The Eurasian Union and Complex Systems Theory

Author: Leonid Savin

Translator: Jafe Arnold

Ideology and the political sciences as a whole are directly tied to the scientific paradigm prevailing in society. In its time, Cartesian logic influenced political processes in European countries just as the principles and methods of warfare (the continuation of politics in its extreme from according to Clausewitz) and diplomacy changed following new scientific discoveries. Religious worldview is also directly linked to political designs. European colonists in Latin America attempted to build “heaven on earth” just as the Jesuits projected their vision of the world onto Indian society not only in terms of ethics and behavior, but also in urban planning and territorial management. In the 20th century, the most striking example of the influence of religious ideas on politics was the establishment of the state of Israel and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The 20th century is also well known for new discoveries in science. Albert Einstein shifted understandings of the nature of physics and Ilya Prigogine reminded the world of chaos in academic terms. The theories of “superstring”, self-organizing criticality, nonlinear geometry, epistemological anarchism, dissipative structures, and complex thinking and others all left their mark not only on natural but also political sciences.

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American diplomat Steven Mann appealed to new fields in physics to explain the nature of ongoing political processes. Drawing on examples from different spheres of research, he showed that the self-dissolution of the USSR reminds one of how a pile of wet sand can crumble once the moisture (for the USSR this was ideology) ceases to play a binding role following evaporation. Unlike his colleagues who were concerned with the collapse of world’s second superpower for the sake of the imbalance in the system of global security as a whole, Mann kept his cool and, as he wrote in his article “Chaos Theory and Strategic Thinking”, after the elements of a system disintegrate, they soon inevitably fall back into place. In the same publication, he compared the state to a computer and ideology to a virus which can be applied as an instrument in capturing a territory without any material damage. In the case of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy was supposed to fill the void of the former ideology after regime change and impose new values which would aid the former Soviet countries in pooling together their material resources and helping citizens transform into the obedient consumers and staff personnel of the new “computer” system. As we know, such a mechanism was introduced into the post-Soviet space and led to disastrous consequences.

But if new scientific discoveries explaining the nature of natural processes are applicable to describing political disturbances, then why can’t we apply them to contemporary geopolitical dynamics and integration processes? After all, Western militaries have long since been considering non-linear thinking, holist theories, and various academic schools and striven to apply them in conflict simulations, combat tactics, and strategy. It might as well be that the philosophical ideas of post-modernity (such as the rhizomatic existence and chaosmos theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) as well as more precise sciences preferring complex formulas and mathematical calculations will be sufficiently applicable in modeling new superstate entities, one of which is none other than the project for the Eurasian Union.

Such a term as “complex systems” utilized in modern science will come to be quite suitable for such a new formation. In addition, the presence of numerous actors associated with both the internal politics of this system and international relations compel us to appeal to yet another well-established designation, that of nonlinear dynamics.

Lets us see how a complex system operates in, at first glance, unpredictable conditions from the point of view of the new scientific paradigm the authors of which have long since been busy with such a trajectory. It is possible that such a theory will help us to predict the formation and development of the Eurasian Union as well as to avoid various mistakes in the future and circumvent diplomatic traps set by this project’s opponents on the chessboard of global geopolitics. Of course, it is difficult to limit ourselves to just one or another new discovery. Bearing this in mind, let us being with the concepts of systems theory. One of the pioneers of this field was Lars Skyttner, whose monograph General Systems Theory: Ideas and Applications served as the basis for determining the very laws of a systems’ functioning. There are fifteen such rules.

1. The second law of thermodynamics. Although Skyttner refers to the redistribution of heat between bodies within a closed system, according to a number of authors this law is applicable to complex systems which are fundamentally open.

2. The law of complementarity. In the context of Eurasianism, Lev Gumilev developed the laws of complementarity between peoples. In systems theory, this law appears as the following: any two projections or system models allow one to acquire knowledge about one of the systems, as two systems are by no means fully independent or compatible. Accordingly, Paul Feyerabend and Nicholas Maxwell’s ideas on the existence of competing and alternative theories possess no less of a convincing base of evidence. Undoubtedly, the Eurasian Union is a project subject to numerous descriptions, sometimes even contradictory ones.

3. Holism. According to Skyttner, a system is composed of holistic properties which do not manifest themselves in any of its individual parts or interactions, while its individual parts consist of wholes which do not necessary appear in the system as a whole. In our case, the Eurasian Union is represented only partly by its system as a whole. The numerous details of which it consists escape from view. For example, the Eurasian space is made up of a great mass of different ethni and language groups which inhabit it. However, for one reason or another not all of the nationalities can make decisions pertaining to the supranational, international formation and, of course, not all languages can claim to be recognized as official languages of the union. Something similar can be said about the legal aspects of the union. Traditional laws and religion strongly influence a number of regions while in others they are totally absent. Moreover, the principle of holism leads to the necessity of interdisciplinary studies which reject the narrowness of “specializations” that are often insufficient for studying complex processes.

