Violence in a Complex World: Worth the Effort?

Violence Losing Value. If Side A asserts its perfection and blames opponents for all that is wrong and tries to resolve issues through force, threats, and demands but shows itself lacking the ability to prevail, will it not almost inevitably provoke ever more serious opposition?
This simple logic suggests a spiral of rising foreign policy problems covarying with the size, the power of Side A. with its power not translated into actual ability to resolve problems.

Side A may be stymied because the problems are not amenable to solution by the means available to it. Alternatively, Side A may be weakened by internal disagreement over goals or policies to achieve them. Or, Side A may have the ability but not be able to perceive it through rose-colored glasses or a penchant for conservative thinking. Whatever the cause of Side A’s problems, the main consequence in such a scenario is simply to turn Side A into a larger target. In a world of popular participation in foreign policy, rapid communication, asynchronous warfare, and the rise of non-state actors, traditional power wielded via traditional blunt military means may, over the long term, actually harm the user more than the opponent. Such increasingly appears to be becoming the new reality of global international relations…a reality missed by those who wield such power. This is the logic of Principle #1 in the list of foreign policy principles I proposed in the previous post.

Cowboys and Complexity. The explanation for this takes us into the confusing world of complexity, a place where counterintuitive group behavior results from multiple, interacting forces affecting individuals. These forces cannot be simply added or subtracted; rather, the effect of each force varies as a function of the other forces. Removing one force unpredictably alters the impact of the remaining forces. For example,

  • Assassinating the leader of a rebellion may allow the emergence of several new leaders who take the rebellion in new and possibly more extreme directions, as they compete with each other for mastery of the now factionalized movement.
  • Handing the heady concept of “democracy” to a society not ready for it make lead to an explosion of irresponsible articles in public media (something Benjamin Franklin complained about after the American Revolution).
  • Invasion may radicalize a quiescent, conservative population, transforming it into an effective revolutionary movement.

Force remains force, but the pinpoint application of force that is observed and reacted to by a wider audience doesn’t work as it used to. The death of a rebel now becomes a force multiplier for the rebels. It not only brings in new recruits but provokes sympathizers to undertake their own independent, uncoordinated, unauthorized initiatives, i.e., new behavior emerges from the individual level outside of the control of any established organization. A wave of apparently coordinated violence results from numerous, independent actions.

Lethal force may prove useless to resist this wave because no one knows how to apply it against such unpredictable, independent actors. In such cases, standard military calculations of force-on-force will not provide much insight into the likely winner. Instead of carrying the day, cowboy foreign policy may only carry the minute, then backfire badly.

It’s not that we can no longer count weapons and calculate likely winners but that the modern world is being transformed in a way analogous to physics. Neutonian physics has been replaced by quantum physics, in which the very act of measurement affects what is being measured. Similarly, in the 21st century of global public awareness, the process of taking a foreign policy action transforms the situation. It does not matter how accurately the balance of forces was calculated; your action just changed the balance.

Examples are legion, but one of the clearest is putting foreign boots on the ground. When soldiers from a global power intrude into the territory of a weak society that has education and modern communications technology, the power calculus is transformed. People become “stimulated:” they network, adapt, take on new roles. Twentieth century realpolitik may prove to have curious and fatal consequences in the 21st century.


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