Every problem touches others, and few problems submit to simple cause-and-effect reasoning. The so-called war on terror, for example, touches the Iraq problem, just as the Iraq problem touches, among other things, our need for oil, our relations with China and Russia, and our current operation in Afghanistan. Costs, resources, will, perception, threats, risks–all combine to create an interwoven network of conflicting constraints and difficult tradeoffs. Most people understand this intuitively, although sophisticated analysis is required to untangle a network with any confidence.
Perhaps the most evident lack of systems thinking resides in how we perceive the problem itself. During the Cold War, for example, we understood that the conflict was as much a war of ideas as a war of missiles. In fact, one could argue that we won the war with ideas while our missiles thankfully rested in their silos. We also understood that a misstep in Asia meant trouble in Europe while a faux pas in Central America could spell disaster on the home front. Significantly, our Cold War toolkit reflected this understanding. While our military forces stood ready, we employed–and employed well–a wide range of tools short of war: surveillance, intelligence (human and technical), espionage, psychological operations, alliances, and diplomacy.
Today, our toolkit has dwindled to a single hammer– military force–and the tools we once employed so effectively as a suite now exist largely to support this force. We are simply not equipped to deal with the problem as a system; we don’t understand it as one, and any capability for subtlety or stratagem we achieved during the Cold War has atrophied.