Afghan commandos learn to floss
U.S. Army Spc. Kassandra Torres, right, shows Afghan commando medics the proper way to floss  Photo credit: US Department of Defense

How Wars Will Be Fought in the 21st Century

Can Viewing the World as a Complex Biological System Help Us Understand Warfare Today?


The founder of a major research institute explains how to deal with conflicts that take place amid the global web of economic and social interactions.

Most conflicts in the world today are non-traditional. The technologically-driven forces of “creative destruction,” the nimbleness of the small, and the tendency of great powers to fight the next war with the mindset of the last one have radically changed the nature of modern warfare.

So says Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, the founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute. He has been a pioneer in studying the dynamics of complex systems in international development, military conflict and ethnic violence.

In this week’s podcast he talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about how even the task of defining the objective of war has to be reevaluated today. He explains how complex human biological systems can serve as models for understanding the new paradigm of warfare.

The old paradigm — opposing armies lined up across clearly defined boundaries — has largely been superseded in a world where complex interactions are often played out among asymmetric antagonists.

As Bar-Yam puts it, “We’ve seen in Afghanistan tremendous problems with figuring out who is it that we want to attack. And similarly in Syria, there is a very big ambiguity, as far as we can tell, about who we should support. Should we support the government? Should we support the resistance? Should we support this group or that group? Many of the different groups that are in the resistance may also be terrorist organizations in our view. So, figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in these circumstances is extremely difficult.”

According to Bar-Yam, there is a great irony baked into today’s approach. Although conflicts take place within complex global systems, it’s local, small-scale work by NGOs and Special Ops that may determine the outcome.

Yaneer Bar-Yam is the author of  Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World (Knowledge Press, 2005) and co-editor, with Philip vos Fellman and Ali A. Minai, of Conflict and Complexity: Countering Terrorism, Insurgency, Ethnic and Regional Violence (part of a series: Understanding Complex Systems), (Springer, 2015)

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

None of the conflicts in the world today represent what we would consider the traditional idea of warfare. Two armies lined up opposing each other.  Today our enemies often succeed by failing militarily — and our own use of overwhelming force and strength can often empower, rather than defeat a more fragile power.

Technology, the nimbleness of the small, and the habits of great powers to fight the next war with the lessons from the last one, all contribute to the dramatically changing nature of warfare.  Given all of this, can we even develop any kind of strategic military framework for the 21st century?

Some organizations are working on exactly this.  One such place is the New England Complex Systems Institute.  Today on our WhoWhatWhy podcast we are joined by its founder, Yaneer Bar-Yam.  Bar-Yam’s research focuses on developing complex systems, concepts to diverse areas of military inquiry.  A PhD from MIT, he’s advised government agencies including the CDC, the SEC, the UN, the World Bank, and the US military.  It is my pleasure to welcome Yaneer Bar-Yam to radio WhoWhatWhy.

Yaneer Bar-Yam: Pleased to be here, thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: When we look at the nature of conflict today, one of the things that seems to stand out is the complexity of the world today. That the idea of the traditional vision of warfare— two armies opposing each other — has no place really in the world today, when one takes into account the economic issues, the social issues, the political issues, all of which enter into the complexity of warfare today. Talk a little bit about that first.

Yaneer Bar-Yam: Well, first of all, I would say that it hasn’t been that long since we’ve had mass armies confronting each other. I mean the most recent case that is quite clear is the Gulf War. So, I don’t think that we should dismiss entirely that that’s going to happen again.

However, it’s pretty clear that most of the conflicts that are happening today are not of that type. And there are multiple dimensions, as you’ve indicated, in which they differ. One is the nature of what the opponents are. While we often think about the US as one of the sides, the other side is really about local disruptions of order, and not about organized nation-states with which one is in conflict.

And that changes the nature of the engagement. Also, we are very much constrained in the thinking about the warfare and performing actions of conflict, by the vulnerability of the social systems in which the agents that we might be engaged in conflict with are located. So, I think it’s helpful to think about a specific example and a specific framing that will help articulate the differences.

