Robin Fenske, John G Bell & Erich Albrecht


Spring '03 - Hill

Affinity Group: “International Relations and Systems Thinking”

This is the International Relations and System Theory project.

Initially, the reason for this project was to take the most complex issue we could and examine it in terms of Systems Thinking. So, the initial question was "Why are Americans so hated?" Over the course of the project the focus moved away from a specific question. We moved toward finding systems within international relations with identifiable points of leverage.

1) What is this project?

The members of the project (Robin, John & Erich) each agreed to read one to two different books on International Relations. We also agreed to read one book in common.[1] In addition to these books, each member collected and shared media articles and other resources. Project members then dialogued about the source material, finding examples of systems and ideas of possible leverage:

  1. Democracy System

  2. Economics System

  3. Food System

  4. Imperialism System

  5. Israel System

  6. Militarization System

  7. Patriot System

  8. Privilege System

  9. Threat System

  10. Trade System

  11. Understandard System

We then created a whole system diagram:

  1. Whole System

2) What is this project not?

It is not the kitchen sink.

Our project was limited by our source material. We didn't cover religion or fully examine globalization, for example. We focused on finding systems with points of leverage. So, we did not include all possible nodes or links. We avoided detail complexity and focused on dynamic complexity.[2]

3) Resources

[1] Ervin Laszlo The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time

[2] Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline

[3] BBC website

[4] Gore Vidal Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

[5] KE Boulding The World as a Total System

[6] BuzzFlash

[7] Truthout

[8] Joel Andreas Addicted to War

[9] Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer Inanna

[10] Stephen Zunes Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism

[11] The Research Unit for Political Economy "Behind the Invasion of Iraq"

[12] William Clark, "The Real But Unspoken Reasons for the Iraq War" see:

[13] Project for a New American Century "Rebuilding America's Defenses"

[14] Center For Defense Information


[16] Asia Times Online

[17] Vensim® Personal Learning Edition

A) Democracy System

In ancient Sumeria, "polictical power lay in the hands of the free citizens ... In caes of decisions vital to the community, these free citizens met together in a bicameral assembly consisting of an upper house of "elders" and a lower house of younger fighting men."[1] Over time, "military leadership became and urgent need, and the king ... came to the fore. At first the king was probably selected and appointed from the assembly at critical moments for specific military tasks. But gradually kingship with all its privileges and prerogatives became a hereditary institution." [1]

In ancient Greece, the democracy of free male citizens could elect a dictator in times of crisis, such as war. This was a recognition of the expediency of decision making by a dictator necessary during a time of crisis.

In England, the Parliament developed, from early beginnings in 1275, by the 15th century to include an upper and lower house.[2] These were the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This structure mirrors the bicameral body of the Sumerians. The upper body was the "respectable" members of the nobility. The Commons was the house of the common people. In the parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is selected by the winning party, so the leader is selected from, and by the assembly, like in ancient Sumeria and in ancient Greece.

In the US, the bicameral body is the House and Senate. Originally, the President was selected from the Senate by the Senate. Senators were selected from the State assemblies. The bicameral body and the selection of the President from the Senate both mirror the ancient Summerian political system.

The elected military leader and the bicameral assembly have been the structure of very different kinds of government. In ancient Sumeria, "political history is dominated by the institution of kingship."[1] In ancient Greece and early US history, these forms supported exclusive governments of free males. In England, these same structural forms support the parliamentary form of government.

We tend to think of the institutions of the President and the Congress as Democratic institutions and as innovations new to the world. They are not. These structures are thousands of years old and have been used in a variety of political systems, including hereditary kingship.

The founding fathers intended the form of government not so much to promote progress, but rather to hinder changes. They wished to develop a system of government with checks and balances that would disable special interest parties from making self-interested changes. Unfortunately, the structure of the system is simply a Reinforcing Agent that keeps the current power structure in place. What this means is that once a coup is effected, the system works just as well at keeping that new system in place.

