If Washington decision-makers are having a hard time understanding what is happening to the U.S. position in the world, perhaps they could benefit from viewing the world as it is: as an ever-changing collection of entities, all of which are influencing each other and which are at the same time themselves composed of smaller adaptive units capable of potentially significant self-organized action. “Finger in the dike” determination is not a viable strategy in such a complex world.
In “America’s Turbulent Decline,” a pointed essay on the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a symptom of the typically unstable, if not irrational, behavior of a declining hegemon, British-Iraqi scholar Samir Rihani lays the foundation for an analysis of hegemonic decline from a complex-adaptive systems perspective. He stresses that we should not over-analyze on the basis of such trivial variables as the mental capacity of the leader, the religious mania of certain political factions, or greed for foreign resources. Rather, Rihani recommends the systemic approach of a Paul Kennedy. With this as background, what insights might complexity theory offer?
First is the perspective that things change, so erecting ever higher walls to keep out the barbarians is a doomed approach. In a complex system, somehow, one must learn to adapt. This point is so basic and has been made by so many thinkers that it is almost embarrassing to repeat it. Nevertheless, it remains ignored. Perhaps the problem is linguistic: “Wait a minute,” decision-makers will cry. “We understand that we must adapt.” I beg to differ; they do not. They think that they must adapt tactics but fail to see that they must actually go much further and compromise. “Compromise” involves adapting to the point of accepting strategic evolution, perhaps from hegemon to coalition leader or even just “father figure.”
The practical implications of this are numerous. Washington may have to put on the negotiating table its preference for:
- an Israeli Mideast nuclear monopoly;
- avoiding Palestinian democracy (which would probably result in Hamas control);
- calling all the shots (rather than letting allies like Erdogan sometimes take the lead);
- punishing recalcitrant regimes that insist on following an independent path (e.g., Tehran);
- relying on military force to achieve its regional goals. Of course, one does not need to study complexity to understand the possibility of resistance, but complexity theory warns that self-organization is a normal process to be expected when a system is under stress.
Second, complex systems experience “self-organization.” How this works in specifics is unpredictable; the point is that the more rulers exploit the system for personal benefit, the greater the likelihood that presumed “subordinates” will self-organize in new ways to defend themselves. For example, East Germans famously contributed directly to the collapse of the Soviet empire by self-organizing to oppose controls on emigration, and Iraqis self-organized to resist American occupation.
The practical implications of self-organization for the U.S. today include:
- The possibility that private banking and investment clubs may be self-organized if Wall Street corruption further erodes trust in that public institution;
- The possibility of the self-organization of a widespread popular protest involving the refusal to pay taxes if Washington continues to waste vast sums fighting unnecessary foreign wars.
Third, behavior in complex systems is nonlinear: today does not predict tomorrow. Slight variations in initial conditions lead to huge variations in outcome, so prediction is effectively, if not theoretically, impossible: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning:
The practical consequences of nonlinearity and sensitivity to initial conditions include the likelihood that facile analogies are false: whatever Ahmadinejad is, he certainly is not Hitler; intial conditions in Iran are grossly different from those in pre-WWII Germany.
Fourth, individual variation makes generalization difficult: 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. This may complicate life, but it is really good news in that individual variation among one’s adversaries offers endless possibilities for “divide and conquer.”
The obvious lesson of individual variation for decision-makers is to avoid deifying or depicting as evil a whole group:
- Israeli leaders are individuals, who will doubtlessly include violence-prone expansionists quite willing to harm U.S. security as well as patriots committed to strengthening Israeli democracy;
- Iranian leaders are also individuals, who will doubtlessly include those zero-sum types who think nuclear arms are essential to Iranian national security as well as those positive-sum types who would be amenable to a regional nuclear security regime.
The job of decision-makers in a world of individual variation is not to categorize groups but to encourage the rise of the perspectives they favor.
Finally, complexity theory warns about the potential “criticality” of a complex system. Criticality is a counter-intuitive concept, holding that as a system performs with rising success, it approaches the invisible “edge of criticality,” where one false step could lead to rapid collapse. Viewed in this light, the fall of the Wall and collapse of the USSR were not just due to Gorbachev’s statesmanlike moderation but more profoundly the result of Soviet hubris leading the USSR over the edge of criticality (evidence for this includes the rising cost of Moscow’s East European empire, the widening gap between Soviet military prowess and the overall state of the Soviet economy, and the increasingly negative demographic trends of Soviet society). If you explain Soviet collapse by reference to Gorbachev, it appears to be a unique event; if you explain it in terms of criticality, the take-home lesson is that any powerful state is potentially in danger of such a sudden collapse.