Any day something small might happen that changes the history of the world.

Summary:  These days might be ones of historic significance. America is the fault line of the world, overextended militarily, with a foreign policy of institutionalized belligerence, and papered-over internal divisions. Small events that might happen any day could have almost unimaginable consequences, overturning what we consider the bedrock of our age.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” — Attributed to Lenin.

Political reform will come to Romania only “when apple trees grow pears.”
— Penultimate speech of Nicolae Ceausescu (circa Nov 1989). The crowd jeered during his final speech on 21 December. The regime fell the next day. (The western press reported 64,000 deaths during the revolution; the actual total was aprox 1,000)

The social structures we see around us often seem immovable and enduring, but rest on sand. Just as natural events can sweep away our physical works in minutes, social changes can uproot societies without warning. Decades of change undermine their foundations, and then a child bumps them and — collapse, revealing a new order that’s grown unnoticed around us. These events occur in transitional periods between eras, much like the long peace of 1815-1914 ended during 1914-1945.

We’re now in the 2nd decade of the transitional period following the post-WWII era, which I arbitrarily start in 2001 — the year of 9/11 (the most effective single military action ever), China entering the World Trade Organization, the end of Europe’s national currencies (the Euro became legal tender on 1 Jan 2002), and what might be the century or millennial low price of oil (~$19 for WTI in Nov).

So far the process has been smooth as transitional periods go, unlike the previous one which started with four years of Hell in Europe followed by a calm decade. However I believe the tensions have been building yet unseen — like continental plates locked on a fault, inevitably to break at some random point in time.

Another analogy is dropping grains of sand to form a pile. Laypeople tend to think of self-organizing criticality as a process of building (e.g., intelligence as an emergent property of a growing neural network); that’s not always so.

Sandcastle and wave
Not as strong as it looks.

Once the sandpile model reaches its critical state there is no correlation between the system’s response to a perturbation and the details of a perturbation. Generally this means that dropping another grain of sand onto the pile may cause nothing to happen, or it may cause the entire pile to collapse in a massive slide.

— From Boundedness and Self-Organized Semantics: Theory and Applications by Maria K. Koleva, Assoc Prof at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

There is nothing special about the grain that collapses the pile; the size of the grain has no relation to the size of the collapse. A single match can incinerate an overgrown drought-stricken forest. The assassination of an obscure Duke incinerated Europe. A misjudgment around a council table in Brussels might end the generations-long project to unify Europe. A handful of angry people in the Middle East might decide to avenge their dead children by attacking a US city and so unleash another world war — the first 4th generation world war.

Two examples in 1989 of small things causing big things

The fall of the iron curtain on 9 November 1989, described by Dylan Grice of Societe Generale (12 November 2009):

The Berlin Wall itself might even have come down by accident. An announcement on easing restrictions on East Germans traveling to West Germany was botched by politburo spokesman Gunter Schabowski, who seems not to have properly read his brief. Not knowing when the new policy was to come into effect, and pressed by the foreign media during a live broadcast to give a date, he blurted out immediately, without delay.

Minutes later a newsreader at ARD in West Germany broadcast that “This 9th of November is an historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone!” Of course that wasn’t the new policy, and it wasn’t supposed to be effective immediately. But by then it was too late. The broadcast had been picked up all over East Germany and, within hours, check points across the border were crowded with hundreds of thousands of deliriously ecstatic East Germans celebrating their new-found freedom.

The fall of President Ceausescu of Romania described by Jon Snow of the BBC, quoted in Wall and Piece (2005) by Banksy (Britain’s great street artist):

The corrupt and brutal regime of President Ceausescu of Romania was infamous across the world. His ferocious government had run the country emphatically for many years, crushing any signs of dissent ruthlessly. In November 1989 he was re-elected President for another five years as his supporters at Party Conference gave him forty standing ovations.

On December 21st the President, disturbed by a small uprising in the western city of Timisoara in support of a Protestant Clergyman, was persuaded to address the public rally in Bucharest.  One solitary man in the crowd, Nica Leon, sick to death with Ceausescu and the dreadful circumstances he created for everyone started shouting in favour of the revolutionaries in Timisoara. The crowd around him, obedient to the last, thought that when he shouted out “long live Timisoara!” it was some new political slogan.

They started chanting it too. It was only when he called, “Down with Ceausescu!” that they realized something wasn’t quite right. Terrified, they tried to force themselves away from him, dropping the banners they had been carrying. In the crush the wooden batons on which the banners were held began to snap underfoot and women started screaming. The ensuing panic sounded like booing.

The unthinkable was happening. Ceausescu stood there on his balcony, ludicrously frozen in uncertainty, his mouth opening and shutting. Even the official camera shook with fright. Then the head of security walked swiftly across the balcony towards him and whispered, “They’re getting in”. It was clearly audible on the open microphone and was broadcast over the whole country on live national radio.

This was the start of the revolution. Within a week Ceausescu was dead.

Other posts in this series about the wonders of this time.

  1. Today’s example of American foreign policy weirdness (about our allies)
  2. Look at the economy. Fight the illusion of normality. Feel the weirdness.
  3. Embrace the weird news. It signals the transition to a new world.

For More Information

See all posts about the End of the post-WWII geopolitical regime! These are of special note:

  1. Power shifts from West to East: the end of the post-WWII regime in the news, 20 December 2007
  2. The post-WWII geopolitical regime is dying. Chapter One , 21 November 2007 — Why the current geopolitical order is unstable, describing the policy choices that brought us here.
  3. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay, 3 March 2008 — More thoughts on the “dreamland” described by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, and what it tells us about the foundation of the American empire.

An analogy from nature

Glacial calving is a normal process, one of the largest predictable events we can see. Tensions build over years, then unpredictably unleash in minutes to reshape the terrain over a city-sized area. It’s a good analogy for events of our time.

4 thoughts on “Any day something small might happen that changes the history of the world.”

  1. This is brilliant and a huge corrective to the smug self-satisfied “Washington consensus” that the world is a simple predictable place that America can easily control with a few bombs dropped in the right places and a few economic threats delivered to the right ears.

  2. Or you could just as easily argue that the US is in the most dominant position of any nation or civilization ever, and that it will remain so for several more decades without serious challenge. Your statement that its military is overextended is blatantly false by any historical metric. The US took 58 combat deaths last year, the USSR had about two million combat deaths each year of WW2 and still won. The US spends about 4% or so of its GDP on the military, again, this is insignificant by historical measures. America looks incredibly resilient and stable. It weathered 9/11 and its worst economic crisis in nearly a century, its crime rate has dropped significantly since the early 90’s.

    1. Gloucon,

      I think that is a reading FAIL. I didn’t say anything about the overall status of the USA, so mentioning crime rates and economic cycles is not relevant. Why not mention the weather?

      We are overextended in the simple military sense of becoming increasing engaged in fighting local insurgencies around the world. As we have proven at length, bombing and assignations are ineffective in containing them, and usually strengthen them. Hence the increasing pressure for boots on the ground.

      Our enemies are multiplying rapidly, and our widening geographic involvement is setting a widening area of the world aflame. Here’s a partial list of groups signing onto the other side:

      Citing the number of deaths in this intermission between our wars is fairly seriously missing the point.

      Your cost numbers are also missing the point. We spread military-related costs across departments. Veterans Affairs (health care), vet pensions, nukes at DoE, some Intel in Homeland Security, some off the books — most estimates of defense-related costs are at ~6% of GDP. That is a massive sum, esp when our public infrastructure and education systems are rotting — and the costs for the boomers’ retirements are just starting to hit.

      Hand-waving that away is quite astonishing.

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