Small Wars Journal

An Age of Instability

Fri, 04/26/2013 - 3:30am

I joined the US Marine Corps during the Cold War.  I still serve in uniform as a drilling reservist, so it wasn’t really all that long ago.  But in another sense, that was a different age.  Why is this new age an age of instability—instead of an age of empires, or warring states, or even peace and prosperity?  A structural question begs a structural answer. 

First Observation

The most notable structural feature of this age is that the world is a single, closed system; a fact that is conspicuous for its novelty.  Until very recently, great empty spaces buffered the actions of men.  Now, they are gone:  some are populated, and all are abridged by technology.[1]

This was predicted over a century ago by British geographer Halford J. Mackinder, one of the founding fathers of geopolitics.  He described the consequences as follows:

Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.[2]

What did he mean by “elements in the political and economic organism?”  The question leads to another observation.

Second Observation

The world is ordered in states.  A state is more than a government or a geographic area.  Aristotle defined the Greek city-state as a self-sufficient community.[3]  If self-sufficiency is understood to be a measure of the elements of national power, then it defines the modern state, as well.  Since a state is both self-sufficient and subject to no greater temporal power, it organizes itself according to its own circumstances and purposes.  States vary in power, but each is an independent nexus of the elements of power.  That’s important.

And, that’s a problem.  Global integration is not state-based.  If it were, the result would be international confederations, such as the European Union—which is failing.  Instead, components within states are integrating transnationally, which unravels and undermines the state as a nexus of power. It becomes apparent when the elements of power are considered separately:  information, economics, military, and diplomacy.

Information is the sending or receiving of knowledge.  It is the greatest element because, apart from direct experience, it is the basis for all that is known or believed.  That potency is encapsulated in the maxim, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  An example from John Adams is even more illuminating.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, he wrote:

What do we mean by the Revolution?  The war?  That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it.  The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.[4]

However, information is also the most difficult element to control, and doubly so.  First, it is nearly impossible to contain, as demonstrated so recently during the Arab Spring.  And second, it is often difficult to employ to an intended result.  The virtual blizzard of information currently engulfing the world attests to the first problem and exacerbates the second.

Moreover, there is a correlation between the proliferation of information and the promotion of democracy:  information democratizes knowledge, and knowledge is power.  Ever since the invention of the printing press, information technology has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, and the numerous poor have used it to promote democracy. 

Aristotle regarded democracy as a perversion of good government.[5]  Order is hierarchical, but democracy is flat.  People are inherently unequal, but democrats strive for universal equality—first in rights and then in everything else.  Each citizen has a say in the welfare of the state, regardless of whether he has a vested interest in it.  The will of the state is the will of the multitude.  Democracy is mob rule:  capricious, myopic, and inherently unstable.

In the present age, anything described as democratic is blithely assumed to be beneficial.  Democracy is well-established in many countries and persistently promoted in many others.  As the world becomes ever more “networked,” democracy will increase in degree and in scope.  Perhaps the implications are not entirely understood by many people—or perhaps they are.  Either way, it is destabilizing. 

Economics is the most versatile element of power.  It can be used as a carrot or as a stick, and the consequences are fungible, physical, scalable, and multipliable.

The nature of modern economic globalization becomes clearer when free trade is contrasted with mercantilism.  Under mercantilist policies, government selectively erected trade barriers in order to capture wealth within the state.  The interests of the state took priority over the interests of business.  Consequently, when economic rivalry led to conflict, it tended to be between states rather than within a state.

Under today’s free trade policies, the interests of business are unleashed from the interests of the state.  Multinational corporations conduct dispersed operations, shifting capital and activities around the globe in pursuit of competitive advantages.  Wealth accrues first to the corporation and incidentally to the state.  The state’s economy is no longer singular, and its components flourish or wither individually in response to global forces.   Consequently, if economic globalization results in conflict, it is more likely to be within a state rather than between states.

The Military (including the police) enforces the will of the state through violence.  The government of each state holds a legal monopoly on its use because maintaining order and repelling invasion are vital national interests.  Violence is not normally the first choice, but it is certainly the bottom line.

However, the same capabilities that enable legitimate commerce also enable arms trafficking.  In a receiving country, arms trafficking poses a challenge to the prerogatives of the government and, in sufficient volume, constitutes an existential threat to the state itself.  Arms trafficking is difficult to measure, but some estimates place it second only to drug trafficking in the realm of global criminal enterprises.

More significantly, many common consumer goods can be weaponized.  The most murderous terrorist attacks of the past thirty years employed improvised weapons:  automobiles, passenger planes, and explosives made from fertilizer and propane.  But, those attacks merely scratched the surface of the possible.  Matériel is available, and knowledge is accessible, even in the most primitive countries and especially in the most developed.  The monopoly on violence, never absolute, is more fictitious than ever.   

Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between states.  It is the least of the four elements of power, which is counterintuitive given that information is the greatest element.  Nevertheless, it is the least because it is the most dependent upon all of the other three.  Successful diplomacy requires more than “getting past no” across mahogany tables and dissembling at cocktail parties.  To be effective, not only must diplomats agree, but governments must deliver.  Therefore, as a state’s ability to organize and wield the other three elements of power declines, the efficacy of diplomacy also declines.

