Complexity suggests that we can assume any regime will be heterogeneous in terms of say, policy preference, and will be in the process of evolving into something unanticipated. These simple insights can rescue failing foreign policies!

In their fundamental text in the application of complexity to the social sciences, a book now more than a decade old, Epstein and Axtell note that “it is standard practice in the social sciences to suppress heterogeneity in model-building” [Joshua M. Epstein and Robert Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1996)]. They go on to lament that “there has been no natural methodology for systematically studying highly heterogeneous populations” [2], a failing that, as their book explains, the agent-based models inspired by complexity theory are designed to address.

Perhaps not coincidentally, decision-makers have, at least in practice, also fallen far short of basing foreign policy on the systematic study of heterogeneity among their adversaries. Yet what could be more heterogeneous than a group of competing politicians or—at a higher level of organization—a group of competing political factions or a group of competing government agencies, the components of every regime?

Surely almost every decision-maker would claim the above observation is obvious, but countless foreign policy failures nevertheless result from the failure in practice to design policy based on the assumption of heterogeneity among one’s adversaries. Accepting the philosophy that the world is complex means above all else recognition that heterogeneity can be assumed to exist unless one can demonstrate the highly unlikely alternative.

To take an extreme example of a supposedly highly uniform dictatorship, even among Hitler’s inner circle, heterogeneity regarding policy preferences and competition existed; after all, his generals fomented an assassination attempt! For a current example of a regime experts (but perhaps not most U.S. politicians) would no doubt agree is considerably less unified, the Iranian regime exhibits intense factionalism, to the point that it seems counterproductive to make any generalization about the policies that “the regime” will promote even over the short term.

A second major attribute of complex systems comes into play as one moves away from the very short term: complex systems evolve. They do not just react like thermostats but evolve in new and unpredictable directions. Thus, even if one could make a valid generalization about the nature or policy preferences of the Iranian regime, that statement would have a significant probability of becoming incorrect over some unpredictable period of time. Taking a leaf from system dynamics, exponential change may lead suddenly to a tipping point, so that period of time may be very short, especially in a political environment such as that in Tehran, where the consequences of political defeat can be intensely painful.

Combining the assumptions that 1) leadership groups are heterogeneous and 2) leadership groups evolve unpredictably leads one to the conclusion that to be effective, policy should be designed to entice cooperation. It is not necessary to identify an individual politician, faction, or agency to target, though that may be a useful enhancement. Simply to understand that a regime contains variations and is inevitably undergoing evolution suffices to justify an approach that combines carrots and sticks.

Take, for example, the IRGC, supposedly the most extreme and anti-American organ of the Iranian government. That military organization is also a major economic organization. It would be impossible to determine what proportion of the IRGC generals care more about the profits they are making from managing foreign trade than they care about fomenting anti-Israeli activity in Lebanon. No matter. Washington does not need to know the number but simply to understand that economics is likely to loom large in the minds of generals who are so deeply involved in its management in order to see the obvious value of a policy that includes clear, detailed, persuasive, and profitable economic carrots as well as the endless sticks that currently form the core of Washington’s policy toward Iran. By the same token, a similar argument can be made for security guarantees: it is only common sense to assume that heterogeneity in any regime will be sufficiently extensive to include some politicians who will be concerned about national security and thus at least somewhat enticed by offers of security guarantees.

The most basic concepts of complexity—heterogeneity and evolution—argue for a foreign policy toward any regime held up by at least three pillars: not just a stick but also an economic carrot and a national security carrot. No models are needed; just internalizing these two concepts could revolutionize the effectiveness of a major and longstanding Washington foreign policy failure.


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