Category Archives: Foreign Affairs

Reality is the Land of Unintended Consequences

I was struck the other day by reports that President Obama last fall opposed the near unanimous recommendation of his advisors that the US arm Syrian rebels. (The USG has now decided, according to press reports, to provide some rebel groups with direct, non-lethal aid.) Although history may yet judge Obama’s reticence harshly, I couldn’t help but feel good that at least one senior US official–in this case the President–expressed concerns about the efficacy and unintended consequences of the traditional foreign policy “toolkit.” Certainly during my time in government and really just as a private citizen I’ve noticed that the actions of government don’t often seem to achieve their ends neatly, if at all.

As far as the world is concerned, we only have one “N”–there is only one earth and one history. We have no way of really judging the absolute efficacy of the grand schemes and decisions of government. We don’t really know how things would have turned out, for example, if we had never had the War in Vietnam. There is no John Madden-like sports simulation for foreign policy that would let us replay 100 times the US Government’s Asia policy in the 1950s and 1960s to determine statistically which gameplan would have fared better.

I think actually it may be in part due to this “unknowingness” that decisionmakers not just in government but in many industries stress the importance of making confident and fast decisions–why being a “J” on the Myers-Briggs is such a highly valued executive characteristic. The individuals who want to think through the decision a little bit longer–let’s call them the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters–are almost always argued down.

No doubt this chart –inspired by the Cynefin framework–is a bit unfair to strong decision-makers, but it nevertheless captures how I, a charter member of the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters, see the dynamic.Decisionmaking spectrum

As I hope the chart makes clear, even the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters miscalculate the reality algorithm.

At some point, months, perhaps years later, the decisionmakers begin to experience the miscalculation of their earlier solutions.  (I use the verb “experience” here purposefully. It’s hard to change a decision you’re invested in until you FEEL the mistake you’ve made.) The levers they pulled didn’t deliver the causal punch they expected and–usually worse–produced different consequences that appear to be just making things worse. That’s when the decisionmaking dynamic begins to look like this.Newdecisionmaking

It’s at this point that a different, more nuanced, and more flexible set of decisions becomes possible. The bold decisionmakers and Let’s-think-about-it Firsters are closer in their appreciation of the dynamic they are trying to “solve.” (Even at this point, only the most bold would dare suggest that no solution might be immediately forthcoming.)

As is usually the case, I don’t have a “solution” for this predicament. There probably isn’t one. Perhaps the best approach is for everyone to be a bit more humble about their recommended courses of action. And always be ready to revisit decisions you made, even if you were positive they were the right thing to do.

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Turkish Insights

Today is my 8th day in Turkey, a country I had not been to until now. (I’ve had the good fortune to visit much of the world, with the exception of Latin America and Asia, which are underrepresented in my travels.) I had no idea before the trip began that this journey would be such an eye-opener. Turkey is bursting with the new energy coursing through the planet. Unlike the US and the West, which at this moment appear overwhelmed by problems of their own making and undermined by an epic clash in values—particularly in the United States, Turkey strikes you as a country optimistically committed to its future. I know Turkey has problems—after all every society has, but they do not appear to be defeating the optimism of the Turkish people.

Some impressions I’ve made:

Turkey is pointed toward the East and has the opportunity this century to truly optimize its natural position as the connector between the East and the West. I suspect, however, that Turkish businessmen and the Government, if forced to choose, will declare “Go East, young man.” Flying around on Turkish airlines I’ve studied their route map. Today, they fly to 14 destinations in India, China, and the rest of Asia, compared to six destinations in the Americas, 4 in the US, 1 to Canada, and an intriguing connection between Istanbul and Sao Paolo, Brazil. True, Turkish Airlines has an impressive flight network in Europe, flying to nine German cities alone, but this is almost matched by its comprehensive coverage of the ‘stans, other former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.

Turkey is still traveling on the uphill slope of its potential curve. Turkey is edgy in a good way. Just a short walk on the streets of Istanbul reveals all the cracks and fissures in the society. For example, every possible perspective on the role of women is seen walking on the boulevards: the great majority of women dress Western but head scarves and veils are also common, particularly in Istanbul. But most people on the street seem to be happily exploring how all these different value structures can best fit together, rather than choosing to believe there is a problem. It is altogether common, for example, to see women eating together at a restaurant, dressed in the full range from Vogue magazine to village traditional. I’m not familiar enough with Turkish politics to know if this generosity of acceptance extends fully to their politicians. I suspect that it doesn’t, knowing that politics, at least in the modern era, seem to thrive more on dwelling on problems than on devising solutions. But I can’t imagine Turkish politics has yet sunk to the level of American politicians, who are now fashioning their campaign platforms around our differences.  I’ve asked our tour guides questions, for example, about Turkey’s attitude toward Greece. My questions are dismissed as silly; we’ve grown beyond that. If only the West could learn again how to grow past problems, rather than dwell on them.

