Thursday, June 28, 2007

Intervening in Complex Political Systems

Complexity theory offers an innovative way to think about global affairs. But it’s…well, complex, so a little theory may be useful before tackling the innumerable actors (people, parties, countries, international corporations, alliances), wide variety of capabilities, and endless interconnections characterizing international politics.

Consider a trivial complex system consisting of three components, as follows:

Component A – pink, medium-sized
Component B – blue. medium-sized
Component C – gray, medium-sized.

Each component, in our toy system, has only one possible action – move one step in a 3-D grid in any direction at random. (An "action" is behavior that has an impact on other components.)

This is clearly a rather simple system, compared, say, to a human cardiovascular system or a nation-state political system. Nevertheless, predicting its future states will be difficult because we are asserting that it is a complex system. This statement tells us first that its components are interdependent and adaptive.

Let’s assume, then, that each component’s color and size can evolve as a function of distance from the other two components. It is likely that the rate of evolution will vary across components, so let Component A have the slowest rate of evolution, Component B a rate 30% faster, and Component C a rate 200% faster unless it finds itself exactly equidistant from Components A and B, at which point its evolution rate slows to only 5% faster.

Finally, it is natural to have delays in the reactions of components, so let us posit, as examples of a complete rule set, the following simple rules:
  • At Time 1, Component A moves.
  • If Component A moves closer to B, Component B waits two time steps and then moves.
  • Else Component B waits one time step and then moves.
  • If Component A and B together end up on average closer to C than they were before moving, then C turns a lighter shade, shrinks, waits three time steps, and moves.
  • After five time steps, if C is within 10 distance units of A and is smaller than medium, A moves toward C.

One could continue to define a rather large number of rules, even for this very simple complex system. But even if we stop here, adding only a rule that says, "else, no one moves," predicting future states of the system will quickly get arduous. Now consider one simple change that is essential to approximate social reality – instead of rules that have simple, binary alternatives (move/don’t move), the rules are always tendencies, e.g., "Else Component B probably waits a short number of time steps and then move a short distance." Now, with this minimal step in the direction of real world social system reality, where one never knows, e.g., exactly how rigorously the other side will adhere to a cease-fire, suddenly we have a system whose states can hardly be predicted even a few steps into the future.

A couple initial questions arise, even from this "simple" complex system:

  1. If its future states cannot be predicted, what can we say about the future?
  2. What external input would make the system’s future states easier or more difficult to predict?

What can we say about the future?

  • Colors get lighter or darker but don’t change, so, for example, we will never see "green."
  • Certain relationships clearly exist (specified in the rules), so if we could control the actions of one component, we could predict something about the actions of others.
  • A fundamental distinction exists between behavior we care about (we care about behavior that affects the system) and other behavior that is internal to the component. We need to keep this distinction in mind and be careful to ignore internal behavior if our concern lies with the system. Our model simplifies by not having any internal behavior, but in the real world these will be hopelessly confused.
  • If we made a system dynamics model of system behavior, might we discover some interesting tipping points? Whether or not a boring question for this toy system with its scarcity of interactions, it is a critical question for evaluating real systems where, for example, a seemingly straightforward financial agreement can lead to, say, cultural complications.
  • We did not discuss the concept of behavior at the system level. Indeed, this system seems rather too simple to have any. But perhaps this assumption is naïve; we would have to build an agent-based model of the system—and a rather sophisticated one, at that--to find out. In any case, for a real system, we would be wise to consider the possibility that behavior not inferable from the behavior of the individual components might emerge at some collective level.

In sum, it appears that a good deal can be said to guide one’s expectations about future behavior, whether the actual state of the system at any particular point can be predicted or not.

What can we do to alter predictability of the future?

  • Alter energy levels. In some sense, behavior is a function of "energy." What that means depends on the system, but if our components can move, they have "energy." If we increase the energy, they may move farther and/or faster.
  • Add or subtract variables. These components have size and color. Suppose one added the ability to reproduce, form alliances, and steal each other’s energy?

Without having yet said anything about the real world of international affairs (or any other real system), we have already begun to derive some principles. Let us call them PFMAWCC: principles for mucking about with complex systems.

Principle #1. Intervening provokes adaptation.
Intervening means inserting "energy," whether energy in the literal physics sense or, in the case of a political system, one of the political equivalents (argumentation, new laws, force, money). One way or the other, getting something done requires an investment of energy. Putting energy into a system will make the system adapt more, well, "energetically." This will make it harder to control and will make the future harder to predict because actions will take place faster.

