Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 21, 2009

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 21, 2009

In his Long Telegram, George Kennan frames a strategy on five related understandings.  He observes reality, gives context to his observations, projects these findings on official policy, acknowledges the role of unofficial policy, and offers practical deductions… or what I would call strategy.

I will follow the same organizational schema:

(1) Basic features of post-war Soviet outlook  risks to the United States.

(2) Background of this outlook perspective on risk.

(3) Its projection in practical policy on official level.

(4) Its projection on unofficial level.

(5) Practical deductions from standpoint of US policy.

Kennan’s “basic features” urges readers to recognize a Soviet take on reality.  This perceived reality — never fully accurate — is the reality that matters.  Kennan’s argument aims to engage, manage, manipulate — choose your verb — the orientation of our adversary.

Sixty-plus years later, the most serious risks facing the United States are where a range of threats, some traditional and some novel, interact with  several vulnerabilities Kennan did not face.

Where Kennan focuses intently on the Soviet threat — and mostly on the Soviet military threat — our threats are more numerous and nuanced.  The recent National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) is helpful in scanning the horizon.  Can we derive the same sort of logical policy premises that Kennan found?

Part 1: Basic Features of Post War Soviet Outlook, as Put Forward by Official Propaganda Machine the Principal Risks to the United States

Are as Follows:

a)  According to the NIS there are four nation-states that present a “challenge to US interests.”  These are Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.  None present the near-peer level of competition offered by the Soviet Union  immediately after WWII.  Individually or in concert these competitors can constrain the US.  But even in unlikely combination these nation-states do not present the clear-and-present danger the Stalinist superpower could threaten in 1946. (But this shift, more a matter of human will than of fewer warheads, also demonstrates the importance of keeping the nuclear genie contained.)

b) Violent extremist groups, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations  “increasingly impact our national security” according to the NIS.  But the capacity of these groups to threaten the US with catastrophic harm is modest.  We should not discount the potential terrorist, or even criminal, use of WMD.  But a reasonable and sustained application of the precautionary principle should suffice to manage this risk.  (See Cass Sunstein).  A debate regarding the specific meaning of reasonable and sustained could be entirely worthwhile.

c)  The global economic crisis was early-on identified by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, as the “primary near-term security concern” for the United States.  The dependence of the Unites States on foreign holders of debt (especially China), efforts to replace the dollar as the principal international reserve currency, the prospect of  US hyper-inflation,  and a growing sense of financial limitations all increase the nation’s strategic vulnerability.

d) Failed states and ungoverned spaces nurture possibilities available to violent extremists, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations, according to the NIS. Unconnectedness, ala Thomas P.M. Barnett, breeds all sorts of ugliness.

e) Climate change and energy competition will present new cassi belli and heart-wrenching humanitarian crises.  I’m not clear on why the NIS combines the two-as-one, but dominant powers such as the US generally prefer stability.  These two factors will likely be the source of significant instability.

f)  “Rapid technological change and dissemination of information continue to alter social, economic, and political forces, providing new means for our adversaries and competitors to challenge us,” is how the NIS describes the threat.  The report goes on to note, “while also providing the United States with new opportunities to preserve or gain competitive advantage.”

g) Pandemic disease is also listed by the NIS as, “a persistent challenge to global health, commerce, and economic well-being.”

(In a neat coincidence Kennan also listed his “basic features” as running from (a) to (g).)

Kennan could focus on threat analysis.  Today the NIS outlines a much more complicated mix of threats and vulnerabilities.  By any measure, the US is much stronger than it was in 1946.  But we are also much more vulnerable.  An insightful awareness of  external threat is no longer sufficient.  We also require a self-awareness of vulnerability.  (Threat x Vulnerability) x Consequences = Risk.

In Friday’s post we will follow Kennan’s lead in seeking some meaningful deductions from these seven premises.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 21, 2009 @ 4:36 am


While the National Intelligence Strategy is helpful, the way in which it sets out the strategic context highlights our continued threat-orientation. The seven challenges given priority are positioned as externalities.

There is a strong tendency to view the United States as separate and self-sufficient, but threatened by outside malevolence. Replacing the Soviet Union are four nation-states, several non-state “adversaries” and troublesome “transnational forces and trends.”

There is the suggestion that each of these darkly mysterious externalities are subject to our understanding and management. With wisdom, pluck, and a bit of luck we will be able to secure the nation (the Latin securus means to be carefree). I am not alone in trying to channel Kennan.

