zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy

Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy

Michael Few is a retired military officer and former editor of the Small Wars Journal: we are honored to offer our readers this guest post by a good friend of this blog.

This fall, I’m hoping to begin teaching high school social studies as well as an elective on Global Issues or Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are those messy, seemingly intractable problems that seem to evade solutions from conventional planning and decision making methods — terrorism, poverty, water rights, etc… These types of courses are already being taught in the school system where I live, and my hope is that I will be able to become a force multiplier given my experience and background.

Eventually, if this elective course takes off, then I would like the final project to be a collection of TEDx talks, where the students describe a problem, discuss past failed efforts to tame the problem, and offer coping strategies or new solutions.

As I am doing my initial reconnaissance of the student demographics, the first striking data point is their age. The incoming freshman class would have been born in 1998, and the senior class born in 1995. A second surprise that I received is the socio-ethnic backgrounds. Along with the expected mix of white, black and Hispanic children, my school district has a significant first generation Indian population, whose parents teach or work in the Research Triangle Park or surrounding universities. Moreover, there is a minority of Burmese refugees who have found a safe home after fleeing a repressive regime.

How do they see and understand the world?

The attacks of 9/11 were but a faint memory; the Cold War is ancient history. Their childhoods were formed with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the background, and their pop-culture heroes are Navy Seal Team Six and Call to Duty video games. Drone strikes and the intervention in Libya are normal for them.

It is the way things are. We fight terrorists in other countries in order to protect our way of life. But what is a terrorist or an insurgent? Is it simply someone that disagrees with you?

These students have much bigger problems to solve than simply pacifying villages in the remote areas of modernity. By 2040, when these students are in the prime of their lives, the world population is expected to be nearing nine billion with increased competition for basic resources as the world passes through peak oil and peak fresh water.

If the United States is to remain strong, then these children are our hope. They will be tasked with leading the nation, finding new solutions to coming crisis, and developing innovation in technology, science, governance, and medicine.

As I am developing my teaching philosophy, I am using the same process that served me well as a commander in the military. My purpose is to help develop, mentor, and coach: 1. leaders of character, 2.involved citizens in the nation who understand that rights must be complimented by responsibilities, and 3. the individual self-confidence to pursue a good life respecting themselves and others.

Initially, I want to challenge them to rethink what they’ve been taught or think they know. I want my students to think for themselves and determine what right should look like.

First, I began studying Reinhold Niebuhr. Now, I’m spending some time reading Saint Augustine’s “City of God” and rethinking Just War Theory. If we zoom up from just drone strikes and look at our continued military action across the globe, do we still have the moral high ground? I don’t know. As Saint Augustine wrote,

Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognize that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there anyone who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory — desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war.

When I quoted Saint Augustine in a comment here, Mark Safranski, the Zen of Zen, replied,

The high ground is in the eye of the beholder. Some people cheered 9/11, including a few American radicals. With multiple-audiences watching 24/7, some will disapprove of our merely existing and bitterly resent and deny the legitimacy of our fighting back because they prefer us defeated and dead. Other audiences are more fair-minded and these are a good barometer – if we are winning them over, securing their admiration and isolating our opponents, our moral behavior in the big picture is apt to be reasonably on track. If we are repelling them, isolating ourselves, driving others to the side of our enemies, then chances are fairly good that we are going astray.

Zen’s point is well-taken, but I disagree. Following a moral life is not based on how others feel about you. It is through living a life that subscribes to your believed philosophy, spiritual norms, and values and beliefs particularly when you have to make an unpopular decision.

John Arquilla, in his most recent “Cool War,” said it best,

’It is well that war is so terrible,’ Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, ‘lest we should grow too fond of it.’ For him, and generations of military leaders before and since, the carnage and other costs of war have driven a sense of reluctance to start a conflict, or even to join one already in progress.

Caution about going to war has formed a central aspect of the American public character. George Washington worried about being drawn into foreign wars through what Thomas Jefferson later called ‘entangling alliances.’ John Quincy Adams admonished Americans not to ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ Their advice has generally been followed. Even when it came to helping thwart the adventurer-conquerors who started the twentieth century’s world wars, the United States stayed out of both from the outset, entering only when dragged into them.

Today, war has become too easy and not too terrible. With our global hegemony in military strength, we can force our will at any time and any place.

But, what is the right thing to do?

What is the moral high ground?

These are some of the questions that my students will eventually have to answer.

14 Responses to “Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy”

  1. zen Says:

    Excellent post Mike, glad that you did it at ZP.
    While agreeing with your larger point about the need for much greater caution before America enters into war, I would like to address your counterpoint to my earlier Boydian statement:

    Zen’s point is well-taken, but I disagree. Following a moral life is not based on how others feel about you. It is through living a life that subscribes to your believed philosophy, spiritual norms, and values and beliefs particularly when you have to make an unpopular decision.

