The Transformation Age Series is a series of written articles and accompanying webcasts that Robb Smith will host for the Integral Life community in real-time as the Great Release (TGR) unfolds, giving rise to the Transformation Age.
If you tell me that throughout the 21st century we will continue to have a set of nations armed with nuclear weapons, I will tell you there’s a 99% chance that we end up in a nuclear conflict eventually. Human psychology is belligerent. And as far back as Plato’s warning in the Republic, we understand it is inevitable that some fraction of political bodies evolve towards authoritarian regimes. Ergo, it can’t be at all surprising that we face the situation we do today, where a nuclear (if not economic or cultural) superpower is leveraging its nukes to act in the vein of a 19th century imperialist. Beyond the tragic loss of life in the war proper, the strategic problem this creates for the world order is immense: what should the world do when 21st century nuclear superpowers, especially those governed by non-accountable and non-checkable autocrats, begin to violate the prevailing international order and attempt to conquer sovereign foreign nations? Today it’s Russia, tomorrow it could be North Korea or China; this is not a problem that goes away regardless of what happens in the next few months. Rather it is better understood as an emergent geopolitical life condition of the late Information Age, what integralists call the Green structure of evolution. It pairs Information Age technology, like nuclear weapons, with challenges to Information Age world order legitimacy (like the United Nations), with Age of Empire forms of leadership, conquest and claimed legitimacy. Putin tries to cover his ambition under a critique of the West—and a thorough and substantive critique there surely is—but it doesn’t change the fact there is no legitimate justification using contemporary moral calculus to invade a peaceful sovereign neighbor.
Three Scenarios Ahead
So far this horrific struggle has played out as I’ve expected. I thought there was a very good chance Putin would invade, that he might face more military challenges than people predicted, that the global alliance would rapidly cohere, and that the entire decision would come to look like a massive strategic mistake. Since the beginning, it’s been clear there were only a few possible outcomes, two of which are either a coup or a nuclear mushroom cloud. The pain of international financial sanctions will so destroy the Russian economy that Russian elites, perhaps even the Russian “street” (no matter that they are fairly manipulated by Kremlin propaganda), might end up taking Putin out of power. If that happens, it will open up an historic opportunity to invite Russia into the league of liberalizing nations, and a full-scale Marshall Plan to help it become a modern, sophisticated nation will be warranted. In this scenario, ironically enough, Putin inadvertently succeeds in ending NATO, but not for the reason he hoped. Incidentally, the Russian people are proud, majestic and brilliant, so I have long wondered what Russia would be today if a Russian version of Lee Kwan Yew had been empowered in the early 1990s; after 30 years it might be one of the most powerful, free and agile nations in the world today.
On the other hand, if Putin is able to rally the Russian street through propaganda, keep elites in check, and remain in power through his formidable Praetorian guard and state security apparatus, do we end up in an escalatory standoff that ends in a mushroom cloud—probably tactical, or God forbid between superpowers? The US and its NATO allies are wise to keep themselves out of a military engagement in Ukraine. I don’t believe reports that Putin is irrational or deranged, I think he’s as coldly calculating as ever, but I do not for one moment doubt what his desperate and aggrieved resolve might prompt him to do were the alliance to engage Russia militarily.
So short of a coup or a mushroom cloud, the third outcome seems most probable, which is Ukraine falls and becomes temporarily captive to Russia, becoming a national, larger, and previously-sovereign version of what Russia did with Crimea. The Russian military can likely succeed in its initial conquest but fail perpetually to hold its territory in the face of a vicious insurgency, one that will continue to galvanize global public opinion against Russia, keeping it stuck as a total pariah in the community of nations. Here, we end up in something far worse than a Cold War standoff. Putin is able to hold onto power, but Russia itself slouches ever more towards a completely failed state, ostracized on every level (at least North Korea enjoys the benefit of very few people paying attention to it). In this scenario—in which Russia increasingly degrades toward a failed state, finding itself with skyrocketing inflation and wracked by an economic depression—a whole other analysis is warranted about the misbehavior that Putin engages in to try to get the country back on track, none of it good. But let’s space our disasters and leave that for another day.