Principle #2. Intervening degrades predictability.
Adding energy makes things happen faster, so it becomes harder to analyze everything. But intervening also probably will add variables, i.e., capabilities. Foreign technical and financial assistance may enable a regime to create new institutions or enforce new control mechanisms. The construction of a new road system may facilitate participation in the international drug trade. New actors may join the system, and old actors may gain new capabilities. Actors will connect to each other in new ways. Adding variables causes an exponential rise in the number of connections, vastly increasing the downstream affects. Subtracting isn’t simple, either, because it’s not just a matter of subtraction. Reducing energy will have varied impact on different components because complex systems are heterogeneous (recall that even our model system’s components vary by color, and color affects behavior). Subtracting a variable (e.g., denying a colonial population the right to self-government) will cause multiple immediate impacts, more second-order impacts, potentially still more third-order impacts…once again, exponential change, and not necessarily the mirror image of adding the variable.

These principles caution the activist to proceed with care. Whatever you do will have downstream impacts in every direction you won’t be able to foresee because everything is connected in ways you can’t predict.

Now, about that "real world" we have been so carefully avoiding...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mercenaries Surge in Iraq

For an update on my post about mercenaries, see the latest from TomDispatch, who, along with many other statistics we would do well to pay heed to, informs us that:

"Number of armed "private contractors" now in Iraq: at least 20,000-30,000, according to the Washington Post. (Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestseller Blackwater, puts the figure for all private contractors in Iraq at 126,000.) ".

Meanwhile, Robert Sheer provides a valuable case study.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Palestinian Futures (Part I)

Even after a half century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a cancer of instability undermining efforts to resolve all Mideast problems. Indeed, in view of last summer’s Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the resultant domestic Lebanese political standoff, this spring’s outbreak of fighting in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, the Fatah-Hamas street battles this month, the split in the Palestinian government, and Israel’s discriminatory policy toward the two new governing bodies in Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems set to intensify in the near future.

Beneath these surface indicators, things look even worse. Palestine is increasingly beleaguered, walled in, and cut off. Desperation, incompetence, hopelessness, and the shortsighted interference of Palestine’s enemies have combined to split the Palestinian political scene into two groups that appear more intransigent every day, with Israel and Washington actively accelerating this process. Within Palestine, between Palestine and Israel, and more broadly in the region, positions seem to be hardening, and relatively little effort is being made to address the real underlying problems of disenfranchisement, discrimination, humiliation, and poverty. If instability in Palestine is a cancer, it now seems to be metastasizing.

Is this impression accurate? Could the future unfold differently? Even a cursory scenario analysis may help to imagine both likely future developments and better outcomes that are possible. Following the scenario analysis that will be introduced in this post, subsequent posts will take more in-depth analytical views, using the previously mentioned "second lens" of system dynamics and "third lens" of complexity theory.

Numerous variables affecting the future of Palestine can be enumerated: security, personal power, quality of governance, living standards, justice, respect, culture. All—and more--will make their contributions to Palestine’s future, but scenario analysis is more productive when focused on two or three critical axes for several reasons: some of these variables may be more important than others, some may be subsets of others, and selection helps focus attention on analytically interesting alternatives.

Here two critical axes will be selected: the degree of Palestinian unity and the degree of justice in Palestine. This leaves somewhat neglected many important issues, but unity and justice are fundamental, not leading automatically to any particular future (e.g., good government or rapid economic development) but, if present, opening the door to such goals, and, if absent, very likely closing that door.


These two axes generate four broad future paths for Palestine:

A. Clash of Civilizations (disunity and injustice)
B. Persian Empire (unity and injustice)
C. Zion Abandoned (disunity and justice)
D.Two-State Compromise (unity and justice).

Take the names with a grain of salt. Scenario A, rather than a chaotic clash of civilizations, might result in a collapse of Palestinian society and ultimately the extermination of the Palestinian people as an organized population, but it seems more likely that such an outcome would still be preceded by unrestrained extremism on all sides. Scenario B, in which Palestinians are unified but fail to achieve justice, might lead instead of alliance with Iran to a purely Arab nationalist movement, but at present Iran seems the most enthusiastic backer of Palestinian aspirations.

