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Commentary: Why chaos is expanding?

by on August 25, 2014 10:30 AM

The United States is swamped by refugee children from collapsing Central American countries; efforts to contain the major Ebola outbreak in West Africa are straining governments there; jihadists have carved out a bloodthirsty caliphate inside Iraq and Syria; after having already eaten Crimea, Russia keeps taking more bites out of Ukraine; and the U.N.’s refugee agency just announced that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” If it feels as though the world of disorder is expanding against the world of order, it’s not your imagination. There’s an unfortunate logic to it.

Three big trends are converging. The first is what one of my teachers, Dov Seidman, calls the growing number of “un-free” people in the world — the millions who “have secured a certain kind of freedom but yet feel un-free because they’re now aware that they don’t have the kind of freedom that matters most.”

Seidman, author of the book “How” and chief executive of LRN, which advises global businesses on governance, points out that while there’s been a lot of warranted focus on the destabilizing effects of income inequality, there is another equally destabilizing inequality emerging at the same time: “It is the inequality of freedom, and it is even more disordering.”

That may sound odd. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of dictators in the Arab awakening, how could more people be feeling “un-free”?

Seidman looks at the world through the framework of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In recent years, he argues, “more people than ever have secured their ‘freedom from’ different autocrats in different countries.” Ukrainians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis to name a few. “But so few are getting the freedom we truly cherish,” he adds. “And that is not just ‘freedom from.’ It is ‘freedom to.’”

“Freedom to” is the freedom to live your life, speak your mind, start your own political party, build your own business, vote for any candidate, pursue happiness, and be yourself, whatever your sexual, religious or political orientation.

“Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Such values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats. That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces: countries with what Seidman calls “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics; countries with imposed order — or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions; and, finally, whole regions of disorder, such as Iraq, Syria, Central America and growing swaths of Central and North Africa, where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together anymore.

Imposed order, says Seidman, “depends on having power over people and formal authority to coerce allegiance and compel obedience,” but both are much harder to sustain today in an age of increasingly empowered, informed and connected citizens and employees who can easily connect and collaborate to cast off authority they deem illegitimate.

“Exerting formal power over people,” he adds, “is getting more and more elusive and expensive” — either in the number of people you have to kill or jail or the amount of money you have to spend to anesthetize your people into submission or indifference — “and ultimately it is not sustainable.” The only power that will be sustainable in a world where more people have “freedom from,” argues Seidman, “is power based on leading in a two-way conversation with people, power that is built on moral authority that inspires constructive citizenship and creates the context for ‘freedom to.’”

But because generating such sustainable leadership and institutions is hard and takes time, we have a lot more disorderly vacuums in the world today — where people have won “freedom from” without building “freedom to.”

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. That is what President Barack Obama is trying to do in Iraq, by demanding Iraqis build a sustainable inclusive government in tandem with any U.S. military action against the jihadists there. Otherwise, there will never be self-sustaining order there, and they will never be truly free.

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

Now add a third trend, and you can really get worried: America is the tent pole holding up the whole world of order. But our inability to agree on policies that would ensure our long-term economic vitality — an immigration bill that would ease the way for energetic and talented immigrants; a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would replace income and corporate taxes; and government borrowing at these low rates to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, while gradually phasing in long-term fiscal rebalancing — is the definition of shortsighted.

“If we can’t do the hard work of building alliances at home,” says David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming book “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” “we are never going to have the strength or ability to build them around the world.”

The Cold War involved two competing visions of order. That is, both sides were in the world of order, and all we in the West needed to do was collaborate enough to contain the East/communism. Today is different. It is a world of order versus a world of disorder — and that disorder can only be contained by the world of order collaborating with itself and with the people in disorder to build their “freedom to.”

But “building” is so much harder than “containing.” It takes so much more energy and resources. We’ve got to stop messing around at home as if this moment is just the same-old, same-old — and our real and tacit allies had better wake up, too. Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time.



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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