Green and The Power to Convene
If those are three possible outcomes, a useful thought experiment comes from revisiting the core strategic problem that remains: will the world allow nuclear powers to become conquering bullies? And this is where I think we need to look at the broader evolutionary picture and see the long-term opportunity presented by dilemmas of this sort. For years I’ve written about the need for the US to lead the way towards a reformed global governance model that gives up some of its own power in exchange for building a broader, more powerful type of network power that is fit for purpose for the emerging Transformation Age. This longer-term scenario, which I admit is in the “highly unlikely” bucket, is that the United States begins to see this current dilemma—especially when combined with conditions that could give rise to similar conflicts elsewhere—as a catalytic moment, a truly unique opportunity to reset and reform the problems that have been increasingly obvious and inherent in the postwar order, including the manner in which dollar hegemony as global reserve currency creates domestic problems for the US and prompts a certain kind of illegitimate use of power internationally. There are many different ways, all accurate, to think about the Green structure of evolution, whether it be as “Relativistic Consciousness” in the upper-left quadrant, or “Swarming Behaviors” in the upper-right quadrant, or “Emancipatory Culture and Values” in the lower-left quadrant, or “Network Techno-Economic” structures in the lower-right quadrant.
I think it is the use of “network” intelligence, consciousness and structures that are on prime display and have the most explanatory power for understanding the current crisis. Putin does not seem to fully understand Green, and in my view that will end up being his biggest mistake. At his age he’s not a network native, so he simply does not seem to appreciate how Green operates to cohere and oppose oppression. (Revered for his cultural conservatism, he’s clearly anti-Green in many of the same ways that regressive conservatives in the US are.) He’s a Cold War warrior who operates from an earlier, “might makes right” stage of sensemaking, marinated in an imperialist worldview with revanchist ambitions to restore the glory of the Soviet Empire, and thus he only could see the weaknesses of Green in recent events. In his various writing and speeches, it seems that he saw the epistemic fragmentation of western populations, he saw the moral ambiguity and ethical relativism of culturally liberating values, he saw the soft underbelly of a decadent, debt-laden consumerized West, and he saw the boundary-softening tendencies of liberalism in the late Information Age. He no doubt saw (and helped to sow) the domestic strife within the US, and the way our internal cohesion has been driven to new lows for the most part by that exact Information Age diffusion and perspectival diversity. He saw that we had very significant questions about the Western Alliance and NATO—in large part, as we know from events of the past month, by our post-historical illusions, our refusal to actually wrestle with the deep and durable realities reflected in our grandparents’ memories of authoritarian conquest. And he guessed that the United States’s resolve to engage militarily anywhere in the world after Afghanistan was probably gone. He saw all the weaknesses. These were on display for everyone, everywhere the past decade or more.
But he also seems to have totally misunderstood and misjudged Green’s strengths. He didn’t understand that within those disasters and contradictions, there are also extreme dignities, immense strengths through which Green by its very nature can do two things incredibly well: First, it can respond to acts of oppression with a moral ferocity unlike anything that has come before in human civilization. And second, it can convene groups and peoples in outrage against oppression with a speed and moral clarity that is unmatched in all of history. And this is precisely what we’ve seen, with the global network not merely turning against Russia in toto in a matter of days, which it did (with dissent even coming from within Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua and others) but virtually disabling Russia’s existence from the human civilizational matrix, a complete economic, social, and political ostracization, the likes of which I don’t know that we have ever seen anywhere in history.
(There’s no doubt that Putin is very shrewd in understanding the mechanics of networks—as a world leader, how could he not? That is, it’s clear he’s cognitively seeing and assessing networks. My critique is leveled more at the deeper philosophical and worldview complexity of Green, which makes it such a cohering force beyond borders for resisting oppression. To truly understand Green in the manner that matters here strategically requires a sophisticated and later-stage emotional intelligence and empathic faculty, which we see no evidence of. And while his cognitive line of development is Green or later, his decision-making is evidence that his moral line of development is Red or earlier, and he seems to have significant “former glory” shadow and imperial self-identity that combines to put his overall self-system apparatus, at least in terms of his overall decision matrix, at best at a tribal Amber, and more likely a tyrannical Red. In any case, I’ll soon pose the possibility that he understands enough about the network to know exactly how the US would react and that his strategy counted on it, and what the implications of that might be.)
Considered from another vantage point, earlier stages tend to see the Culture Wars that Green itself engenders as existential, while later stages tend not to, as Culture War contests for values are a feature, not a bug, of Orange and later liberalism. Yes, Orange democracies require a deep respect for and skillfulness within the very liberal structures and processes that democratic polities use to advance their values, and we’ve been failing that test a lot lately throughout the west. But to understand Putin’s mistake is to see it developmentally. He saw the west’s breakdown vis a vis the Culture Wars as representing an existential weakness that would preclude contemporary power structures from galvanizing and organizing a meaningful reply, but that is precisely when they become strongest. When later stage meaning structures are actually threatened, they’ll cohere instantly, especially in the face of regressive threat. Green can find its Red, and it has.