Scenario A. Clash of Civilizations
The current hardline attitudes of all major players worsens. Failure to find a compromise leads to mounting confrontation that feeds intensifying extremism on all sides. Palestinian in-fighting opens the door to al Qua’ida, weakens any Palestinian or Israeli efforts at compromise, keeps the initiative firmly in the hands of militarists in Israel and the U.S., and steadily broadens the conflict. As neighbors are drawn in, Palestinian civil war, Iraq-style terrorism, Palestinian-Israeli warfare, and finally a Mideast war occur one after the other. Mounting extremism strengthens the Israeli garrison state, dramatically expands the Iranian role even as it strengthens messianic Shi’ism reminiscent of the early Khomeini era, raises the threat of an Israeli or American nuclear attack on Iran, inflames Arab nationalism, and destabilizes first Jordan and then other conservative Arab states.

Scenario B. Persian Empire (unity and injustice)
Palestinian unity minimizes social chaos and facilitates the rise of a pro-Palestinian alliance. As Palestinian-Israeli fighting intensifies, a pro-Palestinian alliance emerges under Iranian leadership. This provokes a resurgent militant Arab nationalism, “Nasser-II,” that competes with Persian ascendancy. Arab candidates for an emergent nationalist hero--albeit this time one with a more religious perspective than Nasser’s--already exist: e.g., Nasrallah or Moqtada al Sadr—and must decide whether to coordinate with the rising power Iran or compete with it.

Scenario C. Zion Abandoned (disunity and justice)
Against all odds, a movement of conciliation to seizes popular imagination in Israel and provides Palestinians with a convincing alternative to violent resistance rapidly enough to head off rising extremism, the combination of rising justice for Palestinians and Palestinian unity might open the door to a regional decline in insecurity. This happens because of popular revulsion in Israel to an unusually barbaric Israeli military strike combined with the chance simultaneous rise in both Israeli and Palestinian politics of leaders willing to consider compromise. Washington happens to be occupied elsewhere and thus offers no objection. Palestinian leaders negotiate the early stages of the conciliation with extraordinary skill, and mutual confidence builds. Slowly, the majority of Israelis reject their “exceptionalism,” give up Zionism, demand dismantling of the garrison state in the interests of Israeli democracy, conclude that apartheid is not only immoral but a poor basis for long-term security, and the Jewish state is transformed into a true democracy that welcomes people of all faiths.

Scenario D. Two States (unity and justice).
Palestinians manage to put together a unified government, and Israel chooses to give that government a chance. Under conditions of rising justice for Palestinians, the agreement leads to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a state with territorial integrity, its own armed forces, equitable water rights. This trend both depends on and enables a general solution to regional issues, such as secure borders for Lebanon, return of the Golan Heights to Syria, a new governmental system in Lebanon that makes the Shi’a poor equal citizens, and a recognized regional role for Iran.

These scenarios provide one of innumerable possible frameworks for studying the limitless complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Comments on alternative approaches would be most welcome.

Hint: Do we want to get into the analytically challenging territory of more than two axes?

In a future post, I will discuss milestones for figuring out which scenario seems closest to the mark as events unfold and scenario evolution.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Addicted to Violence

Politics is the art of the possible. Without talking to opponents, one cannot find out what might be possible. Politicians who refuse to talk to opponents ensure that at least some of the potential solutions will not even be considered. Such behavior is, however, not necessarily the result of stupidity or sulking.

When political leaders refuse to talk to their opponents, the simplest explanation is the obvious one: they do not want a solution. They do not have a problem. They are satisfied with the status quo. A politician who proclaims loudly his or her desire for compromise provided that the opponent concede on the key issue in advance is simply talking to the gallery.

Politics is all about negotiating: that’s what they are hired to do. When they refuse to do their job, you are entitled to ask why they want failure. The answer may well be that they do not consider the absence of a solution a failure. "Solution" implies change. Regimes that refuse to talk to those who want to alter the system do so because they are benefiting from the status quo.
  • Chaos and low-level insurgency may well be a price a colonial regime will be quite willing to pay in return for being able to use that violence as the excuse for keeping the colonized people in subjugation. After all, the very point of colonization is to preventing the colony from going its own way.

  • The destruction of a conquered society may well be a price a conqueror will be quite willing to pay in return for gaining access to natural resources or military bases to be used in further adventures. Indeed, social chaos in the colony provides a nice cover for the establishment of military bases for totally unrelated purposes.

  • Low-intensity rural insurgency may be a price a rich urbanized elite will be quite willing to pay if in return it receives massive amounts of military aid from foreign patrons. The military will be likely to enhance its prestige and acquire far more sophisticated weapons than it needs to use against rural rebels.

