The Reaction to Chaos

Steven R. Mann

I want to talk about the art of foreign policy. And the art of strategy. And the art of diplomacy. And of course the art of war. Individually, these are throwaway phrases. But I think there’s a deeper truth imbedded in this idea of art and policy affairs. The truth relates to the terrific need of humans to develop order. This is the mission of Western art—the Western Eye—in imposing form on nature and calling it beautiful. Art is at war with nature. It is the art of foreign policy that seeks to impose structure on the environment and build a pleasing stability. It is no accident that we refer to these different "arts." So by discussing art, I am saying that this is a talk not merely about chaos, but a practitioner’s view of the ways in which we react to chaos. (Here I have drawn liberally from Camille Paglia and have extended this to the political.)

That the world is chaotic is another throwaway line. Even in the policy community, where so many of us earn our living, this is a commonplace. In actual practice, though, we the United States are wary of going beyond the commonplace in addressing the fact and implications of chaos, or better said, addressing the dynamical nature of the world. In this talk, I want to discuss further why this is difficult and suggest what implications this has for our policy direction. First, though, let me make the case that we are in a chaotic world.

The argument that I am going to make is that foreign affairs exhibits characteristics of self-organized criticality. Briefly stated, the tenets of self-organized criticality are these: "many composite systems naturally evolve to a critical state in which a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system. Although composite systems produce more minor events than catastrophes, chain reactions of all size are an integral part of the dynamics. According to the theory, the mechanism that leads to minor events is the same one that leads to major events. Furthermore, composite systems never reach equilibrium but instead evolve from one metastable state to the next."

What first led me five years back to the metaphor of self-organized criticality was the utter unbelievability of the phrase, "the New World Order." Whatever else we were seeing in international affairs, it was not order. But that phrase has got legs; it even appears in the conference brochure. Leaving aside the unfortunate conspiratorial echoes of that phrase, which have fueled militia paranoia across the US, it is not properly descriptive. I’d suggest instead that what we are actually dealing with is better expressed by the concept of consistent criticality. The international environment is complex, dynamic, and constantly changing. The world appears as a critical arena.

The destruction of the old paradigm of an ordered, bipolar international environment meant therefore that there would be a nostalgic, sometimes obsessive drive to reclaim the idea of a stable international scene. Thus the new world order.

And indeed, something other than order is at work here. Look at the out-of-the-ordinary array of international crises that we have experienced in the past five years: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Central Africa, Chechnya. This is not to speak of second-tier crises (from the US view) such as Abkhazia and Kashmir. I believe we are in an environment in which unpredictable transformations lead to constant change in the international environment—yet throughout these various upheavals, the overall system retains a surprising degree of robustness. The model of self-organized criticality wears well in describing this policy environment.

In order for events to proceed to the global critical state, there needs to be a sufficiently complex international system in existence. To achieve truly global criticality, which is what we are seeing in the Twentieth Century, the following prerequisites were necessary: efficient methods of transportation; efficient means of mass production; greater freedom in economic competition; rising economic standards, leading to greater weight on ideology [when the struggle for survival is won, there is room for ideology]; efficient mass communication; and an increase in resource demand. I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list, but these items occur to me as necessary preconditions for global criticality. Talk of global complexity is also a commonplace, usually expressed in terms of "global interdependence." But I think global criticality is a more productive way of thinking of this.

Now, you can indeed take this stuff too far. Social sciences are often subjective. Chaos theory has become trendy. It’s easy to overstate the power of a theory. This brings us to the "Is it live or is it Memorex? question." Do chaos and self-organized criticality exist as actual principles of international affairs or are we dealing with perceptions and metaphors? Vice President Gore has called criticality "irresistible as a metaphor." This is true and we need to use caution. Humans have a terrific need for stability and one of the ways we serve this need is through the search for paradigms. We consider reality tamed if we find a classification, a description for it. But I no longer believe in criticality merely as metaphor. I think that the process involved is a "real" one, not a representational one. I believe that the action of international actors is an actual example of a chaotic environment and that out of the interplay of large numbers of actors with great degrees of freedom, we are seeing self-organized criticality on a global scale.

