The Coming Entropy Of Our World Order

How do we reconcile an increasingly fractured order with an increasingly planetary reality?

Cecilia Erlich for Noema Magazine

Parag Khanna is the founder and CEO of AlphaGeo and the author of seven books, including “Connectography,” “The Future is Asian” and “MOVE.”

Model UN veterans and lefty academic nostalgists may fondly remember the acronym WOMP, which stands for World Order Models Project. Like the Pugwash Conferences — which were founded in the 1950s by the renowned philosopher and physicist Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat (with Albert Einstein as a prominent signatory) to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons — WOMP was a big tent academic movement of the 1970s and ‘80s whose members spanned North, South, East and West.

This pluralistic gaggle, spearheaded by Princeton University’s Richard Falk and Rutgers University’s Saul Mendlovitz, produced a heavy corpus of impassioned treatises arguing for “feasible utopias” based on principles of international law and centered on multilateral institutions. WOMP adherents envisioned their roadmap toward a just world order being implemented in the 1990s. Needless to say, their utopia is behind schedule. If anything, nationalism, rivalry and fragmentation are the order of the day.

An obvious lesson is that the grander the vision, the further it likely lies from reality. Theories that inaccurately observe the present will inevitably fall short in predicting the future. This goes both for proponents of American hegemony as well as those aping the “return of great power rivalry” meme. Even as mainstream Western scholars belatedly accept the emergence of a multipolar world, it would be a mistake to allow their parsimonious frameworks such as neorealism to guide our thinking. 

These top-down approaches neither capture the shifting global and regional dynamics among more than a dozen primary and secondary powers, nor the deeper systemic change by which a wide range of actors contest authority and shape global society in an irrevocably decentralized direction.

Indeed, the most accurate description of today’s world is high entropy, in which energy is dissipating rapidly and even chaotically through the global system. In physics, entropy is embodied in the Second Law of Thermodynamics (pithily summed up in a Woody Allen film as: “Sooner or later, everything turns to shit”). Entropy denotes disorder and a lack of coherence. 

Robert Kaplan’s famous thesis of “The Coming Anarchy” three decades ago strongly aligns with the entropy mega-trend. Indeed, Kaplan memorably captured the decay underway, particularly in the “global south,” and the failed attempts by the post-Cold War West to sustain order in those regions.

Covid, supply chain shocks, inflation, corruption and climate volatility have all conspired to uphold his thesis alarmingly well: Swathes of Latin America, Africa and the Near East exhibit neither functional domestic authority nor regional coherence. The current faddish term “poly-crisis” applies in spades to this large post-colonial domain. 

But entropy is not anarchy. It is a systemic property that manifests itself as a growing number of states and other actors seize the tools of power, whether military, financial or technological, and exercise agency within the system. There is still no consensus as to what to name the post-Cold War era, but its defining characteristic is clear: radical entropy at every level and in every domain of global life. How do we reconcile an increasingly fractured order with an increasingly planetary reality?

Every State For Herself

In global politics, entropy is captured by the term devolution, the transfer or surrender of power toward ever more local levels of authority. The deconcentration of power we witness today has been unfolding since the end of World War II, at which point the U.S. represented roughly half of the global GDP, was the only proven nuclear power and occupied strategic geography in both Europe and Asia.

Fast forward to today and China is the world’s largest economy in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, which accounts for the price of goods in local currency rather than U.S. dollars. Meanwhile, the EU’s share of the world economy in PPP is roughly equal to America’s, there are nearly 20 economies with a GDP of one trillion dollars or more, nine official nuclear weapons powers, and America’s influence is being actively challenged in the Middle East, Central Asia, Far East and even South America.

It is no coincidence that this rapid diffusion of systemic power coincides with the spectacular expansion of globalization, which connected Western capital to Asian labor, Arab oil supply to Asian demand, ultimately leveling the global economic playing field.

Ascending powers such as China and India have used globalization not to serve the Western-led order but to assert themselves within an interconnected global system. Globalization then has not been a tool of Americanization but far more fundamentally an avatar of entropy: distributing capacity and connecting an ever-wider array of agents.

“The most accurate description of today’s world is high entropy, in which energy is dissipating rapidly and even chaotically through the global system.”

And so, America’s “unipolar moment” proved to be just that. While America remains a superpower, the hegemonic system it is presumed to uphold is in decay. That America is being pulled into conflicts and security commitments around the world says little about its effectiveness or rectitude, as wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Gaza lay bare. The proliferation of conventional, nuclear, and cyber weapons has put devastating armaments in anyone’s reach. 

