The Complexity Trap
Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2012
When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you're going to get yourself into trouble.
-President Barack Obama
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. If "strategy is the art of creating power" by specifying the relationship among ends, ways, and means, 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." 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. 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. Unparalleled complexity, it seems, is the hallmark of our strategic age.