Nonlinearity in politics is nothing strange: years of quiet preparation lead to a sudden shift in power or an embarrassing mistake by a disliked leader causes a sudden loss of legitimacy. Complexity theory offers insight into the question of whether or not one should anticipate an unusual degree of nonlinearity, of surprise in the evolution of a political system: as the complexity of a political system rises, so does the probability of nonlinearity, and the battlefield successes of the new Islamic State are cases in point.
Both the near instantaneous collapse of Iraqi military control over Mosul and the dissolving of two Syrian divisions in as many days are examples of “suspicious beyond belief,” nonlinear shifts in power relationships characterizing the rise in military influence of the ISIS, whose real story clearly remains to be told.
The first point, then, is to anticipate nonlinearity in highly complex systems. The more interesting second point is that one should indeed be suspicious: such nonlinear shifts in power relationships should not be taken at face value; they “should not happen.” A poorly armed band of attackers should not be able to defeat 30,000 soldiers defending a city of one million in a couple days. An outnumbered attacker should not be able to overrun one of the major military bases in a country, grab its tanks, and essentially drive away without losses while a full division of defenders simply turns its back. The visible battles are not the story; the story lies in the intricate web of hidden interactions paving the way for treachery or lack of resolve on the part of powerful defenders. Perhaps corruption by the Maliki administration left the defenders of Mosul short of ammo and food. But the real story of both the explosive surge of the ISIS at Mosul in June and at the two Syrian military bases at the end of July very likely follows the model of the conquest of Ming China by the Manchu “barbarians at the gate (literally):” the Ming general manning the Great Wall cut a deal with the Manchus and opened the gate.
In a complex system, the number of causal dynamics is likely to be both large and delicately balanced. “Nonlinearity,” or “surprise,” if you prefer, indicates hidden causal dynamics. Many questions flow from the ISIS battlefield surprises:
Why won’t the Shi’i military in majority Shi’i Iraq defend itself?
Why won’t the Syrian military fight seriously to protect its military bases?
Why won’t the U.S. protect the one serious, moderate group in Iraq – the Kurds?
Why did Israel choose this particular moment to invade helpless Gaza yet again?
Why won’t Erdogan make a commitment to protect Iraqi Turkomen who are fleeing the Islamic State and flooding into refugee camps?
Complicated as Mideast politics appears, its current extreme instability suggests that it is in fact significantly more complicated. Policy-makers focused on the details of the behavior and goals of individual groups are likely to find themselves always off balance and reacting to yesterday’s issue.
Unusual systemic nonlinearity, a characteristic of complex systems, suggests that the dominant causal dynamics, which must be understood to appreciate what is happening, are hidden. All interesting systems are complex, but it is easy to overlook the degree of complexity, a dangerous mistake, since as complexity increases, so–not immediately but over the long run, will surprises.