I have written as ardently as anyone about the impact of technology on patterns of power, authority, and influence. And I have written as ardently as anyone on how technology is changing relations between leaders and followers. In The End of Leadership I wrote that “in the last thirty, forty years changes in leadership and followership have been the result of two phenomena in particular: the first is cultural change and the second is technological change, advances in communications technologies that led to more information, greater self-expression, and expanded connection.”
But the current crisis in relations between the U. S. and Russia, between the West and Putin’s putatively resurgent Russian empire, amounts to a crash course in where technology falls short. Come to think of it, it doesn’t fall short, it fails us altogether. Technology is nowhere when it comes to managing human relations in ways that leaders can meaningfully use or practically apply, at least in world affairs.
For all the changes in science and technology, the American foreign policy establishment is back to reading tea leaves, to doing what it did during the Cold War when the best it could do was to practice Kremlinology. What exactly was Kremlinology? It was no more really than educated guesswork on what was transpiring in top Soviet circles, guesswork on what motivated the likes of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev, and on what they were likely to do from one week to the next. In fact, Kremlinology was so weak a field of study that it failed categorically accurately to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, which happened in the historical equivalent of the blink of an eye.
So it is now with the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin – it’s back to guesswork. The best that the best and brightest can do is to estimate what motivates the man and what he is likely to do, in this case from one day to the next. In this game of guesswork, the remarkable, revolutionary advances in technology help not one whit. It’s why the best and the brightest cannot begin to agree either on what exactly is happening now or on what exactly should be our next steps. And it’s why politics is nothing so much as a reminder that the course of human affairs is determined by nothing so much as the human condition.