Editorial Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy. This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document. Links to prior posts are provided below.
In the third element of his five-part Long Telegram Kennan shows how Kremlin neuroses can be used to predict official Soviet policies. I want to remove or reduce the influence of US neuroses on homeland security policy and strategy.
I have prescribed embracing the tragic. How would this untie the knots of our own neuroses?
Previously in this series of posts four preliminary deductions were offered:
1. The United States is, by-far, the most powerful single player on the planet.
2. Despite our great power, the United States confronts a strategic context much more unstable than 1946.
3. As a result, the contemporary strategic context is much less predictable than 1946.
4. With very limited predictability regarding our threats, national policy and strategy should aim to optimize our adaptability to a range of risks.
If this strategic analysis is broadly accurate (there were some concerns expressed, which are addressed in comments to this post), it describes a situation which many will find frustrating.
In most cases, this frustration emerges from being unable to sufficiently influence — and certainly not control — our strategic context.
Desire for control is closely linked to neurosis. Just in itself the pursuit of control creates the potential for cognitive dissonance. How does this jive with our proclaimed national commitment to liberty? But without more control, how can we guarantee safety?
In embracing the tragic it is acknowledged very little can be guaranteed. No complex system can be fully controlled. Can goals be cultivated? Certainly. Encouraged? For sure. Influenced? Yes. Guaranteed? No, even the effort will amplify tragic consequences.
The exercise of power — even when animated by noble purpose — will have surprising and, too often, ignoble outcomes. Embracing the tragic gives you this fore-knowledge. This fore-knowledge need not constrain your exercise of power, but it will inform your expectations.
It may also inform how power is exercised.
Recognizing tragic potential we accept the probability of surprise and the possibility of failure. In any community — with formal democratic traditions or not — this recognition encourages shared decision making. Key participants may try (and succeed) to manipulate the process, but even at-worst the illusion of participation and collaboration will usually be fostered.
Historically, tentative and limited participation in decision-making has often been extended, either through increments or revolution. Societies, cultures, and institutions that foster participation and collaboration in decision-making seem to have a long-term comparative advantage.
There is a growing body of evidence that this comparative advantage emerges from how participative networks increase the feedback available to the system, thereby enhancing the ability of the system to maintain rough equilibrium. This is a key aspect of resilience.
Systems which maximize feedback spawn learning, this builds knowledge, which can extend the boundaries within which the system maintains its equilibrium. This is not, mostly, a matter of formal learning, but the sort of learning by which complex systems adapt to their environment. The results can be chaotic, both figuratively and literally, but the outcome is enhanced resilience.
Here’s my current working definition of resilience: “1) the ability of a system to absorb or buffer disturbances and still maintain its core attributes; 2) the ability of the system to self-organize, and 3) the capacity for learning and adaptation in the context of change.” (Armitage via Walker, Holling, Folke, et al)
A sense of the tragic tells us — and resilience directs our attention to — “systems experience changes that are unknowable and discontinuous, and involve sudden and dramatic flips.”
The last two quotes are from Governance and the commons in a multi-level world by Derek Armitage. This is one of hundreds of digital papers available from the International Association for the Study of the Commons. Resilience is a principal concern of this movement, closely related to Elinor Ostrom (the recently announced Nobel Laureate in Economics).
As with our consideration of resilience here at The Watch, Ostrom, Armitage, and others are carefully provisional in their conclusions (caused by an overly developed sense of the tragic?). But several common attributes of the most resilient systems seem to be emerging. Drawing heavily on the Armitage paper, but with edits reflecting my own perspective, these attributes include:
Broad based participation, collaboration, and deliberation.
Multilayered and polycentric organizational structures.
Networked organizational structures with mutual accountability built into how the network functions.
Content-rich and meaningful interaction regularly occurring across the network.
Facilitative and/or catalytic leadership (in sharp contrast with authoritative or control-oriented leadership).
All the preceding attributes and their activities produce knowledge of both the system and its environment.
All the preceding attributes contribute to individual and system-wide learning, which is the application of knowledge to maintaining and/or potentially extending the boundaries within which the system maintains its equilibrium. (I have purposefully left out one generally recognized common attribute: trust. I plan to come back to this with a fuller consideration).
These are fundamental components of any effective strategy. Only when most of these attributes are reflected in strategy, operations, and tactics will our homeland security effort generate a long-term comparative advantage.
When our attitudes or actions are contrary to these attributes, we contribute to our disadvantage. When our attitudes and actions are consistent with these attributes we enhance the resilience of whole system.
The less a system is characterized by these attributes, the more neurotic it will be; in other words the more dissociated from reality. Kennan recognized the deep neurosis of the Soviet Union’s centralizing, controlling, and excluding tendencies. He predicted its collapse.
What about our homeland security system? More on Monday.
Previous posts in this series:
The Long Blog: A strategy of resilience (October 19)
If you have just tuned it, you are reading an experiment in serialized strategizing. I am not entirely sure where this will end up, but with the help of readers I have taken the loose framework of George Kennan’s Long Telegram and am attempting to fill-in the framework with a crystallization of our discussions over the last nine months on the role of resilience in homeland security. We are roughly half-way through the process.