Mutually assured destruction, however, doesn’t prevent escalation below the threshold of annihilation. This is what we see in regional conflicts such as in Ukraine, confrontations in the South China Sea, Houthi rebel disruption of Red Sea shipping, and Iran and North Korea’s cyber-attacks to cripple critical infrastructure and hack valuable public or private data. Analysts in cubicles love to stack up troop counts and GDP on paper with little reference to such context. 

But fancy rhetoric doesn’t stack up against the empirical balance sheet. With neither an infinite capacity to print money nor an invincible military, the U.S. fails the test of true hegemony. That America has lost its exceptionalism in the world’s eyes is a far more significant fact than whether America still believes itself to be exceptional, or if it ever really was.

As historians from Arnold Toynbee to Paul Kennedy have explained, there has never been an exception to the pattern of rise and relative decline notwithstanding imperial worldviews rooted in their own eternal centrality. Functionally, however, they are identical: The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and subsequent empires, all rose through mercantile practices such as import substitution and industrial policy, recycled their surpluses into military expansion via colonial or imperial relations, rewrote rules (to the extent any exist) and proclaimed their vision as synonymous with collective security, acting with impunity and little regard for collateral damage or externalities.

From this analytical standpoint, the structure of power is no longer a pyramid but a web with multiple spiders forging networks of varying strength. Today we live in a truly multipolar, multicivilizational and multiregional system in which no power can dominate over others — while all can freely associate with others according to their own interests.

This structural entropy is embodied in what I call the geopolitical marketplace, a distributed landscape far more complex than the conventional wisdom of a bipolar U.S.-China “new Cold War.” Many countries in the world are post-colonial nations innately suspicious of overtures that would render them subservient pawns of either the U.S. or China.

This is why the notion of alliances is a hollow one for much of the world. Alliances are more like multi-alignments in which swing states, regional anchors and almost every other country actively play all sides in pursuit of their own best deal. This is not about deference to hierarchy but active positionalism: each country, large or small, places itself at the center of its own calculations. 

Witness how Western efforts to isolate Russia have been all but ignored across the one region that has become the true center of global order: Asia. China’s explicit backing of Russia would have been enough, but India too is actively pursuing a North-South energy corridor to Russia via Iran; even Japan lobbied for exemption from the oil price cap, paying market rates for Russian energy imports and thereby effectively contributing to Putin’s war machine. Conventional analysis has become so accustomed to viewing Russia as an Eastern European power with an incidental Eurasian geography that it has missed the fact that Russia’s geopolitical orientation is (perhaps permanently) realigning with its true geography. Henceforth, Russia is North Asia

Other powers once reliably in the Western camp are now confidently playing the multi-alignment game, whether from positions of strength or weakness. Saudi Arabia is riding the oil price surge to spread its wings globally and cut new energy and weapons deals with Russia, China and India. Turkey’s economy is in dire straits, but even as it alienates Europe, it can still rely on strategic investment from the United Arab Emirates, its membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and tap Russia and China to build its next nuclear power plants. Soon it plans to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a move sure to make heads spin in Brussels. At the most recent BRICS summit in South Africa, six more nations joined the network of nations establishing parallel mechanisms for trade and currency management.

“Globalization then has not been a tool of Americanization but far more fundamentally an avatar of entropy: distributing capacity and connecting an ever-wider array of agents.”

This is the reality of regional systems, overlapping spheres of influence, and ascending powers willing to say yes or no as it suits them. Exploring dynamics within this geopolitical marketplace are far more revealing than today’s anodyne tropes such as the “return of great power rivalry” that posit a neat division of the world into red and blue. And yet the rapidly changing structure of global order is only half the story of the entropy engulfing our world.

Welcome To The Global Middle Ages

In nearly every sphere or endeavor, the world has moved from a presumed monopoly to an active marketplace in which anyone with the capacity can offer their supply to meet another’s demand. The U.S. National Intelligence Council first sketched the scenario of a “supply chain world” in the early 2010s. Its report “Alternative Worlds” depicted a landscape of layered sovereignty in which corporate-run special economic zones financed from tax havens exploit weak states for their resource deposits and cheap labor.

