Alan Zendell, May 10, 2018

We know from physics that there are several ways to achieve stability in physical systems, and that principle translates well into the world of politics and human affairs. One way to achieve stability is for a system to be completely at rest, affected by no forces, internal or external. That model clearly does not apply to anything in our real world.

There are two models that do, however. One, which I’ll call Model A, is a system that is dominated by a single overwhelming force. It will remain stable as long as no other significant forces are present. The other, Model B, is a system in which many forces of different types and magnitudes are present, but they are kept in a state of near-equilibrium. Both systems can be de-stabilized if energy is not applied in just the right way to maintain them.

The analogy for Model A in international relations is a world in which one country is so dominant, militarily and economically, that it can consistently impose its will on every other country. The analogy for Model B is a world of interconnected, interdependent relationships in which each nation finds enough benefit that it has an incentive to maintain the status quo. People who support free trade, open boundaries, and few or no tariffs favor Model B, and prior to the 2016 election, the United States was a positive force pushing the world in that direction.

Objectively speaking, the Trump administration has so far done everything possible to reverse that trend. It has attempted to close our borders and restrict the flow of immigrants. It has withdrawn or attempted to tear down free trade agreements in both the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Rim and withdrawn from a worldwide agreement to reduce carbon emissions. It has alienated its NATO partners, and now it has unilaterally withdrawn from the Iran Nuclear Agreement in complete disregard of the wishes of our traditional allies. Everything about this administration has had an isolationist tone and reflected a go-it-alone attitude combined with a Model A belligerence that says, “Might Makes Right” to the rest of the world.

While acknowledging that I favor Model B, I grant that there is a lot that can be debated in favor of both models, and here is where the physics analogy may at least illuminate issues, free of emotion and politics.

Model A will work as long as the dominant nation remains dominant. In physics that requires a constant application of energy which can only occur at the expense of something else. In any closed system energy is a zero-sum game, and the same is true in politics and international relations. We’ve seen what happens whenever any nation achieves dominance and tries to maintain it over time.

In modern times, consider the British Empire, the fascist regime in Germany, the Japanese expansion in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Soviet Union. The cost of staying on top is invariably self-destructive, and over the long run, the result is always the same. We see the same forces at work in North Korea, where even in a relatively closed society, the contrast between asperity in the North and prosperity in the South have forced Kim Jong Un to realize that the path he was on was unsustainable. Unsustainability, the polar opposite of stability, is also precisely the lesson we learn from physics.

That’s not to say that Model B is easy to sustain. Maintaining equilibrium among numerous competing forces is a complex and risky game. But free trade and openness at least provide all parties with an incentive to compromise, where bullying through greater strength only causes anger and resentment. In human interactions, the masses will invariably bring the bully down. No single nation can stand against the combined anger of others aligned against it, and that’s the risk we take going down Trump Highway.

It’s always fun to watch someone rebel against a corrupt, inefficient system. Humans love an underdog, even if he’s an immoral billionaire, at least until it all comes crashing down around him. And what if in his own way, he turns out to be just as corrupt as the people he defeated? That’s another classic feature of human nature – history tends to repeat itself.

To be fair, Trump may turn out to be the hero he thinks he is. Maybe the Koreas will re-unite, and when they do Trump will get much of the credit. Maybe Iran will decide to play nice with the rest of the world. Maybe, somehow, Israel’s neighbors will end their undeclared war against them and choose to prosper from Israeli technology.

All of those things could happen, but physics tells us that we’re better off learning to balance competing forces attempting to create a whole that’s bigger than its parts than trying to win at everyone else’s expense.

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3 Responses to Stability

  1. jlexpert says:

    Well written and clearly focused, but I disagree with the attempt to apply scientific notions to global politics. It is my opinion, that if a scientific principle happens to apply to a particular political situation, it is more of a coincidence than a realistic / conclusive final hypothesis than it is a predictably repetitive event. “Balancing competing forces” or performing vector analysis in regard to politics assumes predictability of the consistency / uniformity of the subject natural / manmade diversity of forces. In applying physics/mathematics to politics there are politically consistent vicissitudes that constantly create and generate a complex variety unknowns.

  2. alanpzendell says:

    While no analogy between science and socio-political systems is perfect, I disagree that there there is no clear correlation. Broad social and political trends are every bit as predictable as events in the physical world. Traffic may appear to move randomly, but congestion and the likelihood of accidents follow well established probability distributions. Likewise, most of us learned in science class that while it’s impossible to predict the motion of individual gas molecules, it’s relatively easy to predict the results when billions of molecules move in a cloud.

    Hundreds of dissertations have been written demonstrating that social and political trends can be predicted by the same statistical methods as traffic and weather. The idea has also become a common trope of science fiction, most notably in the work of literary giant Isaac Asimov.

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