Power: Relative and Absolute
MNT will change states from the inside out, altering their capabilities for industrial production, for military action, for power projection, for independent behavior. The capabilities of states that are thoroughly infused with advanced molecular manufacturing technology will be quite potent. But the changes that take place are not only meaningful in terms of absolute power. We must also take into account the changes in relative power both within and between states that may develop during the introduction of MNT into the world and during its spread.
The possibility of internal relative power changes may lead to some counter-intuitive results. Countries such as mainland China, which one would expect to pursue molecular nanotechnology, may try to suppress the development and/or introduction of the technology within their own borders, if it is seen as a threat to autocratic rule. The Soviets, after all, did an excellent job of keeping their telephone system in a mostly unusable condition in order to cripple internal dissent. Nanotechnology will have a far greater impact on the power of individuals and small groups than a simple telephone ever could have.
On the other hand, countries like China (that is, highly centralized countries) may be among the best able to exploit nanotechnology. All else being equal, dictatorships and other highly centralized societies have an advantage over democracies in that they are able to make decisions more quickly. Today, a decision to pursue a new kind of weapons technology, for example, would not have a militarily significant impact for years, and in this context, the few months' advantage in decision-making that autocracies enjoy is not terribly important. Democracies suffer little strategically because there is plenty of time in which to react to the actions of other states. But if a decision to double the number of fighter-aircraft can become reality in a matter of days, then those few months become crucial. That, combined with the fact that autocracies will find it easier to make a decision to actively develop nanotechnology in the first place, may outweigh the internal risks that go along with it, making it a more attractive option for them.
Although molecular manufacturing technology will give all states that possess it nearly identical power potential (since it is based on abundant resources and low energy requirements), it does not follow that all states will therefore be equal in the power they exercise. It is important to understand that there is a difference between potential power and realized power. Just possessing the technology does not mean that a given state will be able to use it to full advantage.
There are many factors we can identify that contribute to or subtract from efficiency in the process of converting potential power to realized power, chief among them the internal structure of the state. Clear examples of how states with nearly equal potential can possess vastly different levels of realized power are not hard to find. Perhaps the most stark is a comparison of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. They both are large countries, with vast expanses of open, unexploited land and natural resources. They have large, educated populations, and have strong traditions of science and technology. Yet, their performance as superpowers shows that potential power does not always equate to realized power. The Soviet Union rates relatively poorly in all measures of performance that can be applied. In terms of military ability, the U.S.S.R. fell further and further behind the U.S. in both level of weapons technology and in the fighting ability of its forces towards the end of the 1980's. Its economy deteriorated for decades before the country finally collapsed in on itself, and that weak economy was a drag on the country's power in the international sphere. At the same time, the U.S. performed far better with roughly the same resource base; its internal system was much more efficient at converting its potential power into actual power. As long as the internal structures of states differ, we should expect that there will be similar cases of some having greater realized power than others that possess the same level of potential power. (Note that while their power may differ in terms of what they can do with the potential they have, they may all be equal in power in one important respect, the ability to destroy each other, as will be discussed later. It is this fact that will have the greatest impact on how they relate to each other.)
A state's social structure will be important because it may affect not only the state's ability to use the technology, but also how it uses the technology. It may be the case that the industrial democracies, with their relative openness and diversity, will prove to be more fertile grounds for the interdisciplinary work that will be necessary to make nanotechnology a reality. Indeed, capitalist competition may be enough of an impetus in itself; the relative states of the American and the former Soviet electronics industries spoke volumes about centrally-planned economies. While this may sound reassuring, it also implies a potentially difficult problem. Over the past five to ten years, centrally-planned states have at last come to realize an important fact about the West: our wealth is due to extreme specialization and competition, and that arrangement rests on a foundation of openness and freedom. Tired of their pathetic living standards, they are adopting openness in order to enjoy the material benefits of capitalism. Nanotechnology, however, will require little specialization, since the entire material needs of a state can be met with only a very small amount of labor. This means that the temptation of material wealth, which was so effective in drawing most of the world's centrally-planned economies into the arms of freedom, will cease to be effective once molecular manufacturing technology is available. With advanced MNT, material wealth can be had without the social structure it now needs, and so some autocracies may adopt our nanotechnology (after we have developed it) but not our institutions, instead retaining the power and decision-making advantages that go along with one-man or one-party rule.