The office of President was definitely not supposed to have been a hereditary kingship. However, one could argue that the same transition over time that occured in ancient Sumeria has occured in the US.[3] The office of President has steadily gained privileges and prerogatives, such as the advent of "executive privilege." The composition of the ruling elite has also become highly hereditary or nepotistic in cases like the fact that there have been Bush and Kennedy family members in many key political positions. Further, there are examples of extreme personal (such as Colin Powell's son being head of the FCC) and corporate (such as Cheney's Haliburton getting contracts in Iraq without even bidding for them) nepotism in our government.

This "democratic"/republic system is a reinforcing agent for the status quo, and is not essentially protective of the idea of a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Keeping this fact in mind is an important point of leverage. The system does not inherently create democracy, and some would argue that it still hasn't even begun.


[1]++ Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer

[2] see: House of Commons and History of the House of Lords

[3] see: Bush Family Value$ and Dark heart of the American dream

B) Economics System

Under the influence of corporations with multinational economic interests, the political and military sectors of the world are often directed to support and act to create economic opportunity. This was a function of the US Standing Army which appeared in Central America and other areas of the world. The use of the standing army to create and protect US economic interests ends up requiring military occupation of territory outside the US. In order to withdraw the occupation forces it becomes necessary to install a friendly government. There is resistance to this installed government which further increases political unrest created by the process. This political unrest can result in long standing resistence to US interests which can lead to further need for the use of military action.

Political unrest, resistance to the installed government and occupation lead increased pressures back to multinational economics. Economic instability in a region is a point at which debt default becomes a possibility, and so the IMF offers debt restructuring in exchange for implementing austerity programs. These austerity programs remove ammeliorative programs from the social structure and thus increase social and political unrest and increase the effect of local economic stress.

The use of the military as an arm of multinational interests is clearly a point where change could alter the system. Other points of leverage could include stop maintaining a standing army, or conditioning relationships with multinational corporations. Third world debt restructuring without requiring austerity programs, or forgiving third world debt completely could provide significant decrease in systemic distress.

The International Monetary Fund IMF is made up by richest nations in the world and is dominated by the US, because they are the largest contributor of money.

The IMF lends money to developing nations in exchange for these nations undergoing austerity programs, which structurally adjust the economies of these nations to become favorable to multinational economics. The austerity programs call for nations to deregulate their economies, by opening up to international investment, privatize services, lowering labor and environmental standards, and use a significant portion of government funds to service their debt. These austerity programs that serve multinational economics lead to local economic stress. This leads to social unrest which in turn leads to political unrest.

Political unrest nationally and internationally justifies the use of as standing military for economic stability. Security and military expenditure creates profits for military related business like weapons manufacturers, the oil industry, chemical producers, the construction business, high technology and other industries. Security and military forces also employ a great number of people, making them subservient to the government for their survival. The use of standing military for economic stability is also seen in the economic opportunity of occupation forces, which open opportunities for the occupied nations resources to be opened to exploitation by multinational corporations. The installation of a government in another country is another use of standing military for economic stability. The installed government serves the interests of multinational economics, often by taking loans from the IMF and then undergoing austerity programs. These austerity programs that are a result of the use of a standing military for economic stability often lead to the political unrest that it was supposedly meant to quell. Political unrest takes form in resistance to the installed government and in resistance to the multinational economics.

C) Food System

The system of globalized & industrialized food is supported by the Oil, Chemical and High Tech companies that produce and develop the tools and supplies for this mode of agriculture. International treaties are being used by the US to force the EU member nations to accept GM foods.

A significant point of leverage on this is to develop sustainable agriculture, fair trade for international goods and to support community farms and Food Circles.[1]

[1] Food Circles Networking Project see:

D) Imperialism System

Imperialism in Iraq brings Economic Opportunity for a variety of areas of commerce. These fields include Medical Supplies, Construction, Weapons, High Tech Industry, Chemical Production, and Oil. The Oil Industry has two main groups, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC), and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). OPEC includes Algeria, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Iran. GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

The feedback system of economic opportunity, commerce, and imperialism must be changed. These industries must have some limitations place on them to slow their reinforcement of imperialism. Commerce need not control our international relations simply because there is economic opportunity. This opportunity does not necessarily need to be fulfilled.