The idea of chaos and criticality operating in the social arena is becoming more and more accepted. I read of applications of chaos theory to economics. Especially intriguing to me has been the attention given to dynamical systems theory by psychoanalysts. This strikes me as a bold and plausible application of these theories to the "soft" sciences—sciences where quantification is difficult and the dangers of subjective analysis are high—and I believe we as strategic analysts would do well to study this research. One of these psychoanalysts, Dr. Galatzer-Levy states: "Chaos theory was born out of the recognition of what could not be done." What could not be done. Recall the discomfort I, and I’m sure many of us had as we tried to make sense of the "New World Order." Matching chaos theory to psychoanalysis, Galatzer-Levy writes: "Any reasonably complex system is not predictable in its details over a long period of time. Certainly the human mind is at such a level of complexity." Now, if we are dealing with the product of billions of human minds in an interactive, responsive system, is it not reasonable to believe that chaos theory applies to our particular science?

Galatzer-Levy asserts that he finds in psychoanalysis such dynamical phenomena as strange attractors and self-similarity. Earlier, two other analysts, Sashin and Callahan created a model of affect—the emotional response attached to a stimulus—using catastrophe theory. We need to be open to these concepts as actual phenomena, not merely as metaphor. In our own field, we need to take encouragement from what these observers suggest and develop a consistent model of international affairs that incorporates dynamical systems theory. A successful model—if it can be created—will encompass military strategy, trade and finance, ideology, political organization, religion, ecology, mass communication, public health, and changing gender roles. For better or worse, the sum of these topics is foreign affairs today.

Twentieth-century history alone has ample evidence for the idea of criticality—though here of course we have again to be careful of subjective interpretation. This century’s history exhibits a recurring pattern, of building to a critical state, catastrophic change, subsequent reordering, and a period of metastability— leading to the next sequence. (Here I’m happy to echo Richard Kugler.) The foreign policy "peaks" of the Twentieth Century I see as the First World War, Second World War, and the end of the Cold War.

Consider the massive reordering that we subsume under the shorthand of the First World War: Ten million war dead, innumerable other casualties, the birth of the Soviet state and the surge of international communism, the spread of European revolution, and the great influenza pandemic. The metaphor of the tinderbox is the time-honored one for that period. The new description that makes sense, however, is of a collection of factors building to criticality. There is a relatively minor event—the assassination of the Austrian Archduke by a Serb—leading to disproportionate outcomes and massive reordering. So too with the 1939-1945 period. The stage of building to criticality was increasingly evident from 1931 onwards, and we are all familiar with the spectacular change and the fundamental reordering that followed.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire is the third instance of global critical change that I’d highlight. The consensus I detect in the conference is that we really do not understand the post-collapse period. The East-West struggle kept a lid on conflict. Communism suppressed the destabilizing phenomena of nationalism and crime by making these, as so much else in the society, state monopolies. Ukrainian nationalism was illegal; Soviet patriotism was mandatory. Criminal gangs were strictly suppressed in the USSR; the nomenklatura, in contrast, was a powerful Cosa Nostra of its own. Now, with the Cold War ended, the state’s monopoly on these enterprises has ended and we are dealing with the unpleasant sequelae of freedom, whether in Chechnya, the Balkans, Nagorno-Karabakh, or in the rise and spread of the Russian Mafia. In terms of our theory, the degrees of freedom in the system have greatly increased.

There’s another way of viewing this, however: the fact that the great Cold War struggle diverted us from the accelerating chaos, the true dynamism, in the world and only now are we perceiving the scale of the global challenges: in terms of environmental disaster, water shortages, climate change, dysfunctional national cultures, and the breakdown of the nation-state. The response to this reordering is by no means complete, and this is a complex and intriguing area.

In each of these three cases, World War I, World War II, and the end of the Cold War, we were unprepared for the sequence and the magnitude of events. Nations at rest want to believe they will remain at rest.

By far the most interesting aspect of strategic criticality to me as a practitioner of foreign affairs is the policy response to it, particularly the U.S. response. The fundamental response to the chaos of these events was a great premium on building stability: imposing form on the chaos of nature. This is completely understandable. The first two critical reorderings of this century were spectacularly painful. And certainly people have a powerful drive toward stability. We thrive within a clearly defined range of economic and political parameters.

The converse of this is that we perceive the chaotic as at heart threatening. For proof of this, we need not look at the upheavals of this century, but let’s go back to the fundamental level of dynamical systems theory, the mathematical. Mandelbrot, in his wonderful book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, describes the Cantor dust and terms it "another awful mathematical object ordinarily viewed as pathological." Further, he notes that "many writers refer to [the graph of the Cantor function] as the Devil’s Staircase." We find this same genre of mathematical objects referred to as "a gallery of monsters"; Mandelbrot himself creates a "fractal dragon." The irregular, the discontinuous, the extraordinary is threatening.