One bit of evidence for our preoccupation with “outsider” and “other” is the reference to climate change and pandemic, but no explicit reference to hurricane, flood, wildfire, or earthquake. Why not?

Isn’t it because these threats are seen as part of the natural landscape of our blessed land (please do not hear irony)? Evil comes from outside, from the other.

Kennan was able to discern an effective strategy by understanding, describing, and predicting the Soviet worldview. I am trying to point to an aspect of our own worldview that I perceive limits us and thereby threatens us. I am not yet doing a good enough job. If this means my perception is muddled, I hope you can help clarify. If this is a matter of poor description, I hope you can help specify.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 21, 2009 @ 9:56 am

Another great post and like the Kennan scripting. But disagree on one point–perhaps you imply and I infer that Kennan was focused on the Soviet Military threat and certainly he did not discount that capability.
You state “Where Kennan focuses intently on the Soviet threat — and mostly on the Soviet military threat — our threats are more numerous and nuanced. The recent National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) is helpful in scanning the horizon. Can we derive the same sort of logical policy premises that Kennan found?”

Kennan as opposed to Nitze {one of the primary authors of NSC-68] viewed the Soviet Union in all its complexity. After all it did abandon norther Iran after WWII under British and US pressure and also ceded Manchuria back to China when China was not yet Communist and not yet an ally.
But Kennan who understood the doctrine of Lenin and Marx fully and its implications sought to erect the fundamental notion that it was our (US) success as a country and culture and economy that would end up bringing victory to the west, whatever our military accomplishments and at the time the sole possessor of Atomic Weapons.

I can argue but will not here is that the NIS is just another expansion of a largely incompetent National Security establishment trying to both retain its influence and expand its influence over both funding and policy when in fact from essentially falsified INTEL historically and inappropriate overfunding and erroneous funding the National Security establishment [what I call the military/industrial/academic complex] which is filled with ego, hubris, elitism but not necessarily competence} continues to lobby for its preeminence. Why I like the Kennan arguments is that he tried to make the US leadership, political, cultural, and economic understand that it was a LONG TERM COMPETITION of systems and it seems he was supported by events. I argue however that Glasnost and Perestroika were as much caused by internal Soviet inconsistencies as opposed to a victory by Ronald Reagan over the RED menance. And by the way is China the RED menace. I don’t believe so and believe that very very skilled leadership understands that it is riding the tiger so to speak. Earthquakes and Nuclear power plant core melt accidents had a much larger impact on Soviet Union than many realize. Example, Chenyobl consumed 2/3 of entire concrete supply of Soviet Union for 18 months for its encapsulation [and by the way now requires doing it again]! Hey concrete is important. In a little known chapter of US history guess who–yes Harry S. Truman as President made the decision to deprive the upper Mississippi valley need concrete so that it could be sent to Korea for bunkers and other facilities. By the way my belief is that China now consumes on an annualized basis in excess of 50% of the world supply of concrete. Enough whimsey.

The US now understands that it not up against ignorant peasants but often highly technically trained, religiously motivated, and sometimes suicidal opponents. This is somewhat new for US but not entirely. Certainly the MOROs in the Phillipines over a century ago generated the need for the ACP, model 1911. And of course the history of use of suicidal effort by the Japanese is a huge part of the Pacific War from 1943-45!

So hey let’s follow Phil’s lead and understand that what is necessary is to accurately reflect on US strengths and weaknesses. Stephen Flynn’s writings give some excellent documentation of threats open source, including failure to design and maintain critical infrastructure. All this fitting nicely under Kennan’s drive to promote US resilience and Phil’s drive to promote US resilience. But let’s be hardnose and willing to acknowlege what an attractive target US culture, economy, and political system is to outsiders that may be last-ditch in opposition to Globalization and maybe not. After all many Americans needed the wake-up call of 9/11 to understand that some threats were different and needed different approaches. Personally, I think a decade down the road the US approach in AF-PAK and Iraq could well be permanently rejected by events. But others whose judgement I respect differ certainly now and don’t know about later.
What we all should remember is that Kennan’s positions were based on his deep knowledge and study and life in the Soviet Union over a long period of time both as observer and diplomat. My question is exactly who does the US have that has equivalent experience in the Islamic World and who has the trust and respect of the policy makers equivalent to Kennan? My short answer is none. Pew Foundation is reporting by 2050 up to 1/3 of world population may be worshipers of Islam and even now they represent 1.57 B people on planet earth. These demographics are in fact part of what is the necessity for the long view, so keep writing and thinking Phil. And please leave no resilience rock unturned. I argue that resilience is directy threatened by Congressional inability to reform itself and its oversight procedures. The Executive Branch is close behind. And yes Climate and enegy are flip sides of the coin. Perhaps EPA and DOE should be merged and the weapons labs put under a dual-hatted civil agency, like DISA or DLA or whatever. Let’s keep all options open. Hey while we are at it let’s completely transform the mission of USACOE and make them the leading “Resilitence” organization for building resilience from the ground up. Let’s have a breakout of the federal budget not just for GWOT but for resilience. Let’s start thinking and stop fretting.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 21, 2009 @ 10:55 am

So much to reflect upon here in both Phil’s post and comment and in William Cumming’s reply. More indeed than I have time to take on at the moment.

