Making the Case for Quantum International Relations | Emerging Global Order

When asked in the early post–Cold War years what to make of the continued turbulence that had dashed the promise of a new era of peace and stability in world affairs, the astute diplomat, political scientist, and social philosopher Harland Cleveland told me that “everything is related to everything else, only more so now than ever.”1 The first half of this seemingly unremarkable but deceptively insightful statement had become increasingly apparent in the international relations (IR) field, where the acceleration of interactions across time and space was attributed to the inexorable forces of globalization. It also held true within certain branches of physics, but for different reasons. In quantum physics, the microscopic world under examination was inextricably interconnected in ways that conformed to an elegant and unerring mathematical logic that lent solidity and structure, however “weird,” to an otherwise inscrutable level of analysis.

It is the second half of Cleveland’s sentence where basic understandings of IR and quantum physics diverge and where perceptions of reality come further into play. While the IR specialist of that era could point to phenomena in the macroscopic world — ethnic conflict, “failed states,” resource scarcity, and new forms of nuclear danger — that appeared to overlap and connect with increased frequency, these did not represent a step change in world affairs. Rather, the end of the bipolar Cold War standoff that had attracted most of the attention within the field had made more visible developments that had long been unfolding. Similarly, in commenting on 9/11 two decades later, German publisher and editor Josef Joffe noted, “Cataclysmic as it was, that event was more like a bolt of lightning that illuminated the essential contours of the international landscape than like an earthquake that reconfigured it.2 Observed perturbations in the world were becoming more noticeable, even if empirically no more numerous.

For the quantum physicist, there was no disjuncture between perception and reality within the well-ordered contours of the quantum world. Everything that had related to everything else remained so, with no apparent intensification or upturn in interactions. While the many interpretations of quantum physics spurred debate and disagreement within the field, these internecine wrangles did not detract from the true step change that occurred over the preceding century that had upended classical Newtonian notions of the inner workings of the universe. Instead of a rational, mechanical system governed by natural laws of cause and effect, quantum posited a far more complicated and less intuitive notion of reality. In a quantum system, the visible world reveals only a sliver of what is going on beyond our gaze: there is no certainty; all is potentiality. Reality is not independent of the observer; both are intertwined and constitutive of each other, and subjectivity is a feature, not a bug of the system.

It is not surprising, then, that quantum mechanical terminology and concepts, however rudimentarily understood, if at all, would become analogized to describe the seeming new world disorder that no longer conformed to Newtonian conceptions of separable, billiard ball states and rational actors bumping up against one another in ways that “classical” IR theory presumed to explain and sometimes predict. Key quantum concepts — however abstruse in their scientific meaning — such as “entanglement,” “superposition,” and, perhaps above all, “the uncertainty principle” appeared to offer an apt vocabulary for trying to make sense of a world that increasingly defied ready explanation. On an even more superficial level, references to quantum that had spiked in popular culture during the first quantum revolution of the early twentieth century made a comeback in the later decades of the century and the beginning of the next as Madison Avenue affixed the term to all manner of products, from dishwasher detergent to motorcycle parts, for connoting something exceptional and powerful.

Long mired in the paradigm wars that rehashed stale debates between contending theories, dominated by the twin poles of neorealism and liberal internationalism, and sporadically challenged by upstart critical theorists and other thinkers who rejected both their ontology and epistemology, the IR field was ripe for change. So too was the world of foreign policy practice. Echoing the late U.S. secretary of state George Shultz’s earlier invocation of “quantum diplomacy” to describe an international system in which “true reality is hard to record,3 Armenian president (and theoretical physicist) Armen Sarkissian more recently called for “a reassessment of modern politics guided by the principles of quantum physics [to] make sense out of trends that baffle and undermine the establishment.”4

Paralleling the ideational ferment in diplomacy and a major branch of the social sciences, and building on the cumulative insights of earlier eras, quantum advances in the natural sciences presented tantalizing possibilities for ushering in a new revolution in the practical application of theory to practice. While the cognoscenti within the physics field had long understood that quantum theory provided the insights leading to the development of a host of technologies, including transistors, lasers, LEDs, GPS, mobile phones, and, more consequentially, predating these innovations, the atomic bomb, for most, quantum’s connection to everyday life remained largely unknown or too distant and abstract to matter. But beginning in the second decade of the twenty-first century, popularized by a receptive media, corporate marketing, and growing national security concerns that America was losing a quantum race to a newly formidable China, quantum reemerged as a matter of serious inquiry among the attentive public.