Turkey, I think, is not so often discussed when we talk about Islam, politics, and the Muslim religion, but we need to focus on it (and Indonesia) more as we think about how Islam will contribute to the setting of new global norms in the 21st century. Turkey, at least, strikes me as a very positive example. On September 11th, between 8 and 9 am East Coast Time, our tour group was sitting in Suleyman’s mosque in Istanbul, listening to our guide explain Islam. About halfway through the talk, many members of our group made the connection between the date and our context, and I think many of us—but not all—were happier to be in a mosque than to be in the US at that very moment. Turkey’s Islamic identity produces some interesting nuances in its relations with China. The Turks consider the Uigers to be part of the ancestral Turkish nation; the two languages have many similarities. So when we think about how international politics will evolve in the decades to come, one mental model we need to discard is that all situations involving significant differences will involve the US. You can imagine, for example, tensions between a country such as Turkey and China developing over the question of how China treats its Muslim population.

I could list more impressions, at this point all positive. Social media seems to be everywhere, for example. But the bottom line for me and many in our tour group, including veteran financial advisers and investment types, is that Turkey is much more appropriate exemplar for the world today than the US. And that was an impression I had no expectation having when I arrived.

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

You Feel the Earth Move Under Your Feet

You feel the sky come tumbling down.

EGYPT

Egypt is about much more than a popular uprising against a ruler who has stayed in power through what can only be described, charitably, as a corruption of the democratic process. Egypt is the most compelling example to date of how the physics of human society are being rewritten. In much the same way that Quantum Physics turned Classical Physics on its head, the twin revolutions of information and connectivity are turning society upside down or perhaps better put, every which way and loose. 

The fact that Egypt, the society political scientists always marveled at for its stability even in the face of daily, accumulating disasters, is the country that’s exploded has concussed even the most loyal adherents of the Status Quo. When the Tunisian regime fell you could discount it as the kind of thing that happens to small countries, even the Colored Revolutions of the former Soviet Union didn’t really capture the elite’s attention, because in these revolutions you often were replacing one elite-based power construct with another. (And this might still happen to Egypt, by the way.)

But Egypt seems different right now.

And everyone should be paying attention. Not just the political scientists, the national security experts in their dark suits reciting by rote the laws of classical society, the intelligence agencies. Everyone should be paying attention, particularly anyone supposedly in charge of an organization of any kind. Steve Denning today writes a blistering post on what the dynamics behind Egypt mean for American business leaders. There’s very little I can add but these two points:

  • The history of the world has been dominated by the machinations of men, and they’ve usually been men, making secret deals in backrooms. Transparency and Collaboration are destroying the backrooms of all institutions. Open, dynamic forces that carry with them their own advantages and disadvantages will take their place. Start adjusting now.
  • All institutions of any age are disconnected from this powerful dynamic. Their survival depends entirely on how quickly they adjust to it. Time grows short.

When Mexico had an Illegal Immigration Problem

I’ve been meaning to post this picture for some time. Participating in a great Tweetchat last night #Latism reminded me to do it.

Here’s a picture of a historical placard located in the Alamo in San Antonio. (I’m there often because my mom has a home in the Hill Country of TX.)

History Placard at the Alamo

Zooming in on the text:

I have no huge point to make here other than note, as I’ve done before, that irony is the most powerful force in the universe. (Also I was reminded by the folks in #Latism last night that, as this text implies, the Mexican Government also had a problem with the settlers owning slaves.)  And perhaps this can serve as a small antidote to the self-righteous and smug tone of many (not all) in the immigration debate.

Thoughts for the New Year

Does my right to privacy extend to the right to be invisible?

Are humans basically good or bad?

Why do we try to control others?

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system?

Is the material world the only reality?

Something big is going on right now in how we humans organize our societies and our lives. Most people don’t deny that now even though I still encounter folks who ask me whether all this social media is just a fad. I’m full of optimism about how humans will continue to learn and thus improve our lot. These steps forward are not for anyone to prescribe; they will emerge from our interactions and our improving ability to record and share our experiences.

