Jean Lievens: After Liberalism – Complexity in the Governance of a Networked Global Society

Cultural Intelligence, Peace Intelligence
Jean Lievens
Jean Lievens

After Liberalism – Complexity in the Governance of a Networked Global Society

Hilton Root

World Financial Review

Below, in an excerpt from Dynamics Among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States, Hilton L. Root argues that the linkages between liberal internationalism and modernization theory fail to provide convincing explanations for variations in governance that can arise from the local pursuit of wealth and power, and discusses how global change processes are being shaped by the properties of networks of interdependent but diverse actors who respond to cues both from their local and their global situations.

All development and security policies presume a theory of change. This book considers the partnership of modernization theory, the dominant theory of social change since World War II, and liberal internationalism, the foreign policy agenda the West has promoted in political and economic development since the Cold War.It will contrast the analytical framework of modernization theory with that of the evolutionary theory of complexity to explain unforeseen development failures, governance trends, and alliance shifts.

International liberalism presumes that if developing societies adopt trade, monetary and fiscal reforms that integrate them into the global economy, the intensified speed of economic change will lead to changes in other societal structures and expedite a sociopolitical convergence toward global cooperation—a truly international society. It did not anticipate that social and political change move at a much slower pace than economic and technological change, and that considerable divergence can occur between the pace of economic and technological transition and the much more glacial pace of cultural and societal transitions. Instead of the anticipated convergence toward a common framework of values, the growing economic interconnectedness is accelerating growing diversity and disparity between the West and newly rising powers.

As it transitions from regional applications to global repercussions, liberalism must face many challenges it did not anticipate, and for which it is ill prepared. The world’s population growth and the flow of interregional trade are concentrating among regimes that operate far from first world conceptions of optimality. Both of these trends, trade shifts and demographic pressures, have implications for the evolution of global cooperation and for the kinds of policies that can be sustained through international cooperation.2 The linkages between liberal internationalism and modernization theory fail to provide convincing explanations for the unanticipated variations in governance that can arise from the local pursuit of wealth and power.3

The liberal West, which has existed at the summit of liberal internationalism’s hierarchical ladder since the end of the Cold War, anticipated a period of stable and consistent evolution toward the best practices in governance that its economic success had made legitimate. But the predictions of modernization theory, which presumes that as societies urbanize and prosper, they will converge to adopt the values of liberal internationalism, have not materialized. Since the collective behavior of the global system depends on the behavior of its parts, variations in the latter can cause system-wide effects that make the maintenance of system’s stability more complex.

Although liberal internationalism is premised on the classical idea of cooperation among equals, which obviates the need for a “central enforcer,” to make it a global standard of development requires top-down guidance from the West.4 A central administrator, the United States, provides the system’s organization and management. Yet the transition from hierarchies to networked systems is changing every facet of global interaction and requires a new language for comprehending change processes.5

Today’s adversaries are decentralized transnational networks that appear in many sizes and shapes; they are not geographically fixed, hierarchically governed, or bureaucratically managed.

The system of international relations, like most complex ecosystems, such as the nervous system or a rain forest, is yielding to its rules of complexity. In the global social system, interdependency is causing a transition with qualitatively different impacts for each of its affected regions. Illiberal and liberal regimes alike engage in a pattern of co-creation, each shaping the other. This coevolutionary process is dispelling expectations of convergence, and it can cause shifts to the larger system.

Similarly, adversaries have also become more diverse since the end of the Cold War, when the targets were other states. Today’s adversaries are decentralized transnational networks that appear in many sizes and shapes; they are not geographically fixed, hierarchically governed, or bureaucratically managed, and they can come from a number of sources. Islamic fundamentalism is but one of many stateless adversaries that can turn asymmetries of power to their advantage.6

Competition in highly interdependent global environments produces far greater local variation and diversity of structures and strategies than modernization theory ever anticipated. Rather than a one-to-one mapping of the traits of successful incumbents by their emerging challengers, heightened competition drives social agents to alter their environments by creating niches that offer new opportunities for interaction; and that competition in turn reveals new niches that other actors can exploit.7

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