This is a far cry from the rigid Westphalian order of sovereign states — which, due to centuries of colonialism, was always more fiction than reality. Instead, the emerging world order can best be described as a global version of the pre-Westphalian Middle Ages. Europe at the time was a multi-layered milieu of competing authorities from the Holy Roman Empire and its papal states to autonomous city-states such as Venice and the Northern European Hanseatic League. 

But Europe was also a sideshow. This was an age when China and India’s dynasties were ascendent, the Arab Caliphates pulsed with energy and the Silk Roads tied together what historians call the “Afro-Eurasian” system centered on the Indian Ocean rim. Then as now, Afro-Eurasian geography represents the central mass of the global system and the dynamics among its participants — Chinese state-owned enterprises; Indian merchants; Gulf Arab holding companies; Singaporean commodities traders; African pirates; sovereign wealth funds and private equity firms from the East and West; and navies from America, Europe and Asian powers — provide a bottom-up lens into how authority is contested and constructed. 

Witness the security situation in the Red Sea, where Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has provided Yemen’s Houthi rebels with transponder data on Western commercial tankers, enabling them to selectively attack and force them toward longer and more costly shipping routes around Africa to reach the Indian Ocean. This regression from the Westphalian world to the neo-medieval one is not a sudden lurch but what Kaplan, in his new book The Loom of Time calls a “protracted transformation” from rigidity to fluidity.

Static maps of nations and borders betray the fluidity that is the core reality of the new Middle Ages, with most geographies far more unequal and contested than they appear. With its military in shambles, demographics in freefall, infrastructure in decay and talent fleeing en masse, what looks like Russia on a map today may well become a fragmented patchwork of local authorities holding at arm’s length, or even standing up to, an increasingly wobbly Moscow. While China now has Moscow’s back, that could quickly change once new gas pipelines from Siberia are complete and China can switch its support to local governors willing to sell out the motherland and offer China greater access to North Asia’s abundant resources. 

Geography is being reprogrammed before our eyes as the world devolves into a networked archipelago of functional hubs with varying degrees of control over hinterlands near and far. This future far more resembles the pre-Westphalian patterns of Europe’s Hanseatic League than today’s Potemkin sovereign assemblies such as the United Nations. 

One almost forgets to mention multilateralism, not because it isn’t virtuous but because it’s hard to find anybody who cares. The cherished goal of expanding the United Nations Security Council has been abandoned in favor of more direct strategic alignments among like-minded states. Arms control agreements have been torpedoed by powers large and small, and trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization have been replaced by regional blocs and beggar-thy-neighbor industrial policies. The list goes on and on. 

To the extent that multilateralism matters at all, it is more a mini-lateralism of “coalitions of the willing” such as NATO or on issues such as high-tech cooperation, the promotion of green industries, managing migration flows, settling currencies and other matters.

Another neo-medieval scenario from the same National Intelligence Council “Alternative Worlds” report focused on autonomous non-state groups with growing agency. For example, digital collectives such as Anonymous or Wikileaks, transnational terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, eco-terrorist movements such as Declare Emergency, and of course, private military companies such as the Wagner Group. Here too we see obvious parallels to today’s world of super-empowered individuals and fanatics, churches and cults, all according to supranational authority to themselves.

“The emerging world order can best be described as a global version of the pre-Westphalian Middle Ages.”

Back then it was the Medici family who sponsored great artistic monuments, today it’s Bill Gates who dictates health policy to multilateral bodies and poor nations and then meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Elon Musk owns a social media platform that allows conspiracy theories to ricochet among hundreds of millions of users, a space rocket delivery company on which NASA depends, a far-flung electric vehicle supply chain and a satellite internet provider crucial to Ukraine’s ongoing defense against Russia.

As in the feudal era, we live in a time of staggering inequality. The richest 1% of the world population owns 43% of global wealth — and more than half are estimated to park their wealth in (or shift it between) tax-free jurisdictions, typically small states that don’t register on the world’s balance of power map. These individuals are best understood not as representatives of any nation but as “quantum people” — everywhere and nowhere — acting in the interests of their own families and businesses. 

Indeed, every significant authority today has its own “foreign policy.” Any or all of these quasi-autonomous entities can coordinate and share resources via decentralized tools such as blockchain protocols, further eroding the inertia of sovereign writ. Mini-lateralism isn’t just for states.

