When powerful states interact with dependent populations, they do not just “change the enemy’s policies,” they breed new populations. There is no reason of which I am aware for complacency about the probability of being able to transform such a new population back into what it had previously been, so caution is in order. Changing the enemy’s policy for the moment at the cost of breeding a potentially more hostile, resilient, and imaginative population may be a very bad trade. Rational, effective policy-making needs to take into account the social changes that the “rules of the game” will stimulate.
Sometimes, policy-makers do in fact seem to understand this idea, as suggested by the 1960s adage that “you can’t legislate” the end of racism. Half a century later, a mere glance at how today’s teenagers behave socially strongly suggests that one not only can but in the U.S. we did. People have varying tendencies to adapt themselves to fit in with the group; changing group norms affects behavior. People also feel uncomfortable under cognitive dissonance. One way to bring beliefs and actions into sync is to modify one’s behavior to fit one’s beliefs, but if superior force compels a change in behavior, within limits, individuals have a tendency to modify their beliefs, especially if that new behavior is beneficial to them.
In foreign policy, however, policy-makers seem to have much more trouble visualizing the implications of their actions. A simple complex-adaptive model of this might be instructive. Consider, for example, a very simple model in the Epstein-Axtell Sugarscape agent-modeling platform showing a subject population. Give each member a different (perhaps random) tendency to knuckle down or fight back. Let every individual search for a way to get ahead in life. Now subject that population to the following rules:
- no one can leave;
- everyone is subjected to collective punishment (representing denial of security, investment funds, food, medicine, markets);
- only politics offers a potentially profitable career;
- the probability of deriving profit from politics correlates positively with the size of your party.
I submit that is such a simple model that a policy-maker could usefully contemplate its meaning even without having a computer. What kind of society do you think is likely to result? Does this remind you of any real place on earth? This model, unless I have omitted some key rule, seems likely to promote a highly politicized, activist, rapidly adapting, centralized society effectively containing only one significant actor – a political party that will do anything to get ahead. Such a society is likely to have difficulty sustaining itself, be highly risk-taking (what have they got to lose?), to invent tactical solutions faster than any big, busy imperial master is likely to do, and to be run by people who will conclude that anything they do is justified. If a great power imposes such rules on a subject population of adversaries in order to enhance its own national security, is the great power’s policy likely to succeed?