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The Story of this Blog… From International Relations to Evolution to Intelligence

Readers of this blog may have noted an apparent disconnect between the name denoting evolutionary perspectives on the international system and the heavy emphasis on intelligence analysis.  Since starting this blog two years ago, I have been surprised by the shift in emphasis although the path connecting my interest in evolutionary theory, agent-based modeling and intelligence is a rather easy process to trace.  I figured this would be a good time to document this path and explain how an initial commitment to complexity science and international relations theory has emphasized one of the least studied and examined parts of the field.

I do believe that the international system is best characterized as a complex adaptive system, with activities occurring at multiple scales—whether we choose to think of those scales spatially, temporally, with respect to institutions of governance, or otherwise.  This simple statement underscores why I have found much of international relations (IR) tedious and misfocused, e.g. it is impossible to seriously think that international behavior is unaffected by the domestic politics and historical circumstances of states, or that states are exclusively the best or most fundamental unit of analysis when thinking about the complexities of war, trade, politics, system structure, culture, civilization, etc.  For example, given a long interest and history in studying armed conflict, I find the notion of the armed group, or what William McNeill (The Pursuit of Power) regarded as a macroparasite (men who preyed on other men) as a far more interesting and illuminating approach to thinking about the international system because it endogenizes the simultaneous struggle for autonomy and dominance within and between states, leaves neither as “settled” in the realm of politics and power, and admits for the coevolution of domestic and international politics as so clearly articulated by Bobbitt (The Shield of Achilles).  Indeed, with the passage of time, I increasingly see the core assumptions of international relations regarding the separation of international from domestic politics as empirically untenable and only justifiable based on the desire to establish disciplinary independence from political science and even more broadly, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc.  While I don’t care much for this approach, I am nevertheless sympathetic to the construction and assessment of artificial systems that diminish or reduce the presence of some factors in order understand the contributions of others.  For now, I think it will suffice to say that studying international interactions in the absence of domestic politics should be the basis of an interesting class of models, but not an academic discipline with the practical aspirations of advising policy-makers, strategy, or statecraft.

By imagining the international system as the persistent interaction between armed groups (and unarmed groups like civilian populations, commercial organizations that may not have access to, or employ coercive power, etc.) the ways in which these groups adapt to one another’s choices and actions becomes the essential driver of the system’s dynamics.  Decisions to use force, reframe from its use, form alliances, invest in new military capabilities, eschew lines of research and investment for domestic political, social, economic, or ethical considerations, etc. are both the inputs and outputs into the international system.  It is at this point, where I believe intelligence enters the picture in a profound way.

Strategic interaction, the interdependence of agents’ choices and actions, and feedback are all hallmarks of a complex adaptive or evolutionary system.  What distinguishes social systems, particularly the international system from biological ones more broadly, however, is that the actors are not blindly or randomly making choices or innovating and allowing the exogenous selection pressures to determine fortunate from unfortunate outcomes.  Instead, each agent is guessing (smartly or foolishly) as to what the consequences of their decisions might be, using whatever heuristics they have at their disposal.  Thus, the search for solutions to strategic problems are not arrived at randomly, but are examined in a satisficing sequence.  Here then, intelligence becomes a critical feature of the decision-maker’s (and decision-making organizations) process for identifying threats, opportunities, and evaluations of options.  Intelligence is an essential player in the story of how actors perceive and adapt to their environments and is therefore a necessary component of understanding the how the international systems works.  After all, it seems foolish to sit in judgment of states, terrorist groups, insurgent movements, transnational social movements, military organizations, etc. without understanding what they knew or believed about others and themselves.

If this seems like an odd or difficult position to accept, a simple test should suffice – try and build an agent-based model without specifying what information the actors possess and how they acquire it.  The realization of just how much has been left underspecified in international relations should be painfully clear, making the need to build in intelligence capabilities for the collection and analysis of information into our theories and explanations of how the international system works obvious.

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