Third Observation

Culture also regulates human affairs.  Like a state, a culture is a nexus, but a nexus of beliefs and habits rather than elements of power.  When cultures intermingle, they do not homogenize:  some cultural components become common and some do not.  The latter can be quite persistent and even disruptive.   

American history is very revealing because it is largely a continual series of cultural integrations.  In Albion’s Seed:  Four British Folkways in America, historian David Hackett Fischer examined the origin and continuity of American culture, using twenty-four components that are thought to exist in every culture.[6]  He began by detailing each of the four British immigrant groups who formed the foundation of American culture.[7]  They were:

  • Puritans, who migrated from East Anglia to Massachusetts (1630-1641) and evolved into New England Yankees with a corporate and educational culture.[8]
  •  Cavaliers, who migrated from the South of England to Virginia (1642-1675) and established the aristocratic, planter culture of the Lowland South.[9]
  • Quakers, who migrated from the North Midlands to the Delaware River Valley (1675-1725) and developed into the industrial culture of the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.[10]
  • Scots-Irish, mostly from southwestern Scotland and partly from northern England, who migrated first to Ulster, Ireland, in the 1600s and then to the American colonial backcountry (1717-1775).  They were pioneers of the agrarian culture of the Upland South and eventually the ranch culture of the West.[11]

These groups were all British, all Protestant, and all spoke English.  One would think that they already shared a common culture.  However, each group migrated during a different period and from a different region.  Furthermore, the groups had “four different conceptions of order, power, and freedom.”[12]  In the colonies, these differences engendered a mutual disdain that was usually contentious and often violent.[13]

Among their descendants, four regional cultures evolved that were all recognizably American, but each differed in its conceptions of order, power, and freedom.  Many other immigrant groups settled among them.  The newcomers adopted the traits of the regions in which they settled while retaining some of their own.  Regionalism diminished over time, but it persisted.[14]

For example, except when confronted by a foreign threat, the South and New England have been at odds since early in the colonial period.  Even today, the “blue states” of New England and the “red states” of the South almost invariably take opposing positions on national political issues.  This is true despite the fact that during the War Between the States, the South was not just defeated, it was utterly destroyed.  And arguably, New England has changed as much, if not as suddenly.  The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.[15]

America had one critical advantage, which the contemporary world does not:  space.  Groups that disliked each other did not have to live in close proximity.  Space relieved pressure.  Even so, it was insufficient to prevent a cataclysmic civil war and lesser conflicts so numerous that most have faded from public memory.  Of course, space diminished as the country filled, but it endured long enough for four different concepts of order, power, and freedom to find places within an overall American framework.[16]  Again:  the contemporary world does not have that advantage.

In American history cultural encounters were numerous, varied, and occurred repeatedly over the course of centuries.  In this age, they are more numerous, more diverse, and more simultaneous.  It is hardly surprising that cultural integration continues to be contentious and often violent.


One might argue to the contrary that global integration brings many informational and economic benefits.  That is certainly true.  However, the sum of all benefits has, so far, proven insufficient to alter the unstable character of the age.

And, one might argue that the weakening of the state is actually a stabilizing influence in that it reduces the frequency of interstate warfare.  That may be true, but it transfers conflict from international to domestic arenas.  Relatively short periods of uncertainty and intense conflict are exchanged for persistent uncertainty and low-level violence.  Whether that is a favorable exchange depends on one’s metrics and preferences.

Also, one might argue that modern cultural integration is not merely the American experience on a larger scale because the variables are so much more numerous today.  True.  Yet, the American experience included many variables too, and the trends are both pronounced and sustained.  The American experience is relevant even if not replicated.

Overall, the three observations presented here seem adequate to explain the nature of the age.  Unfortunately, the causes do not suggest a solution.  They seem too fundamental to be remedied.  Any solution would require an unprecedented degree of unanimity and setting aside of self-interest, not only among governments but among nongovernmental actors.  And, it would have to be sustained.  The best that can be hoped for is to manage and to mitigate the symptoms piecemeal.

In a different vein, these conditions bring to mind a threat that isn’t mentioned often in a general context:  mania.  A mania, or popular delusion, is an irrational enthusiasm for an idea, a scheme, or a person.  An unstable world seems especially susceptible, and manias are occurring with increasing frequency.  The dot-com bubble, the Y2K scare, the real estate bubble, and the 2008 US Democratic presidential campaign all occurred within the past fifteen years.     

Mania is hardly a new phenomenon.  Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist, published Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 1841.  Each chapter described a different mania.  They were many, and sometimes ridiculous, and they happened.  Ironically, Mackay’s book may have proven that popular delusions are more common than extraordinary.[17]

Furthermore, most threats are actually threatening, so people try to protect themselves.  But, a mania usually seems good.  Even if it seems too good to be true, people are swept along in the fervor.  Instead of “fight or flight,” they embrace it.  A global mania could cause a lot of damage in an age of instability.