The elites who reject negotiation and compromise, who promise to "stay the course," seldom end up on the front lines facing the insurgents whose "radicalism" they have provoked. Waste no time asking such politicians what they want. Rather, ask yourself how the violence in a remote rural jungle, or a colony, or a conquered land may be benefiting those elites. It is not the rebellious peasant whose land was stolen by a cattle baron who should be called an "extremist." It is not the rebellious teenager raised in a refugee camp hearing how his parents were ethnically cleansed from their homeland who should be called an extremist. It is not the rebellious militiaman fighting against foreign invaders who should be called an extremist. Is a man who defends his home and family an extremist? No, the extremist is the politician who refuses to talk to his enemy, instead insisting on a policy of preconditions and force.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Violence, Insurgency, Terrorism...& Burden Shifting?

Why is there so much rebellion against "the authorities" in the world today?

Is it the fault of "insurgents," "radicals," "extremists" or...the authorities?

Take a look at "Shifting the Burden."


Historical patterns repeat. System dynamics, the study of how underlying dynamics cause a system (e.g., a country’s political system) to behave, which I referred to in an earlier post as the "second lens" for studying international relations/world politics/global affairs, has identified a set of patterns that repeat. Called "archetypes," these patterns occur not only in history but throughout human behavior. I discussed earlier how "Fixes that Fail" contributes to the rise of political instability; "Shifting the Burden" offers another way to think about such failures.

In the "Shifting the Burden" pattern, a symptomatic solution temporarily alleviates a problem, diverting attention from the fundamental solution; meanwhile, side effects of the superficial "solution" intensify the problem because the real cause is being ignored. That is, the "fundamental solution, on the left, is ignored, because the "symptomatic solution" is easier and, perhaps, seems to work at first. The ability of a symptomatic solution, i.e., one that alleviates a symptom without curing the disease, to appear successful at first, is a trap because people will assume that what worked at first should be tried even harder when it starts to fail.
Understanding that one may be faced with a fix that is failing will alert you to face up to the need to address the underlying cause when papering over the symptoms starts to fail.

When thinking about how societies deal with violence, this pattern can be critically important. The first step in the story of a violence-plagued society may be an effort by the establishment to stop extremism by the use of force rather than listening to the extremists’ complaints. Such use of force may well distract the regime and inhibit the flow of scarce resources into social welfare spending.

Whatever the short-term impact on extremism, over the long-term, frustrations in society over decline in the quality of governance may then well end up strengthening extremists.

This gives the following picture, in which the military fix has failed over the long-term because it had a negative impact on social welfare spending and enhanced civilian suffering, leading to a rise in recruitment into extremist ranks.

In any particular case, there may of course be any number of side effects instead of or in addition to constraints on social welfare spending. The point is to avoid the trap of being tempted to take aspirin to relieve a headache caused by a brain tumor.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Complexity & Context in the Palestinian Civil War

The global outbreaks of seemingly irrational and unpredictable violence that so consume our attention today would be much easier to explain and resolve if we adopted a systems perspective instead of reacting to each event as it occurs and rushing to label actors as "good" or "evil." A "systems perspective" should incorporate concepts from both system dynamics and complexity theory, i.e., it should consider not just concepts such as feedback loops and delays but also interdependence of parts, attention to detail, emergence, and the context within which the system functions.

It is striking how easily we overlook this last issue—the influence on our behavior of context. The explosion of fighting this week between Fatah and Hamas is a perfect example of the critical impact of context.

Palestine is the contemporary version of the Warsaw Ghetto – totally surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Palestine people are now literally walled in (see Jimmy Carter’s chapter on "The Wall as a Prison" in his Palestine Peace Note Apartheid). Israelis enter periodically to arrest or kill Palestinian officials, guard roads crisscrossing Palestine from which Palestinians are banned, and practice economic warfare against both the Palestinian regime and the people. This context is critical to understanding Palestinian behavior.

Complexity theory asserts that the behavior of a system is a function of its parts in context. Behavior of actors in the Palestinian political system, thus, is a function of the interactions among the various Palestinian political parties in the context of their inability to overcome the Israeli occupation.

From this theoretical perspective, one may hypothesize that in the context of inability to control one’s environment, individuals will exhibit a range of behavior. As stress rises, variation in response will increase, with actors progressively trying an increasingly wide range of potential solutions. Over time, repeated failure is likely to lead to trying increasingly risky approaches. In accordance with complexity theory’s concept of behavior emerging at a collective level that could not have been inferred by observing behavior at the individual level (see Yaneer Bar-Yam, Dynamics of Complex Systems, pp. 9-10) one can hypothesize that counterintuitive patterns will be generated at the system level.