When we talk about the Gulf War, we had the military force of Iraq sitting in Kuwait in a desert with a line in the desert saying “this is the boundary.” And we lined up half a million people on one side of the border, and on the other side was the enemy. And then all at once we said “Go!”, and the massed forces went forward and attacked the enemy.

If we think about what was happening in Afghanistan just a few years later, there were multiple groups that were internally in conflict with each other. And we chose a side to associate with. And the terrain was mountainous and very difficult to access, and the roles that were needed were very different in providing assistance to friends and promoting the failure of the antagonistic forces.

And eventually much of the effort was designed to strengthen the socioeconomic system against forces that were disruptive. And that really is very characteristic of many of the circumstances that we are in conflict with today.

We are not trying to fight an area; we are trying to fight agents within the area that are disrupting the local order, rather than any other large forces that we might oppose. And that creates tremendous differences, both in terms of the nature of what we have to do and the strategy that we have to use to achieve our objectives.

Jeff Schechtman: How different is that in looking at the Afghanistan model that you just outlined? How different is that than what we experienced in Vietnam, for example?

Yaneer Bar-Yam: So Vietnam in fact was an earlier case of this kind of complex conflict. And another case that we could use is Russia in Afghanistan, and surely there have been others across history. But they have become much more prevalent today because in a sense, the world is very much a single entity.

People think about an opposition between different kinds of groups  — a conflict between Islam and Christianity or something like that — but if we look at what’s happening, that’s surely not what’s taking place. It’s small subsets of people that are causing problems to the local circumstance, not just the global conditions.

So ISIS is harmful to almost everyone that they touch and, really, what we are trying to do is not just to protect ourselves from them, but to protect the world from them, including the local groups that are present in the areas where they’re found. So that’s really very much the nature of the situation.

Vietnam in some sense, was quite similar in that there was a conflict between local groups that we engaged in, in support of one group versus another group, rather than the outright attack that was in the Gulf War. Of course, part of that is not just the socioeconomic conditions, but also the geographic conditions. The complexity of the Vietnamese swamps and terrain is surely part of what made it a highly complex context for military conflict.

Jeff Schechtman: Well there are, as you say historical antecedents for this kind of complex warfare. To what extent has modern communications and the interconnectedness of groups within these frameworks, to what extent has that changed the nature of this kind of warfare today?

Yaneer Bar-Yam: Very much so. The major reason is not the local conditions. The major reason is the connection between those local conditions and the global context.

So, there are at least three ways that that manifests itself. One is that the world is vulnerable to any group that is willing to disrupt and destroy social economic institutions, wherever in the world they are. And this has to do with the possibility of long range terrorism, which was seen from 9-11 to many other cases that have happened since then of global terror attacks. Of course, there were precursor events to that as well.

The second way is that disruptors of order attract other disruptors of order from elsewhere in the world. Of course in ISIS we see that as well, where they’re attracting people from all over the world to reinforce their actions.

And the third side is that the opposition to them is global. So we have vulnerability globally, it’s part of the fundamental vulnerability of the global system that is highly connected, and we have the attraction of the, if you will, the bad guys, so to speak from all over the world — and the ones that oppose them from all over the world.

Jeff Schechtman: What does this mean then for the nature of the kind of forces that are required to be prepared in this framework?

Yaneer Bar-Yam:  I think it’s important to think about two different parts of the problem. One part of the problem is ensuring the stability and health of the local regions, and that’s not primarily a military action.

The other aspect of it is indeed, what do the military forces need to look like that would oppose these outbreaks. Since you’re asking about the latter, let me answer that first.

The traditional large scale military force is very ineffective in these contexts because it can actually cause more harm than benefit, because of the damage of large military action to the socioeconomic system. One has to be extremely careful to differentiate: who are the ones that are doing the harm from the ones that are actually part of the society that is being damaged.This requires a tremendous amount of cultural knowledge and sensitivity and understanding of those local circumstances.