Perhaps some will dismiss the potential of countries like China to develop nanotechnology, but they need only be reminded of China's nuclear arsenal. Today, even countries as poor and undeveloped as Pakistan and Iraq are busy developing nuclear bombs, and those weapons require an internationally monitored, difficult to obtain, toxic material. Nanotechnology could emerge directly from the pharmaceutical industry, and may be far cheaper to develop than the bomb.
A nation's social structure will be important not just because it may affect a state's use of the technology, but also because the social structure may determine which state develops nanotechnology first. One can find in history numerous examples of uneven technological development affecting regional, and sometimes global, power structures. One of the best is the experience of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. In a matter of a century (from about 1750 to 1850), Britain went from a mostly agrarian society to a mostly industrial one, with farmland sprouting smoke-belching factories at an amazing rate. Britain urbanized, industrialized and "modernized" faster than any other state at that time, and as a result of a few years' head-start, Britain was able to dominate global politics for nearly a century. For a small, insular nation to "rule the waves" as Britain did, and to do it for so long, is both surprising, even in retrospect, and instructive.
Had all states at that time progressed at the same rate, there would have been a lower likelihood of conflict, as the power structure, which depends on relative differences in levels of power among actors, would not have changed. The danger of conflict arose when the differential in the various rates of progress began to widen. There is, unfortunately, no reason to think that a similar set of events will not occur during the introduction of MNT. The reason for expecting different rates of progress is in ample evidence today. A survey of the world's states will show not only vast existing differences in present capabilities, but also vast differences in the ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies.
Some of the telltale signs of strength or weakness in this crucial area are easy to spot and easy to measure. Communications infrastructures, for instance, vary widely in terms of bandwidth and reliability all over the world. Western Europe, Japan and most of North America, as well as a few other locations, have first-rate infrastructures for many types of communication. Fax machines, telephones, televisions, computer networks and satellites combine to form an intricate web of contact among people in these areas, and cheap, instant contact with almost anyone is the norm. In this environment, collaboration and the rapid dissemination of ideas thrive, and contribute to a rate of technological growth that is far above what is found in states with incomplete, unreliable or outdated information infrastructures. (Consider the poor quality of the Soviet phone system, as mentioned above, and its impact on the progress of Soviet technology during the 1980s.)
The same is true of market infrastructures. Where they are in poor health, or even completely non-existent, there is a limited ability to innovate and adapt. Without market pressures for change, corporations and individuals can become complacent about their skills; isolated from incentives for constant advancement, they slow and even stop in terms of progress. Again, the Soviet Union is illustrative of this phenomenon, as are a few industries in the West, such as the German biotechnology industry, the American textile industry and the Japanese pharmaceutical industry.
Other factors that may limit the ability of a given state to adapt are numerous, but much more difficult to express succinctly and to measure accurately. For instance, the openness of a state to new ideas and new people (who often carry new ideas with them) can affect the rate at which a state may adapt to MNT and apply it quickly and effectively. The same can be said of a state's corporate management style; some, notably that of the U.S., are very open to innovation, and some nations also have a tradition of entrepreneurialism, which could be considered an extreme form of corporate acceptance of innovation. (5) Traditions of inventiveness and innovation and an expectation of progress are other cultural factors that may prove important during the years of transition to societies based on advanced MNT, and they vary greatly from country to country.
All the above factors will contribute to differing rates of progress as MNT becomes a widely used technology. As the industrial capabilities of some states expand more rapidly than others, the result will be changes in the relative power of states, and this will destabilize relations among those affected. The national differences outlined above may conspire to produce at least temporary shifts in the existing distribution of power in a given region, quickly creating large gaps in the abilities of some actors. This can only be destabilizing (although its impact may be diluted by diplomacy and negotiation), and should be a cause of concern, even before it happens (as just the threat of a power shift can also be destabilizing, since preemptive action is possible on the part of actors who think they will be on the losing end of a power redistribution).
