Complexity Theory

By John Liang / September 1, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies today issued a "Global Strategic Assessment" that looks at the international security environment in the next decade.

Over the past 10 years, NDU has published a series of similar annual assessments, according to the latest report's introduction. Last year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense asked NDU "to prepare another assessment that would provide a broad and diverse understanding of the international security environment in the decade ahead, specifically designed for use early in the term of the new president," the report states. Specifically:

Although the United States cannot afford to be the world’s exclusive security guarantor, the world is ill prepared for U.S. retrenchment. This Global Strategic Assessment offers a conceptual pathway for U.S. policymakers to begin recalibrating America’s security role to reverse what has appeared to be a widening gap between U.S. ends and means, now and in the future. International security requires U.S. active engagement, but the character of that engagement is changing along with the global environment. Worldwide trends suggest that the United States will increasingly have to approach complex challenges and surprises through wider and more effective partnerships and more integrated strategies. This volume explains the complex security environment and how in particular the United States can begin the process of strategic adaptation. Complexity is the watchword of our century.

This assessment should be a healthy reminder of just how complex—and dangerous—a world we live in. That complexity was encapsulated by the Greek poet Archilochus, who said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog had only one big idea. During the previous administration, the United States conflated security under the umbrella of a “global war on terror” and focused on a single big idea. Thus, in this volume a central idea, if not an organizing principle, is that the United States will have to be as clever as the fox, keeping its eye on multiple challenges and taking care not to exert its finite resources on any single problem. Preparing for and dealing with such profound complexity requires particular capabilities, approaches, and proclivities: cultural, developmental, experiential, technical, organizational, political, and operational. These attributes can be selected, cultivated, and enhanced, and it seems that they will have to be if we are to survive, let alone succeed.