We’ve seen in Afghanistan tremendous problems with figuring out who is it that we want to attack. And similarly in Syria, there is a very big ambiguity, as far as we can tell, about who we should support. Should we support the government? Should we support the resistance? Should we support this group or that group?

Many of the different groups that are in the resistance may also be terrorist organizations in our view. So, figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in these circumstances is extremely difficult.

The nature of doing that is built upon  understanding the local values and the local organizations that are sustaining the system locally, and how to reinforce that. So that type of knowledge is not something that a conventional military force is designed to address, designed to know.

The force that we have developed that does have that capability are special forces that were extremely successful in Afghanistan, right in the beginning, in working with the local population in achieving the collapse of the ones that were disruptive of order, as far as we understood it in that context.

The ability to do that, again, requires in some sense being embedded in the local system rather than being foreign to it.

And it is helpful to think about a biological analogy here. The analogy is not just an analogy, it’s a mathematical correspondence. And this is that we think about a biological organism and the world is behaving as a single organism, then the organism has multiple tissues.

Different parts of it are doing different kinds of tasks, and then the analog in societies, they have different cultures. And that’s a positive thing because having all those different parts of the system contributes, or can contribute to the wellbeing of the organism as a whole.

But you have to have a system that can identify when there are disruptive elements. Of the presence. And  in the biological context, that’s the immune system. An immune system has cells that are embedded throughout the system and serve in the careful role of identifying which cells  are disruptive, and which ones are not.

And that’s far from an easy task because cells that are normal can be converted to cancer cells. You can have cells that are, in principle, alien, all of the different kinds of cells that are in our intestines, for example that have different DNA from ours — but they’re actually friendly cells. We don’t want to attack them.

You can make mistakes; the immune system can have autoimmune problems, right? So, it’s clear that it’s a very difficult problem and we have to have the structures and the capability to make that determination of what should be supported and what should be opposed. And if we don’t do that correctly, then we have the kind of local disruptions that we are experiencing all around the world today.

So that’s the essential structure that we need in the military context. It’s to have individuals who are focused on understanding the difference between locally, healthy tissues, cultures that are working, and the things that are disruptive of them. And to have at the same time the capability of fighting those disruptors, and recognizing that the fundamentally difficult problem is an essential part of that task.

Jeff Schechtman: Given that complexity, given the degree of sophistication that each individual, local, conflict carries with it,  and using the biological analogy, is this then a strategic framework? Can it evolve into a clear cut strategic framework that applies to all of these kinds of conflicts in the twenty-first century?

Yaneer Bar-Yam: The answer is in some sense, fundamentally yes, but the question is what does it mean to have a strategic framework in this context. And what I’ve tried to give you here is in fact that strategic framework.

Recognize that the world is formed out of diverse, local tissues whose health has to be protected from those agents that are disruptive of that health. And that process of figuring that out requires a tremendous amount of attention to local information, and to not be directed by large scale actions that are representing the simple goals that we may have thought before that we were trying to support.

And among these issues is the recognition that projecting many of our values into these contexts, whether they’re ideas about governance or ideas about social values, is guaranteed to create problems rather than benefits.

We have to learn to differentiate between universal values where we don’t want people to cause the death and destruction of the system, really, of the people and the system. And differentiate that from what are values that are specific to part of the system, and even if we carry strongly those values, we’d respect it ourselves.

The kind government we want, the kind of social interactions we want, the kind of culture that we want, those are local rather than global, and we have to figure out how to separate those two issues.

That’s one part of the picture and I want to go back and talk about the other part of the picture, which is how do we reinforce the local health of these tissues. And part of the answer is already present in what I’ve talked about, which is this respect for local differences.

Today the world is formed out of nation-states that have been imposed in various ways through historical events. And they are not organized around the local, cultural systems that are naturally present, and we have to revisit that. [Ed.: Regarding the “historical events” most of the Middle Eastern countries’ borders were drawn by victorious Western powers, are arbitrary and do not follow natural geographical contours.  And they often fracture ethnic groups that might more logically have constituted distinct countries.]