To see the potential for a destabilizing power redistribution, one can look at South Asia. India, a giant both in size (3.3 million square kilometers) and especially in population (over 750 million), is bordered by two rivals: Pakistan to the west and China to the east. India has fought wars with both countries, and their rivalries continue unabated today. Looking more closely at India and China, we find two nations that differ greatly in term of the factors outlined above. China is a closed society, one with a weak infrastructure (physical and information) and few real markets (although this is changing). China, as a Communist nation, also stifles dissent, change and innovation. India, on the other hand, is adjusting to some of the technologies of the late 20th Century at a faster pace. Indian programmers, for example, trained at U.S. universities, are behind the success of some of Silicon Valley's brightest stars in recent years, and many of them return to India (unlike many Chinese students, who remain overseas after study), where they are working to modernize their country. India also has a cultural advantage over China in that one of its official languages is English. As English is the most common language for international communication, Indians have easier access to the vast amount of technical information that is published each year, and this may make them more likely than the Chinese to take advantage of technical advances that occur outside their country.
If India does embrace and apply MNT before China, then we can expect a disruption of the regional power structure of South and East Asia. (6) A great disturbance in the relations between the two most populous nations in the world, who also happen to be nuclear powers and have a history of animosity and war that dates back centuries, should be a matter of concern, to say the least. This situation is illustrative of the sort of dangers that are inherent in the introduction of a radically different technology with such far-reaching consequences for the power of states, and it is especially unnerving because of the speed with which the technology may spread. The Industrial Revolution was difficult for Europe to endure, and it lasted over a hundred years (7); MNT may cause the same level of disruption in only a few short years, leaving much less time to adapt.
Power: Hard and Soft
The advent of MNT will not only cause disruption in power relationships by adding power to some states; it will also cause a loss of power for some. Not all power depends on military strength. Some is based on dependency, and that power can be utilized by either withholding what the dependent state needs, or by threatening to do so. This is usually referred to as "soft power," as opposed to the "hard power" of military action (or threat of it) (8). As an example of soft power, consider the U.S.-Japan trade relationship. Japan is dependent on the U.S. market, the largest single market in the world, as an outlet for its goods. Without access to that market, the prices for many of its goods would be too high (since the per unit cost would increase as the number of units produced decreased), and Japan would experience a lower standard of living and massive unemployment, at least in the short term. Thus, the potential to withhold something Japan wants gives the U.S. extra leverage in negotiations with that country. To be sure, the U.S. needs Japanese goods, but Japan would be hurt more by the closing of the American market to its goods than would the U.S., and it is this difference in relative dependency that gives the U.S. its advantage. (9) But should molecular manufacturing make trade obsolete (the reasons this may be the case will be presented later), then this advantage will vanish. Indeed, if MNT makes states more independent of each other (this will also be explored in detail later), then many other relationships based on dependency will change radically, making the soft power that is derived from manipulation of dependency less effective. The elimination of this source of power will change the power structure in many parts of the world in the same way that changes in absolute power will: by changing the relative levels of state power in the international system.
Other dependency relationships that might be changed by this technology are those that involve dependency on certain natural resources. Few resources are spread evenly around the globe, and the differences in the natural endowments that each state enjoys is quite important to the structure of power in the world. The U.S. and Russia, for instance, have vast stores of natural resources, much of them unexploited. It is difficult to imagine either of them a great power without those resources. Other states are limited, rather than strengthened, by their natural resource base. Japan is a prime example of this situation. Japan is wealthy and industrially powerful, but virtually all of the raw materials that Japan's industries need are imported. Without those resources, Japan would be a poor, overcrowded nation of fishermen, and not much more.
We can expect wide-spread use of molecular manufacturing technology to reduce the need of industries around the world to require much in the way of raw materials, except for the few, common elements that are anticipated to be the key resources of the age of nanotechnology, which are found in abundance in every state on the planet (6). This will mean a great loss of power for many resource-exporting states, and a corresponding weakening of their relative power.