So on the policy level, a consistent response of Western policy makers to discontinuous, chaotic, threatening events has been to apply the arts of strategy. I am not indiscriminately criticizing the desire for structure. But I think it’s very important that we be aware of this and watch for this powerful tendency in ourselves, corporately, as policy makers. Thus we saw the great efforts by Western policy makers to devise a stable structure for international affairs to guard against the possibility of any recurrence of these events. After the catastrophe and reordering of World War One, we had The New Diplomacy, as it was termed: the ambitious attempt to found a League of Nations, the Washington Naval Conferences, the creation of a World Court, very broad Geneva disarmament talks, and of course, the Kellogg-Briand Pact for the Renunciation of War. There’s an interesting sidelight here; this attempt to tame chaos on the international front was mirrored by the drive for stability—"the return to normalcy"—in domestic affairs. Prohibition is the outstanding example of this: activists attempted to tame the turbulent in domestic life as diplomatists attempted to tame the turbulent across the seas. Actually, I saw a contemporary magazine article pointing out the similarities and observing that from the European point of view, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was the same as the 18th Amendment, but without any Volstead Act to enforce it. Both Kellogg-Briand and Prohibition failed, of course. The paper strictures of well-meaning diplomats, up to and most of all, in Munich, were no match for turbulent reality.

After the catastrophe and reordering of World War Two, we saw American leadership in the formation of the United Nations and military pacts. In terms of international affairs, the decade of the fifties was far less turbulent that the decade that preceded it or for that matter, the one that followed it. Certainly there were many smaller upheavals—smaller avalanches, of a sort, in that period. Yet critical reordering—massive upheaval—in our century is followed by a period of relative quiet. This is not a profound point. What I want us to be aware of is how powerful the drive is for stability in the wake of the massive change—and the fact that the self-ordering of international affairs builds inevitably toward the next reordering. All stability is metastability, temporary stability.

Events in recent years give weight to the argument that the American response to chaos is the desire for structure. In homage to Professor Gell-Mann and his CLAW concept, let me call this part of my talk SLAW, or Sharpened Lunge Against Wishfulness. Let me explore this with a look at the end of the Soviet Union.

When did the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union begin? In November 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall? In June 1990, with the declaration of Sovereignty by the Russian Parliament? The rise of republic power in January 1991? Inarguably, however, the coup attempt of August 19, 1991 was a pivotal point. And at this critical point in history, the first responses of the White House in favor of structure are archetypal in disclosing the underlying drive for stability. At a news conference after the reports of the coup were received, President Bush confronted the turbulence by saying, "We expect that the Soviet Union will live up fully to its international obligations." And then, "There is very little that we can do now." And he referred to Gorbachev in the past tense, and made it clear that the U.S. sought the maximal degree of stability in the midst of this sharp change.

The discomfort with chaos and the drive for stability underlie those unworthy comments. Later the White House got it right, but I find it very revealing that those initial comments disclosed the attachment to immediate, stable order. If you look at the subsequent implementation of Soviet policy, it was cautious, timid, backward-focused. I can’t help but contrast those comments with some earlier comments of Gorbachev when he was asked how he would like future generations to describe his contribution to his country. His answer? Dinamichestvo, dynamism.

So too with the end of the Gulf War. The premature termination of the Gulf War had many factors, but near the top were nods to the normative, the desire not to appear as a bellicose, "uncivilized" state by destroying the Republican Guard and the desire not to exceed the terms of the relevant Security Council resolutions. Those nods have proved costly in the succeeding years.

As I said earlier, we cannot appreciate the actual post-Cold War period yet, but we see indications of the shape things are taking. Let me point to the resurgence of the idea of international tribunals, in Bosnia and Africa. In Africa, the idea of such a tribunal represents the triumph of wishfulness over reality. I read in the Post this week of the lack of progress made by a War Crimes Tribunal on Rwanda. That this War Crimes Tribunal is painstakingly sorting through the evidence and looking toward future judicial proceedings is less the stuff of realistic foreign relations than of satire, and I know I’m not being diplomatically correct in saying this.

