The Architecture of Complexity: Simplification of the System’s dynamics by adding hierarchical levels, Part II

In the publication “The architecture of complexity” (1962), Herbert A. Simon makes several observations concerning the typical structure and dynamics of complex systems.

In three articles, I discuss two questions concerning the development of the System.

To answer these questions, I make use of Simon’s perspective on the structure and functioning of complex systems. The two questions are:

(1) How can the phase transition the System experienced during – by means of – the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945) be explained? and (2) What can Simon’s insights in the functioning of complex systems contribute to our understanding of the condition of the current international order and what can – according to Simon’s perspective – now be expected?

In Part I, I introduced some of Simon’s observations.

In this article – Part II – I have a closer look at the phase transition the System experienced by means of the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945).


The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on 4 April 1949 in Washington: A non-anarchistic hierarchical structure is established in Western Europe.

The collapse of the European system: From nearly-decomposable to indecomposable.

As I explained in various publications and on this blog, during the period 1495-1945, The System (that is Europe, the core of the System) produced four accelerating war cycles, which show remarkable – and very consistent – patterns.

These four war cycles – each cycle consisting of a relatively stable period (when an international order maintains the status quo), followed by a systemic war (when the order is upgraded to the next level of organisation) – constitute a so-called finite-time singularity dynamic.

This dynamic – the finite-time singularity dynamic that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles – was powered by the (intensifying) interactions and rivalries between European states, which also produced increasing amount of tensions in the System.

The finite-time singularity, accompanied by four accelerating war cycles had two effects: the integration of Europe (the core of the System), and the expansion of Europe (the core) to the none-core of the System (‘the rest of the world’).

During the period 1495-1945, Europe developed from circa 300 diverse and loosely connected communities with a total population of 83 million in 1495, into a tightly connected system consisting of 25 standardised states with a total population of 544 million in 1939. In the early 20th century, European states controlled more than 80% of the worlds territories.

As the dynamics and properties of the finite-time singularity and four accompanying war cycles show, this dynamic was unsustainable.

In 1939, European states produced ‘infinite’ amounts of tensions, and the core of the System consequently collapsed. During the (fourth) systemic war (the Second World War) that followed, the core of the System (Europe) made a transition from an anarchistic to a non-anarchistic system (with a delay until 1991), and simultaneously the core and non-core of the System merged, and a first global order (the United Nations) was established. These two developments qualify as a phase transition; the transition of the System to fundamentally different dynamics.

So, what happened from Simon’s perspective?


The need for simplification.

Simon observes that complex systems typically have hierarchical structures: A complex system is often composed of subsystems. The System – and Europe until 1945 – also has such a hierarchical structure, in which communities and states constitute the subsystems.

Simon explains that systems with hierarchical structures have evolutionary advantages: “hierarchic systems will evolve far more quickly than non-hierarchical systems of comparable size”.

Hierarchy provides stability to the system. I argue that this was also the case for the System.

Oprichting wp

The Warsaw Pact was signed on 14 May 1955 in Warsaw: A non-anarchistic hierarchical structure is established in Eastern Europe.

The relatively stable periods I just referred to, when (international) orders were imposed and able to (temporarily) maintain the status quo, constitute the “intermediate stable forms” of the System, Simon refers to in his theory.

These intermediate forms were ‘enabled’ (made possible) by the stable subsystems – states – which constitute the building blocks of an international order.

However, while in 1495, the System was still nearly-decomposable, states (the subsystems) over time became increasingly connected: Their interactions – and consequently their interdependence – constantly increased. Europe developed from decomposable (before 1495) to nearly-decomposable, to a tightly connected – indecomposable – system.

At a certain point, the System (Europe) could no longer be decomposed into simpler autonomous elements (states). The damage and chaos Brexit causes illustrate this point.

During the period 1495-1939, increasing interactions between states (in frequency and intensity) had resulted in increased interdependence of these states. The interdependence also included the (mutual) security of states.

The shared interests that evolved over time – including mutual security -required increasingly more shared governance. Consequently, the level of organisation of successive international orders increased.

Changes in the System’s (Europe’s) properties – from decomposable to nearly-decomposable to indecomposable – impact(ed) on the System’s dynamics.

While during nearly-decomposability the short-run dynamics typically relate to the internal structures of the subsystems (states), and the long-run dynamics to interactions between these subsystems (states), in case of increasing indecomposability, this separation of short- and long-run dynamics unsustainable.

Integration also was a logical response of the System deal with increasing indecomposability of its subsystems.

During the period 1495-1945, integration of subsystems (from 300 in 1495 to 25 in 1939) and the upgrading of successive international orders (by means of systemic wars) can also be understood from Simon’s perspective as a logical development.

Despite obvious advantages of cooperation and (further) integration, increasing interdependence in an anarchistic System also has a downside. In anarchistic systems increasing connectivity (increasing interdependence, decreasing indecomposability) and security are intrinsically incompatible. Interactions – despite their obvious (economic) advantages – also produce tensions as an unavoidable byproduct.

In 1939, Europe (the core of the System) reached the critical connectivity threshold. The connectivity of the subsystems (states) resulted in the production of infinite amounts of tensions.

In 1939, Europe had reached the point when the subsystem structure – a hierarchical structure – had lost its utility, and could no longer be maintained, without risking self-destruction.

My research shows that, the tension production became ‘infinite’ in 1939, and could no longer be regulated by the (self-organised) finite-time singularity dynamic, in which the autonomous subsystems (states) dominated the dynamics.

To make Europe manageable again – and avoid self-destruction – two additional non-anarchistic hierarchical level were added (initially especially concerned with security), that were responsible for regulating interactions between states.

The additional hierarchical levels can be considered a simplification of the interactions between states. By accepting a shared framework for security (NAVO and the Warschau Pact, respectively in West- and East Europe) coordination was simplified  and rivalries were neutralised, at least between states in the respective hierarchical structures.

By adding such overarching hierarchical levels on top of these two blocs of states, the interactions of these states within the respective hierarchical structures could be more effectively synchronised.

However, an additional hierarchical level comes – can come – with a number of disadvantages as well: Information has to be processed by an extra level, which costs time and can cause distortion.

If the new hierarchical level fails, the hierarchy will fragment and populations will regroup again in their ‘trusted’ subsystems (states).