Much of this renewed interest was focused on the eye-popping potential of quantum computing, which, if realized, could perform calculations in minutes that would take classical computers hundreds of years to complete. As breathlessly reported, this revolutionary advance could lead to “unhackable” communications systems and military sensors that could render stealth technologies obsolete. Beyond the hard security realm, quantum advances were touted as processing “big data” in mindboggling ways that could mimic huge chemical reactions, for example, to create new medicines and materials. And, among other innovations, they could be used to address world hunger by increasing the production of fertilizers, tackle climate change by boosting the extraction of carbon dioxide from the air, and vastly accelerate improvements in the resilience and efficiency of power grids.

Separating the hype from reality whenever quantum is invoked remains an ongoing challenge. Critiques of inflated and false quantum claims have been particularly pointed among certain voices within physics itself. A profane and biting Twitter account5 created by an anonymous group of contrarian physicists punctured reports of purported breakthroughs in quantum computing touted in academic publications and more popular media. Even more dispassionate and civil adherents in the field cautioned against eruptions of irrational exuberance over the near-term applicability of quantum developments that are still in their early stages.

And yet, from outside the world of physics, the hype over quantum served a larger purpose. The fact that corporate behemoths such as Google, Microsoft, and IBM, as well as the U.S. government, had decided to cumulatively invest billions in the promise of quantum (paralleled by even greater investments in China, and lesser but still considerable ones from Canada, Australia, France, Japan, India, Russia, Singapore, and India, among others), helped validate the exuberance — irrational or otherwise — of the nonscientific layperson. Such sparks of interest, or less charitably, flights of fancy, helped loosen the intellectual bolts on rusty doctrines and worldviews in need of repair or replacement.

As suggested previously, beyond the technological potential of quantum developments, perhaps the most intriguing bolts to be loosened lie in the social sciences, where quantum theory is already making inroads, for example, in studies of cognition and decision theory. It also offers promising alternatives to concepts borrowed from Newtonian physics, like market equilibrium in economics. The “quantizing” of IR that is reflected in Quantum International Relations: A Human Science for World Politics (Oxford University Press, 2022), edited and pioneered by renowned political scientist Alexander Wendt and the forward-thinking IR theorist and filmmaker James Der Derian, along with a new breed of expansive thinkers, is perhaps its most bold extrapolation. Wendt’s Quantum Mind and Social Science,6 which followed by a decade his award-winning book pioneering the constructivist school in political science,challenged the basic ontological, epistemological, and normative tenets undergirding traditional IR theory.

Whether grounded in analytical hubris, reflexive defensiveness, or lack of understanding or creativity, Wendt’s apostacy predictably provoked objections within the cloistered guild of the field from left, right, and center. His audacious but methodically reasoned supposition that human consciousness — a phenomenon whose explanation remains a lacuna in classical social science — is itself a quantum process, entangling all beings and the universe across distance and time, smacked for some of intellectual overreach. By speculating that human beings are “walking wave functions,” Wendt created a ready foil for the naysayers zealously guarding IR’s dominant disciplinary parapets. Perhaps still chafing from the missteps of the science envy that animated the behavioral turn that first riled political science in the 1950s and 1960s and still reverberates today, the sentinels of the status quo can be forgiven (somewhat) for casting a skeptical eye toward this new paradigm-shifting aspirant and refusing to take the leap, quantum or otherwise, that it entails. While even quantum technologists may be dismissive of the notion of quantum minds, and quantum social scientists may, in turn, reject the more fanciful claims of the technologists, their two literatures are currently so distinct and lacking in references to each other that the potential benefits of a united front against the doubters in each camp remain an alluring but distant goal.

For IR, the difficulty in introducing quantum concepts into the established canon relates to a puzzle inherent in the nature of the subject matter. Although quantum theory has been applied to solve problems for about a century, beyond the logic of mathematical formalism, even quantum physicists do not know how it works. Unlike classical physics, for those who reject Wendt’s conjecture about quantum human beings, there is nothing in the observable world that appears to duplicate quantum behavior. This presents a daunting communication challenge when making the case for greater adoption of quantum perspectives within IR and, indeed, throughout social science. IR theorists can readily visualize how opposing armies can fight each other, and, irrespective of any deep knowledge of nuclear fission, the catastrophic consequences of a breakdown in nuclear deterrence as vividly captured in the iconic image of the mushroom cloud. Even more esoteric threats to international peace and security from emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber — which are increasingly linked to, even reliant upon, quantum developments — can at least be imagined in the form of thinking robots or villainous computer hackers. Quantum’s potential disruptive impact is much harder to envision; it lacks a mushroom cloud equivalent.

