Planning to be Shocked

28 December 2012, 1139 EST

One of the most repeated, and most dubious, axioms about strategy is the notion that being proactive is wiser than being reactive, and that reactivity is something we should be allergic to. In the words of Briain’s foreign secretary William Hague, ‘the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.’

Likewise, written into the folklore of the US foreign policy establishment is the notion that the ‘strategic shocks’ that struck America – such as Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 – happened because Washington was passively sleeping. A quick read of Presidential speeches on the anniversary of that attack shows how powerful the creed of active vigilantism lives on, even if it doesn’t power all of America’s day to day behaviour.

Never mind that a prehistory of activism triggered both crises, whether an escalating conflict in the form of economic warfare with Japan, or deep entanglement with the very regimes that galvanised Al Qaeda to take its war to the far enemy. The logic still goes: it is wiser to be active, shape the environment so that it precludes threats.

The trouble with being proactive is that it implies a confidence about forecasting the future. What if world politics is too chaotic to anticipate? Can we make strategy if we can’t predict? This problem is implicit within many ‘strategic’ documents and general theories of strategy – which start by announcing that the future is unpredictable, before going on to…predict it.

This post runs a little against the spirit of the year 2012. After all, what a year it has been for the issue of prognostication in politics. As in moneyball, when the scientific statisticians and big-data interpreters triumph over the primitive ‘gut instinct’ scouts of the Oakland A’s, so too in US domestic politics have the ‘quants’ such as Nate Silver shown that voting behaviour can be forecast with spooky accuracy with big enough data and rigorous enough method.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that international life isn’t as open to being forecast, that for a range of reasons, the world can’t have a Nate Silver, or at least not yet. Triggering events that precipitate revolutions are by definition hard to foretell. The little contingencies that tilt actors towards and away from conflict likewise. As for surprise attacks, often it isn’t a lack of data, but too much information and too much noise, and too much deception, out of which it is hard to extract meaningful intelligence. If that weren’t difficult enough, sometimes the experience of intelligence failure, such as the invasion that doesn’t happen, can desensitise regimes to the actual one. Warning failure has a long and dispiriting history.

In wider political contexts, expert prediction also apparently has a dismal record, roughly at the accuracy rate of dart throwing monkeys. Some of the liveliest expert minds have gotten big things so very wrong, such as the CIA regional guru praising the Shah’s stabilising rule six months before the Revolution. As for the fall of the Berlin Wall, not many scholars could say I told you so.

The belief in noble activism above futile ‘reactivism’ does not just flow from an overconfidence about the knowability of the future. It can also be symptomatic of an ideology about one’s own place in world order.  Some documents, such as the National Security Strategies on both sides of the pond, tend to portray a world that is chaotic and dangerous, but cast their own nations as bringers of order into that chaos, rather than unwitting agents of it. Being proactive – or indeed pre-emptive -in itself can generate trouble and blowback.

So what? If international life is too full of surprises, and if foreign policy activism can generate chaos that it never imagined, where does that leave strategy? Two contrasting responses might be that we should refine our predictive tools and methods. Alternatively, as some diplomats say quietly behind the scenes, we should abandon strategic planning as a fictitious and unrealistic exercise, and just react as we go along.

But there is a third response: maybe we can get better at horizon scanning up to a point, at least to be more aware of warning signals in general if not in particular, and to have a better idea of the spectrum of possibilities. But waybe we should also reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of shock as a constant feature of international life.

In that case, there is a form of strategy that deserves more serious thinking. It is what Walter Lippmann referred to as building up a ‘comfortable surplus of power’ in reserve. We can’t know exactly when or how shocks will turn up, whether on the Korean peninsula or in the Persian Gulf. But less activism and obsession with controlling the environment in advance would free up resources and time to deal with the unexpected and unknown. A reconception of military power not as an instrument to be continually expended and used, but as an insurance policy that is valuable even if it is mostly in the background, would help. And, in a measure, an acceptance of chaos and a touch more reactivism would help us resist the very ideology of confident hyper-activism that makes us so shock-able in the first place.