Comprehending the complexity of countries


Comprehending the complexity of countries is a monumental contribution to deep thinking about countries as complex and dynamic systems.

GEOPOLITICS is the game of strategists figuring out how countries behave. The Ukraine war has shown how assumptions about countries or the behaviour of their leaders are wrong, plunging the world into what Henry Kissinger has called a “totally new era”.

Hans Kuijper, a retired Dutch diplomat and exceptional Sinologist, has written an indispensable guide to understanding where country studies have gone wrong, and how we can use systems thinking and computers (ICT) to unravel the quagmire of flawed country studies.

His book is a tour de force into the philosophy of social science, drawing on his incredible reading of ancient Chinese and Western philosophy, science and current country studies.

The thesis of this book is quite simple: country studies have an explanandum (something, i.e. a country to be explained), but so-called country experts do not have an explanans, a tested or testable theory that not only explains, but stands out from other scientific theories in different disciplines such as geography, demography, ecology, politics, economics, sociology, linguistics, or anthropology.

Thus, “China experts” unjustifiably claim to explain China, even when basing their writings on a single discipline, as if they are knowledgeable about everything concerning the country. As the saying goes, “No ant can see the pattern of the whole carpet.”

Kuijper has identified a fundamental gap in conventional country studies. If you study a country (part) without taking a crude look at the world (whole) and not considering how interaction affects simultaneously the parts and the whole, that is to say, only making conjectures without a testable theory, you are only practicing pseudo-science, not science. For science is more than expressing opinions.

Comprehending the complexity of countries is a monumental contribution to deep thinking about countries as complex and dynamic systems.

In chapters one to seven, the author methodically and relentlessly exposes the enduring confusion, building step-by-step his thesis, examining theories and models, clarifying the concept of country (as distinct form area), showing how cities and countries have much in common, and exploring the scientific and technical feasibility of collaborative country studies.

The author moves essentially from a multi-disciplinary to an inter-disciplinary approach, to the higher order of a trans-disciplinary way of thinking about the development of countries as adaptive complex dynamic systems.

He examines how countries comprise both spontaneous and man-made systems, interacting both exogenously and endogenously (chapter six).

The ancient Chinese recognised that empires rise and fall from both “external invasions and internal corrosion”. Chapter seven delves deeply into the issue how modern scientific tools such as artificial intelligence, big data analysis and computer simulation could aid country studies.

Science fiction assumes that if we put all available information about one subject into a supercomputer, the subject would be replicated as a hologram, thus helping us predict its behavior.

Whether we have sufficient information and computing power is only a matter of political will and imagination.

Kuijper uses the example of networked digital libraries to substantiate his view that the study of a country could be greatly improved by deploying electronically available information about countries and regions.

Having conceptualised the model for studying countries, Kuijper examines its profound implications for higher education, arguing for “connecting the dots” (chapter eight).

He is most original when he argues that ancient Greek and Chinese thought are alike in thinking about the organic whole, whereas the specialisation of Western science caused the divergence between Western and Chinese ways of research.

The modern university, originally created to truly educate (bring up children) and spiritually elevate, became more and more specialised in less and less, making graduates complexity-illiterate.

Students do not learn to connect the dots, to see the whole. The author argues for tearing down intellectual walls and mental silos to see the grand order of man and nature.

Since each and every country has emergent properties irreducible to the properties of its constituent parts, we have to make use of the science of complex (not: complicated) and dynamic (not: linearly changing) systems in order to really comprehend the country.

An example of not connecting the dots is the fact that it took years for development economists to realise that lifting a country out of poverty involves more than economic factors.

Similarly, ecologists took decades to realise that more scientific data on global warming is not going to change policy when economists (influencing the policymakers) habitually assume that markets can solve the problem of global warming in total defiance of the fact that it will take a combination of state and market to change human behaviour.

I consider Kuijper’s discussion of reductionism versus holism (Chapter nine) a huge contribution to moving beyond the quagmire of Western exclusive and antithetical versus Chinese inclusive and correlative thinking.

The reduction to atomistic parts of free individuals creates blinkers. Western scientists draw ever more distinctions, but tend to miss the whole (from which they are apart and of which they are a part) and how the whole changes with the parts.

The whole is not a matter of either – or but of both – and, meaning that reductionism and holism are complementary rather than contradictory to each other.

The book is the amazing achievement of an independent, determined scholar reading thoroughly in depth to find out that we need complexity thinking to understand complex phenomena, resisting the ingrained habit of simplistic reductionism, the default way of human understanding.

It took at least four centuries to convince doctors to give up the idea of blood-letting as a solution to sickness.

So, it is not surprising that pseudo-scientists still think that they can pass as country experts without the help of many collaborating disciplinary-experts, using big data analytical tools.

Kuijper helps us navigate this complex subject by using a short abstract for each chapter, backed by key references. General conclusions are drawn in chapter 10. He then draws his very practical and very useful recommendations with the last chapter distilling his key insights.

This is a wonderful book, not just for sinologists, but for all who consider themselves to be country experts. It gives insight into the question of how we have got ourselves in a terrible mess over the current geopolitical path to conflict.

This book speaks truth to power, but whether those in power will listen, is the big and urgent question to which there seems to be no simple, straight answer.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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