Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

International Development in a Complex Adaptive System

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

International Development in a Complex Adaptive System

Article excerpt


Current approaches to international development (ID) from a United States perspective are based on rational choice theory and state-centric in their overall orientation. In this paper I argue that understanding the international system as an emergent complex adaptive system (cas) and then pursuing an approach based on cooperation theory and a meliorist-centric orientation will improve, perhaps even accelerate, ID outcomes.

Axelrod (1997) acknowledges that rational choice, which assumes all individuals are utility maximizing actors, is the dominant paradigm in social science modeling. Those who take the state-centric approach place the interests of nation states in the core of their analyses and typically employ hard (military and economic instruments) and soft (diplomatic instruments) power methods in pursuance of those interests. Nye (2004) defines power as "the ability to get the outcomes one wants" (p. 1). The nation-building attempts by the U.S. can be seen as examples of exercising power in international development. If we judge success of ID efforts based on these nation-building experiences, it can be said that the record is mixed (Dobbins et al, 2003). Fukuyama (2006) is even more critical; he describes U.S. ID experience as "a stepchild in American foreign policy" (p. 139), implying the interests of other nations are far less important than those of the U.S.

Many theorists see cooperation as the desired outcome of foreign policy (in particular, international development) where game (e.g., prisoner's dilemma) and rational choice theories dominate the analytical paradigm (Axelrod and Keohane, 1985; Olson, 1965; Schelling, 1960; Downs, 1957). In this school of thought "being noble in cooperating is entirely irrelevant to the question. What we are seeking is the logically 'best' action in a moral vacuum, not the 'right' thing to do. And that is to defect. It is rational to be selfish" (Ridley, 1996. p. 54). Other scholars who directly address cooperation as a theory (Bicchieri, 1990; Kollock, 1998) still treat it as a desired outcome of other actions. With few exceptions (Ridley, 1996; Kropotkin, 2006), there appears to be no literature that addresses cooperation as an antecedent condition for actions.

Cooperation theory, properly defined and fully developed, could play a more constructive role in foreign policy, especially as it relates to international development. Cooperation is intentional mutual aid (Kropotkin, 2006). This definition emphasizes the importance of intention and mutuality as antecedent conditions for actions or behavior.

My argument is that a genuine cooperation theory is needed in understanding ID. Over time, effective cooperation efforts could make hard and soft power methods less needed. A new cooperation paradigm that focuses on meliorism over state-centric approaches would be a reasonable step in this direction. I define meliorism as the innate desire of a society to improve its conditions; and if help is needed, it must also be wanted. This particular definition is important because meliorism has been defined by others as the innate desire of a society to improve another society's conditions based on the former's set of values--in other words, a principle for intervention, using hard and soft power approaches. For example, Graebner (2000) attributes a set of foreign policy failures to this definition of meliorism. Another interpretation of the failures described by Graebner could be attributed to intervention that ultimately sought outcomes the U.S. wanted, regardless of what the receiving country needed or wanted.

There is risk in using the term meliorism in an interventionist sense, because the presumption that the conditions of the recipient society need to change may be wrong and/or subsequent actions may result in unintended consequences that actually make the society worse off. Furthermore, the presumption may be based on political ideology that seeks moral dominion (Downs, 1957, pp. …

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