VI. 1. Global Political Health Overview


The following slides provide an overview of how we might define a subfield of political science devoted to diagnosing the health of the global political system.

Can we accurately make even the simplest sweeping generalization about the health of the global political system? The system contains global imperialist and terrorist movements as well as huge and enduring gaps between rich and poor, but what generalizations about system health are valid? Is the system healthy or unhealthy…and by what criteria? Is health improving or declining?

The most basic questions are hardly even asked. Even political scientists do not typically carry on a dialogue in these terms, much less political leaders, media commentators, or the general public.

  • Slide2Is world health getting better or worse?
  • What are the causal variables?
  • What is the rate of change?
  • What are the dynamics of the rate of change?
  • How are the causal variables connected?

All these questions are perfectly obvious questions that we all ask continually about our own personal health. We also ask these questions about national and global economic conditions. Why not about the all-important global political system, where issues of war and peace are decided?

Can we agree on a common set of criteria, analogous to blood pressure for human health, by which to measure the health of the global political system? This list of criteria is derived from general systems analysis: most, if not all, systems seem to share these criteria.Slide3The above analytical framework is based on the assumption that any self-aware biological system can be described in terms of at least the following characteristics:  moral functionality, budget, reserves, defense, growth, feedback, learning, leadership cohesiveness, mass solidarity, vision, and strategy.

Moral Functionality.  It is not sufficient for the international political system simply to exist; it must function – it must accomplish things.  Therefore, one may ask how well it functions.  But this question is less straightforward than it may appear, since functionality may be defined differently by each actor.  If the international system is supposed to provide a secure and stable environment, then optimal functionality will include such things as the percentage of the world’s population that enjoys physical security from the threat of criminals, terrorists, rebels, or oppressive regimes; economic well-being; a share of political power; access to justice.

However, other definitions of system functionality are possible.  One’s goal might be a system of constant revolutionary renewal that promotes political activism and demands a high level of ideological awareness, in which case one might give high grades to a system that facilitates great leaps forward and cultural revolutions.  One’s goal might be a system that purges foreign cultural concepts and protects traditional beliefs, in which case one might give high grades to a system that minimizes freedom of choice and controls the media.  One’s goal might be a system that maintains the power of a privileged elite, in which case a system in constant turmoil that could be used to justify maintenance of a state of emergency might be given high grades.  One’s goal might be preservation of the privileges enjoyed by a well-financed military, in which case one might favor the constant turmoil of a low-grade civil war that would justify such financing.  One’s goal might be the preservation of a privileged military-industrial elite, in which case one might welcome a high level of international turmoil that would provide a market for the elite’s profitable arms business.

The point is to raise the cautionary flag that if actors are seen to be behaving in ways that advance one of the goals in the preceding paragraph, rather than assuming they are acting incompetently, one should ask if they might simply have a different definition of what constitutes a smoothly functioning system.  Here, however, it will be assumed that the international political system is “supposed” to produce a secure and beneficial environment for all.  That is, “functionality” is defined—at least partially–in moral terms, from the system’s perspective, hence the term “moral functionality.”  Functionality undoubtedly also encompasses less normative aspects as well – the obvious day-to-day aspects of a system’s ability to “function,” to pass information, use resources, and achieve goals.  The essential point here is that it does not make sense to grade a political system on performance unless one includes in the calculation its performance on moral issues:  a political system that is economically productive and egalitarian is fundamentally different from one that has a rich elite oppressing a poverty-stricken lower class.

Budget connotes the day-to-day balance of input and output of resources, while reserves are budgetary quantities stored for emergencies.  Both include economic factors to be sure but may also include qualitative concepts such as patriotism, level of education, or willpower – whatever resources the system employs to attain its goals.

Defense entails the system’s ability to maintain its ability to function.  The time-frame over which any particular defensive strategy is successful is critical to an evaluation of its success.

Growth may simply be growth per se or growth in a healthy direction and at a healthy rate.  In order for growth to occur in such a manner, feedback and learning are critical.  The system must receive information and must also learn how to make use of that information.

Leadership cohesiveness would seem to be of great importance to system functionality, but it is not clear either that this is always the case or that more cohesiveness is always better than less.  A system under severe attack may function better if highly networked and dispersed with no cohesive leadership. In addition, leadership that is cohesive but lacks vision may be dysfunctional.  Similar arguments may be made about the followers:  mass solidarity would typically seem advantageous but might be a disadvantage when the changing nature of external threats called for extraordinary tactical flexibility and originality or when the people march together in the wrong direction—exhibiting a sort of mass groupthink. Perhaps the terms leadership cohesiveness and mass solidarity should be more precisely defined, e.g., as cohesion and solidarity in the conviction that “we should all support the group” but not that “we should all toe the line.”  The most loyal team member in a new situation may well be the one with the courage to challenge conventional wisdom.  But “challenge,” in this context, does not mean “overthrow;” it means challenge in the sense of challenging a partner to excel.

Finally, there is the question of whether it is better to have a concept of where one would like to go or simply to react.  Whether one argues that a bad vision of a desired future is better or worse than no vision, certainly vision would appear to be a factor with significant impact on system behavior.  From the practical perspective, the degree to which a vision exists will affect behavior, and the degree to which it is shared by all system actors will have implications for efficiency.  A vision of an apocalyptic future that must be avoided is likely to focus a system’s energy on extreme defensive measures that are used to excuse all manner of ills, causing the system to pay a high price.  Whether or not this is good of course depends on the accuracy of the vision. A democracy that lurches back and forth between two different visions depending on which side has won the most recent election may spend more time fighting old battles than actually making progress toward either side’s goal, a battle likely to be costly both in terms of resources and legitimacy.

The question, then, is the degree to which this analytical framework can help us evaluate the health of the contemporary international system.  This essay’s perspective that the international political system exists to facilitate the long-term development of a secure, peaceful, and pleasant life for the world’s population is, of course, not naively to assume that this is every individual’s goal but to provide a basis for judging the system.  This essay will attempt to use the framework described above as a tool for laying out some principles and devising some practical devices (or “metrics”) that can be applied to evaluate how specific situations may be weakening or strengthening the ability of the international political system to work toward this goal.


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