H1 = If a population fails to control its environment, as stress rises, individuals will exhibit an increasingly wide and risky range of behavior.

H2 = If individual behavior becomes increasingly varied and increasingly risky, behavior will emerge at a collective level that cannot be inferred from behavior at the individual level.

In the case of Palestine, different individuals may emphasize any of several obvious goals: gaining freedom from Israel, recovering their homeland, improving their lifestyle, or being treated with respect. Regardless of which of these goals an individual find most important, a Palestinian civil war is not a means of achieving the goal that could logically be inferred.

Complexity theory asserts that complex systems are constructed of interdependent parts, each of which modifies itself in response to modifications in the others. Complexity theory also teaches us to pay attention to the broad context within which people exist. It is not enough to identify the individuals and groups functioning in the Palestinian political system and to characterize them. It is not even enough to determine how the behavior of each actor influences the behavior of all the others. Their behavior and the labels one assigns cannot be absolute. Most unfortunately for those searching for easy answers, the behavior and nature of everyone is a function not just of innate nature but also of context.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Complexity and Dynamics of Global Violence

How to comprehend the functioning and evolution of human civilization as a complex system will be one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century. A key sub-question concerns the interplay between individual human behavior and the various components of the international political system. Progress toward answering this question promises invaluable payoffs in terms of wars avoided and human aspirations satisfied.

To sketch out the nature of the problem, one can simplify to a three-lens view of international relations:

· One lens shows the familiar broad overview of events: sequence is fairly clear but causality far less so, which leaves us vulnerable to surprise.

· A more powerful lens reveals the causal dynamics. The concepts for interpreting what we see at this magnification are well developed and can even in some fields be represented by equations (because it is assumed that all actors in a given class behave the same), but culture lags behind: we are unfortunately not accustomed to thinking very clearly about the nature of feedback loops and delays in the context of international relations. We have a valuable set of interpretive tools for minimizing surprise in global affairs and for avoiding foreign policy failures that we have simply not bothered to use.

· The third lens is still being polished; though the view through it remains murky, we need to start using it because it shows a far more accurate image of reality. This is the lens that reveals not only the actions and dynamics of a system but also the various structural components. If these components are at multiple levels (individual, group) and all are interdependent, the result is complexity. The theory of complexity that is taking shape today is designed to illuminate systems composed of multiple interdependent parts whose connections at one level (e.g., individual) give rise to seemingly counterintuitive behavior at other levels (e.g., group, national, regional, or system-wide).

The first lens shows us speeches, invasions, elections. The second lens shows the forces causing those events, which it may be reasonable to classify into political, economic, demographic, cultural, and technical. The third lens presumably should show how new behavior emerges at one level from highly complicated interactions at another. More precisely, behavioral dynamics will occur at multiple levels within each of the five sectors mentioned above and others will occur among those sectors.

Exactly how to apply these ideas to international relations is a challenge that remains to be solved. Among the specific problems that seem appropriate subjects for viewing from the complexity perspective are:

· How Palestinian infighting has emerged to undercut the Palestinian people’s long struggle for independence from Israeli colonization;

· How a peasant rebellion for justice against exploitative big landowners in Colombia evolved over half a century into a battle between guerrillas and paramilitaries, with both selling narcotics and committing atrocities against the innocent;

· How violence-addicted extremists gained ascendancy on all sides so quickly after the brief glow of post-Cold War hope, leading to the casting aside of fundamental rules for governing the international political system;

· How the Iraqi insurgency evolved into Sunni-Shi’ite in-fighting at the expense of efforts either to resist the U.S. occupation or rebuild Iraq, with the emergence of new types of behavior (e.g., blowing up holy sites).

Complexity theory sensitizes us to questions that might otherwise be overlooked.

· The interdependence of the parts of a complex system (think of the difference between giving drugs to a sick person and repairing a car) warns one to expect “side” effects. Thus, if a problem in ties between two ethnic groups appears, from the complexity perspective, one would automatically ask how that would ripple through the whole system, with implications for system stability.
· The expectation that the way the parts of a complex system interact will be affected by the context in which the system exists focus attention on how external pressures modify the behavior of actors within the system.
· The assumption of complexity theory that variation exists among individuals cautions one to pay strict attention to details. (Note that this assumption directly contradicts the assumption of smoothness that is made when viewing dynamics [the second lens, above].)

· The concept of “emergence” sensitizes us to anticipate rather than be surprised by new forms of behavior that violate cultural norms (the rise of narco-paramilitaries, revenge destruction of holy sites, intifadas, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, bombing of cities, threats of nuclear war against non-nuclear states).

