5.0 out of 5.0 Stars Complexity thinking that shifts the paradigms of international relations
By J. P. Massing on December 5, 2013
In ‘Dynamics Among Nations’, Professor Hilton Root convincingly challenges the propositions of the liberal international consensus and re-frames the prevailing conceptualisation of development by introducing complexity thinking to the fields of political economy and international relations.
I highly recommend this intellectually stimulating and excellently written book to decision makers, researchers and students – as well as to anyone who is interested in gaining an advanced and well-informed understanding of the complex realities of development and global policy.
Root reflects upon the role of liberal internationalism, which – since the end of the Cold War – has become the authoritative doctrine of the triumphant West’s activist foreign policy agenda prescribing ‘the rules of legitimate economic and political order’ (p. 4). Development is commonly understood in terms of modernisation theory, presuming capitalism and democracy to be a mutually reinforcing sequence of social change (p. 9).
Together, a liberal polity and an open economy are conventionally conceived of as ‘two great attractors’ that delineate a unidirectional and linear sequence of social change converging toward an equilibrated ‘global optimum’ (pp. 57, 58, 66). Accordingly, the institution of the free market is essentially seen to function as ‘the replicator of liberal values’ determining social order and making market democracy the inevitable and ultimate stage of development, as well as the prescriptive and ‘universally applicable institutional framework of good governance’ (pp. 36, 38,37, 54,75).
However, within the ‘increasingly interdependent and networked global society’ of the twenty-first century, Root sees the socioeconomic development sequence of liberal internationalism as essentially failing to account for the ‘interactive dynamics’ that shape the processes of ‘social change and economic development’ (pp. 9, 30). He refers to the unique development trajectory of Asia as just one example that refutes the idea of ‘democratic and economic convergence’ toward ‘global optimization’ (pp. 27, 57).
Complexity thinking conceives of development as an ‘emergent property’, an ‘evolutionary outcome’ of the interactions of interconnected and interdependent agents (pp. 19, 84). These interactions create internal dynamics that do not converge toward equilibrium (p. 18). Change becomes nonlinear, rather than being additive and proportional to the inputs as the institution-centric approach maintains (pp. 20, 92).
Development is ‘variety without directionality’, with outcomes emerging from the mutual interactions of continuously self-organising entities (pp. 58, 71). Not convergence – but coevolution is the key principle of change, resulting in ‘interacting dancing landscapes’ (p. 71). Coevolving actors adapt locally, rather than globally, searching to attain ‘local optima’ within distinct subsystems (pp. 41, 72). Root argues that, within ‘local fitness landscapes’, influential actors have the potential to critically transform their respective subsystem, affecting the development paths of their interconnected partners (pp. 72-73). This is illustrated by the rise of China which decisively impacts the global fitness landscapes by presenting an appealing ‘nonliberal variant of modernity’ and potentially undermining the reputedly universal standards of the ‘liberal consensus’ (pp. 5, 66, 73).
Root thus demonstrates that, due to global interdependence and interconnectivity, various strategies for survival ‘coexist and coevolve’ and that developing nations discover adaptive niches within the system that allow these countries to ‘specialize, innovate, and increase technological capacity without adopting Western norms’ (pp. 76, 84). Moreover, Root argues, the attempt to ‘transplant’ key institutions – predominantly elections and price-determined markets – in order to transform developing countries is doomed to failure: Due to the interdependence among the system’s coevolving components, the function of a single part depends upon the behaviours of the remaining components and can not be expected to remain the same if isolated and transplanted (p. 39).
The key insight of ‘Dynamics Among Nations’ is that development is not an additive or aggregate outcome but rather an ‘emergent quality’ arising from the interconnected behaviours of coevolving actors and resulting in unpredictable and nonlinear social change (pp. 20, 92). The survival strategies and development trajectories of coevolving countries – lacking a ‘global compass’ – are highly diverse as nations compete, adapt and struggle for survival ‘within a local context’ (pp. 45, 72, 83). There is no universal recipe for the complex realities of development.