For years, I’ve been researching, writing, speaking, advising, and ranting about systemic problems in foreign-policy making, especially with regards to complex conflicts, stabilization and reconstruction, and international development.
Today, Melissa Gregg and I submitted the full draft of our joint monograph, “The Dual-System Problem in Complex Conflicts,” arguing that policy systems today are fundamentally unadapted to the complex environments we regularly need to engage around the world — because those policy systems themselves have become complex systems. The actions, plans, and resources that the policy system produces too often cannot be predicted from the recommendations and decisions that supposedly inspired them — complex systems do not always produce predictable results. Those of us who do policy research, advise policy makers, and make, plan, or implement policies have so far failed to notice this complexity or, having noticed, have failed to do anything useful about it.
We offer two cases of policy subsystems that are ineffective because their participants do not recognize they’re part of a larger complex policy system: (a) knowledge institutions incapable of institutionalizing lessons and (b) international legal institutions incapable of deterring or prosecuting atrocities and war crimes. And we offer a case — the Afghanistan spaghetti chart — in which policy advisers and implementers actually did consider system dynamics (implicitly or explicitly) in a complex conflict situation, but the policy system (perhaps ironically) resisted the adoption of systems thinking at scale.
The conclusions of our monograph are not hopeful, to be honest. But we do offer thoughts on what it would take to start getting those who make and implement policies in complex environments to begin a shift toward more entrepreneurial, experimental, and systemic ways of thinking and operating.