Sunday, September 12, 2004

The third anniversary of September 11 seems to be a fitting time to tackle the most far-reaching concept in The Pentagon's New Map, that of System Perturbations. In order to be as cogent as possible I'm dividing this post into two parts: first, what System Perturbation is according to Dr. Barnett and relevant historical examples; secondly, what are the strategic
" Rules " of System Perturbations? How do we defend against them or mitigate their effects? When and why would we inflict System Perturbations on others?


System Perturbations is an excellent example of a powerful concept of which modern society has long only been half-aware. Aspects of System Perturbations were foreshadowed by the ideas of many thinkers in diverse fields like John Maynard Keynes , Marshall McCluhan or General Billy Mitchell but no one fully grasped the strategic entirety until Dr. Barnett. In fact, if The Pentagon's New Map had been about nothing other than System Perturbations Dr. Barnett would have rendered a signal service to the National Security, Defense and Intelligence communities. The concept is really that important.

If you are habituated to thinking in terms of systemic wholes, like physicists and economists are trained to do, reading about System Perturbations will strike you as kind of a Homer Simpson " D'OH !" moment where you wonder why you didn't see that yourself. If like most people, your daily work involves seeing and thinking in terms of trees rather that forests you may have to step back a bit and reorient yourself psychologically to a larger scale and longer time frame.

Here is "System Perturbations", 9-11 being a recent dramatic example, defined and explained by Dr. Barnett in PNM (p. 260- 267 - any notation by me is bracketed in regular text):

"When the strikes unfolded on 9/11, I can remember thinking, This is it. This is what we've been thinking about all these years: a he warlike event occurring in peacetime, something so big that it forces us to rethink everything. It's the meteor that will separate the dinosaurs from the mammals in defense. It will tell us what we need to know about war within the context of everything else."

"But cannibalizing agents [ entities that creatively react and adapt to a crisis] do not become ascendant unless dramatically new rule sets are recognized as coming to the fore. When those new rule sets are recognized and given credence, we begin to understand the utility of defining system-level crises like 9/11 as something more than a gang of terrorists attacking three buildings in the United States. That " something more" is what I seek to organize in the strategic concept I call System Perturbations"

"For a System Perturbation to be triggered, people's worlds need to be turned upside down, but that can be achieved in a variety of ways, not merely blowing things up the western World watching the World Trade Center towers collapse in real time TV. People were simply shocked by the image. And we all experienced it together- by design"

[I must pause and interrupt here to suggest that " Systems " are correctly identified by Dr. Barnett as both abstract as well as physical - the military has long thought in terms of say power grids, pipelines, transmission lines, roads and the like. Economists and financiers have tended to think in terms of financial networks and transaction relationships. Historians and statesmen in terms of government structures. Dr. Barnett's insight is that all of these things, plus more including mass psychology, compose a systemic whole capable of being affected by a blow to one part. Gems like this why PNM is more than just another catchy, current events book of the month at Barnes & Noble]

"So the medium through which the vertical shock is translated into horizontal scenarios is important, with the basic rule being the denser the medium, the more rapid and profound the transmission.So all the connectivity of the Information Age and globalization is crucial in defining the extent of the system that can be perturbed."

"So the definition of System Perturbation is driven by by the Connectivity of globalization. Prior to globalization, there were earth shattering triggers as Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, the American Revolution and the invention of the steam engine that took years, decades, even centuries to play out"

[ The " speeding up" of the movement of goods, people and information toward real time - and a direct reduction of distance/space as an obstacle- is a critical change wrought by globalization]

"We really do not see a System Perturbation in the way I like to define it- with all apologies to complexity theorists- until we see globalization. So for me, the first true System Perturbations were events like the Great depression or World War II"

[ I would have a few other examples that were forerunners to Systems Perturbation in a less globalized world. The discovery of the New World rates top billing. A close second would be the explosion of the Mongols under Ghengis Khan and his immediate successors out of nowhere to conquer and disrupt five major civilizations - Sung China, India, Orthodox Kievan Rus, Persia and the Arab-Islamic world. Another would be the Black Death that fatally disrupted feudalism. ]

" The vertical shock generates an outflow of horizontal waves while cascading effects can cross sectoral boundaries, actually growing with time"

[ The " Butterfly Effect" coupled with the " Law of Unintended Consequences" - much of pages 264-267 are examples to illustrate these effects of System Perturbation]

System Perturbations is a critical idea because globalization has made societies and economies vastly more interdependent than even a generation ago. While the formal and informal barriers of the past - tariff walls, police states, taxes, customs regulations, border controls, censorship - were mostly negative, slowing economic growth and technological progress, they also acted as a " brake" on Systems Perturbations. The Soviet Union was mostly unaffected by the Great Depression and when Hitler " disconnected" Germany, rearmament, barter and autarky paved the way to a swift economic boom. Today that "brake" is gone, creating worldwide economic growth for those countries that accept the connectivity rule sets of globalization's Core states. That connected Core is also more vulnerable to the actions of terrorists determined to strike at the system's choke points with apocalyptic force. Connectivity is both the Goose that laid the Golden Egg and the Achilles heel of globalization.

In Part II. Later this week we will look at what I think are the strategic rules of System Perturbation and how we can adapt to minimize our vulnerability during the War on Terror.

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