I can’t be completely hard on the structures of legality here, for two reasons. One is that in the long term, we do indeed need to develop an accepted code of behavior in both international and domestic spheres. That is a worthy goal, and one which is both the cause and the effect of the prosperity and stability that prevails in much of North America, East Asia, and Europe. A second reason that I can’t be too hard is that we may have nothing else to offer in tragic situations but the palliative of legal measures, the fiction of international standards. The Central African situation is a case in point. Perhaps there is nothing effective that we are able or willing to offer to peoples who are locked in bitter, intractable conflicts.

But the basic point I want to get across here is that we have to be illusion-free when it comes to the limits and the appropriateness of international law and similar structures. The long-term goals of international law are worthy ones, but we always have to count the costs of what we pay for that in the short term. There is another facet to this desire for stability that concerns me. It is the spread of peacekeeping forces and the increasing use of the U.S. military as peacekeepers. I see two basic uses for peacekeeping, one productive and one that makes me wary. The first, the productive use, is the use of peacekeeping troops in implementation of a stable solution to a crisis, as in Cambodia. The second is the use of peacekeepers as placeholders: freezing the sides and clamping a lid on conflict. It’s hard to argue against a pause in bloodshed. But if peacekeeping becomes an end in itself, as a means of achieving a pseudostability, and thus forestalls moving a crisis toward tough decisions needed to achieve a stable end, then we’re on dangerous ground. The fact is that if we want to solve the problems in much of the developing world, we need to be looking at intensive, intrusive remaking of the societies. That may well be too much for any nation or group to take on. But that, I think, brings us closer to the true nature of the problems.

I also wonder about the effect on the military’s view of itself that peacekeeping has. Here again, we pay a price. I have a traditional view of the military’s mission: I believe our force exists to destroy the opposing forces. I am concerned that peacekeeping missions as a mission norm will over time blur and blunt the capabilities of our forces and give us too many people in the uniformed ranks concerned with political subtleties and nuances. We have too many of those in the State Department now, why do we want more at DOD? Remember Bob Jervis’s discussion of unintended consequences.

So what do we do when faced with an environment of self-organized criticality? First, we need to understand the nature of the environment we face, go against our cultural patterning, and recognize that not all chaos is bad and not all stability is good. The Soviet coup is the case in point for this. We should also be aware of our tendency to create myths in service of our beliefs. Charles Krauthammer refers to the "Myth of multilateralism." This is one of them. Another is the belief in common international values. I am reminded of a cartoon from the Soviet days showing a haggard prisoner being dragged before a commissar. The caption read: "Sure we are believing in human rights, comrade. First you must prove you are human." We should be clear about the price we pay for stability and service to assumed international norms.

A sidelight here that will be no surprise to anyone who has worked in Washington is that policy making is chaotic. More precisely, it is turbulent and weakly chaotic, exhibiting features of self-organized criticality. George Shultz said that in Washington, no issue is ever truly settled. There’s a deeper truth in that remark—policy decisions are metastable.

Unfortunately, description of the environment does not mean prediction. Description does not mean prescription either. The fact that we now see the world as subject to criticality doesn’t really tell us how to use that fact. One prescription I have, though, is that we need to be open to ways to accelerate and exploit criticality if it serves our national interest, for example, by destroying the Iraqi military and the Saddam state. The key is national interest, not international stability. Indeed, we already push a number of policies that accelerate chaos, whether we realize that or not: promoting democracy, pushing market reform, and spreading, through private sector means, mass communication.

Another prescription I have is to pay serious policy attention to environmental and resource issues. A few months back, I was on the Indo-Pakistani border, at Amritsar. The talk there was not of armed hostilities or Kashmir. It was on the plummeting of the water table. Now, what effect will that have in 15 years on Indo-Pakistani hostility? I have been much influenced by Robert Kaplan’s writings on "The Coming Anarchy," and we need to reorient our policies to take account of these issues. Criticality tells us that all stability in a critical environment is metastability. One implication is that we cannot take the continued stability of the United States as invariable.

I have been critical of some of our reactions to chaos here, because at heart the international environment is conflict-based, and we ignore that fact at our peril. The world as international arena is a correct metaphor—and there is often no law in the arena.

I lifted that phrase from Camille Paglia, who lifted it from the movie Ben-Hur. In the art of foreign policy, this phrase makes more sense than we care to admit. Our reaction to criticality is a byproduct of our culture. Structure and culture are at war with the chthonian. It is noble for us as policy makers to try to triumph over chaotic nature and impose the art of diplomacy, of war, but a prerequisite for this is seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

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