How might philanthropy help overcome this conceptual hurdle? Grantmakers are by and large unburdened by the press of current events that limit policymakers’ ability to think strategically and add to their store of intellectual capital amassed outside of government, and the disciplinary strictures that often stymie intellectual pathbreakers in the academy. In principle, foundations can look beyond the horizon to invest philanthropic venture capital in ideas that challenge hoary shibboleths and may someday prove consequential. Well-established foundations, especially in the expansive field of international peace and security, are continually searching for ways to become more relevant and cutting edge, while the so-called “new philanthropists,” with their funding largely derived from profitmaking in the information technology sector, seem to be on a constant quest for the next shiny new thing. Quantum would appear to fit the bill for both.

Chastened by two attempts in the pages of the Chronicle of Philanthropy8to exhort peers at other foundations to join with Carnegie Corporation of New York in its initial exploratory efforts to better understand the potentially profound and far-ranging implications of the emergent quantum revolution, I empathize with the reluctance of other philanthropies to follow our lead. There is a dizzying array of more urgent threats on the broad international peace and security agenda to command their attention and dollars, and even this agenda has received less foundation consideration and funding in recent years.9 Since the Corporation’s own investment in quantum is modest compared with its funding of work in more traditional areas of international peace and security, such as nuclear nonproliferation, great power competition and cooperation, peacebuilding in Africa, and regional conflicts, among others, I had no reason to expect that my quantum evangelism would result in a windfall of grantmaking support. But, despite the crowding out by so many competing concerns, I harbored some hope that there might be other intrepid believers who would join in my conversion to the cause. So how did I come to enlist in the quantum crusade?

This deliberate resort to religious terminology reflects the epiphany I had on my own road to Damascus, or, more precisely, on a twenty-eight-hour plane ride to Australia to attend my first Project Q symposium in 2016, organized by the aforementioned James Der Derian, director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies. The event, which deepened my newfound faith in quantum, brought together an eclectic mix of scientists, philosophers, diplomats, soldiers, scholars, writers, artists, and futurists to tease out some of quantum theory’s most important implications for both good and ill. The underlying premise of this avowedly interdisciplinary gathering — another feature that foundations purport to encourage but too rarely succeed in advancing — was to get ahead of quantum’s technological curve to anticipate and help steer its eventual social effects. As one informed observer of this endeavor explained to me, “Most social scientists spend their time trying to explain past events, in the hopes that this will shed light on future ones. That might make sense in a deterministic and linear world, but the kinds of social effects that quantum is likely to have will be hard, if not impossible, to understand in this way. Thus, in this case, it is absolutely essential for social scientists [and others] to get out of their usual reactive mode into a proactive one, even if that entails a good deal of speculation.”10

At this event and subsequent Q project symposia supported by the Corporation, Der Derian and his diverse invitees explored some of the most probing speculative questions posed by the latest quantum revolution, however protracted and tentative may be its unfolding: What inspiration, ideas, and concepts can we draw from quantum physics? How can we prepare for the emergent quantum revolution when its trajectory and implications are not yet known? How might quantum advances interact with other technologies? Will quantum developments ultimately lead to sentient computer programs and feral algorithms? To what extent will quantum applications be weaponized? Are social media and data mining already producing quantum effects in world politics? What new kinds of scientific inquiries will make it possible? And what are the philosophical and ethical implications?

The chapters of Quantum International Relations are a fitting coda to these expansive and thought-provoking discussions and a tangible deliverable in philanthropic terms. The authors delve into some of the most penetrating and beguiling aspects of what might be described as an incipient but promising quantum turn in social science, especially within IR. With contributions that examine the comparisons between quantum and systems theorizing, the philosophical roots of quantum thinking, the contextualization of the hype surrounding quantum, the potential of quantum pedagogy, and a quantum ontology for validating ethical choices, among others, the authors collectively stake their claim for breaking new intellectual ground and paving the way for further analysis and discourse. The cumulative insights reflected in the book represent just the kind of forward-looking, exploratory thinking that foundations are ideally positioned to support.

