Sunday, August 19, 2007

Part VII. The Iranian-Israeli Confrontation as a Complex Adaptive System

Complexity: How It Happens

In order to understand how the Iranian-Israeli confrontation may evolve, we need to dig deeper than scenarios, deeper even that the underlying dynamics that cause system behavior, and study the Iranian-Israeli political relationship as a complex adaptive system. Several principles of complexity theory are relevant to the evolution of the Iranian-Israeli political system:

  • Interdependence of parts
  • Adaptation
  • Co-evolution
  • Effects Disproportional to Causes
  • Self-organization
  • Individual variation
  • Sensitivity to initial conditions
  • Criticality
  • Emergence.

    Rising education and technical advances such as the Internet, among other factors, have produced so many global interconnections that we need to master this new perspective on international political reality in order correctly to interpret the rush of daily events. The next several posts will introduce each of these concepts, which have in the last 20 years become common terms among physical and biological scientists, and offer some initial thoughts on how to apply them to the Iranian-Israeli confrontation and, by extension, to global affairs more broadly.

    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. As though, say, nurses, criminals, and politicians from the land of an ally shared one set of traits while nurses, criminals, and politicians from the land of our enemy of the moment shared another set – an obviously idiotic premise since our list of enemies mutates rapidly. (Saddam was closely supported by Washington in the 1980’s, we have alternatively supported and deserted the Kurds, our attitude toward Russians changed overnight when the Soviet Union collapsed, Iran a generation ago was a close ally, etc.)

    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. From this premise, it then follows automatically that:
  • Diplomats will be inclined to negotiate;
  • Politicians will be inclined to tune their messages to their audience (so one needs to know the intended audience in order to interpret the message);
  • People in general have security concerns, tend to give themselves the benefit of the doubt, and see opponents in a negative light (e.g., "my" weapons are for defense, "yours" are for offense).
Second, the complexity perspective assumes that all components (regardless of class) influence each other, i.e., their natures are constantly evolving. (The many unresolved analytical challenges here include identification of the nature of the links, what governs the link intensity and reaction speed, how influences operate.) If all components—individual voters, interest groups, regimes, etc.—influence each other so that all are adapting in response to the behavior of others, then it becomes difficult to argue that these endlessly and unpredictably evolving components have immutable natures.

Once having accepted the complexity perspective, it becomes much easier to entertain a perhaps complicated but relatively realistic set of possibilities. In the case of Ahmadinejad’s firery rhetoric, for example, the following explanations are probably all true:
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmadinejad is attempting to enhance his standing among Iranian voters;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is putting his peers in the elite on the defensive;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is making a global name for himself and his country as an independent actor to which global leaders must pay attention;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad ischallenging the Arab world to accept him as their leader, as the new Nasser, the one man with the courage to stand up and defend the downtroden of South Lebanon, Palestine, and, by extension, the rest of the region;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is representing the views of the Iranian radical faction, which genuinely believes that injustice in the Mideast exists, is the fault of Israel and the U.S., and deserves to be addressed;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is inviting the U.S. and Israel, both of which he probably perceives as only understanding the language of strength, to modify their behavior.

Where a traditional perspective will say, "Ahmedinejad’s rhetoric means X" (e.g., he intends to destroy Israel), the complexity perspective cautions one to avoid such childishly simplistic one-to-one equations. In fact, the equation is more nearly:

R = ∑(XiW…XjW)

Rhetoric = the sum of all Ahmedinejad’s different goals times the importance or weight (W) of that goal at the moment

It should be noted that theoretically the weight is also an attribute that is sensitive to adaptive pressures, i.e., is constantly evolving in response to the behavior of the various components. (In practice, a decision-maker might conceivably be so strong-willed that he could resist some pressures for some period of time, but complexity theory argues that we should assume, ceteris parabis, constant goal-evolution.) In brief, the relative importance of each goal depends on conditions and is therefore subject to the influence of all actors in the system.

Thus, the complexity perspective opens an infinite number of doors to those who want to have influence. A complex adaptive system has many components (e.g., ministries, corporations); many goals (e.g., security, profit, freedom, status); many links (meetings, phone calls, payments, rhetoric, treaties); many link types (e.g., cultural, legal, diplomatic, financial). All of these are adapting, so all constitute potential points of influence. That is the practical value of understanding the world as a complex adaptive system: everything is in principle changeable. Nothing is absolute, nothing is immutable. Nothing is "on" or "off;" everything is "more" or "less." Therefore, alternatives to extremist, black-and-white decisions are always available. This reasoning is fundamental to the "Respect" scenario.

Since the focus here is on Iranian-Israeli relations, it is useful to think of three linked complex systems – Mideast politics as a whole plus the two subordinate Iranian and Israeli political systems. All the parts of the Mideast system adapt in reaction to the behavior of the others even as distinct adaptive processes take place in Iran and Israel. Each of the many components (e.g., Majlis [parliament] and Basij [youth militia analogous to the Red Guards in China's Cultural Revolution] in Iran; the various political parties and the army in Israel) will have its own perspective.

The interdependence of parts also underscores that each actor functions within a set of constraints. Every terrorist attack on Israel makes it more difficult for Israeli democracy advocates to dismantle the Israeli apartheid system. Every threat of Israeli nuclear aggression on Iran endangers Iranian advocates of an opening to the West. Perceptions of other actors, behavior of other actors, and constraints each affect one’s own behavior. Causality is hard to determine, blame almost always shared, and the impact of interventions unpredictable.

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