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It happens almost every time, like clockwork. I’ll be speaking to a class — usually some combination of American intelligence, foreign service and/or military officers — and I’ll make the point that the world today is unprecedented in its complexity.
By complexity, I’ll explain that I’m talking about global interconnectivity and interdependence as exemplified by the world’s growing physical and virtual networks, not to mention the increasing speeds at which people, goods, information and ideas move across those networks.
Next, I’ll explain how this complexity fuels the emergence of systemic/collective phenomena that now dominate the spectrum of today’s most challenging strategic issues — think climate change, globalization, urbanization, pandemics, misinformation/disinformation, cyber/network-effects, economic contagion, migration, extremism, and the like.
Finally, I’ll explain that even China or Russia, which at first glance might appear to be more traditional strategic challenges, are now as much about the emergent phenomena listed above as about classic hard power capabilities. (This last point, it must be emphasized, is not at all undermined by Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. To the contrary, the accompanying information war and broader network-effects profoundly reinforce it.)
Having outlined this and solicited thoughts from the class, I’ll begin to count in my head … one, two … by three it usually will come from somewhere in the room: “Yes, but the world has always been complex.”
And with that simple retort, two of the greatest misperceptions in contemporary American strategic thought get revealed in all their falsely reassuring glory. One, everything is different and yet somehow nothing has really changed. And two, the corollary proposition that if nothing has really changed, there is really no need for us to do anything radically different. Instead, we can mostly continue to do what we’ve always done — perhaps just do more of it, faster.
For sure, complexity can seem overwhelming. It’s therefore only natural to want to normalize it and make it more familiar. It’s also true that many of the emergent phenomena stemming from complexity — migration, globalization, economic shocks, pandemics and such — are not entirely novel. Rather, they are modern manifestations of previously seen phenomena.
But that said, today’s strategic complexity is genuinely different — so we rationalize it away at our peril.
Two things immediately jump out.
First, while the world indeed may have always been complex, the fact is that the United States’ still formative strategic experience — the Cold War — really wasn’t. That is to say, the Cold War was neither networked nor multi-dimensional. It was highly bounded; the Soviet Union was the issue, and the playing field was largely military. All else was essentially eclipsed. Moreover, our overarching policy — physical containment — was aimed at keeping it that way by preventing the Soviet Union from extending its influence into other geographic or functional areas.
Second, during the Cold War the “virtual” realm was nascent at best. The state of information technology was such that the power to broadcast remained almost exclusively with a relative few: governments, corporations and perhaps a few extraordinarily wealthy individuals. The flow of information could be effectively constrained, if not controlled, in a relatively hierarchical (top-down) fashion.
Oh, how things have changed.
Today’s strategic environment has no singular focal point or issue. Ask someone today what the overarching security challenge is, and you’ll get myriad answers. Moreover, they’ll all be blurrily interconnected/overlapping in some way, or perhaps many ways.
Only in the past 30 years, since the end of the Cold War, has it become possible for anyone — given a cell phone, internet access and a social media app — to broadcast and to reach millions in an instant with a tap of a finger. Today, information doesn’t just flow top-down — it flows in tsunamic waves that slosh across networks every which way and never cease. Indeed, the cyber/information domain that today is considered fundamental to the strategic landscape was barely thought about as a strategic domain 30 years ago.
This is effectively new. And it’s not merely an incremental change; it’s fundamental. This explains why it’s so important that we understand and acknowledge its magnitude. Only by accepting the extent of the change can we resist the pull of incrementalism — “more/faster” — and make the courageous leap to “different.”
What must we do differently? Since the change is so fundamental, we must start with fundamentals: our thinking. It is vital that we learn to think about the world in holistic, “big-picture” terms — what Nobel-laureate Murray Gell-Mann once called a “crude look at the whole” — that are the antithesis of the highly analytic and reductive approaches that we have traditionally employed.
Put differently, only by unbounding and blurring our vision, by understanding how things are broadly interconnected and interdependent, will we finally see the world for the “messy” place it really is, vice the “neatly” compartmented fantasy world we habitually imagine it to be.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we can even think about thinking this way, which will also require a slew of associated changes (i.e., organizational, lexical, metrical, methodological, etc.), we must first, above all, buy into the idea that the complexity of the modern strategic environment truly is different. Only that can provide the necessary fortitude.
So, the next time someone discounts today’s unprecedented global complexity with a dismissive “the world has always been complex,” the best response we can give needn’t be complex at all. It can actually be quite simple: “True, but not like this.”
Josh Kerbel is a member of the research faculty at the U.S. National Intelligence University. He has held analytic positions in the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, including the National Intelligence Council; the Navy Staff; the CIA; and the Office of Naval Intelligence. The views expressed here are his alone.
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