I will take up William’s last point though. I agree that it would make sense to repurpose USACOE’s and its domestic mission and place it alongside USCG as our premier resilience organizations at the federal level. I am not sure whether similarly sound arguments apply to the other agencies he mentions, but it’s certainly worth considering.

In respect of Phil’s latest comment to his earlier resilience post: I have recently presented on the question of how to practically and constructively respond to complexity or chaos by adapting the frameworks of emergency management as sub-discipline within public administration. My rather lengthy proposal will become a chapter in the Handbook of Critical Incident Analysis, which is still under development.

The long and short of my argument is that we must begin by recognizing the stark difference between uncertainty and ambiguity. Public administration has had a tendency to approach problems in emergency management as problems of uncertainty rather than complex dilemmas. Uncertainty implies the issues we must address are primarily epistemic in nature. We approach them through focused attention and analysis. We develop and refine models to improve our capacity to predict and manage outcomes.

In contrast, ambiguity arises not from a lack of information, but rather from a surplus of it. When confronted with too much information, we find ourselves distracted by conflicting inputs, sometimes to the point where our attention on outcomes becomes obscured. As such, ambiguity affects our motivation. Unless we successfully prioritize, order, and synthesize the complex and conflicting information into a coherent operational picture, our motivation wand therefore our effectiveness will yield to anxiety, frustration, anger, or other unproductive emotions.

Complex threats like the ones we face today involve both uncertainty and ambiguity. They present us with epistemic, ontological, and even metaphysical challenges. This, I argue, demands that we construct systems for dealing with them that emphasize the development of morally coherent strategies.

At the same time, we must learn to employ what Wildavsky termed radical incrementalism in our approach to building our capability to deal with these threats. Our resources, especially the attention we are willing to commit to them, remains finite but highly variable. Change, despite its inexorable nature, proceeds at an irregular rate, which requires us to adapt as both the threat and our willingness to devote time and attention to it waxes and wanes.

Understanding the ways in which these variable interact provides insights into how we can focus our efforts. Boin and colleagues have characterized crises along two dimensions: time to onset and time for recovery and accountability. These conditions fit well within a scenario planning framework, and allow us to discern how people make distinctions between different kinds of threats in terms of how long much effort and of what type each kind of threat requires of us before an after an event occurs.

I have proposed a management framework for based on action research methodologies for describing how emergency managers can apply the theories and methods of their sub-discipline to these problems through community engagement. It involves four phases or components: attune, attenuate, arbitrate, and adapt. Each phase incorporates feedback loops intended to facilitate appreciative inquiry (after Cooperrider and colleagues) and loop learning at the single, double, and triple loop levels (after Argyris and Schon).

My goal in articulating this strategy for the handbook was to address the practical application of theories to problems of coordination. Emergency management, like homeland security, requires practitioners who can meet and overcome the challenges of complexity: clarity, competition, commitment, and collaboration.

I have to dash off to a meeting now, but I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 21, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

Mark’s comments are right on. Also Phil meant to address your formula set forth in post, specifically:
(Threat x Vulnerability) x Consequences = Risk.
I used to use an abreviated version when teaching with X coordinate PROBABILITY and Y coordinate CONSEQUENCES! I don’t find the low probability high consequence events to not be worth expending effort on. Perhaps the “Black Swan” will land!
A highly specific reminisce if I might be allowed. The so-called “Rasmussen Report” was used by the NRC and predecessor orgs and issued originally as NUREG-1100 although memory fading at this point. That report attempted to measure probability and consequences. It was later almost totatly repudiated as to its probability analysis. It was analyzing a core melt accident at a nuclear power plant. What I found interesting, and became involved indirectly for FEMA in 1981 in REP (Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program–offsite nuclear power stations) was that NUREG 0654 now with four supplements and both NRC regs, 10 CFR Part 50 and FEMA 44 CFR Parts 350-354 are expressly premised on the fact that there WILL BE A CORE MELT ACCIDENT SOMETIME! Thus, the regulatory analysis did address by adoption the difficulty of defending a regulatory system in which the probabiliteis may well be hard to establish. And then of course the assignment to FEMA of off-site safety around operational and liscensee “new” plants was assigned because of TMI and the March 27th, 1979 event that resulted despite what all thought at the time was in fact a core melt accident. The licensing of Shoreham and Seebrook became a cause celebre when the issue of risk and who determined risk was finally resolved in the favor of NRC after two of the most expensive and lengthy Administrative Law sagas and Federal judicial review ever. Of course it is of some interest to me that 25 applications are now pending for new reactors with many sited geographically where current operating reactors already exist.
So my question now is simple? Do we agree that probabilistic analysis has some role in risk analysis? I would be interested in arguments either way!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 21, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

