The Theory of Intervention in a Complex World

To the degree that a foreign dispute is sectarian or otherwise cultural in nature, it will be complex in the scientific sense of being characterized by self-organization, co-evolution, and other dynamic processes making it extremely difficult to understand. U.S. national security in the current world requires a scientific discipline to guide decision-makers faced with the perilous questions, “Should we intervene…and how?”


Society is complex. Culture, ethnicity, self-identity…even if all the interacting facets of society were fixed, we could hardly unravel social impulses and taboos. “Wait,” you interrupt, “culture changes so slowly as to be effectively fixed, and obviously ethnicity is fixed.” Culture changes slowly? The election of a leader who takes his country on the path of aggression can, in the space of a few years, significantly, painfully shift the culture of how managers treat employees in a civil service or the morality of the whole population. A democracy that becomes an international bully will become more authoritarian, more intolerant at home, digging its own grave. As for self-identity, a child will tell his mother that “I can do whatever I want,” a succinct self-identification if there ever was one; a young adult will self-identify as a patriot; a mature individual may self-identify as a “citizen of the world.” Even ethnicity changes. The Alawite ethnic group, so important today in Mideast affairs, arguably does not even exist, having been dreamed up by French colonialists for their own political purposes. It seems that none of the aspects of our existence which we most cherish is fixed. What sense, then, does it make to put transitory features on a pedestal? Nonetheless, logical or not, the social features impact life and death decisions.

Yet all that social complexity is but the foundation, in and of itself not substantially more interesting than the concrete in a building foundation. The fascinating and significant part is the behavior. Behavior is what makes humans great…and what gets us in trouble. The social complexity only matters to the degree that it affects behavior. If we behave according to an agreed set of rules, then culture, ethnicity, and self-identity become nothing but incidental bits of trivia. We not only resist other people’s rules but also blame other people’s ethnicity or culture for their “failure” to accept the rules we like. The result is a seething social foundation provoking a riotous behavioral complexity.

Perhaps it is no wonder that we can build atomic bombs but cannot govern ourselves. After all, the basic idea of the atomic bomb is simplicity itself: just put a bunch of uranium atoms real close together and “boom!” Governance, in contrast, requires manipulating countless semi-independent actors in a vague hierarchy of social structure “resting,” or rather bouncing up and down, on a jiggling and evolving social foundation.

One reason for our confusion, painfully evident in the endless missteps of Western regimes trying to influence Mideast affairs but also at the core of Western problems with China and a fatal weakness for North American First Nation people in their efforts to manage the white invasion of their land, is the lack of human agreement across cultures about what constitutes the core “actor.” The typical First Nation view of contracts in the early days of contact with whites seems to have been that one could buy and sell the right to use something, e.g., land, but not the right to keep it or prevent others from using it or to destroy it. One might call the core actor here “God” or “our heritage,” but it is certainly not the individual. Centuries later, whites can still hardly even imagine a society with such a…well…civilized moral vision. Where Chinese may make business decisions on the basis of family or clan interests, Westerners may see nepotism or corruption. Regarding the Mideast, Westerners are likely to view suicide to make a political statement as a sign of insanity: it is very hard for someone convinced that his personal survival and success constitute the most important criterion for governing behavior that in a different society, the ethnic group might be the core actor.

There is no language in which to negotiate a political solution if the two sides do not understand what each considers to be the core “actor.” Is it individual voters, ethnic groups, religious groups, political parties, economic classes, or billionaires vs. the rest of us? At what level is the actor worth dying for? For the last 150 years, a civil war has been fought in Colombia in which the core actor in the minds of most politicians in Bogota has probably been the cattle baron class. What would the impact on U.S. foreign policy have been if the question had been posed in the beginning in Washington: “Mr. President, would you like to commit the U.S. to spending billions of dollars over the next few decades to support a campaign by the rich cattle baron class to disenfranchise the landed peasantry?” A struggle some in Washington may have seen as essentially communist vs. non-communist or drug dealer vs. the U.S. public was not necessarily viewed in the same way in the land where the battle was actually being fought. The point here is not to debate which perspective is correct: it is always hard to say at the start what the end result of a long struggle will be; rather, the point is the importance of figuring out how a conflict is viewed by the participants before involving oneself.

