We all know the Five Ps: “Proper planning prevents poor performance.” We take it as an article of faith that effective strategy depends upon good planning. And we usually accept that planning–to say nothing of plans themselves–does not equal much less ensure the success of our strategies. The National Security Strategy issued by the Obama Administration last Thursday is no exception to these observations.
The Canadian management professor Henry Mintzberg has written extensively on strategy and its relationship to planning and management generally. Like the five Ps with which we are already familiar, Mintzberg (1992) notes that strategies fall into one of five categories:
Some strategies do not fit neatly into any single category, and, of course, complex strategies may embrace aspects of more than one category.
As I read the National Security Strategy (NSS) over the weekend, like the Financial Times writer, Clive Crook, cited in Chris Bellavita’s post yesterday, I too wondered whether it could rightly be called a strategy. After contaminating my copy of the document from front to back with confusing marginalia questioning many of its fundamental premises and its authors’ intentions, I decided to take the broad view of strategy suggested by Mintzberg and asked myself instead what type of strategy it might be. So, here goes:
Is the NSS a plan? A plan identifies a starting point or beginning condition and aims for a clear destination or objective. As for a starting point, the NSS takes a rather vague stab at describing our current condition, preferring instead to describe where we are not rather than putting a marker down where we are. As such, the NSS repudiates most Bush Administration foreign policies, especially those that framed its response to violent extremism and its surveillance and interrogation programs. The nation’s principal conflict is narrowly framed as a fight with al Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates around the globe. We are not at war with Islam or any other ideology. In contrast, we stand for human rights but we no longer claim them as our own. Rather, we acknowledge that these rights are now universally recognized, and we expect those with whom we maintain diplomatic and trade relations to respect these rights. This could hardly be described as a destination. The closest the NSS comes to describing a desired end state echoes the administration’s recently released nuclear weapons policies, which seek to enforce nonproliferation regimes and secure vulnerable nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. As far as it goes, that’s not a bad goal, but I am still left wondering how the administration intends to get us there.
Is it a ploy? A ploy implies an effort to outwit or outmaneuver an opponent. The NSS is fairly clear that we live in a world where the threats come from many different directions both at home and abroad. The NSS does not underestimate our adversaries, but neither does it seek to outflank them with clever overtures or shake them with flashy moves. To the extent that the NSS sets its sights squarely on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qa’ida and its affiliates, it implies this conflict leaves no room for subtly or finesse. We might seek to remedy conditions that lead to the radicalization of young Muslims on the homefront, but the statements in this regard lack conviction and do not suggest a coherent strategic view about how to do this. As for others, the NSS seems to suggest that straightforward, plain dealing that rebuilds relationship and emphasizes engaging problems through international and transnational institutions is the order of the day. Again, no evidence of subterfuge, subtlety or positioning. That said, the NSS takes for granted that the U.S. remains in an economically and militarily superior position vis-à-vis the rest of the world despite the dominance of asymmetric warfare. If this is true, and it seems so, it remains unclear what this buys us as well as what it is costing us to maintain it. One might reasonably wonder whether the administration and its advisors have simply come to the conclusion that the U.S. is too big to fail.
Is it a pattern? A pattern describes a desired course of action or a new paradigm for engaging the environment and change. It is fair enough to say that the NSS is a departure from the Bush Doctrine, but the authors go to great pains to anchor the way forward in successful approaches to managing past problems. If anything, the NSS recommends a return to the strategic patterns that underpinned post-WW II rebuilding of Europe and the Cold War alliances that governed international relations for most of the following four decades. The NSS does not suggest that international affairs should be viewed as a zero sum game or that alliances should be viewed simply in with-us or against-us terms. But it does suggest that reciprocity and mutual respect will serve as the guiding if not governing principles of our foreign policy and international engagement efforts. What remains unclear is to what end we will pursue reciprocity and how we will reward our allies beyond nice words and warm handshakes.
Is it a position? The NSS does not make a convincing much less compelling case for the United States’ security position beyond the case for calling our situation turbulent but not necessarily tenuous. In doing so, it expends extensive effort (and not a few words) describing the challenges we face. But here it falls short by not accepting that we are largely the authors of our own destiny, or at least the culprits responsible for our current condition. We may not have flown airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but our policies and actions over many decades inspired our enemies and equipped an insurgency that continues to threaten us. A successful positioning strategy usually provides a clear vision of how people can resolve conflicts between the internal and external environment, in this case the difference between our ideals and the goals or our adversaries. The NSS makes a good faith effort to do this by noting the importance of engaging people as individuals as well as nations. At the same time, it notes the difficulties we face and have yet to overcome in mobilizing what it calls civilian expeditionary capabilities, whatever those might be.
Is it a perspective? It might be wiser to ask what perspective the strategy takes. Given the inevitable tendency to compare each new administration with its predecessor, the answer seems clear enough: “We are not the Bush Administration!” Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has chosen, often rationally and reasonably, to continue Bush Administration policies even while it wrestles with the problems these very policies created. But a strategic perspective should present an affirmative proposition: “This is what we stand for and why.” To the extent that the NSS attempts to do this, it speaks more of rather than to our national aspirations and values. To be sure, this reflects the innate pragmatism of the President and his closest advisors. But to the extent that the NSS, and for that matter the administration itself, takes these aspirations and ideals for granted, the NSS represents something more along the lines of wishful thinking than a coherent or better yet compelling vision of the nation and its role in the world.
If we can rightly call the National Security Strategy a strategy at all, and I am not one to quibble on this point, it seems to be a rather poor example of one. Mintzberg noted many times (often to the chagrin of his colleagues) that the problem of poor execution of the strategy conception and formation process–as opposed to inadequate implementation–plagues many attempts at strategy and much of what passes for strategic planning. More often than not, this owes to inadequate or incomplete reflection.
Vague overtures to change, hope and progress might win elections, but they do not make good foreign or domestic policy. “We are not those other guys,” will not endear you to the electorate for long. Accountability comes even even if you avoid setting unachievable goals or making promises you cannot keep. People want results. And in the absence of results they want to see clear evidence of effort and a good measure of empathy.
This leaves me with my final observation: The Obama Administration needs to start showing that it is learning from its own experiences not just the last administration’s failures. The economic recovery program and the response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe offer many opportunities to do things better, beginning with an acknowledgement that these are not technical problems to be overcome but rather adaptive challenges that require us to reflect upon and renew where necessary the fundamental values that inform our nation’s worldview. The President and his administration play a key role not just by framing the narrative but by leading our nation both in word and deed.