PARAMETERS, US Army War College Quarterly - Spring 1998

Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States

RALPH PETERS

1998 Ralph Peters


From Parameters, Spring 1998, pp. 36-47.

Go to Spring issue Table of Contents.

Go to Cumulative Article Index.


When you leave the classroom or office and go into the world, you see at first its richness and confusions, the variety and tumult. Then, if you keep moving and do not quit looking, commonalties begin to emerge. National success is eccentric. But national failure is programmed and predictable. Spotting the future losers among the world's states becomes so easy it loses its entertainment value.

In this world of multiple and simultaneous revolutions--in technology, information, social organization, biology, economics, and convenience--the rules of international competition have changed. There is a global marketplace and, increasingly, a global economy. While there is no global culture yet, American popular culture is increasingly available and wickedly appealing--and there are no international competitors in the field, only struggling local systems. Where the United States does not make the rules of international play, it shapes them by its absence.

The invisible hand of the market has become an informal but uncompromising lawgiver. Globalization demands conformity to the practices of the global leaders, especially to those of the United States. If you do not conform--or innovate--you lose. If you try to quit the game, you lose even more profoundly. The rules of international competition, whether in the economic, cultural, or conventional military fields, grow ever more homogeneous. No government can afford practices that retard development. Yet such practices are often so deeply embedded in tradition, custom, and belief that the state cannot jettison them. That which provides the greatest psychological comfort to members of foreign cultures is often that which renders them noncompetitive against America's explosive creativity--our self-reinforcing dynamism fostered by law, efficiency, openness, flexibility, market discipline, and social mobility.

Traditional indicators of noncompetitive performance still apply: corruption (the most seductive activity humans can consummate while clothed); the absence of sound, equitably enforced laws; civil strife; or government attempts to overmanage a national economy. As change has internationalized and accelerated, however, new predictive tools have emerged. They are as simple as they are fundamental, and they are rooted in culture. The greater the degree to which a state--or an entire civilization--succumbs to these "seven deadly sins" of collective behavior, the more likely that entity is to fail to progress or even to maintain its position in the struggle for a share of the world's wealth and power. Whether analyzing military capabilities, cultural viability, or economic potential, these seven factors offer a quick study of the likely performance of a state, region, or population group in the coming century.

The Seven Factors

These key "failure factors" are:

Zero-Sum Knowledge

The wonderfully misunderstood Clausewitzian trinity, expressed crudely as state-people-military, is being replaced by a powerful new trinity: the relationship between the state, the people, and information. In the latter phases of the industrial age, the free flow of quality information already had become essential to the success of industries and military establishments. If the internationalizing media toppled the Soviet empire, it was because that empire's battle against information-sharing had hollowed out its economy and lost the confidence of its people. When a sudden flood of information strikes a society or culture suffering an information deficit, the result is swift destabilization. This is now a global phenomenon.

Today's "flat-worlders" are those who believe that information can be controlled. Historically, information always equaled power. Rulers and civilizations viewed knowledge as a commodity to be guarded, a thing finite in its dimensions and lost when shared. Religious institutions viewed knowledge as inflammatory and damnable, a thing to be handled carefully and to advantage, the nuclear energy of yesteryear. The parallel to the world public's view of wealth is almost exact--an instinctive conviction that information is a thing to be gotten and hoarded, and that its possession by a foreign actor means it has been, by vague and devious means, robbed from oneself and one's kind. But just as wealth generates wealth, so knowledge begets knowledge. Without a dynamic and welcoming relationship with information as content and process, no society can compete in the post-industrial age.

Information-controlling governments and knowledge-denying religions cripple themselves and their subjects or adherents. If America's streets are not paved with gold, they are certainly littered with information. The availability of free, high-quality information, and a people's ability to discriminate between high- and low-quality data, are essential to economic development beyond the manufacturing level. Whether on our own soil or abroad, those segments of humanity that fear and reject knowledge of the world (and, often, of themselves) are condemned to failure, poverty, and bitterness.

The ability of most of America's work force to cope psychologically and practically with today's flood of data, and to cull quality data from the torrent, is remarkable--a national and systemic triumph. Even Canada and Britain cannot match it. Much of Japan's present stasis is attributable to that nation's struggle to make the transition from final-stage industrial power to information-age society. The more regulated flow of information with which Japan has long been comfortable is an impediment to post-modernism. While the Japanese nation ultimately possesses the synthetic capability to overcome this difficulty, its structural dilemmas are more informational and psychological than tangible--although the tangible certainly matters--and decades of educational reform and social restructuring will be necessary before Japan returns for another world-championship match.

In China, the situation regarding the state's

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