Sunday, September 2, 2007

XII. Individual Variation & the Future of the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Further thoughts on complex adaptive systems as a tool for
futurology in world politics...

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. Members of a group are judged to be "terrorists" or "fundamentalists" or "imperialists" without regard for their personal behavior.

According to the complexity perspective, it is not 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. This emphasis on individual variation is one of the fundamental distinctions between system dynamics, discussed in the earlier section of this study on dynamics, and complex adaptive systems. According to the complexity perspective, 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 characterizations of groups are false.

To say that "all characterizations of groups are false" is clearly an extreme statement…and intended to be taken as a theoretical guideline. The point is to caution against the vastly more common opposite generalization, by which a whole group is indicted as being "X" without regard for individual variation. It is not hard to find examples of actions taken in this spirit. So complexity theory provides the invaluable warning that one should make the default assumption that individual variation exists until discovering differently, rather than falling into the trap of simplistically acting as though "they" are all the same. One’s new view of the world will naturally be more complicated…but also more realistic. One will be sensitized to search for attitudinal and behavioral variations that one would previously have assumed to be nonexistent. We all know of certain roads where, in the fog, it pays to assume that potholes exist and drive accordingly.

When it comes to social groups, the assumption of (at least potential) individual variation raises all sorts of possibilities a skilled actor can exploit.

Since it is utterly obvious when you think about it that assuming
individual variation exists can open doors to gaining advantage, it is
curious why even experienced foreign policy practitioners so commonly
act as though individual variation not only does not exist but cannot be
provoked into existence.

Take, for example, the Iranian armed forces (Pasdaran, frequently called, in a questionable translation, "Revolutionary Guards"). The Iranian armed forces are reputed to do a couple things that "normal" armies presumably do not do: manage huge sectors of the national economy (including control over significant trade and manufacturing affairs) and conduct foreign covert operations. It is not hard to imagine that the generals whose careers focus on trade or manufacturing might have very different concerns (e.g., international stability so they can get access to the desired foreign goods) from the generals whose careers focus on carrying out covert operations (e.g., international instability that can be exploited politically to get permission and resources for more covert operations). This is an empirical question, which may or may not be true at any given point in time. But for a foreign country to make a policy toward the Pasdaran as a whole without first trying very hard to ascertain the truth of this hypothesis would be rash indeed and might well cement the unity of a potentially split organization.

The role of individual variation in the very brief scenarios in this study is far more muted than it would probably be in actual history, but even here, individual variation raises its head.

  • "Respect" depends on a single creative and courageous Israeli leader’s willingness to stand out from the crowd.
  • "Victory for al Qua’ida" also contains elements of individual variation, where the Iranian elite is seen as composed of individuals all along a continuum from moderation to extremism and posits that foreign threat will empower the extremists.

A different type of individual variation (not variation among individuals but variation by a single individual) was discussed in the section on "interdependence of parts." The point of itemizing a long list of different goals Ahmedinejad probably has in making extreme anti-Israeli statements is precisely that the relative importance of these goals can be assumed to vary in response to conditions, so a skillful reaction might alter his behavior even though he might well never consciously renounce any of his original goals.

Future posts will continue this discussion of how the concepts of complexity theory can be applied to the Iranian-Israeli confrontation and to international relations in general.

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