E) Israel System

Many Arab nations, as well as what is now Israel, were once colonized by the UK. The postcolonial period has led to a strong sense of nationalism in the Arab nations. Israels settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are an example of colonization, which has ignited the Palestinians to resist against Israel and has led many Arab nations to support them. Israels violent incursions in Palestine have been called by some a post-traumatic reaction to the Holocaust. The refugee camps and the dilapidated Palestinian cities surrounded by wealthy Israeli settlements have been compared to the ghettos in Europe during the Nazi persecution of the Jews. This is an example of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

US policies have destabilized the Arab nations and have threatened Israels security. Hamas and other non-governmental resistance groups that resist against Israel receive millions from millions of dollars from sources within Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These Arab nations are all US allies that host US troops and purchase billions of dollars in US weapons each year partly due to the US exaggeration of the threat posed by Iraq and Iran. The other reason they arm themselves so heavily with US weaponry is because of the perceived threat of nuclear armed Israel, which receives billions of dollars in US military and economic aid annually and purchases billions more in weapons annually. This US weaponry is primarily used to police the Palestinian population, which is the source of the Palestinian resistance that these Arab nations are funding. The US has essentially created an arms race between the Arab nations and Israel that they feed with exponentially with ever-increasing military aid and sales to the Middle East.

The extreme favoritism shown by the US towards Israel has caused a rise in non-governmental resistance groups that resist against Israel as well as have hatred for the US and hatred toward the West. Groups such as al-Qaeda, which is believed responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks claim their hatred of the US stems from US support for despotic rulers in Arab nations, US sanctions against Iraq and US policies towards Israel.

F) Militarization System

Since the Bush administration took office the US has undergone a massive military buildup deploying US troops across the globe in Latin America, especially Colombia, South East Asia, especially the Philippines, and Central Asia in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many of the former Soviet Republics. The Middle East has been the primary focus of the militarization campaign with the deployment of US troops to Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and now with the occupation of Iraq.

Ideologues actively involved developing the Bush administrations policies have long desired to go to war with Iraq as a way to implement a New World Order. The basic plans for a Pax-Americana are spelled out by the Project for a New a New American Century, a right-wing think tank established in the mid-90s by numerous figures currently in the Bush administration, in their September 2000 report entitled Rebuilding Americas Defenses. The plan for a Pax-American is nothing short of a global empire enforced by overwhelming militarization. The plan has colonialist implications in its desire to open the world to unchecked economic opportunity by deploying US troops in other countries to allow selected transnational corporations to exploit resources from the land to be sold on the international market.

The Bush administration has declared that Iraq will benefit from the privatization of its oil industry, but it is more likely that this will be another method to distribute funds to US corporations rather than the Iraqi people. Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer, told Inter Press Service that the Bush administration and Iraqs new administrators are a bunch of private sector alumni called upon to perform the task in government they were performing in the private the private sector. The task is to privatize the Iraqi economy, putting it in the control of Western corporations.

Recent US activities by the US are part of a larger plan to privatize the entire Middle East economy, especially the oil industry. Bush recently unveiled a plan to set up a free trade agreement with countries from the region by 2013, meant to bring about the deregulation and privatization of their economies and inclusion into the WTO. It is likely the US will see the privatization of the Iraqi economy as a way to hinder European trade relations with the Middle East. Europe already has a Euro-Mediterranean Free-Trade Area, was making steps toward including other Middle East nations including Iran and Iraq.

US involvement in Colombias civil war will be used to militarize the region, targeting Venezuela in particular. Colombian officials have accused Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez of harboring guerrilla fighters as justification for their cross-border attacks. Chavezs response was to bomb an area along the border, where he said he detected the presence of a group. These raids could be Colombias attempt to export its own civil war to Venezuela to eventually encourage a US intervention in the conflict, which could serve the interests of both Bush and Uribe regimes.