A few quick replies,

I appreciate Bill Cumming’s clarification regarding Kennan’s intention and influence. It went far beyond a military analysis. My writing was sloppy wrong on that count and I will amend if there is cause to fine-tune another draft.

Mark Chubb’s comments are very close to where I think this serialized strategizing is going. I may plagarize some of what he has set out when we get farther along.

The Risk formula is, I have found, a helpful thinking tool. I consider the (Threat x Vulnerability) element to produce Likelihood or, as Bill writes,Probability. But I prefer keeping the T and V separate because that makes explicit how reducing vulnerabilty is just as effective as reducing threat in reducing probability.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 21, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

Bill and Phil, thanks for the positive feedback and encouragement to continue this line of thinking.

Talking about homeland security and emergency management using the language of risk presents us with some very significant challenges, which your exchange illustrates nicely. An extensive literature concerned with risk communication (too large and detailed to elaborate here) illustrates some of the profound pitfalls that confront anyone who wishes to engage the public at-large using the language of risk, particularly in quantitative terms. Practitioners are not much more receptive to or adept at using this language than the laypeople they protect as illustrated more than aptly by the rather poor quality of hazard and risk assessments in emergency planning and preparedness documents.

One of the reasons I am so concerned with clarifying and reconciling the conflicts between the epistemic (uncertainty/attention) and ontological (ambiguity/motivation) conceptualizations of emergency management to develop morally coherent strategies for promoting and managing resilience is that doing so, it seems to me, is a prerequisite to addressing the logical and ethical dilemmas that confront practitioners as they engage the public in the social and political realms.

People tend to approach risk problems in highly personal ways, which are deeply affected by how they perceive the problem. This has led some very clever theorists to narrowly assume people seek to maximize utility or avoid losses or promote egalitarianism without considering the possibility much less the implications of mixed motives. It has been my experience that all of these theories explain part but not all of the behavior we must address not only among the public at-large but often in any given individual’s situation and approach to their own risk.

Vulnerability assessment seeks to get at this more directly than risk assessment does by assuming that people are more concerned with how they and others will be effected, not how likely any given consequence will be. This does not mean they are not concerned with costs, only that they tend to approach latent or future costs in the present only in terms of the opportunity costs of mitigating them or moving onto something else instead of addressing them directly.

This often means that risk-based cost-benefit calculations that fail to take account of opportunity costs don’t get us where we want to go. Performance metrics that focus on how investments to mitigate vulnerabilities produce multiplier effects in terms of other efficiencies or stimulate co-production of other socially-desirable goals are more likely to stimulate community engagement, which may itself be considered both a means and an end with respect to promoting resilience.

Two final points for today: 1) resilience and sustainability are fellow-travelers and 2) serial strategizing and emergent strategy are at the core of adaptive change, which in my opinion, is the essence of resilience. In other words, like Kennan, in this endeavor we are more concerned with describing an attitude or orientation than a destination or the path leading to it.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 21, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

Agreeing again with Mark. Just as the economics profession is again stressing pyschology perhaps personal comprehension of risk becomes the be all and end all. Just as the Bible speaks of “Rightous Indignation” perhaps what really will motivate resilence is “Rightous Resilience.” What should be Can be?

I heard from a friend today that the White House to driving DHS and its Quadrennial Review to focus on “Resilience.” Could this blog have White House readers? Hoping so.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 22, 2009 @ 8:03 am

Regarding the intersection of “rational choice” and human psychology, I recommend listening in to a July radio interview with Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. The producers entitle the interview, The Science of Trust: Economics and Virtue.