Now, we can think about this as radical change by saying that we have to push the governance down to every local neighborhood, city or every patch of a country where there is a particular cultural group. But that’s actually not necessary. What we need is federal systems. Just like we have municipal governments, we have county governments, we have state governments, and we have a federal government in the U.S.

We have to create the right degree of local autonomy so that groups have the decision- making capacity within their communities that they would like to have. And yet at the same time we have to have the larger structures, including security, needs for security and so on, that extend all the way up to the global scale.

So we no longer have the nations really as independent entities. They’re part of this global civilization that is intimately interconnected and, at the same time, we need to push down decision making about local things: about school systems, about ordinances, just like we want communities to have control over decision-making locally so that the values of the community are present there.

That’s something that doesn’t exist in many places in the world, and that’s a major cause of friction and conflict, which weakens the local structures and enables various agents to become the larger scale disruptions.

So, we have to treat the system as having its own natural structure and by enabling the governance and other aspects of how local systems are treated, we can strengthen them in light of the vulnerability that we are facing.

Jeff Schechtman: And how does this framework stay in place when these groups engage in acts of terror that transcend, that go outside the field of battle?

Yaneer Bar-Yam:  This is exactly the peace that I was talking about in terms of having an immune system and military forces. I’m surely not against, and it’s clear that we need a global security system. And in the meantime, the best system that we have for doing that is the special forces that are trained for local understanding of those circumstances.

We have to enable them to make decisions based upon local information so that when there are groups, individuals and groups that are threats, they will be recognized and will be contained through their actions.

Jeff Schechtman: What role is there, if any in this framework and in this world today for what we think of as the traditional kind of land, sea, and air elements of defense?

Yaneer Bar-Yam: I would, at this point in time, not dismiss the need for such forces. I think that we are beginning only to see the transformation of the Earth into this collective that I’ve been talking about, and we need significantly more extended time before we would conclude that such forces are not needed.

Jeff Schechtman: And finally talk a little bit about how far along you think we are in terms of the various organizations within governments around the world to recognizing the reality of this framework today.

Yaneer Bar-Yam: I think the biggest problem right now, from my perspective in terms of the conversation is the consensus. It’s called the Westphalia Agreement Consensus. It’s the idea that nation-states are the entities of global autonomy.

We have to allow that we have a multi-scale structure, ranging from communities to the globe as a whole. And when we’re dealing right now with crises such as for example, the crisis in Syria, we are continuing to frame it in terms of the Syria situation, rather than trying to identify the local communities and the solutions that the local communities need.

Syria is a patchwork of local, geographic areas with distinct ethnic groups, ethnic cultural, religious, linguistic groups. And until we understand that the solutions to stability are present at the local level, we won’t really be able to create robust systems.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be an entity called Syria, but to ask that the central building block of governance will be the national structure is not taking into consideration the local needs. And it also becomes much less an issue; what the national government looks like if the local governments have their essential autonomy.

And so this balance is not yet, I think sufficiently appreciated in the global, political dialogue. Part of the reason is that people are afraid that, if one creates local autonomy, that one will end up with fragmentation.

We have seen in the UK, and then in Spain and other places where there are movements for nationalization of local areas. And that’s reflecting of this overall tendency that we have that now that nations are not the essential protectors of the security, but rather the global system is the system that is being protected. That there is a move towards local autonomy, rather than being afraid of that process, and I understand that the existing authorities are afraid of that process.

We have to try to figure out what are the best ways to provide the kind of local autonomy that people want, while recognizing that there is no true autonomy today. We are all part of the global system, and that drives us to have institutions of global engagement as well as regional, national, local, municipal and so on. And we have to figure out what kinds of authorities should be present at each level of organization.

Jeff Schechtman: And there’s an interesting irony in that that the more global we become, the more there is this powerful need for this local control.


Yaneer Bar-Yam: Absolutely right.

Jeff Schechtman: Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, thanks for talking to us today here on Radio Whowhatwhy.

Yaneer Bar-Yam: Pleasure to talk with you.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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