Mali, Syria, and the Complexity of Global Risks

Thu, Jan 31, 2013

U.S./World News

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In this space before I’ve touched on the ongoing situations in places such as Mali and Syria. Examining the goings on in places like this is most challenging for a multitude of reasons, be they historical, linguistic, or cultural. Seldom are there mono-causal explanations for why things unfold the way they do. Human beings are complex. Trying to come to grips with such complexity is daunting.

Three recent pieces illustrate some of this complexity and trying to come to understand and grapple with it:

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The World Economic Forum offers a framework for “Building National Resilience to Global Risks.” In summary:

Global risks would meet with global responses in an ideal world, but the reality is that countries and their communities are on the frontline when it comes to systemic shocks and catastrophic events. In an increasingly interdependent and hyperconnected world, one nation’s failure to address a global risk can have a ripple effect on others. Resilience to global risks—incorporating the ability to withstand, adapt and recover from shocks—is, therefore, becoming more critical. This special report is organized around two axioms:

  • Global risks are expressed at the national level.
  • No country alone can prevent their occurrence.

As global risks can be expressed in many countries at the same time, they can spread through countries that share borders, have similar fundamentals or depend on the same critical systems. This special report is a pioneering effort to construct a diagnostic framework that applies the concept of “resilience” to assess national preparedness for global risks.

The proposed resilience framework would function as the “MRI” for national decision-makers to reveal underlying weaknesses in global risk readiness that may not be apparent via more traditional risk assessment methods. It is a prototype featuring potential qualitative and quantitative indicators produced by the World Economic Forum and by other research institutions. The aim is to refine and improve this framework by soliciting feedback from readers of this Special Report and then to introduce an interim finding that provides more detail on national resilience to global risks during summer 2013.

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Meanwhile, over at the Kings of War blog the British academic Rob Dover has written an interesting piece entitled “Syria, Mali, Algerian gas-works and ‘Open Source Everything’.” On the matter of complexity and the problems of academic (in particular international relations) theory in explaining it he says:

  • Things in the international system tend away from equilibrium and not towards it as most IR theory suggests
  • The international system tends to chaos and not order (and the level of chaos might be reduced to the level of individuals, making generalizable lessons problematic)
  • Man-made uncertainty shocks, or ‘black-swans’ to use other language, are mostly resistant to accurate advanced prediction. Thus one main function of theory—to predict—is always likely to fail. Using a different approach we could learn lessons quickly enough to be able to deal with a problem or series of problems close enough to the source that in effect it looked like prediction and pre-emption.

The issues all fall-down to how to best use (in terms of creating the right institutional frameworks and having the right cultures) the information available, and in that we need more thinking work into whether alternatives genuinely stack-up.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria with Military Action?]

Lastly, the Soufan Group offers “A New Germ Theory for Managing Chaotic Nation-States.” In this “intel brief” they argue that:

It’s not just foreign policy practitioners who wonder why the unexpected or unwelcome possibility goes viral while allegedly well-conceived and properly implemented policies go nowhere. Countless media and marketing experts spend countless hours trying to catch lightening in a bottle and manufacture a truly viral product. Despite their best efforts, most Internet or social media sensations are entirely unpredictable, rarely make sense, and even less often make a profit. So what do violence and viral Internet memes have to do with each other? The answer to this—and, perhaps, to our earlier key strategic questions — might be found by focusing less on what the violence is and more on what it might be in response to; that is, to treat them as antibodies responding to specific antigens. For just as it is fruitless and exhausting to attempt a guess at what might prove to be the next Internet viral sensation, it is equally fruitless, but much more consequential, to guess which new foreign policy symptom might go viral. Just reverse the search and look for the antigen.

This is not as theoretical as it sounds at first glance. Rather, it is fundamentally quite practical. After all, doctors cure diseases by focusing on the original antigen, the original irritant that caused the symptoms. The antibody is of interest primarily because it leads back to the antigen…and therefore leads to the cure (or, at least, it should). For the purposes of our discussion, the antibody of extremism and violence is of interest primarily because it provides clues to the antigen of irritation (be it economic, political, or social)…and also provides clues to the cure….

We’ve built an entire foreign aid and security doctrine on the wrong side of the antigen-antibody divide. We submit that this just may explain why the most rigorous planning and administration of foreign aid programs are attacked and rendered inviable by the most trivial and unpredictable bouts of civil fever, and why we never understand the disease that is causing the symptoms we are attempting to treat, or why violence spreads so quickly through a weakened host.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Taken together each of these pieces touche “a different part of the elephant” about the problem of complexity. Looked at together they offer some useful insights about thinking and dealing with some of today’s pressing issues.


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