How to comprehend the functioning and evolution of human civilization as a complex system will be one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century.
A key sub-question concerns the interplay between individual human behavior and the various components of the international political system. Progress toward answering this question promises invaluable payoffs in terms of wars avoided and human aspirations satisfied.
To sketch out the nature of the problem, one can simplify to a three-lens view of international relations:
· One lens shows the familiar broad overview of events: sequence is fairly clear but causality far less so, which leaves us vulnerable to surprise.
· A more powerful lens reveals the causal dynamics. The concepts for interpreting what we see at this magnification are well developed and can even in some fields be represented by equations (because it is assumed that all actors in a given class behave the same), but culture lags behind: we are unfortunately not accustomed to thinking very clearly about the nature of feedback loops and delays in the context of international relations. We have a valuable set of interpretive tools for minimizing surprise in global affairs and for avoiding foreign policy failures that we have simply not bothered to use.
· The third lens is still being polished; though the view through it remains murky, we need to start using it because it shows a far more accurate image of reality. This is the lens that reveals not only the actions and dynamics of a system but also the various structural components. If these components are at multiple levels (individual, group) and all are interdependent, the result is complexity. The theory of complexity that is taking shape today is designed to illuminate systems composed of multiple interdependent parts whose connections at one level (e.g., individual) give rise to seemingly counterintuitive behavior at other levels (e.g., group, national, regional, or system-wide).
The first lens shows us speeches, invasions, elections. The second lens shows the forces causing those events, which it may be reasonable to classify into political, economic, demographic, cultural, and technical. The third lens presumably should show how new behavior emerges at one level from highly complicated interactions at another. More precisely, behavioral dynamics will occur at multiple levels within each of the five sectors mentioned above and others will occur among those sectors.
Exactly how to apply these ideas to international relations is a challenge that remains to be solved. Among the specific problems that seem appropriate subjects for viewing from the complexity perspective are:
· How Palestinian infighting has emerged to undercut the Palestinian people’s long struggle for independence from Israeli colonization;
· How a peasant rebellion for justice against exploitative big landowners in Colombia evolved over half a century into a battle between guerrillas and paramilitaries, with both selling narcotics and committing atrocities against the innocent;
· How violence-addicted extremists gained ascendancy on all sides so quickly after the brief glow of post-Cold War hope, leading to the casting aside of fundamental rules for governing the international political system;
· How the Iraqi insurgency evolved into Sunni-Shi’ite in-fighting at the expense of efforts either to resist the U.S. occupation or rebuild Iraq, with the emergence of new types of behavior (e.g., blowing up holy sites).
Complexity theory sensitizes us to questions that might otherwise be overlooked.
· The interdependence of the parts of a complex system (think of the difference between giving drugs to a sick person and repairing a car) warns one to expect “side” effects. Thus, if a problem in ties between two ethnic groups appears, from the complexity perspective, one would automatically ask how that would ripple through the whole system, with implications for system stability.
· The expectation that the way the parts of a complex system interact will be affected by the context in which the system exists focus attention on how external pressures modify the behavior of actors within the system.
· The assumption of complexity theory that variation exists among individuals cautions one to pay strict attention to details. (Note that this assumption directly contradicts the assumption of smoothness that is made when viewing dynamics [the second lens, above].)
· The concept of “emergence” sensitizes us to anticipate rather than be surprised by new forms of behavior that violate cultural norms (the rise of narco-paramilitaries, revenge destruction of holy sites, intifadas, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, bombing of cities, threats of nuclear war against non-nuclear states).
The generic complexity theory we have today sensitizes us to ask certain key questions and prepares us to anticipate surprise. There is as yet little application of that generic theory to the specifics of human civilization, much less to the field of global politics, so the theory does not—yet—tell us what type of behavioral modifications we should anticipate. It remains to be seen whether or not we can construct a “science of human socio-political complexity.” What is the next step in the direction of that vision? The development of a framework to allow us to think more conceptually about the proper ways to use each of the three above-described powers of magnification–events, dynamics, and interdependence—would be a good place to start.