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.
What is the relationship between videogames and violence? Popular Science, reviewing a new psychology report, noted the obvious: it's inderminate. There are two camps of researchers, neither of which can collect enough conclusive evidence to provide strong confirmation for their hypotheses. It's also unsurprising. Human behavior is complex and messy, and questions of measurement, causation, and inference are difficult to sort out. In a bid for greater "policy relevance," researchers recklessly extrapolated beyond their data or failed to note conflicts and limitations. The media only reported on sensational research. And not all of the research was produced under a sufficiently objective rubric.
But this problem is by no means unique to video games. This month's International Organization published two studies on the benefits (or lack theorof) of nuclear superiority with diametrically opposite conclusions. As Daniel Nexon argues, this poses an analytical problem for the policymaker. Here we have two articles that were judged to be of sufficient quality to be published in a top-flight journal, with completely different conclusions. Nuclear coercion, like the sources of violence, is a fundamentally messy and multicausal subject.
Even if we can come to a general agreement as to which confluence of factors is important, as Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman did for the use of airpower in Kosovo, we still face a fundamental problem of how to make policy tradeoffs. And this, of course, still presumes that we agree about the proper weighting of the factors. Whether airpower, the threat of ground forces, or any of the other defeat mechanisms Byman and Waxman specify should be regarded as necessary or sufficient conditions is a question that is unlikely to be resolved without a substantial degree of deep historical investigation. Kosovo happened close to fourteen years ago, and authors still argue about the causes of World War I. And I'm not going to even bring up the Surge because it will likely be impossible to have an intelligent conversation about it for a very long time. Likewise, Joshua Foust has often written sharp pieces about the data problems that hold back robust study of targeted killings in Pakistan.
So we're back to the beginning: videogames. Public policy is always mostly normative choice, but indecisive science tends to highlight policy's subjective foundations. So in regards to videogames and violence, the following questions come to mind. What level of (un)certainty are policymakers willing to accept in making decisions to infringe on the freedom and choice of others? What level of potential harm do policymakers believe would justify such a decision? Should the infringement be cautious or maximal? Finally, would the government respond by heavily restricting the product known to contribute to the behavior, act primarily on other environmental variables that interact to produce the undesired behavior, or both? These are all choices that can be informed by science but not dictated by it. And in this situation the degree to which the choice can even be "informed" is fairly contentious.
As this blog more or less explicitly and implicitly suggests, the same issues involved in the videogame dispute are also true of national security policy and their interaction with political science. That's why national security professionals tend to like Clausewitz so much. On War provides a general outline of the general thing called War. As with any work of gestalt theory that does not try to directly predict certain outcomes but describes a system as a whole, On War tends to be last longer than science that advances through conjectures and refutations.
We should be looking to foreground what criteria we use when thinking about the messy problem rather than necessarily believing that research can always tip the scales one way or another. Of course you don't need a lifetime of political experience to know that not much "foregrounding" goes on in domestic politics. Hence the overlap between the audience willing to take this post seriously and those it would most help is bound to be fairly low.