In 1922, not long after the end of the “war to end all wars” and at the beginning of what has since proved one of the bloodiest centuries in recorded history, the French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin envisioned everyone’s being able to communicate with everyone, swiftly and efficiently. This vision was not the Internet but what he called a global “realm of the mind.” It would, he maintained, provide a profound impetus to peace. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’s notion of a world driven by “the war of all against all,” Teilhard’s notion was of a global consciousness. What he termed the noosphere — a neologism whose root is the Greek noos, meaning mind — was, in his view, the next step in the evolution of mankind toward an ethical paradigm more concerned with pursuing what is right than with the power politics of might.
Sadly, two global wars and countless insurgencies have been waged since then. Social revolutions and modern networked terrorism have become commonplace. Nation-states have proliferated, many of them — like South Sudan — born failing. It is ironic that the United Nations, which has seen its membership grow nearly four-fold since its founding in 1945, has been able to do so little to contain or reverse the course of conflict and suffering, especially in those places where the innocent and helpless are the most preyed upon.
Cause for concern is no less when it comes to the fundamental peace paradigm of our time — that the spread of democracy will contribute to global amity. This concept was in fact first articulated by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace.” The past decade of American-led efforts to pursue a Kantian democracy agenda by force of arms, however, has for the most part simply brought fresh miseries — to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond. Perhaps the problem is not with democratization per se, but that US foreign policy has become far too militarized — a by-product of the realpolitik-oriented belief that the dissolution of the Soviet Union left America alone in a position of global leadership. The costly, mixed military results of Washington’s wars since 9/11 may thus reflect an over-reliance on force — and its corollary, continuing policy blindness toward the great opportunity to test Teilhard’s intriguing hypothesis about connectivity and amity.
It is now fifteen years since David Ronfeldt and I advanced the argument that the Internet and World Wide Web were not only realizing Teilhard’s dream of a noosphere, but that their rise heralded the emergence of noopolitik, a mode of statecraft driven by the attractiveness of ethical values that form the core of our common humanity. This is something much more than soft power, which is all about persuasiveness, and which can be used for good or ill. Noopolitik is about acknowledging what is right and just, as a basis for negotiated settlements to conflict, peaceful interactions, and the protection of human dignity.
Unfortunately, this idea remains “on the shelf,” not only in the United States, but also in most halls of power in all too many nation-states. The sword is not yet sheathed. Some glimmerings of noopolitik can be seen in nineteenth-century antislavery movements as well as in early civil society efforts to curb colonial abuses of indigenous peoples. The telegraph, what Tom Standage has called the Victorian Internet, helped these movements back then. Today, the global consciousness that technology has wrought has the opportunity to go even further, creating a global conscience as well. That this has not yet happened is testament to the persistent pull of realpolitik. This is sadly so, given the poor results — at massive material and human cost — of power politics in our time.
Clearly, Teilhard’s moment has come. The noosphere is here. Noopolitik looms, if we but see it, and humankind’s transcendental destination is within reach. In today’s world, we are constantly reminded of the darker aspects of increased connectivity: more intrusive intelligence gathering, aggressive cyberwarfare, and cyberterrorism. What we don’t think about enough is the role that “cyber” can play in fostering peace by forging global interconnections — this was Teilhard’s dream. What if we, too, could imagine the Internet serving as a vehicle for cooperation, the sharing of hopeful stories; the communications link between moderate citizens creating positive social change; and as a voice for democratic action? Many peacebuilding organizations are already doing this; for example, Soliya’s online platform for improving understanding between American and Middle Eastern students. If movements of this sort can thrive and multiply, then perhaps Teilhard’s vision of a peaceful noosphere will be realized.