IV. 2. Constructing Complexity Theory for International Relations

Consider the analytical power of a complexity theory with defined conditions under which its core features would activate. For example, under Condition X, expect rapid emergence of counter-intuitive group behavior; under Condition Y, expect highly innovative self-organization. For a second example, rather than simply assuming that co-evolution will occur in any complex system, with the aid of a solid complexity theory, one should be able to differentiate between situations where co-evolution is likely to be rapid or slow…and explain why. Sophisticated complexity theory should go further, e.g., specifying how such complexity concepts as emergence, self-organization, and co-evolution should be expected to interact. While such genuine “complexity theory,” at least as it pertains to international relations, is today no more than science fiction (i.e., we have complexity concepts that are richly intuitive but not much of any scientific theory), it constitutes the bedrock goal that must be achieved to enable the full application in practice of complexity thinking.

In the future, when today’s laundry list of complex systems concepts will have been formulated into a true complexity theory for international relations, we might imagine a sort of “theoretical scenario analysis” in which the theory provides us with the axes and the scenarios thereby generated might be along the lines of “Scenario A. Innovative Self-Organization; Scenario B. No Emergent Behavior…”

While the substantive value of these theoretical musings may at present remain unclear, examples can nevertheless be suggested. Imagine an invader contemplating the potential impact of allowing the country just conquered to fall apart in chaos, crime, unemployment, and failed infrastructure and then firing every soldier of the just conquered native army. Would a complexity theorist not immediately see the danger of such a collapse of social order rapidly begetting an explosion of self-organization by the many desperate and angry people now suddenly running around with nothing to do and no governing structure to turn to for help? Indeed, this example suggests one possible axis for the scenario analysis: quality of governance.

Scenario analysis today is used to elicit creative thinking about real-world alternatives that may be hard for people to imagine, such as “Could the Iron Curtain fall peacefully?”; “Could an invasion of Iraq by the U.S. open the door to al Qua’ida?”; “Could Wall St. fall victim to its own scam?”; “Could a victorious Israeli attack on Iran still spell disaster for Israel?” But scenario analysis may have a theoretical value as well.

If complexity theory represents a potentially valuable way of viewing international relations but is a poorly understood theory, scenario analysis might be used not to portray alternative real-world futures but as a “meta-scenario” generator to portray alternative theoretical futures. In other words, the goal would not be to discuss any specific real-world cases but to discuss classes of real-world situations (e.g., post-invasion behavior by a conquered population or victory generating hubris or a greedy financial system undermined by its own greed). The goal of such a meta-scenario analysis would be to generate scenario classes that could be anticipated on the basis of theory rather than actual scenarios based on the reality of a specific case. Since complexity theory’s relevance to international relations remains a work in progress, such meta-scenario development might also prove a useful tool for sharpening our understanding of that now intuitive but yet to be proven relevance.


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