Still there are some habits of thought, propositions that are too often accepted as true in public discourse, that stand in the way of that forward momentum. In my view, they’re increasingly not true but I must admit also tremendously stubborn in their influence. These 5 mental frameworks, most of which have been with us for a very long time, for the most part create friction and inefficiencies in human society. I’m betting that in the years to come they will all be recalibrated as we work to achieve a fuller human potential.

Does my right to privacy extend to invisibility? OK, I admit this is a relatively new difficult question. It’s been with us for most of the post WWII period but sharpened acutely in the last five years. But here is the distinction I want to make. Much of what we think of as privacy issues in this social media/Facebook/Twitter/Google Latitude/pervasive video cameras-engineered world aren’t really privacy issues at all. They are visibility issues. When I go to the store to buy milk, I’m not trying to keep that transaction “private.” It of course would be impossible to do so. What’s really different is that by checking in on Four Square or using my loyalty card or simply carrying my smart phone (really consumers lost this battle a long time ago!!) I am making the transaction more visible (and more important recordable and thus analyzable). There are legitimate privacy concerns out there: I don’t want everyone to know my bank balance or my SSN but it’s important to distinguish that much of what we are fretting about is a new kind of visibility, not an invasion of privacy. If something bad happened on the way to the grocery store–if I backed into a car leaving the parking lot and fled the scene–the police would immediately look for people who “saw what happened.” I would not be able to claim a right to privacy because none exists. Why is any of this relevant? A society that understands more of what is happening will be a smarter society and should make better decisions. I would be smarter about myself if I understood the patterns of my own life better. And a society with improved understanding should be able to self-organize more effectively. Again, it’s not my intent to argue for the right trade-off between visibility and invisibility. We will work this out over time with the usual fits and starts. I just believe we’re confusing two important terms–privacy and visibility.

Are humans basically good or bad? I’m in the basically good camp, always have been, although I would phrase it a little differently. I think humans are usually well-intentioned but feckless. I think bad behavior follows bad decisions and bad outcomes, not the other way around. Most people don’t set out to do the “wrong” thing; they think they are choosing the best option, although admittedly there is plenty of delusional thinking out there, and frankly absence of thinking, not to mention hyperactive lizard brain. (Absence of knowledge and lack of understanding of other perspectives also contribute to the bad decisions that lead to bad behavior.) But when the decision begins to go bad and they are scrambling to recover, that’s when I think humans most often fall into the bad behavior trap. They run with their survival instincts, which evolution tells us are largely selfish. So to return to the visibility issue, if you think humans are basically bad then no wonder you worry about what people will do with all that information about you. My friends who ask me if social media are a fad also like to ask me if I’m not worried about all the information that is out there about me. Well as an optimist about human nature I’m not worried. And even if I were to worry, I trust that the general lack of feck will waylay most plans to do bad by me.

My first point here is that I really hope we humans can get beyond this debate about our basic natures sometime soon. I am biased here as to what I think the right answer is. The belief that humans are basically bad, in my view, is the driver behind many institutions/processes that over-control and micromanage. But I also recognize that we will only bury the humans-are-basically-bad meme through a long record of actions, fueled by truly millions of personal conversion experiences. My second point: if you are an advocate of self-organizing communities, you are essentially assuming people are basically well-intentioned and that more, shared information will allow them to make better decisions. So it’s best not to mock people who don’t get it; I know I’m guilty of that myself sometimes.

Why do we try to control others? The belief that you know the right way and your job is to force others to accept that truth is the single most destructive quality in humans, in my view. It must also have some significant evolutionary benefit for it to persist. If you’re asking: well, isn’t your writing of this blog an indication you too want a slice of that control, then I have to admit you have a point. I think enough of my views to try to express them carefully, although luckily I can’t force anyone to read my blog. Indeed, this is why this particular drive is so seductive and so strong in so many individuals, even those that start off with the best–that word again–intentions. I believe our human potential will be best expressed when we minimize our control instinct, but I’m not sanguine this will happen quickly. But it will happen. Governments and organizations built on the desire and need to control others will eventually contract as individuals learn–and have the capabilities–to manage most of the transactions themselves.

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system? Why indeed? You know, I worked for 32 years in one of the great creations of the modern nation-state, the Intelligence Agency, so you would think I’d know better than to ask such a question. After all, I must be a realist, right? But nevertheless I’m puzzled more people don’t question why we tolerate such a nutty arrangement. The nation-state system, and here I’m speaking specifically about how countries relate to each other, runs on a set of rules–spoken and unspoken–that have been largely discredited in and abandoned by other systems. The nation-state system still assumes the inevitability of conflict, the need to expect the worst from others, the need to hide things from and trick others, the wisdom of short-term, grab-it-while-you-can thinking, etc. etc.  (There was recently a good article in Financial Times by Parag Khanna describing how the world system might evolve differently.)

