07/25/2014 08:55 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

From Chaos, a New Security Order

To many if not most, the present turmoil in the world is evidence of a world gone chaotic: the downed Malaysian airliners, the horrific consequences of increased militarization in Israel and Palestine, instability in Egypt, the steady ruination of Syria, the disintegration of Iraq, to say nothing of ongoing tragedies of poverty and unchecked climate change. This chaos evidences the precariousness of the current world order and how dangerous it is to try to keep order primarily through old means: namely, the concept of strategic stability, ultimately underwritten by massive arsenals of nuclear weapons.

The ability to predict outcomes decreases as a system's complexity increases. If we have a gas in a container and remove 10 percent of its molecules, it is likely that we will observe little change: it will still remain gas in a container. But, if we take a complex system, such as a human body, and take away 10 percent of its molecules, the entire system will be dramatically, unpredictably, changed. The system is just too complex.

Our human-inhabited planet is similarly just too complex. When you add not just the reality of chaos, but the inevitability of human fallibility and errors (after all, anything created by humans can be no more perfect than we are), we must conclude that the systems we set up to manage our affairs will be increasingly unpredictable as they increase in complexity.

Seemingly dormant yet pervasive within our chaotic, fallible, unpredictable world order is the continued existence of more than 16,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are on high-alert status, with much fissionable material remaining insufficiently secured and vulnerable to theft or misuse. These twentieth century relics constitute nothing short of an existential threat to humanity. (See, if you dare, Eric Schlosser's sickening compendium of the accidental, unauthorized, and inadvertent use of U.S. nuclear weapons. Warning: you may not sleep so well tonight.)

To address this existential threat, there are two paths before us: one path attempts to improve the management of the stockpiles, and, along the way, summon piecemeal cooperation from Russia (and, later, China and other nuclear powers) to incrementally bean count our way down to lower numbers of weapons. This approach is predicated on another relic of the last century: the paradigm of "strategic stability," whereby two sides inspire a delicate balance of fear of the other, just enough to keep them afraid of using their nukes, lest it provoke the other side to use theirs. Each hard-fought, hard-won, incremental reduction remains at the mercy of the next unpredictable swing of the chaos pendulum: how will the next crisis du jour -- be it an Edward Snowden, a Ukrainian revolution, or an Arctic trade route dispute -- affect cooperation and our security?

We could take a different path. We could finally relegate to the dustbin of history the concept that American security requires a goodly amount of Russian insecurity (or Chinese, or Indian, or Brazilian, etc.). We could face the very real, indisputable, twenty-first century reality that our security is interminably intertwined with everyone else's who shares our planet. The existential threats posed by rising sea levels, warming climes, pandemic diseases, cyber (in)security, and nuclear weaponry are inarguably global. No single state can unilaterally address these issues successfully. Nor should progress on them be held hostage by inevitable, unpredictable crises.

Cooperation to successfully address shared global threats -- environmental, health, and economic -- is a necessity, not an option.

One hundred years ago, heir to the empire of Austria and Hungary, Archduke Ferdinand, was suddenly shot and killed in Sarajevo when his car coincidentally took an unexpected wrong turn, placing it directly in front of his nineteen-year-old assassin, Gavrillo Princip, who was casually standing in front of Moritz Schiller's delicatessen. This unpredictable event plunged Europe -- and eventually, the rest of us -- into the largest, bloodiest conflict the world had yet known. Today, the world is even more complex, more automated, and far more deadly than it was in 1914.

Unpredictable events are inevitable. Their effects on our future are unknowable. This is physics, this is fact, reality. The precarious ability of outmoded concepts of security to manage the fall-out from such events is insufficient. It is time to embrace the reality of the twenty-first century, to stop pretending our security requires the insecurity of others, and usher in a new cycle of trust and collaboration befit for our globalized, chaotic world.