Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 30, 2009

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection in practical policy on official level

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2009

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)

(Please see/hear Brian Walker’s 7 minute explanation of resilience.  First video available on linked screen.)

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)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic (October 28)

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.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 30, 2009 @ 4:06 am

Self-critique (and prior concerns):

In commenting on the original presentation of the four strategic deductions Arnold Borgis wrote,

…we should remember that that period following WWII was much more unstable than it now seems. Europe and much of East Asia was in ruins. Despite the ridiculous damage and number of deaths that the USSR sustained on the Eastern Front, they emerged from the war as the direct competitor to the U.S. Not only militarily, but in direct competition along all fronts. Western Europe was not a sure thing to remain outside of that sphere of influence. China was in turmoil and Japan in ruins. There is no similar threat or comparable situation today. While China and (to a lesser degree) Russia could cause trouble for the U.S., they are both firmly dependent on and work within the international system and are not acting to create an alternative.

I certainly accept Arnold’s caution. It may be overly pedantic, but I will note that in terms of “system stability” the dynamic dyad of US-Soviet competition was more manageable than the multi-nodal network of power within which we operate today. One possible implication: 1946 was unstable, but in a more predictable way, than today.

Otherwise, today I offer more a self-defense than a self-critique. I expect many readers would have preferred to undertake the strategic recommendations outlined above without the distraction of a post on national neuroses and another on the tension between tragedy and irony. Some of you will be even happier with what I plan for Monday, when I detach the strategic recommendations from the language of the commons and complexity. This would be more consistent with the way we have crafted policy and strategy over the last quarter century or so. Two reactions:

1. Kennan had very little to recommend regarding US strategy and policy. He focused almost entirely on the nature of the problem, including where he wrote of the Kremlin’s neurosis,”We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity, and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual.” It was Kennan’s judgment that if we developed a deep understanding of the problem, that in itself, provided strategic advantage.

2. The recommendations related to resilience emerging from the study of the commons and complexity are very helpful. But unless we engage these recommendations with profound self-awareness, especially regarding the paradox of power, we will misuse the insights and deepen our problems (and probably the problems of others).

I received a couple of notes from colleagues who were worried about the “excessively dark” angle I suggested in Wednesday’s piece on tragedy and irony. I am translating, but they seemed to think I was giving entirely too much emphasis to what was, really now, just a matter of aesthetic preference. I appreciate their personal concern. But they are wrong. Unless we — especially any of us anywhere close to power — recognize and remember our tragic potential we are condemned to Lear’s fate and in another generation or two Richard III might be a better fit than today.

I have apparently awakened in a feisty mood, so I will add a related comment in regard to yesterday’s great post on the place of subjective judgment. For most of human history (not pre-history) we have known that our subjective skills can — ought to — be sharpened and deepened by consciously situating the subjective within a historical, literary, philosophical, religious, and scientific context. We did not — or at least anyone with a pretense to wisdom did not — argue opinion. We argued how our current subjective judgment compared and contrasted with the understanding of reality that emerged from these disciplined efforts to refine our subjectivity.

If Shakespeare’s Lear has become “excessively dark” to be applied to our current context, we have truly entered a new Dark Age.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 30, 2009 @ 10:07 am

Another terrific post by Phil! A brief comment and perhaps more later.

Phil states:
“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.”

Obviously just these thoughts could consume a lifetime of work, study, analysis and on and on. All-in-all a wonderful expression of complex thought.

