Embrace Uncertainty, Win the Future

December 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Two pictures have taken up residence in my mind over the past few weeks. They highlight the growing disconnect between the U.S. Defense Department and the broader strategic environment—not just in terms of geopolitics but also in the way the rest of the world lives, works and interacts.

The first image captures how the Defense Department views the world. It is a simple map with neat lines delineating the different joint combatant commands. While the boundaries make sense in a conventional way, they are drawn merely for geographic convenience. Implicitly, those lines preclude interaction between constituent elements.

The second image is elegant, beautiful and haunting in its complexity. It is an image of the world as it actually is—interconnected, unbounded by geography, spanning the globe with dynamic diversity. This image was the project of Paul Butler, a Facebook intern whose curiosity led him to an interesting project: visualize the relationships for 10 million of the 250 million users on Facebook in 2009. He plotted not only the location of the Facebook user but also more critically the location of each of their friends. This second image is the result.

Each “line” represents the flow of goods, information, ideas and relationships, unbounded by traditional geography. Consider too, the many geopolitical implications inset in the image. For instance, China lacks much “light.” As China is the most populated country in the world, one would expect a beautiful montage of light and lines. Instead, China’s strict Internet controls leave it relatively dark and disconnected.

By virtue of its combatant command structure, U.S. national policy is forced to pivot between locales. As a nation, it is hard-pressed to put a strong emphasis in one region without losing effort somewhere else. Currently, this is the crux of the strategic shift from the U.S. Central Command to the U.S. Pacific Command. A self-imposed inflexibility limits the nation’s ability to keep pace with the modern world.

Meanwhile, a single 26-year-old Moroccan vegetable farmer can set himself on fire in a Tunis square and spark a revolution. We are confounded by this. More telling is that, instead of the revolutions staying within the comfortable confines of the U.S. Africa Command, they spill effortlessly across predetermined lines.

Humans want the world to make sense. Stories, true or not, help us understand that world. In creating them however, we can accidentally—or deliberately—turn from messy realities and rest comfortably in what we think we know. These are the moments when the unexpected catches us by surprise—even though past futures always have been defined by these surprises.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates nailed it when he noted, “Since Vietnam ... we have a perfect record. We’ve never gotten it right, not once.” This is a record we will continue to extend—and, understanding that, should embrace.

Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), former NATO supreme allied commander, advocated for a “whole of government” approach to national security. Strategic success would be found only by leveraging all arms of government. We need an even more inclusive strategic approach: a “whole of society” look. Our 21st century challenges will not be solved separately by those in defense, government or business. It will take a collaborative effort.

We in the defense ecosystem are surrounded by marvelous technology and widgets that can do almost anything. Yet, at the end of the day, foreign policy is about networks of people and their interactions. The complexity of these relationships will continue to evolve, and mastering those will define success or failure in the 21st century.

Be biased toward action. Recognize the potential of your subordinates. Embrace and revel in the opportunities uncertainty brings. Take personal responsibility for the change you want to see in your organization and, most importantly, understand how you fit into the broader complex map of the 21st century. Our global challenge is just beginning.

Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command, part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column online or via email at signalnews@afcea.org.


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