The study of military strategy has expanded enormously in recent years. As a field, however, it has yet to revise one of its principal assumptions—that the nature of the environment in which it must operate is naturally stable. To be sure, much of today’s strategic literature acknowledges the complexity of the contemporary world, along with its presumed volatility, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Yet this literature shows little evidence of having addressed the implications of that acknowledgement seriously. In short, it is paying lip service to what it claims are pervasive conditions but without modifying the way it approaches strategic problems. One critical reason for this failure is the general and seemingly persistent assumption the universe is essentially stable, or Newtonian, in nature, meaning that periods of instability are the exceptions rather than the rule and that we can, therefore, reasonably expect to impose order over chaos. The sciences of chaos and complexity, which became popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, have something different to say about that assumption. Beyond equipping the military strategist with new phraseology, these sciences suggest that instability, rather than stability, is the state of nature. This article explores the implications of that assumption.
Perhaps the salient example of stability in strategic thinking came during the Cold War, when the West’s policymakers and military strategists devoted themselves to creating a stable strategic relationship with the Soviet Union. Strategic stability, not victory, was the goal of such prominent nuclear strategists as Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter, and Herman Kahn, even if that stability might amount to a “balance of terror.”[i] Concepts such as counterforce, countervalue, and mutual agreed assured destruction (MAAD)—however ironic or darkly amusing they might seem today—contributed to maintaining nuclear deterrence, and thus to strategic stability. The limited war theories of Robert Osgood and Henry Kissinger pursued a similar objective, that of preserving strategic stability by establishing a regime of conventions and norms by which hostile parties could wage armed conflict below the threshold of general war.[ii] The essential element in both nuclear strategy as well as limited war theory was that all parties would consent, either tacitly or explicitly, to avoiding actions that would suddenly and radically destabilize the global balance of power.
It is hardly surprising that the thinking of Brodie and his contemporaries should have centered on achieving and maintaining stability. Aside from its practical desirability, stability in the Newtonian sense went hand in hand with the educational experience of each of these Cold War theorists. For instance, a survey of physics textbooks published between 1910 and 1949, the formative educational years for Brodie and his colleagues, shows only 10% (2 of 19) mentioned nonlinearity, and neither addressed it in any depth.[iii] The Newtonian model upholds equilibrium and stability as the state of nature; his classic laws of motion presuppose linear relationships and proportional causes and effects.[iv] The idea of a “clockwork universe,” long associated with Newton, did not originate with him; rather it represented the collective perspectives of medieval and Renaissance thinkers who saw the universe as an intricately balanced and purposefully functioning mechanism, and who accordingly sought to discover its underlying laws.[v] Political philosophers from Plato to Jean Bodin associated stability with the natural order of things; Machiavelli’s The Prince did not so much challenge that order as redefine it in realistic, perhaps cynical terms.[vi] The Hegelian dialectic—in which an idea and its contradiction interact in a manner that elevates elements of both to a higher plane—rendered dissention in reassuringly linear and thus progressive terms. Similarly, dialectical materialism portrayed class struggle and revolution as ways to arrive at a more equitable distribution of wealth, and thereby a more stable society. Likewise, modern liberalism accepted periods of instability as necessary for the ultimate stability that would come with the education, and eventual enlightenment, of one’s citizenry. By the twentieth century, therefore, linearity and stability had become foundational, both in positive and negative respects, to Western thinking. All this is not to say instability was not acknowledged; only that it was treated as an impermanent disruption of the natural order, a necessary evil.
Since the late 1980s, however, awareness of the nonlinear aspects of the universe has become increasingly widespread. Popular works such as Chaos by James Gleick and Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop made the theories of chaos and complexity accessible to the general public, albeit in adulterated form.[vii] The core concepts of these theories, or simplified versions of them, and their associated terms, such as “complex adaptive systems,” self-organization, nonlinearity, and emergent behaviors migrated into many disciplines, including the study of military strategy. Parties engaged in armed conflict were likened to complex adaptive systems because they could adjust to, and attempt to counter, each other’s strategies. Some researchers went so far to describe war and warfare as complex adaptive systems because they continually transformed with the addition of new parties, as well as changing aims, weapons, and techniques.[viii] Armed conflict was described not just as a social activity in the Clausewitzian sense but as a self-modifying, living thing. War, many experts asserted, could not be understood, or theorized about, as a linear activity with logical branches and sequels. It had to be approached, as Carl von Clausewitz had attempted to do centuries ago, as a nonlinear phenomenon because it defied the rules of “proportionality” (whereby system inputs equal system outputs) and “additivity” (whereby the whole equals the sum of the parts) in addition to other characteristics of linear systems.[ix]
For many practitioners, the popularization of the sciences of chaos and complexity vindicated Clausewitz’s principal theories of war, particularly the concepts of friction and uncertainty. As the late Sir Michael Howard, veteran of the Second World War, once said in a conference setting, the key point he wanted to get across to policymakers and strategists with respect to Clausewitz’s ideas was the debilitating influence of friction in war.[x] Others, military practitioners especially, saw in the theories of chaos and complexity revolutionary approaches to explaining the nonlinear aspects of armed conflict and sought to introduce the core concepts of these emerging sciences into professional military education.[xi] Claims that these theories amounted to another scientific revolution were exaggerated, however, because concepts such as nonlinearity were hardly unknown. They were as old as science itself. But nonlinear equations were difficult to solve; ergo, scientists tended to concentrate on those equations they could solve. The advent of the microchip, and its seemingly ever-increasing speed and processing power, made it progressively easier to tackle nonlinear equations.
