Adapting U.S. Policy in a Changing International System

From the Arab world protests to the abstractions of network theory, understanding the new world

From the Arab world protests to the abstractions of network theory, understanding the new world

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Anti-Qaddafi fighters gather at a house outside Bani Wali / Reuters

One of the hardest questions in foreign policy debates today is why the U.S. should support the protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa when we don't know what governments will take the place of current regimes but can be fairly certain that most will be less friendly to U.S. interests than their predecessors. Indeed, if popular revolutions were to sweep genuinely democratic governments into power across the region, it is the Iranian government that would likely become the most pro-American, perhaps followed by a new Libyan government. But even if the Syrian opposition were to succeed tomorrow, at least to the extent that the Egyptian protest movements have succeeded, the resulting government would still likely be quite anti-American, raising the question why then we should be doing what we can to help them succeed.

The immediate answer is that the U.S. and the rest of the West would only be reaping what we have sowed: we have supported governments that have oppressed their people, and justifying it to ourselves in terms of our interests, on the premise that otherwise a radical Islamist wave would sweep everyone under. And of course many of the governments that have been friendly to us have actually deflected popular discontent with their own rule by diverting attention to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and to Israel's backer, the United States. But pointing out that our current predicament has long been foreseeable is no help now. Another argument is that even though we chose our interests in Israeli security, a secure oil supply, and a stable regional order over our interests in terms of living up to our national values and being seen to live up to them, now we must do what we can to show millions of young Arabs that we do in fact mean what we have professed so sincerely, at least some of the time. But it will take years of re-aligning our actions and our words before we are likely to change deeply ingrained perceptions of the United States, years in which new, fragile, and volatile governments in a highly precarious region are going to be closer to Iran, more hostile to Israel, and more determined to define their interests in ways that may conflict with U.S. interests.

Given this reality, why aren't scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn't we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son? North Korea's Kim Il-sung managed such a transition to Kim Jong-il, who looks set to do the same to Kim Jong-un. If states are what matter in the world, then why not do everything we can to encourage the continuation of governments that are friendly to our interests, regardless of what happens within their borders?

I'll be interested in my interlocutors' answer to that question. But one argument is that social forces can sweep governments, and indeed entire states, away. It is noteworthy how naturally oceanic metaphors spring to mind: tides, currents, tsunamis. They are all forces of great and unpredictable power. And when they come, we have to try to adapt to whatever world we find ourselves in, regardless of what we might choose. Even the most hardened realist can see that to recommend that a government stand firm and eliminate any dissent is not likely to go over well with the dissenters when they finally sweep into power.

This difference between choice and adaptation is at the core of my debate with Dan and other realists and a big part of living on the foreign policy frontier. It is easy to caricature this debate as one that pits a world of states versus a world of social forces, and it is certainly true that part of the debate focuses how much emphasis we should place on social forces and understanding and engaging those forces directly. But as I repeat over and over (with apparently little effect), I actually see a world of both states and networked social, economic, and political actors, which can impact international outcomes both directly and, by influencing states, indirectly.

When you put all this together, you get a complex, adaptive system, a world of diverse actors interacting with one another in many different ways and adapting to whatever circumstances arise as a result of that interaction. The Cold War world -- a strategic competition between two superpowers -- was relatively easy to model using game theory, which itself assumes rational (in other words, interest-maximizing) choice on the part of all the participants in the game. Most international relations scholars' models of the world still assume rational choice. But when lots of different actors interact in lots of different ways, they are more likely to adapt to changing circumstances than to choose specific moves based on any strategy designed to maximize their interests (see Robert Axelrod in The Complexity of Cooperation¸a book that unfortunately far fewer international relations students and scholars have read than his classic The Evolution of Cooperation).

In plain English, the Cold War world was like chess. The 21st century world is more like tennis, where the wind, heat, possible rain delay (climactic factors that are themselves the product of complex adaptive systems), and your opponent's relative health and form on any given day (health and form that are themselves a function of whom your opponent has played prior to your match) all affect the speed, trajectory, and spin on the ball coming at you. Sometimes you get to choose your actions independently, for example when you serve, but mostly you adapt and respond. Or take surfing, where you really can't predict when the wave is coming or what it will look like. But when the conditions are right you can be sure that a wave will come and you can do a great deal to position and prepare yourself to ride it all the way -- or at least not to get smashed under.

Henry Farrell describes this world of complex adaptive systems as a "space for contagion" -- "a space where ever-multiplying and ever-ramifying sets of networked relationships across border serve ... to transmit social influences in ways that are difficult to predict ex ante." But as the metaphor of contagion indicates, we are essentially at the mercy of these influences, unable to predict, much less dictate, who will infect whom. In a nutshell, he agrees with my description of the world as a set of complex, networked interactions among many different government and social actors, but argues that in that world it is hopeless even to think of developing theories and amassing knowledge that could be useful to policymakers.

Not surprisingly, I disagree. As the World Health Organization and many national governments demonstrated during the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, epidemiologists can figure out who infects whom fairly quickly and can certainly recommend measures to block contagion. And as Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show in their book Connected, empirical studies confirm that it is possible to spread positive health effects, such as weight loss and smoking cessation, by targeting identifiable nodes in much broader social networks. Network theory and complexity theory more generally offers many insights on how to make ourselves more resilient, adaptable, prepared, and resourceful in the face of challenges we know are coming. Network theory can tell the London city planners how many roads they need circling the city and how many going through it to minimize traffic congestion and maximize fast access. It's all a function of how many and what type of connections exist within what overall structure.

So what can all this abstraction tell us about the question that I raised at the outset of this piece about the changing Arab region? A memo to the National Security Adviser that says "many of the new governments in the Middle East aren't going to like us, so we'll just have to adapt to their views and make the best of it" is not going to get us very far. Here's a start at more concrete recommendations. Take the emerging Libyan government and the concerns about increasing Islamist influence, for example. How can we help construct a network of governments, foundations, and businesses that will provide successful counter-pressure? Encouraging strong ties between Turkey and Libya will help, as will focusing intensively on exactly who in Qatari government and society has been funding the Libyan opposition and making as much of that information public as possible. Another approach is pushing hard for the continued role of women in the Libyan government and working with allies and investors to make this a signal of the strength and stability of whatever regime emerges. Connecting Libyan women not only to UN Women but also to many different collaborative networks that promote female entrepreneurship and leadership will help, as will identifying young entrepreneurs across Libya and connecting them to similar young business networks. In short, mapping the socio-economic terrain in Libya as well as the more obvious political terrain and focusing our diplomacy on making that terrain as transparent and as positively connected as possible.

Will it work? Nothing in the networked world overcomes the uncertainty inherent in any diplomacy or foreign policy strategy. But as soon as we stop thinking of whether the emerging Libyan "state" will be friendly or unfriendly to the U.S. "state" and stop imagining that we can control outcomes anywhere, we have lots of options.