In Praise of Disproportion

In geopolitics we should not dismiss facts that could seem inconsequent but that carry a long sequel as much positive as negative

I am a sailor and this is the hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere. In September, seafarers from my region (41° 29′ 24″ N / 71° 18′ 47″ W) are on the lookout for the formation of tropical storms in the West coast of Africa, which by joining other forces can rapidly transform into violent hurricanes that reach the Caribbean and go along the American coast up to Canada where they dissipate.

Meteorology has not advanced sufficiently enough as to make precise predictions regarding the intensity and trajectory of those destructive storms. Computers offer some probabilistic models, but these colossal storms always surprise us.

The reason for this unpredictability is the following. If in a system a small initial disturbance takes place, through an amplification method, it could generate a considerably big effect in the short or medium term. Example: an initial disturbance (a “tropical depression” or” wave”) in the African East coast can in the end provoke a big destruction in New York City. That happened with hurricane Sandy.

Today we can mathematically model such dynamic and its effects. Without going over arcane formulas, the idea is as follows. Given some initial conditions in a given chaotic, dynamic system (specifically with sensitive dependence on initial conditions) any small discrepancy between two situations with a small variation in the initial data, can result in trends where both systems evolve in completely different ways.
For the mathematically savvy reader, the following diagram is the strange attractor from the Lorenz Model for the atmospheric convection when r = 28, σ = 10, b = 8/3. By chance this “attractor” has a butterfly shape.

mariposa matematica

This is an old idea; today it is called the “butterfly effect” in Chaos Theory. The name comes from the following ancient phrases: “the gentle flapping of a butterfly’s wings can be felt across the world” (Chinese proverb) or “a butterfly’s flapping wings can cause a Tsunami at the other side of the world,” as well as “the simple flutter of a butterfly can change the world.” Go figure. The Chinese did.

It is said that Archimedes argued, in the old city of Syracuse, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” The idea of a lever is the first rigorous formulation of the disproportionate effects of an action. These effects, perfectly calculable in Archimedes’ physics, occur in real and short time. To calculate the disproportionate effects in long-time sequences from small variations in the initial data we must wait for the formulation of chaos theory.

At this point the reader might ask, what does all this have to do with geopolitics? Well, geopolitics deals with power relationships among countries and regions. Among them, there are those that are big and those that are small, the central and the marginal, the independent and the dependent. Sometimes their relationships and the effects that result throughout time and under different circumstances surprise us. Also in this field there are disproportionate effects in due course from variations in the initial data of a historic process, i.e., from actions and decisions that at the beginning seem insignificant or of contrary sign to that of later results. A clarifying example of this type of reasoning regarding the alternative consequences of an historic fact was given by the great sociologist Max Weber a hundred years ago.

Weber wondered whether the course of events under analysis would have stayed unaltered or would have been different from what is known. To illustrate this dilemma, Weber offered an example from the historian Eduard Meyer taken from ancient history. In the battle of Marathon (in 490 BCE) the Greeks overcame the Persians. Based on the available knowledge, the larger understanding of the ultimate significance of this event requires presenting the objective possibility of how the actions could have developed if the Persians had won. The weight given to the importance of the Greek triumph is based on the fact that, had things turned otherwise, there would have prevailed a theocracy in Greece, as in fact it happened in the other places where the Persians were victorious. The Greek triumph in the battle of Marathon thus became critical for the survival of the values of Western culture. A battle in a small corner of the Hellenic world had disproportionate and momentous effects for the destiny of the civilizations that followed, from Rome to today’s Western world.

World War I begun with a terrorist act in Sarajevo. The archduke’s murderer could have failed in his attempt and, even had he succeeded, the great powers could have avoided the conflict. Sometimes a mere contingency produces effects that in the long run seem predestined. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. The butterfly effect functions not only in our biographies but also in the destiny of entire peoples. What would have become of my life if there had been no US scholarship in 1962 pages of if I had fallen sick the day I had to accept it? What would have happened in Argentine history if there had been no assembly of neighbors on May 25th, 1810 (the event launched the South American wars of independence from Spain) or a massive rally on October 17th, 1945, which brought Peron to power?

History is full of examples of events that did not seem particularly significant at the time but were crucial in the long term. The problem is that we generally do not realize that except in retrospective. There is no clairvoyance at dawn; just wisdom at sunset. As Hegel said “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only after dusk”. However, a certain awareness that there are many butterflies flapping helps us design better strategies through a map of possible alternatives.

In our era of globalization, one thing is certain: time and space have been thoroughly compressed. The trope “far away and long ago” is no longer valid. For our argument this means not only that there is the occasional “butterfly flapping” but also that flapping are multiple, simultaneous, and cross-linked. Our civilization has achieved making easier what was previously complicated, but at a cost: complexity increases and predictability diminishes. “Complicated” and “complex” are not the same conditions. Today it is much easier to communicate at long distance, but much harder to know where the communication networks collectively and individually will lead us.

In contemporary “risk society,” it is difficult to see a crisis coming, and even more difficult to trace its origins, frequently anodyne. At the same time we do not know if that same crisis joins or not others of similar characteristics. In the pages of Opinion Sur we have written a lot on the European geopolitical situation. The key to this European predicament can be summarized as follows: to the demographic crisis (an ageing population in Northern Europe and a demographic bulge in the Middle East) add the political crisis (democracy and legitimacy deficits), a monetary crisis, the fiscal crisis of the European periphery (the bankruptcy of Greece) and lastly the humanitarian crisis of refugees from Northern Africa. These are crises of different, even remote, origins, diversely dynamic, with long-term advantages and benefits that are hard to discern, but that converge in time and space at a speed that overcomes the decision making of a weak and doubtful leadership.

Regarding World War I and its seemingly trivial origin in the Balkans, Churchill coined the famous phrase for those small and unstable countries: “They generate more history than they can consume.” Today that phrase applies not only to small countries on the periphery but to all countries.

But let us not despair. Sometimes humanity owes a big favor to someone who produced more history than he or she was capable of consuming. Examples abound. The Marathon warriors, quite inferior in numbers to their enemies, stopped the development of the Persian civilization. The small country of Vietnam, over various decades, managed to curtail the imperial arrogance of great powers. It defeated China, France, and United States. The small island of Cuba curtailed American imperial arrogance for half a century. The small and land-locked country of Switzerland became the world’s banker. We should not ignore the dangers of disproportion, but neither should we dismiss its occasional benefits.

Leave a comment