To be sure, referring to chaos, complexity, and nonlinearity became fashionable in the late twentieth century. Nonetheless, when examined more closely, these sciences offer more than just catchwords to compliment the theories of a long-dead, nineteenth-century military philosopher. They assist us in describing that part of the universe that does not submit to the equilibrium-based laws of the Newtonian universe, the laws of proportionality and additivity.[xii] They shed light, in other words, on the non-Newtonian universe, a world that is just as old as, and coexists alongside, the clockwork universe ascribed (albeit loosely) to Newton and his predecessors. Importantly, in the non-Newtonian universe, instability, rather than stability, is the state of nature. Furthermore, instability is also more desirable than stability because dynamic, stressful environments can push organisms to the “edge of chaos,” so to speak, where they may well reach their highest levels of creativity and productivity. Beyond that edge, however, creativity and productivity can decline rapidly.
Equally importantly, the non-Newtonian universe is much larger than its Newtonian counterpart. As mathematicians and other scientists have noted, most of the causal relationships in the physical world cannot be captured by linear equations. According to one mathematician, referring to natural phenomena as nonlinear is like defining most of the animal kingdom as “‘non-elephant animals.’”[xiii] Indeed, we encounter nonlinear situations more often in our everyday lives than linear situations. But we “swag” our ways through them. Put differently, both the Newtonian and non-Newtonian models represent physically real portions of the universe, though these portions are not equal in scope. The issue, moreover, is not whether the laws of physics can be applied to political, social, religious, or economic affairs. Rather, the issue is one of assumptions: how we expect the world to behave, which is in turn the product of a constellation of assumptions about the nature of the universe.
If instability can be found more readily throughout the universe than stability, then the popularization of the nonlinear sciences must also expose much of Western thinking as too narrow for most of history. As shown earlier, the assumption that peace and stability represented the natural state of the universe underpinned much of the West’s intellectual and cultural development. Admittedly, peace is a much more desirable state than conflict and war, which Western values portray as unnatural and disruptive of the state of nature. Nevertheless, if conflict is in some way inseparable from the state of nature, then Western society’s foundational political philosophies and theories are not so much invalid as they are irrelevant to that portion of the world in which humanity conducts its affairs.
In a similar vein, the major implication for military strategy, as for strategy in general, is that expectations based on stability may run counter to the state of nature and, therefore, be unwarranted and unsustainable—at least within acceptable cost thresholds. This implication does not mean our expectations cannot be realized; only that, as a rule, they might cost more than they are worth. Every trained strategist understands strategy is easy to grasp in theory, but difficult to carry out in practice. Perhaps the principal reason that axiom is true is we have developed strategies appropriate for one universe, but we attempt to apply them to another, much larger one that is governed by more complex laws. Too often, for instance, political objectives are considered feckless unless they aim at achieving a long-term, durable peace. Yet such ends speak to the smaller of the two Newtonian universes, the one in which stability and equilibrium characterize the state of nature. Compounding the problem, however, is that any goal that falls short of achieving a durable peace can appear to be adventurous and unworthy of putting lives and treasure at risk. One of the problems in contemporary war, after all, is trying to decide how much to spend for unworthy goals. We are in some respects in an era of “post-heroic warfare.”[xiv]
To illustrate this point with a counterexample—during the Cold War, the West’s policymakers and strategists got lucky. Their strategic concepts, and indeed their general understanding of war, assumed stability could be achieved. This was an assumption that, as we have seen, applied only to a small portion of the physical universe. The Cold War strategists succeeded, nevertheless; nuclear war was averted. However, their success owed much to the fact that the Soviets also had nothing to gain from initiating a nuclear war and hence wished to avoid one.[xv] The USSR was a cooperative enemy, in other words, despite having been incompatible with the West ideologically. Its tacit and explicit cooperation in a series of nuclear arms agreements created a space in which stability could develop, even when evidence of instability – “brushfire wars,” revolutions, coups, and other crises – abounded. That space was small, indeed, compared to the larger one in which instability reigned, and it required the active cooperation of both parties to sustain it. Unfortunately, the West has few such cooperative enemies now.