What strikes me about the paragraph is that it is becoming quite clear that post-WWII the increasing paralysis of American policy makers was not just innate caution and wisdom but something more. Basically the hardening of the arteries that so often leads to dementia. The choices in the political spectrum were meagre and more and more were the choices between two professional politicians in major elections neither of which, or all of which (include the third-parties) seemed unable with a few exceptions exactly what were America’s greatest problems. In general it seems they believed correctly or incorrectly that Americans did not want to have bad news, and that has corrupted into did not need to get bad news, and finally just lie to Americans. There in other words was little to trust in the average American, particularly those not voting or not activists and so their labeling could go unchallenged. Is there in fact a “Silent Majority” now? My point is that a fundamental of resilience is knowledge of and understanding of the facts and issues and policy choices facing Americans? This requires politicians who actually can articulate and understand the choices and issues and policies and facts. Increasingly it looks like those who fit the bill cannot do so. One of the causes for hope in Post WWII American is the liberation of women as far as society allowing them the same freedom as men to succeed or fail in a variety of domains, including politically. So resilience means allowing each individual to fulfill their life goals, whatever. For some women means just having children and successfully raising them. For some men also. I am a believer that families are the foundatino of resilience. Almost a mystical belief yet I do know my are totatlly dysfunctional and prevent capacity of the young to be enhanced or fulfilled. Yet I also believe government and systems need to support families and resilience. Therefore while it might be nice if every detached house had its own generator and water filtration system it is a better investment to make the energy and water systems more resilient. That is the distinction trying to make in previous comment. In conclusion as noted above “participation” and “collaboration” do promote resilience. So let’s push those concepts from increasing voter turnout to allowing each and everyone of US forums that allow input to the collective wisdom. As Jared Diamond points out what was the last person on EASTER ISLAND thinking as they cut down the last tree? Far too late then for alternatives. Or as Edmund Burke stated “The only thing that will allow evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent” or some such thought. Trying not to remain silent here in my comments and trying to promote alternatives.

Comment by christopher tingus

October 31, 2009 @ 6:27 am

Government today is far more removed from reality today despite technology and so much information at hand….

Government today apparently suffers a great deal from a neurosis which is portrayed by “entrusted” leadership pervaded with self-agenda and greed, disregard for our Constitution and the prerequisite foundation of ethical and moral public service.

Here in Massachusetts – Taxachusetts – convicted felons behind bars are first to receive the N1H1 vaccination. Gotmo detainees, prisoners, even those duly recognized at known terrorists are the first to be vaccinated against the swine flu even though they are the swine of those amongst us.

Professionally partnering with expertise of long standing individuals and their global commitment in providing waste water treatment, addressing the need to have actual “access” to a clean glass of water and bringing affordable housing with solar to the many who have little food, little water, and no housing, I am truly appalled at the millions, in fact, at least 1.2 billion who fall short each day without these basics and their government turning cheek to these precious souls.

We here in this short lived, but great Republic, these United States of America, our beloved nation, recognized for a people so Blessed with heart of kindness and chariable to a fault, besieged from within, a country and people whose destiny is much in peril.

Our forefathers, insightful and enlightened with regard to the necessity to flee oppression – the King’s taxes and fees – taxes and fees – did in fact imagine a time when our nation’s leadership may become too arrogant, too self-serving and void in leadership.

Yes, Mr. President, we as a people understand the meaning of the dash between our birthdates and the day the Lord, our Creator calls us and it is the dash which depicts our lives and the commitment for amy of us to not only utilize Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for ourselves and family, but to reach out to neighbor far beyond our shores, to clasp hands and be the Hope for all mankind under God – we have veered far too off course and with your administration, Hope thought to have a chance, yet in the partisan portrayal from both sides of the aisle and your narrow perspective Mr. President, as a nation we are bankrupt financially, bankrupt in leadership, bankrupt in ethics and morality and the good and hard working populace is becoming so impoverished from taxes and fees, taxes and fees that it too will soon be bankrupt monetarily and in Hope….Caiden Dunham once wrote simply, “Look up in the sky, see the kite fly high” – well we look to sky and see not this kite of hope and exburance, but rather prayers filling the sky as people are truly frightened by the policies and superiority of those “entrusted” to serve…it is so frightening that folks have stocked their safes with guns and bullets not to protect family and home from AQ or to the lesser extent, the Taliban, but those making laws in chambers which openly talk of a new world order not to enbrace the majority, but the select few with blatant disregard for the majority!

