Stratfor on CONNECTOGRAPHY and the changing meaning of geography

Stratfor | 18 May 2016

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By Ian Morris

Like so many of Stratfor's contributors, I spend a lot of time thinking about geography. In my 2010 bookWhy the West Rules — For Now, I even suggested that geography has been the main force determining the different fates of each part of the planet for the past 20,000 years. The way this works, I argued, was that geography drives social development, determining what it is possible for the members of each society to do, but at the same time social development drives geography, determining what the space around us means.

Geography is the reason Northwest Europe was, through most of history, a backward periphery. It was a long way away from the real cores of development, which stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to China, and it was sealed off from the rest of the world by an ocean that was too big and too wild to master. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, when people began building reliable oceangoing ships, the meaning of Northwest Europe's geography changed. Development transformed the Atlantic from a barrier into a highway, linking Europe to the rest of the planet and changing it from a periphery into the first truly global core. In the 20th century, however, as development continued to rise, the Pacific Ocean effectively shrank too, thanks to airlines, container ships and the Internet. The result was that East Asia repeated Europe's trick, moving from periphery to core as the Pacific shifted from barrier to highway.

This long-term process, I argued, explained why the West has dominated the planet for the past two or three centuries, why the East is now challenging it and where the world will go next. But as I began traveling around talking about the ideas in my book, one question kept coming up: Is the meaning of geography changing so much that it has ceased to mean anything at all?

A New World in the Making?

Parag Khanna's Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization is in effect an answer to this all-important question. The book, published just a month ago, has won wide attention, its sales reaching a level in the Amazon charts normally reserved for volumes of recipes or self-help, and it has already featured prominently in the Global Affairs space. Khanna himself has written a column for Stratfor explaining what his arguments tell us about China, while Jay Ogilvy has reprinted extensive excerpts from the book. My reason for coming back to Connectography yet again in this week's column is that Khanna's answer to what geography will mean in the 21st century is the most compelling I have seen, yet also the most open to further arguments.

Khanna agrees that geography drives social development and that social development drives what geography means, but he goes one step further by identifying the mechanism through which development feeds back into geography: infrastructure. Humanity, he suggests, is "re-engineering the planet." Another excellent book, the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe's By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia, shows that this process has been going on for at least 6,000 years, beginning with the domestication of the horse in Ukraine and accelerating with the invention of wheeled transport, the building of boats and roads, and the creation of cities. But Khanna's concern is the world since 1989. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the World Wide Web, he says, connectivity has replaced the old Westphalian world of borders with what he calls the "supply chain world."

"Supply chains and connectivity," he says, "not sovereignty and borders, are the organizing principles of humanity in the 21st century … A country cannot change where it is, but connectivity offers an alternative to the destiny of geography." The metaphor he uses to explain what has happened is the map. Old-style maps show the borders, oceans and mountain ranges that divide people; new-style maps show the flows that connect them. Since 1989, the number of separate political units on Earth has grown, but, Khanna suggests, their integration into much larger functional units has proceeded even faster as "countries use shared infrastructure, customs agreements, banking networks, and energy grids to evolve from political to functional spaces."

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But Khanna is not just claiming that aggregation has counted for more than devolution. Rather, he argues, "The aggregation-devolution dynamic is … a dialectic in the sense that the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel truly meant: progression through opposites toward transcendence," the transcendence in question being "a shift from 'us-them' mentalities toward a broader human 'we.'" Political devolution is crucial to this, Khanna suggests, because "once borders are settled, countries search for optimal service areas" tied together by flows of goods and services. "Supply chains," he concludes, "thus diminish the incentives for conflict." The causes of war as we have known them since the creation of a Westphalian world are evaporating. "Alliances have been replaced with dalliances," Khanna says, "based on supply-demand complementarity."

There is a lot more going on in Khanna's book, but I want to concentrate on this core idea, which makes much sense of our shrinking and flattened but also warming and crowded world. But at this point in the story, I believe, stepping back to take a much longer perspective on history has something to add to an account that — as Khanna makes explicit — rarely looks back beyond the 27 years since 1989.

The Evolution of Violence

Connectography analyzes what is simply the latest and most dramatic phase of an ancient story. Life — by which biologists normally mean self-replicating carbon-based organisms, extracting energy from their environment and turning it into more of themselves — came into the world about 3.8 billion years ago in the form of short chains of carbon-based molecules held together by crude membranes. By 3.5 billion years ago, these carbon blobs had evolved to the point that they could combine to form simple cells in which molecules took on specialized functions. By 1.5 billion years ago, cells had evolved to connect and combine sexually, reproducing by sharing the information in the DNA of two cells rather than cloning a single cell. By 600 million years ago, some cells were sharing genetic information so thoroughly that they could combine by the millions to make multicellular organisms. (Our own bodies each contain about 100 billion cells.)

Basically, evolution is connectography all the way down. Borrowing Khanna's language, we might say natural selection produced the "optimal service areas" that most effectively transmitted genetic material through time (this is what the biologist Richard Dawkins meant when he described bodies as "survival machines," infrastructures selected by evolution as the optimal vehicles to preserve DNA). And, just as in the post-1989 world that Khanna describes, connectography has always been about competition as well as cooperation. Cells evolved because carbon-based molecules that cooperated to form them could better compete for access to energy than molecules that did not. Similarly, multicelled survival machines proved competitive against single-celled ones. And in the past 100 million years, some organisms — ants, bees and apes like us — have evolved to become social animals that cooperate as groups and compete against animals that do not share the same tendencies (and, of course, against rival groups).