But however well intended and diligently pursued, the broader and lasting effects of a grant-funded project such as this cannot be conclusively determined or predicted. Philanthropic efforts to promote positive social change are inherently complicated given the multifaceted causal chains involved, the difficulty in discerning macro developments from micro interventions, and the often-extended time required before any shoots appear from seeds once planted. Despite the many thoughtful attempts to overcome these challenges, evaluative metrics in the field remain a work in progress. As even the bumptious “new philanthropists” have discovered, measuring grantmaking impact is not as clear-cut as calculating price-earnings ratios. The great industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had earlier come to the same realization. He established his namesake grantmaking foundation in 1911 with an abiding belief in the power of ideas to change the world for the better. His most ambitious idea was the abolition of war. While he and this philanthropic progeny may have fallen short in reaching this lofty goal, the Corporation’s many investments to both limit war’s effects and curb its frequency continue apace, notwithstanding the difficulty involved in proving a negative.

Although the ability of even the most generously endowed and capable foundations to move the needle on the most pressing problems of our age is necessarily limited and imperfectly measured, this should not prevent efforts to get ahead of the curve on developments with potentially profound, if distant, effects—or, as Albert Einstein famously implored at the dawn of the atomic age, “to change our modes of thinking.”11 Among the abiding challenges of contemporary life is what Carlos Fuentes once identified as the need to “transform information into knowledge.”12 This challenge has increased exponentially in an age of information overload marked by a pronounced noise-to-signal ratio between what is accessible and what is useful. As knowledge becomes more specialized and fragmented, its transformation into practical application, to say nothing of wisdom, becomes more elusive.

It is perhaps predictable that quantum ideas — as specialized and fragmented as any in the natural sciences — would provoke pushback from those social scientists who fail to appreciate or perceive the embedded wisdom contained in these ideas and their applicability well beyond the metaphorical. Classical Newtonian conceptions of the world, however refuted and transcended by quantum physics, provide a simple and comforting, if also inadequate, refuge from the messiness and indeterminacy of affairs. If, in an age marked by a global pandemic, endless wars, and the increasingly harmful effects of climate change, the magnitude of the relational dynamic that Harland Cleveland cited decades ago seems truly “more so now than ever,” philanthropy has an obligation to advance new thinking that might offer novel insights for addressing old and new threats and evolving notions of security. What is a grant proposal, after all, if not, in quantum terms, a potentiality that is unknown until observed and measured? The foundation grant that funded the proposal on which this volume is based represents a potentiality whose merit and promise now await the observation and measurement of its readers.

  1. Harland Cleveland, quoted in Stephen Del Rosso, “The Insecure State: Reflections on ‘the State’ and ‘Security’ in a Changing World,” Daedalus, What Future for the State, Spring 1995, p. 175.
  2. Josef Joffe, “Of Hubs, Spokes, and Public Goods,” National Interest, October 30, 2002.
  3. George Shultz, quoting Sydney Drell, “Diplomacy, Wired,” Hoover Digest, January 30, 1998.
  4. Armen Sarkissian, “We Need an Era of Quantum Politics,Financial Times, August 28, 2020.
  6. Alexander Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  7. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  8. Stephen Del Rosso, “The Quantum Age Beckons: Philanthropy Should Help Us Understand It,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 7, 2017; and Stephen Del Rosso, “The Quantum Revolution Rolls On and Philanthropy Is Falling Behind,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 2, 2018.
  9. David Callahan, “You Never Give Me Your Money: Big Funders Neglect Peace and Security in a Dangerous Era,Inside Philanthropy, June 12, 2018.
  10.  Stephen Del Rosso, Carnegie Corporation of New York, private email with anonymized reviewer, November 10, 2014.
  11. Albert Einstein, quoted in “Atomic Education Urged by Einstein,” New York Times, May 25, 1946, p. 13.
  12. Carlos Fuentes, quoted in Vartan Gregorian, “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 4, 2004. 

Learn more

Watch select Project Q symposia and workshops featuring Stephen J. Del Rosso at the University of Sydney

This article is excerpted from Quantum International Relations: A Human Science for World Politics, edited by James Der Derian and Alexander Wendt (Oxford University Press, 2022). Reprinted with permission.

A former career diplomat, Stephen J. Del Rosso directs the International Peace and Security program at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *