Written by Richard P. Hallion, Senior Adviser, Science and Technology Policy Institute, and summarized in his presentation to the workshop during the final open discussion session on September 23, 2020 (see Chapter 3).
As both a historian of technology and a political/military/societal historian, over the past three decades I have been increasingly interested in the study of stability, both as a reality and as a guiding construct for the functioning of both technological systems and society, and its relationship to uncertainty and to time.
We talk about building “stable societies,” inducing “stability” in domestic and foreign policy, seeking to “normalize” (i.e., produce “stability”) in international affairs, create “stable economic structures,” encourage “stable” families, etc. Academic departments in political science, economics, law, and sociology devote vast effort to extolling stability and have done so for generations.
But does such “stability” even exist? The collective work of Herbert Callen1 in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; Benoit Mandelbrot2 in fluid dynamics and fractal geometry; science commentator James Gleick3 on chaos theory; and Ilya Prigogine4 in fluid dynamics and non-equilibrium systems hints strongly at what I see as a decline (perhaps even “death”) of accepted notions of stability, particularly that stability is somehow “inherent” in that it is a “natural” state of nature or society.
Might this quest for preserving or restoring stability be nothing more than a distracting fiction, much like the alchemists of the Middle Ages sought a “philosopher’s stone” to transmute base elements into gold, or like the 19th century’s “natural philosophers” (i.e., prototypical physical scientists) unquestioningly accepted the concept of cosmos-filling “aether” and who wasted much time in trying to seek and define it? Is, in fact, seeking inherent or long-lasting societal (either civil or military) stability really by itself a worthwhile goal for those charged with overseeing governments, military services, etc.? Might one argue instead that the issue is not one of maintaining stability but rather managing instability? To examine this, we need to review the course of human history.
1 H.B. Callen, 1960, Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics, Wiley, New York.
2 B. Mandelbrot, 2012, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick, Pantheon, New York; B. Mandelbrot, 1977, Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension, W. H. Freeman & Co., New York.
3 J. Gleick, 2008, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking Penguin, New York.
4 I. Prigogine, W. Horton, Y. Ichikawa, and G. Zaslavsky, eds., 1993, Chaotic Dynamics and Transport in Fluids and Plasmas: Research Trends in Physics Series, American Institute of Physics, New York.
Having done so (to take just the case of society at large), I would posit that a cursory review of global history strongly suggests we never have actually had a stable international order at any point in global history. Not Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire, Greece (both Hellenic and Hellenistic), Rome, Byzantium, China, the European Middle Ages, the Ottoman Empire, the Renaissance, the Mughal Empire, the Enlightenment, the 19th century, and certainly not the 20th and 21st centuries. I suggest that this is hardly surprising, given that uncertainty is the shaping force of history and, as well, arguably its defining characteristic.
What is history? It might surprise you to find that historians themselves vigorously debate just what history is, even as the fields of historical inquiry expand to contain all sorts of sub-disciplines, genres, and, indeed, fads. Some have argued—the Marxist school, for example—for large impersonal forces, others for the role of great social movements and great men. But at heart is one inescapable fact: History—by which we mean cognitive, human history—is the working of people over time. Human history is replete with uncertainty; indeed, since people are dynamic systems, they are innately uncertain in their own existence, behavior, and decision making. There is no “positive stability point” whether one is considering a hierarchy of needs or levels of accomplishment and satisfactions. Historians thus are recording the cumulative record of human uncertainty. The relationship between uncertainty and stability is a fraught one. We inhabit an uncertain world since uncertainty promotes instability.
All societies and their social constructs (including the military and military systems) exist in an uncertain world, are therefore inherently unstable, and thus necessarily experience (exhibit) all manner of fluctuations induced by both external and internal events and interventions. Indeed, the uncertainty of human affairs—and the uncertainty inherent in the physical world around us—leaves us with little that is certain except the continuation of uncertainty itself. And given this continuous uncertainty, stability is thus itself uncertain, at best transitory, and largely illusory.
Borrowing from flight dynamics and control theory, we see that societies and organizations exhibit classic “phugoid” behavior as they encounter uncertainty (e.g., external and internal inputs, challenges, and problems). These include (1) long- and short-term periodicity (e.g., administrations change every 4–8 years, leadership changes every 3 years, etc.); (2) poorly damped pilot-induced oscillation, or PIO behavior, when subject to human intervention; (3) the potential of sudden, even catastrophic, “departures” from unexpected inputs (e.g., the 1929 Stock Market crash, Sputnik, 9/11, or COVID-19, more recently) that result in dramatic redirections and realignments; and (4) the need for “active” control, not merely stability augmentation to minimize excursions and cope with accelerating change (e.g., Moore’s Law).
An example is the First World War, springing from what had generally been considered an optimistic age of European peace. In reality, visible mostly with hindsight, Europe was at best neutrally stable and, on a regional basis, highly unstable. This included the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the triggering point, the Balkans. The excursion “input” was a single terrorist ultra-nationalist with a Browning automatic pistol. The resulting “departure” was a regional, then continental, then global cataclysm leading to the following:
- The collapse of European society and its economic systems (result was the emergence of the United States as the world’s leading power).
- The shattering of national order and the unleashing of largely unconstrained “isms”: Communism, Fascism, Nationalism, Ethnic-Religious-Anarcho-Enviro Terrorism.
- A longue durée of two global World Wars interrupted by a two-decade breathing spell, leading, overall, to a century of global conflict with at least 200 million dead.
- Continuous and poorly damped lower amplitude departures and excursions, of which recent instabilities in the Crimea, southwest Asia, South China Sea, and Arctic are only the most recent.
In sum, we are still in the legacy of the First World War, and we will witness because of that continued violence for decades to come: It is, in short, our Peloponnesian War, which, one will recall, had two violent periods of conflict (i.e., World War I and World War II) separated by a period of uneasy peace.
This is not to state that remarkable and positive societal transformations cannot exist within what is otherwise a violently uncertain and unstable world. (Consider the Italian Renaissance, with near-constant warring between various city-states.) Indeed, within that century of unprecedented violence, we had the following:
- The Aerospace Revolution
- Ubiquitous flight: airplanes, missiles, and spacecraft; routine space-lift
- The Medical Revolution
- Widespread access to imaging, drugs, treatment, and surgical techniques
- The Propulsion Revolution
- Internal combustion, gas turbine, nuclear, electric, and nature
- The Knowledge and Computational Revolution
- Data acquisition/distribution/utilization/exploitation
- Pervasive: education/entertainment, simulation, etc.
- Embedded: common multidisciplinary architectures
- Emergence of cyber and artificial intelligence, likely revolutions of their own
To me, the common characteristic I see in all of this is time. The challenge of uncertainty and the consequence of instability drive—and always have—timely action and solutions. Societies that have failed to function in a timely fashion have fallen rapidly from pre-eminence to subordination. Think ancient Greece from its height in the Hellenic and Hellenistic period to its position at the time of the rise of Carthage and then Rome; the collapse of Spain even as, much like an exploding supernova, it had blown off its creative energy, capital, and resources to organize, train, equip, and deploy vast forces around the world; the collapse of the British empire and Britain’s larger role in global affairs; and the collapse of the Soviet system. In all of these cases, national leaders were less successful at reacting to change—in other words, “mastering time cycles”—than their contemporary and future opponents. Furthermore, individuals at all levels—in our personal lives, in business, in the military, and in senior leadership positions—all generally believe they have more time than they actually possess when a crisis breaks out. This is, arguably, a mix of unwillingness to believe a change is occurring (typically bad). It has been recognized for decades as a common characteristic in aircraft accidents and, especially, the failure of aircrew to make timely ejections, and even has a name, “temporal distortion.”
What, if any, are the “bottom lines” to all this? What I perceive is the following:
- Dynamic instability is society’s natural norm.
- Conflict is an unavoidable manifestation of this.
- We should be realistic in our reaction to this: namely, seek to control and contain it but not expect to prevent or eliminate it.
