The Complexity Challenge: The U.S. Government's Struggle to Keep Up with the Times

"'The world is complex' is the U.S. government’s greatest strategic cliché and—paradoxically—its greatest strategic challenge."

There is nothing that Washington likes more than a good cliché. And for over two decades now, there has been no cliché the U.S. government has liked more than: “The world is complex.” Take a look at almost any post–Cold War U.S. government document or policy speech that describes the strategic environment and odds are it uses some turn of this now ubiquitous characterization.

Unfortunately, while the frequency of its use has steadily increased, the amount of meaningful explanation the description receives has seemingly declined. Consequently, the characterization is now commonly just “boilerplate” that is skimmed over, or worse, begs users, readers and listeners to ascribe their own—too-often ill-defined—meaning to it. In other words, it can now mean nothing or anything—and usually does.

This is a serious problem, for clichés are poor motivators of action. And action is definitely required. It’s required because, quite simply, complexity is a real—defined—phenomenon that marks a genuine change in the strategic environment. But even more so, action is required because complexity is also the phenomenon that is fueling and/or complicating the management of the government’s—and indeed the nation’s—most vexing strategic challenges. 

These challenges include political and economic contagion, social upheavals, pandemics, violent extremism/terrorism, climate change, environmental degradation, mass migration, stateless commerce and digital currency, super-empowered individuals and organizations, tax evasion, China's global integration, Russia’s truculence, resource competition, transnational organized crime, shifting alliances, urbanization, rapid technological change, proliferation, cybersecurity—the list could go on and on. All are reflections on some level of international complexity.

So, moving beyond the cliché, what does it actually mean to say that the world is complex?

Well, on a basic level it means that the global system is now effectively defined by fluid, heterogeneous, widely distributed, nonhierarchical networks—in contrast to the comparatively static, homogenous (state-centric) and dichotomous hierarchies (East-West; Warsaw Pact–NATO; United States–USSR) that dominated the Cold War strategic environment. In turn, since this variable and expansive interconnectivity allows for ever-more combinations of interaction and interdependence, it also means that global dynamics are showing an ever-greater tendency toward nonlinear—highly unpredictable—behavior. In a word, it means uncertainty.

For sure, increasing physical interconnectivity—in the form of ever expanding transportation links—is a key contributor to this complex and uncertain strategic environment. (Think of Ebola's newfound ability to escape Africa before the death of its host.) Even more disruptive, however, is expansive virtual interconnectivity that, enabled by the information technology (IT) revolution, has permitted previously unimaginable numbers of individuals—many in historically (by design or circumstance) disconnected regions of the world—to connect.

What is often underappreciated about this virtual connectivity is the fact that it doesn't just allow more people to "receive" more information more quickly—although it does indeed do that. More importantly, it is also allowing anyone with an internet connection to actually “broadcast” to—and potentially influence—untold numbers of others around the world. (Think of the fear of Ebola’s spread, which far exceeded the reality, that swept the world last year.)

And it doesn’t stop there. According to an official Google blog post, last year (2014) marked the point at which about 40 percent of the world's population was online—virtually connected. This, of course, means there is still a long way to go and, by extension, no reason to assume that the trend toward more complexity and its associated challenges will dissipate anytime soon.

In sum, this portends a future with more of what has been happening for the past twenty-five years: a world in which it is becoming harder to find strategic “mooring points,” due to relentlessly increasing numbers of people actively joining the global conversation and continuously rewriting and blending ever more ephemeral political, economic, military and social narratives.

Amazingly, and despite—or perhaps because of—this seemingly inexorable complexity, push-back within the U.S. government as to how much of a change this actually constitutes remains an alarmingly common theme. The counterarguments tend to go something like this: “Yes, the world is complex—but it has always been that way. After all, didn’t all previous connective technologies—sailing ships, the printing press, steamships, railroads, undersea cables, the telegraph, telephone, radio, aircraft, television, satellites, etc.—make it so?”

Yes, but. True, however. Therein lies the root of the cliché: ambivalence.