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In the wake of World War I, International Relations emerged as an academic area focused on studying and understanding the interconnectedness of politics, economics, and power to help navigate an increasingly globalized system. While the field has naturally developed with evolving political landscapes and societal norms, academics such as Randall Schweller find the global landscape becoming more convoluted and complex with each change of world order. The constant increase in randomness and unpredictability in International Relations replicates a process of increasing chaos observed in Entropy. This essay will seek to apply Entropy to International Relations to explain the progression of disorder in global politics from a scientific perspective. It will do so by analyzing the stability that each world power order has achieved and how it deteriorates over time.
Before continuing, a few key terms must be defined. In his book “Knowledge Power”, Alan Wilson used the word ‘superconcept’ to describe a concept that derives from one discipline but can ‘cut across’ others to have ‘fruitful applications’ (Wilson 2010, p. 4). Entropy is one such superconcept that arises in physics and engineering and can be applied in an interdisciplinary way to music, biology, (Grombrich 2018) and, as will be demonstrated in this essay, International Relations. The original definition of Entropy is a measurement of the available energy in a thermodynamic system. However, it is often interpreted as the degree of disorder where all closed systems tend towards chaos (Drake 2018).
While Entropy has a scientific definition in physics and engineering, in International Relations it can be applied as the ‘social uncertainty about what will happen for event sets in the social system’, which can also be reflected in the system’s stability (Stephan 1975, p. 37). In order to determine whether Entropy can be applied to International Relations, this paper will examine how world order, which is ‘the distribution of power and authority among the political actors on the global stage’ (Falk 1999), transformed over time. Subsequently, it will analyze the coinciding change in stability and uncertainty in the social system. In the discussion of world orders, power distribution is primarily discussed as one of three types: unipolarity where one state actor possesses the majority of power in the system, bipolarity for two, and multipolarity for four or more centers of power where actors are entities able to influence the field of International Relations (Jiang 2013).
Even though International Relations emerged after World War I, the scope of this essay is limited to time periods following World War II. It was around the start of the Cold War (1945) that countries possessed the capacity to become superpowers, with Russia and the United States being the first states to achieve “enormous capabilities under their control, a reach that was truly global, and allies who were entirely dependent on their protection” (Baylis, et al. 2017, p. 547). With the birth of superpowers came the first polar world order – bipolarity. As the analysis of global systems requires the existence of polarity and superpowers, it is restricted to after World War II. Additionally, the Cold War ushered in a new method of restoring order. Previously, militant conflicts were used to determine dominance over other states and establish hierarchies. However, after 1945, physical warfare became less frequent mainly due to their increasingly dangerous nature (Gaddis 1992). The invention of nuclear weapons dissuaded countries from physically engaging with one another as there were far more dire consequences and repercussions for both sides. Thus, post-World War II nations are unable to exploit warfare as a methodology to establish dominance amongst themselves. This makes those state actors incomparable with their predecessors as the nuclear technology and weaponry make them ‘significantly different from those of past multipolar systems’ (Schweller 2010, p. 158). With these developments in mind, the argument of Entropy being applied to International Relations is limited to the era after World War II.
Despite high tensions between the United States and Russia throughout the Cold War (1947-1991), the bipolar world order created from the clash of the two superpowers was quite stable and easily predictable (Cox 1990, p. 25). Leading scholar Kenneth Waltz argued that by reducing the number of international actors to only two, the Cold War had formed its own organized structure. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis largely agreed and added that the world became separated into two blocs that reduced the sporadic nature of Post-War Europe (Baylis, et al. 2017, p. 69). There was a fear that the European countries would continue to compete and consequently, war conflicts would appear anew at the end of World War II. Bipolarity served as an anchor that reduced rival alliances amongst inferior powers, as smaller countries were forced to choose between either the United States or Russia (rather than other smaller states like themselves) (Baylis, et al. 2017, p. 69). International Relations academic John Mearsheimer even postulated that after the Cold War and the fall of the bipolar order, the ‘long peace’ and stability the world had been enjoying would fall apart due to the rebirth of old aggressions and numerous alliances (Mearsheimer 1990, p. 36). Bipolarity is a demonstration of low Entropy. The world order established a significant amount of stability and predictability for academics and actors alike. Yet the low Entropy state would not last for long, as after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States ascended as the singular world superpower and bipolar gave way to unipolar.