The generic complexity theory we have today sensitizes us to ask certain key questions and prepares us to anticipate surprise. There is as yet little application of that generic theory to the specifics of human civilization, much less to the field of global politics, so the theory does not—yet—tell us what type of behavioral modifications we should anticipate. It remains to be seen whether or not we can construct a “science of human socio-political complexity.” What is the next step in the direction of that vision? The development of a framework to allow us to think more conceptually about the proper ways to use each of the three above-described powers of magnification--events, dynamics, and interdependence—would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Insurgency Closer to Home

Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only countries with insurgencies complicated by U.S. involvement. Closer to home is Colombia, a country Congress is about to focus on, at least for a moment. A little theory may help put this half-century-long civil war in perspective...

We may all agree that instability read as chaos, disease, and war is bad, while stability read as peace, progress, economic development is good. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between saying:

A.) that stability requires that the current leaders, current customs, and current inequities remain in place and

B.) that stability permits all desired changes at whatever desired speed in leadership, custom, law, power relationships as long as those changes are achieved peacefully and with tolerance.

Recognition that stability need not mean stasis opens the door to fundamentally new policies. Dictatorships no longer need to be propped up by foreign powers interested in establishing commercial or military ties because one’s imagination is opened to the possibility of a new system that would both address the desires of the population for, say, social justice or political participation and address the foreign power’s interests:

  • An oppressed population helped to gain social justice by a foreign power might well find it had no problem selling oil to that power;
  • A foreign power that chose to support a rise in the wages of banana pickers against the wishes of international corporations might find the new country a much more stable source of bananas.

Colombia is a case in point. Half a decade ago, all sides in the endless Colombian civil violence, which in its current formulation has continued for four decades but really began at the end of the century – the 19th century, agreed to join together to negotiate a solution. After nearly four years of trying, the negotiations failed.

Among the many reasons for the failure of those negotiations and the continuation of the civil war up to today, with no end in sight, was a seeming closedmindedness about the definition of stability. There does not seem to have been any general recognition among the key participants in the negotiations of the wide range of possible changes in how economic resources and political power are apportioned in Colombia that could have been encompassed within the meaning of a stable, negotiated settlement of the Colombian civil war. Many are now dying in Colombia, in part as a result of how the key actors define the word "stability."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Can Our Leaders Learn?

A particularly invidious psychosis plagues the world: the refusal to learn from enemies held in contempt. This very special type of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a major reason why international conflict resolution is so difficult. Whether the despised opponent lays out his conditions for compromise plainly in a speech or engages in transparent behavior, the other side will all too often make it a matter of (false) pride to learn absolutely nothing.

Almost never is a person utterly and implacably evil. Even the utterly evil get tired, and most have a price. Sometimes that price is close to paid simply by treating opponents with respect. When decision makers fail to learn from the lessons taught them (be they actions taken by an opponent or statements made by an opponent), the country is in serious trouble. Circumstances are always in flux, and no country can function very well without learning.

The critical ingredient is dissent. One can of course have internal feedback that passes up information, but in practice dissent is the critical form of feedback for a political system. The degree to which leaders pay heed to apathy, critical media, demonstrations, and violence directed against the state or people is a fundamental measure of the degree to which they are in touch with reality.

These phenomena do not come out of the blue. They result from some mix of reality and perceptions and can therefore be used as signals by open-minded decision-makers. When ruling circles ignore the message of those who oppose them, this indicates a pathology of the system. The refusal to learn is pathological.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Balancing Chaos and Order: Iraq, Terrorism, and Complexity

Society is not a formal English garden with all its people standing in straight little rows. Society requires adaptability, flexibility, maneuverability. It is not the people but the rules that need to be kept in their place. Rules are useful tools – nothing more, or, that is, rules should be nothing more. The jackboots of history make all too clear how easily they can be, however. When rules take precedence over human welfare—when “order” becomes god, the society is sick. But when no rules exist, the society collapses into chaos. The evolution of human history from Neanderthal times seems to be the story of rising complexity and a concomitant increase in the difficulty of achieving a balance between chaos and order.

The more cultures intermix, the more educated and aware of neighbors people become, the more ideologies each individual is exposed to, the more of a challenge achieving this balance becomes. And the more technology spreads, the more dangerous a loss of balance becomes. Individual access to weapons of mass destruction makes chaos more dangerous; state access to technologies for control makes order more dangerous. In between the two extremes, interventions gone wrong become increasingly costly in terms of money, human lives, and downstream impact.

