Thursday, August 23, 2007

Part VIII. Adaptation in the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Continuing the discussion of how the concepts of complexity theory can facilitate our understanding of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation…

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.

A contemporary example of ominous import is the way American society and attitudes toward international law and basic morality appear to be undergoing transformation as the result of the blatant public acceptance and indeed trumpeting by the Bush Administration and its neo-con fellow-travelers of the notion of "preventive war." This rising "acceptability" of the idea of an unprovoked (at least by any remotely comparable provocation) U.S. nuclear attack as a morally legitimate policy option against a non-nuclear state or even a group of private individuals (!)—now advocated even by some Democratic officials—further underscores the impression of a transformation in American moral attitudes. Regardless of the outcome of the particular wars of the Bush administration, acceptance of such justification for limitless aggression appears to be transforming American society into something less caring and less idealistic than the myth of American exceptionalism we so cherish.

From a complexity perspective, this degeneration is comprehensible: everything is connected, and the behavior of all system components (both ourselves and the opponents with whom we are linked) causes us—and them—to adapt. So whereas the conventional perspective simply starts by looking for "survival" or "victory," the complexity perspective accepts that adaptation will occur and thus starts by searching for a strategy that will facilitate adaptation in a desired direction. The conventional perspective enables decision-makers very easily to completely overlook this issue…and thus time after time snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because they make the naïve assumption that the act of pursuing and achieving battlefield victory will not change anything else.

Complexity theory certainly does not predict the outcome of specific issues, but it does caution us to raise critical questions. Put in the context of international relations, complexity theory leads to such questions as:
  • If total victory requires changing into a garrison state, might a democratic society prefer a compromise that would enable retention of civil liberties?
  • In an adaptive system, a simple white hates-vs.-black hats battle cannot occur; each side will adapt. What adaptation might we provoke to transform our opponent into something less distasteful…and with what (possibly beneficial) affect on ourselves?

A country that launches unprovoked nuclear war vs. a non-nuclear country will change itself in ways that may be very fundamental and unpleasant to contemplate.

Fear, horror, will also change observers – some will reluctantly kneel and hope for escape, others will take great risks to find a way to resist, but all will know the stakes are immeasurably raised and the level of international trust weakened.

Complexity theory does not tell us the result but can predict a period of disequilibrium as changes reverberate through the system. It therefore warns us to contemplate the implications of that disequilibrium before we provoke its occurrence.

Adaptation will, for example, work very differently under "Mideast Bipolarity" than under "Victory for al Qua’ida." Occurrence of the former scenario will reinforce, rather than undermine, international cooperative norms and put pressure on both Iranian and Israeli elites to adopt a more cooperative stance. A virtuous cycle will ensue in which compromise on one issue generates mutual benefit and thus predisposes actors to compromise on another issue – precisely the reverse of the vicious cycle of rising hostility that will occur under "Victory for al Qua’ida."

Discussing the collapse of societies, Tainter has pointed out that adaptation occurs at different spatiotemporal scales. What we define as a system is somewhat arbitrary. A system is a collection of distinct but connected modules; in reality systems are frequently hierarchies of systems: the international political system an aggregation of countries (and international corporations, international movements, NGOs), the countries in turn aggregations of provinces or departments, which are aggregations of individuals. At all levels units adapt because they interact with other units as well as because they consist of aggregations of units that are interacting and adapting. Since the various units interact at different temporal scales and over differing spatial distribution, opportunities for "crashes" are numerous, like a fog-bound highway on which some cars not only change lanes rapidly at the same time that other cars change lanes very slowly but on which cars may occupy either small or extremely large spaces.

How teenage Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan will behave over the next 20 years is one example of a dynamic with both unpredictable spatial and temporal scales that will impinge directly on Israeli-Iranian relations. How will they adapt to losing their country and living on the margins of a society that cannot afford to care for them? Will they return to Iraq as nationalists, as radicals, as middle-class businessmen in the years after U.S. troops have gone home? Will they join the Lebanese Moslem Brotherhood and shift power in Jordan from the monarchy to Islamic activism? Will it be the refugee generation or their children taking action? What influence over the answer will Israeli treatment of Palestine have? Will their behavior tempt or pressure Iran to engage in risky behavior it might otherwise have avoided?

The spatial arena in which Iraqi teenage refugees and the new generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (the 400,000 still in Lebanon 25 years after Israel invaded to push them out) will make their impact is highly questionable. Given the traditional cultural ties and current political ties connecting Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, today’s refugees in one country may well become tomorrow’s activists in another. Ten percent of Lebanon’s population and 25% (and rapidly rising) of Jordan’s are refugees with plenty of reasons to refuse allegiance to the regime that governs (or ignores) them.

The process of adaptation—both the adaptation of one side in reaction to the other and in reaction to its own behavior—is deceptively subtle. If the application of complexity theory to foreign policy issues does no more than alter us to think about how adaptation occurs in a political system, it will have been well worth the effort.

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