Every geography in the world thus features a complex milieu of overlapping and contested authority among some combination of the five Cs: countries, cities, commonwealths, companies, and communities. The answer to the question “who’s in charge?” is far from uniform. In contrast to an era where the government was the sole sovereign, authority in today’s polities is an ever more unique combination that depends on the locale.

From Treasuries to Tokens?

A similar devolution is underway in the financial domain. The Eurozone is moving toward a capital markets union to deepen its own liquidity, while countries within regional trade blocs such as Asia’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are harmonizing interest rate policies to minimize exchange rate fluctuations. The BRICS nations also want tighter exchange rate bands and trade denominated in their own currencies. 

The U.S. dollar still comprises the largest share of global reserves, but nations have amassed dollar savings not to underwrite America’s low borrowing costs but to invest in their own economic security — including offloading U.S. Treasuries to hoard gold. Trillions of dollars of accumulated savings have been channeled into Western corporate war chests and Asian and Arab sovereign wealth funds whose capital flows and recirculates in all directions. 

Most global trade is also still denominated in dollars, but new agreements are undercutting Washington’s blocking power. China is the largest trading partner of most countries in the world, and incrementally converting its trade with them into RMB currency, meaning they will increase their RMB share of reserves in order to finance imports. Russia is not only accumulating RMB reserves but has started lending RMB to its own banks. Expect a petro-yuan soon — but also a petro-euro and petro-rupee as well. But remember, countries don’t want to unshackle themselves from the dollar only to become subservient to another self-interested superpower.

Indeed, the more the U.S. weaponizes the dollar through sanctions, the more countries flock to alternatives such as central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) that enable instantaneous and secure transactions while circumventing the U.S. financial system. As Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has confessed, “We won’t have to talk about sanctions in five years because there will be so many countries transacting in currencies other than the dollar that we won’t have the ability to sanction them.”

The diffusion of power in the technological domain accelerates all this simply by way of states enabling other states — whether by launching their satellites, installing their 5G networks, selling them surveillance technology, training their scientists or engaging in other modes of technology transfer. Now thanks to Starlink, there is WiFi almost everywhere. 

And anywhere there is WiFi there can be DeFi — decentralized finance — a peer-to-peer marketplace of exchanges and crypto-currencies. We have entered a supply-demand world in which any two nodes in the global network can transact with a third by whichever means they choose.

“Countries don’t want to unshackle themselves from the dollar only to become subservient to another self-interested superpower.”

What started as an unregulated and obscure corner of finance has become mainstream as major asset managers such as BlackRock back the crypto asset class with their own ETFs, including bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The democratization of decentralized finance may eventually subsume traditional finance rather than the reverse. 

Devolution Is Destiny

The dollar, the internet and the modern-era primacy of the English language are symbols of American strength but also default utilities now slipping out of their master’s control. Americans have the loudest English language megaphones on global social media platforms such as X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese and Russian state-affiliated groups from bombarding Americans with mind-warping propaganda on TikTok. Regardless of whoever professes to own the global town square, the truth is that nobody controls it. 

America is clearly not immune from social and political entropy. In theory, political devolution is a hedge against federal dysfunction. More than a dozen American states have a GDP size that would earn them membership in the global G20; each could be self-governed politically and serve as a laboratory of policy innovation while making America much more than the sum of its parts economically and demographically. But in practice, the federal system all but encourages the Balkanization visible today: An antiquated electoral process has convinced each side that the other is illegitimate, the Second Amendment has become so contorted as to justify red state militias, and a 2024 election may hinge on a heartbeat (or courtroom conviction). 

Indeed, of the thousand cuts lacerating America today, most are self-inflicted. Gun violence is escalating, hordes of undocumented migrants are flooding in and being weaponized by red states against blue while drug abuse and fentanyl overdoses surge to record levels. Meanwhile, corporate America has been gorging on inflation while small businesses are forced to swallow rising interest rates and over-regulation. Make no mistake that a restoration of national unity in the model of Johnson’s Great Society is not the most likely scenario for America’s future. 

The resilience of great powers is exhibited by their ability to withstand fissiparous tendencies. In the 2000s, it was commonplace to assert that the Chinese regime would be unable to tame Tibetan and Uyghur separatism, or even political factionalism, whether within the Politburo or from upstarts such as Bo Xilai, the disgraced former party boss of Chongqing.

Yet Beijing has diligently quashed all autonomous fiefdoms, including, most recently, tech firms and their billionaire founders who have either disappeared or decamped for Singapore and Sydney. This has not made China more innovative, but it has left little doubt as to its stability, even as growth cools and unemployment rises. 