There is also little hope of foreseeing an adversary’s behavior without comprehension of the adversary’s priorities, and one’s opinion about what constitutes the core actor leads directly to one’s priorities. Whether “Allawite” was a real traditional ethnic group or just the invention of French colonialists a century ago, if a certain group of people have made a political alliance and now call themselves “Allawites,” then that group now constitutes an actor, and one must then ask where the members of that group placed their self-identity on, say, a continuum going from “Syrian citizen” to “Allawite.” Note that the very state of Syria is, of course, yet another French invention, and there is absolutely no reason to assume that anyone living there would automatically pledge any allegiance whatsoever to this foreign concept inflicted upon them after the European carnage called WWI. Indeed, the whole concept of “state” rests very delicately upon the shoulders of the average member of most Mideast societies. After all, that too is a Western invention and a rather recent one, designed to mitigate the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of insane ethnic conflict aggravated by all sorts of war profiteers…rather like the situation in the Mideast today.

Perhaps the best strategy is to back off and let the various Mideastern social groups have four centuries or so to work out their internal affairs. We in the West are very proud of our accomplishment…of having finally all learned to love, or at least respect, each other—German bankers and Greeks, for example. Give the folks in the Mideast some breathing room: learning to love your neighboring sect takes some time. One can only hope that four centuries from now, the newly structured Mideast state system will not bring to our globe a pair of world wars like those that the newly structured European state system inflicted upon mankind. Do we in the West really want to tell Arabs and Turks and Iranians and Kurds and Allawites, etc., etc. to follow in our footsteps?

Who Are We Dealing With?

To conclude from the above overview that getting involved in foreign sectarian conflicts is always a bad idea is much too simplistic. The overview does, however, argue for two steps before implicating the country in such a foreign dispute:

  • Determine how the participants really view the battle. This is critical to judging what outcome will be in our interests.

  • Determine how the participants’ perspective might be changed to our advantage. This informs the key implementation step, namely, the selection of tactics.

If the first decision concerns the strategic issue, “Should we get involved?”, the second concerns the tactical issue, “What type of involvement will serve our interests?”

Strategically, involvement may be counterproductive. If a landed elite is trying to dispossess poor farmers, then supporting the elite is likely to provoke, rather than prevent, a rebellion by the poor. If a friendly regime discriminates against a domestic ethnic group, then supporting the regime is likely to provoke, rather than prevent, sectarian civil war.

Tactically, involvement in the wrong way may backfire. Do drones stop rebellions by dangerous radicals or infuriate and radicalize moderate civilians? Does military aid save a modernizing society or pass it into the hands of a military dictatorship, paving the way for a more lethal revolution in the future?

If these are simplistic questions, then why are these exactly the questions that Western countries so consistently answer wrong when contemplating intervention?

Needed: A Theory of Sectarian War As a Complex Phenomenon.

It is no wonder a Western state can easily come up with the wrong answers to the basic questions that need to be answered with precision before intervening in a foreign ethnic dispute: we really have no process for determining these answers, Figuring out the actual dynamics of a foreign dispute involving sectarian and cultural divisions is theoretically an unresolved research question, albeit much studied. Complexity itself is an unresolved scientific phenomenon, especially as applied to social issues, and complexity—coevolution, emergence, self-organization, etc.—lies at the heart of the problem of understanding cultural and sectarian disputes. If humans dedicated the rest of this so-far benighted and barbaric century to creating a scientific discipline for understanding sectarian war, it would be a century well spent. Perhaps the first step in this daunting effort is to recognize that complexity, being a story of everything influencing everything else in an environment of endless motion in no particular direction, represents not just confusion but opportunity because a complex environment is one open at all points to influence.


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