A Clash of Two Systems

The war in Ukraine is a confrontation between two systems, one modern, legalistic, decentralized and multicephalous; the other archaic, nationalistic, centralized and monocephalous

Nassim Nicholas Taleb


( This is a copyright compatible version of my side of a conversation with Laetitia Strauch-Bonart published in the French periodical l’Express.)

Ivan the terrible.

Offensive vs. Defensive Nationalism

This conflict shows a harmful confusion, among the Russians and their supporters, between the state as a nation in the ethnic sense and the state as an administrative entity.

A state that wants to base its legitimacy on cultural unity must be small; it is otherwise doomed to meet the hostility of others. A Francophone Swiss citizen, although culturally linked to his or her language, does not aspire to belong to France, and France does not try to invade French-speaking Switzerland under this pretext. Further, national identities can change quickly: Francophone Belgians have a different identity from French people. France itself went through an operation of internal colonialism to destroy Provençal, Languedoc, Picard, Savoyard, Breton, and other cultures and eradicate their languages under a centralized identity. Nationality is never defined and never fixed; administration is.

Cultural unity can make sense, but only in the form of something reduced such as a city-state –I would even go so far as to say that a state only works well in this way. In this case, nationalism is defensive — Catalan, Basque or Christian Lebanese — but in the case of a large state like Russia, nationalism becomes offensive. Notice that under the Pax Romana or the Pax Ottomana, there were no large states, but city-states gathered in an empire whose role was distant. But there is loose empire and rigid nation-state like empire, the latter being represented by Russia .

Coordination for Mafia-don Like Protection

There are now two imperial models: either a heavy model, like that of Russia, or a coordination of states on the model of NATO. We will see which one will emerge victorious from the current conflict. This war not only pits Ukraine and Russia against it, it is a confrontation between two systems, one modern, decentralized and multicephalous, the other archaic, centralized and autocephalous. Ukraine wants to belong to the liberal system: while being Slavic-speaking, like Poland, it wants to be part of the West.

Adam Smith vs Napoleon

What is it that We Call the West?

What we call “the West” is not a spiritual entity, but an administrative system first and last. Is is not an ethno-geographical ensemble, but a legal and institutional system: it includes Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan. It mixes the thalassocratic Phoenician world of network-based trade and that of Adam Smith, based on individual rights and freedom to transact, under the constraint of social progress. In the United States, the difference between Democrats and Republicans is minor when seen from a different century. Both sides wants social progress, but at different rates of growth.

On the other hand, nationalism requires the All-Mighty Centralized –worse, Hegelian — State, and one that curates cultural life to weed out individual variations.

Nationalism is often linked to a spiritual dimension — represented in the Patriarch of Moscow via the Russian-Slavo-Orthodox model –which horriifies me as an Orthodox myself. Moreover, this alleged proximity between Ukraine and Russia is questionable: Crimea has been Russian since Catherine II, and Stalin has russified it by displacing the Tatars. It is easy to say that Ukraine is the soul of Russia because it comes from the Rus’ of Kiev, but it can just as well be said that it is the Golden Horde of the sons of Genghis Khan.

And even if, spiritually, Ukraine were part of Russia, it would not mean that Ukrainians would not have the right to join the Western system. They could be emotionally Slavic but administratively organized in a Western system and militarily protected through an alliance between Westerners — which even includes, I remind you, Turkey. Putin cannot understand this, nor some specialists in international relations who are sometimes called “realists” — I am thinking, for example, of John Mearsheimer.

Phoenicianism: multicultural thalassocratic, and non-colonial

States vs Individuals

These sloppy thinkers such as Mearsheimer and similar handwavers conflate states with individual interests; they believe that there is only a balance of power between powers — for Mearsheimer, Putin is only reacting to undue progress by the West on its ground. But the reality is quite different: what Ukrainians want is to be part of what I would call an international “benign” order, which works well because it is self-correcting, and where the balance of power can exist but remain harmless. Putin and the “realists” are the wrong century, they do not think in terms of systems or in terms of individuals. They suffer from what I call the “Westphalia Syndrome” — the reification of states as natural and fixed Platonic entities.


Solzhenitsyn clearly saw the diabolical aspect of communist society, but believed that Western society was just as harmful. But being naturally multicentric, the West aims to be like Switzerland — it’s bottom-top oriented in spite of occasional concentration. Furthermore, the “West” is evolving; it does not have fixed centers of authority. Certainly, there are disproportionate influences in the West, as today’s Google and yesterday’s General Motors, but Google or General Motors are not the center of it — these multinationals do not even control themselves.

