Dynamics Among Nations book coverSome complex problems cannot be solved optimally.

For most policymakers, the challenge of correcting inferior choices (“digressions from optimality”) is a question of supplementing incomplete information. Faith in objective “best practices” nurtures a belief in the inevitable triumph of liberal market democracy as a global norm-setter.

Yet complexity thinking illuminates the pitfalls of this overconfidence in objective measures of optimization. From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t matter if one system outperforms another by objective measures, such as GDP, or by indexes that measure transparency, participation or the rule of law. Powerful self-reinforcing processes –“path dependency” or “sensitivity to initial conditions” – can make it difficult to surmount prior choices and can cause objectively inferior choices to persist.

Complex patterns of global interconnectedness create networks and incentives that are changing the global policy environment.

The West’s “good governance” agenda has shown limited effectiveness in reducing the risks of persistent “ungovernability” and policy failure in emerging regions.

In such regimes, to harness the social capital and resources of the people they govern, leaders establish the power of the state and their own personalized power by taking their citizens along trajectories that diverge greatly from those of the already industrialized incumbents.

Diversions from liberalism may not be temporary.

The distinctively illiberal choices elites make locally have dynamic effects globally; once enough countries have adapted these choices, they will be much harder to reverse, and will exert strong pressures for conformity among other challengers.

China is the strange attractor.

China’s economic success is the source of soft power that could pull the international system into new patterns of communication and interaction.

Modernization does not produce continuity.

In complex systems, change is discontinuous, cause and effect need not be functionally related, jumps are frequent, unpredictable leaps occur, sudden transitions can result even from what initially seems like an insignificant reorganization.

Even small differences in input can produce large differences in output; and critical crisis points occur that can cause dramatic alterations, which rarely can be traced to the linear dynamics of cause and effect.

Discontinuous change is not random.

International liberalism, the security policy of the West, offers a range of policy options to operationalize reforms that are gradual, linear, occur in measured segments, are moderate in their larger impact, and incremental.

These first-order interventions rest on the belief that economic modernization is sufficient to inculcate liberal polities. But transitions to the modern world are of another order: transformative – not incremental,  but not random either. They are influenced by structures, and they exhibit patterns but not predictability.

Humans create networks, transmit ideas, spark revolutions, and raze empires.

Social revolution – the experience of violent discontinuity – swept away the remnants of traditional Chinese social structures. Yet the transformative changes China has undergone are not random.

Its own choices are circumscribed by its history, causing it to modernize in parallel to, rather than in imitation of, the trajectory of previously industrialized states.

Many modernities are possible.

Complex systems often fail to re-stabilize; an initial input can cause a continued perturbation and result in bifurcation. Each successive fork makes the future more unpredictable.

Yet the outcome is not random. It is constrained by prior choices, and by internal and external stimulus or structure.


Hilton L. Root
Professor of Public Policy