- Accelerating change is itself a dynamic and unstable process but one that has resulted in remarkable transformation of mass rates of mobility (from 6 mph in 1800 to 60 mph in 1900 to 600 mph in 2000) and, more recently, communication and process execution.
- Military necessity forces military innovation, which produces its own unanticipated as well as anticipated outcomes.
- These outcomes characteristically overturn “normative” assumptions, inducing further uncertainties.
- These uncertainties thereby feed the growth of further dynamic instability, adding to, rather than decreasing, the need to manage instability.
ANNEX: A QUICK REVIEW OF WESTERN HISTORY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF STABILITY
The ancient world was one of constant instability and disorder (think Herodotus and Thucydides). Rome lasted for centuries and did so precisely because it managed instability well, not because the system (both internal and external) was inherently stable. When, in the late Roman era, its leadership assumed stability and focused on their own pleasures and prosperity, they failed to adjust to the changing dynamic within their own society—the fall of the accepted gods and the rise of Christianity—and failed as well to manage the instability on their borders caused by a variety of factors, both ones they could control and others that they missed but could have managed with proper recognition.
Afterward, the so-called Dark Ages were much more characteristic of the whole of human history than what came after. The rise of Feudalism, followed by the rise of prototypical nation-states (e.g., France, England, and Spain) generated continued instability, as did the rise of Islam and its fracturing within a century into two warring camps (Sunni and Shi’a) that are still with us today. The grand unifying element that characterized this period was religious rivalry. It enabled disparate kingdoms, caliphates, and peoples to assemble in two rival camps: a generally “Christian” European conglomeration (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) reacting to the expanding threat of a generally “Islamic” conglomeration. This ended in 1918 with the long-overdue collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Islam might have succeeded except for two factors: (1) The Crusades—essentially a strategic defensive strike into the Islamic heartland—put it off its game for two critical centuries giving the European powers the time to develop countering capabilities—organized governments; time-based work (e.g., church and town-hall clock towers, a standard feature of medieval life); manufacturing processes; financial systems; vastly improved agriculture; military systems (including naval power and logistics); and new “tactics, techniques, and procedures” that stopped Islamic expansion. (2) The Islamic world’s own fatal turning away from emergent technologies to an introspective examination of Islam itself, marking a fatal fundamentalism that resulted in it falling further and further behind the West, despite “local” successes such as the seizure of Constantinople in 1453.
Nobody, however, would argue that these were “stable” in the sense, say, of the West versus the Soviet Bloc after 1948. The Islamic world was constantly rent by internal factions, fighting, wars, insurrections, and the like, and the European world was as well (e.g., the rivalry between the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, the dual Popes of the early Middle Ages, and the religious wars of the Reformation-Post Reformation era). To look at Europe, even the Peace of Westphalia (1648) failed to bring a lasting European order. Rather, the European rivalries went overseas in colonial expansion into the Americas and Eastern Hemisphere.
As an aside, China had perhaps the greatest claim to stability over this period from about the 8th century AD through the 15th century, but even there, on close look, one finds equally tremendous internal factionalism and discord, followed ultimately by (like Islam) a fatal turning inward.
Any stability induced by the Peace of Westphalia thus vanished in naval, trade, and expansion rivalries during the great age of discovery and exploitation of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Then came successive thunderbolts: the so-called Enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions that followed; the American revolution; the French revolution; the Napoleonic eruption and the chaos that ensued; the post-Napoleonic effort to restore a mythic “old order” stability; the Revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871, and 1905; and, finally, the cataclysm of the First World War, which destroyed all pretense of order and which is still in play for us today—it is our Peloponnesian War—having produced Fascism, Communism, ultra-nationalism, the collapse of imperial systems, and the disordered world of the present.
Arguably, national leaders who tried, in the interest of peace, to preserve the chimera of existing stability—think of the obsequious reactions of French and British leaders in the 1930s to Hitler and the disgraceful Munich agreement that followed—actually induced politician-induced oscillations that drove even greater, not lesser, instability. Put another way, societal and organizational stability is not a “given,” nor is it a natural condition of human-created organizations. Rather than being maintained, it has to be imposed.