Future Tense

National Security Language Is Stuck in the Cold War

Trucks load planes on a tarmac as another plane flies by.
Sometimes it seems like national security language hasn’t changed significantly since the Berlin Airlift (pictured here) and the rest of the Cold War. AFP/Getty Images

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is a national security issue. After all, at the time of this writing it has killed more than 700,000 Americans. Nonetheless, the U.S. national security community remains perplexed by it. Even a year-and-a-half in we remain unsure of our proper roles and responsibilities in relation to COVID-19 specifically and pandemics in general. The reasons for this are many but one, in particular, stands out: We still don’t know how to talk about it, to write about it, and hence to think about it.

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Traditionally, the U.S. national security community (diplomatic, military, and intelligence) has thought about the world in highly Newtonian mechanical terms. We looked for “centers of gravity” against which we could “apply pressure,” “exert force,” and/or “penetrate.” For U.S. diplomats, this usually meant an identifiable leadership that could be reasoned with, deterred, persuaded, or threatened. For the U.S. military, it meant an identifiable command structure that could be decapitated, shocked and/or awed, as well as hardware that could be kinetically destroyed. And for the U.S. intelligence community, it meant secrets that could be stolen and intentions that could be discerned.

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The modern national security community’s formative experience—the Cold War—offered all of these things. But the COVID-19 pandemic? Not so much. It is not some mechanistic phenomenon that is centrally directed through a relatively static hierarchical construct. To the contrary, it is an organic phenomenon that is self-organizing, highly dynamic, and extraordinarily networked.

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Oftentimes such challenges are referred to as complex. But complexity (defined by interconnectivity and interdependence) really just describes the conditions from which phenomena like the COVID-19 pandemic emerge. The true challenge is actually nothing less than emergence. Emergence refers to the unpredictable appearance and/or behavior of collective phenomena that rather than being centrally directed by any particular component(s) instead “grow” organically out of the whole.

In the past 30 years, as the world has become more interconnected and interdependent, both physically and virtually, emergence has become the overarching national security challenge. Look today’s most pressing strategic issues: climate change, globalization, urbanization; extremism, cyber threats, information warfare, financial contagion, sweeping political/social upheaval, and, of course, pandemics. All of them are exemplars of emergence.

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And what about the enormous strategic challenge that is China? Well, the same holds true. China is so enmeshed in today’s global networks that the greatest challenges it poses are likely to be the expansively emergent ones to which its behavior contributes—not its brute military capabilities. Indeed, this is already evident in China’s obvious role in climate change and so many of the other emergent global phenomena I mentioned above.

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While emergence defies prediction (that is, the projection of specific or precise outcomes), it can be anticipated (which means that we can imagine broad ranges of possibilities). Unfortunately, those of us in the national security community are usually so focused on making predictions about things that have already emerged that we often fail to anticipate emergence. In particular, we struggle to imagine the many ways emergence might play out, and to envision what might be done—as is appropriate or possible—to mitigate, amplify, or manage emergence and its effects.

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There are numerous contributors to these anticipatory failures. However, the most insidious—because language is subtly yet powerfully connected to thinking—are linguistic legacies rooted in the Cold War. These legacies, which profoundly distort our thinking about today’s strategic environment, tend to manifest themselves in three entwined yet still distinct ways.

The first legacy is the sloppy use of key terminology. Perhaps the best example of this is our tendency to carelessly interchange the terms complicated and complex. The Cold War was complicated, which is to say it was bounded, hierarchical and prone to mechanistic—broadly predictable— behavior by clearly identified and distinct actors. In contrast, today’s strategic environment is complex. It is unbounded, networked, and prone to emergent—highly unpredictable—collective behaviors. Again, see the list of major strategic challenges listed above.

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This tendency was particularly well displayed in the reporting on the Intelligence Community’s most recent Annual Threat Assessment. The threat assessment itself only—and correctly—used the term complex. However, much of the widely shared commentary (which. if we are honest, is all that many people involved in the broader national security debate read) substituted the term complicated on the common but incorrect assumption that the terms are synonymous and hence interchangeable at will.

Similarly, forecasting (i.e., the projection or extrapolation of already identified trends or developments) is blithely substituted for foresight (a much more imaginative activity). Prediction is interchanged with anticipation. And so on. All told, these crucial linguistic nuances too often go unrecognized—or worse, are knowingly discounted—and the result is sloppy use of language and, consequently, sloppy thought. This pattern is readily seen in the use of the word prediction when discussing the future of climate change. That word unfortunately promotes a degree of certainty that does not comport with the inevitable uncertainty surrounding emergent phenomena. The unfortunate consequence of this is that too many people tend to be glibly dismissive of the science—though it is actually more anticipatory than predictive—when the observed outcomes are at variance with said predictions.

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The second problematic linguistic legacy is the continued application—now misapplication—of complicated Newtonian mechanical metaphors to today’s complex strategic challenges: inertia, momentum, tension, leverage, friction, and trajectory. Since research suggests that linguistic metaphors are powerful shapers of thought, such metaphors encourage us to think about issues as behaving in a mechanistic or predictable fashion. It thus comes as an unpleasant surprise when issues that we metaphorically characterized as complicated/mechanistic are actually complex/emergent.

In 2020, the internet was awash in references to COVID-19’s trajectory. This metaphorical language promoted unrealistic expectations of mechanistic predictability and fueled a repeated sense of bewilderment when the pandemic—being an emergent phenomenon—did not follow a predictable trajectory but rather spiked, mutated, reappeared, or dissipated in different places simultaneously. Another good example of this​ ​bad habit ​is the liberal use of the term leverage in the most recent National Intelligence Strategy. Throughout the document, that complicated/mechanistic linguistic metaphor serves to falsely imply a much greater degree of manageability and predictability than is warranted. This generous use subtly but effectively undercuts the larger document’s attempts to accurately characterize the inherent uncertainty associated with the complex security environment.

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The third (and perhaps most troubling legacy given the current state of relations with China) is the fact that we are yet to give a distinct name to the new, complex strategic era—even though we are 30 years into it. Instead, we continue to refer to the current era primarily in terms of the former one (the Cold War). Hence, we make constant references to “the wake of the Cold War,” “since the Cold War,” “after the Cold War,” and, of course, “the post-Cold War” to describe the current era. This failure to find and agree on a completely new name falsely equates the complex present with the complicated past and minimizes in our minds—with genuinely harmful consequences—the novelty of the new strategic era.

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A perfect example of this false equivalence is found in our tendency to characterize today’s great power competition as a “Second Cold War.” This widespread characterization is very dangerous in that it promotes the idea that the winning game plan—highly militarized, economically decoupled, physical containment—is already known and proven. This is a highly delusional notion given the completely different character of today’s strategic context. China, unlike the Soviet Union, is completely enmeshed in the world’s networks—including some, like cyber/virtual networks, that dominate today but that barely existed during the Cold War. Put differently, today’s great power competition is complex and not complicated like that of the Cold War. However, if our language does not make that vital distinction, neither will our thought.

All together, these interwoven linguistic legacies help blur the distinctions between the strategic environments of the Cold War and today, contributing to the erroneous notion that things have not really changed. And this inability to accept and process just how much things have changed is stunting our ability to transform our thinking as demanded by fundamentally new and different strategic circumstances.

The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of the National Intelligence University, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. government, or any other component thereof.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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