Strategic thought: the complexity of security


William McKeran is studying at the UK Defence Academy and King’s College London. He is undertaking a Masters by Research that is using complexity theory to analyse the UK’s National Security Council, Fusion Doctrine and the Russian Federation. If you have any follow ups, contact him on Twitter 

Sir Mark Sedwill recently outlined the UK’s need to reorient to a forward looking strategy, centred on Global Britain, to respond to a “very real set of complex 21st Century challenges”. He highlighted three big trends that are influencing the global order: the Fourth Industrial Revolution, significant changing age structures between the hemispheres and the movement of global economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Set against this evolving context, and more “familiar national security threats that have had a 21st century upgrade”, the UK has developed its co-ordination vision through the National Security and Capability Review’s (NSCR) Fusion Doctrine. The Review’s themes of complexity and uncertainty are not new but they do appear to be becoming increasingly common. The Fusion Doctrine approach seeks to maintain a core protective component but also grow activecross-government promotion of UK influence, security and economic benefit. What does this mean for UK strategy? This post will explore how the emerging field of complexity theory might inform these issues, and suggest some ways in which it can focus our thinking around Global Britain.

What is complexity theory:

Originating in the natural sciences, complexity theory is an interdisciplinary approach that analyses uncertainty and non-linearity to explain why system wide behaviour emerges from the interaction between large groups of simpler elements. Jean Boulton, an evolutionary complexity pioneer, proposes that we should view the world as “organic, systemic, and shaped by history and context”. This develops a world view that has evolved in open systems that cannot be explained by reducing them down to their constituent parts.The individual elements that make up the systems, acting freely, interact with one another, ”share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour” that shapean emerging future that cannot be entirely known in advance. Complexity advocates also highlight the importance of history; path-dependency means that the constituent parts constantly interact to produce both positive and negative feedback loops that further supports the concept of non-linear emergent futures. This embraces the messiness of the real world but bounds it to support analysis, recognising that the boundaries “may shift or be permeable” as the systems evolve. Systems are self-organizing and episodic with change often appearing to happen in fits and starts. This delivers a world in which long-term stability appears to suddenly modify, often due to micro changes that reach a tipping point, Figure 1 refers. Boulton advises that the system is uncertain but not random.

The Europe UK relationship, Figure 1.

life cycle

Developed from Duncan Green’s insights on fragile states and Crawford Holling’s forest lifecycleIn the open system, Brexit’s emergence marks just another episodic change before the lifecycle resets.

At the heart of complexity lies a hypothesis that supports John Lewis Gaddis’s grand strategy proposition. Complexity demands that one must study the general and the particular, using universal and local knowledge. This approach urges the analyst to consider the macro, meso and micro levels, including how they freely interact.This is not new, strategists’ drive to understand the complexities of scale, space and time reaches back to the writings of Sun Tzu. However, it does provide a sound basis from which one can develop analysis.It should seek to understand the power interaction across the physical, virtual and psychological, the fitness landscape.As articulated in Porter’s global village myth vision, this must not become a fatalistic narrative of total conflict and inflated threats within a “shrinking world” cliché. This must consider the important concept of space (or distance) to ensure that practitioners remain realistic about reach, influence and, ultimately, impact.This is a significant development from the linear reductionist – “me good, them bad” – interventionist approach that dominated the post-Cold War neo-liberal narrative. We need to get more comfortable with forecasts that routinely discuss a range of options rather than flawed linear output predictions.

A word of caution, whilst complexity has begun to be embraced within Policy Studies and International Development, its adoption within International Relations (IR) has been slower. Some of this measured acceptance is likely due to the lack of a universally accepted complexity definition, the potentially impenetrable lexicon of more mathematical models, its treatment of power and papers with antagonistic straplines about driving reality and relevance into IR’s existing Newtonian models. Finally, some have more fundamentally questioned the applicability of theory derived from the natural world to IR. These are acknowledged and the debate is one of the areas that should bring increasing depth to the field as complexity theory matures.


What does this mean for the UK’s National Security Council (NSC)? Sedwill recently gave an indication that the government are considering how best to integrate ahorizontal strategic planning view whilst delivering vertically through government departments. Since the 2018 NSCR, significant work has started to develop the procedural and structural accountability against defined regional/ thematic areas of opportunity and risk, while recognising that these will have some overlap.The NSC has appointed senior government personnel to build cross-department teams that oversee these specific areas. Forming strategy within this environmentis not an easy task. Long-established threats can rely on the government system to have a degree of muscle memory. However, emergent concerns such as bio-diversity and climate change will test Whitehall. Time starved, information deluged roles subject to “street level bureaucracy”  must not become a block if the UK is to deliver against Gaddis’s strategy intent. As articulated in the NSCR, this will need the government to increasingly include the private and third sector.

Complexity theory could help develop this understanding of the emergent strategic environment and visualise how disparate (physical, virtual and psychological) elements interact. This might prove especially important for countering emergent risks. The range of possible futures is likely to cause policy makers to have to move from set targets to fuzzy visions, strict rules to principles and road maps to an acceptance that agility and innovation might prove more important. To navigate the complex interaction across multiple open systems requires acceptance that flexibility, relationships and willingness to challenge are increasingly critical. This may prove a difficult sell in the Whitehall Village dominated by accountability, metrics and the need for consensus.However, the world Sedwill recently illustrated matches the model of interacting open systems, Figure 2 refers. Adoption of this approach could bring an increasingly multidimensional tone to the government’s horizontal/ vertical operating vision.

The strategic context: Fusion Doctrine and its relationship to complex adaptive systems, Figure 2.

Global Britain - Complex

The featured are examples for illustrative purposes and not meant to represent the entirety of the security environment.Within this context, the Macro level is significantly larger than Meso and Micro.

Is complexity a dangerous pursuit of the new? No. It recognises that reality is messy and that the UK must harness existing departmental outputs in close coordination with experts from outside of government. Finally, as episodic change can result across the systems at any time, the NSC will have to ask whether the existing structure efficiently coordinates current “systems scanning” to support the developing Global Britain intent. Consideration should be given to permanently establishing a small, independent group that corrals the existing cross-government horizon scanning elements, including the Ministry of Defence’s Net Assessment capability, to support the whole of government prioritisation. Importantly, this must not become an infrequent gathering of experts or become weighed down by wider bureaucratic practice if it is to truly operate across the complex open systems that influence the UK’s national security. As economic power moves East, Whitehall might consider borrowing from Deng Xiao Ping’s adaptive outlook… in a complex world, the UK must get accustomed to “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. This will reduce the avoidable Black Swans of the future and deliver increasingly relevant, emergent strategic planning.

Image: strategy boardgame via pixnio.


One thought on “Strategic thought: the complexity of security

  1. Interesting. However, while there is a shift of global economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the emergence of China as a Sea-Power*, its economic colonisation of Africa and South America and the increasing ability to control the maritime routes suggests that there is more than a ‘shift’ in economic power. It suggests the potential for global domination. ‘Breaking the Code of History’ by David Murrin is a good background to this growing threat. While the application of chaos theory may identify the strategic issues the challenge will lie in the formulation of the strategic plan and the delivery. ‘Complexity theory could help develop this understanding of the emergent strategic environment and visualise how disparate (physical, virtual and psychological) elements interact. This might prove especially important for countering emergent risks.’ This quotation is a fair assessment with ‘could’ and ‘might’ being the keywords. Is this a summary of the conclusion? The difficulty in assessing the usefulness of this approach is that there is a lack of control. In my experience politics, economics, ambition and incompetence have a significant impact on decision making and the delivery of the strategy.

    * Andrew Lambert ‘Seapower States’


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