Book review: “Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple” by Randall L. Schweller



Global Affairs

Randall L. Schweller. Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple. JHUP, April 2014. 216 pages. R$ 31,86 (ebook,

Global Affairs, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2015

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What will come after US-led unipolarity? Schweller sees the global system breaking down, moving from an American-led era of order to chaos. Due to the presence of nuclear weapons, systemic wars that have traditionally cleared the way for a new global order are no longer possible. As a consequence, international affairs will be defined by its lack of structure, leaders, followers, and states unable to cooperate effectively: "a world undisturbed by war cannot cleanse and renew itself; like the seas, it becomes foul."

Those who know Schweller's previous books and articles will be somewhat surprised by the very informal style of Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple. For example, assessing the United States' role in global order, he wonders whether "the longtime sheriff, having shot many a feared gunslinger at high noon, finally decided to throw his badge in the dirt and leave town for good." While this approach may make the book accessible to a wider audience, it does so at a significant cost. Schweller's metaphors are at times exaggerated and his assertions are frequently confusing or presented without a necessary explanation or evidence.

For example, he affirms that "Power is being dispersed more evenly across the globe; the world is leveling out. This will make working together to get things done more difficult." Taking a step further, he warns that "old schools of thought will become obsolete, and time-honored solutions will no longer work. .. The new norm is increasingly the lack of a norm". Yet just why is cooperation in a more multipolar order more difficult? Why will global norms disappear? 

Speaking about the US budget crisis, Schweller asserts that "the growth in entitlements alone ... will soon crowd out all other government spending, including on defense..", thus implying that the United States will be economically unable to maintain its global military preponderance. Yet historical evidence suggests that US military spending as a percentage of GDP over the past two and a half decade has not been particularly high, and even after considerable budget cuts the United States spends almost as much on its military as almost all other powers combined. Seemingly contradicting himself, Schweller himself argues, in a different part of the book, that there is no evidence that China will turn into a peer competitor of the United States.

Implying that retreat is the United States' most likely reaction to the new scenario, he cites recent research showing the majority of the US population unwilling to support future military interventions - but is today's fatigue that different from the years after the Vietnam War?

The idea of entropy, which Schweller has explored in previous (interesting) articles is innovative and deserves attention. Yet the author fails to convince the reader that the concept can be applied to social science. It thus remains doubtful that actors will soon adopt irrational behavior: "In the age of entropy", he asserts, "logic is an extremely unreliable signpost." If we are headed to chaos, why is there no initial evidence of it now?

Schweller cites the rise of international criminal groups and other powerful non-state actors and says that "life in this hybrid-horizontal world of networks will be far more complex, random and resistant to order and centralized authority than in the past"- yet how powerful are those groups really? Will historians look back to the first decade of the 21st century and conclude that groups like Al Qaeda or Anonymous fundamentally changed global order? Probably not. 

The book has an at times hurried and sensationalist feel to it. The author seems to make the same argument over and over, using ever more fantastic metaphors as if that would make his case more convincing. For example, he asserts that "like a postmodern novel, the plot features a menagerie of wildly incongruent themes and unlikely protagonists, as if divinely plucked from different historical ages and placed in a time machine set for the third millennium." In addition, the book frequently contains mysterious phrases like "The planet is shrinking at warp speed, and we all seem to be playing the same game." Schweller's prediction that human beings will become "terminally distracted" by Google, tweets, Kindles, iPhones etc. may be true, but it would be a stretch to argue that this affects global order in any meaningful way. After all, social media has not shown to negatively affect productivity levels, nor does it seem to distract policy makers.

The book's strongest parts are the analyses of each rising powers' options, even though he errs by predicting that territorial expansion will become obsolete among powerful states. In the end, however, the concept of entropy - as fascinating as it is - fails to fully explain to the reader why exactly the world is heading down such an unpleasant path of "banality and confusion, of anomie and alientation, of instability without a stabilizer, of devolving order without an orderer." Why will actors care less about cooperation than they used to? What has changed?

As if to try to make the reader feel better at the end of a profoundly gloomy book, Schweller turns to philosophy and argues that "disorder is not necessarily something to fear or loathe. We may, instead, embrace the unknowable, embrace our unintelligible world, our futile struggle to come to terms with its incomprehensibility." That may be the book's most useful piece of advice.

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