Unipolarity increased the overall instability and randomness in the world system. While one might expect having only a single actor to analyze would make everything more predictable, ‘its apparent lack of general properties’ frustrated academics and ‘it does not behave in predictable ways like […] bipolar systems’ (Schweller 2010, p. 145). Bipolarity separates the world into two blocs which regulate themselves through a balancing act with strong constraints where actors are either on one superpowers’ side or the other. Thus, allies are limited, and the two competing superpowers are restrained as they must be weary how their actions affect their competitors’ actions. In contrast, Unipolarity has weak structural constraints. As there are no rivals or competing ideologies, the singular power can choose their allies and how close they are at will. On the opposite side, the potential allies have ‘less need for a polar-power patron’ than they would in a bipolar system (Schweller 2010, p. 146). Not only are allies ambiguous, the ‘boundless freedom’ in unipolarity ‘breeds randomness’. The structure ‘neither constrains the choices of the unipole nor solely determines the degree of constraints on anyone else’ as there is no other superpower to be mindful of (Schweller 2010, p. 150). The shift from bipolarity to unipolarity indicates an increased level of Entropy as there is more social uncertainty and instability in the power distribution. Yet perhaps the most unstable part of unipolarity is that it is difficult to predict when it will end.
Having a single actor in power is not durable whatsoever. Waltz predicts that ‘other great powers’ will soon ‘challenge the United States and reestablish the systemic balance of power’ (Waltz 1993). In International Relations, the Balance of Power Theory postulates that if one state is stronger than others, then it will take advantage of its strength and exploit weaker nations. This provides an incentive for the threatened to create alliances and increase their competitive abilities. In other words, other nations will seek to accrue power due to the outrageous power discrepancy between themselves and the United States. Such overreach by the United States has already been witnessed in their invasion of the Middle East and interference in the governmental systems in foreign countries. Already academics such as Monetiro postulate the ending of unipolarity, but no one actually knows when the United States’ reign will collapse in totality (Monteiro 2011, p. 3). The difficulty to predict the collapse, adding a large level of social uncertainty and indicating increasing Entropy.
If we truly do end up transitioning from unipolarity to multipolarity, there will still be an instability. Richard Haass claimed that ‘Entropy dictates that systems consisting of a large number of actors tend toward greater randomness and disorder in the absence of external intervention’ where the actors denote superpowers (Haass 2008). It is now more than ever that International Relations is witnessing the competition between the United States and other state actors. Presently, China has the second largest economy with other nations such as Japan and Russia close behind, and all three are already considered superpowers (Mead 2017). With more countries on the rise in economic, political, and influential strength, there is evidence of a shift in power from the United States to a larger group of states. The emerging world order of the twenty-first century is one of multipolarity where the power in the international system is distributed amongst several countries (Wade 2011). Unlike bipolarity, once there are more than two superpowers vying for world dominance, there is a tendency towards large levels of uncertainty, randomness, and Entropy (Haass 2008).
One discrepancy in the application of Entropy to International Relations is the constant addition of new state and non-state actors to the system. Throughout time, countries have been recognized (e.g. Hungary in 1989 and Kosovo in 2008), and in the days of the digital revolution, more non-state actors (e.g. Terrorists, celebrities, and the media) are also joining the global stage (Stratton 2008, p. 3). With more actors in International Relations, there is a larger power distribution among themselves. For example, each member of the UN security council gets one vote. As more states become recognized by the UN, a vote loses value and you need more of them to achieve a majority. Entropy can solely exist in a closed system, as in, one where there is no exchange of energy or material with an external environment (Prigogine 1950). The addition of new actors that share power implies that there is an increase of material, insinuating that Entropy cannot be applied to International Relations because it does not possess a closed system.
Even though the addition of actors implies that there is an increase of material in the International Relations system, they are not significant enough to affect the polarity and power dynamics of superpowers. There is an oligarchic rule over the International system ‘rooted in the notion that international politics are shaped by vast inequalities among states; that only a few powerful actors matter’ (Schweller 2010, p. 149). It is near impossible to become part of the polar membership as ‘there is a finite amount of ‘useful’ or ‘free’ energy in the system’ (Schweller 2010, p. 149) that has mostly been snatched up by preexisting states. Additionally, an actor must be considered a superpower to affect polarity. To become a superpower requires enormous economic capabilities, a global reach, and political influence such that allies are ‘entirely reliant on their protection’ (Baylis, et al. 2017, p. 69). Only a few states have the capability to overcome those high barriers of entry, thus making the addition of non-state and state actors obsolete. They do not indicate an increase of material as they are not part of the polarity International Relations system. Therefore, Entropy can again be applicable to International Relations.
To conclude, International Relations is a closed system where you can apply Entropy to describe the increasing chaos and randomness in the system. The world order since the Cold War has shifted from bipolar, to unipolar, and now to multipolar. With each change in polarity, there has been an increase in randomness and instability that matches the definition of Entropy when applied to International Relations. While some might consider International Relations as an open system due to the creation of new actors, only a select few can participate in polar system, with none of the newcomers having the capability of infiltrating that group. Therefore, International Relations remains a closed system where the superconcept Entropy is applicable and will presumably continue to increase as time progresses.
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