A Network Attack
Interestingly, in my view China has made the same mistake here: there is no way that Putin went into Ukraine without China’s tacit approval; at the very least, he knew he was going to need China’s economic and political support when the inevitable sanctions arrived. Both China and Russia saw this as an opportunity to attack the US-led world order, and specifically the US dollar as global reserve currency. Again, remember that we’re immersed in a Green lower-right network structure, and that network is normatively defined by the UN Charter (when the US is not violating it itself), but practically enabled by network-nodal coherence in the form of flowing US dollars, which are backed by the United States military worldwide.
It is this network, built by the US after World War II, that China and Russia are in league to attack at a moment that they thought it at its weakest. They sensed that amidst a Great Release, post-Trump, post-Afghanistan, Covid-wracked, WWII-amnesia, debt-laden US, combined with an oil-indentured Europe, a unique geo-strategic fulcrum came open where they could dislodge this network and begin a cascade of events that eventually replaces dollar hegemony with a new bipolar security, economic and currency system for the 21st century. Because let’s be clear, a network war is a protocol war, and the only way to win a war against a network is to convince the members of that network that the protocol is illegitimate (or force them to use your network, which will be the Russian strategy with energy). Not only did Russia and China expect sanctions from the western alliance, I think they were actively counting on them to attempt to delegitimize the US leadership/dollar protocol and facilitate a process of dedollarization wherever there was a marginalized network actor. Their message will soon be: “Look, you cannot trust the post-war order when the US exercises unilateral control over sanctions of your central bank’s foreign reserves.” They’d love for SWIFT to have a competitor in China’s CIPS, or Russia’s newly-announced global cryptocurrency to become a safe haven for other nations whose current leaders are at the margin of the liberal world (Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, N Korea…) And we can be sure that an ex-SWIFT Russia will simply sell its oil and other commodities to Europe settled in gold and to China settled in gold or Yuan, an attempt to do two things in one move: 1) destabilize the dollar standard and to whatever degree possible send even more inflation back to the US through dollar depreciation on one hand and higher energy prices on the other, and 2) setup a competing Russia-China economic and security block on a new, semi-self-contained currency regime (with Russia always ultimately holding either gold or Yuan). One sinisterly clever way to attempt this—I have no idea if it could work—would be to sell oil for gold at an absurdly high implied value of gold (e.g., sell 500 barrels of $100/barrel oil for an ounce of $2,000 gold, which immediately reprices gold at $50,000, crashing the value of the US dollar in one move and making all the gold-intensive central banks—like Russia—25x richer in dollar terms overnight). In any case, in their view, and not wrongly, that’s the game: if the US loses currency hegemony it has a much harder time financing its military, and without US dollar-military hegemony, the 21st century is up for grabs.
Nevertheless, in my view they both, China included, misjudged how fast the network would re-cohere around the dominant security, values and currency protocol in the face of this geopolitical fracture. Underlying the network is not just a series of realpolitik interests, but also a set of values that are animated within the governments, and more importantly, within the populations of nations throughout the world, all of whom can see and understand oppression the moment it is happening in real-time on their smartphones. There has never been a global convening of coherent moral outrage as ubiquitously, uniformly, and quickly as what we’ve witnessed the past two weeks. This is what Green does. This is Green’s superpower. And Russia and China, no matter how hard they try to force matters, don’t have the political or moral legitimacy to pretend to emancipatory Green values.
While I will bet that this ends up being a historic strategic misjudgment on Putin’s part, and may culminate in the end of his power and Russia as we’ve known it, I think it will also alter the course of China’s thinking. I have spoken elsewhere about Wang Huning, who is China’s preeminent intellectual architect of their domestic and foreign policy. And I said at the time, it was my tentative judgment that Wang Huning did not seem to have an integrative philosophy at a level that he would need to in order to architect China’s strategy of replacing the United States as a global leader (very tentative, the only way to judge is by China’s policies). To me, this crisis is more evidence of that judgment. While in some ways I can’t blame them—Russia takes all the risk, and China just sits back and watches to see whether the network fracture is possible, which seems like attractive asymmetric risk/reward—ultimately I think China has misstepped here and will get dragged into this in ways that are unpredictable and not always to their benefit. I expect they will begin to distance themselves from Russia in subtle ways over the coming months (and not without them putting up a hell of a narrative fight while doing so). If nothing else, Taiwan has to look like it’s off the table now. There is only so far an isolated China could go into direct, great power economic competition. If Russia is the world’s gas station, China is the world’s factory, and factories need customers. It’s not in China’s interests to get into a direct economic fight with a majority of its customers.
