Understanding Country Complexity: The Way Forward

Geopolitics is the game of strategists who determine the behavior of countries. The war in Ukraine has shown just how wrong assumptions about countries or the behavior of their leaders are, plunging the world into what Henry Kissinger called a “totally new era”.

Hans Kuijper, a retired Dutch diplomat and outstanding sinologist, has written an indispensable guide to understanding where country studies went wrong and how we can use systems thinking and computers (ICT) to untangle the quagmire of flawed country studies . Her book is a tour de force in the philosophy of social science, drawing on her incredible reading of ancient and Western Chinese philosophy, science, and current country studies.

The thesis of this book is quite simple: country studies have a explanation (something, i.e. a country to explain), but the so-called country experts have no to explain, 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” falsely claim to explain China, even basing their writings on a single discipline, as if they know everything about the country. As the saying goes, “No ant can see the pattern of the whole carpet”.

Kuijper identified a fundamental gap in conventional country studies. If you study a country (a part) without taking a rough look at the world (the whole) and without considering how the interaction simultaneously affects the parts and the whole, i.e., by just guessing without verifiable theory, you only practice pseudo-science, not science. Because science is not limited to expressing opinions.

Understanding country complexity is a monumental contribution to deeper thinking about countries as complex and dynamic systems. In chapters 1 to 7, the author methodically and relentlessly exposes the lingering confusion, building his thesis step by step, examining theories and models, clarifying the concept of country (as an area of ​​distinct form), showing how cities and countries have a lot to do. and to explore the scientific and technical feasibility of collaborative national studies.

The author essentially moves from a multidisciplinary to an interdisciplinary approach, to the higher order of a transdisciplinary way of thinking about the development of countries as adaptive complex dynamic systems. It examines how countries understand both spontaneous and man-made systems, interacting both exogenously and endogenously (Chapter 6). The ancient Chinese recognized that empires rose and fell from both “external invasions and internal corrosion”. Chapter 7 delves into how modern scientific tools such as artificial intelligence, big data analysis and computer simulation could help country studies. Science fiction assumes that if we put all available information about a subject into a supercomputer, the subject would be reproduced as a hologram, helping us to predict its behavior. Whether we have enough information and computing power is just a matter of political will and imagination. Kuijper uses the example of networked digital libraries to support his view that the study of a country could be greatly enhanced by deploying electronically available information about countries and regions.

After conceptualizing the country study model, Kuijper examines its profound implications for higher education, arguing to “connect the dots” (Chapter 8). He is most original when he maintains that ancient Greek and Chinese thought resemble each other in thinking about the organic whole, whereas the specialization of Western science has caused the divergence between Western and Chinese research paths. The modern university, originally created to truly educate (raise children) and uplift spiritually, has become more and more specialized in less and less, making illiterate graduates complex. Students do not learn to connect the dots, to see the whole. The author argues for breaking down intellectual walls and mental silos to see the grand order of man and nature. Since each country has emergent properties irreducible to the properties of its constituent parts, we must draw on the science of complex (no: complicated) and dynamic (no: linearly evolving) systems to truly understand the country.

An example of not connecting the dots is the fact that it has taken development economists years to realize that lifting a country out of poverty involves more than economic factors. Likewise, environmentalists have taken decades to realize that more science on global warming will not change politics while economists (who influence policy makers) usually assume that markets can solve the global warming problem at the moment. utter disregard for the fact that it will take a combination of state and market to change human behavior.

I regard Kuijper’s discussion of reductionism versus holism (Chapter 9) as a huge contribution to overcoming the quagmire of exclusive/antithetical Western thought versus Chinese inclusive/correlative thought. The reduction to atomistic parts of free individuals creates blinders. Western scientists increasingly make distinctions, but tend to miss the whole (of which they are separate and part) and how the whole changes with the parts. The whole thing is not a question of one or the other, but of both and, which means that reductionism and holism are complementary rather than contradictory.

The book is the astonishing achievement of an independent and determined researcher who read deeply to discover that we need complex thinking to understand complex phenomena, resisting the ingrained habit of simplistic reductionism, the default path. of human understanding. It took at least four centuries to convince doctors to abandon the idea of ​​bloodletting as a solution to disease. It is therefore not surprising that pseudo-scientists still believe that they can pass as national experts without the help of many collaborating disciplinary experts, using big data analysis tools.

Kuijper helps us navigate this complex subject using a short summary for each chapter, supported by key references. General conclusions are drawn in Chapter 10. He then pulls out his very practical and very useful recommendations with the final chapter distilling his key ideas.

It is a marvelous book, not only for sinologists, but for all who consider themselves experts on the country. This provides some insight into the question of how we got ourselves into a terrible mess on the current geopolitical path to conflict. This book speaks truth to power, but will those in power listen, that is the big and pressing question to which there seems to be no simple and straightforward answer.

Contributed by

Andrew Sheng

Asian News Network

Sharon D. Cole