International relations and complexity theory

Hilton Root has published some very interesting ideas about systems thinking in international relations theory in Dynamics among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States. Here he offers an approach to social, political, and economic change through a set of ideas that are not yet strongly integrated into IR theory — the perspective of complexity theory, worked out in a clear and useable form.

The three sources of theoretical argument which he introduces — complexity theory, social network theory, and evolutionary ecology — represent a significant innovation in comparative history. The novel approach Root takes consists of three large ideas: that social systems at all levels display “adaptive complexity”; that the structure of the social networks (governance systems, information systems, economic inter-dependencies) that are embedded in a specific society have important and unexpected consequences for the behavior of the system; and that complex social developments have much in common with “landscape ecology”, by which he means that there are multiple next steps that can be taken at any point leading to an improvement of performance.

His fundamental claim is that communities, states, and international systems need to be understood as dynamic systems with emergent properties. A society is not simply the linear sum of the behaviors of its component systems.

The system of international relations, like most complex ecosystems, such as the nervous system or a rain forest, is yielding to its rules of complexity. In complex systems, a central administrator rarely guides the collective behaviors that characterize development processes. The system itself has a collective behavior that depends on all its parts. Rather than convergence toward a dominant model, or “global optimum,” the interactive dynamics are coevolutionary; their interactions result in reciprocal and evolving change. (2)

One consequence of these ideas is that international relations and economic and political development processes show substantial path dependency and contingency. Another consequence is that some leading metaphors for large-scale historical change are implausible and misleading: in particular, modernization theory, “uniqueness of the West,” and “end of history.” Finally, Root argues that we should expect substantial variation in the strategies and structures that nations choose, given their own geopolitical environments.

Competition in highly interdependent global environments produces far greater local variation and diversity of structures and strategies than modernization theory ever anticipated. (3)

The book uses numerous episodes from the political, military, and economic histories of Europe and Asia to illustrate and validate the approach he takes. As a particularly interesting example of this, Root interprets Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia, not as folly, but as an intuition of the nodal character of the traditional European state system (126 ff.). He also makes repeated use of periods in Chinese imperial history to illustrate his notion that system dynamics and the structure of the governance network create very powerful obstacles to innovation and change.

So what does Root mean by “complexity”? His central concept is that of a “complex interactive adaptive system” (CIAS) within a heterogeneous environment. Here is a useful description of international relations through the lens of CIAS theory.

A network is comprised of agents. The agents interact according to shared and evolving rules of behavior that in turn define the larger environment or system. That behavior generates continuous feedback loops that enable agents to learn and to adjust their behaviors to others’ actions, thereby re-creating the system in which they operate. Complex adaptive systems are created by interactions and communications of self-adjusting agents. Continuous “feedback” motivates agents to re-evaluate their positions. Because agents are constantly reacting to other agents’ behaviors, nothing in the environment is ever fixed or finite. In order to fully understand the impacts of these agents, their behaviors must be understood as they interact with the broader system. (16)

A key analytical idea the author brings forward repeatedly is the notion of “co-evolution”. This concept captures one important aspect of a complex interactive adaptive system. CIAS’s show two types of unpredictability. First, the mutual interactions of the parts lead to “chaotic” courses of development of the system, as A, B, and C interact to produce unexpected outcome D. But second, the “adaptive” part introduces another kind of indeterminacy, as organisms, actors, and institutions change their characteristics in face of changes in the environment. So the properties of A, B, and C are not fixed over time; rather, selection and purposive adaptation lead to organisms and actors who respond differently over time to ecological opportunities and threats.

Features of uncertainty, time framing, rule change, and novel behavior all contribute to a set of system characteristics: unpredictability, path dependency, and sensitivity to initial conditions. And Root believes that these factors have important implications about the feasibility of reducibility or micro- to macro- reconstruction:

When a state’s interactions shift from being locally based to being regionally or nationally based, its behaviors change across the network and the greater system. Thus a general theory of the system cannot be deduced from the properties of its constituent parts, just as the universe cannot be reconstructed from the fundamental laws of physics. (31)

Root’s treatment of “New Institutional Economics” in Chapter 5 is important for several reasons. Most important, he demonstrates the harm that comes from incorporating a questionable theory of change into a comprehensive agenda for policy. The guiding idea of “creating institutions of good governance” as a panacea for slow economic growth and widespread poverty led policy makers to ignore other important causal factors, including locally rational but myopic strategies pursued by sub-actors. Root seems to agree with Dani Rodrik in concluding that NIC is limited when it comes to serving as a guide for positive policy design:

Assessing the legacy of new institutional economics, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik concludes that beyond “a very aggregate level of generality,” these ideas do not provide much policy guidance. (81)

Instead of looking for a general theory that can be used by centralized planning ministries to guide their economic and social policies, Root favors a more evolutionary approach: allow for a diversity of development experiments at the middle level of society, and then favor those experiments that appear to have the best results.

Chinese planners never attained the celebrity status of their Indian peers, but by trying multiple paths and starting with smaller interventions from the top, they found a better way to determine what worked. After Deng declared the opening of the Chinese economy, he instituted a multi-level process that facilitated both change and stability, and strengthened social organization and social learning through local experimentation. (108-109)

(Contrast this with the “single experiment” approach associated with land collectivization in the 1950s, resulting in massive agricultural failure and famine during the Great Leap Forward.)

Root’s treatment of Imperial China’s history is intriguing but controvertible. His central premise is that China’s Imperial system was a hierarchical network of control, and systems like this are substantially less resilient and open to change than multi-nodal networks. The interpretation is reminiscent of the theory of Oriental despotism: an all-powerful imperial system suppressed both challengers and change-agents. But contemporary China historians would probably give the Imperial system more credit in terms of its degree of flexibility in face of challenges. Take peasant uprisings. The state was generally successful in its response to large peasant rebellions, even if the military response was often flat-footed. The Taiping Rebellion is an example that probably supports the author’s interpretation best, since it was local militias organized and funded by local gentry which were most successful in opposing the Taipings. But China’s history is littered with hundreds of peasant and ethnic uprisings, and its military eventually prevailed in most of them.

One way of reading Root’s book is as a guidebook for administrators in a time of complexity. Root correctly emphasizes the difficulty or impossibility of “solving” a set of social and political problems simultaneously, and the parallel difficulty of making confident predictions about medium- or long-term consequences of various policy interventions. Second best, in his account, is an evolutionary approach: try a diversity of approaches, and cautiously increase the volume of those approaches that seem to work best. But even this approach is uncertain; evolutionary processes lead to dead-ends that are unforeseen in earlier stages of the process.

(See this post about decision-making under conditions of deep uncertainty; link. And here is a series of earlier posts about social complexity; link.)

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