Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Strategize in Times of Crisis?

Sunday, January 18, 6pm

In his Washington Memo, 2 Years After Campaign Began, a Different World, David E. Sanger reflects on the major changes that have happened since Obama declared his candidacy and wonders: 'So while the world has changed, Mr. Obama has changed with it. But how much?'

He quotes G. John Ikenberry, a leading scholar of international relations, who co-authored a study of the national security agenda facing the next president:
He’s facing the classic problem of having to handle a number of crises before he’s really got time to set out a long-term architecture.
Madeleine Albright expressed a related view, when she recently compared Obama's task to
redesigning the airplane while you’re flying it.
Indeed, the argument is frequently made that politics basically always takes place under time pressure, all the more under crisis conditions, and there certainly is no shortage of crises facing Obama: From Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to the global economic crisis and the twin problems of peak oil and climate change.

Hence the crucial question: How do you develop a coherent strategy, much less a grand strategy, if the environment in which you want to implement it constantly changes and the future is fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable? In these circumstances, instead of making predictions, the best you can do is think systematically about the basic issues and trends and their strategic implications.

Still, politics in general and crisis management in particular, tend to be rather reactive - simply because political systems are forced to respond rapidly (just take the current economic crisis as an example), and always under conditions of less than perfect information concerning the situation, preferences, likelihood of outcomes, etc. But reacting to events and developments is in many ways the exact oppposite of acting strategically, which aims precisely at shaping the environment in which actors operate.

Given the many differences between Barack Obama and George W. Bush, it will be very interesting to see how much their strategies will differ in response to the challenges they face. Of course, the very challenges administrations choose to face are the result of their hopefully more rather than less strategic assessments. For example, while Bush ignored climate disruption, Obama has vowed to make it a priority.

And yet, given how much politics is about having to react to developments that are oftentimes largely out of control (including the unintended and unforeseeable consequences of deliberate policies), and within tight political and material constraints, it is understandable why many practitioners and theorists question the usefulness grand strategy under these conditions.

Analogously to Gandhi's famous response to a journalist's question of what he thought of Western civilization, some might be tempted to respond to the same question about grand strategy identically: 'I think it would be a good idea.'

Politicians such as long-term German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in power for 16 years, gave 'muddling through' ('Durchwursteln,' in German) a good name, and it certainly served him well, if not necessarily his country - an assessment which of course depends on your point of view.

Obama can only serve for eight years. If he should - and many hope he will - this will at least in part be due to his political strategy. The big question is, whom that political strategy will serve better, him or his country? After all, Bush also served for eight years ...

Given continued functional differentiation, can these two very different, and in some ways opposed political logics still be reconciled? And can a political strategy, can any political strategy, bridge the gap between one political strategy that focuses on gaining, maintaining, and expanding political power, and another, while also wanting to build power, does so in order to 'do good,' or at least to reduce harm?

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, and two days before the inauguration of the first African American president, it seems appropriate to recall King's quote, which serves as the motto of this blog:
Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose.
Yes, we have come a long way; and yes, we still have a long way to go. Where will, where can Obama lead us, and with what kind of strategy? What is the purpose of his power?

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