    You have brought us to an interesting conundrum. Or set of conundrums. 
    In the international arena, individuals in most circumstances are legally represented by the sovereign state in which they hold citizenship, with the state being a legal-institutional expression of a political community. There are other kinds of political communities than states and these nonstate actors sometimes influence or create events but like individuals, they have a lesser legal standing or status than sovereign states, when they have any de jure status at all. This applies particularly to war where the permissible conduct respectively of states, nonstate actors and individual civilians are regulated by the laws of war and infractions are, theoretically, subject to severe penalties

    In international affairs as well as war, states try to employ strategies that can guide them to victory. Strategy, particularly an overarching grand strategy that seeks to achieve a transformative fulfillment of a political community’s ideal vision, may be infused with a moral purpose, or what John Boyd referred to as ” a noble philosophy”. But strategy might also simply be utilitarian or realpolitik. Or a noble grand strategy may require subsidiary military strategies or tactics that result in behavior that is brutal or morally iniquitous. Even Just War theory, when consenting to a war taking place, accepts that there will be costs in terms of death, pain and suffering.
    At what point is the individual moral right to object or impede an immoral act or strategy in war superseding the right of a political community and the legal authority of its’ state to pursue victory in a just war? 
    I ask this because the black and white cases of individuals opposing unjust tyrannies are easy – but what about taking up arguments or arms when the shades are grey? Firebombing Dresden was not at all morally like the decision to construct and operate Dachau but I suspect we as a society are not in any hurry to repeat our actions at Dresden in our current wars and it is because Dresden gives us moral qualms even if we believe it to have been justified in the larger strategy of defeating the Third Reich.

  2. L. C. Rees Says:

    The technique Horst Rittel (he who first defined the “wicked problem”) developed for dealing with wicked problems was the Issue Based Information System (IBIS). A free (as in beer and free as in speech) software package for implementing IBIS is Compendium. It’s written in Java so it runs on Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.

    There is a technique known as dialog mapping where one person edits the IBIS map while others provide input. It might be a useful supplement to classroom instruction. One student could manipulate the map on a computer which is then projected onto a screen by an LCD projector (if such things exist in today’s schools) and the others could generate the elements in a structured way.
    An IBIS map has elements in common with Richards Heuer’s Analysis of Competing Hypotheses. The IBIS is represented as a tree view. It has four elements: Questions, Ideas, Pros, and Cons. Questions can be responded to with Ideas for answering them. Ideas in turn can be answered by Pros (evidence in favor of the Idea), Cons (evidence against an Idea), or further Questions (to refine the Idea). A minute to learn but a lifetime to master.

    IBIS bears some resemblance to Richards Heuer’s Analysis of Competing Hypotheses methodology except that ACH uses a matrix that lists the “Ideas” (or competing hypotheses) and scores each Idea based upon how confident the participants are in the Pros and Cons of that Idea. Like ACH, IBIS lacks a built in mechanism for compensating for political distortion of the process other than a perhaps optimistic belief in the heroic otherworldliness of participants but that limitation may not be crucial with high school kids.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    I too would like to thank you for posting here.  
    The topic is one that deeply concerns me, central to my working through my feeling of being “one of those toy acrobats who flips up, over and under when you squeeze or release the two sticks he’s strung on” between the twin poles of my father, a naval officer, and my guardian and mentor, a monk.
    I am gradually prepping my thoughts for a post working through what I have learned between these two poles, and hope to join the discussion here as time permits. 

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    LC —
    As I’ve indicated in a response to you at my Myst-like universities, Oxford-like games post, IBIS fits in very neatly with our discussion there as well as here.  Since my interest in IBIS is related to my HipBone / Sembl games, I’ll make my more detailed comments over there.

  5. MikeF Says:

    Thanks for the software links.  I’ve done dialogue mapping, but only with paper and pen.  I really like the competing hypothesis ideas- that’s the same technique that I used for decision making in combat.
    “In international affairs as well as war, states try to employ strategies that can guide them to victory.”
    That’s the whole problem with this Long War isn’t it?  There is no victory.  I’m by no means a pacifist, but it seems like the ways and mean are not on a trajectory to an ends.  Rather, we’re funneling money and troops into a vacuum.  
    I’m sorting through three different ideas right now.
    1.  “Self-determination cannot be outsourced.”  This is another way to look at Gian Gentile’s “nation-building by the gun.”
    2.  Opportunity Costs.  If we push our enemies back into shadow wars (low cost run by SOF/CIA), then where could we be spending the billions of dollars that we pushed into Iraq/A’stan as well as non-productive aid money to other states.
    3.  “All Sovereignty is not Equal.”  Anna Simons’ pushed this into the discussion with her book “The Sovereignty Solution.”  We live in a world with one superpower.  For other states, they have the rights of sovereignty, but they do not always live up to their responsibilities (FATA in Pakistan as one example).
    Thanks for inviting me here.  Looking forward to your post.
    I received this email yesterday.  Looks like I’m in good company with the questions that I’m asking.  I’m actually hoping to tie in with UNC’s Peace, War, and Defense and Duke’s Public Policy folks.
    Peter Feaver has begun a Global Trends 2030 seminar by asking,
    What if American Power Diverges Sharply from the Current Trajectory?
    How will the world look in 2030?  It depends on how the United States looks in 2030.

  6. MikeF Says:

    Let me throw out another competing hypothesis.  We’ve pushed a foreign policy that many critics describe as too heavy handed on the military toolkit.  Many would call for, as a solution, more means and ways from Foggy Bottom- Development, Diplomacy, etc.
    But, the assumption is that the state functions (Dime) are the means towards transformation.
    What if the answers can’t be found in DC?
    What if the solutions are non-state?
    Perhaps, we should not limit ourselves to trying to control other states behavior.  Instead, a system of attraction over promotion?

  7. Madhu Says:

    Some of the classroom demographic you describe reminds me of my own childhood “world”. The children of foreign teachers and professors and technocrats turn up in some pretty stolid places and have pretty placid childhoods. Hey, don’t take this the wrong way, but learn how to pronounce a name or two, or, at least, don’t make a production out of stumbling over a name that is “different.” I was always a little tense in the first day of class, knowing my name would stump a teacher used to Jennifers and Amys and Dougs and other Gen X middle American names. But I liked school, had a lot of friends, and the teachers were ultimately very sweet so it worked out okay….
    Regarding other conversations taking place here, you might find the following interesting: Ambedkar and Gandhi dialogues:
    According to Professor Guha, while both Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Ambedkar fought against the caste system — a form of human taxonomy Professor Guha deemed “the most sophisticated, subtle, and diabolical form of social exclusion and discrimination invented by human beings” — their approaches were vastly different. Mr. Gandhi, an upper-caste member of the elite, challenged the caste system from above, in its highest echelons, as Mr. Ambedkar, the 14th child of a Dalit sepoy in the Indian Army, challenged it from below. And while Mr. Gandhi’s views on caste evolved slowly over the years, he remained deeply spiritual and sought social change within Hinduism. Mr. Ambedkar, on the other hand, favored using the state as an instrument for establishing forward-thinking social policies. Though he was born a Hindu, he often swore he wouldn’t die one, and, true to his word, he converted to Buddhism along with 200,000 of his followers weeks before his death in 1956.

    Ambedkar was a leader in the struggle for Indian independence, the architect of the new nation’s constitution, and the champion of civil rights for the 60 million members of the “untouchable” caste, to which he belonged. He spoke and wrote ceaselessly on behalf of “untouchables,” but his passion for justice was broad: in 1950 he resigned from his position as the country’s first minister of law when Nehru’s cabinet refused to pass the Women’s Rights Bill. Ambedkar was committed to maintaining his independence, and many of the positions he staked out in a long and complex relationship with Gandhi—on the future of Hinduism, for example—remain central to debate within Indian society.

    Ambedkar received a scholarship to Columbia from the Maharajah of Baroda. He earned his MA in 1915 and then obtained a DSc at the London School of Economics before being awarded his Columbia PhD in 1927. In 1952, Columbia presented him with an honorary doctorate for his service as “a great social reformer and a valiant upholder of human rights.” In 1995, a bronze bust of Ambedkar was donated to Lehman Library by the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organizations of the United Kingdom.

    At Columbia, Ambedkar studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about equality and social justice. Ambedkar later recounted that at Columbia he experienced social equality for the first time. “The best friends I have had in my life,” he told the New York Times in 1930, “were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.”

    And Thomas Jefferson was an influence, too.
    It is a shame that much of that period is understood in the States through the lens of our Anglo-American alliance (an important alliance to be sure), Cold War, and EU sensibilities. It’s hurt us presently, that’s my theory, but it may be one of my intellectual hobbyhorses that is way off.

