Is Global Security Really Getting More Complex?

Amongst the defense and security policy community, there are certain stock phrases which occur with startling repetitiveness: the idea that our world is growing "increasingly complex," with "new and emerging security challenges" coming from "diverse non-state actors" threatening our peace and stability.

This bland and thoughtless rhetoric needs to be challenged. Global security issues are not getting “more complex” — we simply think and know more about them. Mass information media and the maturation of our intellectual ideals in security policy may allow us to more fully appreciate global security issues. In fact, it may only seem more complex because we are better at considering and formulating advanced policy solutions, despite world affairs always being this complicated and difficult.

In theoretical terms, the basis of the “increasing complexity” idea is easy to identify. The solid, easily understandable two-sided stand-off of the Cold War has given way to a “multi-polar” world — one composed of a large number of roughly comparatively powerful states.

Throw in an increase of global capital flows (globalization) and an apparent increase of non-state actors such as terrorists, and the roots of the complexity idea are exposed. This creates, as the FBI puts it, “a threat environment more complex and diverse than ever before.”

I disagree with this for three reasons.

First, the end of the Cold War did not usher in a previously un-seen level of global disorder — it was a return to normality. A nuclear stand-off on that scale was a foreign policy aberration; a (hopefully) one-off global event.

Yet, international relations prior to nuclear weapons and superpowers was also a decidedly complex and dangerous affair. Look at history. An account of colonial governance in the 19th century, or power politics in the Crusades, or the dynastic intrigue of Alexander the Great hardly make security affairs back then seem “simple” or “easy.” Complex security challenges in a multi-polar world are the norm for state affairs, very much seen before and utterly usual. 

Secondly, a reason the world today seems so overwhelmingly complex is because we all know about it. Real-time mass-media and a heightened degree of global literacy mean news of terrible security incidents, political unrest, and conflict is more easily available, digestible, and understandable.

For instance, studies have confirmed that global incidents of war have declined markedly in the last 60 years. Yet, the wars that do occur now fill the internet and newspapers for months. These wars are not more complex, you just read about them more.

Finally, if security policy has grown more complex, it is because we are getting better at it. The focus on non-state actors, or the combining of economic, social, and political factors in military affairs (the so-called "comprehensive approach") are only “new” today because in the past, such measures were not considered necessary.

Rather, when in “the good old days,” armies went to war, restrictions on resources and some rather cut-and-dry moral philosophies of wartime behavior meant you did not need to consider such things as “collateral damage” or “reconstruction”.

Today, one civilian casualty or ill-considered military raid could see you hauled up in front of the international community for breaching the UN charter — or any of the other myriad global norms which now demand states consider the moral, legal, and humanitarian aspects of global security.

In short, security policy has become more complicated because we have made it so. As our social and economic concepts have become more advanced, so has our policy response. It is not the environment, but us, which has changed.

So as pundits and citizens in the global community, we need to stop kidding ourselves that this new era is in some way "special," or so much more dangerous than the past.

The world has always been this complex and dangerous, and always will be. Realizing this is a better step forward to understanding and coping with security problems.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons