US President Donald Trump’s recent UN address provoked a number of responses. One of the most interesting came from former physicist and current President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian. In an interview with the Financial Times, Sarkissian argued that we need to think about politics like we think about ‘quantum behaviour’. He went on to suggest that ‘we are living through a dynamic process of change’ and that ‘we have to look at our world in a completely different way’.
But what has ‘quantum politics’ got to do with geopolitical rivalry?
The West’s underlying worldview derives from an empirical perspective of science that emerged during the scientific revolution. In the eighteenth century, leading thinkers pushed for scientific methodologies that were both rational and mechanical. They assumed that the world could be observed and objectively measured independently of human sentiment.
This paradigm began to dominate Western philosophy and the human sciences. Ever since science and mathematics began being taught in schools, this classical paradigm has dominated non-Western and Western societies alike. It was a comforting view of the world — science could remove uncertainty in the quest for human improvement.
But when Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity emerged in the early nineteenth century — followed by the quantum theory of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles — views began to diverge as to what science was telling us. This uncertainty also spread to the social sciences.
Flora Lewis was the first to observe this schism in scientific thought, arguing that modern physics proves that ‘the world is a mass of uncertainties’ where ‘predictions of reality must be based only on waves of probability’.
The social sciences appeared to be offering solutions with certainty under circumstances where apparently there was none. Lewis suggests that ‘the quantum mechanics of politics’ demands from us an understanding that flux is inevitable.
When the global financial crisis broke out in 2007, the British Academy admitted to the Queen of England that they failed to see the crisis coming. It was an admission that mainstream economic and political theory did not correspond with reality.
Indeed, the failure of polls to predict Brexit or Trump’s election confirms that expert paradigms are flawed. The idea that economic systems are inherently stable is being challenged. Without economic stability, political instability is a likely consequence.
So what concepts in quantum theory might help us understand international relations today? The non-classical world is one of multi-states, entanglement and relativity — all of which put uncertainty at the heart of natural and human
Classical social science suggests that everything is well defined and either good or bad, so truth is absolute. But quantum theory suggests that multiple states can exist simultaneously, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive simultaneously. This leads to entanglement, where purity becomes unattainable. In economic terminology, the externalities are always non-zero.
What relevance is this to current US–China tensions?
Henry Kissinger once said that to Americans, every foreign policy problem has a unique and elegant solution. For the Chinese, every solution brings multiple problems. Historian Wang Gungwu suggests that Americans think in terms of ideology, whereas the Chinese think in terms of systems.
With is obsession with the US–China bilateral trade deficit, the President Donald Trump thinks that any deficit is a win for China. Classical game theory suggests that, absent knowledge, the two countries will not cooperate so as to avoid costly tariffs. But even in situations of uncertainty, cooperation on global issues can be a win–win. Global and national political problems are more complicated than ever and classical paradigms cannot readily explain how this has come to pass.
Brexit and the US–China trade war are all about disentanglement, an unravelling of systems and processes that will be extremely costly and unpredictable. Classical thinking suggests that the shift to unilateral decision-making and bilateralism might be a win for the United States in the short-term.
But the complex long-term consequences for the global system will not come cheap.
Sarkissian’s observation suggests we need to break out of classical modes of thinking in order to understand how a complex world is affected by what is akin to ‘quantum behaviour’. Trump is hard to predict using conventional logic, but his strategies and tactics have a pattern — he uses uncertainty to disrupt opponents that presume conventional thinking.
The current trade war is more psychological than real — it will take time for the effects of higher tariffs to impact on the macro economy and consumer decisions. But the rules of psychological warfare seem to suggest that threats have zero marginal cost, with high payoff if opponents yield to threats.
There are currently no good models that derive from quantum theory to predict political behaviour. But understanding how to frame an opponent’s thinking is critical for predicting political outcomes. Sunzi’s classical phrase is embedded in over 3000 years of Chinese thinking — know yourself before knowing your enemy. There are no easy battles, only long wars and the most difficult task of all is conquering one’s selfs.
In this the insights of quantum theory, which have similarities with Chinese systemic thinking, might
Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong