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Guest Post: Few’s The Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy

[Cross-posted from SWJ Blog]

Major Mike Few, one of the SWJ Blog’s trusty editors opines on the nuts and bolts of “doing grand strategy”. Pay close attention to points #2 and #7. Hopefully, the first of many guest posts here by Major Few, if I can steal some of his time from Dave Dilegge 🙂 :

The Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy: Nine-Step Recovery Method for Reframing Problem Solving

by Mike Few

Recently, our authors began to shift from problem definition to reframing problem solving. Over the last year, we published some remarkable works effectively describing Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Libya, and others. Simultaneously, we published several series on design and wicked problems.

The challenge we are posing is can someone produce a concise document applying design to an existing problem? If we cannot find practical application or wisdom, then the process becomes a moot effort. Below is my white board attempt to provide an example and discussion for others to follow. This blog post is similar to many of the discussions our authors and readers have daily in the classroom and nightly at the pub or dinner with colleagues. Simply put, I am merely merging the sum of our published thought and discussions.

Three years ago, I was challenged to determine if my experiences in big wars and counterinsurgency could be applied to the macro level. On the tactical level, I found that I simply relearned the lessons of those that had come before me, the countless art of war and warfare. However, when I consider how my thinking had changed, I feel that perhaps there are some lessons that can be applied for us all.

In combat, I finally learned the limits of my own control. This understanding freed me to concentrate focusing on changing the things that I could control. I look at framing problem solving in international relations in a similar manner. It’s kind of like the Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy. So, as a practical exercise, below is an example of how I would use Design, Wicked Problems, and Military Decision Making Process using the example of Mexico.

1. Define what we cannot control. We cannot “fix” Mexico. They are a sovereign nation-state, and they must choose to work on their internal issues. Moreover, our “solution” to their problems may not be a proper fit despite our best intentions. Our intervention efforts in Central and South America over the past sixty years (or more) have had mixed results.

2. Define the problem as it is not as we wish to see it. Are we really in a war on poverty, drugs, education, terrorism, and governance? Are we really at war? Labels are often limiting, but there needs to be some common framework to understanding. Typically, that can be driven by good communication and active listening. We must learn to transcend how “I” see the problem and work towards how the collective group sees the problem accounting for all stakeholders.

3. Define our relationship. How does the US and Mexico see each other? This perception requires a degree of self-introspection and humility. Are we a brother attempting to help our sibling overcome addiction or work through difficult financial times? Are we a parent disciplining a spoiled child? Are we a spouse in a broken marriage? How we see ourselves defines our national interest. If we see ourselves as the parent, then we’re self-imposing a conceptual block.

As Martin Luther King wrote while sitting in the Birmingham Jail,

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds…In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

4. Describe what we are currently doing and how we can adjust these things.

– Impact of NAFTA
– Border Security
– FID efforts in Mexico
– Counter-Drug efforts in Mexico
– Counter-Drug efforts in the United States
– Anti-Gang efforts in the United States

5. Discuss the cost benefits of future intervention efforts and internal reforms

– Comprehensive immigration reform
– Dream Act
– Expanded Counter-Drug efforts
– Expanded FID efforts to better strengthen Mexico’s Army and Police internal security forces
– State Department “better” governance efforts (Plan Colombia)- to include judicial and economic issues
– Legalizing drugs in the continental United States (demand side interdiction)
– Comprehensive Prison Reform in the United States
– Treasury Department financial interdiction to narco banking
– Promoting and expanding free press in Mexico through Twitter, Facebook, and new media

6. Describe Area of Influence- Central and South America

– Illegal immigration from Guatemala
– Drug Trafficking from Colombia

7. Ask the hard questions

-What are the key factors driving the problem?
-What is the causality?
-And, if the analysis is from a U.S. perspective, to what degree and in what ways is the problem a problem for the United States?
-what ways do those in power benefit by the status quo?

8. Rethinking the Assumptions

-What are the desired outcomes?
-Is the policy driving the process or is the effort outcome based?
-Are our efforts helping or hurting?

9. Timing of Implementation

– Simultaneous, Sequential, or Cumulative
-Prepare to accept that some items are not decision points; Rather, they are processes that change and morph over time.

Special thanks to those that contributed to the proofreading of this post, and I would like to specifically highlight Dr. Nancy Robert’s methodology for teaching any class on problem solving,

A. Creativity
B. Problem Framing
C. Systems thinking
D. Entrepreneurship and Innovation
E. Collaboration in Networks

Now, let the discussion and writing continue…

6 Responses to “Guest Post: Few’s The Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy”

  1. Pundita Says:

    1. I find Maj. Few’s essay to be very interesting but I want to think on it more before commenting.  Right now: Speaking of grand strategy — this morning John Batchelor interviewed Charles Hill ("Grand Strategies" — see Zenpundit’s March 21 post for review and commentary on the book https://zenpundit.com/?p=3831 ) on his show.   Interview went for about 20 minutes – a tour de force taking the year 1979 as harbinger to illustrate principle that the ‘future is already here, it’s just not organized.’ 

    Striking to look back at how much of the key problems of today was reflected in seminal events in Muslim world in that year.  The podcast for the segment is just posted.
    at WABC radio.   It’s the last segment in the 12-1 AM hour.

    2. And I forgot to mention to Zen earlier that there was an extensive interview (1 hr) with Walter Russell Mead on the Saturday Batchelor show. (see Zen’s recent discussion re Mead)  I haven’t listened to it but from the show skd:
    "Saturday 905P Eastern Time:    Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and editor-at-large of The American Interest magazine, in re: contemporary social structure, politics and economics. The US transitions out the New Deal model into . . . what?"

    3.  See the WABC podcast pg to listen or download.

    And for the China  strategists — on Wed Batchelor interviewed Rick Fisher, Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center, "in re:  During the recent visit to US, Gen Chen Bing-de, the People’s Liberation Army chief of general staff, made some unusual statements about US-China military relations. […]" The rest of Batchelor’s summary of the discussion is quite extensive so I won’t copy it here.  See his schedule page for the entire summary.   But I want to note the very last part of the summary; this is enough to make one’s skin crawl:

    Liu Shao-qi’s son Liu Yuan … is now "political commissar of the PLA General Logistics Department ." This rising star of the People’s Liberation Army has called for China to rediscover its "military culture," while challenging unnamed Communist Party leaders for betraying their revolutionary heritage. General Liu Yuan displays sympathy for Osama bin Laden, says war is a natural extension of economics and politics, and claims that "Man cannot survive without killing," and,  "history is written by blood and slaughter." He describes the nation-state as "a power machine made of violence."  Further: ”Actually, the party has been repeatedly betrayed by general secretaries, both in and outside the country, recently and in the past.”   If Liu gets away with saying this, we know the military has become an independent power center in the country."

    On a personal note I really liked the way Fisher answered Batchelor’s questions. Batchelor could make Daffy Duck sound intelligent he’s that good an interviewer but Fischer is very organized in his speech patterns and he answered the questions with precision, providing just enough to information to show he understood the meat of each question. A pleasure to listen to; wish the interview had gone longer.

    Anyhow, here is link to the skd page; see 10:35 PM and also the podcast pg.

    4. And a big thanks to Zen for posting here and crossposting at Chicago Boyz one of my recent essays on Pakistan (and thanks also for patiently taking on the odious Messr. Pengun) :-))  



  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Major Few, Yours is an excellent framework to begin. I would offer a companion to "assumptions" in the form of  "expectations;" for they aren’t the same. If a person or a group expects a particular response/outcome and that outcome doesn’t come to pass, the incongruity can cause multiple responses (some which might not be optimal) depending on how wedded the group/individuals are to those expectations. For example, when we invaded Iraq, there was widespread expectation that we would be viewed as liberators; simple, tidy, and quick (and relatively bloodless). When those expectations were found in error in the face of reality, we know the mess that resulted. Expectations/perceptions of reality are vital and those in leadership who violate/chose to ignore can and do cause much harm. I’ve followed the "design" conversation at SMJ at a distance (with three printed essays yet to be read—a little behind). Last year I read a very good book by Frederick Brooks called The Design of Design. If the reader can tolerate Brooks’ use of designing a house as sort of a back story, his ideas are guaranteed to cause one to reconsider the “how’s and why’s of design.”

  3. MikeF Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Very good points.  Interesting enough, I wonder sometimes if we are too tied to the Rational Actor Model.  If our assumption or expectation proves incorrect, then we assume that the other actor is acting irrational.  For the most part, we do not acknowledge that another actor acts rationally until after the fact.

    I see a good part of this framework as a way of establishing boundaries along with our expectations.  If we have a proper relationship with good communication, then we can assert what is in our national interest (i.e. expectations) and work to minimize where our interests do not meet.  However, we have to be cognizant of the other actors/states interest as well.

    Simply put, I think it is helpful to include history, economics, and psychology in collaboration and consideration into our planning.


  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Mike, You describe a system/methodology which has an essential component of skepticism. Skepticism, with context, history, and economics would be a good start. Psychology is a different beast, for our contextual application of psychology would have to account for cultural differences—which as we’re learning in Afghanistan, are considerably alien to our Western sensibilities. Your framework is superb and well thought-out; perhaps a model, and as with OODA, scaling is a challenge. I do believe after all my work with organizations that scaling is perhaps the most difficult challenge. 

  5. MikeF Says:

    Scott, I think that given that states relationships are usually based on sharing (or taking) limited resources, game theory provides the best model to show the range of options.  I did some work several years ago merging biology (Maynard Smith) and negotiations (John Nash).  It might be time to update that work and publish.

    As for anthropology (i.e. culture), I honestly feel that human nature is more universal than our social, cultural differences.  For example, anthropologists teach us that mountain people like to be left alone.  Well, my grandfather taught me that (from West Virginia).  At the local level anyways, the differences are not always that profound.  I realize this reasoning is a break from most, but it is my direct observations.  Instead, we just have to better understand where the other state (people) are coming from.  Some of them may be used to a higher level of daily violence than we are, more corruption in trade, more apt to trust tribe and family over government, etc…  The key is figuring out how their culture works.

    The best working groups that I’ve been apart of were collaborative inter-disciplinary social scientists working with practitioners with real world experience.  In the military, I want my fire support officer, intel officer, signals officer, etc at the table.  In these discussions, I want my historian, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc.. at the table.

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Mike, Perhaps there is more in common in human nature; however what is distinguishing from a cognitive perspective are the patterns developed within a culture which define sense-making. I’ve travelled extensively in the former Soviet Union and know what you mean from a general perspective. Early in my travels I was surprised that our Soviet counterparts weren’t as bad as advertised—they were people caught up in a sometimes murderous system and were merely cogs (as many members of murderous regimes have remarked, “I was doing my job.”)… That said, the Afghan dilemma seems a bit different. (And I may be speaking out of turn as a mere spectator.) While we, no doubt, share a sense of commonality with the Afghanis, I suspect it is true they are motivated differently than the typical Westerner. For instance, their sense of time is profoundly different from ours. Your comments about collaboration are spot-on; I’ve had the same experience—and that book I recommended by Brooks would be a good resource. Also, there is a very good title called The Art of Not Being Governed which provides evidence outside the US of mountain people seeking to avoid governments and the state. 

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