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Threats to stability

Threats to stability

We have learned to see the world as being made up of systems: natural, created by conscious design, or emergent from the interaction of chains and networks of agents. Stable systems are those in which these structures correct themselves in response to changing conditions. Unstable situations are those where these systems have yet to form, have broken down or are operating under poor information or encumbered systems of feedback. The world of 2020 suggests many ways in which all of these conditions will be fulfilled.

The creation of stability is, of course, equivalent to the reform or (re-) creation of such systems, either through the simplicities of imposed power to through more complex feats of design. Imposition has a major negative feature, which is that the power cannot easily be removed without re-creating the conditions that led to instability. Systems design - better information, inclusive institutions, managed change - offers a way both to avoid the application of power and a means to extract an agent from a situation in which they have been forced to use it.

The allies' strategy in the Axis powers after WWII are early examples of such an approach. The need for such strategies in many areas of intervention - former Republic of Yugoslavia, Timor - are self-evident.


Those studying systems tend to classify them in two ways. First, they are subject either to negative feedback - meaning that they tend to resist change and to seek an equilibrium - or to positive feedback, which means that they tend to fly away from an initial situation once perturbed. One can visualise a negative feedback system as being like a marble in a bowl: disturbed, it gradually settles back where it began. Positive feedback systems are more like a marble on top of an inverted bowl: one tap, and it rolls down and across the table. Biological, economic and social systems abound with both types of system. For example, a seed dropped on bare fertile ground will show positive feedback: it will grow, drop more seeds and so expand its numbers. Darwin noted that a single ground orchid produced enough seeds to fill an acre in the first generation, an English county in the second and the planet in the third.

Negative feedback prevents this explosion from happening. If grass (or orchids) proliferate, then things which eat them also develop rapidly. These, in their turn, have their predators: foxes eat rabbits, rabbits eat grass. Each depend on the other, and no one can develop the way in which the solitary orchid has the potential to do.

The second type of classification is concerned with the dynamical nature of the system. Many systems can be stable or they can oscillate. The grass-rabbit-fox system described above will, in nature, often show cycles of abundance that are only weakly connected to climatic or other events. The implication is that there are situations in which the system shows one kind of dynamical property - stability - and another where the same system, with different values of the variables, shows instability. The range which the variables can occupy is known as the 'state space', and parts of it have well defined properties. One significant kind of instability is called 'deterministic chaos'. In an oscillating system, variables change - as with the business cycle - but what happens next is relatively predictable. In a chaotic system, the next value of a variable has very little that is obvious to do with the previous state. This is the situation in many complex structures, such as stock exchanges.

Fixed or predictable systems can become chaotic if the variables are forces into the appropriate part of the state space. That is, a structure - such as the world's ocean currents, its climate, the social balances in a society or a military balance - can all be thrown into wild and unpredictable states by a change in well-understood variables.

A stable world requires renewal, and perfect stasis will not create this. Dynamical societies will always have to 'push the edge' of what is possible socially, economically, technically and in their capacity to organise themselves. However, any one important change will have its impacts on the system as a whole and therefore has to be contained and managed by that system. In the industrial world, the information and forthcoming biotechnological revolutions have created just such an impact, which other parts of the system are striving to internalise. Too great a change can, however, 'break' the system so that - for example - only positive feedback runs.

As an example of this, organisms which are taken from the checks and balances of their native habitat often thrive when introduced elsewhere. In the order of 80% of the species of plants now growing 'wild' in Florida in the USA are introduced species. The zebra mussel, introduced in ship's ballast water, has dominated the US Great Lakes; whilst introduced fish have eliminated several hundreds of species of Tilapia from the Africa rift lakes. Similar things can happen in the commercial and social ecologies of the world, and we are transplanting ideas, capabilities and people as never before.


Defence analysts are inclined to think in terms of symmetry, either in the sense that a force can be directly opposed by its like, and so blocked, or that although not open to direct blocking, it can be deterred by other means. The Cold War strove to maintain symmetries and deterrence and we have come to see security issues in these terms.