However, I want to be fair. As I’ve said explicitly above, I believe Russia (and its silent partner China) have intentionally set this situation up knowing and counting on a drastic financial counterattack. If that’s accurate, then presumably much of the above is not simply a strategic mistake but a planned setting of the chess board to play out the kind of long-term network attack I’ve outlined here. Between China’s manufacturing base and their combined natural resources, they do wield formidable power as a united block. Nevertheless, I still believe that the power and wealth of the integrated western network is not easily displaceable, nor reducible to just economic interests divorced from the rule of law and international values. Besides, this attack on the network comes down to oil, Russia’s one hole card, and it’s an epic gamble to think that the west won’t rally to open drilling and shale in the United States, or worse for petrostates in the long-term, implement a Manhattan Project for green energy and energy self-sufficiency.
A Catalytic Opportunity for World Transformation
Beyond economics, let’s return again to this fascinating and deeply-problematic strategic problem, which is what to do when a nuclear power decides to violate the UN Charter of national sovereignty and bully their neighbors, up to and including nuclear saber-rattling? This is an immense problem for the UN and the United States. We see this problem very clearly in concrete terms when we think of a 40 mile convoy of heavy artillery and infantry heading toward Kyiv today, and none of the Western alliance able to provide any sort of direct support to Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone to give them the best chance of success against such overwhelming odds. We can’t do this because it would be a monumental error to confront Russia militarily and give them an excuse to escalate to nuclear usage.
Instead, to resolve the strategic dilemma that it represents, we might try to dissolve it from Green and Teal, and not allow ourselves to regress to the martial instincts of Amber imperial or Orange superpower standoff if we are going to avoid a nuclear apocalypse. Every structure of evolution has within it a set of contradictions that eventually become the fuel for solving the very problems it creates, and Green is no different. Putin has shown us that, for whatever reasons we might want to otherwise detail, the Information Age sees a nuclear bully attempting to take over a sovereign territory while the nations of the world are unable to respond other than through economic means. But perhaps the answer to the question lies within the contradiction itself. Economic punishment works so well because it emanates from within a diffuse and consensus-based network itself, with the legitimacy of the whole network convicting a single node as cancerous. And like an immune system inside of a biological entity, the immune system has decided to attack the cancer cell to keep the host body alive. Perhaps the same applies with the military and security apparatus here.
So what would a true, network-based security apparatus look like? Clearly it would not be a single country like the United States, or even more concretely as it relates to recent history, not just a NATO—a network of actors that occupy a specific region with a specific set of interests and a specific set of historical karma as it relates to any one country. Instead, perhaps the better model to consider here is the United Nations peacekeeping forces. While these seem to be understood as relatively feckless over the decades, its power (or lack thereof) is inextricably linked with the context of a shortsighted, end of history, post-Cold War unipolar US. But that need not be the case, and indeed the US and its intelligentsia might soon be the first to come to the conclusion that what we’re doing is not only not working, it’s actively broken. Much like Europe’s recent overnight 180º U-turn on NATO, bestowing the UN with real power is a matter of choice, conviction, and adequate philosophical vision and commitment. If the United Nations had a standing, defensive-only military that was deep, powerful, and capable of implementing defensive procedures to protect any of the members of its charter, we might be in a different situation today. (Though it’s outside the scope of this current discussion, in order for this to work it is in the US and the world’s long-term best interests to pair this proposal with global nuclear weapon abolition, a Bancor-like/trans-statal reserve currency, and a more distributed governance model for the UN security council, which is absurdly outdated by allowing authoritarian state vetoes on global responses. All of these are at least theoretically initiable with the right catalytic context, which it’s possible Russia could soon provide.)
In this counterfactual, Putin’s calculus would’ve changed entirely if rather than the Security Council having a veto on any action, there was a broader scope of governance dictating whether the UN Peacekeeping Force would be committed to defending an invasion of a sovereign country. While small nations today don’t seriously consider moving against the international community, especially if the United States disapproves, it is the presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of authoritarian regimes that increasingly demand new thinking (and undoubtedly dusting off “under-theorized” nuclear disarmament, now urgent again). Networks can hardly be attacked at a given node, they have to be degraded over time through moral insolvency such that the members of the network no longer believe in it. Paradoxically, that will only happen if the US doesn’t actually vest its world-leading power now or soon into a better, more distributed governance mechanism that is actually smarter and more legitimate than any one nation in the global community. Ironically, had this structure been put in place after the fall of the Soviet Union, it likely would have kept America from itself committing the biggest foreign policy blunder in its history, the absolutely historic, stupid decision to go to war in the Middle East for 20 years. And Americans’ own history should be instructive here: our immense, rightful, pride in having the world’s oldest democracy would never have come about had George Washington not rejected calls to become king and vested his power in legitimizing America’s founding institutions. What the Orange structure of universal values and human rights demonstrated is that, much like investing our capital today to produce more wealth tomorrow, only by vesting and peacefully transferring legitimate power today do we get further, more integrated, more skillful, more capable governance tomorrow (as long as it is well-designed).