Comment by christopher tingus

October 22, 2009 @ 10:52 am

This blog and so well presented articles as well as invaluable reader’s contribution unintentionaly led by William Cumming who himself should be an advisor to the present administration from his outstanding input, Hlswatch should indeed be on the priority list of not only the White House, but “required” reading for the intelligence community, policymakers and even across the pond for the UK and its government must contend with the German-led EU, the Vatican with the “KGB Putinites” and the “Brutes of Tehran” playing even widening roles in their shpere of influence in an unfolding scenario which will place us all in peril, partcularly Europeans and those in the Middle East!

Unfortunately, without sounding too spiritual or as a “fundamentalist” type, reading scripture and the need to repent are lacking not only on Wall Street, at the Fed, by all central bankers and the corrupt governments we see from local, state and national to those depicted by all forms of man-made government from Babylon through the same here in the 21st century.

For instance, man’s lust for money and power have little regard for the 6.2 million Ethiopian souls who today awoke and do not have enough food to keep them alive and do not even have a clean glass of water –

While I love this beloved nation and certainly proud and understand my responsibilities as a natural born citizen and have always been willing to stand for the principles set forth by our enlightened forefathers, it is apparent that the local, state and national “public servants” fail every time for they lack understanding that their lack of transparency when turning their cheek to the wrongs before us, here on Main Street USA making every attempt to circumvent the US Constitution as well as State Constitution, the partisanship, the self-agenda of government and business, my favorite, Robert Frost and his choice of which of the two roads to take….well, it is clear that you Mr. President, for starters, with all your rhetoric as well as your detailed knowledge of the Constitution has chosen the road in leading this nation into some New World order –

Unfortunately, you and most today in government because of youthful age and lack of wisdom do not understand that this New World order and the intentional deceit imposed upon the American people as they are so impoverished and so, so disregarded, not much has changed since the early days of the Bible and Egypt, unless mankind is willing to repent for the ill manner in which women are treated, children are so abused, drugs, pornography and so on and so forth and governments themselves so riddled with corruption unwilling to address the filth, the detail and astute ideas of good men (and women) who contribute to this much needed blog, well, as my years pass, I see with much clarity, despite all this creativity and individual thought so necessary to enahncing human rights, etc., all will result in this continuing decline in the quality of Life not only in Sri Lanka, but throughout and once again, mankind will be challenged with days of datrkness and kuch anguish and suffering…

Thank you for your insight. Please keep your ideas flowing as hope is all that many have today as their eyes see so much despair even here on Main Street USA despite these political campaigns with the theme of “change” promised during election times.

Caution to all for the depravity we see unfortunately foretells the pages quite clearly stated as history once again repeats its evil ways.

It is so unfortunate that human beings make this all so difficult when the glory of Life here on this earth and how to enjoy and share is written with much transparency, however like the proposed legislation that is voted and enacted without anyone reading the full text of the proposed law, the words written and found in the Bible clearly explaining how we should live Life and treat others is obviously of little regard!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 23, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

Is it “casus belli” or “cassi belli’?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 23, 2009 @ 7:01 pm


I had to look this up. Should have looked it up in the first place, it’s been over thirty years since I took Latin. I was going for the plural of “casus”, which I thought would be “cassi.” But your question led me to find the following explanation by a long-dead Latin teacher of mine, who had apparently made my error (taught me the error?):

“Casus” is fifth declension; its proper plural is not “Cassi” but “Casus”. Further, in the plural, “Belli” does not become “Bellorum”; that would be causes of wars, and one merely wishes to talk about causes of war — multiple causes, one war. Accordingly, the plural of “Casus Belli” is not “Cassi Bellorum,” but “Casus Belli.”

At least I did not add the bellorum error. Thanks for the catch.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 24, 2009 @ 10:33 am

I keep seeing that John Brennan’s Relisency Unit in the staff of NSC/HSC is being augmented! Latest is Daniel Darnell from head of DC HOMELAND SECURITY AND EM OFFICE!

Phil or Chris can you tell US anything about what the mission and goals and strategies and policies of this unit are in fact? Also should I just consider all the HSPD’s are helping to make US resilient or do you have favorites or should there be an HSPD speficially concerning resiliency and identifying relevant portions of others?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 24, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

I don’t know much more than what I put in the August 26 piece focusing on the RPD.(http://www.hlswatch.com/2009/08/26/resilience-policy-directorate-90-day-review/). I promised an update in another 90 days, that will be just about when my resilience strategy swan song is finished. So I will try to find out more. Darrell Darnell is a creative, courageous and risk-taking professional. He is especially strong in practically focusing on the big pay-off issues. It says good stuff that he was invited to join on.

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