A simple network effect explains the typical war dynamics of the System


The United States’ military activities in and around North Korea – especially involving its THAAD-system – contribute to the increasing sensitivity of the System for a systemic response. 

In this article I explain, how the System becomes increasingly vulnerable for a systemic response, and how a network effect contributes to this development.

My research shows that during the period 1495-1945, the System produced four accelerating war cycles, and is now producing a fifth war cycle; a first war cycle at a global scale of the System.

Each war cycle has a similar life-cycle: At a certain point during the relatively stable period of the cycle (which typically precedes a systemic war), the System reaches a tipping point, when a network effect starts hindering the release of tensions and the ability of the international order to solve issues. Instead of tensions being released and issues being solved, they accumulate in the System.

The accumulating tensions and unsolved issues then push the System towards criticality. The moment the System reaches the critical point, the accumulated tensions – energy – are released and used to upgrade the order. The upgraded order enables a new relatively stable period that makes further (population) growth and development possible.

It is important to notice: Without the network effect – the mechanism that is responsible for the accumulation of tensions and issues and for the eventual critical condition of the System – systemic wars and upgrades of the order cannot occur.

In this article, I explain how the network effect works and why the network effect (increasingly) hinders the release of tensions by means of non-systemic wars. The network effect in fact stabilises states in the System, while at the same time tensions continue to increase. This effect can also be observed in the war dynamics of the current war cycle.

In my research, I distinguish two networks, which are related: a network consisting of individual humans, groups, communities, and states, and a network of issues, of which states are integral parts. Both networks have (typical) network characteristics: a certain connectivity, a certain structure and number of nodes, etc. The structure of networks determines their dynamics.

The network effect concerns the issue-network.

States and issues in the System are closely related. A certain category of issues is directly or indirectly related to the security of states. Issues evolve, and can over time become security issues. The issue-network is a dynamic – constantly evolving – network, states must cope with.

The wars I analysed in my research concern Great Power wars, inter-state wars that involve at least one Great Power (based on Levy’s dataset).

Inter-state wars (Great Power wars are inter-state wars) require deliberate decisions of states to ‘go to war’, or ‘not go to war’: War decisions are high-stake decisions that involve vital interests and possibly the survival of states. During these type of wars, ‘armies’ act as ‘representatives’ of states. Because of the scale of the war-activities, these wars require, preparation, organisation, mobilisation, and planning and control, etc.

However, despite that complicated factors and conditions are taken into consideration regarding these war decisions, these decisions ultimately are ‘just’ binary decisions: A state decides ‘yes or no’ to go to war.

For that reason, states can also be considered ‘binary switches’, and the issue-network, a network of these binary switches. Each switch (state) can be represented by an On/Off-switch in relation to a particular issue.

Presently, for the United States, the Syria-switch is ‘On’, while the North-Korea switch is still ‘Off’. Relevant questions are how a switch to ‘On’ of the United States regarding North-Korea affects the dynamics of the network of issues/switches, and if such a decision could  trigger a ‘On’ decision of (for example) China.

The network of binary war switches, is a dynamic network.

War is a social activity, in the sense that it is related to the behaviour of other states. Regarding war decisions, states take the (war) decisions of other states into consideration: They constantly monitor other states. Survival in an anarchistic system requires vigilance.

I assume that states explicitly or implicitly use thresholds which determine when they switch to ‘On’ (go to war), or ‘Off’ (not go to war, stop a war), regarding an issue.

With an example, based on a simplified scenarios, I explain the working of the network effect.

I assume that state A decides to go to war – to switch the war-switch to ‘On’ – when four out of ten signals state A considers relevant in respect to the issue also switch to positive/On (for example war decisions of other states). In this example, the decision threshold of state A is 0.4.

To explain the network effect, I assume the issue-network only consist of states (and not of other factors/conditions). Assuming: (1) a decision threshold of 0.4 of state A regarding a particular issue, (2) ten states (excluding state A) are connected to the issue, and (3) three of these states are already ‘switched On’, the moment an additional – a fourth – state switches to war, state A will follow: The fraction of states positive to war, reaches the decision threshold (0.4) of state A: 0.3 becomes 0.4 and triggers state A.

In case the issue-network is more connected (there are more issues and/or the issues as such have become more connected), the dynamic of the network of war-switches is different.

Given the same decision threshold of 0.4 for state A, but a not a connectivity of ten but of 100 (excluding state A); the moment an additional state switches to war, when the actual fraction of states that are at war is 0.30 (as in above example), state A will not follow: For state A, the fraction of states positive to war does not reach the decision threshold (0.4): 0.3 becomes ‘just’ becomes 0.31 and does not trigger state A. The increased connectivity of state A, has made state A more stable.

This is the network effect I refer to, that is then responsible for the accumulation of tensions and issues in the System, a prerequisite for the System to become critical, produce a systemic war, and to be able to implement an upgraded order.

During the life-cycle of international orders (which are in place during relatively stable periods of war cycles), the number of issues in the System continuously grows. Increasing rivalries between states (and population growth and differentiated growth of Great Powers, which undermines the status hierarchy) are to a high degree responsible for the growth of the network of issues.

Initially – before the tipping point is reached and the network-effect ‘kicks in’ – tensions can be released and issues be solved; which happens typically by means of war in anarchistic systems.

However, once the tipping point is reached – and the network effect ‘kicks in’ – non-systemic wars and tension releases are increasingly hindered. Issues are consequently not solved.

Data-analysis shows that the current (fifth, and first global) war cycle reached its tipping point in 2011. The network effect explains the United States’ increasing unwillingness to ‘go to war’ in Libya (2011) and Syria (2011). The network of issues and wars the United States were entangled in had become too connected, to reach the decision threshold. The effect – relative importance – of ‘incoming signals’ was diminished. The United States has become since 2011 – at least in this respect – more stable.

Because tensions continue to grow and issues are not solved, they now accumulate in the System. The moment the network of issues percolates the System (form a connected cluster that spans the whole System) – as is now the case, my analysis suggests – and all states are just one step from reaching their decision thresholds – what does not seem to be the case yet, – the System has is critical, and just a single positive war decision of a state triggers a system-wide cascade of war-decisions; a systemic war is then a fact.

The question is, if the network of connected issues and clusters that now involve all Great Powers is (already) a ‘vulnerable’ – such a sensitive – cluster. If this indeed is the case, a single war decision – for example a decision of the United States to attack North Korea – will trigger a systemic response (systemic war). If this is not the case, further charging – a further increase in tensions – is required.