Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Calculus of External Intervention in Factional Disputes

Imagine a country ruled by four roughly equal factions, each representing a different segment of the population. All four agree that the country should remain united and avoid civil war, but they disagree on almost every other issue. Is this a stable political system?

Add: each feels that it can trust none of the others, and each realizes that the danger of civil war is great. Now one might expect considerable surface turbulence but an underlying stability because all will exercise restraint out of fear that things could get worse.

In such a situation, what options do meddling external powers have? Any intervention would raise suspicions; aid to one faction would be likely to push the other factions to seek their own external patrons; and all calculations about the dangers of civil war would be redone. Intervention would be highly likely to destabilize the situation. Of course, destabilizing the equilibrium to the external power’s advantage would very likely be the external power’s intent, but how would an external power go about calculating the likely outcome of any intervention? Could such a calculation possibly have any reliability?

Add: a potential external patron exists to provide support to each of the factions. Now the consequences of intervention become effectively impossible to calculate.

But some conclusions can be drawn:

  • Intervention will raise tensions and lead to instability.
  • The outcome of that instability cannot be predicted.
  • As for the probability of being able to destabilize the situation but still keep it under control so that it moves in a desired direction, that would depend on how political systems work.

A mechanic may tinker with a car, tightening a screw here, greasing a wheel there in the quite reasonable expectation that he can achieve an expected level of performance. When one wheel is being greased, the other wheels do not demand more grease for themselves or reject “bribery” and call for death to all mechanics; they just sit there. A car can be engineered. When one attempts to engineer a society, something very different occurs: tinkering with one part causes all the other parts to adjust, some slowly, some faster; that in turn causes the original part to adjust, changing all on its own in reaction to unseen changes occurring elsewhere in the system even while the “mechanic” is applying the grease! Unless the mechanic is extremely observant and works very fast, he may well end up greasing a part that has already transformed itself into something new: an ally becomes an opponent, a supporter of the official political system experiments with violent regime change or tries to blow up the mechanic.

The mere act of providing public support may so embarrass a client that the client feels forced to oppose its patron or may weaken a client’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

The provision of support to one faction will almost certainly provoke insecurity on the part of all the others, persuading each to take a new look at its options for acquiring commensurate support from potential allies that it may have. This in turn sets up
a new competition: factions already competing for power now find themselves competing for external patron support. Whether or not any patron is supplying arms, rumors to that effect will fly, pushing all the rest in that direction.

The reason that the mental model of tinkering with a car to engineer the desired performance fails when applied to a political system is straightforward: the car is a simple system, the polity is a complex system. (One could have a car that was complex; the idea is explored in “transformer” cartoons. One could also have a relatively "simple" society – Hitler and Stalin worked hard to achieve that goal.) But the made-up political system in our story contains four independent factions who chose to accept certain constraints on their otherwise intense mutual competition: a gross simplification of the systems in most real countries but nevertheless already very complex.

So all these complications flow from a supposedly straightforward effort by one external actor to aid one faction in a four-faction political system that, although complex, is still so simplified as to be only barely relevant to the real world.

A Little More Reality
Now, let us add a little more reality to our mental model. Let’s say that our society, which is governed by four factions, contains only three ethnic groups. Two groups are united and represented by one faction each. The third group has a class cleavage, with one faction representing the rich and one the poor. Let’s also assume that this third ethnic group has an absolute majority, so the country’s stability rests on its division (preventing it from taking control). By the way, this most fortunate country has four armies – one owned by each faction. A recent history of bitter ethnic conflict makes it extremely difficult for any sincere, long-term cooperation to occur among the three ethnic groups. Each army is solidly based in its own segment of society and has ready access to an endless supply of arms. Attacking it will thus result in immediately increased popular support, rising rates of recruitment, rising inflow of arms, and increasingly extreme and unconventional defensive tactics.

Now, what are the implications of any decision by an external actor to get involved in the internal politics of our model country?

How might the two small ethnic groups react if they see outside intervention on behalf of one faction representing the large ethnic group in an attempt to unify that large group?

How might external actors who share the ethnicity of one of the small ethnic groups react?

How might any neighboring country react, watching the level of instability rise?

Whatever the answer, one conclusion is clear: the situation now is even less predictable than it was for our initial model. Yet this remains an unrealistically simplistic model: it describes no real country. To describe a real country would require all sorts of additional complications; one might need, for example, to add a scattering of small splinter factions eagerly waiting for a chance to take over.

But to represent reality one would also have to describe not just the components of the political system but also its dynamics. What is happening? What is the process, for example, by which a political faction gains legitimacy in the eyes of the public? Legitimacy may be expressed by voting in a stable democracy or by volunteering to join a militia in a less mature polity; either way, the factions need it to survive. What is the process by which factions acquire and dispense resources? How are these processes affected by external intervention? Does the effort expended by the external actor translate into something gained? Does the effort necessarily even gain anything...or does it have a negative impact? In a word, when an external actor intervenes in an internal factional dispute by siding with one faction against another, what impact does this have?

Conceiving of the society in question as a machine whose performance needs to be enhanced through some skilled engineering will make it almost impossible to figure out the correct answer. Rather, one should conceive of the society as a complex adaptive system. This will certainly not “provide the answers,” but it will suggest valuable questions and provide essential warnings. To be continued...

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