The absence of an American strategy for Syria does not matter


The figure shows a lithograph of M.C. Escher with the title ‘Relative’. 

Strategies of states in the System have two things in common, (1) they do not address the core issue they – we – confront, and (2) these ‘strategies’ qualify as self fulfilling prophecies. For these reasons, a lack of strategy – as is the case for the United States regarding Syria – is not problematic.

The United Nations is about preserving the status quo, not about change.

The current international order – the United Nations, the outcome of the last systemic war (The Second World War, 1939-1945)  – is increasingly obsolete, and is presently in what I call, a high connectivity regime.

During a high connectivity regime, the release of tensions (that are unavoidably produced in anarchistic systems) and the ability to solve issues between states, is increasingly hindered: Issues in the System – and tensions that accompany them – have become too connected.

The issues between for example the United States and Russia in Syria and the Ukraine and Crimea, are increasingly linked: Prestige and status of these Great Powers – and also military considerations – are increasingly at stake; and concessions are seen as weakness.

A high connectivity regime typically precedes the collapse of an international order, data-analysis shows: Instead of being released, tensions further accumulate in the System, and ‘charge’ the System for a next systemic war. This has happened four times before, during the period 1495-1945.

When the issues in the System eventually become globally connected, they form a massive so-called vulnerable cluster that spans the whole System; such a vulnerable cluster can be triggered by a small event or incident, and then causes a cascade of war activity in the System.

Because (until now), anarchistic systems lack other means than systemic war to reorganise, war becomes unavoidable.

Systemic war is a manifestation of criticality of the System. A systemic war involves all Great Powers in the System, and the System typically has a correlation length of ‘one’ during systemic wars. A correlation length of one, allows for the system-wide design and implementation of upgraded orders.

Great Powers that end ‘on top‘ during systemic wars – and consequently have a decisive say in the order that is implemented – use their ‘moment’ of power and influence to ensure that an upgraded international order especially promotes their interests.

The United States, the Soviet Union (later Russia), China, Great Britain and France, granted themselves several privileges that were embedded in the arrangements that underpin the United Nations order: for example a veto right in the Security Council of the United Nations, and a ‘legal’ right to possess nuclear capabilities, as stipulated in the ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons‘.


Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin discuss arrangements for a new global order in Yalta (February 1945). Although the privileges Great Powers grant themselves (temporarily) contribute to the stability of the new global order, they also carry the seeds of destruction of the same order in them.

The United Nations (as well as its predecessors) is about preserving the status quo, on behalf of the Great Powers that enjoy privileges. The privileges ensure that these Great Powers can ‘legally’ enforce the arrangements laid down in the international order.

Although initially, following the implementation of the newly established international order, the arrangements work relatively well – and non-systemic wars stay on average limited – it is just a matter of time, before the order becomes increasingly dysfunctional: Issues and tensions multiply, as a matter of time.

On the one hand the privileges can ensure relative stability for some time – the dominant Great Powers have dominant positions – they on the other hand, also carry the seeds for the eventual obsolescence and self-destruction of the international order. Over time, population growth and differentiated growth of states – for example – increasingly undermine the international order and its functionality.

If only five states can have a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations, should Great Britain with a population of circa 65 million, not be replaced by for example India, with a population of circa 1339 million? India already possesses nuclear capabilities, albeit designated as illegal by the privileged Great Powers.

Instead of adjusting itself to the fundamentally changed ‘condition’ of the System, and of Great Britain’s position within the System, Great Britain chose to leave the European Union – Brexit – to restore its position as a Great Power. High tensions in the System – and the fear they bring – also affect the judgment of Great Britain.

Brexit 2

Brexit also is an example how tensions in the System and fear affect judgment: Great Britain adds an insightful chapter to the book: The March of Folly.

It should not come as a surprise – despite some ritualistic bureaucratic maneuvering in the United Nations – that the United Nations lacks the ability to fundamentally align itself with the actual positions of power and influence of states in the System: the United Nations is about the status quo, and the privileged Great Powers – especially declining Great Powers like Great Britain and  France – will enforce the (by now) obsolete arrangements; for them it is a matter of self-preservation on the world stage.

Expectations – and strategies – have become self fulfilling prophecies.

The international order is increasingly in turmoil, and ‘everybody’ sees its worst predictions, fears and scenarios come true. That is not a coincidence.

Strategies of states are based on assessments of threats and opportunities, which are ‘evaluated’ from the perspective of the interets of these states.

Strategies of states have a narrow focus, a shortcoming that is further aggravated during high connectivity regimes. Emotions, not rationality now define and shape strategic objectives and strategies. This is an interactive process between states (and their citizens): I refer to this dynamic as a process of ‘interactive self fulfilling prophecies‘: States predict hostile behaviour of antagonistic states, and their own ‘anticipating’ behaviour causes these predictions to become true.

These self fulfilling prophecies serve important functions, besides making sense out of tensions and fear (a strong psychological need of humans), they also provide justification for the use of violence (military action in case of states, and terrorist attacks against civilians, in case of terrorists); which they consider necessary and unavoidable.

Humans and social systems – including states and radical communities – have a high capacity for collective self-deception. A human shortcoming that is not recognised, let alone understood.

Especially during high connectivity regimes – when tensions cannot be released and issues not be solved – expectations, including worst case scenarios and strategies that aim to address these scenarios – become self fulfilling prophecies. The international order has become zero sum – that is the interpretation of events – and the security dilemma is working at full speed.

These dynamics further contribute to the increase in tensions and the accumulation of (unsolvable) issues: The System charges and prepares itself – also psychologically – for a systemic crisis.

Conflicts, regional wars, further radicalisation, etc. all are symptoms of the high connectivity regime, and further contribute to a path towards criticality of the System. This path constitutes a war trap.

Strategies of states must address the core issue: the obsolescence of the international order. If an upgrade of the international order – the United Nations – cannot be accomplished by means of negotiation – and compromise – its collapse and a systemic crisis are unavoidable.

That the United States – or the European Union or Russia for that matter – lack a strategy regarding (for example) Syria does not matter: Whatever the ‘strategy’ is, it does not address the actual problem we together confront, and will thus be ineffective.