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The Dual-System Problem in Complex Conflicts

Authored by Dr. Robert D. Lamb, Ms. Melissa R. Gregg.

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The United States and its partners have not been unambiguously successful at the strategic level in most of the conflicts they have engaged in since September 11, 2001. This is, in part, because conflicts are becoming more complex and, therefore, more unpredictable and volatile. The difficulty of operating in fragile and conflict environments is exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. policy system is also too complex to manage predictably. However, it is still thought of as a bureaucracy rather than what it actually is: a “complex system” (as scholars define the term). Complex systems by their nature do not always turn inputs (such as policy decisions) into predictable outcomes (such as U.S. influence). Something usually gets lost in translation.

The United States will not be effective in foreign conflicts until it gets a handle on this “dual-system problem.” The ability of U.S. leaders to influence outcomes in crisis situations is restricted by the fact that, not one, but two complex systems—the domestic policy system and the foreign conflict—stand between their decisions and the real-world outcomes they want to influence. The authors offer two cases in which policymaking is ineffective because decision makers do not recognize they are part of a larger (and complex) policy system: knowledge institutions incapable of institutionalizing lessons, and international legal institutions incapable of deterring or prosecuting atrocities and war crimes. They additionally offer a case (the “Afghanistan spaghetti chart”) in which policy advisers and implementers actually did consider system-level dynamics in a complex conflict situation, but the policy system resisted and ultimately rejected the adoption of systems thinking at scale—an unambiguous example in which the dual-system problem has directly undermined strategy formulation and implementation in a complex conflict.

While it remains critically important to produce doctrine, discover lessons, and identify best practices for effective action in complex environments, such documents far too often recommend that troops, civilians, contractors, and agencies take actions and produce results that their own policy system will never allow them to actually deliver (e.g., “whole-of-government”) in the absence of significant reforms. The domestic barriers to becoming more entrepreneurial, more experimental, and more systemic in complex environments have yet to be studied systematically. There will always be a place in military institutions for commanders to expect subordinates to obey orders, and there will always be an expectation by elected and appointed civilian leaders that their decisions will be implemented with their intent intact. However, whole-of-government implementation is a failed dream; there are too many sources of resistance to full interagency coordination within the policy system. Shifting from “whole-of-government” to “systemic governance” is therefore a necessity, and the U.S. Army has the motivation and resources to lead that shift.

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Military Change and Transformation
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