Although the terminologies associated with complexity, chaos, and nonlinearity have become common in defense literature, the full implication of the theories behind these terms has not been examined. In a non-Newtonian universe, equilibrium, stability, and linearity are not representative of the state of nature. Therefore, military strategies (and grand strategies) based on Newtonian assumptions about the state of nature are less likely to succeed. In short, we run the very real risk of asking those strategies to accomplish too much, such as attempting to achieve long-term, durable objectives in volatile and ill-defined environments, to impose order on endemically chaotic situations, or to establish ways and means irrespective of possible, if undesirable, emergent behaviors on the part of an ostensibly neutral populace.
As both Nicholas Copernicus and Clausewitz realized, any major theory must demonstrate that it accords with the nature of the universe to which it is intended to apply.[xvi] But as we grapple with the implications of crafting and executing military strategy in a non-Newtonian universe, we must be prepared to address several important questions. Can we train military strategists to account for nonlinearity and uncertainty beyond the obvious technique of adding more resources? How will such strategies be “sold” to a public that will likely continue to think of stability as the only state of nature? Will algorithm-driven analytics help reduce the size of the non-Newtonian universe? What are the risks of attempting to do so? Will artificial intelligence increase or decrease uncertainty in the non-Newtonian universe?
Today, Western defense policy tends to drive strategy toward accomplishing the most in terms of political objectives with the least amount of resources. It is unreasonable to expect that to change—at least until the general assumption about the naturalness of stability yields to the equally defensible assumption that instability is also natural. This kind of intellectual and cultural reorientation will take time. For that reason, enterprising strategic thinkers ought to begin campaigning for just such a reorientation now.
[i] Compare: Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); Thomas Schelling, “The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack,” RAND P-1342 (Santa Monica: RAND, 1958); Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs 37, 2 (Jan. 1959): 211-33; and Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).
[ii] Robert E. Osgood, Limited War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957); Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper Bros., 1957).
[iii] Stephen F. Kellert, In the Wake of Chaos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 137. America’s leading Cold War strategists include: Bernard Brodie (1910-1978); Henry Kissinger (1923-2019); Robert Osgood (1921-1986); Thomas Schelling (1921-2016); Albert Wohlstetter (1913-1997); and Herman Kahn (1922-1983).
[iv] These laws can be simplified as (1) a body at rest wants to stay at rest, (2) a body in motion wants to remain in motion, and (3) every action leads to an equal and opposite reaction. I. Bernard Cohen, The Newtonian Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 68-69, 106-07, 270-71.
[v] Newton himself was evidently opposed to the analogy: Jean F. Drew, “Newton vs. the Clockwork Universe,” July 19, 2004, www.freerepublic.com/focus/ f-news/1174268/posts.
[vi] Jean Bodin, Selected Writings on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics (Paris: Librairie Droz, 1980); Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince: New Interdisciplinary Essays, Martin Coyle, ed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); the book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church in 1599.
[vii] James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1988); M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Touchstone, 1993).
[viii] Compare: K.P. Schaaff, F.T. Bossio, “Warfare as a Complex Adaptive System,” Proceedings from the 1996 Military Communications Conference, Piscataway, NJ: IEEE, 1996; Samuel Solvit, Dimensions of War: Understanding War as a Complex Adaptive System (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2012).
[ix] Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War,” in Coping with the Bounds: Speculations on Nonlinearity in Military Affairs, Thomas J. Czerwinski, ed., (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1998), 161-215, here 165.
[x] “Clausewitz and the Twenty-first Century,” conference held at Oxford University in March 2007; author’s notes.
[xi] See for example: Glenn E. James, Maj. USAF, Chaos Theory: The Essentials for Military Applications (Newport: Naval War College, 1996).
[xii] Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[xiii] Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity,”169-70, note 9, p. 208.
[xiv] Edward N. Luttwak, “Toward Post-Heroic Warfare,” Foreign Affairs 74, 3 (May/June 1995): 109-22; Sibylle Scheipers, ed., Heroism and the Changing Character of War: Toward Post-Heroic Warfare? (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
[xv] Craig Campbell and Sergey Radchenko, “MAD, not Marx: Khrushchev and the Nuclear Revolution,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, 1-2 (Feb. 2018): 208-33.
[xvi] Edward Rosen, Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution (Malabar, Fl.: Krieger Publ., 1984); Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)