Dynamics at Work in Global Society: An Interview with Hilton Root

by Hilton Root

For the educated layperson, can you explain what Dynamics Among Nations is about? 

Conventional theories of social change presume that economic growth and democracy are mutually reinforcing. If developing societies adopt trade and monetary and fiscal reforms that integrate them into the global economy, the intensified speed of economic growth will lead to a sociopolitical convergence with Western ideals, among them, good governance, freedom of expression, and individual the rights.

Global economic interconnectedness is instead creating unforeseen variations in governance arising from the local pursuit of wealth and power, and the result is increased diversity and disparity between the West and newly rising powers.

Why hasn’t the promise of a truly international society materialized? And what will happen to global stability if the core group of liberal democracies no longer constitutes the dominant global power?

Dynamics Among Nations attempts to answer these difficult questions—as well as others concerning early political development in Europe and Asia, and today’s development failures, unforeseen governance trends, and alliance shifts. It contrasts modernization theory, liberal internationalism, and other conventional theories of social change with ongoing research on evolutionary complexity to argue that the dynamics at work in global society are similar to the change processes and systems studied by scientists from fields as diverse as neurology, ecology, and physics.

With the lessons learned from this book, policymakers will see the need to link social behavior to social relationships and make policy in terms of feedback loops that arise in the context of these interconnections, and to design social learning into management processes. They will learn to optimize what is appropriate for the whole and to locate behavioral triggers within the system.

In the book you say that the shift from hierarchical structure to networked interdependence will have significant consequences for the future of global stability and for kind of norms that will govern the system. Describe some examples of this shift.

A networked global society will challenge the ability of the liberal West, to promote a consistent evolution toward best practices in governance that its economic success had made legitimate. A jump in the density of the networks that formerly shielded the hierarchical distribution of authority in global affairs—arms networks, high-end manufacturing, diplomacy, and financial flows—has occurred. Many more sources of essential inputs exist today, and many more connections from which these inputs can be obtained linking one part of the globe with any other.

As the networks become denser, power imbalances diminish, and this will encourage competition among challengers to seek the best outcomes for themselves, without concern for the systemic impacts of their behavior. As we move toward diversity, power diffuses and this transition requires a new language and new analytical tools to describe or explain the coming risks to global stability.

Assuming that policymakers adopt your analytical framework, how will this affect their decision-making processes? In what ways would they act differently?

When policymakers face complicated problems, they tend to respond by developing standard operating procedures based upon formulas of best practices. But for problems that are not just complicated, but complex, this is the wrong approach. These problems—which include everything from state-building and economic growth to consolidating democracy—exist within dynamic networks in which interacting agents continuously influence one another. A first step cannot be separated from a second, nor can a single optimal solution be identified. To understand the collective behavior of a social system, one must consider how it arises from the relationships of its constituent parts. Only then can one build a strategy that is sufficiently adaptive to attain desired outcomes in a constantly changing environment.

To reduce the range of socially subversive behaviors, those that underscore the ungovernability of developing regions, solutions must identify and target the interactive network of social relations that supports the behavior that policy seeks to modify. For example, when problems are complex, such as terrorism, ethnic discrimination, money laundering, or nepotism, policymakers must shift their focus away from the cost-benefit calculus of the individual perpetrator. They must address the entire network of social relations and feedbacks among the actors within linked social networks.

Complexity research is about how to act inclusively by understanding the interactions that give rise to the behavior of the system. We have to approach the entire landscape of interacting components as a complex system, and identify the various feedbacks and interdependencies to grasp the effects of different actions on one another, on the system they share, and on larger systems of which theirs is a part. Only then will we find the triggers linking incentives, values, and legitimacy.

What do you want policymakers to take away from this book?

Conventional approaches to global political economy in topics as diverse as institution building, collective action, or rule enforcement call for policymakers to obtain objective measures to identify the optimal solution Social scientists have responded by indexing particular policies or institutions to the performance of the economy. However, when problems are complex, filling gaps of missing information may not suffice, an optimal solution may not even exist, and suboptimal solutions, once selected, may persist for long periods of time.

We know that large markets are more efficient than small ones, but increasing the size of the market does not necessarily produce a convergence to optimal forms, nor will greater competition generate an infinite supply of interchangeable best-practice solutions or products. The conundrum that policymakers face is that a larger global marketplace will sustain many suboptimal adaptations, providing niches for nations that are not adapted to the protocol of ether market liberalism or democracy. This is the same conundrum that nature faces in biological evolution: many organisms that have been the most robust and the most tenacious are among the least complex. Biological competition does not require survival of only the fully adapted species. The optimal strategy for evolution is not the production of a single optimized, fully efficient species; it requires only that an organism dominate its niche.

About the Author

Hilton Root is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and Visiting Senior Research Professor at King’s College London. He is the author of Dynamics among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States, MIT Press, 2013. http://www.dynamicsamongnations.com

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