The reason I phrased the question the way I did is because I think the answer is in the question. The nation-state system exists as is because we tolerate it. In fact, we more than tolerate, we accept it and some–neocons and marxists, for example?–revel in it. We are complicit. What will be interesting to see is the reaction of nation-states as individuals and communities begin to distance themselves from their status quo. You see the beginnings of this today as individuals, many of them completely delinked from their nation-state identities, interact with each other seamlessly across Twitter and other social media. If you dismiss such thinking as utopian or pollyanish, fact is humans have already broken at least twice in our history with very powerful governing systems–Royalty and Churches. But both aristocracy and the church heirarchy went down swinging and I’m betting the governing class will find it hard to accept its displacement. Stay tuned, more coming.

Is the material world the only reality? Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. If you don’t already think I’m nutty, this will convince you. But as I read about theoretical physicists struggling to understand the universe or universes, I can only surmise that our own existences are more complex than just the physical entities we know. Understanding what that exactly means is a purpose for human existence. We exist in large part to understand. And we understand better together.

Attitude Adjustment

A Twitter mate wrote me that the “Collapse” meme was strong on the internet today. “Collapse of what?” Of the US empire, of course. I myself had fed the meme earlier in the day by ReTweeting a reference to Otto Scharmer’s blog post from earlier this month where he wrote how stark the decline in the US appears after returning from a summer of visiting more vibrant nations overseas. (Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT.) Scharmer also referenced the arguments of Johan Galtung, who predicts the fall of the US empire by 2020.

I think the evidence is pretty clear that the US is in a period of economic decline relative to much of the world–we’re just not growing as fast as they are. The US, which accounted for 50% of the world GDP immediately after WWII, accounts for something like 20% today, and as long as other, very large economies such as India, China, and Brazil continue to grow at 2 to 3 times the US rate, our share of the world economy will decline further. The Congressional Research Service in 2007 cited statistics that by 2025, the Chinese GDP would be 50% bigger than that of the US, although its per capita income would still only be about 40% of the US level.

This need not have any significant impact on US prosperity; in fact, overall growth in the world economy, if we manage it responsibly and sustainably, should be a good thing for everyone.  But it will change the dynamics of the world economy in ways we cannot fully anticipate today. World capital flows will change, US foreign investment patterns will change, other economies will become centers of world-class innovation and education, human talent will flow in different directions, and world investors will have many more stable options to park their long-term funds.

It’s harder to tease out exactly how these changes will alter US ability to project power, but the strong sense is that they will, even if, and this is important, countries such as China, India, and Brazil never have a bad word to say about the US. Leaner defense budgets are in our future. And I also suspect that, as these other countries emerge as world economic engines, the mantle of economic and diplomatic leadership will at first imperceptibly but eventually steadily slip off US shoulders. As China becomes the EU’s largest trading partner, for example, it will only be natural for Bonn and Paris to worry more about what Beijing thinks. Again, this need not be a horrible thing.

But we can certainly turn it into a horrible thing. That’s the problem with all this “collapse of empire” talk. It tends to feed the tendency of Americans to think we’re on the road to ruin and that therefore drastic measures are necessary to reverse the dynamic. Now that would indeed be unfortunate, because it is exactly this kind of overreacting that could lead to a messy denouement. Grandstanding and puffing out our depleted pectorals will only divert us from what we need to do, which is to begin to shift money away from military-oriented spending to investments in human and societal development that will allow us to compete effectively in a more balanced world. (And by the way, I don’t think it’s up to government to do all the investing.)

Generally I’m bullish about the US capability to do well in this competition. But one not so small thing gives me pause. America’s mental shortcuts for thinking about the rest of the world are not very helpful, and these shortcuts unfortunately spring from our founding legends and myths. So as Americans we learn that:

  • We were founded by people who wanted to escape the messy ways of bickering nation-states and it’s best to remain independent from them and Self-Sufficient.
  • Almost all problems scale to individual solutions. At worst, maybe every once in a while Americans have to voluntarily form a small group to tackle something difficult. (The only real exception to this is the military) So essentially we believe Complexity is Un-American.

So let’s stop writing about the collapsing empire–and please don’t bring in the comparison to Rome, which after all occured like 2000 years ago. I’m tired of it already and it’s just applying old vocabulary and concepts to describe a world dynamic that will be new, different, and exciting. And let’s concentrate on what really matters–a long overdue Attitude Adjustment.