The deployment of US soldiers into the Philippines with the stated goal of assisting the Philippine military in operations against Muslim organized crime gang Abu-Sayyaf. The Philippines have been rewarded with millions of dollars in economic and military aid and $1billion in trade benefits. In January of this year the US sent 1,700 soldiers to be directly involved in combat alongside Philippine military, which was resisted by the Philippine Senate and the population. As US support seems to be on the rise, the Philippine government has begun cracking down on other organizations than the Abu-Sayyaf, that it had cease-fire agreements with. It is also interesting to note that China and the Philippines have a territory dispute over a group of islands in an oil rich section of the South China Sea. Some believe rising tensions in this dispute could instigate an intervention by the US on the behalf of the Philippines.

In Central Asia the US, according to the RUPE book, has sabotaged Chinese efforts to build a security-cum-economic organization, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for a proposed gas pipeline from the Caspian region to China. The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan and the installation of troops at the Central Asian countries in the grouping ended Chinas plans.

G) Patriot System

In relations with other nations there can be significant miscommunication and misinterpretation based on unspecific threats or simply cultural differences. This misinterpretation often leads to increasing mistrust for both the home country and the country being dealt with. Mistrust and misinterpretation both lead to increasing levels of national hysteria. The public often increases their level of support in response to imagined or actual threats to their country. Both national hysteria and paranoia are major causes for increasing public support. Patriotism can often lead to support of one's Government. Support for country and support for Government are two separate causes, but are often mistaken as the same. Presidential Charisma also increases support for our government and the nation as a whole.

The feedback loop between misinterpretation, mistrust, national hysteria, and support could be changed by better informing the public, causing a decrease in both national hysteria and support. If the public were better informed of the actual threat or had access to more diverse views on actions, perhaps the paranoia and national hysteria would decrease. In addition, if communication were clearer between countries then mistrust would not increase the feedback system.

H) Privilege System

There are three main social entities which appear and act differently based on privilege in the US. The first is the economic system which to the privileged acts like socialism with protected markets and corporate welfare but for those without privilege the economic system is based on free trade where the buyer must beware and the seller gets what they can. The political system acts in many ways as a direct democracy for the privileged, a representative government for the upper class but a dictatorship for those without privilege. The US military and the military-industrial-prison complex act as guards to a gated community for the privileged but as prison guards or secret police to the underprivileged.

One clear point is that this system of privilege is unsurfaced in our mainstream narrative, but it's there's also a willful conflation of the three social entities that ties the support of the underprivileged for the system to support for the privilege dynamic.

We tend to conflate the ideas of corporation with the economy as a whole, when there are huge sectors of the US economy where corporations do not function well. We tend to conflate the government with the country when the country is far more complex and multifaceted than the government and the government clearly doesn't represent the interests of the underprivileged against the force of privileged interests. We tend to conflate the military mission with the social standing of the troops that comprise the military when it's clearly possible to support and value the people that make up the military without supporting specific missions or even the military itself.

Another complicated confusion that could be a point of leverage is that we tend to conflate the social entities with each other. We tend to see the economic system of the US as identical to the political system, thus changing one seems incorrectly to require changing both. We tend to see political dissent over acts of aggression as devaluing the troops that comprise the military. We tend to see the standing military as a mechanism to support economic interests instead of as a tool for protecting sovereign status.

Conflation of variables in a system is a way to obfuscate dialogue, and should be avoided. Unraveling and surfacing these confusions may help develop a clearer national dialogue about privilege and power, as well as help develop awareness of community and individual issues and interests which underly the way the conflicts have been framed by those served by conflation.

Another possible point of leverage is to start a dialogue about the ideas of democracy. We tend to think of this country as a democracy when it was never intended to be so. Madison, a main framer of the consitution, recognized that in England, if the populace was given direct vote, they would vote for an aggrarian reform which he found intollerable. The idea of the political system is one of elite decision making and public ratification for those decisions. The values and ideals of democracy would be an ideal starting place for a dialogue on whether the national narrative should work harder to develop in that direction.

