Thomas Friedman is often the target of intense criticism for overly simplistic takes on international relations, the Middle East, business, and society. But he also should be commended when he does right, and this weekend he used his NYT column to direct his readers to a fascinating report on the interface of climate, food prices, and political instability in the Middle East. In short, weather events, food prices, and local-regional political dynamics all intersect with each other to unhinge previously solid dictatorships. Even skilled autocrats long skilled at playing the Middle Eastern game of divide-and-rule, pan-Arab nationalism, and suppression can be unhinged by interaction effects larger than any one country.
The report dovetails with longstanding work by Jack Goldstone,Peter Turchin, and others on demographic-structural causes of political disorder. How do these process act on situatons like the Arab Revolt? Anne-Marie Slaughter, in using the metaphor of "stressor," is exactly on target:
Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor”—a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.
To recognize deeper forces is to take nothing away from the brave men and women who struggled to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. It also doesn't suggest that the politics, culture, sociology of the Middle East are just the deterministic products of macroprocesses.1 But one problem with traditional explanations of political unrest is that they do not explain how a solid (yet steadily eroding) authoritarian structure suddenly dissolves. We can see the drip-drip-drip of steadily growing entropy. Yet Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, though dysfunctional, was no Zimbabwe. And guess who is still in power? Likewise, what Friedman dubbed "Hama rules" worked for the elder Assad. Assad Jr. can't seem to hold it together.
One way is to look at social and political divisions and try to predict who can win a mobilization race. Many political analysts looking at Arab states ought to have bitten Jay-Z and said "we don't believe you, you need more people," instead of believing that secular-liberal movements with thin bases of support were going to come out on top. That this was going to happen, to continue the Jay-Z metaphor, was as believable as Mobb Deep's street credibility after Hova put Prodigy on the Summer Jam screen. The other method is to look at political contagion. When enough people individually decide to disobey El Jefe, the macrosocial pattern that results collapses the regime. But why they decide is still contested.
Another way is to look at larger patterns created by the interaction of the human and natural worlds. There is a certain determinism, as John Sheldon observed, in rejecting geopolitics and other natural influences on politics out of a fear of....determinism. it's a determinsm of the kind that rejects the causal influence of the very structures that human civilization both grew with and substantially changed. The intelligence community recognizes the importance of the possible political impact of larger natural-social processes: that's precisely why they shell out the dough for Global Trends. I can't really improve on Tuchin's explanation of why the "determinism" accusation falls flat:
W]hen students of dynamical systems (or, more colourfully, ‘chaoticians’ such as Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film Jurassic Park) talk about ‘cycles’, we do not mean rigid, mechanical, clock-like movements. Cycles in the real world are chaotic, because complex systems such as human societies have many parts that are constantly moving and influencing each other.
The ability to appreciate and integrate the moving parts and how they enable Malthus to trump Mubarak is an important (and underreported) element of 21st century security policy analysis. Note that I'm probably preaching to the choir here--the website I am blogging on also hosts a center that tackles these issues.
1. A side note: though I defended political science from what I viewed as unfair attacks, I do agree that political science could use some improvement. Political science has a problem with complex causality. As Kindred Winekoff pointed out, political science (particularly international relations) falls short in recognizing that social outcomes are not interdependent of each other. This is perhaps why those inclined towards war studies and military history often find American political science frustrating. Barry Watts (full disclosure: former professor at Georgetown) skewered Robert Pape's Bombing to Win because it lacked the proper instruments to measure the full strategic effect generated by strategic bombing.
Though it's an unscientific intuition, I suspect that the policy-inclined often are frustrated with how reductionist political science can be in looking at the messy, complex real world they've observed in their own practice. This explains the popularity of pop-sci "butterflies and hurricanes" bastardizations of complexity science among policy circles. People are looking for a language, vocabulary, and knowledge base that resonates with their own experiences. This isn't to say reductionist models aren't useful---reduction is inevitable. But how much does matter for the problem you're trying to explain and how you intend to use the explanation you generate.