Belmont Club

How will history remember the next 20 years?

AP Photo/Andy Wong

The Cold War, for all its danger, had the virtue of seeming definite. Once there was a well-defined enemy located across a geographically specific battlefield on the eastern edge of Western Europe. There were ritual nuclear signals between the superpowers. By contrast, the immediate future seems full of shadows. Some pundits say the world is on the threshold of Cold War II. Others despair of characterizing it at all. Perhaps the coming years will bring something totally new.

Events have a clarity in hindsight that was not obvious at the time. The term “World War I”, for example, was coined only after World War II started, prior to which it was simply known as the Great War. But the past certainties are only apparent. Even the “Cold War” wasn’t obviously that at the start.

CBS war correspondent Bill Downs wrote in 1951 that, “To my mind, the answer is: Yes, Korea is the beginning of World War III. The brilliant landings at Inchon and the cooperative efforts of the American armed forces with the United Nations Allies have won us a victory in Korea. But this is only the first battle in a major international struggle which now is engulfing the Far East and the entire world.”

Fortunately, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t until later that governments began to realize they had entered a new era of limited war. While the phrase itself is variously attributed to George Orwell, Bernard Baruch or Walter Lippman, its adoption grew as its applicability became apparent. The Google Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any set of terms by year, shows how the term Cold War gradually became the consensus nomenclature. It was never so widely used as right before the turn of the century, when its fame peaked and then gradually receded into memory.

So great was the relief that the Cold War stayed Cold that it is now sometimes called The Long Peace, “a term for the historical period following the end of World War II in 1945 … marked by the absence of major wars between the great powers of the period”.

Naming the future is a harder proposition. Those who have speculated on the matter frequently hazard two scenarios for the coming decades: 1) a new period of geopolitical rivalry (the so-called Cold War II) and/or 2) global catastrophic risk, a threat arising from within civilization itself.

The Cold War II theory is straightforward, essentially a sequel to familiar historical events with an updated cast of characters. This scenario has the advantage of being a known quantity and susceptible to tried methods of statecraft.

Cold War II refers to a renewed state of political and military tension between opposing geopolitical power-blocs, with one bloc typically reported as being led by Russia and/or China, and the other led by the United States or NATO … akin to the original Cold War that saw a global confrontation between the Western Bloc led by the United States and the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor state. American political scientist Robert Legvold posits that the “new Cold War began the moment we went over the cliff, and that happened with the Ukraine crisis.”

By contrast, the idea of global catastrophic risk is relatively new. Its core idea is future threats will come not from nations but from disruptive technologies that governance cannot control. We don’t know how to deal with that.

One approach is to strengthen governance. “Insufficient global governance”, goes the thesis, will prove incapable of containing “hostile artificial intelligence, biotechnology risks, or nanotechnology weapons”. So build it up. But as Peterson, Miller and Duettmann of the Foresight Institute (PMD) argue in their paper,  a sufficiently pervasive government is probably a cure worse than the disease it seeks to prevent. “The degree of monitoring required to prevent biotech attack would be comparable to a level of monitoring corresponding to a pervasive surveillance state.”

Even a police state might not be able to stop biotech labs any more than it can stop drug cartels. Bureaucracies might prove equally helpless against artificial general intelligence (AGI). The PMD paper notes that “even a ‘fettered superintelligence,’ that was running on secure hardware on an isolated computer that can communicate only via text interface, might be able to break out of its confinement by persuading its handlers to release it”.

If it sounds far-fetched, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest current governance models are already losing their fight to control disruptive innovation. The New York Times notes that some towns in Mexico are effectively seceding from the central government, creating their own local militias to create oases of order in a chaotic nation. “Tancítaro represents a quiet but telling trend in Mexico, where a handful of towns and cities are effectively seceding, partly or in whole. These are acts of desperation, revealing the degree to which Mexico’s police and politicians are seen as part of the threat.”

