Systems thinking is based on a few fundamental premises, including the following:
• Interconnectedness: events and social phenomena do not exist in a vacuum but are connected to other events and social phenomena
• Dynamic causality: causality does not flow in only one direction but any causal event touches off a chain reaction that will eventually have an impact on the initial causal event itself (feedback)
• Holism: seeing the whole tells one more than just understanding all the parts that make up the whole
Systems thinking is a reaction to ‘reductionist’ approaches that try to eliminate the confusing aspects of complexity by breaking a messy ‘whole’ into its component parts. This may be useful when trying to fix a car engine, but it can be very unhelpful when dealing with a social system that produces violence. In this sense, an approach to peacebuilding that stops at national borders is reductionist: it disconnects a part (a nation state) from the broader whole (a trans-boundary social system) in an attempt to better understand and ‘fix’ that part.
More importantly, the three basic systems thinking assumptions make this approach to peacebuilding fundamentally different, even from other trans-border approaches to peacebuilding. Systems thinking and corresponding approaches, such as looking at the idea of political space and not just geographic space, provide a reason to look beyond political borders.
For example, an effective peace process in Somalia needs to include more than just internal political actors, but also external actors as mentioned above. However, from a systems perspective, looking beyond borders is not an end in itself. The assumptions of interconnectedness and dynamic causality mean that to understand Somalia as a social system that is characterised by high levels of violence and instability, one must follow the causal chains, wherever they lead. And the purpose of this is to get a different understanding of Somalia, rather than to just identify additional players that should be incorporated into a negotiation process.
A systems view will provide a definition of peacebuilding issues in Somalia that is different than a non-systemic view. In terms of the example from the children’s book, a holistic, systems view versus a reductionist view is like the difference between thinking one is looking at a piece of cloth and looking at a child that watches too much television! Similarly, a non-systemic view of Somalia may lead one to see the problem as a conflict between combatant parties – Al Shabab and the Somali transitional government – and ignore the complex system of dynamic relationships and social trends (both internal and external to ‘Somalia’), one impact of which is to cause internal Somali actors to fight each other.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may provide a better illustration of the above point. Looked at from a reductionist perspective the conflict might be defined as existing between Israelis and Palestinians over the status of their respective political entities. In this frame of reference, one might define the problem as the lack of a political settlement that would determine borders and settle land disputes, enable economic and social development, increase security for both communities, strengthen the conditions for healing, and perhaps even enable steps toward reconciliation.
A systems view would characterise the situation very differently. Stepping back from specific developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one can see recurrent patterns of interaction. There have been signs of progress in the peace process, such as agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and south Lebanon, the Oslo Accords, reform and capacity building in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and so on. There have also been significant setbacks, including the wars in 1948 and 1967, the Intifadas, breakdown of the Oslo Accords, Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, Israeli attacks in Lebanon, bombings in Israel, Israeli armed crackdown in Gaza, expansion of settlements.
Over time, progress toward a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is intertwined with setbacks in a recurring pattern. Leaders from the two parties, along with leaders from key external actors (such as the US, the EU, and some Arab States such as Egypt), dedicate themselves to a renewed negotiation process, expend significant political and financial resources, and hail progress in the form of ‘key steps’ toward an ultimate Israeli-Palestinian political settlement. These events are met with new roadblocks, periods of negotiation impasse, heated rhetoric and accusations, acts of violence, internal shakeups within key actors, and one or another party withdrawing from the peace talks.
Further, these patterns of behaviour that constitute the Israeli-Palestinian social system have a dominant purpose. It is not a purpose that is defined by the intentions of the actors in the system, but rather by the key outputs of the system over time. If judged by its predominant output over time, the purpose of the peace process does not seem to be a political settlement, rather the purpose of the Israeli-Palestinian social system appears to be ‘resolution OR reconciliation avoidance’. The parts of this system deftly interact so as to avoid reaching a political resolution or reconciliation – weaving its way between tangible signs of progress and escalating violence (but never enough violence to cause the system itself to collapse).
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leadership – nor external governments – seem willing to bear the potential costs of a political settlement. Marked political rifts exist within both communities, such as between Fatah and Hamas on the Palestinian side, and between the hard-line right wing of the Israeli electorate and those Israelis more comfortable with the concept of trading ‘land for peace’.
Analysts such as Nathan J Brown claim that many leaders in the Arab world are ‘addicted’ to the image of Israel as the enemy in order to deal with domestic pressures. In the US, political leaders would face political backlash from Israeli leaders and from internal US constituencies if the terms of an agreement appeared to be too pro-Palestinian; and backlash externally, especially with Arab and Muslim allies, and in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, if the terms were too pro-Israeli. Of course, the same agreement might be simultaneously viewed both ways.
This systemic view of an Israeli-Palestinian social system whose purpose is to avoid settlement implies very different strategies for how to intervene in the system to increase the level of peace in the region. From the reductionist, geographically defined perspective, it would make sense to enlist international support to pressure leaders of the two communities to engage in negotiations, and to bolster support for such a process among regional players such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as to deal with intra¬communal tensions, such as between the ultra-Orthodox right wing and the liberal political parties in Israel, or the split between Fatah and Hamas.
From a systemic perspective, however, this approach is unlikely to be effective as it is futile to ask actors in a system to act contrary to the overall purpose of the system because larger dynamics in the system will undermine those actions. So, even if the US, the EU, Egypt and Turkey were able to pressure President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to support a political settlement, other actors or agents in the system would likely counter this move (for example, one or both might lose their jobs, new acts of violence might break out, external spoilers might intervene).