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Has the world become more unpredictable?

In his new book, Peter Haldén has studied how humanity has viewed uncertainty and insecurity throughout history.

"In the wake of the surprise attacks in Israel, the war in Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic, many people feel that we live in a more uncertain and unpredictable world, but it really depends on what perspective you take", he says.

In recent years, there have been several events that many of us see as unpredictable. The large-scale attack on Israel by the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas on October 7, which surprised both Israeli security and the outside world, is a recent example. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and overall political turbulence have affected our worldview. But is it really true that our world has become more unpredictable and uncertain?

Surprises, unpredictability and uncertainty

In his book Worlds of Uncertainty: War, Philosophies and Projects for Order, Peter Haldén, Associate Professor of War Studies, takes a closer look at how we view uncertainty and insecurity. Going back in history, he analyzes how humans throughout time, from the Renaissance to the present day, have experienced and dealt with surprises and unexpected events.

"I became interested in the topic when I heard people talking about the world becoming increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. But compared to what? Compared to the 1450s, the world is certainly not more unpredictable today. We have accurate timetables to rely on when we travel and we can send money to the other side of the world and know that it will arrive. We have access to an incredible amount of information and endless possibilities to communicate, to name a few examples", he says.

In many ways, the world is much more predictable and stable than before, which paradoxically can make us more vulnerable to surprises.

"Our lives are quite boxed in and we expect things to work in a certain way. If there is an unexpected stop in the metro in Stockholm, many people wonder what's going on, whereas, in many other countries, people don't react at all to stops in public transport because things are more unpredictable there."

Portrait of Peter Haldén and the cover of his book.

The book Worlds of Uncertainty: War, Philosophies and Projects for Order is published by Cambridge University Press.

Historical comparisons offer perspective

Peter Haldén has gone all the way back to the 14th century to take a look at what happened then and compared what we take for granted in different times.

"The further back we go in history, the more extreme comparisons we can make. It also becomes clearer why things are the way they are today compared to the way they were in the past. I see it as a way to escape the tyranny of the present", he says.

As an example, he points out that before 1750 people in the Western world took for granted that God had an active role in the world and that there was a divine plan.

"Looking at the world through that filter changes how we see uncertainty and certainty", he says.

At that time, there was a lot of chaos in people’s lives and they had very limited possibilities to control their everyday lives, but the underlying understanding was that God had a plan for the world.

"Today, we don't take any of that for granted, but instead, we expect that politics can and will shape the future", he says.

The perfect society

The notion that the future is open and that we take part in shaping it introduces the idea of how we can design a perfect society. This type of reasoning recurred in various forms throughout history but became prominent in the 1880s and 1890s.

"The most obvious examples are communism, Marxism and fascism. They believed they cracked the code to the perfect society."

Many of these worldviews promise total control and set out to govern society, but when they start to hijack these ideal societies, it creates a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity.

Create and maintain predictability

Another research area looks at how we have created predictability and control over the unexpected.

"The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was something that many people could not predict, but it was not unpredictable", he says.

However, the pandemic triggered an enormous amount of activity in various fields, which led to the development of a vaccine at record speed, and after 18 months, the situation was basically under control. The September 11 attacks in 2001 are a similar example of moving from an uncontrollable situation to one that is now fairly well under control.

"So, if we look at uncertainty, insecurity and control, I would argue that our ability to gain control is very good. Surprises are passing situations, especially if you take steps to manage them."

Other ways to create and maintain predictability are through laws, social norms and promises.

"You could say that we lock in the future by making promises. We know what will happen and have thus created predictability. Predictability, promises, and trust go hand in hand", says Peter Haldén.

Working actively to maintain predictability and trust

But just as you can build trust, trust and predictability can be eroded very quickly if people and institutions start ignoring the common rules and agreements.

"If it happens repeatedly, and it is done by a powerful person or state, we may start to think that this ‘common rules thing’ is not something we believe in anymore, because it does not create the intended predictability."

The fact that after the Cold War, the US started acting on its own without following the rules of international relations and coordinating with its allies is an example of how predictability and trust can be damaged.

"The US did this in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s, the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war in 2003, Libya in 2011, and definitely under President Trump. Eventually, it leads to a rather unpleasant situation. You cannot act in this way without damaging trust, and if you do, you have to make sure you patch things up properly. It is not enough to say that we live in an unpredictable world, you have to take a look at how your behavior affects the world around you", he says.

Peter Haldén emphasizes that trust between people and states is something we need to work on actively to maintain.

"If we uphold a narrative that the world is incredibly unpredictable and that we must therefore establish emergency laws and states of emergency, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that the world is quite predictable and that we should therefore trust each other", he says.

Publication

Peter Haldén (2023): Worlds of Uncertainty: War, Philosophies and Projects for Order, Cambridge University Press.

Page information

Published:
2023-11-07
Last updated:
2023-11-07

Kontakt

Peter Haldén

Associate Professor, Senior Lecturer

Peter.Halden@fhs.se
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