the prism of their feelings, emotions and values. In fact, the more important an issue, the less likely information-based arguments will be considered. This is a scared cow I know -- still although it shouldn't be-- in many camps, challenging the Jeffersonian conviction that an information public is indispensable to democracy. This may be only partially right; and this may also be mostly wrong. And this election is a case in point.

Dan Yankelovich, the grand-daddy of the American polling industry, explains this all inComing to Judgment, a timely re-read given today's events. As he has found in surveying countless of people, the public rarely base their judgments on analysis. Rather, people gain their judgments first through the matrix of their values/feelings, and then through dialogue with others. So before any intellectual arguments can penetrate people's thinking processes, this dialogue has to start at the level of feelings and values. ( A great example of this is found on This American Life's show last week called "Swing Set". Just fascinating what they found and well worth a listen.) The upshot of this points to another strategic direction for progressives as they reflect on what they've learned from this election: namely, the focus should be on new forms of dialogue which are more about winning people's hearts than just minds.

Boundary-Defenders, Throw-backs, and Phase Transitions

We often see systems (both human and natural) diverge in different directions before they converge. This is a way to increase the pool of variety so that when new problems arise, when the context flips, we have more options to select from. This may be what's happening now -- at both a world and national level -- and why we should seize this as an opportunity to construct sensible, practical, and structurally different alternatives to the dominant view from the White House, assuming that this view continues to track and expand the neocons preemptive vision.

Of course, this could be willful wishful thinking on my part. What I'm confused about is the interaction between many of these "structural" dynamics Peter talks about -- the rise the religious Right, the Europe-America schism, the Rogue Superpower scenario -- which appear to be locked in for at least another decade, and what I see to be evidence of a phase transition. Insight into first time voters in this election might be interesting here. Indeed, before a system flips from one dominant mode to another, we often get lots of chatter, lots of volatility between extremes (which our weather might be doing right now), and a few throw-backs -- strange combinations, manifestations, patterns of the old value systems and ethos of an earlier time, making a last stand before it fades into obscurity. Nature works this way, and so does history. While western thinking tends to think of history as moving, steadily and progressively ahead, we all know that this isn't the case. In reality, we get regressions, full circles, and punctuated ups and downs. Perhaps we're in one of these troughs? Perhaps things have to get really bad before they get better?

And then the ghost of my old mentor, Don Michael, starts to move into the foreground. Bless him. A sage and often overlooked observer, he explains something I'm seeing in America, and indeed everywhere. As a social psychologist with a boundary-spanning career in academia, business and policy-making, Michael understood well the importance of boundaries of all sorts: organizational, temporal, spatial, conceptual, symbolic, physical, metaphorical, and so on. Boundaries are important, individually and collectively, because they enhance memory and recognition, sense making and storing information. (He also was big in the use of metaphors for sense-making and creating boundaries.) In Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn (Second edition 1997), Michael explains that "We must discriminate, or everything would be a blooming, buzzing confusion. But when, where, and how we discriminate are crucial learning tasks as boundaries are challenged, changed and redefined." (My italics.) He goes on to argue that:

A major cause and consequence of planet-wide social turmoil is increased efforts and demands to establish, change, or remove boundaries, and counter-efforts to preserve them. Networks may encourage boundaries to alter more rapidly, but boundaries are not disappearing. Perhaps more than in pre-network times, today's boundaries are built around concepts, convictions, relationships, and flows of information in the form of money or other symbols. But while flows of symbols may be unbounded in the abstract, they are absorbable only in the concrete — via organizational and personal interests, and actual operating modes. Ultimately, via individual human minds. All bounded. The mode and degree of absorption involve crucially important, mostly unmet, learning challenges, certainty in civil society...

...Overall, however, interacting consequences from boundary shifting amplifies complexity, and intensifies the search for certainty and meaning, which results in still more boundary shifting and defending."

In his view, this deepens the problems for governance. No kidding! Osama is a classic boundary-defender as is George Bush and Jacques Chirac. His concern, and thus our concern, is that we make sure that as this boundary shifting and boundary defending occurs we also develop mechanisms and feedback systems so that mutual learning can occur on both sides of a boundary.Adversarial Politics.) While boundaries are frequently glossed over in loosey-goosey New Age speak, or perhaps considered passe in a digital globalizing world, they are more important than ever. Tribalism and the global village go hand in hand, observed Marshall McLuhan. Tribes like their boundaries. The trick is to know the difference between boundaries and barriers. But need boundaries but barriers are a real problem and not sustainable. Like a well functioning membrane -- where fluids, molecules, and signals flow back and forth -- we need to figure out the new boundary conditions for American politics where we can dialogue back and forth without the kind of impassable barriers the past four years have erected. Let's start now.

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There was a point almost 6 months ago where I was advocating voting for Bush (you'd need to know I'm rabidly anti-Bush for you to recognize the irony here). Why? Americans are so out of touch, they'd actually elect a man like George W. Bush. And since 3.5 years of GWB hadn't seemed to really shake up Americans, I thought 4 more years just might. Or perhaps we just deserve 4 more years as karmic punishment.