Complexity theory offers the hope of a more sophisticated way of viewing 21st century society, whose novel dynamics so baffle us. If we can figure out how to understand human society as a complex system of interdependent parts in which behavior at one level, e.g., individual, causes unanticipated types of behavior at another level, e.g., global, then perhaps we can learn to minimize foreign policy failures by tuning policy with more finesse.

Complex systems are presumably highly resilient, so why need we be concerned with “finesse?” Mature complex societies, with their accepted rule sets, firmly established and highly legitimate institutions, and well developed problem-solving mechanisms are resilient, though even these can be overwhelmed by change. (Tainter, Diamond) Relatively simple hierarchical societies (e.g., dictatorships) may well also be resilient. But it is in a very different type of society where foreign policy missteps of our new century appear to occur: transitional societies.

Societies in the process of transition from relatively simple hierarchical forms to something much more complex (integrated, fluid, heterogeneous, specialized, mobile) lack the strengths of both extremes (hierarchical and complex).

Transitional societies are characterized by fragility and unpredictability. Transitional societies are fragile because:

· Institutions are poorly established, with rules that are not worked out or accepted;
· Political support is minimal;
· Both institutions and rules have little legitimacy.

Transitional societies are unpredictable because:

· Political actors can easily choose to switch roles (e.g., from patriot to criminal) or be so labeled;
· Many obstacles block success
· Resource constraints;
· Zero-sum competition;
· Aspects of both the old and new phases exist.

These points merit detailed consideration because, to the degree that they are accurate, they contain lessons for formulating effective foreign policy.

Weak institutions and rules. One early example of weak rules after the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the rules for media behavior. The hostility toward the U.S. of Shi’ite cleric and political activist Moqtada al Sadr seems to have been set in concrete--with consequences that are still playing out--because the U.S. saw his newspaper as violating what it considered to be the rules and therefore closed his paper. A different example of challenging the rules is al Sadr’s recent overtures to Sunnis which signal an interest in replacing ethnic-based institutions with some type of cross-ethnic structure.

Switching Roles. In transitional societies individuals as well as social structures are in transition and searching for more effective and comfortable roles, tradition is being tossed aside, and the establishment has lost its grip, so political actors can easily switch roles and indeed may play contradictory roles at the same time. Is a militia leader the head of a criminal gang or a patriot stabilizing society? In what direction is he evolving? What political context would be likely to influence his evolution in one direction or the other? Are the simultaneous exercise of “contradictory” roles, i.e., roles that contribute to order and disorder, necessary under any particular set of circumstances during a transition?

It is not at all obvious what the impact on a tenuous transitional situation will be of removing such a militia leader from the scene. His removal will generate numerous changes: loss of local security, loss of local government, power vacuum that must be filled immediately by the national government or some other force will step in, alienation of the deposed leader’s supporters (who probably encompass a whole sector of society and thus cannot themselves be eliminated, empowerment of opponents (not just the national government but perhaps also additional militias. The removal of such a leader will thus generate numerous complex dynamics that will be exceedingly difficult to foresee. One example was the late May killing of Sadrist leader in Basra.

The various portrayals of Abu Qader are instructive. He was a “criminal leader” involved in “weapons trafficking” but yet “known for instilling restraint in his men” and trying to “stabilize” Basra. ) If the purpose of killing him was to bring order to Basra, it is not at all clear that his killers thought this through very carefully.

Abu Qader’s death aggravates and leaves unresolved a host of issues: where do “his men” and their families now turn and what lessons about their behavior are they now to learn? What kind of leader is likely to fill the power vacuum he leaves behind? Was his group providing any sort of local security or perhaps providing social services to the community? How will his death affect the behavior of local militias in competition with him? Was he contributing more to “order” or “disorder?” In which direction was he moving? Was he approaching a tipping point where he could easily have been nudged in one direction or the other? Without answers to such questions, interventions are mindless exercises in futility.

Both locally, in Basra, and nationally, it remains to be seen what repercussions will ensue from this crude intervention in the delicate process of socio-political transition. Multiply such “interventions” many times over in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Colombia, and one begins to understand why the chaos there is so endless.

