Complexity, Strategy and the National Interest

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


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 this nature of this critique and the evolving character of strategic practice it Britain. It argues that the criticisms of British strategy making are often misplaced, for two main reasons. First, many of them posit 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 at home. 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. Chief among 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 amongst 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, characterised by principles of adaptivity, anticipation, self-organisation, and nascent cross-governmentalism.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Structured keywords

  • PolicyBristolSecurityConflictAndJustice


  • Complexity
  • Strategy
  • Risk
  • Interest
  • Defence
  • Civil-Military Relations


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