The Continuing Promise of the Noösphere and Noöpolitik — Twenty Years After
by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla
Twenty years ago we proposed noöpolitik (nü-oh-poh-li-teek) as a new approach for American information strategy (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1999). According to our argument, strategists will have to rethink what is “information” and see that a new realm is emerging — the noosphere, a global “realm of the mind” — that will profoundly affect statecraft. The information age will continue to undermine the conditions for traditional strategies based on realpolitik and material “hard power,” and lead to new strategies based on noopolitik and its preference for ideational “soft power.” A rethinking is needed because the decisive factor in the new global wars of ideas will be “whose story wins” — the essence of noöpolitik.
The noosphere and noopolitik concepts relate to an organizational theme that has figured prominently in our work about the information revolution: the rise of network forms of organization that strengthen civil-society actors. Few state or market actors, by themselves, seem likely to have much interest in fostering the construction of a global noosphere, except in limited areas having to do with international law, or political and economic ideology. The impetus for fostering a global noosphere is more likely to emanate from activist NGOs, other civil-society actors (e.g., churches, schools), and individuals dedicated to freedom of information and communications and to the spread of ethical values and norms. We believe it is time for state actors to begin moving in this direction, too, particularly since power in the information age will stem, more than ever, from the ability of state and market actors to work conjointly with civil-society actors.
Ten years ago we provided an update on the promise of noopolitik (Ronfeldt & Arquilla, 2007) for the first edition of a handbook on public diplomacy (Snow & Taylor, 2009). In it, we summarized our 1999 report and added four new points: (1) Other new information-age concepts similar to noopolitik — notably, netpolitik, cyberpolitik, infopolitik — had appeared, but all (including noopolitik) were having difficulty gaining traction. (2) Instead, the concept of “soft power” had come to dominate the strategic discourse in government, military, and think-tank circles, even though its definition was flawed and lacked operational clarity. (3) Meanwhile, in non-state arenas where noosphere-building ideas had taken hold, activist NGOs representing global civil society were becoming major practitioners of noopolitik — but the most effective practitioners were militant jihadis organized in global networks and outfitted with sophisticated media technologies. (4) Against this background, we argued that American public diplomacy would benefit from a course correction to head in the direction of noöpolitik. But we also cautioned that conditions for doing so were less favorable than when we first fielded the concept a decade earlier — and propitious conditions seemed unlikely to re–emerge anytime soon.
Today, another ten years later, as we prepare this new update, noopolitik remains a promising concept for American information strategy. However, it’s not alive and well in the United States, where even “soft power” is lately in decline as a strategic concept. Instead, our major adversaries are the ones who are working on developing noopolitik — but in dark ways and by other names — and they’re using it against us. These new circumstances may mean, to echo Charles Dickens, that we are now living in “the worst of times” — yet precisely because of this adversity, potentially also “the best of times” — for revisiting the promise of the noosphere and noopolitik.
So we’re doing this update differently. Our initial writings analyzed at length the increasing importance of information and the nature and growth of three realms — cyberspace, the infosphere, and the noosphere. We did so in order to recommend that strategists begin to gravitate toward the noosphere concept. However, by now the importance of information and those three realms is conceptually more familiar to strategists. Thus, for this update, we are skipping re-summarizing our initial analysis and instead diving straight into discussing the noosphere concept in more detail — from its origins in the 1920s, to the spread of its influence today, a century later.
We proceed this new way partly because we have learned more about the noosphere concept. Also, we have found new implications for discussing the prospects for noopolitik. We conclude by providing a fresh assessment of noopolitik as it applies to the current strategic situation of the United States — the country that should be most highly attuned and attracted to noopolitik.