The past few years have revealed a growing sense that the United States needs some form of new construct at the strategic level to frame its interpretation of the world and its decision making. There have been calls for a new grand strategy, refutations of the appropriateness of grand strategy, calls for new strategic narratives, and what is probably a rising chorus calling for renewed attention to fundamental strategic thinking.
Many – though not all – of these discussions emerge in relation to the broadening discourse about the nature of the international order and the form(s) it will take in the future. The rise of China, the financial crisis, and the evolution of non-state actors are all phenomena feeding into our questioning of the global order. For years now a variety of concepts and terms related to this have emerged and taken their place within people’s thinking: uncertainty, complexity, turbulence, and ambiguity are probably chief among these. Increasingly, people have been trying to put a frame and label to the vast array of changes we observe, trying either to fit them into existing frames of reference or to posit new patterns that give some sort of sense to this expansive turbulence.
Stepping back, we can see that, at the grand strategic level, which is to say the level of grand historical narrative, the fundamental uncertainty with which everyone is trying to grapple is the question, “Is this current period of turbulence and uncertainty a period of transition from the Old Normal to the Next Normal, or is this period of flux and ambiguity in fact the New Normal?” This question helps to distinguish between worldviews that assume that the global “system” must and will settle into a new equilibrium, and those that don’t.
Is this current period of turbulence and uncertainty a period of transition from the Old Normal to the Next Normal, or is this period of flux and ambiguity in fact the New Normal?
Understanding the centrality of this question will not, of course, help resolve our collective uncertainty regarding the global geopolitical future. It will, however, help us effectively structure the debates, research, and forecasting that must ensue as we try to better organize ourselves to understand and anticipate our futures.