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Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2014, Volume 111, Issue 49, Pages 17356–17362 (Mi pnas1)  

Dealing with femtorisks in international relations

A. B. Franka, M. G. Collinsb, S. A. Levinc, A. W. Lod, J. Ramoe, U. Dieckmannb, V. Kremenyukf, A. Kryazhimskiygb, J. Linnerooth-Bayerb, B. Ramalingamh, J. S. Royi, D. G. Saarij, S. Thurnerbk, D. von Winterfeldl

a Department of Computational Social Science, George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22030
b International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
c Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544
d Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02142
e Kissinger Associates, New York, NY 10022
f Institute for US and Canadian Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow 123995, Russia
g Steklov Institute of Mathematics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow 119991, Russia
h Overseas Development Institute, London, United Kingdom
i Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Wilson Center, Washington, DC 20004
j Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697
k Medical University of Vienna, A-1090 Vienna, Austria
l Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089

Abstract: The contemporary global community is increasingly interdependent and confronted with systemic risks posed by the actions and interactions of actors existing beneath the level of formal institutions, often operating outside effective governance structures. Frequently, these actors are human agents, such as rogue traders or aggressive financial innovators, terrorists, groups of dissidents, or unauthorized sources of sensitive or secret information about government or private sector activities. In other instances, influential "actors" take the form of climate change, communications technologies, or socioeconomic globalization. Although these individual forces may be small relative to state governments or international institutions, or may operate on long time scales, the changes they catalyze can pose significant challenges to the analysis and practice of international relations through the operation of complex feedbacks and interactions of individual agents and interconnected systems. We call these challenges "femtorisks," and emphasize their importance for two reasons. First, in isolation, they may be inconsequential and semiautonomous; but when embedded in complex adaptive systems, characterized by individual agents able to change, learn from experience, and pursue their own agendas, the strategic interaction between actors can propel systems down paths of increasing, even global, instability. Second, because their influence stems from complex interactions at interfaces of multiple systems (e. g., social, financial, political, technological, ecological, etc.), femtorisks challenge standard approaches to risk assessment, as higher-order consequences cascade across the boundaries of socially constructed complex systems. We argue that new approaches to assessing and managing systemic risk in international relations are required, inspired by principles of evolutionary theory and development of resilient ecological systems.

Funding Agency Grant Number
National Science Foundation 0738129
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Financial support for the conference was provided by IIASA and by the National Academy of Sciences, through National Science Foundation Grant 0738129, for the support of National Academy of Sciences activities related to its responsibilities as the United States National Member Organization for IIASA.


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1400229111


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Received: 06.07.2014
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