Day: September 10, 2012

“Get the Big Idea Right”

This morning, the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville hosted CIA Director David H. Petraeus.  The event was not publicized and required a ticket for admission. As chair of the Political Science Department, I was invited to hear the talk — and had a seat very near the front and center of the stage, less than 25 feet from the speakers. Unfortunately, very few students outside of the (approximately 40) McConnell Scholars were invited to the event.

The lecture hall was instead filled with older guests, including many veterans and some active duty servicemen (and women, though I didn’t see many), local elites important to the University and Center, faculty, administrators, etc. I sat between a veteran and a banker with a famous local name. Senator McConnell was on the stage with the scholars, as was his spouse, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, University President James Ramsey, and Center Director Gary Gregg.

Petraeus spoke on the subject of leadership, a central concern for the McConnell Center and its students. Unfortunately, the former four star General gave a half hour talk that began with a very long introduction thanking his various hosts (and a couple of jokes) and ended with many platitudes that were not especially provocative. 

In between that long intro and weak conclusion, the body of the speech addressed 4 main points (Petraeus called them tasks of leadership) and employed primarily examples from the 2007 Iraq surge “success” to illustrate them:

  1. Get the big idea right (in this case, counterinsurgency strategy)
  2. Communicate effectively throughout the organization
  3. Implement the ideas
  4. Capture the lessons: refine and repeat

Petraeus did not take questions at the end.

That last fact was especially disappointing to me since it seemed like Petraeus ignored the elephant in the room. After all, the Iraq war started in March 2003 and the insurgency was a fairly significant problem not long after the successful U.S. capture of Baghdad. Why did it take so many years to “get the big idea right”? More importantly, how was Petraeus able to convince political leaders of the need for his favored strategy in a context that so obviously started by getting the big ideas WRONG?

In some ways, I think the problems I had with this particular speech and event parallel many of the most common criticisms levied against the CIA.

Why was the event secret? Guests were asked not to publicize the event because of security, but the CIA is frequently accused of excessive secrecy in the name of security. The McConnell Center has often hosted serving Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, Senators,and other political dignataries. Most were advertised in advance and the events were milked for PR purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address was so highly anticipated that people on campus could watch a live-stream of the event. Does a former first lady, President’s spouse, prominent presidential candidate, and serving Secretary of State face lower security threats?

I suspect that the visit of the CIA Director was not advertised because someone feared that left-leaning members of the campus community might organize a distracting protest outside the facility. Even if this is CIA policy, I challenge the rationale behind the policy.

The failure to invite a larger sample of the general student population, the decision to invite dozens of local elites, and the lack of questioning suggests another problem with the CIA. It has a reputation for not being especially accountable to various constituencies.

I’m sure organizers felt as if the event went off well, like an uncontested slam dunk. 

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Can’t stop thinking about tomorrow…

Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock have an interesting piece in Foreign Policy that examines the record on long-range forecasting of global events — 15 – 20 years into the future. They acknowledge the inherent difficulties of such a projections, but still wonder:

whether there are not ways of doing a better job — of assigning more explicit, testable, and accurate probabilities to possible futures. Improving batting averages by even small margins means the difference between runner-ups and World Series winners — and improving the accuracy of probability judgments by small margins could significantly contribute to U.S. national security.

Overall, I like the piece, but I do wonder about a couple of the basic premises and their prescription.

1. Would improving the accuracy of probability judgments actually enhance US national security? I’m not convinced. And, unfortunately, Horowitz and Tetlock don’t unpack this claim. They do acknowledge, and I agree, that improving accuracy would be difficult and it would only be improvements on the margins. The world is getting more complex, not less. It is more dynamic, not less. New and more actors in the international system interacting with greater frequency, more intensity, and faster speeds means that there is a constantly changing strategic environment in which actors act and react — and continue to change the strategic environment. In short, minor improvements in accuracy just might do anything because on whole everything is getting more complex.

2. Is accuracy the right metric? Even if we did have a better understanding (or thought we did) of the future, any policy calibrations made today on the basis of what that future might look like, could alter the future in ways that deviate from the accuracy of the long-range forecasting. In this sense, accuracy may well be the wrong metric.

3. Is there a downside in trying to get better? Maybe. Horowitz and Tetlock conclude:

Even if we were 80 percent or 90 percent confident that there is no room for improvement — and the Global Trends reports are doing as good a job as humanly and technically possible at this juncture in history — we would still recommend that the NIC conduct our proposed experiments. When one works within a government that routinely makes multibillion-dollar decisions that often affect hundreds of millions of lives, one does not have to improve the accuracy of probability judgments by much to justify a multimillion-dollar investment in improving accuracy.

Again, I think there is utility in long-range forecasting exercises, I’m just not sure I see any real benefits from improved accuracy on the margins. There may actually be some downsides. First, a “multi-million dollar investment” (they don’t tell us exactly how much) is still money and it may be a waste time and money to throw even more resources at an effort that is principally of interest only to the participants. Do policymakers really get much from projects like Global Trends or other long-range forecasts — and would they get added benefits from marginal improvements in accuracy? They already have their own biases and perceptions of the future — do these exercises have any real influence?