[1] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Revenge of Geography,” Foreign Policy (May/June 2009) no page numbers (fourth page by count). 2009 Revenge of Geography.pdf.  Kaplan also references Paul Bracken, Fire in the East (1999).

[2] Halford J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4 (April, 1904), p. 422.

[4] John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Vol. X (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1856), p. 172.

[5] See note 3, pp. 100-101.

[6] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed:  Four British Folkways in America (New York:  Oxford University Press, paperback 1991), p. 8-9.

[7] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[8] Ibid., “East Anglia to Massachusetts,” pp. 13-205.

[9] Ibid., “The South of England to Virginia,” pp. 207-418.

[10] Ibid., “North Midlands to the Delaware,” pp. 419-603.

[11] Ibid., “Borderlands to the Backcountry,” pp. 605-782.

[12] Ibid., p. 6.

[13] Ibid., pp. 821-822.

[14] Ibid., “Conclusion.  Four British Folkways in American History:  The Origin and Persistence of Regional Cultures in the United States,” p. 783-898.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.


Categories: strategy - grand strategy

About the Author(s)

Gary W. Montgomery is a Research Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia, and a Reserve Colonel with the US Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned in Quantico, Virginia. He is available for new employment 1 May 2013.  Connect with him on linked in at:


Bill M.

Fri, 05/03/2013 - 2:54am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Excellent point, I would like to see the empirical data also. To me it appears the world is much more stable now than it was during the Cold War and it may be worth doing a comparative piece on this.

I am having a hard time identifying a decade within the Cold War period that didn't have more instability than we have now globally. Communist revolutions, anti-colonial wars, fall of Iran, Egyptian revolutions, fall of China to communist, Korean War, Israeli wars, expeditions to Lebanon, global terrorism, and the list goes on indefinitely. Maybe our age isn't so much different after all, and I suspect instability is simply a constant throughout history. Today we have several think tanks and media hounds who make good money exaggerating the level of relative instability.

Instability relative to what? Is this age really more unstable than those that preceded it, or does it only appear that way because the instances of instability that do exist are made so visible?

I see no empirical evidence to support the contention that we live in anything that could be described as an "age of instability", or at least an age that could be noted for any unusual degree of instability relative to any other age.

The idea that globalization causes internal conflict and/or instability seems inconsistent with the observation that instability is most prevalent in the areas least integrated with the global economy.

The author seems to be saying that when the interests of business take precedence over the interests of the state (and, should we add, the interests of the general population?), then conflict is more likely to occur within states rather than between states. Am I reading this right?

Likewise is the author suggesting that economic globalization may qualify as a "mania?" (In the sense offered by the author in his very last paragraph):

"Furthermore, most threats are actually threatening, so people try to protect themselves. But a mania usually seems good. Even if it is too good to be true, people are swept along in the fervor. Instead of "fight" or "flight," they embrace it. A global mania (such as globalization/economic globalization?) could cause a lot of damage in the age of instability." (The items in parentheses in this paragraph are mine.)

Have Gun - Wil…

Tue, 04/30/2013 - 7:43pm

In reply to by OpsIntel

I think it can be validated through testing: Choose a law (the will of the state) and refuse to comply. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, this might be a short experiment or a long one. Either way, if you continue to refuse, policemen will come to enforce the will of the state. And they won't take no for an answer: if necessary, they'll use physical force (which is von Clausewitz's definition of violence).


Mon, 04/29/2013 - 1:03pm

A reasoned, thoughtful, and aptly referenced piece. I hope some of the points find their way into various discussions of strategy and policy. That said, I find points that are, from my perspective, not necessarily accurate. Most notably, including police with the military as an entity that "enforces the will of the state through violence". Certainly true in some specific instances, but as a generalized assertion totally inaccurate. Military forces are primarily concerned with the application and management of violence while police forces are primarily concerned with pre-empting, or preventing the spread of, violence.

Under the author's major section entitled "Economics:"

"If economic globalization results in conflict, it is more likely to be within a state than between states."

Should the author, therefore, and under his next major section entitled "The Military," have followed through on this theme and suggested that military forces, today and in the future, are more likely to be used against one's own population, rather than against the forces and populations of other states and societies?

(That is, unless one state -- or group of states -- is not the principal proponent of economic globalization. If one state or group of states is the principal proponent of economic globalization then, in this case, these states might, indeed, use their military forces against those states, societies and populations who would resist the state and societal changes required by economic globalization.)

Again, and in his conclusion, the author seems to suggest that (1) global integration (2) weakens the state and (3) "transfers conflict from the international to the domestic arena."

Therefore, and again here, should he not have suggested that the primary role of military, police and intelligence forces, today and in the future, will be to deal with the members of one's own population; those who do not wish to see their states and societies radically transformed as the global economy requires?

(Again note the exception -- provided for the states and societies who are "proponents of economic globalization" -- whereby these states and societies may, indeed, be more likely to use their military, police and intelligence forces against those states and societies, and/or those individuals and groups, who would resist the "reforms" required by economic globalization.)

This suggesting that the military, intelligence and police forces of today -- and indeed the governments of today -- may no longer be working, per se, for their own individual states, their own individual societies and their own individual populations but, instead, for the global economy?