4. The “darkness” concept states that a system cannot be entirely known inside and out. Firstly, a given system’s elements themselves cannot be totally conscious of themselves and, of course, each one will be responsible for the information available to it in political processes. The armed forces of the US have attempted to solve this problem by means of establishing a global information network and network-centric foundations for combat operations in which the rapid exchange of information between each and every unit is supposed to establish situational awareness. On the tactical level, this is has been partially solved, but on the strategic and global levels such a task is still far from being completed. The deployment of new US bases and installations is partly explained by Washington’s desire to achieve informational superiority for controlling enemies and allies. However, due to fundamental disagreements on this matter by other states and the differences between political cultures, full spectrum dominance is unlikely to be feasible even by means of the US’ military strength. In connection with the darkness principle, the constant complaints of Western politicians as to the unpredictable behavior of the Russian leadership should also be noted. It is likely that these critics, from whose mouths such remarks are heard, have not yet matured enough to understand complex systems theory. After all, no-one  would deny that Russia is indeed a complex country in the broadest sense of this word.

5. The “80-20” principle, according to which the behavior of a system is formed 20% by its elements, while the remaining 80% is fulfilled by the stabilizing functions of the system, i.e., a kind of protective service. This concept in fact confirms the well-known theory that the minority is always behind both the establishment and death of states. The remaining masses are led by this simple minority (the “passionaries” according to Gumilev). This principle appears to be fairly clear. It is possible that mathematical modeling could contribute to an adequate allocation of resources (both human and material) in the creation of the Eurasian Union.

6. William Ashby, who deals with questions of cybernetics, i.e., control, was involved in the formulation of the law of requisite variety. According to this law, the variety of elements governing a system should be no less than the variety of perturbations input into the system. In other words, the greater the diversity of a system’s possible operations, the easier it will be to deal with possible deviations. Although this law is quite straightforward, some actions of the current leadership [of the Eurasian Union] display quite an inability to think in complex categories. Perhaps the very principle of democracy, with voter accountability and the need for a simple language and definite unification of terminology, is necessary in order to describe various operations. However, for such a project as the Eurasian Union, even in its initial format, quite a large number of alternative solutions for this or that issue will be necessary along with operational creativity. Undoubtedly, this involves the presence of this project’s detractors who see it as a serious rival and future opponent in the conduct of global affairs. It can be predicted in advance that these detractors will attempt to create a maximum number of obstacles which will manifest themselves in foreign policy as well as within the nucleus of the Eurasian Union. Therefore, it is necessary to be prepared for a great variety of perturbations in advance.

7. The principle of hierarchy. The word hierarchy immediately brings to mind either the pyramid of layered categories relevant to the agrarian period of human history, or the layers of political and bureaucratic ladders that reflect the principle of a state’s functioning in the industrial era. In the case of the Eurasian Union, however, such hierarchies are based on natural phenomena and consist of several integrated systems on each level. Thus, in complex systems hierarchy represents itself as a rather complex process instead of a single structure consisting of separated blocks. An example of this in international relations is presented by supra-state structures which need their own managerial language differing from the model used in the states themselves. Something similar to a new language that should qualitatively overcome existing ones must be developed for the Eurasian Union.

8. Modularity. Any system is divided into a certain number of modules. Researchers have noted that the spontaneous emergence of modular organization is peculiar to critical networks. The presence of such modules produces a system in which so-called “walls of resistance” appear which impede the passage of signals. This resistance can be posed by parties, bureaucratic officials, or the specific interests of regional or national elites. The Armenian political scientist Hrachya Arzumanyan noted in his studies on complex systems and contemporary security that modules are horizontal structures while hierarchies (as mentioned above) are vertical structures in complex systems which help one to better understand and instrumentally use a system, i.e., manage it.

9. Redundancy of resources. Such a requirement is needed for ensuring stability under circumstances of disturbances as discussed in the description of the law of requisite variety and the 80-20 principle. It should also be noted that an important condition of the information age is that supplementary channels of communication are needed for the obtainment of proper information and its robust protection. Information leaks or the intentional incorrect interpretation of information can be used to destabilize a system from within.

10. The principle of “large density flow” is also connected with the previous point. If the flow of resources through a system is large enough, then more resources will be available for coping with disturbances. This all seems quite simple, but in addition to the tasks of ensuring the stability of a system, the questions of quantum leap, development, and evolution are might also arise, i.e., those societal imperatives for the realization of qualified policies and new achievements in science and technology.