We can expect molecular nanotechnology to be opposed, whether openly or secretly, by any state that expects to suffer a loss of relative power. Perhaps no loss of relative power among states will be greater than that suffered by the oil-producing states of the Middle East. Molecular nanotechnology poses a challenge to the primacy of fossil fuel as an energy source on several fronts. For one thing, manufacturing on a molecular scale should be extremely efficient, without the wasteful processing associated with bulk manufacturing techniques. This alone would lower the value of oil by lowering energy requirements for manufacturing a given product. However, the efficiency of manufacturing has been increasing since oil started to become widely used in industry, and the world's appetite for energy has only continued to grow, so greater energy efficiency alone will not make oil obsolete. But what might do it is the fact that molecular nanotechnology may lower the level of energy need in manufacturing to a point low enough that solar power, even if collected by the inefficient cells we use today rather than a nanotechnological version, would be sufficient. If molecular nanotechnology can do this, and it appears likely that it can, then oil would no longer be in demand in any great quantity, and that would mean a great loss of power for the Middle East.
Again, it is not absolute power that is the only concern. Molecular nanotechnology, if adopted by Middle Eastern states, could make everyone in the region far richer than today's richest sheik, with choices that are not available today at any price, such as extremely long lifespans. Nonetheless, it may be actively opposed by many in the Middle East because it will lead to a loss of relative power, in this case control of the world's supply of energy. As OPEC demonstrated during the 1970s, this is an important lever to have one's hand on; by decreasing the supply of crude in 1973, the OPEC nations were able to throw the economies of all the industrialized world into deep recession, causing massive loss of jobs and lowered standards of living for millions of people. The dependency of North America, Japan, Europe and most of the rest of the world on a resource that is only found in abundance in one region of the planet and is controlled by a handful of decision-makers is an incredible weakness, and one that was easily exploited. Although OPEC is no longer a force, the dependency is real, and in some states (such as the U.S.) has even grown deeper. Dependency means vulnerability, vulnerability to the decisions of others, and it demands that attention be paid to a region of the world that otherwise would hold little significance. Were it not for oil, the Middle East would go mostly unnoticed by much of the world.
The oil-producing states are well aware of the source of their power, having already flexed their muscle once. Molecular nanotechnology is not likely to receive a warm welcome from these states, and many of them (notably Iran, Iraq and Libya) are practitioners of the lowest form of violence: terrorism. The seriousness of an anti-nanotech terrorism, especially in a world where nuclear materials are becoming easier to obtain, should not be lost on anyone.
Power: Military and State
MNT will be a very destabilizing technology, one that will change the relation that military power has to state power, and change the structural stability of the present world system. To address the first point, that the relation between military power and state power will be changed by MNT, we can start by considering one of the strangest aspects of the Cold War, which is the fact that it was cold. For over 40 years, the Soviet Union and the United States jockeyed for supremacy on the world stage. They armed themselves for eventual war with each other, they threatened each other, they pointed their nuclear weapons at each other. And yet, they never fought. But the decades of research and development, testing, practicing and manufacturing, not to mention the trillions of dollars spent, were not wasted. That is because one of the purposes of military forces is to deter attack, and deterrence works.
Deterrence works when one side convinces the other that it is both willing and able to to inflict unacceptable harm on the other. These two components are crucial for a successful deterrence; without either one, it will fail. Note, however, that neither has to be real. It is only necessary for the other side to believe it is so. Conversely, it may happen that one side is both willing and able to harm the other, but the other initiates hostilities anyway, unaware of this fact. The Korean War began for this reason. The U.S. did not make clear its intention to fight in the case of an invasion of South Korea, and in the mistaken belief that the U.S. would not fight, the North invaded, thus starting a war that cost many lives and accomplished virtually nothing. Deterrence depends on the potential aggressor's perception of the situation, and not on the reality of it.
Another purpose of military forces is to compel other states to do what they would not otherwise do by acting as a threat. Threatening military action is commonplace in the relations among states, and it need not be explicit to be effective. The belief that another state is more powerful may be enough to compel one state to bend to the will of the stronger, even though no open threat was ever made; implicit threat is present in obvious strength. Often, the demonstration of potential violence is the key ingredient in getting the most bargaining power out of military forces. This is why, for example, spy satellites are not completely unwelcome; they allow the enemy to see that one is not weak.