Second, what if we spend more time, money, and other resources to enhance those capabilities such that it alters decision-makers’ perceptions and gives them an unfounded sense of accuracy, i.e, that they come to see long-range forecasting as producing accurate or realistic futures? We may get a whole host of policy reactions that are unnecessary, wrong, and counterproductive based on what are still probabilistic outcomes.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tweak these exercises to make them better for all involved. I also agree with Horowitz and Tetlock that there is utility in conducting these long-range forecasting efforts. It is helpful to enlist a broad set of academic and government views to assess current and long-term trends. My own sense is that these efforts probably tell us more about the present than they do about the future. They force analysts to articulate their often embedded assumptions and to project into the future the likely consequences of their current assessments. I think we should keep them, I’m just not sure we need to spend too much more time and money on them. Of course, I might be wrong.

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Monday Morning Linkage

These are not ducks.
Photo: Dan Nexon
  • Kelly defeats Khanna. It isn’t even close.
  • Michael S. Chase writes about “China’s Search for a ‘New Type of Great Power Relationship’” at Jamestown’s China Brief.
  • Rob Farley and Michael Cohen hold a “Foreign Entanglements” on the RNC, DNC, and foreign policy in Campaign 2012. I haven’t watched it yet, but given the two participants I bet that it is pretty good. 
  • Dan Drezner deviates from his standard take on foreign policy and the 2012 campaign: this time foreign policy might matter. Maybe, but not buying it yet. 
  • Michael Krepon provides details on the history of Indo-Pak confidence-building measures.
  • Marc Lynch ruminates on Arab monarchies. 
  • P O’Neil on the ECB plan. Bottom line: “One implication is that Ireland and Portugal can’t look forward with too much certainty to full programme exit even if they perform exactly as envisaged under their programmes. Another is that the Eurozone could be running a fairly large after-care facility long after the peak of the crisis has passed.”
  • Noah Tucker’s two-part series on Osh two-years after the mass violence (part 1 and part 2).
  • Working papers that summarize large “opinion leader” conferences pretty much always descend into blandness. This one, on “Rising Powers and the New Emerging Order (PDF),” is no exception (via RPI).
  • Some might question the wisdom of asking students to write an essay defending or attacking the raison d’étre for the class that they are taking. But some of the best exam essays I ever read were written on the question, “Should ‘Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West’ be Abolished?” After all, when you spend a semester reading folks like Burke, Hegel, and Nietzsche…. you have a lot to work with.
  • Note that our Facebook page is up and running. This is a bit of a capitulation: many of our “comment threads” now take place on Facebook anyway. It is also a bit of a synergy: I’d just gotten “manager” privileges at the New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy Facebook page, and thought “hmmm, maybe the Duck deserves a page.” 
  • Cooperative gaming reduces agression?  
  • SFX’s two-part Iain Banks interview (part 1 and part 2). Paging PTJ?
  • I think the formula “adjective+punk” needs to be retired. Now. Is the material good or bad? I don’t care. Enough already.  

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ASEAN+6 In the Lead

It’s time for the annual Asian multilateral alphabet soup round up… 

Long story short: APEC’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the US backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Chinese backed Tripartite Agreement all appear to have lost some of their thunder to the ASEAN+6’s decision to begin negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) next year.

In fact, if the ASEAN+6 negotiations are substantively successful and not riddled with exceptions clauses it will create the largest economic bloc in the world, the Asian Economic Community (AEC), by 2015.  A couple of the working groups have already met for a few rounds of discussions.  The advantages of the RCEP in the eyes of regional developing countries and emerging markets most likely stem from the open accession format, the inclusion of all regional powerhouses under the leadership of ASEAN, and the exclusion of America’s intellectual property rights agenda.
As one might expect, the intense political tensions which have wracked East Asia in recent months have  spilled over to most trade negotiations in the region. The Tripartite Agreement reportedly might be stalled because of the intense political tensions between China, Japan, and South Korea. Similarly, China is unlikely to be included in the TPP so long as Vietnam has veto power over the admission of new members. In fact, the whole point of the TPP appears to be as a mechanism to give members a slight tariff advantage over China so few if any have a strong incentive to bring China into the group. New life may be breathed back into the TPP if President Obama defeats Governor Romney in the Presidential elections.  But the highly secretive character of TPP negotiations and the exclusion of Russia, China, and India in the TPP makes the initiative suspect in the eyes of the major Asian powers regardless.  Japan remains an observer to the TPP and domestic protectionist pressures particularly in the agricultural sector are likely to inhibit full Japanese participation in the future. 
The mystery then is why the ASEAN+6 negotiations seem to be moving forward while other agreements appear stalled. The ASEAN Secretary General, Surin Pitsuwan even noted that there was no sign of tension and even some cordial relations between the trade ministers from China, Japan, and South Korea who all sat next to each other at a recent meeting in Cambodia. China, Japan, and South Korea all gave their endorsement for the RCEP.  An obvious assumption is that the ASEAN+6 agreement is highly diluted or merely a lowest common denominator agreement. However, by its own (opaque) scorecard, ASEAN claims to have achieved 67.5% of its members’ commitments toward paving the way for the Asian Economic Community in the last three years. Nevertheless, by all accounts the most contentious issues lie ahead.  In particular, it remains to be seen whether the regional powers will be willing to extend to one another the kinds of bargains they have made individually with ASEAN. Perhaps the key to forging an agreement in these politically tense times is letting ASEAN take the wheel instead of any one of the major powers.
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