Multinationals tend to go bust — in fact they are more likely to fold than your family run business.

This model tends to “antifragility” — a concept present in my books that refers to a property of systems that strengthen when exposed to stressors, shocks or volatility. Russia cannot be what I call “antifragile”.

An Error Correction Mechanism

A stable system requires a decentralized and multicephalous organization, which makes it possible to correct errors and avoid the deleterious effects of certain risks by confining them to the local level. After the 1918 war, the French destroyed Syria by centralizing it. Conversely, when the new Germany was formed, the French insisted that it be federal under the illusion that it would weaken it. Deprived of a center of gravity, Germany no longer thought of waging war, but of making… money. Butter, it turns out, works better than guns. Germany became an economic power thanks to federalism — and it appears to be natural as it spent its history in fragmented states before the Prussian takeover. For Russia, such a decentralized organization would be impossible: if let go of ballast, it would immediately find itself facing the secession of 20 small states — Chechnya, Ingushetia, Bashkiria… It therefore tightens the screw in the other direction.

The interest of the Western world is that it is a multicephalous model, made of contracts that allows regional autonomy under global coordination; Russia is an autocephalous system, which thinks only in a balance of power. Look at the West: is there a center? No. If there were one, moreover, he would be in Kiev today. And if you want to destroy the West, how many bombs do you need? If you destroy Washington, London and Paris will remain. But if you destroy the palace where Putin is, it’s something else.

The stability of a decentralized system is much better than that of a centralized system. As such, I am pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the Western world, which was done so, organically. I thought the West could not face Putin, because a fight between an autocrat and employees seemed lost to me in advance, but it seems that the aggregation of our actions is beginning to bear fruit.

Alas, the EU is Centralized a bit too much…

Subsidiarity was not respected, hence the departure of the United Kingdom. But the appropriate model is that of NATO, which exists in the area where organized joint action is necessary — military reaction — while letting countries do what they want under constraint not to attack each other. And I am grateful to the European Union for having succeeded in starting the concept of nation to think more in terms of regional coordination.

How can Russia enter the modern world?

Only if it fragments into separate states. Some Russian groups have always been irredentist, the Cossacks, the Kulaks (localist farmers), and the Siberians. There are also many minorities. More broadly, because of this Westphalia complex, it is forgotten that the Russians do not necessarily have the same interests as Russia. National interests are abstract things, and people end up believing in them even when they conflict with those of those populations they encompass.

Orthodoxy and Minor Patriarchs

The Patriarch of Moscow was also Patriarch of Ukraine. But in the Orthodox world, whenever an ethnic or language division occurs, a “minor patriarch” is appointed in the country that has become independent — this is the case in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. This is why the Patriarch of Constantinople, the most important, assented to the request that the Metropolitan of Kiev becomes a minor patriarch in 2019. Because of this separation, the Russian Orthodox Church felt amputated. The Patriarch of Moscow, Cyril, supports Putin. The Patriarch of Antioch, close to Assad, does the same.

This also confirms, if it were still needed, the absurdity of Samuel Huntington’s ideas in The Clash of Civilizations. Not only is his book full of pseudo-mathematical reasoning (causing Serge Lang to blackball him at the Academy of Sciences), but, like other “realists”, his obstinacy to think in geopolitical and identity centers leads him to conclude that Ukraine belongs to the Russian domain. But one can be Orthodox in New York!

Multicephaly did not help in 2014

It takes a while for a collective and distributed system to react. It takes a lot of sheep to fight a wolf, and in 2014 we were too few sheep.

People want to be able to trade together in Adam Smith’s world. This false debate reminds me of the opposition between Napoleon and the English.

Napoleon vs the English Shopkeeper

All the English initially wanted was for their products to arrive safely. Napoleon’s views did not interest them. While Napoleon thought in terms of the glory of France, they thought of the wallet of the English shop owner. But the English grocer won and, with the Phoenician trader, it was he who made the modern world — the Anglo-Phoenician world of mercantile cosmopolitanism. This is what means, for example, that today Germans are more interested in exporting cars than in Germany’s geographic expansion.

Moreover, it amuses me to hear some people talk about “American cultural imperialism”. Do you think that in the morning, when they wake up, Americans think about exporting their music and food? It’s simply that on the other side of the planet, young people prefer to eat hamburgers.