But a case can be made for just the opposite effect: that the existence of military forces and armaments provokes war, or at least contributes to hostility and suspicion. U.S. President George Washington said that "[t]o be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." However, a later President, James Monroe, said that "[p]reparation for war is a constant stimulus to suspicion and ill-will," which would not do much for the cause of peace. Which one is correct? It appears that they are both correct, depending on the circumstances.
In a state of general peace and the absence of any imminent threat, a build-up of armaments by one state will almost certainly be interpreted by other states as a prelude to war, and thus be viewed as a threat. In this circumstance, Monroe would be correct in advising against war preparedness as a means of preserving peace, as threatening one's neighbors may bring the existing peace to an end. But in other circumstances, the build-up or maintenance of armaments may contribute directly to the continuation of peace by acting as a deterrent against aggression. Where peace does not exist (and the simple absence of actual fighting does not constitute complete peace, as the Cold War demonstrated), where there is an implicit or explicit threat to a state, the deterrent effect of being ready for battle may dissuade a potential aggressor from initiating a hot war.
An unfortunate side-effect of molecular manufacturing is that it may contribute to the creation of a state of war regardless of the circumstances, whether they are ones of peace or of war. If MNT makes weapons invisible, and does the same for factories, then the ability of one side to measure the capabilities of the other will be severely hampered, and perhaps eliminated completely. This will be destabilizing in two ways. First, by making some weapons impossible to detect, it will prevent those weapons from fulfilling their role as deterrents in times when deterrents are needed, and thus will decrease the ability of states to dissuade potential aggressors from initiating military hostilities. (It may also put states in the unfortunate position of needing to advertise their military strength in non-passive ways. If allowing some of one's powerful weapons to be seen ceases to be possible, it may be necessary to make them felt, to demonstrate their destructiveness by using them to destroy.) Secondly, the lack of armaments, which is necessary for not projecting hostile intentions and arousing suspicions during peacetime, will be meaningless. The lack of detectable armaments will not in itself be reassuring to other states, and even the true absence of armaments will be inadequate proof of commitment to lasting peace, when the tools of war can be generated cheaply on a few days' notice, thanks to self-replicating factories (10). This will be destabilizing because knowledge of another state's capabilities is crucial to creating a threat profile, to knowing which states pose a threat and which do not. When a state cannot tell which states threaten it, then it will be prudent for that state to consider all states to be potential threats. "... [T]he primary and legitimate purpose of military forces is deterrence, not [defense], and it is only when deterrence fails that [defense] becomes necessary." (11) If deterrence becomes less effective in the age of invisible machines, then defense (i.e., warfare) may take primacy.
Self-replicating factories will also make war less "victory-oriented." The final stage of modern wars between states never ends with complete annihilation of the vanquished. Sometimes the offending state is disbanded, her territory swallowed up by neighbors (although these states often rise again after a few decades and another war), but usually the state is "set right" and allowed to continue its existence. The outcome of the Second World War illustrates this: Italy, Germany and Japan were occupied and allowed to continue to exist; today they are allies of most of their former enemies. After the First World War, Germany still existed, but was stripped of her industry. Victory in terms of total defeat (rather than annihilation) of the enemy will become much more difficult when industrial might can be rebuilt in a matter of days. Taking away an enemy's ability to wage war may become extremely difficult, and as a result, war will become more punitive in nature, in an attempt to make it too costly for an enemy to use his (indestructible) power to hurt others. This is why civilian populations will become the natural targets of military action; they will be one of the few remaining potential targets, and their destruction will be truly costly.
The State of Nature
To address the second point, that MNT will undermine the structural stability of the present world system, we need to look back almost 350 years to the publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, in 1651. In this work, Hobbes introduced his theory of the "state of nature," a description of a state of pure anarchy. This theory is important to our consideration of the impact of MNT on the world system, because states today exist in a state of anarchy, and Hobbes can shed light on the order in our anarchy, and give us a glimpse of its future.
The life of an individual in the state of nature, Hobbes says, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," and it is no wonder, considering the circumstances he has to face. For one thing, there are no laws, and there is no one to enforce moral behavior. Each man must provide for himself all things, including defense. Each must fear for his life at all times, and even sleep, which is not optional for individuals, carries a risk of death. The individual can be killed, and he can be killed instantaneously. He is also capable of killing, and the strength of each is close enough that even the weakest can kill the strongest. This is the state of pure anarchy. Clearly, this situation is intolerable; one cannot even sleep without worrying about never waking up again. The solution, of course, is one we are all familiar with: the state. The state is necessary, Hobbes argued, because the state of nature will not accommodate a functioning society; government is the only alternative to a life that is "brutish and short."
