Cite as:

Yaneer Bar-Yam, Global civilization and counterterrorism, CTC Sentinel 8(7): 17-22 (July 28, 2015).


Global changes are causing both global integration and local divergence of social / cultural domains. As a result, the problem of global security becomes not just one of fighting disruptors of order, but also of understanding what constitutes order. Reinforcing order and its active protection requires understanding the local socio-cultural domains, their vulnerability to disruption, and what must be done to strengthen them and respond when they are unable to defend themselves. Achieving global peace requires addressing the fundamental drivers of unrest and violence—including high food prices and ethnic geography, as well as the way values translate into behavioral and social imperatives. This is at least as essential as combating disorder and violent extremists in pursuit of the universal values of respect for life and liberty.

The U.S. military is the main responder to disruptions of social order globally. Due to the complexity of this task, effectiveness depends critically on rapid decision-making and adaptability to changing global and local conditions. At the recent Senior Conference hosted by the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I was invited to discuss my work on the science of complexity and its implications for counterterrorism policy and strategy, and show how different organizational models can help in this task.

Action in response to terrorism and other security threats should be understood in the context of changes in the global structure of human civilization. While it is widely recognized that globalization is taking place, the implications of the essential integration of global social and economic systems for security is yet to be fully recognized.

Interdependence results in a common security priority in which disruptions of local social order anywhere lead to greater risk everywhere. While traditional perspectives often focus on national priorities and international relationships, current conditions have shifted to a fundamentally global framework of economic markets and cooperation that includes necessities such as food, energy, and other commodities, as well as manufactured goods and services. This economic integration is part of the social integration that prominently includes widespread travel as well as internet-based information sharing and social media interactions.

At the same time, cultural values and other local conditions are leading to the divergence of groups from each other. This should not be viewed as a negative development, nor is it practical to divert massive social changes substantially from their course. Diversity is known to strengthen many types of natural systems, and social heterogeneity is consistent with the integrated global civilization becoming a complex organism with diverse roles played by parts of the system.

While it may ultimately be a positive development, social diversity leads to challenges when responding to disruptions of social order, as the interventions that are needed, in governance, economic assistance, and other efforts to establish effective security, are unclear. This also adds to the difficulty of strengthening societies through promoting economic development and nation building, which are well established as complex tasks. Viewed in this way, the military and other responders to security problems must be concerned with the health of social systems, where health has a local definition dependent on the values, economic conditions, and social imperatives.

Schematic complexity profiles (complexity as a function of scale) are shown for military forces. From lower right to upper left: Navy, tank divisions, infantry, marines, and special operations forces. Different organizational structures make forces effective in different environments. Special operations forces are adapted to complex environments.