Egyptian Protesters Dared to Stand on the “Edge of Chaos”

Clinton Mubarak(Pictured: Secretary of State Clinton and former Egyptian President Mubarak.)

The new science of Chaos and Complexity has a laboratory experiment unfolding with breathtaking clarity before our eyes in Tahrir Square. This science, and its interface with peace-building and diplomacy, carries an explanation for a way of thinking about the events in Egypt that are likely to spread to the wider Arab world.

What if inside the White House Situation Room, with President Obama and the State Department facing a hyper-speed revolution in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s advisors had sat together examining fractal structures, nonlinear dynamical systems, and models of self-organization and self-organized criticality? “WHAT”? you say.

What we have been watching on our television and computer screens is an emerging condition of self-organization by the protesters in Tahrir Square. The new conditions are unstable and fragile, complexity science tells us, because they are at “the edge of chaos,” and if diplomacy is not skillful in the coming days and weeks, all may yet be lost in the abyss of violence. When the Egyptian revolutionaries needed our unconditional support, the Administration played an old diplomatic game of deliberate ambiguity, missing an opportunity to make us look morally decisive to the Arab world. After Mubarak’s resignation, Obama sent a carefully crafted message that signaled diplomacy as usual underneath the soaring language.

Complexity science is often called the science of Emergence. Anderson Cooper and CNN and Aljazeera and Facebook and Twitter got it right, because both the old media and the new social media went with the flow of events and became strategic participants as well as heroes, publicly thanked by the leaders in Liberation Square. The administration sat on its hands, out-scripted by the pace of events they couldn’t predict or control.

The administration’s response to a 21st century event of profound importance to our national security is being met with 20th century diplomatic thinking. That thinking includes vigorous attempts to predict and control the outcome of events that are what mathematicians call “non-linear”—they don’t move in a straight line, they ebb and flow like water in a stream, or roll back and forth like clouds in a storm. Weather is a non-linear system—and we all know how hard it is to predict the weather even a day or two in advance.

So how on earth can we predict and control a revolution, one that ebbs and flows from one day to the next? Twentieth-century diplomacy was predicated on events that moved in a straight line, progressing from one stage to another. The world is much more complex today and demands a 21st century response to “non-linear” events like the Egyptian revolution.

Imagine the revolutionaries as kids building a tower made out of plastic chips, starting their tower and carefully adding more chips to the pile. The tower is stable for a while and growing taller, but as more chips are added (and no one is telling them what to do or how to do it — they’re figuring it out as they go along) the pile becomes unbalanced and seemingly on the verge of collapse. The tower is now a complex system at a critical juncture, because it has become larger and more variable, and the kids cannot know with certainty when and how the chips may fall.

If the foreign policy advisors were schooled in the latest thinking, they would have anticipated the revolution sooner, instead of being surprised. This wasn’t a “Black Swan,” the total surprise that Nicholas Taleb writes about in his terrific complexity book. Complexity thinking might have forged an appropriate response well ahead of time, because it opens minds to patterns that are emerging, not based on what has happened before in history, forcing analysts to use their imaginations as a tool for policymaking. Einstein encouraged this in his famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

If we apply complexity thinking to diplomatic strategy, we open our minds to a variety of scenarios, to new insights into emergent leadership and democratic structures. We include stories of possible, even probable futures previously unimaginable. We embrace the uncertainty of a spontaneous revolution, rather than trying to predict or control it. We can’t know how the chips will fall. Developing creative and imaginative scenarios about an unknowable future, we can anticipate those moments of “self-organized criticality” when our diplomatic interventions can contribute to the emergence of a transition to democratic governance and the women who will lead it.

There is no “road ahead,” as the President stated today. There is instead a shifting landscape of possibility, and if the administration is as smart as Anderson Cooper, they will take the time to explore it.

Merle Lefkoff is President of Ars Publica in Santa Fe, New Mexico, applying the science of complexity to the art of peace building and diplomacy.