Tag Archives: chaos theory

Complexity and chaos in international relations theory

I haven’t blogged for a while because of stupid crap (like life) getting in the way. However now I’m back with a rambling musing on the underlying nature of the system of states and institutions which constitute international relations. My apologies if this gets a bit hard to follow but these ideas are still forming in my mind so I might not be able to articulate them brilliantly yet. Still, writing them down might help me make sense of them myself.

So the starting point of what I’m thinking about is the constituent parts of the international order, which is to say nation-states. If a nation is an ethnic group sharing a common history, language, and cultural traditions and a state (in this context) is a formal political entity exercising control and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory, then a nation-state is simply a state which contains a nation and represents their interest. Of course, in reality there are very few examples of culturally homogenous nation-states – maybe San Marino is an example – but in practice what seems to happen is that a state helps to reinforce a sense of nationhood amongst its citizens and the two aspects of the nation-state evolve in a complex interplay with each other.  The lure of nationalism is still immensely strong even among people who don’t think they are nationalists. Everyone identifies to some extent with the culture(s) they grew up in and this shapes how they view the world. One doesn’t have to want to conquer other countries or kill some hated foe to be a nationalist, as Michael Billig pointed out in his book “Banal Nationalism”.

National myths develop based upon how the state itself  developed, or as statehood becomes the ultimate goal for ethnic minorities in larger nation-states. The national myth of the USA, for example, is based upon the ideas of freedom and liberty, and developed both because some early colonisers were persecuted religious minorities and because the revolution which saw it secede from Britain has been framed as an attempt to break chains of bondage to the crown. Later the abolition of slavery was awkwardly integrated in, but the place of the Native Americans within the national myth has never been worked out because immigration and escape from persecution are essential parts of what it means to be America, and the Native Americans do not fit this narrative. Individual cultural groups of Native Americans like the Sioux are nations without a state, not a part of the nation-state in which they live. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world states simply fail to survive or develop, and the people that live in these areas end up effectively being excluded from economic and political activity which takes place on a global scale.

The creation of a robust idea of a nation-state is therefore a complicated and messy process decided in part by historical events and geography, and reinforced by the behaviour of itself, its citizens, and other states. I personally feel that history is a vital part of understanding international relations, perhaps because I have studied it a lot. For instance it is impossible to understand the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict without understanding its history. At an even deeper level, the history of the nation-state as a concept and how it spread around the world are vital subjects to understanding how nation-states operate today. I won’t go into this too much here (because this post will be huge anyway) but it is important to note that it developed out of war and struggles for dominance in Europe and was exported around the world by European colonialism, coercion and influence. Interestingly Europe was also the first part of the world to really try to develop something beyond the nation-state (the EU) at an inter-state level, and the resulting clusterf*ck and rising nationalist fervour in Europe today look set to bury that little experiment. The Eurozone crisis also shows the crucial place of economics in the study of international relations. States influence economies and economies influence states and the two are effectively impossible to separate. While political science and economics may be approached quite distinctly by academics, they are really inextricably entwined in the real world. However, while these big things all influence state behaviour so can “little” things as well: the personalities of the states’ leaders, or the price of food, or even someone’s decision to stop for a sandwich.

Essentially what I’ve been gearing up to say over those last couple of paragraphs is that international relations is an extremely messy and complex subject, where a wide range of factors interact to produce the eventual outcome. This is a defining characteristic of all social sciences and social scientists often try to develop theories to simplify their explanations of these outcomes but I’m not sure that works often enough, at least in international relations (I haven’t studied other social sciences enough to really comment on them). I am willing to concede that part of my thinking on this may be the result of how my brain works – I think I naturally think inductively not deductively –  but I am confident enough in this view to say that no conventional international relations theory will ever fully explain state behaviour. There is however a theoretical  framework out there which while it may lack the ability to predict state behaviour, it can explain much of it. This is what is called either chaos theory or complexity theory, and it was developed to explain complex systems which are highly sensitive to their initial conditions. I think international relations is just such a system, and the application of chaos theory can help explain certain aspects of it. I am definitely not the first to think this: here is an article on it which looks like it could be interesting, and here is another. In fact a quick search around throws up an impressive number of articles on the subject of chaos and/or complexity in international relations. I haven’t actually read any of them though! (Although I will soon, once I have the time. I promise. Really…)

The point is that it seems like a few people are thinking the same way. It will be interesting to see if these ideas ever take hold at the heart of international relations scholarship or if they are left as the domain for the lunatic fringe. Obviously all explanations of complex systems can only focus on certain aspects and necessarily simplify or exclude certain things, and I am not deluding myself into thinking that the application of chaos theory to international relations will be some sort of final destination in the search for full understanding. However, it is interesting to consider what it can add to the debates of the discipline – for instance, a description of nation-states as strange attractors could explain why they are so resilient to external forces like globalisation and internal forces like shifting demographics. Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject for now. Maybe when I actually read some of those articles I will change my mind!

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