September 18, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Spooky Action at a Distance Part 2: Slogans, Strategies, and Metrics

As of mid-September 2012,
many Western democracies are struggling with outdated foreign policy tactics misapplied as strategies, causing these governments to timidly underreact to events within their control and wildly overreact to events outside of their control. While some of this stems from the combination of ubiquitous media reporting and artificially condensed timelines for perceived success, perhaps more of the responsibility lies in the manner in which governments are failing to fully design and articulate limited goals upon which real strategy can be constructed.

Goals such as "promoting freedom" and "embracing liberty" might be sufficient, even compelling, as slogans, but they are paralyzingly insufficient as functional foreign policy. And yet the United States and other countries in the West find themselves, as they have for decades, operating in the Middle East with slogans weakened with risk avoidance in place of strategies fortified with metrics. The inability to objectively measure success (or progress) because of their inherently vague nature leaves these slogan-based policies — and the governments that pursue them — vulnerable to dramatic and disproportionate setbacks for the very same reason: brief violent events overwhelm perception when the nature of policy has become little more than an unmeasurable and undefined slog. Simply put, in foreign policy, as in most other endeavors, if you are not measuring your progress toward success, if you haven't even created strategies capable of measuring success, then you very likely aren't succeeding.

Last week, before and during the angry and violent demonstrations that swept the Middle East, The Soufan Group wrote two relevant IntelBriefs: the first provided a look at the idea of entanglement, both real and false, involving an array of national interests and current events (Spooky Action at a Distance Part 1: The Entanglement of National Interests), while the second offered an examination of the the less-then-effective paradigm of devising strategies driven primarily by the goal of avoiding negative results rather than striving for positive ones (The Year of Living Repeatedly: Conflating Events with Responses). That exploration will continue with a synthesis of thoughts drawn from both those pieces to argue for a new framework of foreign policy deliberation and measurement.


The Strategic Implications of Entanglement

The events in Egypt, Libya, and indeed throughout the region provide a tragic yet informative example of what we have been suggesting by our reference to entanglement and inadequately delineated strategies. The initial protests in both Egypt and Libya were, by all appearances, sparked by scenes from an unreleased, amateurish, and offensive film that seems to have been produced specifically to provoke outrage. This irresponsible action, by a small group of people, would most certainly qualify as the unpredictable and unpreventable y factor in the entanglement equation. With the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, governments face a diminishing ability to prevent inflammatory images and statements by individuals or small groups from being used to incite violence. Since efforts to stop such incitements are likely to fail for reasons ranging from technological limitations to constitutional restrictions, governments should spend their energies developing strategies to pursue national interests that are more clearly defined and objectively measured and therefore less vulnerable to being called into question by flag-burnings and tragic but isolated violence.

All of this, up to this point, is understandable. No one expects analysts or policymakers to detect and counter every obscure Internet provocation. Nor does anyone expect these analysts and policymakers to know which potentially inflammatory issue will catch fire immediately. What is less understandable in 2012 is that we don't have strategies and policies that not only embrace this, but also have the intrinsic resilience necessary to minimize possible negative outcomes while maximizing the more positive ones. Think of this type of resilience — which is nothing more than clearly defined goals and strategies with metrics documenting success or failure — as a fire extinguisher kept on hand to prevent a single spark from burning down the entire house. It would be folly to craft vague policies and tactical pseudo-strategies, retain them in an unmeasurable drift for decades, and then overreact every time something ignites because there were no fire extinguishers at the ready. In the entanglement equation, the defined x factor is not the crisis, but rather the strategies in place to weather each one (while also documenting and justifying the effort).

Much of the current and expected criticism about the United States' handling of both the recent violence and the overarching situation caused by the Arab Spring revolutions has and will fix the focus not on the strategies, where it belongs, but on the transitory, reactive tactics, where it does not. To a limited degree, this makes sense because overrun embassies or consulates certainly contain tactical shortcomings that have to be understood and corrected. But more importantly for this conversation, these overarching foreign policy strategies are so vague and ephemeral as to be both impossible to implement and impossible to criticize (after all, few pundits would want to argue against promoting freedom). So, while it is the decades-long lack of any measurable and defined strategy that is largely responsible for the drift and the drama, it is the tactics on which every one understandably — yet wrongly —  focuses after a crisis, with the chance to learn and progress thereby sadly wasted.

This is unfortunate, because by focusing on tactics, governments miss real connections in their plans and responses or, just as importantly, see nefarious connections where none exist. The law of entanglement, of spooky action at a distance, is useful to our discussion not because all the events are connected in some grand transnational plot (though many events are certainly connected at some level), but rather because it is actually the opposite. What connects the countless random and disparate events that happen to us is the manner in which we react, respond, and learn from those events. Quite often, the spooky actions at a distance are, in reality, little more than our own strategies and plans unfolding in spookily vague and unmeasured ways.

The collective knowledge of what works and what doesn't work — the history of our spooky actions that must be determined by metrics and measurements and not by slogans or hunches — should be the underpinning of any goal and, by definition, every strategy. If a government cannot meaningfully measure progress towards a given foreign policy goal, that government should consider better defining the goal so that it is more amenable to measurement. It is no longer sufficient to say that foreign policy is an art that can't be measured, only appreciated. Practically every self-help book on the planet begins with an admonition to "create realistic, defined, and measurable goals for yourself" and yet when it comes to national policy, to the self-help of nations and the international community, there are only slogans and vague notions, affirmations (such as "promote democracy") without substantive action. Modern geopolitics demands more.


Becoming Entangled with the Future

A possible improvement, one that doesn't involve new technologies or expensive programs, is a thorough scrub of a government's foreign policy goals for each country with which it invests time, effort, money…and lives. For each target country, there must be a set of specific and measurable goals that will form the basis for an overarching strategy designed to achieve those goals, and do so at a reasonable cost. Consider, for example, Libya. Instead of having "promote a stable democracy" or "assist the new government" as a vaporous operational and policy framework, keep that as a slogan and then diligently craft measurable goals, complete with honest benchmarks, that can definitively demonstrate that efforts are either succeeding or failing. Promoting liberty can and should influence strategy and policy, but it can't be mistaken for strategy and policy.

There will be strong tendencies to create after-the-fact metrics that justify effort and cost, or to create meaningless metrics to show progress where there has been little, but these aren't sufficient reasons for not changing what is not working. Simply build better strategies that account for this bias, so that the collective knowledge and cost of all the times that metrics have been distorted are finally put to use and no longer squandered. More clearly defined and measured strategies will allow for better understanding of the entanglements of events and efforts because the x factor in the equation will be, perhaps for the first time, truly known. This exact measurement of x will allow analysts to spend more time assessing the potential impact of a possible y instead of calling the value of x into question every time violence breaks out.



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