“Stability,” Mister Tom? Señor, I think you mean “equilibrium,” yes no?

“Stability,” Mister Tom? Señor, I think you mean “equilibrium,” yes no?


By Matt Collins
Best Defense guest respondent

In commenting on his reading of The Information, Tom asked if the U.S. government’s stated but not always well-defined pursuit of stability was “quixotic.” I suspect that Gleick may be borrowing a page from James Miller’s “Living Systems Theory.“John McCreary, former DIA greybeard for the Joint Chiefs of Staff J-2 Office, used to drill this theory into cub analysts. Gleick is correct in that individual living things are inherently unstable and that collections of them tend towards Hobbesian anarchy.

But go another step: Living systems are “open self-organizing systems” that tend toward equilibrium to overcome this anarchy and form functioning societies. This is how mankind built the pyramids, the Sistine Chapel and the internet.

Wars disrupt such equilibriums, you say, little grasshopper? Very good. But please also to remember that like any other living system, societies adapt until a new equilibrium is formed. When the formal economy fails to deliver what a population needs, an informal economy creeps in to fill the void. When formal government structures are disrupted or wholly dismantled, other structures (tribal, familial, criminal) bubble up to take their place. This is an ugly process that involves winners and losers, with winners attempting to cement new gains and losers attempting to reassert themselves. But eventually equilibrium forms.

Of course, it may not be an equilibrium we like. Somalia has been in a state of stable anarchy for decades. The rise of al Shabab temporarily disrupted this steady state, leading to the invasion of Kenya. But after they were pushed out, it essentially returned to this state. The key question in U.S. counter-terrorism operations in places like Somalia or Pakistan is: Are these operations part of the equilibrium or disrupting it in a favorable or unfavorable way?

The “stability” that Tom mentions the United States attempting to create is a favorable equilibrium. We would like for Iraq and Afghanistan to have a functioning, elected central government with an improved economy and rule of law throughout its territorial bounds. We want these governments to be amenable to the United States and our allies and not be a host or sponsor of terrorism. But, favorable equilibrium may not be possible.

In fact, the pursuit of a favorable equilibrium may make an acceptable equilibrium more difficult. Economic development may help legitimize the central government. Or, it could empower informal actors to the detriment of the central government. While elections may be the hallmark of Western democracy, they can also entrench unresolved ethno-sectarian differences. External counter-insurgent government and military leadership are often uncomfortable deciding and explicitly stating what a merely acceptable equilibrium looks like. Creating that equilibrium is another thing entirely.

Matt Collins was one of John McCreary’s padawans as a Marine Intelligence Officer in the Joint Staff’s Iraq Office from 2005-2007. He worked a few other dirty little wars before and after. Opinions expressed are his own.

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