Resilience, creativity, education, family, nation, God loving people who are tagged as not only protesters, but depicted as unruly citizens, however it is not the Congressman from South Carolina who willingly stood and merely stated publicly with resounding voice what is whispered in the pew of the God loving people of this nation who are understandably weary of the grandiose of the good ‘ol beltway boys and the same of local officials….

Those in public service roles have overstepped bounds, usurped power to the extent that “absolute power corrupts” and we fear not for future generations, we fear for ourselves and the weeks and months ahead….

…. as the lack of leadership and the ongoing printing of “fiat” dollars making the almighty buck its reason for existence, rather than repenting and fearing that mankind with the willing commitment by so many who have given their Life to thwart evil, can only see dark days ahead and it is this shroud of evil on this Thanksgiving Day which I hope will be overcome as it has been done before, by the resilience and defiance of those deceitful in their ways….

Let us pray.

God Bless America and its people and from each of you, I ask that you turn to one another and seek the Blessings of the Lord for without your Love and compassion for one another as well as your willingness to pick up your sword in voice and vote, it is not the “Brutes of Tehran” or the “KGB Putinites” which will overcome goodness, but our own within who seek not for what is good for us, but only what is beneficial to their narrow perspective and short lived perspective.

Be a student of History and Biblical Scripture. Read. Listen. Be Attentive. History repeats itself.

Unfortunately, it appears the arrogance of man from every government since Babylon will again undermine so many whose hearts and souls are Blessed in Love, Rightousness, Compassion and truly understand the importance in standing tall to ensure the dignity for every individual who seeks to share the lessons and true meaning of goodness and kindness for all understanding that we must not necessarily embrace one another, however we must respect even those with differences not imposing oneself on another insiting on communication rather than misunderstanding….

God Bless us all!

Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA

Comment by Pat Longstaff

November 1, 2009 @ 8:54 am

Phil’s definition of resilience is a very useful one. Sometimes people have a hard time seeing their own world in it because it speaks the language of systems theory, but any tightening of the language for a particular context must be done for limited purposes – otherwise we have disciplines (and cultures) unable to talk to each other . The list of attributes of resilient systems is very similar to one I have been using:
? Learn to live and thrive with change and uncertainty
? Nurture diversity for increasing options and reducing risks
? Increase the range of knowledge for learning and problem solving (tame the blame game)
? Create opportunities for self-organization, including strengthening local functions, building cross-scale links, and building problem-solving networks
? Increase loose coupling of units in a system so that they can communicate but aren’t so tightly coupled that disaster for one will be disaster for all.
These are based on, F. Berkes, “Understanding Uncertainty and Reducing Vulnerability: Lessons From Resilience Thinking,” Natural Hazards Review 41: 283-295 (2007) http://www.resalliance.org/576.php
The first one is, as Phil so eloquently tells us, the hardest. We continue to hope that if we just had the right information we could predict things and plan for them. I live in hope that someday our educational system will give people the truth – complex systems made up of evolving human and technological systems are so complex that they are not, in the long term, predictable. We cannot emulate the predictability of mathematics. Leaders are not god-like figures who can protect us from all harm. Our continued belief in predictability leads us a very warped sense of responsibility for things no one could have predicted. It may be helpful to recall that “responsibility” is the ability to respond – not to predict.
And, yes, I know that a change in thinking like this will not happen overnight and anyone who asserts it before the world is ready to hear it will never be elected to office. But resilience thinking can help us right now. Because many of the man-made dangers we face may not be resilient and we can use our knowledge to defeat them.

Is Phil’s message necessarily a Dark Angel? No, I don’t think so. But it admits the possibility of dark consequences. It is popular to promise a brighter world and then find excuses for unintended shadows. But we learn from both light and darkness – we see nothing without contrast.

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