The first animals to evolve "infrastructure" that functioned specifically to help them compete against other animals were what biologists call proto-sharks, which, around 400 million years ago, started sprouting cartilaginous teeth set in jaws strong enough to tear the flesh of other animals. Proto-sharks had found a shortcut in the great race for energy: They could steal the energy stored in other animals' bodies by eating them, and if they bumped into other proto-sharks competing for the same morsel of food or sexual partner, they could fight. Teeth raised competition to a new level, and other species responded by developing scales for defense, speed for fleeing and teeth (or stingers, or poison sacs, or claws and fangs — nature is ingenious) for fighting back. Violence had evolved.

Almost every species of animal, us included, has by now evolved to be able to use force to settle disputes. Where we humans differ from the other animals, though, is that each of us carries the greatest miracle of connectivity in the known universe: the human brain. This allows us to exercise conscious choice in building institutions, organizations and cultures. Whereas other animals respond to changes in their environments by adapting genetically, gradually turning into new kinds of animals, we can also respond culturally, by choosing to do things differently. Some 20,000 years ago, the average human stood a roughly 1-in-10 chance of dying violently (which are also the odds that the typical chimpanzee, one of our nearest genetic neighbors, still faces). According to the World Health Organization, though, the global rate of violent death is now just 0.7 percent. In some lucky places, such as Denmark, it is barely 0.001 percent. Unlike any other animals that have ever existed, we have reduced our rate of violent death by 90 percent without evolving into a new species.

The story behind this, which I told in detail in my book War! What is it Good For?, is linked to — but not quite the same as — that told in Connectography. For thousands of years people have been creating larger and larger "optimal service areas" but did so primarily through violent conquest. The conquerors, as Thomas Hobbes reasoned in his 17th-century classic Leviathan, then constituted themselves as rulers, wielding enough power to bully their subjects into accepting that only their governments had the legitimate right to use force. As states imposed peace within their territories, the kind of functional geography that Khanna describes also emerged within and even between these empires. Staggering numbers of first-century Roman wine jars, for instance, have been found at Muziris on the Indian coast, while so much Chinese silk flowed into the Roman Empire that geographer Pliny the Elder worried the outward flow of silver to pay for it would destabilize the Roman currency. In the age of the Roman, Mauryan and Han empires, roughly 2,000 years ago, rates of violent death had probably fallen to somewhere around 2 percent, and per capita levels of consumption had risen by perhaps 50 percent.

The process of connectivity and pacification through Leviathans went into overdrive in the past two centuries with the creation of governments — first British, then American — that could operate on an intercontinental scale. Neither was a world government, but like the smaller Leviathans of antiquity, these organizations operated by raising the costs that other governments faced if they resorted to violence. One consequence, though, was that they learned how to harness so much destructive power that by the 1970s there were probably enough nuclear weapons to have killed everyone on Earth. It is perhaps the greatest paradox in history that as the potential to deliver death has gone up, the actual rate of violent death has gone down.

Old Meanings Still Apply

That is the somewhat-good news that we learn from the long-term history of connectography; the downright bad news is that the road so far has been extremely bumpy. The growth of Leviathans and connectivity has regularly generated backlashes that have undone global peace and prosperity. In the third century, empires started coming apart from the Mediterranean to China. Trade routes collapsed, populations crashed and violence spiked back up. In the 13th and 14th centuries, and again in the 20th, Eurasia teetered on the edge of a similar abyss. In each case what rebooted the growth of connectivity, peace and prosperity was the revival of Leviathans.

Khanna implicitly recognizes much of this but still concludes that, "Global order is no longer something that can be dictated or controlled from the top down." But that, I would say, should in fact be the question: Have connectivity and infrastructure really thickened so dramatically that they have rendered political geography insignificant, replacing war as a tool for reordering the world's supply chains? At one point Khanna quotes Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation as saying that "corporations have built the most efficient system of production the world has ever seen, perfectly calibrated to a world in which nothing bad ever happens," and I could not help but feel that Lynn's line applies equally well toConnectography as a whole. Khanna offers us a best-case scenario.

The world is changing, and Khanna is surely right not only that supply chains and cyberspace are taking on lives of their own but also that in the best of all possible worlds, inclusive functional geography will replace exclusive political geography, and the state and war will wither away. "If the United States can recognize the primacy of supply chain geopolitics," he suggests, "it would be less likely to undertake costly military interventions that can do more harm than good." And yet the lesson of history seems to be that the only thing that has consistently discouraged actors from using force to try to solve their problems has been a top-down Leviathan.

Khanna sees the world evolving into "a planetary civilization of coastal megacities," which, he says, "should be more interested in supply chain continuity than imperial hegemony. Trading cities want coast guards and counterterrorism more than foreign occupations and nuclear weapons. They prefer constellations of relationships rather than a single overpowering Leviathan. A world of open melange cultures such as Zanzibar and Oman, Venice and Singapore, would be a more peaceful world than one of Orwellian mega-empires. We should strive toward such a Pax Urbanica."

I think Khanna is right that this is where the post-1989 trends seem to be taking us. But a longer-term perspective suggests, first, that we will get there only if everyone rationally assesses the good of the system as a whole and sticks to on-path behavior and, second, that shorter-term, more selfish assessments regularly upset expectations. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not annex Crimea in 2014 because he had an out-of-date map of political geography rather than a new one of functional spaces; he did it because he knew that the old meanings of geography are still with us, and that allowing a Westward-leaning Ukraine to take Crimea into NATO's orbit would pose an existential threat to Russia. We are not yet free of the Westphalian world.

Connectography is one of the most stimulating and enjoyable books on the ongoing transformation of geography that anyone could ask for, and I wish very much that I'd been able to read it half a dozen years ago while I was writing Why the West Rules — For Now. That said, it only reinforces my view that while geography is changing its meanings faster than ever, we still have a long way to go before it changes so much that it ceases to mean anything at all.

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