12 min read — Analysis | Geopolitics
After Russia’s War: Applying Systems Theory To Understand Europe’s Geopolitical Future
In a recent and remarkable essay published by Foreign Affairs, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz claims that Europe faces an “epochal tectonic shift” as a consequence of the dramatic escalation of Russia’s long invasion of Ukraine.
He is right, and what’s unusual for political rhetoric, there exists a powerful paradigm in systems science that strongly supports his view. The zeitenwende Sholz describes is very real, and will mark a pivotal moment in the history of the European Union.
The question now is whether European policy makers can rise to the challenge of rebooting the role the European Union plays on the world stage, or if they will allow for the internal tensions inherent in the EU’s structure to render it paralyzed in the face of rising international tensions threatening to tear it apart.
Systems theory as a relevant analytical tool
Scholz’ perception of the present as a moment where historical trajectories fundamentally change is more in tune with reality than US President Joe Biden’s claim that his country is at an inflection point, implying a rebound towards better days.
Moreover, Scholz’ comments are perhaps better understood as an exemplar of the German-speaking scientific community’s long affinity for systems theory, a multidisciplinary body of science focused on using the relationships between interacting objects to understand their dynamic behaviour.
Though largely hidden in American academic circles, systems theory pioneers like Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Niklas Luhmann inspired many of the founders of modern-day information science as well as generations of engineers whose innovations have made possible the digital, hyper-connected world most now take for granted.
Traditional linear science as taught in school, by contrast, tends to rely on separating objects and processes from the broader environment to study them in isolation. While pertinent and powerful in many situations, it doesn’t always work in others, as routinely proven by experiments on objects as large as countries, as intricate as geopolitics, and as tiny as subatomic particles.
In particular, linear science breaks down under conditions of extreme complexity. For example, when understanding how a novel medication works to deliver a specific biochemical payload into the body, scientists can create highly controlled experiments that reveal the risk of side effects across the general population.
However, predicting the specific effects of a drug on every individual consumer is functionally impossible due to numerous unaccounted variables. Linear, purely experimental science tends to be very bad at producing liable predictions when it studies environments which are constantly changing with impacts that cannot be precisely known in advance.
Systems science mitigates this challenge by deploying a broad toolkit of approaches to understand phenomena holistically. Systems approaches seek to be predictive, just like traditional experimental science, but only within certain bounds of confidence due to the randomness and complexity inherent in environments.
Fortunately, the way our physical reality is put together means that developing even crude models of how complex associations work over time and space can generate extremely valuable insights.
Consider how storm forecasters project the likely path and strength of an inbound hurricane. Most people are probably familiar with the digital cone projected ahead of the swirling icon shown on the TV screen when a hurricane or typhoon approaches a populated area. This offers a simple visual representation of the uncertainty inherent in the forecast produced by averaging separate model runs. Perfect forecasts are impossible, but they are now usually good enough to offer substantial advance warning to the people who will bear the brunt of the impacts.
Relevant to this essay is the fact that system approaches can be applied as effectively to social systems as natural ones. People are much harder to study than hurricanes because their freedom of action tends to be substantially greater, at least in the short term. But on longer time scales and in bigger groups, people do become extremely predictable.
To stay alive and reproduce, people need a liveable environment. They must be able to access good air, nutritious food, clean water, secure shelter, and trusted companionship, as Maslow recognized in creating his hierarchy of needs.
The constant effort required to gather the resources people need for a decent living is what generates the underlying structure of culture that shapes us from birth. Humans sort themselves into groups because no mind can cope with the burden of maintaining relationships with every inhabitant of this planet. Geographic variation naturally creates differences in perception of the environment and how best to deal with the challenges it creates, and this helps speed language divergence.
Once that proceeds for long enough, the costs of communicating with people from groups who hold a different worldview become more apparent. This reinforces the natural cognitive tribal tendency, pulling humans into clusters of like-minded people just like atoms unite to form molecules that then exhibit behaviors transcending individual components.
Complex societies emerge from the need for diverse groups at more local levels to work together in handling challenges of a broader scope than any individual community. Trade networks allow communities in one place to specialise in generating surplus production with the understanding that it can be sent elsewhere in exchange for goods harder to come by locally.
The interaction between group coherence and resource access is probably the most important driver of change in human systems. In any human society or culture, membership is defined by reciprocal obligations where individuals contribute to the group with the expectation to receive benefits in return. Though everyone wants to be a member, inequality between people that arises from natural differences or simple chance means that the reciprocal connection operates like an ionic bond in chemistry.
If the relationship becomes too one-way, agency is lost, and the individual tends to be either absorbed or spat out as a kind of free radical. Because individuals seek group membership as a basic human necessity, new groups are prone to form in moments when lots of free radicals are roaming around.
Understanding human groups like this is essential to coming to grips with why big, world-altering changes sometimes strike with little to no warning. A crucial insight of systems theory is that a system can persist in one mode for a very long time, then, when sufficiently perturbed, undergo a rapid regime shift where it reboots the way it internally functions. Gunderson and Holling, in their edited volume Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, do an excellent job of helping to visualize how this works across an incredibly diverse set of models and fields of inquiry. It is fair to say that their theory of change fills an important gap in contemporary understanding of human social order.
The organisations called civilisations or empires rise and fall because they are, in a very real sense, systems. They depend on material exchanges mediated by cultural norms that vary across space, all operating in a context where violent betrayal is a perpetual concern but cooperation is what guarantees long term survival. In a way, every civilization can be best defined by which varieties of violence it sanctifies or makes taboo.
Systems theory has great power because, unlike most linear approaches to social science and history, it can explain why change comes to all things. In ecological systems theory, a concept called the Adaptive Cycle provides the simplest, most intuitive explanation of the dynamics that drive landscapes and historical trajectories alike.
Speaking in the broadest terms, any ecosystem is a machine that constantly moves energy around, with the availability of solar energy defining the cycle of life almost everywhere. Earth’s axial tilt and slightly elliptical orbit around the sun means that different places receive more energy at different times of the year. Most living things evolved to deal with this seasonal variation in different ways, generating the astonishing diversity of life.
Each season brings different challenges that induce changes in the way organisms behave. In Spring, when sunlight is increasing and few plants have had a chance to spread, those that can grow and disperse seeds rapidly race across the barren grounds. Summer brings a peak in sunlight while growth rate slows down due to crowding between organisms, giving advantages to those that are large or more efficient. Then in Autumn, sunlight begins to fade, and plants that need a lot of light cease growing or die off altogether. Animals that depend on plant growth begin to change their ways too, some migrating and others intensifying resource gathering ahead of hibernation. Winter comes, and food is scarce for everyone.
Nature has shaped all the species that exist by increasing and decreasing their resource flows, forcing cycles of adaptation that in turn alter the genetic composition of populations. Interestingly, human social organisations follow remarkably similar patterns, a property systems scientists term isomorphism.
An Adaptive Cycle in geopolitics?
In social systems, however, not only are material conditions important, but also people’s predictions of their future status. Expectations drive a substantial portion of human behaviour in ways that tend to become so deeply ingrained they turn invisible.
Economic cycles, generational trends, and the rise and fall of empires are all linked by the same dynamic: the tendency of every system to go through periods of increasing and decreasing complexity triggered by some combination of external environmental shocks and internal social shifts. These often play off each other in mutually accelerating feedback loops.
And in any system, the amplitude of a given cycle of growth and decline plays a huge role in how it ultimately functions as Winter ends and the next Spring arrives. When things fall apart, the memory of better days pushes a new cycle of innovation and experimentation, and those agents able to stumble on an easy win very often start to grow so swiftly they shape the growth of everything that follows.
A collapse in expectations about the future forces a rethink of major assumptions. They tend to be sticky, moving only after evidence mounts that the old regime has failed, so once they do eventually reset they can tend to stay in their new mode as the average human brain doesn’t like changing basic behaviors often.
This is what creates Sholz’ zeitenwende. Instead of growing back the same, major aspects of any system may change when a particular Winter leads to long lasting changes in the local environment.
Destruction of a landscape in a natural or human-induced disaster of sufficient magnitude can result in a forest turning to a grassland, or wetlands going dry. In the new ecological regime, all players are forced to adapt to the new reality.
Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine has totally and irrevocably collapsed standing expectations in Europe about the way global geopolitics are supposed to work. This has turned the post Cold War autumn into a winter most bitter, and nothing will be quite the same in Europe or the wider world.
This happened the moment Putin ordered his forces to storm Kyiv instead of limiting military efforts to the Donbas front, as most savvy observers anticipated, including Ukraine’s own armed forces. Indeed, the Postwar Order born out of Nazi Germany’s defeat died an ignoble death that day. The world awoke to discover the system that had been constructed and preserved for eight decades was suddenly gone, the dream of banishing war from Europe, maybe even across the planet, forever, totally evaporating.
America’s tragic inability to deter Russia from taking this awful, misguided step shattered the longstanding operating assumption that American military hegemony alone was sufficient to prevent another world war from ever breaking out. This staggering failure – along with Putin’s inability to subdue Ukraine after a year of hard fighting – has changed how every country across the globe looks at its future. Japan is rearming to a degree not witnessed in decades, while South Korea is considering building its own nuclear deterrent, both forced to hedge against the decline of their main security guarantor, the USA.
The hard truth is that NATO has never truly been set up to win a real total war, as it has always been assumed that the American nuclear arsenal would be sufficient to make a large-scale conflict like this impossible. This is why most of the national military establishments in Europe, most notably the German Bundeswehr, report very low availability rates for most major military equipment. It’s also why NATO ammunition stocks are badly depleted after supporting Ukraine for less than a year.
The end of effective American security guarantees for Europe or anyone else, for that matter – hinted at by the Trump administration is now a global truth that will define country behaviors across the globe during the decade to come. Though few dare speak this truth aloud, if the USA were half as tough as its leaders pretend for the benefit of the public, Russia would never have invaded Ukraine – in 2022 or 2014 when this conflict truly began.