Other media outlets note without comment there is a stampede toward fiat cryptocurrencies. Forbes reports “Russia is hoping to launch its very own CryptoRuble; Kyrgyzstan plans to create its own cryptocurrency backed with gold; the Swedish central bank has proposed an e-Krona; and China is arguably ahead of the pack with its tests to build a domestic cryptocurrency that will exist alongside the yuan. Singapore is also in the race.” Venezuela, despite its blatant authoritarianism has already lost the fight. “What Venezuela is trying to achieve isn’t a cryptocurrency, but ‘a digitized barter system that sidesteps the global financial system. It’s a bit scary and very concerning.'”

No one seems to be able to connect the dots. Maybe the Russians are a problem but if we strengthen the United Nations … The advantage of the Cold War II scenario is that every journalist understands it. They may not be able to recognize the disruptive threat so readily.

But if more governance cannot manage global catastrophic risk what is the alternative? The other approach, as Peterson, Miller and Duettmann suggest, is to encourage competing governance. They note that “civilization, taken as a whole, is already a superintelligence” and already knows how to deal with such superintelligences by fostering rivalries and checks within them, specifically citing the US Constitution. Safety is to be found not in centralized control but in “a mutually-watching system of watchers”.

There some indications (apart from the experience of countries like the US) this system of checks and balances can work. For example, Vinton Cerf notes that the way the Internet actually governs itself is through a never-ending round of accommodation, negotiation and horse-trading. “We conclude that it is folly to try to regulate all these areas through an international treaty, and encourage further development of mechanisms for global debate, deliberation and cooperation in policy development at places like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)”. Yet that is exactly what government advocates will often try.

It might actually be dangerous for an authoritarian government to try and regulate AGI because the AGI will finish up driving it. “Nick Bostrom’s main concern regards the prospect of a hard (i.e., sudden) takeoff, in which one particular AGI instance … performs a strategic takeover, and pursues its utility function.” This would be exactly the kind of mistake that China, whose avowed effort to lead the world of artificial intelligence combined with the unrelenting authoritarianism of the Party, might commit.

We might discover in the end that the greatest threat to civilization in the coming decades will emerge from some lab in China and not via some lightning attack by Russian T-14s in the Baltics.

But assuming these catastrophes can be avoided it may be that the next decade will be remembered not as Cold War II or the Rise of the Machine but as the Great Devolution, a time when power centers as yet undreamed of take shape and negotiate with each other in a kind of mesh architecture unfamiliar to those of us accustomed to top-down structures. As the PMD paper put it:

Civilization as a whole is largely composed of networks of entities making requests of other entities. Some of those entities are humans, some are software, and in this scenario some of those software entities are machine intelligences. The making of requests consists primarily of the mutually voluntary interaction of the party making the request and another party responding to the request. The response to the request might not be to serve the best interests of the request-making entity. However, human institutions, having evolved over many thousands of years, tend to shape interactions to be mutually voluntary and in the interests of both parties.


Follow Wretchard on Twitter

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, by James D. Hornfischer. From the historian who has been acclaimed as “doing for the Navy what popular historian Stephen Ambrose did for the Army,” here is an unprecedented account of the extraordinary World War II air, land, and sea campaign that brought the U.S. Navy to the apex of its strength and marked the rise of the United States as a global superpower.

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, Author Mike Duncan brings to life the bloody battles, political machinations, and human drama that set the stage for the fall of the Roman Republic. Chronicling the years 146-78 BC, he showed how, abandoning the ancient principles of their forbears, men like Marius, Sulla, and the Gracchi brothers set dangerous new precedents that would start the Republic on the road to destruction and provide a stark warning about what can happen to a civilization that has lost its way.

Grant, by Ron Chernow. This book is a grand synthesis of painstaking research and literary brilliance that makes sense of all sides of Grant’s life, explaining how this simple Midwesterner could at once be so ordinary and so extraordinary. Named one of the best books of the year.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This biograpy of history’s most creative genius is based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work. Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science and shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club