International Order: Balancing between order and disorder


In this article, I introduce – what I name – an ‘Order/Disorder-grid’. The OD-grid depicts a continuum from complete disorder to complete order. ‘Order’ refers to a certain level of organization (structure). A certain (level of) order is a prerequisite for regularity and continuity of social systems.

For social systems, a certain order is required to ensure regular and timely inputs essential for the fulfillment of their basic requirements and survival.

As suggested by Gell-Mann and Kauffman, for complex adaptive systems (CAS) to be viable (and in case of social systems to be able to survive), these systems must be able to (re-)position themselves on a continuum between complete disorder and complete order, and find an optimum position consistent with their requirements. Social systems must ensure certain continuity (‘structure’ and regularities) to ensure the fulfillment of their basic requirements.

The (re-)positioning of the social system on the continuum requires adaptability: The requirements of the social system itself (because of its development), and the environment (which includes its (potential) competitors)) continuously change. Too much order and/or too much disorder are detrimental to a social system.

Gell-Mann explains that in this region – where the right balance is truck between order and disorder – complex (adaptive) structures (systems) can form and evolve.

This region is sometimes also referred to as ‘At the edge of chaos’. Chaos is here used as a metaphor for disorder. To avoid confusion with chaotic dynamics – which are deterministic in nature – I will not use this terminology. Instead, I refer to this region as the viable region.

In this article, I explore this concept and apply it to the four international orders the System produced during the period 1495-1945. I introduce the OD-grid, and explore what this perspective could further reveal – and possibly explain – about the functioning of international orders and the System.


Complex adaptive systems – including living systems and social systems – can only form and evolve in system-specific viable regions. Too much order and/or too much disorder undermine a social system’s viability.

The properties of complex adaptive systems and of their environment determine the viable region’s ‘size and form’. The ‘larger’ the viable region of a complex adaptive system, the higher its ability to support itself and survive. If for example, the viable region of a social system decreases, its survival potential is negatively affected. A relationship exists between a system’s viable region and what is termed as ‘fitness’ for biological systems.

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Figure 1: This figure shows the Order/Disorder-grid and explains the meaning of the different ‘regions’ that can be distinguished.

The limitations of the viable region are dynamic. Various factors – related to the complex adaptive system itself and to its environment – determine these limitations. A viable region can be purposefully changed or manipulated by an effective – adaptive – social system, for example by adjusting itself to changing behavior of competing social systems, and/or by changing the environmental conditions it must cope with.

If a competing social system invents an innovative strategy to control vital resources for the fulfillment of its basic requirements, the system’s viable region shrinks. If the environment of a social system becomes depleted of vital resources, or is no longer able to maintain a certain steady state that is essential for the social system’s survival, the viable region of the social system also decreases. Climate change is an example of such negative condition.

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Figure 2: In this figure, I have ‘positioned’ ‘Failed states’, ‘The Soviet-Union’ and ‘Democracy’ in an OD-grid. Failed states are ‘collections’ of humans and social subsystems that lack sufficient ‘order’ (consistency and continuity) to be able to function as coherent social systems that are able to fulfill their collective basic requirements and to survive as a state. Failed states are cases of too much disorder. The Soviet-Union, on the other hand, is an example of a social system (state) that lacked adaptability, and was consequently not able to sustain the fulfillment of its basic requirements (that includes its legitimacy), and consequently collapsed. The Soviet-Union is an example of too much rigidity (order). Democracy generally seems an effective ‘mechanism’ to balance contradicting requirements (continuity (order) and change (disorder) in a society.

In this context and to avoid confusion, it is important to distinguish between two distinct ‘entities’: The System itself and ‘international orders’. The System concerns the collection of humans, communities, societies, social systems (including states), etc. and their structures, interactions and dynamics; the International System can be considered a sub- (or aspect-) system of the ‘overall’ System, that (often) specifically concerns states, and their security related issues.

International orders concern organizational arrangements (rules, institutions, etc.) – a certain order – that are imposed on states to regulate interactions between them, essential for their (collective) survival.

This article concerns ‘international orders’.

During the period 1495-1945, the System produced a so-called finite-time singularity dynamic that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles. Each cycle consisted of a relatively stable period – when an international order was ‘in place’ – followed by a systemic war, when the System ‘upgraded’ – adjusted – its (overdue) order to changed conditions. I consider the connectivity of the System – a function of population size – the underlying ‘driver’ (control parameter) of the System. The connectivity of the System determines its ‘pace of life’, including the spreading speed of information (5), (6), (7), (8) and tensions, as well as several other properties of the System, I will discuss later in this paper.

The research also shows that the connectivity of the so-called ‘issue network’ (the network of issues and accompanying tensions between states, that typically evolves during the life-span of international orders), determines the System’s ability to release tensions, and regulate (solve) issues between states by means of non-systemic wars.

