Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hubris & the Complexity of Pushing Around the "Weak"

A society deficient in the modern standards of offensive power (industrial technology, military reach) easily tempts those vulnerable to hubris to intervene. It is easy to overlook the distinctions between defensive power and offensive power, as it is easy to overlook the distinctions between latent power and “active” power--power that is currently being exercised. An attacker possessing active, offensive power will have the greatest impact on a society lacking both over the short run. The longer the conflict lasts, however, the more the attacker will lose his advantage, as the latent power of a society to defend itself comes to the fore.

Unfortunately for an attacker, the degree of hubris required to persuade it to launch a risky and unnecessary war in the first place will probably suffice to put it even further under the spell of hubris when its initial foray appears to be successful. So it will gain confidence precisely when it should be engaging in self-criticism, as the balance begins invisibly to tip in favor of the defender.

These are not unheard-of insights; professional decision makers who fail to take them into account really have no excuse. Nevertheless, overlooking them is one of the more common historical patterns.

The trick is to avoid putting too much faith in the level of offensive power possessed by a society or in the level of active power being employed by that society. Rather, one should constantly pay attention to the degree of complexity of the political situation that might result from attacking (or intervening in a less belligerent manner).

These considerations give rise to the counterintuitive hypothesis below. Intuition would suggest that extreme behavior (and it is difficult to imagine more extreme behavior that an invasion) by a modern power should defeat a less modernized society and that the longer the effort by the modern power is maintained, the greater the likelihood it will emerge victorious. But that is linear thinking which naively assumes that if a certain amount of effort has a certain impact, then more effort will have more impact.

Hypothesis: In a complex situation, the more extreme the behavior, the more numerous the changes, the more rapid the adaptation of all actors in the system, and, thus, the more difficult it will be to predict the outcome.

Caveat: The words “in a complex situation” are important. If the situation is
very simple or is rendered “simple” by some action such as genocide or ethnic
cleansing or nuclear war that shatters or eliminates the society, the above
hypothesis no longer applies. It would also no longer apply if the society were
strictly regimented by totalitarianism. The more complex a system is, however,
the more applicable this hypothesis is.

My interest is in political systems, but I suspect that the hypothesis applies to any system. The classic analogy would be the picture we have of the early earth at the point when life theoretically emerged from a highly energized (presumably by lightning, erupting volcanoes) soup containing numerous highly reactive chemical agents and catalysts.

The political equivalent of such complexity would include:

  • numerous factions which frequently modify their behavior, goals, and alliances;

  • the possession of great energy in the form of willpower, military power, manpower, and funding by many of the contending factions;

  • no single center of power or legitimacy;

  • many interactions both within groups and between groups;

  • debate over and evolution of norms;

  • numerous conflicting ideologies.

It is absolutely NOT clear which side is favored in such a situation. On the contrary, I would venture that theoretically it is fair to say no side with any constructive goal at all—whether a goal for good or evil—is favored. Only an actor aspiring to achieve chaos and destruction has reason to feel confident in such a situation. Adding energy to the system (sending in troops, bombing, providing foreign aid, whipping up ideological fervor) does not predict success; it predicts change! In other words, yes, without a doubt, outside intervention will have an impact…but not necessarily anything remotely resembling the desired impact.

The additional energy generates more links among actors in the society (e.g., the apolitical get mobilized when their security is threatened), more link types (e.g., willingness in extremis to work with those one formerly shunned), and greater flexibility (more ideas are exchanged, more opportunities present themselves, and the more threatening environment focuses the mind). Actors become more willing to adapt, which provokes further adaptation by other actors. Not only behavior but also norms adapt, and adaptation at one level (e.g., individual norms) may lead to adaptation at other levels (e.g., militia policy).

This process of energizing, of making a society more complex (interconnected, coevolving, creative, self-started, uncontrolled) should be welcomed by those who were at the bottom of the power structure with no hope for the future. Now is their chance. It should be feared by those who want stability, control, security, reliable long-term investment opportunities, treaty rights, or democracy. So, ironically, the more a modern power projects its power to modify a traditional society without utterly destroying it, the more turbulent and unpredictable that traditional society is likely to become. The gentle, slow, cautious exercise of power may be not only nicer and cheaper but actually more effective.

At least, that’s the conclusion to be drawn from complexity theory. I will undoubtedly make some remarks in the near future about how this appears to work in the real world and would welcome any confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence others may care to offer.


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annie said...

(e.g., the apolitical get mobilized when their security is threatened), ...... (more ideas are exchanged, more opportunities present themselves, and the more threatening environment focuses the mind). Actors become more willing to adapt,

could this refer to adaption towards (mobilized) revolution?