I) Threat System

Multinational corporate interests use political and economic pressure and coercion to use the standing military to create and enforce economic opportunity and development in other countries. A perpetual enemy is created to justify the continued existence of the standing military, which is itself an economic enterprise, keeping the available military power for use for economic, corporate interests. The use of military power help to create the conditions which generate new opposition, and thus there's a continued renewal of targets for the perpetual enemy.

THe original work by the framers of the constitution included protection from a standing military and protection from monopoly power. Those provisions were struck down. Over time, corporations have worked to be recognized as individuals, with the rights of individuals, and there was a break through around the 14th amendment. In recent years, many international agreements have been used to abrogate local power and national sovereignty to give corporations more power than even individuals have. For example, a corporation in the US can sue to be recognized in Mexico as a native corporation, however, an individual cannot hope to be recognized as a citizen.

Continued distinction of national and international corporations gives them too much freedom to infringe on the rights of others, beyond the collective rights of the humans that make up the organization. Intercepting this trend would go a long way toward supporting the individuals and flattening the socio-economic hierarchy. The creation of a perpetual enemy is a tool that justifies the existence of the standing military which is used for economic interests. Taking away the standing military or creating protections from monopoly power might help to remove the need for a perpetual enemy.

[1] see: Corporations Are People, Too

J) Trade System

Russia is being harmed economically by the United States (US) being in Iraq by losing control over oil interests. This is causing tension between the US and Russia. Additionally, Russia wants into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US can help their admission, but refuses to help. The US, through it's influence in the WTO, is forcing the European Union (EU) to accept Genetically Modified (GM) food into their market. The WTO claims that by refusing to allow GM food into their market, the EU is setting illegal trade barriers. This coercion has also been used by the WTO on the US, forcing the US to gut environmental legislation. By making international treaties national Governments give away State rights that they do not have the right to give away.

Since several members of international trade treaties have come into conflict with these treaties, perhaps the role of these international treaties needs to be redefined and clarified. Many do not believe that the international treaties are being enforced how they were intended. These international governing bodies may need to reassess both their enforcing and membership policies.

K) Understandard System

In the high-tech world there are Standards (typically called Open Standards) which everyone is supposed to follow and that everyone agrees to and knows about, like how a web page is supposed to be displayed or the way that data is transfered over the Internet.[1] (In fact, the Internet itself is a standard.)

Well, there's always companies that take liberties with the way they implement standards. Either they think they can improve on them, or they are trying to lock our competition, or both, etc ... anyhow, they work on a modified version of the "standard."

This is like the difference between current reality and mental models, or like the difference between espoused theories and theories-in-use.[2] So, there's the "standard" which is what we agree to publicly, but there are Understandards which are the modified standards by which we operate. These are the understandings between people "in the know" about how things really work.

So, that's my new word: Understandard, noun, the way things really work as opposed to the way they are officially supposed to work, which is a kind of tribal knowledge, knowledge that is often kept as a secret to maintain power and/or control over those that don't have that knowledge.

There's a further complication in that understandards represent a covert form of Leeway which limits the benefit to those "in the know." Leeway in any schedule of rules or regulations, including understandards, is essential to living, organic systems. "For us to talk, argue, try out ideas, tear down and build up thoughts, assimilate and appropriate concepts - heck just to be together in public - we have to grant all sorts of leeway." [3]

Sanctions are an example of a standard which attempts to determine and proscribe behaviour. Sanctions are used to encourage compliance to standards. Sanctions often have loopholes and exceptions, which act as leeway. There can also be situations where the sanctions are covertly avoided, which are understandards.

This forms a system of privilege and control. The leverage of suffacing the understandards, and making them into leeway, is a way to remove the private privilege and control from the system.


[1] The Internet Enginineering Task Force

[2] Senge The Fifth Discipline

[3] ''Copy Protection Is a Crime ... against humanity.'' David Weinberger