Sadly, my fear is not that we will wake up, albeit weak and shaky, only to head in brave new directions, but rather that we simply will not wake up. The resultant demise of the United States as a major economic and military power will serve as a serious wake up call for the rest of the world. That we, in other words, will be the lesson learned for history over the next thousand years.

It's the people of worldchanging that continue to offer a beacon of hope, and I'm glad you continue to keep on keeping on.

So thanks to all of you at WC!

Posted by: neil verplank on 4 Nov 04

Thanks from me, too, for WC and for this thoughtful article.

We can brain our way to possible scenarios, but there are other forces at work that are the karma of previous actions. I'm expecting that some great events will happen during the next four years that will have more effect on us than any strategizing we can do in this post-election fog.

Climate change, for example, may make its presence unmistakably known through some disaster. Or al Qaeda may succeed in another cataclysmic attack. Some country may launch a nuke. Or the US economy may tank.

Then, we'll have to deal everyone another hand.

In other words, we don't have the advantage of starting fresh at this point. We have some very active liabilities and unpredictables to consider. But you scenario planners know that!

Posted by: Cliff on 5 Nov 04

I think it's very likely the economy will tank - what we're doing isn't sustainable and the dollar is currently propped up only by China's good graces. Perhaps that is enough, but I think Europeans and others will start withdrawing support from the United States economically as well as politically and the dollar will drop like a rock. If I were a foreign investor there is no way I would be putting money into the US right now.Add in that we are stuck paying for Iraq (and whatever other wars Bush drags us into) *and* that Bush has promised to add yet more tax cuts, and we're pretty well sunk. Bin Laden will get his wish of bankrupting the US economy, thanks to Bush.

Posted by: donna on 5 Nov 04

Maybe we should start advocating for a two state soulution to the Rouge Superpower problem. If North East and West Coast states leave the union and form something like a Federation of American States we could reign in some of the distructive power of the red states.

Lets stop trying to take back america and start trying to get a "civil divorce" from the other 51% of the USA.

Posted by: jim moore on 5 Nov 04

Back in the 80s I watched a 20/20 piece on Focus on the Family, James Dobson's organization, one of the pillars of the now rampant religious right. What they concentrated on was, basically, constituent service. If they got a request for information by phone or mail or word of mouth, there was a response within 24 hours. They linked up members in neighborhoods and localities to create a support community.

That is a great and useful model for not only a religious/political organization but also for a service organization. I wonder what they are doing with Meetup and the Net now and whether anybody on the left -ACORN, SEIU, moveon, ACT - is as good. I was impressed by for whom I traveled to Phoenix, AZ from Cambridge, MA to do poll watching on Election Day but I wonder whether that mailing list is going to remain active over the next four years.

My understanding is that the September US bond issue was disappointing with few foreign buyers willing to bid the issue up. It may have been a wake up call for American business, if there is such a thing as American business anymore. We may already be on the downward slide.

Personally, I am looking at the next four years as an opportunity to impeach George W. Bush and all his cronies and then turning them over to an international tribunal for war crimes. That may be the only thing that will redeem the USA in the world's eyes.

A friend is about to visit Spain next week. I look forward to hearing what his experiences will be. My expectation that there will be street level comment on his being an American as a result of the policies of our government.

One last point, a suitcase nuke in NYC, LA or DC or a greenhouse weather disaster is more likely to result in scapegoating of Dems and enviros than any truly constructive response, given the present mood in the USA.

Art Spiegelmann, the cartoonist, wore a t-shirt to the Republican convention that read, "I pray for a secular America." Security looked at him oddly but couldn't quite decide to throw him out. I pray for a secular America, too.

Posted by: gmoke on 5 Nov 04

You seem to think American being top dog is a bad thing.... True no one loves Microsoft but that doesnt keep Gates from vacationing with his wife or sending his kids to school.... As Machevelli teaches it may be better to be loved than feared, but fear is more expediant and nearly as reliable. I'd think it was great if the world loved us for who and what we are, but if we must change those things to be accepted by the world then I say forget the world we dont really need them anyway. As long as we insure our dominance in all the areas we will be able to live free no matter how much they may dislike or disapprove of us. Half of them would be speaking German today if we weren't willing to get involved and help out... the other half would be speaking Japanese... Disbanding the UN would be the wisest thing the US could do. You don't bargain with crass little people from a position of equals when the sides are NOT even approaching equal. Fair treatment? sure... bowing and scraping to their whims NEVER that is what a conquered nation does not a rich and powerful free nation.

We need to embrace the wisdom of the founders, go back to libertarian practices at home and avoid "entangling alliances" abroad.

Posted by: Vlad on 6 Nov 04

Some blows can not be ignored by Red State delusions. The 'Lord's Burning Rain', insterted collectively into todays' politic, could lead to some pretty wild outcomes.

Price of oil trending upward, until bankers "get it".
Hurricanes regularly equal or exceed this year's record 5.
Continuation of of severe drought across the US southwest and in Mexico.
Near collapse of high plains agriculture due to fuel/fertilizer costs and drought.
Closure of upper Mississippi locks to shipping due to low water.
etc etc

This "martini scenario", where everything gets shaken up, and the essence poured into an expensive glass is what reality is about to serve.

Lets see how well prepared we can make ourselves to leverage the outcome politically!

Posted by: John Laumer on 6 Nov 04



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