05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time-Lapse Foreign Policy

In the popular virtual game Civilization, you can build an empire and take over the world in a matter of hours. In other words, you can compress thousands of years of history into one long session in front of your computer. This is the gaming equivalent of time-lapse photography, which allows us to watch the blooming of a flower or the entire life-cycle of a caterpillar in a matter of seconds. Thanks to computer technology, Civilization gives you the illusion of experiencing and controlling epochal change.

Civilization is just a game. Or is it?

Much has been written about how technology has accelerated our modern lives. We now live in a time-lapse era, in which our lives seem to unspool in reel time rather than real time. Our new technologies cut and splice our days so relentlessly that it feels as though someone has depressed the fast-forward button (or perhaps left large chunks on the cutting room floor). We can watch new technologies -- VCR, BBS, PDA -- emerge, prosper, and then die within a generation. Our brains have become so accustomed to the new pace that when we watch movies and TV shows of previous eras, they seem soooo sloooow.

Has this accelerated pace of modern life -- popularized by pop sociologist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock -- had any effect on the practice of foreign policy? At first blush, the impact of technology would seem rather obvious. The speed of computing has reduced the decision time and increased the need to multitask for those in the military, those who interact with the global economy, and those who must apply spin to public diplomacy. The Iraq invasion, the recent global economic collapse, the turnaround in U.S. reputation abroad after the 2008 elections: These events owe some of their impact to their rapidity. But we've had blitzkriegs, tulip-mania, and rapid political swings in U.S. popularity in the past. The changes in geopolitics that result from new technologies aren't simply about pace.

Here are four less obvious characteristics of time-lapse foreign policy:

The Volatility of Pendulum Swings: Governments can fall with often surprising speed. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe demonstrated that activists didn't need email or Facebook to bring hundreds of thousands of protestors into the street. But Facebook and other social media can accelerate this process. From Iran to Egypt, "Facebook seems to be an ideal platform for the replacement of governments, as it combines two key attributes: networking and grievance amplification," I write in Will Facebook Remake the World? "One can easily join groups through Facebook that focus generalized discontent on a single, clear objective." But this cuts both ways. The Obama campaign used social media to focus discontent with the Bush administration. The Tea Party fought back with the same tools. And now a new Coffee Party has entered the Facebook fray. According to a long-held assumption in politics, the incumbent has an enormous advantage. But the amplification of grievances through social media may well eliminate the incumbents' edge. The rapid rotation of governments that results from the volatility of focused public opinion will bring new challenges to the conduct of diplomacy.

The Rise and Fall of Empires: The ancient Egyptian empire lasted 3,000 years. The Ethiopians endured for nearly 2,000 years, the Byzantines hung around for 1,100 years, and the Romans rose and fell in 700 years. In the modern period, colonial empires lasted around three centuries or so. And now, after watching the Soviet empire crumble in about 70 years, we may in the space of our lifetimes witness the fall of the U.S. empire. The latest pushback from Tokyo around U.S. bases in Okinawa is only the latest sign that "the American empire of overseas military bases has reached its high-water mark and will soon recede," I write in Can Japan Say No to Washington? It isn't so much that technology has shortened the life spans of empires. After all, the Athenians, the Macedonians, and the Danes all had very brief imperial tenures. Rather, our new technologies may spell the end of empires altogether. For one thing, military garrisons are increasingly archaic in an era of satellites and greater force projection over longer distances. More to the point, however, the alliances on which the U.S. empire of bases depends have become subject to the same politics of resentment that has unseated so many governments.

The Arrogance of Nation-Builders: It was almost as if Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neoconservatives were playing a version of Civilization during the Bush years, when they invaded Iraq and attempted to build a new democratic nation. Rumsfeld and crew believed they could introduce a few elements from the outside and voilá, a nation would emerge. But when nations do successfully cohere these days, it's because their own citizens built durable political, economic, and social institutions. The forces that technology released into the global arena have very powerful destructive capabilities -- taking down tyrants, mobilizing discontent -- but they aren't similarly powerful in their integrative or constructive capabilities. The United States could not "shock and awe" either Afghanistan or Iraq into becoming modern nations. Our technologies often provide us with illusions of omnipotence. Sometimes "slow politics" -- locally grown, organic -- is as vital as "slow food."

Stratospheric Expectations: We have come to expect continual upgrades. Every day my smartphone tells me to update applications that I thought I'd just downloaded the week before. So given the pace of change in the world, why haven't we received any notification of North Korea 2.0? The country has been ruled by one party and two leaders for 65 years. Listen to anyone inside the Beltway following North Korea and it won't be long before you hear the impatience in their voices: Why can't Pyongyang just change and be done with it? Several successive administrations in Washington based their North Korea policy on the imminent likelihood of regime collapse and then had to recalibrate when the collapse didn't happen. Our expectations of change, based if only subliminally on our perception of the ongoing technological revolution in our lives, shouldn't delude us into abandoning diplomacy for quick fixes (like "surgical strikes"). Talking with people we don't agree with -- the essence of diplomacy -- remains an essential component of statecraft.

The more some things change, the more other things stay the same. The revolving door of government is moving ever faster, and the imperial project is perhaps drawing to a close. Yet, technological quick fixes can't replace the slow and patient work of institution-building and diplomacy, even if our experience of the Internet leads us to expect otherwise. I'm no Luddite. I have my smartphone, my Facebook page, my Twitter account. It's truly amazing -- as well as disorienting -- to watch history unfold before our eyes as fully as the blooming flower or the metamorphosing caterpillar. And indeed, corrupt systems and ruthless tyrants are best disposed of in fast-forward.

But we pay a price for all this change.

In his novel Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier describes an era in the United States that is long past. "All that you had learned in childhood remained largely in effect lifelong. When you got old and approached death, it was not an unrecognizable world you left, for we had not yet learned how to break it apart," the narrator observes. He ends with a warning: "All I can say is that we are mistaken to gouge such a deep rift in history that the things old men and old women know have become so useless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren."

Somehow, in the deep rift that the time-lapse technologies of Facebook and Twitter have cut into our history, we must preserve something of value -- the importance of diplomacy, the necessity of institution-building, the virtues of slow as well as fast -- to pass on to our grandchildren.

To read the rest of this World Beat, click here.