William Frej, Ben Ramalingam

Paper #: 11-06-022

As evidenced by the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, and the almost daily changing terrain in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are few certainties in foreign policy. From political turmoil to climate change to natural resource scarcity to food crises, we are today facing unprecedented global challenges which carry with them dramatic risks and vulnerabilities for developed and developing countries alike.

In this article we present a number of ideas that are emerging from what we see as a quiet revolution in complexity thinking across the foreign policy apparatus. We will do so by reflecting on this growing interest in complexity science, building on the lessons emerging from the February 2011 Santa Fe Institute (SFI)-United States Agency for International Development (USAID) high level working group meeting held in Santa Fe. The article’s objectives are threefold: to explain the challenges we face in foreign policy today; to set out key ideas, insights and examples from research on complex adaptive systems that have relevance for these challenges, and to set out some key principles for policy makers, practitioners and researchers to consider going forward.

The work by SFI and others on complexity and emergence in the context of conflict, behavioral dynamics, policy making, strategy formulation and sustainable development served as a framework for these important discussions, enabling participants to explore ways to bridge the gap between foreign policy decision-making process and a more innovative, scientific approach. Changing the way that we think is the fundamental steppingstone to more innovative, relevant and appropriate approaches that are increasingly demanded across the global foreign policy apparatus.

The new lens of complexity opens a whole new realm of possibilities. While accepting uncertainty as a constraint, it also uses it as an aid for learning, enabling foreign policy agencies to reflect upon and envision a new kind of effectiveness that is more coherent, robust and resilient. As one colleague at SFI has put it, complex systems research can be an ‘engine for intuition’. As we see it, this intuition engine is a key part of what is needed for a new kind of foreign policy that is more anticipatory, adaptive, participatory and networked, and better suited to the global, interconnected challenges of the 21st century.