How governments can prepare for complex crises in the 21st century

Jochen Prantl and Evelyn Goh investigate the hurdles for policy-making in an increasingly interconnected world

A staff member wearing a face mask walks through the empty main hall of the Pakistan stock exchange.
A staff member walks by the main room at the Pakistan Stock Exchange building early in the morning. Photo taken on the 8th of January 2021 by Saiyna Bashir Saiyna Bashir/IMF Focus and accessed via flickr.

The need to for policy-making to be responsive to complex overlapping international crises has never been clearer. From the global COVID-19 pandemic and its wide ranging economic and social effects to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and its profound impact on international energy and food systems already contending with the threat of climate change, policy-makers are increasingly faced with crises that cannot be confined to a single policy realm or scale of analysis. As such, Governments everywhere must develop integrated solutions that do not follow pre-designed cookie-cutter approaches. Indeed, this shift will require a sea change in how governments imagine strategic scenarios. In this blogpost we outline how existing approaches are inadequate to deal with complex emergencies and briefly outline our framework for policy-makers looking to respond effectively to events.

Complex crises keep happening, policy-makers aren’t prepared

As the 2021 U.S. National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World explains, there is a stark imbalance between the demand and supply side of government. The capacity of governments to deliver public and international goods is severely challenged because of hyperconnectivity that comes with globalization and ongoing global power shifts. States today operate in an environment characterized both by transnational actors and policy challenges that transcend the domestic/international divide which underpins the structures of modern government. This is a very serious problem that has triggered polarization, populism, protest, and internal conflict in a range of countries, including the United States. While this transnational diffusion of power makes power easier to obtain, it also makes it harder to use and easier to lose. Thus, the need to develop strategies that are fit for purpose is very urgent indeed. We call for a fundamental change in how governments approach strategy and statecraft.

Yet, national and international institutions are lagging behind. There is too much of a tendency to respond to problems in their component parts rather than addressing them holistically. In the face of today’s survival challenges which span multiple connected policy domains, strategy and statecraft often appear limited. For example, the global Sino-American conflict resists being reduced to war-fighting or zero-sum alliances. Many analysts focus on whether and when the United States and China are destined to go to war. But framing global power diffusion and transition in this way captures only a small slice of the attendant complex problems with which policy-makers must grapple. The framework we offer helps to address such limitations by highlighting the two countries’ deep and broad economic interdependence, and the diverse constituencies with active stakes in the relationship.

To take another resonant example, responses to COVID-19 clearly cannot be achieved within a state’s borders alone. Governments must navigate not only their countries’ political systems and social attributes but also their global environment to find the most appropriate way to gain public confidence and compliance for managing any public health threat. National policies are therefore undermined if governments fail to collaborate to lift vaccination rates globally and focus solely on their own populations.

Embracing complexity as a way forward

As corporate strategists have known for some time, approaching complex interconnected problems means finding ways to operate within this complexity, rather than persist with policy tools that are not fit for purpose. Policy-makers need to think beyond siloed policy domains and the domestic/international binary. Doing so will entail a move towards holistic approaches that consciously make use of the relationships between sectors and systems previously understood separately. This will not only lead to better responses to complex crises but will also reveal a range of actors and relationships that can be harnessed and cultivated in the pursuit of policy objectives. As a result, this reckoning with the interconnected nature of international politics has the potential to empower decision-makers by revealing avenues for perusing their objectives previously obscured by conventional policy approaches.

It may well be that complex systems-informed analysis is but one way of dealing with the complex problems confronting us all today. What is clear however, is that strategies derived from unarticulated, internalized mental maps are insufficient. Instead, twenty-first century strategy and statecraft must embrace constant and conscious reassessment of the fundamentals upon which strategy and statecraft are pursued.

Addressing complex problems in an effective way does not come with a silver bullet. Policy-makers need to be bold enough to fail in their strategies and policies, reassess, and recalibrate. That requires institutional support and a culture that embraces failure, including constant training and learning. This is the ultimate challenge contemporary strategy and statecraft must meet.

Jochen Prantl is Professor of International Relations in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Australian National University, where she is the Director of Research at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Their article ‘Rethinking strategy and statecraft for the twenty-first century of complexity: a case for strategic diplomacy’ was published in the March 2022.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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