During the life span of all four successive international orders – during the period 1495-1945 – the life-cycles of these orders developed according to a similar pattern: Following the implementation of an ‘upgraded’ international order (typically achieved by means of systemic war), the ability of the international order to release tensions (and thus to solve issues) was initially sufficient, however, once a ‘Tipping Point’ was reached’, this ability (to release tensions and solve issues) decreased, and instead of being released and solved, tensions and (unsolved) issues accumulated in the System until the moment the issue network (consisting of so-called ‘vulnerable issue clusters’) percolated the System, caused the System to become critical and to produce a systemic war in response (to again upgrade the international order).


The adaptability of international orders can be mapped in the OD-grid. To map this path, I used the international order’s ability to regulate tensions and solve issues as a measure of its adaptability. My research shows that the ability of an international order to release tensions and solve issues (increasingly) decreased once the Tipping Point of the international order (relatively stable period) was reached. From that point onward, the international order became increasingly dysfunctional. This typical dynamic I attribute to the international order’s inability to adjust itself to the increasing connectedness of the issue network that was forming (the network of issues, tensions, and states that contribute to these issues), and it could no longer (sufficiently) regulate.

In the end, it is this inability – lack of adaptability – that causes the System to become critical, and the international order to collapse.

Below figure shows the path of an international order from its inception (following a systemic war) to its eventual collapse (the next systemic war).

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Figure 3: This figure depicts the path of an international order during (one of the four) war cycles the System produced during the period 1495-1945. For further explanation see table 1.

OD, table 1

Table 1: In this overview, I explain figure 3: The path of an international order on the OD-grid.

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Figure 4: In this figure, the OD-grid – and the typical pattern international orders follow in this grid – is related to the phases that can be distinguished in the development of a war cycle (right side of the figure).

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Figure 5: Qualification of the levels of adaptability of international orders during their typical life-cycles.

I assume – as I explain later – that the connectivity of the System – which determines its pace of life, including the spreading of information and tensions – ‘controls’ the path of an international order in the OD-grid. It is the connectivity of (in particular) the issue network that determines if tensions can be (sufficiently) released and issues between states be solved.

The path of the System in the OD-grid during a war cycle, in fact describes the performance – the adaptability – of the international order that is in place.


In this chapter I discuss several tentative observations.

(1) The adaptability of an international order – and its functionality – are determined by the connectivity of the issue network.

The patterns in the war dynamics of the four war cycles that accompanied the finite-time singularity dynamic (1495-1945) can be used as a measure for the (lack of) adaptability of the international orders that were in place during the (four) relatively stable periods.

In all (four) cases, the lack of adaptation eventually resulted in the collapse of the international order that was in place, the System to become critical, and to produce a systemic war to implement an upgraded order.

Connectivity of the issue network determines the international order’s adaptability. The connectivity of the issue network determines the ‘size’ of the viable region of an international order.

(2) It is our collective (human) urge to survive that causes the collapse of an international order, but also the eventual end of the systemic war that follows.

At a certain point during the life-cycle of an international order, too much rigidity (which is a symptom of a lack of adaptability) results in the accumulation of issues and tensions (a symptom of a dysfunctional international order), which increasingly endangers the collective fulfillment of basic requirements – and consequently the survival – of social systems that make up the System. At a certain point, this condition triggers an international order’s collapse, and a systemic war to re-establish an upgraded order.

During systemic wars disorder reigns but is held in check by the continued need of humans and social systems to fulfill their basic requirements. In both cases, when there is too much order (to ensure a functioning international order) and too much disorder (during systemic war), the (collective) human urge to survive ensures the System will ‘find’ a new position in the viable region of the OD-grid.

The (collective) urge to survive constitutes the core of the self-regulatory capacity of the System, of which the finite-time singularity accompanied by four accelerating war cycles – and four successive international orders – are a manifestation. (During the period 1495-1945 – during the unfolding of the finite-time singularity dynamic – systemic war and collective survival in fact were two sides of the same coin).

(3) Connectivity of the System, and of the issue- network determine its main properties.

Connectivity of the System (main driver is population size) and of the issue network (main driver is rivalry between states, basic driver also is population size) determine the pace of life of the System, the System’s robustness and resilience, and of the adaptability of international orders.

Adaptability and the System’s ‘robustness’ and ‘resilience’ are related, but different concepts.

Robustness of the System refers to an international order’s ability to absorb ‘events’ (incidents, issues) without producing non-systemic release events (releases of tensions by means of non-systemic wars).

Resilience refers to the System’s ability to maintain itself within a certain stability domain (‘international order’).

During the unfolding of the finite-time singularity dynamic (1495-1945), the robustness of successive international orders increased to an ‘absolute’ (maximal) level (measured by the (decreasing) number of non-systemic wars and the non-systemic war frequency of successive international orders), while the System’s resilience decreased to ‘null’ (measured by the life-spans of successive international orders).