One key to understanding is asking the right questions. Confusion about what actions to take to achieve national goals is rampant; the effects of actions taken are appalling; the outcomes of policies repeatedly prove harmful to the very actor who adopted the policy. It is evident that mankind needs to view global affairs in a new way, to ask deeper questions in hopes of opening doors to obtaining more helpful answers. Complexity theory offers a rich array of concepts that can help us ask deeper questions. Taken together, these concepts argue for viewing world politics increasingly as a group of tightly bound actors evolving together, characterized more by context than their innate nature, vulnerable to surprise from new groups whose members decide independently to organize themselves in new ways and for new purposes. These concepts argue further for assuming that substantive consequences can arise, sometimes rapidly, from initially minor conditions and that organizations and countries will have a dangerous tendency to push themselves to limits beyond which catastrophe is almost unavoidable. The resultant picture of the 21st century world of high technology, instant communication, tight international connectivity at all levels of society, and universal education is one of a political world not only constantly evolving but evolving more rapidly, where actors can change course abruptly, policies that worked can suddenly fail, and success will go to the nimble. For an example of how these concepts can be applied to world politics, see “The Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Nuclear War or Mideast Compromise. Part I. Scenarios.”
To understand the political world now coming into being, we need to learn how to use these new analytical tools from complexity theory (interdependence of parts, criticality, adaptation, co-evolution, self-organization, nonlinearity, criticality, and emergence):
Interdependence of Parts. When pushed, we may all recognize that everything has at least some influence in world affairs on everything else, but typically most people assume their own country has a fixed nature independent of the rest of the world. Most people also all too easily slip into the assumption that all parts of a foreign country share a set of defining characteristics. Complexity theory’s concept of interdependent parts sets a different baseline: unless you happen to have specific evidence to the contrary for a given case, assume all components in a class are the same.
Heterogeneity. Implicit in the concept of parts is heterogeneity: not only are the subsystems of a complex system different, but each individual is unique. Bricks in a wall are homogeneous; officials in a regime (even a dictatorship) are not. It is the combination of different parts evolving as they mutually interact and adapt in response to each other that generates the complexity.
Criticality. The conventional perspective focuses on addressing the symptom – the avalanche (e.g, revolution, depression). The complexity perspective reveals the build-up of pressures to the point where a slight push can cause an avalanche. The trick is to avoid the push by dealing with the pressures.
Adaptation. If the conventional perspective in foreign affairs defaults to be “us vs. them,” the complexity perspective begins by assuming that we are all part of an adaptive system. Win, lose, or draw—according to this perspective—we are tied to the opponent. Consequently, the fight will change us.
Co-evolution. The conventional perspective denies that “we” can be influenced by the enemy. The complexity perspective sees actors adapting to respond not only to others but to their perceptions of how others will adapt.
Self-Organization. According to the conventional perspective, when a system is broken, say by regime change or military defeat in the case of a country, it ceases functioning. The complexity perspective, however, offers an alternative possibility – that the broken pieces will self-organize. This does not exactly mean that they will reconstitute themselves but create some, most likely novel, structure and start functioning again…perhaps for a very different purpose.
Nonlinearity. The conventional perspective is frequently to plan for a repeat of the last war; somewhat better, it may be to plan for acceleration of current trends. Complexity theory has bad news: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning.
Individual Variation. The conventional perspective is that certain groups behave in a certain way. A group is judged “ready” or “not ready” for independence or democracy—without even considering the impact on the group’s behavior of, say, the colonial power that is repressing it. According to the complexity perspective, it is not even enough to say that everything is connected by a complex set of interlinked dynamics that generate a multitude of tipping points shifting behavior in one direction or another. Reality is further complicated by individual variation, which means that you very well may not be able to simplify by averaging over all members of a group. Thus, not only is the nature of a group not immutable (because all groups evolve in response to the behavior of other groups), but even at a moment in time, all group members are not cut from the same cloth. All (almost) characterizations of groups are false.
Sensitivity to Initial Conditions. This individual variation has huge potential significance because slight changes in initial conditions related to an individual can much later lead to fundamental changes in system behavior. Not only do our actions affect our opponents’ behavior but even slight actions on our part may ultimately have major impacts on the behavior of others. Thoughtful people intuitively sneer at hubris; this is the theoretical justification for such sneers. Sensitivity to initial conditions explains how current conditions are likely to lead to widely divergent future possibilities: rather than waking up to find the world changed, it is more likely that slight variations in initial conditions will lead to a slow shift in the dominance of underlying causal dynamics.
Selection Pressure. Although selection pressure is a biological evolution concept that greatly predates complexity science, how it operates within a complex social system needs far better understanding if policy-makers are to avoid the facile assumptions that today lead to long-term policy failure. Simply, in an adaptive system, the “rules” establish a pressure gradient. While evolutionary biologists have a relatively sophisticated understanding (at least from the perspective of a political scientist) of how selection pressure breeds new populations, foreign policy strategists hardly even articulate such a perspective, much less follow through the underlying reasons, but in fact the rules (e.g., the rewards, the punishments, the conditions) breed new populations. If all are suffering and politicians are the only members of society allowed to improve their personal lifestyles, a new highly politicized population will be bred, not just because the farmers may starve or fail to reproduce but because each farmer will make some individual calculation about what may be a totally new idea for him – entering politics. A new social structure with new behaviors will emerge.
Criticality. The conventional perspective focuses on addressing the symptom – the avalanche. The complexity perspective reveals the build-up of pressures to the point where a slight push can cause an avalanche. The trick is to avoid the push and deal with the pressures.
Emergence. The conventional perspective is that one applies force and halts undesired behavior. The complexity perspective holds that force leads to disequilibrium characterized by a variety of shock waves of varying period and amplitude that reverberate throughout the system (because the parts are interdependent).
The implications of these concepts for foreign policy are numerous:
- dividing actors into good guys and bad guys is unlikely to be very useful because the context will have more impact on behavior than their fundamental nature (even if we could know what that was);
- reliance on past superiority is likely to be a dangerous delusion because the adaptation of the system can quickly change the nature of power, the results of the application of force are increasingly unpredictable because the range of response options is rapidly broadening;
- identifying the enemy will be increasingly difficult because enemies will shift, perhaps rapidly, and unimagined enemies will arise with little warning.
If we hope to create a safe political environment that beneficially balances stability with responsiveness, it is incumbent upon us to investigate these implications.