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Security Challenges as Wicked Problems

Phil Williams
Global Fellow
5 MINS READJun 1, 2018 | 20:55 GMT
Getty Images / AFP / Stringer

Security studies are arguably one of the most important fields of study, research and analysis in contemporary society. In spite of the high stakes, involved, however, security analysis remains remarkable insular. Approaches to security have been driven by game theory, assumptions of rationality that are sometimes as far removed from reality as those of many economists, and by analogies to complex games such as chess.

Some scholars, of course, reach across disciplines in highly creative ways. Nicholas Wheeler, for example, in his new book on trust in nuclear relationships incorporates insights from neuroscience, while Robert Jervis, many years ago analyzed international relations in terms of complex adaptive systems. In a similar vein of thinking across disciplines, it might be worth thinking about many contemporary and future security problems as “wicked problems.” They are wicked not in a moralistic sense, but in terms of complexity, intricacy, and intractability.

The notion of wicked problems reportedly arose out of a seminar on urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley in 1967. It was subsequently developed into an article published in Policy Science in 1972 and has been widely discussed and deployed in the policy analysis world ever since. There are several key characteristics of wicked problems: they are multi-faceted and cross multiple policy domains; each wicked problem is a symptom and potential cause of other problems; wicked problems morph and mutate, becoming elusive and difficult to target; and wicked problems at best can be managed rather than solved. Finally, wicked problems often display what Desmond Arias has termed pernicious resilience.    

Not all security challenges can be understood as wicked problems: some relationships and challenges, such as that between a hegemon and a rising power are very simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, the wicked problem approach can be helpful in understanding an important subset of international security problems and in realizing the limits of what can and cannot be achieved. 

This has been done to some degree by Charles Haus in his book Global Security 2.0 which expands the concept of security to encompass human security and other issues that have traditionally been outside the security rubric. The US Army War College has also introduced officers to the concept. For the most part, however, there has been little effort to amalgamate the notion of wicked problems into discussions of national and international security.  

Many security issues are defined in terms of winners and losers; but when we use a wicked problem approach we recognize that this is not only exceedingly narrow but also ignores the many subtleties and nuances that need to be taken into account. Many security challenges cannot be eliminated; they can, at best be controlled and even then, only with great effort, a sustained strategic focus, and enormous attention to detail. 

An example of a security problem that all too clearly meet the criteria of wickedness is transnational organized crime and illicit economies. Transnational organized crime is linked to globalization, the weakness of many states, differential laws, regulations, and taxation levels among states (which create what Nikos Passas termed “criminogenic asymmetries”) corruption and rent-seeking by political elites, as well as inequality and marginalization or even expulsion of segments of the population. It is also linked to conflict and in the cases of Pakistan (with D-Company) and Russia (with a variety of Russian organized crime and cybercrime organizations) organized crime is being used as a key element in geopolitical competition.

Moreover, transnational organized crime and illicit markets are highly dynamic. As Mark Shaw recently observed, the nature of transnational organized crime has changed beyond all recognition. As the world economy has globalized, so has its illicit counterpart economy. Organized crime now reaches into all parts of the globe and into many international markets where vulnerabilities may be exploited. He adds that when the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime was signed Palermo in December 2000, “the term ‘organized crime’ was not often used in application to Africa. Today, the continent is understood as playing a major role in the global illicit economy.”

In another example of innovation and adaptation the drug business is increasingly moving from botanicals to synthetics, with fentanyl analogues that are powerful and likely to replace heroin as the drug of choice in many countries. Much of the fentanyl (and its derivatives) that has had a devastating effect in terms of opioid overdoses in the United States is manufactured in China.

Indeed, China is likely to become an increasingly important player in the illicit drug world as it becomes an economic and military superpower. The implications of both the transition to synthetics and the growing role of China are enormous. Indeed, fentanyl has already created major challenges for US interdiction efforts. As a Bloomberg analysis observed, “the emergence of fentanyl and its analogues or derivatives has coincided with that of the dark web, encrypted messaging apps and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, all of which help manufacturers remain anonymous. They can transport hundreds of thousands of doses via the U.S. Postal Service or FedEx - slipping past law officers accustomed to tracing narcotics by the truckload.” In short, organized crime once again is morphing in ways that require an enormous degree of adaptation, creativity, and agility by governments if they are to develop effective counter-measures.

Even if some governments respond effectively to the challenge, others will not – for a variety of reasons ranging from collusion with criminals to limited state capacity. The difficulty is that transnational organized crime as a wicked problem requires multilateral responses that, in effect, create wicked policy processes - resulting in lowest common denominator compromises, procrastination, buck-passing, free-riding, as well as poor and incomplete implementation. Moreover, some states that have collusive relationships with criminal organizations are likely to defect – at least tacitly – from any collective efforts to counter transnational organized crime. In short, the problem is not only the wicked nature of the problems, but the wicked nature of the policy processes set in motion to deal with these problems. 

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