Therefore, it is increasingly my view that, contrary to some analysts’ views that the US, after being humbled by its foreign policy misadventures and domestic strife, should retreat back to a self-sufficient “island nation”, my view is the opposite. We will be safer, and more of our actual, global existential problems solved—from nuclear proliferation to climate change—if we animate the global network with real power, starting with a defensive military power which, while it is too late perhaps to do anything differently in this instance, could over time radically change the calculus of a China looking at a sovereign Taiwan, or a North Korea threatening its neighbors in the south.
Because values are holarchical, what’s at stake is whether we defend the capability of sovereign individuals to be part of political systems where they decide on their own political future. In turn, individuals are within nation states that are themselves sovereign and have the power to decide what their future entails, irrespective of how other nations view it. Nations cannot be allowed to overpower their neighbors or engage in geopolitics that destroys or overrides the sovereignty of the people within that nation to choose their future. Under this rubric of globally-legitimated consensus founded in the sovereignty of a concrete peoples, if China and Taiwan want to form an integrated national union, they’d both have to freely choose to do so, modifying completely the calculus and strategy of how China plans to effectuate it. This may not completely dissolve the problem, but the current approach of waiting for force differentials or hard power standoffs between individual nuclear equipped nation state actors is total lunacy, and will do nothing but prolong a status quo that, to return to my opening sentence, runs a 99% chance of eventually seeing a nuclear exchange.
The two obvious criticisms of this point of view are first that it is naive to think that any power, including the United States, will bestow more power into the United Nations. Can any UN defensive military capability be produced that won’t get eroded over time or undermined by the most powerful players in the network? Can American elites see past their brokerage statements, as they’ve benefited from the dollar-asset hegemony that’s driven real interest rates down, financial asset values up, and made them wealthy? Can voters see how the US has been degraded, its middle class hollowed out, its manufacturing sector exported, its debt load exploded, in large part by the Triffin dilemma of any global reserve currency? Can every American see that as long as it continues with its Faustian bargain, it is on the road to ruin, and in seeking power, wealth and peace it will seek all and achieve none? All of these are major dilemmas, which is why the United States, as the most powerful node in the network, would have to lead and architect it as such. And that would always start with our leaders starting to have some real adult conversations, while seeing in the structure of this moment the deeper systemic but reformable flaws that the US-led world order has in its design. In the face of actual planetary nuclear annihilation, all we can do is hope that the ideas of our better nature find the soil they need to germinate when the time is right.
The second criticism is that this kind of thinking is not new, and indeed the history of the United Nations is such that these kinds of networks, including bestowing them with power, have perhaps been tried, and for many reasons, the world was not ready to take this step.
I grant both criticisms. Nevertheless, the world is not static, nor is history. We live in an evolving universe, and life conditions change as values evolve, the economy complexifies, technology gets more advanced, and the intermixing of all of the forces of human life create new situations which call for solutions that address the contradictions inherent in the very set of structures we’re living with today. Evolving history is innately creative.
And I would suggest, as many others have as well, that what today presents us with in the form of a nuclear bully invading a sovereign country and threatening, or even daring the world to try to stop him, is indeed the kind of direct challenge and a novel life condition that were it to stand, could find us regressing back to a pre-World War I imperialism. Therefore the challenge is on us to craft ways such that it cannot stand, but do so without triggering the very events we’re trying to avoid to begin with. All evolutionary novelty comes from creative advances and innovations that decide, either implicitly or explicitly, that the trade-off is now worth it, that bearing the cost of a change yields gains that outweigh the new problems or costs that the change represents; given the complex and existential problems we now face, it is hard to see how staying in the status quo is tenable. Because evidence from the real world, whether in terms of how certain revanchist imperialist authoritarian leaders equipped with nuclear weapons are thinking about the world, or how the global world order continues to falter in the face of emerging challenges, or how the nature and speed of the world’s response demonstrates how effective network consciousness and network governance can be in combating and resisting the very problems that those authoritarians represent, suggests that we should take this opportunity to radically rethink and reform the manner in which we empower the global community to solve for 21st century problems arising as the Information Age comes to an end and the Transformation Age emerges.
About Robb Smith
Robb Smith is a leading thinker on the Transformation Age and the global Integral movement. He is the creator of the augmented leadership platform Context, co-founder and CEO of Integral Life and founder of the Institute of Applied Metatheory.