The international order: From mutualistic to parasitic?


Our understanding of biology, ecology, ecosystems etc. is far more advanced than our understanding of social systems. The relationship between the structure and dynamics of ecosystems is extensively researched. The use of the scientific method by these disciplines explains their valuable insights and their progress.

Biology, ecology and ecosystem theory also offer interesting insights and concepts to improve our understanding of social systems.

Symbiosis – and mutualism, commensalism and parasitism – are such concepts.

Symbiosis is “any type of a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms, be it mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic. The organisms may be of the same or of different species”.

In case of a mutualistic relationship two species (or two individuals of the same species) both have a beneficial relationship; commensalism is a class of relationships between two organisms where one organism benefits from the other without affecting it, and in case of parasitism there is a non-mutual relationship between species (or two individuals of the same species), where one species, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host.

The relationship between humans, between humans and social systems, and between social systems – including states in the System – can also be (more or less) mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic.

Because of the interconnectedness and interdependence of states – in various domains, at various levels – the relationship between states is however difficult to qualify. When does mutualism end and parasitism begin?

Are European members of NATO parasitic, and is the United States the ‘host’ (providing ‘nourishment’), as Trump suggests?

Or are – as can also be argued – the United States’ dominance in the current international order and its prosperity, based on its exploitation of the beneficial relationships it entertains with these European NATO-members?


A matter of perspective:

Is Trump feeding NATO or is the rest of the world feeding the United States?


Apart from these question – that have become increasingly prominent lately – the concept of symbiosis offers an useful ‘metaphor’ to better (?) understand the international order and its life cycle.

It can be argued that for the international order to have a certain functionality, stability and legitimacy, the order must have – for the states in the System – a certain ‘level’ of (perceived) mutualism, meaning that relationships must be mutually beneficial (at least to a degree); states must be ‘adapted’ to each other’s needs (at least to a degree).

Following a systemic war and the implementation of an upgraded international order, the level of mutualism is adequate, it can be argued.

However, it is just a matter of time before the (perceived) level of mutualism is undermined and decreases.

Several (related) factors contribute to the degradation of an international order’s level of (perceived) mutualism, including: (1) the differentiated growth of states (some ‘rise’ others ‘decline’), (2) the unavoidable obsolescence of privileges powerful states have awarded themselves with (following a systemic war), (3) the ‘evolution’ of interests of states and (4) the increasing rivalries between states.

To a certain degree and for a certain period of time, some unbalances can be corrected by means of – for example – non-systemic wars.

However, it is just a matter of time before the order is obsolete, and issues and tensions start accumulating in the System (once the tipping point is reached).

Consequently the (perceived) level of mutualism decreases and reaches a critical level; at that point, interactions with other states are increasingly experienced as zero-sum. The international order no longer provides a viable – mutualistic – framework, and its collapse is a matter of time.