  8. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Mike,
    Excellent post and comments, though I believe the use of wicked problems to be too much a buzz word; humanity has always faced difficult-to-impenetrable problems and challenges…but that is semantics…
    Your comment about “attraction over promotion” is a good line of thought. Much of our militarism has been focused on opening markets/denying competitors access (not sure AfPak falls into the this category, but Iraq does), the other being an odd combination of progressive and neocons exporting democracy at the tip of a bayonet—for the good of those we attack, mind you. I’ve long advocated an examination of how Western jurisprudence (contract law specifically) could be married up/compatible with tribal law. Reliable contracts makes markets less unpredictable and provides a vehicle for redress and remedy of grievances. Perhaps, NGOs can show the way—as I believe, as constituted, DC is nothing but a mass of confusion and delusion and reliance on magic.
    Perhaps we should focus more on evolution than transformation?
    On the issue of morality, I’m more in line with Zen’s take. That said, the morality of drones and remote controlled weapons is going to be a public test of what is moral. Right now we have the upper hand in this arena, but not for long. The same holds true for GPS-guided munitions. A real “revolution in military affairs” is occurring in China and in the militaries of many would-be adversaries—throw in NGO terror cells, too. How long until drones are used to terrorize us? And what are the moral dimensions?
    I read recently that all the major religion have one common line of philosophy that unites them: don’t do something to someone else that you wouldn’t want done to you. Not sure if that is true, but it sounds right.
    Many thanks for the post! 
    BTW, here is the Richard Heuer work (pdf), The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.

  9. MikeF Says:

    I always love your commentary whether it’s sporadic or detailed.
    In many ways, you seem to come through as the Western Budha challenging the mantra of “do no harm.”
    As always, much to think about and consider harm done from secondary and tertiary effects.
    I proclaim no moral insight, just trying to determine/ask the right questions.
    I got a head full of ideas…competing/intertwined???
    At the end of Ramadan 2006, I sat down for the dinner/feast with a Shia elder.  We shared beliefs/ acknowledge that we believed in the same God in different ways.  We postured that we wanted peace, but no peace could be found.  He could not forgive his Sunni brothers, and he wanted power.
    Political power became the conflict. 
    No morals/philosophy intertwined…Just power.
    Just something to think about.

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Mike,
    Power and politics are twin sons; often of different mothers, but fit hand in glove. While your Shia elder may have wanted power, could it be he wanted honor more?
    Of course, this line of thought has taken over a good portion of the afternoon:))

  11. L. C. Rees Says:

    The search for solutions to problems (wicked or otherwise) often fails through failure to account for the essential nature of politics: politics is the division of power. Numberless are the calls for new thinking, creative thinking, moral thinking, informed thinking, structured thinking, analytical thinking, etc.. Few are the calls for the detailed schematics of the political plumbing needed to favorably tilt the division of power towards new, creative, moral, informed, structured, or analytical thoughts. There is a bumper crop of thinkers with thoughts. There is a famine of divisions of power favorable to operationalize those thoughts.

    Lexington Green once lampooned the political cluelessness of Erich Ludendorff and his Spring 1918 offensives with the line: “Purpose? To rip a hole in their line!”. The Republican presidential nomination process this year was notable for the contrast between legions of Ludendorffs seeking lines to rip holes in and their utter helplessness in the face of the slow, clanking, obsolescent yet politically rationalized patronage machine of the GOP Establishment. If Herman Caine was a lunge toward Paris, Rick Santorum was a lunge toward the Channel. Each was action for action’s sake and not for the sake of any focused and tangible political transformation.

    What is true for Republican Party Base segments known more for light and noise than gaining and holding political territory is true for America at large. If PowerPoint could kill, America would have conquered the Earth many times over. If PowerPoint could solve problems. America would be a Utopia many times over. The key is not better thoughts, it’s a more constructive politics.

  12. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi LC,
    Insightful comment. Earlier today (before I wrote my last response to Mike), I was reminded of Thucydides in an otherwise unremarkable post. After I read your comment, I pulled my copy Thucydides from the shelf and re-read a passage in Book 1:
    It follows that it was not very remarkable action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest [others have translated as “benefit”]. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Besides, we believed ourselves worthy of our position, and so you thought us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice—-a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.
    How one (a nation) wields power points to the heart of the matter, both domestically, and on the international scene. The default is might makes right, and given the legs this idea possesses, I doubt things will change anytime soon.

  13. Madhu Says:

    Thanks Mike, but I don’t know. Maybe I go too far. And I’m certainly not Buddha-like with my tart–okay, crabby and sometimes downright mean–online commentary.
    Zen should update his “Nyet” post on Russia-China-Syria. Now, with the planned joint excercises, the pressure is let off somewhat on Iran. Or, is it? At any rate, we’d made a mess a bigger mess, I think.
    Sometimes I think blogger Pundita is correct (I hope she doesn’t stop blogging!), we will never have a non-NATO, non- European oriented foreign policy. No sense of strategy, just habit. Habit is the main driver of our vast, haphazard and ill-suited-to-the-times National Security Apparatus….

  14. Madhu Says:

    Oh, I see Charles has noted the excercises in his other post. Interesting.

Switch to our mobile site