Palestinian Futures (Part IV of IV)

Complexity: Resolving Conflict in an Adaptive System

No “road” to the future exists, waiting to be discovered. First, it’s not a road but a network: forward looks just like sideways…or backward. It goes a bit, then curves around out-of-sight, reaches an intersection with three unmarked paths. Second, it does not “exist:” it unfolds as you step in response to how you step and how everyone else steps, as well. Welcome to the world of complexity.

But fear not! These comments contain much implied information of value.

  • To say that there is no “road” to the future cautions us not to put too much faith in “roadmaps,” perhaps to stress instead guiding principles.
  • To say that the future “does not exist” implies that many possibilities do exist.
  • To say that the future unfolds in response to how actors behave implies that coordination may enhance the efficacy of our actions.
  • And the whole description implies the existence of certain constraints, which may have more impact on our behavior than any purported “true nature” that humans from time to time impute to each other. And that implies that we might be better off focusing on how to work within those constraints rather than rushing to classify people into “good” and “bad,” and then creating yet another constraint by refusing to work with the “bad.”
Beyond the scenarios for examining the future of Palestine presented in Parts I and II of this series and the dynamics presented in Part III lies a still more powerful lens for viewing reality: complexity theory. Note the word “theory.” This is no science, yet, certainly not as applied to world politics, and its methods remain weak, but its concepts contain important messages for designing policies that will work.

Perhaps the most basic lesson of complexity theory for future analysis is that a complex system is made up of interdependent, adaptive parts. Bluntly stated, no one is in control. All components in a system (in this case, the countries and political forces involved in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute) affect each other: all adapt in response to the behavior of the others. Israel’s overwhelming preponderance of military and economic force still leaves it constrained by the rest of the system. Even superpower America is contrained by the broader system in which it operates. Therefore, it is possible for the system to evolve in a direction that no one desires, a direction harmful to all.

It follows that a negative trend is not necessarily the fault or the goal of any particular actor. Blame should be assigned and intent attributed with caution. Despite the tendency to engage in arms races, it is not clear that anyone actually advocates in advance having an arms race. Despite the apparent existence of numerous leaders with little sense of morality and the repeated evidence of indifference to the callously-termed “collateral damage,” it is not clear that very many leaders actually prefer to slaughter innocent women and children. If we had a better understanding of how systemic constraints push us into situations with no appealing alternatives, then we might do a better job of evading them.

“Clash of Civilizations” is a case in point. It is not clear that any leader in the 1940’s planned or hoped for a fight to the death between the Arab residents of Palestine and the European Jewish immigrants. Innumerable factors pushed the two sides to the circumstances that exist today: historical inequities, scarcity of land, insecurity, lack of imagination on the part of leaders, the tendency of some to overreact to each sin committed by the opponent, provoking a spiral of rising resentment and revenge. Analysis of how our best intentions go awry when confronted by the subtle constraints imposed by complex systems would have great potential for revealing choices never made and focus attention on something more important than the blame game.

An unfortunate additional product of this process is that as the system evolves, new actors may arise or old actors may adapt and become addicted to the emerging circumstances, no matter how negative they may be. In his study of the Colombian civil war (Systems of Violence), Richani called this the “comfortable impasse:” a war that no one can win but to which the opponents have become adjusted and from which they are increasingly benefiting to the point that they lose the desire to end it. Politicians exploit the “threat” to gain power; generals exploit the “threat” to gain larger budgets; insurgents exploit their exploits in silopsistic violence [Ian S. Lustick, “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Targets and Audiences,” in Terrorism in Context, MarthaCrenshaw (ed.), (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1995) pp. 514-552.], i.e., violence not to defeat the opponent but to impress one’s colleagues. The rise of actors addicted to violence can impose severe new constraints on the ability of the original contestants to control their own fate.

Scenario analysis integrated with system dynamics and complexity theory provides three distinct perspectives of increasing analytical accuracy for analyzing the future. Applying this methodology to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict suggests that the range of realistic options—options whose logic can easily be spelled out—is significantly broader than commonly realized. This methodology also underscores the highly tenuous nature of assumptions about the future of this conflict, where delays, small but possibly growing feedbacks, potential tipping points, and system constraints are a minefield for policymakers.


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