11. Lars Skyttner’s  principle of sub-optimization is defined in the following way: even if all subsystems are individually designed to operate at maximum efficiency, this does not mean that the system as a whole will operate at the same efficiency. Vice versa, it is possible to develop the most effective model for a whole system, but its individual elements might not live up to such. This brings to mind certain thoughts associated with the unification and standardization of administrative decisions and processes. According to this principle, it follows that there is no single organization or collective which will be effective at all levels of a hierarchy. Hence the conclusion can be drawn that adequate staffing and proper organization is necessary for integration processes. Criticizing officials is totally appropriate especially with the amendment to Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of the rotation of elites and its allogenic origin suggested by sociologists.

12. The next principle, which also bears relevance to the previous one, refers to the redundancy of potential control. In order to achieve a desired approach, it is necessary to possess a sufficiently thorough understanding of a system. But here a problem arises. If complex systems theory takes into account difficulties arising from the description of a model, then for political processes both in Russia and the CIS countries, the potential for effective action is clearly lacking. The increasingly pronounced dichotomy between the top and the bottom, dissatisfaction in society, and the Center’s misunderstanding of the situation prevailing in the regions should serve as a serious warning for those dealing with issues of integration.

13. The principle of causal negative feedback and positive feedback, which is also a staple of physics, is linked to the equilibrium of systems. With the presence of negative feedback, the equalized state of a system remains invariant to a wide range of initial conditions. Lorenz’s strange attractor also fits the description of this principle. Positive feedback produces the opposite effects. This phenomenon is also called the law of creativity since the consideration of a social system depends on examining different results from all groups at once with the most similar initial parameters possible.

14. The principle of relaxation deals with the following the following: if the relaxation time of a system is less than the average time between disturbances, then a system is likely to be stable. This is directly relatable to integration processes seeing as how they mean the rearrangement of economic, legal, political, and social mechanisms. If this re-organization goes too fast, then it will fail to adapt to and “digest” previous impacts. Of course, the sheer overlay of impacts creates uncertainty as to which decisions should be taken to arrive at certain results. In light of the modernization of society’s requirement of ruling elites, it would be fully logical to think about just how many reforms are good, how they are presented, and how long the “breather” should be between reforms so that unfortunate consequences in the style of “Perestroika-2” are not encountered.

15. The principle of spotting is a quite interesting postulate proposed by Skyttner which says that systems constructed on restrictive rules, where what is permissible and what is not are specified in advance, are less stabile than systems which develop randomly. At first glance, this appears to be a quite paradoxical idea. After all, the collapse of the USSR and similar experiences show that rigid, inflexible systems fall apart rather than chaotic ones. This is due to the change in the external environment of a system which drives the system to spend too many resources on following its single, pre-planned model of approach. This is rendered even more difficult when external players understand this and contribute to it from the outside. North Korea is perhaps the most exemplary such political model. The absence of strong dynamics in contrast to a rapidly changing context is particularly evident in this example. But in Russia and, more broadly, the countries potentially relatable to the Eurasian Union, the opposite is happening. Actions which might be contrary to accepted norms can often be directed towards the survival of a system and its effective functions. Of course, such a thesis is not an excuse for inconsistencies in foreign policy or justification for the efforts of oligarchical clans in the countries of the future Eurasian Union to defend their narrow self-interests veiled under integration.

We have briefly described the fundamental principles proposed for complex systems by Lars Skyttner. Yet there are still a number of attributes. In their time on the basis of interdisciplinary studies, scholars at the Santa Fe Institute developed methods for controlling complex, adaptive systems and other definitions. For example, the issue of emergencies inherent to the phenomena which we have discussed, albeit in regards to emergent states, was first discussed and described by them in examining the political processes which collapsed the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. At that time, the big players in Europe preferred to balance issues using suppressive methods against the disturbances which arose in newly-forming states.

The contemporary, no less active processes taking place on the periphery of Russia and at other points of the planet also hint towards paradigmatic geopolitical developments. But if earlier this appeared as a threat to nation-states, then today the idea of nation-state has sunk into oblivion and modern science even possesses an explanation for these processes. Balancing between order and chaos, which necessarily arise out of the properties of complex systems, and the pluralistic and non-linear thinking characteristic of their descriptions will be useful not only for explaining the changes already underway, but will also aid in designing the new reality of the Eurasian Union. The main task is choosing the right equivalents between current geopolitical perturbations and the theories of complex adaptive systems. This is at least totally possible on a theoretical level, and as an experiment it could be extremely useful for forecasting and modeling integration processes and possible threats against them.


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