How often have you heard “strategic" and “complex” applied to things no more strategic and complex than a shopping list?

How often have you heard “strategic" and “complex” applied to things no more strategic and complex than a shopping list? Bradley Peniston

Stop Using ‘Strategic’ To Mean Everything Under the Sun

Linguistic sloppiness is impeding the U.S. government from coming to grips with today’s interconnected security challenges.

How often have you heard “strategic" and “complex” applied to things no more strategic and complex than a shopping list?

Few terms are more ubiquitous in our national security discourse, or more haphazardly used. Perhaps that didn’t matter so much in the past. But today, when our overarching security challenge is strategic complexity itself, this linguistic sloppiness is hurting our ability to grapple with it. As George Orwell put it, “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

First, let’s be clear: strategic complexity—the increasingly expansive interconnectivity and interdependence of the global system—is what makes most of today’s major national security challenges so tough. A short list of these interwoven phenomena would include political and economic contagion (e.g., Arab Spring, Brexit repercussions, 2008 financial crisis); pandemics; terrorism; mass migration; arms proliferation; urbanization; climate change; stateless commerce and digital currency; transnational organized crime; super-empowerment of individuals and non-state organizations; Russia’s and China’s disruptive potential; and cyber-security.

These intertwined challenges are so different from yesterday’s comparatively discrete and more readily categorized problems that they all but demand a new way of writing, thinking, and talking about them. But since we’re unlikely to adopt an entirely new national security lexicon, we’ll have to use our current terminology with a new degree of deliberation, explication, and discipline. 

Consider the word strategic, which is commonly used in multiple ways, even within a single document, book, or speech. Three uses seem particularly prevalent: temporally, to mean long-term (e.g., “strategic warning”); contextually, to mean broad or expansive (e.g., “strategic environment” or “strategic impact”); and reductively, to mean focused, in-depth, or essential (e.g., “strategic priorities”). When we observe that the second and third meanings contradict each other, and note that even the intended meaning is often unclear—for instance, what does it mean to say one is a “strategic thinker”?— the U.S. government’s “strategic incoherence,” as it were, is hardly surprising. 

Let us agree to settle on one definition: the second, contextual meaning that comports with the expansive and interrelated character of today’s security challenges and the “big-picture” perspectives necessary to understand and cope with them. This means reducing our use of other meanings, especially the third, reductive way that reinforces the traditional inclination to break vast, multipart issues into smaller, discrete, more “digestible” pieces. While such reductive perspectives are often effective for addressing complicated issues, they simply don’t work well for complex ones.

Which brings us to the USG’s next—and perhaps greatest—terminological challenge: how to properly and effectively use the terms “complex” and “complexity.” For too long, and too widely, they have been used interchangeably—sloppily—with “complicated.” (A good example is here and an even better one is here.)

Other than both being comprised of multiple components, complicated and complex issues are quite different. Complicated issues are largely “mechanical” in that they are relatively discrete (have discernible “edges”) and in that their components, and the relationships between those components, tend to be consistent over time. (The Soviet Union was essentially complicated.) In contrast, complex issues have a more “organic” character in that they are blurry-edged, or interconnected, and in that neither the components nor the relationships between them are necessarily consistent.  

Fundamentally, complicated issues are reducible, predictable, and “solvable,” while complex ones are not. The latter, therefore, demand a very different set of objectives: a holistic perspective that yields an understanding of possibilities (i.e., anticipation) and manageability. Perhaps the best example of the U.S. government’s failure to appreciate the distinction between complicated and complex is its continuing, and misguided, tendency to think about terrorism (an expansive, complex phenomenon) mostly in terms of terrorists (discrete, complicated “things”).  

Given these differences, it’s vital that we think about—and hence talk about—complex issues differently than we do complicated ones. In particular, we must begin using the term complex in a way that explicitly means something different from complicated. This might seem minor. In fact, it will actually constitute a significant, healthy step away from the Cold War mentality that still governs much of the way the U.S. government thinks and acts, and toward a mindset and whole-of-government approach that can better deal with the security environment of today and tomorrow.