A top-level conclusion from my book Brave New War is that security in the future, from economic to physical to environmental to social, will be measured by our responses to a never-ending series of global systemic shocks derived from a plethora of sources. Unfortunately, we are likely to fare badly. The reasons for this are simple, the global system is:
- Too Big. Simply, the system's scale is far beyond the ability of nation-states, or a community of nation-states, to manage when it suffers a breakdown. In the case of the current financial collapse, the global shadow banking system (a globally inter-networked collection of unregulated financial products) is approximately $450 trillion, as compared to a US GDP of $15 trillion or a global GDP of ~$60 trillion. Put another way, the financial liabilities of the highly leveraged Deutsche Bank are 80% of Germany's GDP and Barclay's liabilities are 100% of the UK's GDP. As the leverage underlying the shadow banking system unwinds and more banks fail, the scale of the loses experienced will rapidly exceed nation-state budgets.
- Too Fast. The speed at which shocks spread in this globally interconnected system is faster than the response time of governmental institutions (tight coupling). In this financial crisis, the cascade of failure in the system spreads at the speed of information networks and computer automation in trillion dollar increments. The upshot is that the government's impacted will likely take hasty measures, like the 3 page Paulson plan in the US, without the analysis, orientation, or synthesis necessary to produce high quality results.
- Too Complex. The system's function is beyond understanding. This is due to a lack of data (opacity either due to the nature of the system or by design as in the shadow banking system), the number of variables or connected systems, a lack of long term historical data on its operation in its current configuration, etc. The result is that efforts to mitigate the system's excesses produces pyrrhic victories (where the corrective action produces negative outcomes, like how efforts to ramp biofuel production impacted food prices). Worse, due to the system's complexity and the lack of an effective means to address its excesses, we are reduced to treating symptoms of failure (as with the Paulson plan) and even then under violent debate.
The inevitable outcome of systemic shocks at this magnitude will be an inevitable delegitimization of the nation-state as our trust in the ability of leaders to take effective corrective action evaporates. Further, nation-states will expend the majority of their resources on hasty and relatively ineffective corrective actions, which will make them collectively more prone to damage in the future and which will preclude the investments required to mitigate future crises. The cycle of delegitimization and resource depletion will continue until the nation-state is unable to respond at all to future calamity (the scale of this financial crisis is such, we may as well forget about any chance of early action to delay or prevent global warming, peak oil, water scarcity, food shortfalls, pandemics, etc.). In short, we will see a proliferation of hollow states.
NOTE: Due to the networked design of our global system, small events can be amplified into global shocks -- either through unmitigated positive feedback loops or a breakdown in the system's core assumptions.