Academic journal article Parameters

The Complexity Trap

Academic journal article Parameters

The Complexity Trap

Article excerpt

When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you're going to get yourself into trouble. (1)

--President Barack Obama

The Cult of Complexity

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity, or so we are told. President Obama's words above echo an increasingly common narrative in the American foreign policy and national security establishments: the forces of globalization, rising nonstate actors, irregular conflict, and proliferating destructive technologies have made crafting sound national security strategy more elusive than ever before. (2) If "strategy is the art of creating power" by specifying the relationship among ends, ways, and means, (3) then the existence of unprecedented complexity would seem to make this art not only uniquely difficult today but also downright dangerous, inasmuch as choosing any particular course of action would preclude infinitely adaptive responses in the future. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates memorably described, the pre-9/11 challenges to American national security were "amateur night compared to the world today." (4) And as former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter recently stated, there is a "universal awareness that we are living through a time of rapid and universal change," one in which the assumptions of the twentieth century make little sense. (5) The "Mr. Y" article that occasioned her comments argued that, in contrast to the "closed system" of the twentieth century that could be controlled by mankind, we now live in an "open system" defined by its supremely complex and protean nature. (6) Unparalleled complexity, it seems, is the hallmark of our strategic age.

These invocations of complexity permeate today's American national security documents and inform Washington's post-Cold War and -9/11 strategic culture. The latest Quadrennial Defense Review begins its analysis with a description of the "complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate. Not since the fall of the Soviet Union or the end of World War II has the international terrain been affected by such far-reaching and consequential shifts." (7) In a similar vein, the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2025 argues that the international system is trending towards greater degrees of complexity as power is diffused and actors multiply. (8) The Director of National Intelligence's Vision 2015 terms our time the "Era of Uncertainty," one "in which the pace, scope, and complexity of change are increasing." (9) Disturbingly, the younger generation of foreign policy and national security professionals seems to accept and embrace these statements declaiming a fundamental change in our world and our capacity to cope with it. The orientation for the multi-thousand-member group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy calls "conquering complexity" the fundamental challenge for the millennial generation. Complexity, it appears, is all the rage.

We challenge these declarations and assumptions--not simply because they are empirically unfounded but, far more importantly, because they negate the very art of strategy and make the realization of the American national interest impossible. We begin by showing the rather unsavory consequences of the current trend toward worshipping at complexity's altar and thus becoming a member of the "Cult of Complexity." Next, we question whether the world was ever quite as simple as today's avowers of complexity suggest, thus revealing the notion of today's unprecedented complexity to be descriptively false. We then underscore that this idea is dangerous, given the consequences of an addiction to complexity. Finally, we offer an escape from the complexity trap, with an emphasis on the need for prioritization in today's admittedly distinctive international security environment. Throughout, we hope to underscore that today's obsession with complexity results in a dangerous denial of the need to strategize. …

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