Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Complexity and Arms Control Diplomacy

As part of its work, the Disarmament Insight initiative has hosted a sequence of workshops this year with Geneva disarmament practitioners to encourage them to think out of the box in their work. For example, previous visitors to our site may recall that on 25 May we held a workshop on 'human security, human nature and trust-building in negotiation' with speakers including the primatologist Frans de Waal, economist Paul Seabright and Robin Coupland from the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Podcasts of some of these talks are available by clicking on the podcast panel in the left column.)

Yesterday, we hosted another workshop with multilateral practitioners, this time on the theme of 'complexity and diplomacy: Understanding the implications for multilateral arms control'.

Diplomats love to talk about the complexity involved in their endeavours. But they usually do it in a rhetorical sense, without realizing that complexity is actually a domain of scientific research and that complex phenomena have particular features. But what's complicated isnt' the same as what's complex. A better understanding among arms control practitioners about what complexity is - and recognising the hallmarks of complex social phenomena - could, we think, help make their work more effective and has implications for human security thinking.

Small arms proliferation and the diffusion of new technologies, like say those in the life sciences that could be turned to hostile use, have many characteristics that indicate they're complex social phenomena. Multilateral negotiations themselves might also even be considered as complex social phenomena. We explored some of these ideas in our third volume of research, Thinking Outside the Box in Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.

Yesterday we were joined by two speakers who've been big influences on our thinking - Paul Ormerod and Philip Ball (pictured above). Philip, a consultant editor at the scientific journal Nature and science writer and broadcaster, is author of a remarkable book, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, which won the Aventis Prize in 2005 and explores the relevance of complexity and statistical physics to the social world. Paul Ormerod is an economist and author of Butterfly Economics and Why Most Things Fail, and is an innovative and creative modeller on a wide range of real-world issues ranging from violent crime in the United Kingdom to the political stability of China.

In addition to the DHA project's own resident physicist and researcher, Aurélia Merçay, Philip and Paul discussed their work, and the relevance of concepts and applications of complexity to arms control efforts. One such application is a conceptual multiple equilibrium model Aurélia developed to examine the mechanisms involved in demand for small arms, in part based on Paul Ormerod's work. And it's clear from discussion with the diplomats and others attending that there are many other potential useful applications.

In coming weeks, after the dust has settled, look out for free podcasts of presentations by Aurélia, Philip and Paul from this site, or for download from the iTunes Music Store by searching there for 'Disarmament Insight'.

John Borrie


Ball, Philip, “Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another.” London: Arrow

Merçay, Aurélia & Borrie, John, A physics of diplomacy? The dynamics of complex social phenomena and their implications for multilateral negotiations in Borrie, John & Martin Randin, Vanessa (eds.), “Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.” Geneva: UNIDIR: 2006.

Merçay, Aurélia, Non-Linear modelling of small arms proliferation in Borrie, John & Martin Randin, Vanessa (eds.), “Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.” Geneva: UNIDIR: 2006.

Ormerod, Paul, “Butterfly Economics.” London: Fontana: 1999.

Ormerod, Paul, “Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics.” London: Faber & Faber: 2005.