A Subtle Distinction That Could Make All the Difference in the Future of Global Policy

During the Cold War we divided the world in capitalist and communist. On the surface it was a valid and useful distinction—here between kinds of economic structures. But we didn’t leave it at that. We polarized and mythologized the distinction, made it about good versus evil. We’ve made significant steps since then at getting beyond such dangerous ideological simple-mindedness. But there is a related less obvious kind of trap that we can easily fall into that warrants our attention if we are to make good decisions on the global stage in times ahead. 

It again starts with an accurate distinction—in this case between democratic and authoritarian political structures. It is a distinction that again recognizes something very important, indeed an essential step forward in culture’s developmental story. The trap comes when we once more take an accurate and important observation and turn it into a narrative about good and evil. Democratic governance brings greater individual freedom—a great thing—but this is not absolute freedom, and certainly it is not some ideal opposite to what we have known before that others should adhere to irrespective of their circumstances. This more subtle kind of trap has gotten us into trouble more than once since the end of the Cold War. For example, I very much doubt that either the second Iraq War or the incursion into Libya at the time of Muammar Gaddafi would have taken place without this kind of trap playing a role. 

Avoiding this further trap requires a couple recognitions both of which follow from the more systemic vantage that becomes possible with what Creative Systems Theory calls culturally mature perspective. The first is most readily grasped. Historically we’ve tended to divide the world into “chosen people” and “evil others.” Such polarizing has served us by reducing a highly complex and uncertain world to a more manageable black and white. It has also supported social bonds and cultural identity. But it can’t continue to benefit us in today’s world with its ever greater availability of weapons of mass destruction. I’ve written extensively about how the possibility of a peaceful future depends on the answer to a simple question: Is it possible to have social identity without evil others. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how at least the potential for doing so is built into who we are. It also makes it clear that possibility is not destiny. 

The second kind of recognition concerns the importance of thinking developmentally, of recognizing that societies can exist at very different points in culture’s evolutionary story. Such understanding   becomes increasingly important in our ever more globally interconnected world. More and more often we find ourselves in inescapable proximity with peoples whose realities may be very different from our own. The fact of developmental differences might seem obvious. But thinking about cultural differences in evolutionary terms is largely taboo in many circles, particularly in academia. There are good historical reasons. Such thinking in times past has been used to justify colonialism and racism. But it is important in going forward not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to developmental/evolutionary perspective. Creative Systems Theory provides one set of tools for making needed distinctions. 

What we learn from such distinctions can be subtle. For example, while we in the West tend to laud the contribution of Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, arguably he was too far ahead of his time to be a good leader for his people. Vladimir Putin proved a better match, at least for the short term. Today the future of Russia, and perhaps the future of the planet, hinges on whether the Russian people are far enough along in their development that they can move beyond leaders of his ilk. It also hinges on whether we in the West can bring sufficiently nuanced perspective to bear that we can walk the dangerous policy tightrope that today’s circumstances present. 

Developmental perspective reframes our task when it comes to policy, and in ways that require new kinds of thinking. Most immediately it challenges us get beyond us versus them conclusions. But it also cautions that the result if we think correctly will not always be a peaceful world. And it emphasizes that transgressions cannot be ignored if our future is to be at all safe and healthy. Strong armies and traditional statecraft very much continue to have roles. It counsels that the world community in fact needs to get better at making distinctions and enforcing them—making clear red lines when necessary.

The difference with developmental/evolutionary perspective is that the basis for distinctions stops being ideology or governmental form, and becomes instead behavior. The most obvious example: We must agree that it is not acceptable for one country to invade the territory of another except under the most extreme of defense-related circumstances. If we can learn to better appreciate developmental differences and carefully think through and agree upon what behaviors in fact represent violation, it may be possible to weather the decades and centuries ahead without calamitous conflict.

Effective future global policy will require a keen sensitivity to how different peoples often reside at quite different points in culture’s developmental story.