I am not Against Modernity; I am for its Improvement

The modern liberal system makes mistakes, yes. But when I criticize it, I don’t aim at destroy it, but at improving it. And it is a good system because it is self-correcting. I criticize naive Western interventions because I think about their consequences: I was against the war in Iraq, and experience justified my fears; I am against intervention in Syria, because if we get rid of Assad, we do not know what will replace him; I have nothing against Brexit, because if the British think they can manage to be part of our system without depending on the Brussels bureaucratic machinery, it is their right.

The problem posed by a benign system like ours is its transparency, which causes perceptional distortions: Tocqueville understood that equality seems all the stronger when it is reduced; similarly, a system seems all the more dysfunctional when it is transparent. Hence my attacks on someone like Edward Snowden and his acolytes, who exploit this paradox to attack the West for the benefit of Russian plotters.

Pseudo-Libertarianism Inviting Tyranny

I have trouble with many people, often naive libertarians, who think I’m like them because they like my books. But some of these want to destroy our system rather than improve it: many are full of resentment.

They do not realize that the alternative to our messy system is tyranny: a mafia-don like state (Lybia today, Lebanon during the civil war) or an autocracy. And these idiots call themselves libertarian!

This is the case of Snowden and his followers. He is an impostor. If I told you about an organization in Ryad that defends women in France against male oppression, you would laugh at me. Well, Snowden claims to defend the Americans against Google’s tyranny while operating from … Moscow!

On Twitter, I ended up noticing that in this naive libertarian or rather, pseudo-libertarian, ecosystem, which includes bitcoin enthusiasts, people who, like Snowden, see Covid-19 as a pretext for some dark entity to exert control over the population. This even includes anti-vaccine activists. We are at the very heart of disinformation: the goal of the Russian Disinformation Program here is to create mistrust between citizens and authorities, and to exploit everything that can bring dissension. Disinformation proceeds according to Stalin’s assumed quote: “The death of a man is a tragedy. The death of a million men is a statistic.” These activists, for example, magnify tiny dysfunctions of the Covid-19 vaccines.

How I Found Out About Disinformation

I began to spot Twitter accounts called “Linda”, pro-Trump who, in protesting against inflation, used the sign of the ruble instead of the dollar. When the same people support both Canadian truck drivers and Vladimir Putin, there is a problem. In a way, I came to defend Ukraine because the same fools who attacked me on Covid also defended Putin.

It is still disturbing that libertarians come to defend an autocrat!

Libertarians are controlled by Russia because in general, they are naive people who only have first-order thoughts — they do not know how to consider the consequences of certain actions. This is what distinguishes them from classic liberals.

They do not realize that destroying the current system invites tyranny.

The Long Peace

We didn’t wait for this war to realize that Pinker was wrong about the decline of violence. There is no such a thing as Long Peace, largely because the past was not as violent as Pinker claims. My colleagues and I refuted Pinker’s calculations in our research. His errors come in particular from the fact that some data he uses overestimate the number of deaths in past conflicts. Pinker wants to play the guardian of modern liberal thought, but it is the American BHL: he knows nothing about his subject.

Moreover, even if this conflict ends well, it will have shown that it is enough for a state to have nuclear weapons to cause a disaster. However, in today’s world, it is not acceptable for a leader to conquer another territory simply because he owns the atomic bomb. This principle must be destroyed.

Which brings us to the next risk, China. Certainly, it has not escaped the modern world as much as Russia, and it is closely linked commercially to the West. But it also has imperial tendencies. The best thing would therefore be for it too to decentralize to escape the yoke of Beijing. Taiwan and Honk Kong outperform China, so consider more of those!

Ending the Ukrainian War

If you give Putin even one finger, he will have won the war. Russia’s leadership must therefore be humiliated, and the only way is for it to retreat. We need a repetition of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. In this case, Putin will be overthrown from the inside, because, historically, people who accept autocracies do not like the weak. A weak Putin is no longer Putin — just as a nice, tactful, and thoughtful Trump would no longer be Trump. For this to continue, it takes a lot of suckers to keep feeding the narrative — and if the suckers begin to doubt the story, it will be the beginning of the end.


I have visited Ukraine many many times, most recently as the guest of the Zelenskys in August 2021 for the Ukrainian independence festivities. Last visit it felt like Hanibal ad portas. I had a lot of Vodkas with Ukrainians and discussed the ideas of this piece with a lot of friends, as well as members of the Ukrainian parliament in a special lecture on the fragility and stability of systems.