To understand the political world now coming into being, we need to learn how to use these new analytical tools from complexity theory (interdependence of parts, criticality, adaptation, co-evolution, self-organization, nonlinearity, criticality, and emergence):
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. 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.
Criticality. The conventional perspective focuses on addressing the symptom – the avalanche (e.g, revolution, depression). The complexity perspective reveals the build-up of pressures to the point where a slight push can cause an avalanche. The trick is to avoid the push by dealing with the pressures.
Adaptation. 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.
Co-evolution. The conventional perspective denies that "we" can be influenced by the enemy. The complexity perspective sees actors adapting to respond not only to others but to their perceptions of how others will adapt.
Self-Organization. According to the conventional perspective, when a system is broken, say by regime change or military defeat in the case of a country, it ceases functioning. The complexity perspective, however, offers an alternative possibility – that the broken pieces will self-organize. This does not exactly mean that they will reconstitute themselves but create some, most likely novel, structure and start functioning again…perhaps for a very different purpose.
Nonlinearity. The conventional perspective is frequently to plan for a repeat of the last war; somewhat better, it may be to plan for acceleration of current trends. Complexity theory has bad news: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning.
Individual Variation. The conventional perspective is that certain groups behave in a certain way. A group is judged "ready" or "not ready" for independence or democracy—without even considering the impact on the group’s behavior of, say, the colonial power that is repressing it. According to the complexity perspective, it is not even enough to say that everything is connected by a complex set of interlinked dynamics that generate a multitude of tipping points shifting behavior in one direction or another. Reality is further complicated by individual variation, which means that you very well may not be able to simplify by averaging over all members of a group. Thus, not only is the nature of a group not immutable (because all groups evolve in response to the behavior of other groups), but even at a moment in time, all group members are not cut from the same cloth. All (almost) characterizations of groups are false.
Sensitivity to Initial Conditions. This individual variation has huge potential significance because slight changes in initial conditions related to an individual can much later lead to fundamental changes in system behavior. Not only do our actions affect our opponents’ behavior but even slight actions on our part may ultimately have major impacts on the behavior of others. Thoughtful people intuitively sneer at hubris; this is the theoretical justification for such sneers. Sensitivity to initial conditions explains how current conditions are likely to lead to widely divergent future possibilities: rather than waking up to find the world changed, it is more likely that slight variations in initial conditions will lead to a slow shift in the dominance of underlying causal dynamics.
Criticality. The conventional perspective focuses on addressing the symptom – the avalanche. The complexity perspective reveals the build-up of pressures to the point where a slight push can cause an avalanche. The trick is to avoid the push and deal with the pressures.
Emergence. The conventional perspective is that one applies force and halts undesired behavior. The complexity perspective holds that force leads to disequilibrium characterized by a variety of shock waves of varying period and amplitude that reverberate throughout the system (because the parts are interdependent).
The implications of these concepts for foreign policy are numerous:
- dividing actors into good guys and bad guys is unlikely to be very useful because the context will have more impact on behavior than their fundamental nature (even if we could know what that was);
- reliance on past superiority is likely to be a dangerous delusion because the adaptation of the system can quickly change the nature of power, the results of the application of force are increasingly unpredictable because the range of response options is rapidly broadening;
- identifying the enemy will be increasingly difficult because enemies will shift, perhaps rapidly, and unimagined enemies will arise with little warning.
If we hope to create a safe political environment that beneficially balances stability with responsiveness, it is incumbent upon us to investigate these implications.