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An Examination of the Applicability of Complex Systems Theory to Policy Making

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Linearity is the unitary view, the root metaphor, of Western thinking. Westerners have created stability and understanding through the metaphor of the world as a giant, clockwork machine governed by linear relationships. National leaders and diplomats often react to problems, crises, and negotiations with a linear mind set. This linear view usually manifests itself in the unstated assumptions underlying courses of action chosen by policy makers -- courses of action that often assume there is a direct link between means and ends, that carefully calculated and precisely applied actions will lead to equally precise political outcomes, or that what worked before will work again. Even though policy makers recognize the inherent complexities of their craft, they often fall back upon a linear mind set, because they have not been given an alternative. This paper examines the possibility of creating such an alternative mind set an analytical framework based on an understanding of nonlinearity and complex systems theory. To examine the utility of a nonlinear mind set and complex systems framework, the lessons of complex systems theory are used in a comparative case study. The author examines the decision making used in the Cuban missile crisis and the decision by the United States to apply the same approach, graduated pressure, during the Vietnam War. Complex systems theory highlights the errors made by U.S. policy makers in using the Cuban model in forming policy for Vietnam. The actions of complex adaptive systems are never wholly transferable from one system to another nor from one time to another because of the qualities of self-organization and emergence, the processes of adaptation and co-evolution, and the sensitivity to initial conditions of subsequent actions. An understanding of complex systems also might have led decision makers to question the fundamental linear metaphor underlying U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia the Domino Theory.

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  • Administration and Management
  • Government and Political Science

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