India has more deservedly been viewed as big but weak, with expectations that it could not simultaneously manage political and sectarian divisions. Again, despite Prime Minister Modi’s illiberal managerialism and communal flare-ups, few today would question his success in accelerating the country’s modernization nor his mandate earned in the ongoing election. 

Despite its economic malaise, the EU shows signs of rallying in times of crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a significant shift toward greater renewable energy investment, while America’s aggressive Inflation Reduction Act legislation has inspired the EU to pursue its own European Green Deal.

On the most divisive issue, immigration, there are tentative signs of a collective European strategy toward asylum seekers. The UK, meanwhile, is suffering from such political rot that both Scottish independence and Irish reunification are plausible scenarios for what might well be better called the “Devolved Kingdom.” Whatever Europe’s collective future, a neo-medieval scenario should not be dismissed.

From Sovereignty To Agency

What matters much more than sovereignty, then, is capacity as measured by coherence, agency and resilience. Many countries have suffered terrible luck in recent years, with Covid-related supply chain disruptions and inflation plummeting millions of people (often back) into deep poverty and food insecurity. Their governments are now even more heavily indebted than prior to Covid, making them prey for China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Yet more states are effectively political black holes with little meaningful capacity to speak of such as Somalia, Yemen, or Afghanistan.

States no longer hold a monopoly over the tools of physical violence, yet whether a state’s army serves the most pressing societal needs is an important measure of capacity to govern. While Japan fits the traditional pattern of building capacity to deter Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, Brazil and Canada’s militaries are as or more active fighting forest fires as they are deployed abroad; meanwhile, Western European navies and coast guards are busy alternatively shooting or rescuing African and Arab migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Roughly 45,000 French police were needed to quell racial unrest last summer; France’s “surge” was domestic, not in Ukraine. Similarly, Sweden’s prime minister has called upon the army to confront violent immigrant gangs. Meanwhile, many of the Republicans initially vying for the U.S. presidency believed American troops should be redeployed along the southern border with Mexico. Latin American militaries combat narco-traffickers, while in Africa they contest territory with transnational militias.

“Regardless of whoever professes to own the global town square, the truth is that nobody controls it.”

Planetary thinking embraces the liminal phenomena and complex butterfly effects that tie us together, but it must also contend with the diffuse patterns of terrestrial agency that will shape our response to the planetary condition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our efforts to adapt to climate change, which will further create the future’s winners and losers.

Some geographies will suffer such intense drought that they may be fully vacated, while others such as Canada and Kazakhstan will gain millions of grateful climate migrants and be able to harness their human capital to become new power centers. The world will no longer be bureaucratically divided into investment grade categories set by ratings agencies that label them as a “developed market” (DM) or “emerging market” (EM), but between climate resilient and non-climate resilient zones.

If institutionalized orders such as the late 20th-century multilateral system tended to be established only after major wars, would an entropic drift into regional spheres of influence be preferable to a World War III among dueling hegemons? In this scenario, conflicts may flare from Ukraine to Taiwan, but they would be ring-fenced within their respective regions rather than becoming tripwires for global conflict. Regions that strive for greater self-sufficiency, such as North America and Europe today, could reduce the carbon intensity of their economies and trade, but potentially at the cost of undermining their interdependence with and leverage over other regions. Such is the double-edged nature of an entropic world.

With no major power able to impose itself on the global system or able to reign in those transnational actors domiciled abroad or in the cloud, the future looks less like a collective of sovereign nations than a scattered tableau of regional fortresses, city-states and an archipelago of islands of stability connected through networks of mobile capital, technology and talent. To argue that there is some bedrock Western-led order underpinning the global system rather than crumbling inertia is tantamount to infinite regress.

Global entropy doesn’t solely imply fragmentation. To the contrary, the system exhibits characteristics of self-organization, even aggregation, into new patterns and formations. Highways, railways, electricity grids and airlines link cities in ways that form neo-Hanseatic networks and alliances, and the internet transcends borders to link self-governing social communities. The universal reach and penetration of connectivity enables authorities of all kinds to forge bonds effectively more real than the many states that exist more on maps than in their peoples’ reality. The world comes together — even as it falls apart.

Correction: On May 9, 2024, this essay was edited so that it no longer states that the European Union’s GDP is equal to America’s GDP in per capita terms.