Aspects of old and new. Fragments of both the old, hierarchical phase and the newly emerging phase, not to mention transitional fragments co-exist in transitional societies, all interacting but in new ways that emerge as the mix of “fragments” evolves. These “fragments” may be cultural mores, institutions, or rules. Purely transitional structures may be mixed with structures that will turn out to characterize the future complex society. It is not clear if they are even theoretically distinct categories or if “chance” determines which are retained since the transitional societies are in flux and success for any new structure is so dependent on initial and subsequent conditions. From the perspective of Western industrial society, a Mideast militia that provides social services to the poor or a Colombian narco-paramilitary force that defends rich cattle barons may appear to be a transitional force, but that perspective rests on the questionable assumption that these societies will inevitably evolve into Western-style industrial societies. If human society is “undergoing a transition away from hierarchical control” (Bar-Yam, p. 782), then some of these apparently transitional subnational structures may become permanent features of a form of society that does not yet exist.

The emergence of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon exemplifies some of the complications of overlapping old and new features in societies transitioning from hierarchical structure. In Lebanon’s case, the hierarchical structure was essentially composed of several so-called “confessional,” i.e., ethnically/religiously-based, hierarchies (Shi’a, Sunni, Druze, Maronite) that had agreed to divide up political power plus a disenfranchised Palestine refugee population constituting 10% of Lebanon’s population but living in self-administered camps both physically and legally separated from the rest of the Lebanese population. Fatah al-Islam has now emerged as a transitional offshoot of the traditional Palestinian refugee political structure (traditional in the sense of having been in existence in Lebanon since the Palestinians arrived in the 1970’s). On top of that simple structural explanation, one should add the more political perspective of the various regional conflicts contributing to the violence.

The fragility and unpredictability of societies in the process of a transition from a relatively simple hierarchical structure into something new may be exacerbated by the potential for an even greater degree of complexity during the transition than after. In the natural sciences, the most complex situation is “the phase transition, when both phases coexist.” (Cowan, p 522) The question of whether or not a transitional society may have even more interdependence among an even larger number of parts than a mature complex society deserves to be researched. Transitional societies are under stress, which seems to provoke many individuals who are normally politically quiet into activism, and not just activism but radical forms of activism.

Consider, for example, the dozens of different insurgent groups in Iraq and the speed with which they fracture and re-form. The degree to which activist organizations in transitional societies under great stress are truly interdependent and the density of social networks in such societies would be worth knowing. I would hypothesize that interdependence and learning among activist groups are higher in transitional societies because activists feel the need to enhance their performance and that, therefore, social networks are unusually dense. Hence, complexity is likely to reach extreme, indeed, unsustainable levels. There is too much to do, there are too many people to contact, events are moving too fast.

Intervening in such a mess is easy; almost any intervention will have an impact. Knowing what the impact will be is the hard part.

· Can Lebanon become a successful and stable democracy if the most effective representative of Lebanon’s 1 million Shi’a and indeed the most effective political organization in the whole country (Hezballah) is ostracized?

· Can Iraq become a success and stable democracy if Al Sadr is prevented from giving a political voice to Baghdad’s Shi’a poor?

· Can the fighting in Palestine ever end if Hamas is denied the ability to govern after winning a democratic election?

Given the effective impossibility of predicting the results of crude interventions in highly complex transitional situations, it may be more effective to intervene with finesse. Rather than trying to identify enemies to destroy, it may be more effective to focus on the socio-political context out of which they emerge, to ask how that context affects their behavior, and to alter that context to induce changes in the behavior of groups that are struggling to find roles for themselves in a highly confusing transitional situation.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Regime Behavior and Instability

I have commented before on the fundamental importance of how one defines “stability” in international relations. Given the many current world problems directly tied to violent instability and violent efforts to eliminate it (for example), a brief focus on the often-overlooked ways in which instability may be provoked seems worthwhile.

The diagram pictures some causal relationships between state policy and tension in the populace, based on the following hypothesis:

Stability is a function of tension.

The hypothesis implies the intuitive: if social tension rises, so will instability. Other causes are of course possible, but the underlying psychological state of the populace is one that is all too often overlooked. The diagram posits four causal loops, each of which may increases tension:

1) Foreign aid may induce the repression of minority rights (by giving the regime the confidence to turn its back on the minorities);

2) Civil rights may be repressed;

3) Arms imported by the regime may be used against the people.

A couple points are worth making about this simple diagram. First, reality is of course more complex. There may be loops that mitigate violence, connections directly from one loop to another, etc. But this diagram is already complicated enough – with three separate ways that tension might be raised, which leads to the second point. One might well implement a policy that successfully mitigated one of these causal pathways and not even notice an impact on social tension because the other loops were still provoking so much of a rise in tension and resulting instability. For success, policies will need to be developed that address each causal loop that is operating in the given situation.

Does anyone see a connection between these ideas and any of the world’s current violence?