The first fifty years of the C20th was marked by 'total war' between industrial economies. The Cold War froze this into superpower symmetry. In the aftermath of the Cold War, there are no obvious threats to the industrial nations which match these concerns. Are we, therefore, to enter a period of amity and grace

Aggression between nations is often irrational, in the sense of there being no war aims but to hurt the enemy. More typically, however, aggression has been intended to seize primary sources of wealth or to secure of those already held. Corn fields and their attendant serfs, mines and mills can be seized and then put to work for the conqueror. However, complex economies (and the complex web of institutions and inducements needed to make the work) simply cannot. In parallel to this, the advantages of co-operation are significant and obvious, whilst the tolerance of both an educated population and a complex economy for disruption is low. Indeed, as was evident at Suez, an ill-considered adventure can be ended by a combination of the actions of capital markets, irritated allies and internal dissent.

This segments the world into those whose interests are served by collaboration and those for whom seizure (or de facto practical annexation) offers advantage. This segmentation runs between nations and also amongst social groups within nations. Rulers can 'seize' their subjects and exploit their efforts when they are rural, ill-educated and lacking cohesion. Examples of this are everywhere evident in the developing world. In the order of 220 million people died by violence in the last century. As Figure 1 shows, by far the greatest proportion of these were killed by states which attacked their own citizens. Barbed wire and political coercion represent the most potent weapons of mass destruction.

Figure 1: Deaths from violence in the C20th

There are three generic sources of instability which we face, therefore. First, there are the conflicts between and within the nations which are poorly integrated into the network of mutual dependency that characterises the rest of the world. Seizure is still an option, coercion pays dividends and primitive institutions hold down dissent.

Second, there is instability that stems from the close-coupling of hitherto independent systems, as reviewed elsewhere, and the assault on existing natural, emergent and man-made systems, as discussed above.

Third, and not as yet discussed, there are a range of new points of friction between the wealthy world and the poor. Solutions to this are discussed elsewhere, under sustainable development. In essence, six or so billion people will have more power and economic weight than hitherto (discussed elsewhere) and they may, as a result, impinge more on the wealthy world than they have in the past. Specific issues which will concern the wealthy world are

Individually these are pinpricks, although some of the pins are in fact quite large. Taken together, however, they represent an enormous potential for instability, brought if not to the door, then at least into key areas of interest and concern.

Peace-making and stabilisation.

Interventions aimed to increase stability must create or reform systems; and they must make information available for those systems to use. In the absence of such reform, intrusions aimed to make the peace must be either permanent or ephemeral in their affects.

The scale of these interventions may be considerable. Economic, social and institutional complexity usually advance in tandem: one needs capable people and complex structures to support an advanced economy. There is reason to believe that institutional growth may be the slowest form of adaptation to change, and that this sets the rate at which economies ultimately grow, something discussed elsewhere. As many of the more unstable regimes have very primitive institutions for their level of development, creating these is a major task.

In less extreme situations, however, early intervention may assist the organic growth of these structures. There is a huge task of coaching and guidance which could be undertaken by the industrial nations and by the various organisations which they support. Some aspects of this are already in place, and the guidance of - for example - the World Bank and the IMF have had enormous direct impact. So, too, has been the result of dialogue with NGOs and companies, both which have their own valid perspectives to offer. A realistic model of development has begun to emerge, which appears to work wherever it is applied. However, there are many forces which oppose this: oligopoly, unresolved internal polarisation and corruption. (It is, incidentally, to exactly the requirements of these interests that so-called anti-capitalist demonstrators have been operating, seeking restricted access to credit with no ties, closed institutions, resistance to urbanisation and a drive for long term 'sustainable' serfdom on the land.

In more specific terms, a 'systems' approach offers intelligent foresight as to what may happen (and as to what matters.) It allows us to define the equivalent of war aims: it defines what is broken and what it would take to mend it. It defines the tools, the approach, the resources and the time frame. It may well say what cannot be done and what should not be attempted.

There are hierarchies of systems, each of which have to be adequate if the overall environment is to be stable. This suggests a piecemeal approach to peace making, for one can - for example - address regional financial instabilities independently of, for example, issues of political inclusion in a given country. This is hardly news, but it is clear that progress is made from many small steps, rather than by great leaps. These steps do, however, need to be guided, choreographed, measured against expectations.

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