The European Union faces a more dangerous world as well as escalating prices for basic goods, caused as much by the fact cheap fossil fuel reserves are increasingly depleted so the world is made to rely on less efficient and more polluting unconventional sources of oil and natural gas. Now more than ever the EU must prove itself capable of acting as a coherent bloc to secure a decent future for its residents.
And this isn’t a matter of opinion – solid science backs up this claim. In any system, the agents capable of mustering the most combined power and deploying it effectively to secure space and resources during Winter tend to be the ones that thrive in the inevitable Spring.
The EU is an incredibly diverse association of nations, which is both its weakness and its strength. Taking a systems view, it is apparent that different strategies for coping with challenges are better suited to different seasons.
In Winter, for example, it is the decomposers and raiders who do well. Spring favors organisms that can reproduce rapidly and colonize available space. Summer is the season of efficiency, where growth is only possible by exploiting niches. Autumn is when the hibernators and migrators thrive.
Survivability is largely a function of adaptability, whose ultimate reservoir is diversity. More than anything, a coherent and effective EU is important because it allows ideas, practices, goods, and people to flow freely between jurisdictions that are naturally very diverse and should be allowed to remain so.
The European Union, as an international institution, creates mutually supporting spaces for industries that allows them to be competitive on global markets. Its future trajectory now depends mostly on whether it can be this not only in the economic, but also the political domain.
There are two key variables of vital importance if you want to understand – or manage – Europe’s future: how independent Europe becomes from America in security matters, and whether the EU can balance its inherent internal tensions while keeping a majority of its member states moving in the same general direction on vital matters.
Building an independent European security apparatus can be a powerful uniting effort, as the necessary structural shifts in the industrial base will require cross-national cooperation. Some of these have already been put to work in order to continue EU support for Ukraine, an effort a majority of Europeans continue to believe is necessary as they view Putin’s war as an attack on Europe itself.
If you evaluate these two variables as strictly binary – not truly the case but a useful guiding assumption for estimating possible futures, The EU appears to have four baseline scenarios to choose from:
1. Internal collapse and continued subordination to America in matters of global security, likely leading to a self-destructive global political and economic confrontation with China.
2. Internal collapse with security independence, a few core members in the North and East developing a common defense force focused on the Russian threat so long as it lasts.
3. Improved coherence and continued subordination to American security concerns, with the potential to act as a buffer with China.
4. Improved coherence and security independence, offering a rival paradigm to both the American and Chinese styles of Capitalism as well as the nationalist fascism of Putin’s Russia.
It is technically possible that European leaders will find a way to tread the desperately narrow path between these options, preserving the present system as it stands. However, this is likely the worst option for the EU in the long run, as this will require papering over real issues in the EU, notably an alleged marked democratic accountability gap between Brussels and European voters.
And one lesson of systems science and the adaptive cycle is clear: attempting to prevent change is like working to stave off the turning of the seasons. If you want a lesson in abject futility, this would be the way to go, producing what systems scientists call a rigidity trap.
For the record, this systems based perspective implies that the United States and Russia are both caught within these bounds, likely ending in their mutual demise as they presently stand. Empires rise and fall for a reason, after all, and clinging to the past is the best way to guarantee the latter outcome arrives faster than anyone anticipates.
Global geopolitics is about to enter a dramatically more complex regime than any living being has experienced before. The European Union could well take a leading role on the global stage, acting as one of three major global economic and political blocs with China and the USA-led Anglosphere.
India and Japan appear very likely to emerge as second rank powers, with global influence and alliances that give them substantial sway in their home region. Russia, until its likely collapse and disintegration, inhabits the same category thanks to its nuclear arsenal and reserves of fossil fuels, bolstered by its alliances with Belarus, Syria, and North Korea.
Right behind them march a bevy of regional powers like South Korea, Turkiye, Israel, Iran, and the Gulf States. With their own distinct diplomatic agendas and rising arms industries, these nations are great powers near their own borders, with the gap between the first rank and third rank global powers defined primarily by their relative economic strength and military capabilities.
Some call this a multipolar world, and this is technically true. But perhaps a better term for it is a complex world, where no one party has total sway over any other.
In truth, over the long run this will probably be more stable than the Postwar Order ever was. Inability to secure decisive military or economic victories against a rival will enmesh powers in a kind of global quicksand, allowing smaller and more innovative players a chance to shine.
Spring always follows Winter, and geopolitical systems are strikingly similar to natural ones in this respect. Whether the European Union prospers or withers in the coming years largely depends on whether policy makers and residents openly perceive the natural function of the global system we are all locked together in, and act with an eye towards the future that gives Europe its best shot at security and stability.
Select Works in Systems Theory and Science
Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems
Theory Niklas Luhmann, Introduction to Systems Theory
Lance Gunderson & C.S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human and Natural Systems
Brian Walker & David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining People And Ecosystems In A Changing World
David O’Sullivan & George L.W. Perry, Spatial Simulation: Exploring Pattern and Process