Where have all the leaders gone? So much has happened in 2011, but there is precious little evidence of world events being guided by a few great men and women. From the social revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square to the impact of the Tea Party on American politics, and on to the Occupy movement, loose-knit, largely leaderless networks are exercising great influence on social and political affairs.
Networks draw their strength in two ways: from the information technologies that connect everybody to everybody else, and from the power of the narratives that draw supporters in and keep them in, sometimes even in the face of brutal repression such as practiced by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Aside from civil society uprisings, this is true of terrorist networks as well. The very best example is al Qaeda, which has survived the death of Osama bin Laden and is right now surging fighters into Iraq -- where they are already making mischief and will declare victory in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces.
The kind of "people power" now being exercised, which is the big story of the past year, is opening a whole new chapter in human history -- an epic that was supposed to have reached its end with the ultimate triumph of democracy and free market capitalism, according to leading scholar and sometime policymaker Francis Fukuyama. When he first advanced his notion about the "end of history" in 1989, world events seemed to be confirming his insight. The Soviet Union was unraveling, soon to dissolve. Freedom was advancing nearly everywhere. Fukuyama knew there would still be occasional unrest but saw no competing ideas emerging. We would live in an age of mop-up operations, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- for which he had initially plumped -- and this year's war to overthrow Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. As Fukuyama noted in his famous essay, "the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world."
Fukuyama is only the latest in a long line of wise people who thought things were "over." From humankind's historical beginnings, a very lively interest in endings has always been apparent. The unknown author of the epic of Gilgamesh, a ruler of ancient Uruk (modern Iraq), was the first to focus on the mortality of the individual. He explored questions that were picked up on later by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Aurelius -- about the meaning of existence and what happens after death -- and that have continued to puzzle the thoughtful up into our time. Others have looked at "the end" from a wider, world-encompassing perspective -- most dramatically depicted in the "revelations" envisioned by Christian Apocalyptic literature. The Mayans, too, thought very much about endings. Their "long-count" calendar is famously set to terminate on Dec. 21, 2012.
The larger sweep of world events has often been incorporated into these "endist" views as well. Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, the "Tatars," were so named by Christians who believed that these all-conquering riders had come from the nether world, Tartarus, to announce the looming end of times. Tolstoy's character from War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov, spent a lot of time and effort attaching numerical values to Napoleon's name -- to see whether the Corsican had the "number of the Beast" (666). Hitler also had his turn in the dock as a candidate anti-Christ. All of them proved false, however, and the end never quite came.
Many have expressed doubts about the latest "end of history" thesis, and even Fukuyama has mused that, even if some kind of inflection point has been reached, history could well continue on in some new vein. In this he might be right. For it is possible -- indeed, more appropriate -- to look at world events from a point of view that considers "endings" as not so final.
Instead there are historical turnings after which what was recedes and what is and will persist flourishes -- a world less driven by the apocalyptic, one more attuned to the epochal. It could be argued that the Bible takes this view: The Flood in Genesis ushers in not the end but a new beginning; the Second Coming in Revelation features travail, but also a 1,000-year era of peace. Even J.R.R. Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth sees "the end" as a new beginning -- as does the Mayan long-count calendar.
So it may be now. But just what is ending? And what is beginning? In terms of world affairs, I see that a great turning has occurred: A process that began in the 16th century reached its climax at the end of the millennium. There was a protracted struggle during this period between empires and the nation-states that rose up, fought against, and eventually defeated them.
Before the start of the long wars between empires and nations -- i.e., for all of recorded history from Sargon of Akkad to Philip II of Spain -- all great events were driven by empires that fed on the territory, resources, and labor of others. Persian, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Ottoman, Mongol, Mughal -- with few exceptions, these and other empires were the arbiters of events. But in the 1500s, a sense of nationalism began to emerge in some places, most notably in Western Europe, where English and Dutch resistance to Spanish dominion was most pronounced. These struggles gave birth to some early nation-states that proved much stronger than the ancient and medieval city-states that were all eventually bowled over by empires.
From the outset, empire and nation fought each other unremittingly. As the great social scientist Charles Tilly observed in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, "War made the state, and the state made war." Even small states often sought to fill the void left by declining empires with imperial aggrandizement of their own. For example, the Portuguese and Dutch built seaborne empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, with holdings across the world's Southern Hemisphere hewn from the edges of indigenous imperia. For centuries this was the pattern, sometimes unfolding gradually -- as in the case of Britain, whose gains were primarily in America in the 17th century, South Asia in the 18th, and Africa in the 19th -- but occasionally playing out far more quickly, as with the rise of the Germans in the 1860s and their bloody fall in 1945.
By 1900 the outcome of the continuing conflict between empires and nations was still in doubt. V.I. Lenin, a true predecessor to Fukuyama in that he predicted the self-destructive end of empires, noted at the time that most of the world's land mass was still ruled by empires. He foresaw, however, that amid their struggles with nations, empires would eventually turn upon each other. And so they did. World War I consisted of a horrifying series of sledgehammer blows inflicted by empire against empire. What was left of world imperium went at it again a generation later, the survivors bankrupt and in ruins by the end of World War II. Even the grim Soviet successors to the czars could hold on for just another four decades. By 2000, recalculation of Lenin's "imperial control" figures would yield only a few rounding-error-sized holdings remaining.
So the end that Fukuyama perceived may have really been instead a great "bend of history," with the fighting between empires and nations finally, decisively resolved in the latter's favor. There are no more empires, lest one is willing to see the United States in this role -- just a few Americans on the far left and right characterize the country as such, though some others around the world are more inclined to view America this way. In the place of fallen empires there are new nations everywhere, South Sudan being just the latest in a decades-long line. Perhaps the best measure of the triumph of the nation-state is the roster of the United Nations, which formed with just over 50 members at the end of World War II and has almost 200 today. And the idea of nationhood as a focus of loyalty and organizing principle remains attractive, including to those to whom this designation is being denied -- Kurds, Palestinians, Pashtuns, and others.
Yet, if this notion of a "bend" rather than an end to history is right, something must fill the void created by the fallen empires. It seems to me that networks -- the aforementioned loosely knit social aggregations of both civil and "uncivil" society actors -- are striving to do just this. Over the past decade and more, networks have sprouted all over the world. In their finer moments they have achieved much good, helping to rein in the excesses of nations by, for example, encouraging the curtailment of nuclear weapons testing and fostering the spread of an international ban on anti-personnel land mines.
The noblest of these types of networks have most recently been on display from Tunisia to Syria, essentially leaderless social movements that have either toppled or imperiled tyrants even though the latter have had the big battalions on their side. The darker side of the network phenomenon is best exemplified by al Qaeda, which began a great war between nations and networks over a decade ago. Despite suffering a series of reverses, al Qaeda remains on its feet and fighting. Beyond the world of terrorism, criminal networks are growing in strength as well, often tearing at the fabric of nations, as they have done in Mexico in recent years -- and have been doing in various parts of Africa for even longer.
How the new pattern will unfold is still unclear, but just as the first nation-states were often tempted to become empires, there may be a pattern in which nations and networks somehow seek to fuse rather than fight. Iran, in its relations with Hezbollah, provides perhaps the best example of a nation embracing and nurturing a network. So much so that, in parsing the 2006 Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, most of the world -- and most Israelis -- counted it as a win for the network. China, too, has shown a skill and a proclivity for involving itself with networks, whether of hackers, high-sea pirates, or operatives who flow along the many tendrils of the Asian triads' criminal enterprises. The attraction may be mutual, as nations may feel more empowered with networks in their arsenals and networks may be far more vibrant and resilient when backed by a nation. All this sets the stage for a world that may have 10 al Qaedas operating 10 years from now -- many of them in dark alliances with nations -- a sure sign that the Cold War–era arms race has given way to a new "organizational race" to build or align with networks.
Clearly, a turning has occurred. With empires gone and the field seemingly left to nations, networks of all sorts have emerged to take up a new challenge, to usher in a new age. Virtually all networks have been "born fighting," like the first wave of modern nation-states some 500 years ago. If the last "bend of history" is any indicator, this latest turning speaks to a continued epoch of conflict.
This time, however, the way of war will be different. For centuries, nations competed effectively by imitating the great forces of empires on land and sea -- and later in the air. Today, networks fight in fundamentally different ways, from waging "battles of the story" in places like Tahrir Square -- whose echoes can be seen in "Occupy" events -- to conducting terrorist and insurgent campaigns in dozens of places around the world. The challenge will be for nations to learn to emulate, where appropriate, the successful tactics of the networks -- and to become adept at countering them as well.
Whenever U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about "bending the arc of history," it is with reference to the search for justice. But other story arcs are out there, and the biggest and most important of them has to do with the rise of networks and their looming impact on war, peace, and statecraft. If we fail to grasp this, we will find ourselves on the path of perpetual conflict, almost by default. Even if we do take the rise of networks seriously, there is likely to be quite a bit of conflict ahead. But there will be more hope for peace and progress as well. For where the world never really had sufficient room for both empires and nations to thrive, there is abundant space for nations and networks. Indeed, the great potential is that each can make the other better.