Complexity, strategy and the national interest



British strategy-making has been subject to a sustained critique in recent years, from parliamentarians, retired members of the armed forces and scholars of strategic studies. This article examines the nature of this critique and the evolving character of strategic practice in Britain. It argues that the criticisms of British strategymaking are often misplaced, for two main reasons. First, many base their critique on a reductionist notion of unitary ‘national interest’ that fails to capture systemic patterns of complexity and contestation in the wider security environment and in Britain. Second, they underestimate or ignore the extent to which the UK strategic community is itself innovating in response to these themes, particularly since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This is not to argue that considerable challenges do not remain for strategy-making in Britain. Most notably, these include: how to translate strategic innovation in departments and elsewhere into a coherent national strategic agenda; how to do this while maintaining institutional coordination and a shared sense of strategic purpose across government (and beyond); how to sustain and consolidate institutional expertise and experience in a rapidly changing civil service and at a time of continuing public austerity; and how to articulate and legitimate security policy decisions among a general public that is both disengaged from elite strategic discourse and sceptical of the efficacy of military force. Even so, the article concludes by arguing that it is possible to see the outline of an emergent and distinctive theory of action in contemporary British strategic practice, characterized by principles of adaptivity, anticipation, self-organisation and nascent cross-governmentalism.