States, too, exist in anarchy. There is no world government. And yet there is certainly a society of sorts. States know of each others' existence, they communicate with each other and they negotiate. Society, Hobbes argues, is not possible in the state of nature, so if Hobbes is right, and his description of the state of nature makes this point a credible one, then modern states must exist in something other than a state of nature. A close examination of states shows that their situation is indeed different.
For one thing, states are extremely difficult to kill, especially today when the populations of many states number in the tens of millions. And they certainly cannot be killed instantaneously, which is part of the condition of Hobbes' solitary and poor man; states are, in a practical sense, immortal. Unlike individuals, states never sleep; they can be eternally vigilant if they choose. And also unlike individuals, the weakest cannot kill the strongest (since states are so difficult to kill); in fact, most of the weakest can hardly hurt the strongest at all. Among states, there is an enormous difference in relative strength. Perhaps the only aspect of pure anarchy that the world system shares with Hobbes' vision is its general lawlessness. Although states can form alliances, sign treaties and agreements and such, there is no supreme authority to ensure that promises made are promises kept. There are no real laws to enforce, and there is no enforcer. But due to their lower vulnerability to death relative to the individual, states are able to function without a government where individuals would not be. There is order in the anarchy we find at the international level, a regularity that suggests stability, and this stability rests on the differences between states and individuals.
The advent of MNT seems likely to upset that stability because it will bring states closer to Hobbes' state of nature, thus changing the fundamentals of the international system, and increasing the probability of war at the time when states will target history's most horrific technology on civilian populations.
MNT will bring states closer to Hobbes' state of nature by making them more closely resemble individuals in their vulnerability, due to the impact that this new technology will have on the conduct of warfare. The terrifying power of nano-based weapons will make total annihilation of a state's population more possible, and this will make states approximate the key vulnerability of individuals: their mortality. And, as we saw above, MNT will not only make genocide possible, but, because of the fact that it will remove more traditional military targets, it will make genocide a more likely, even preferred, course of action in war.
MNT will also bring states closer to the condition of individuals in the state of nature by creating a general equality in destructive capacity. This is a process already underway today, in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. Since 1945, the nuclear club has grown from just one (the U.S.) to 7 (the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, and Israel). Several more nations are known or suspected to be pursuing nuclear weapons development (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran), some have possessed them at one time (South Africa, Ukraine), and most likely others will join in the race. Nuclear technology is hard to contain, despite the fact that much of the equipment needed to produce bomb-grade material is expensive, specialized and heavy, making it difficult to purchase and transport secretly. If ensuring nuclear non-proliferation is proving difficult, then we can expect much more difficulty in containing the tools and knowledge necessary to implement a nanotechnology development program. This is especially true because of the high-level of dual-use technology that would make up a nanotechnology laboratory: Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (used in materials science and in the semiconductor industry), high-powered molecular modeling software and computers to run it on (used in scientific visualization and in pharmaceutical research), and common materials. As MNT spreads, so will the ability to create extremely powerful and deadly weapons, and the ability to rebuild an industrial base in a short time. These two consequences of the spread of MNT will make each state more of a threat to its neighbors by making it more deadly (due to the weapons) and more difficult to defeat (as opposed to destroy) in case of war (due to the self-replicating industrial base).
The third condition suffered by the individual in the state of nature already exists today, and that is the lack of authority. Just as individuals can rely on no one but themselves, so too are states dependent only on their own ability to defend themselves. (12) There is no "higher authority" to whom a state can appeal if it has been wronged, there is no international police force that will punish the offending state, and there is no global legislature to set the laws of state behavior. What is lacking is government, and in the past this has not been as large a problem as it would be for individuals because of the special characteristics of states mentioned above. But if states become both mortal and equal in power due to the dissemination of MNT, then the lack of global authority will take on the same urgency that it has in the state of nature.