The US Talks A Lot About Strategic Complexity. Too Bad It’s Mostly Just Talk.

The pandemic sidelined a national security community that gives only lip service to a vital concept.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. government believes the world is complex, and is seriously building strategy around this belief. 

After all, U.S. national security community’s publicly released strategy documents say so, repeatedly. The 2017 National Security Strategy? Three times. The 2018 National Defense Strategy? Four times. The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy? Six times. And those are only the explicit mentions; the documents often imply or describe complexity but do not use the exact term. But is it so? To assess whether the U.S. national security community is truly concerned about strategic complexity — not to mention how much it should be — it’s necessary to understand what “the world is complex” really means. 

To most national security practitioners (like most people in general), it seems to mean the obvious: that the world is a confusing, disordered, tangled, convoluted place. And, indeed, these are true of any genuinely complex system. However, using complexity as a mere synonym for those terms is to miss the more important — systemic — meaning of the term. Today’s global system is so highly interconnected and interdependent — orders of magnitude more so than the Cold War strategic environment that preceded it — that it is extraordinarily prone to a phenomenon known as “emergence.” Emergence — the organic (not centrally directed) generation and propagation of nonlinear (more than the sum of the parts) phenomena that are systemically disruptive and/or transformative — is the crux of complexity. And it is precisely such emergent phenomena that are the truly vital issues when one describes the world as complex. 

So, what are some examples of emergence in a global context? Well, they run the gamut of today’s most pressing strategic challenges: climate change; globalization; urbanization; economic/financial contagion; sweeping political/social movements; critical network failure; “fringe-fluidity” extremism; cyber-threats; mass-migration; technology preference/standardization; infectious propagation of lies; and pandemics. All of them — every single one — are, first and foremost, functions of today’s extraordinary complexity. 

And what of China and the increasingly prevalent strategic notion of renewed great power competition? Well, the same holds. Quite simply, China is ever more enmeshed into today’s global networks and thus the key challenges it poses are more likely to be emergent vice deriving from some Cold War-like (i.e., linear, force-on-force) calculation of its brute military capability. This is already evident in China’s obvious role in so many of the emergent global phenomena described above — most notably at the moment the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The pandemic is a paragon of emergence. Due largely to modern transportation and commerce patterns, the novel coronavirus spread within months to every corner of the globe, surpassing all previous pandemics in speed, spread, and perhaps systemic impact (if not sheer mortality). Today few parts of the world and few people are not physically accessible within 20 hours. Most conspicuously, the post-Cold War world has seen the full connection and integration of Russia, the largest piece of previously disconnected territory; and China, the largest previously disconnected population.

Of course, it’s not just about physical interconnectivity and interdependence; it’s also about virtual complexity. Invented just over three decades ago, the World Wide Web allows anyone — not just governments, corporations, and/or the supremely wealthy — to quickly and globally spread ideas, fears, hopes, information, and lies. This virtual reach has propelled the pandemic’s impact well beyond public health, to the political, social, commercial, and economic domains. And though its explosive growth may slow, global Internet penetration has barely passed the halfway mark

Despite the clear and powerful challenge that complexity poses, the national security community’s belief in the significance of that challenge seems much less certain than its own strategy documents suggest. For sure, a die-hard group of complexity adherents — myself included — have been writing passionately for decades now about the growing complexity of the post-Cold War national security environment. Indeed, collectively, we are probably the ones most responsible for the many mentions of complexity referenced above (as well as countless similar mentions in previous strategic documents and analyses). 

But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that we have failed to make our point. To be blunt, the larger national security community does not really believe in the importance or significance of what we have been saying. (The response has largely mirrored the one Indiana Jones got at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: “It will be [studied], I assure you…We have top men working on it.” Cue the ark being boxed up and buried deep in an immense government warehouse — the cinematic equivalent of a mention in a strategy document.)  Because once you pull back the linguistic drapery of innovation and change, the documents remain largely fixed in traditionally discrete — not particularly complex — categories (e.g., foreign, domestic, economic, military, intelligence, diplomatic, regional, etc.). 

These documents are not so much about the creation of fundamentally new — interconnected and interdependent — categories, perspectives, and approaches that accurately reflect the expansive messiness of today’s complex strategic environment. Rather, they serve up more of the same.

For an example of this tendency to acknowledge unprecedented complexity and then quickly resort to precedent, consider the concept of “anticipatory intelligence.” Anticipatory intelligence was originally conceived with unprecedented complexity in mind. The underlying notion was that in a complex world where phenomena — like pandemics — can suddenly emerge and propagate unconstrained, the intelligence community’s traditional approach of identifying, drilling down on, and perhaps forecasting the trajectory of issues once they have already emerged (i.e., strategic intelligence) is increasingly insufficient. In other words, anticipation is required. 

This is implicitly and explicitly acknowledged in the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy, which then devolves into a word salad that blends a mix of traditional intelligence activities (collect, analyze, forecast, warn, etc.) with a mishmash of “improve,” “increase,” “expand,” “reinforce” and similarly incremental terms. This watered-down strategic soup makes it almost impossible to perceive anticipatory intelligence as the truly novel capability — aimed at addressing a truly novel degree of complexity — that it was originally supposed to be. 

The documents’ tendency to acknowledge and then dismiss complexity is echoed by national security practitioners themselves. I speak on the subject to countless groups, classes, symposia, and meetings every year. It rarely takes long for someone to voice what many in the room really seem to be thinking: well, the world has always been complex, hasn't it? (Heads nod.) After all, pandemics have happened forever. (Murmurs of assent.) Things aren't really quite so different, are they? (Questioning and/or accusatory looks aimed at me and sighs of relief.)

This deeply ingrained skepticism about complexity as a strategic challenge has left the national security community stunningly unprepared for the world it confronts. Again, one need only look at the current pandemic. One year after its emergence, COVID-19 has killed over half a million Americans; in January 2021, the virus killed more people every single day than died in the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, many aspects of our society have been profoundly—and probably permanently—disrupted. And where was the national security community? Largely sidelined by their outdated military, intelligence, and diplomatic assumptions. COVID-19 has no central head to be decapitated, shocked, or awed. It has no ships, tanks, planes, or satellites. It has no intentions to discern or classified plans to be stolen. And it cannot be bargained with, threatened, or persuaded to stand down. 

Certainly, nation-states and traditional military threats (e.g., Russia, China, Iran, North Korea) still matter. However, short of outright war (and maybe even then), their power will probably be determined more by their ability to penetrate and/or manipulate the world’s interconnectivity and interdependence—networks: political, economic, social, and military—than by traditional measures of military power. The lesson should be clear: the expansiveness and messiness of today’s complex challenges constitute something very different from the ordered and discrete notions upon which the national security community has long drawn. 

It is often said that the first step in any successful effort to change is to acknowledge you have a problem. Some good may yet emerge from the pandemic if it helps the national security community finally grasp that complexity is more than a trendy synonym for confusing or messy, and understand how unprepared they are to face the primary progenitor of the nation’s most important strategic challenges.

Josh Kerbel, a longtime intelligence analyst, is a member of the research faculty at the U.S. National Intelligence University. The views presented in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the National Intelligence University, the U.S. government, or any other element thereof.