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Entries in Competition (5)


Wikistrat's Grand Strategic Exercise - Innovative Strategic Planning

Having already offered a methodological take on what transpired in the grand strategy portion (Week 3) of Wikistrat’s International Grand Strategy Competition, I wanted to offer this additional “greatest hits” compilation from the week’s entries.  Here are the top 12 nuggets:

1) A “zero problems in Eurasia” foreign policy that allows the European Union to competitively market its junior partner services to Leviathans other than the US (EU2/Oxford).  This is such a bold repositioning of Europe that I chose to write it up as my next-Monday World Politics Review column.  If you really believe you’re in a multi-polar world but can’t compete for one of the superpower slots, this is where visionary realism takes you.

2) In a multi-polar system, the US needs to position itself as the “keystone” (US3/Johns Hopkins University).  Best use of a definition, pulling from Merriam-Webster:
Keystone : the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place; something on which associated things depend for support; a species of plant or animal that produces a major impact (as by predation) on its ecosystem and is considered essential to maintaining optimum ecosystem function or structure.
The imagery is fabulous: the US as the piece that “locks the other pieces in place,” the source of “support” (biggest provider of aid) and the policing/“predation” role that maintains (when done well, mind you) “optimum ecosystem function or structure.”  This would serve as a brilliant opening slide in PPT presentation, because its bit rate on vision transmission is so high.

3) Better for Turkey to be a big fish in a small pond (EU-like entity it builds in Mideast) than a small unwanted fish in a bigger pond (Turkey3/Institute for World Politics 1).  The supporting logic was just as solid: Turkey is well positioned to “win” the Arab Spring, in part because its leadership offering is more palatable to more players than that of Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s. So why not take advantage of the overall US withdrawal and avoid the anti-Muslim backlash in Europe?

4) If you don’t like your current storyline, change it (Russia2/New York University).  One of the very best articulated Objectives:
Russia suffers from an antiquated global ideology that reached the zenith of soft power attraction in the 1950s and has since steadily and rapidly declined. Both domestically and internationally, the image of Russia as a pessimistic nation that lost the major ideological struggle of the 20th century impedes its potential to hold and grow great power status in the future. As a whole, the modified Russian great power narrative should fall under the motto, ‘Strong Russia, Strong World.’ In other words, Russia needs to reposition itself as a critical part of global stability in the 21st century.
The press can only use what you give it.

5) If you’re falling behind the race, considering tripping the competition (Pakistan1/Claremont Graduate University). 
Covert Sub-Strategy: Pakistan will utilize its diplomatic and covert resources to forestall the development of alternative Central Asian pipelines. This involves isolating Iran and using Afghanistan to do it.
Covert should be all about nasty, and this qualifies. You also have to marvel at the bit-rate transmission here: concise clear language that conveys a lot of strategic logic.

6) Nukes are for having, and being respected for having (North Korea2/Sussex).  Yes, the first order of business is regime survival, but once you’ve shut down the easy regime-change option, you want to get your money’s worth. Having nukes means you’re in the big-boys’ club, but only if you’re accepted as such. So once the vertical proliferation is completed, it’s time to go for the horizontal recognition.

7) Japan as globalization’s high-tech answer man (Japan1/University of Kentucky).  Because Japan is a resource-dependent island nation, it had to turn toward globalization a long time ago to facilitate its rise. It has learned plenty along the way but does not get credit for that wisdom, in part because it sells itself weakly abroad and because it has recently suffered a number of image-crunching disasters. Time to turn that world-class resilience into a marketable strategic good.

8) If the current roster of great powers isn’t making regional stability happen, socialize the problem further (Israel3/Tel Aviv University).   The Middle East’s current connectivity with outside great powers (i.e., the West) just isn’t doing it. Israel is a super-globalized economy, so why not put that connectivity to strategic use by encouraging as many rising great powers into the region as possible? More entrants = more strategic interests = bigger collective outside push by great powers for regional stability.  Suffer the details and inevitable setbacks, yes, but the strategic logic is sound. As a grand strategy, it doesn’t get any more concise.

9) If China is to be THE global superpower of mid-century, it has to project norms and values of universal appeal (China3/University of London). Simultaneously good advice and sharp analysis: China’s global rise as a single-party state is self-limiting, unless it can evolve.  Notice how nobody talks about the “Beijing Consensus” since the Arab Spring began?

10) If Africa is ground zero of globalization’s current integration process, then providing the best model for those countries is a strategic competition worth winning (Brazil1/Institute for World Politics 2).  With its multicultural background and ability to mix raw material exports with high-tech goods and agricultural production, Brazil is the best model for Africa as it moves up economically – not India or China.

11) There’s nothing wrong about playing for second place (European Union2/Oxford & India2/Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies).  Why exhaust yourself in the coming Sino-American duel when there are plenty of good niches to exploit (EU) or if you’re betting on your long-term demographic dividend to vault you into first place later in the century (India)?

12) Seeking regional hegemony as a defensive posture (Iran2/University of Cambridge).  An eye-opening analysis of Iran’s #1 Objective:
The main driver behind this goal is Iran’s perception of its own isolation and its feeling of encirclement within the region. Iran does not seek power as an end per se, but it views regional hegemony as the only true guarantee of its long-term security, and all its other policy objectives can be regarded as instrumental to this. Iran’s bid for hegemony should also not be confused with a form of revisionist expansionism. In fact, it is perhaps best viewed through the lenses of defensive realism.
For those of us who like to spot in Iran’s revolutionary failures/stagnation a loose rerun of the Soviet decline, this perspective adds plenty.


Wikistrat Grand Strategy Competition Update (Week 3)

As head judge of Wikistrat’s International Grand Strategy Competition, I wanted to update everybody on what has unfolded across the third week of the contest. As you may already know, the competition brings together approximately 30 teams comprised of PhD and masters students from elite international schools and world-renowned think tanks. Those teams, evenly distributed over a dozen or so countries (so as to encourage intra-country as well as inter-country competition), were challenged in Week 3 to come up with grand strategies in relation to their country-team assignments (Brazil, China, EU, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Turkey & US).

As head judge, I assign points to teams based on their activity throughout the week. Coming off this crucial third week (after all, we’re all about grand strategy at Wikistrat), I wanted to highlight some of the lessons that I think the participants should take away from this collaborative competition when it comes to crafting and selling strategic visions.

1) Survival is never enough

Every regime wants to survive, and that’s always objective #1, but it cannot take up significant space in a strategic vision, because the more it centers the strategy, the less wiggle room ensues. Remember: strategy is more about keeping choices available than shutting them down. Worse, a fixation on sheer survival tends to obviate exploration of motive, and rationales matter plenty. For example, if I were to ask you where you want to be as a person in 2020, you wouldn’t answer that you want your heart, lungs and brain to still be working, because those baseline goals are taken for granted. And even if your response started with your health, the real purpose of that statement is to mark off possibilities that you want to keep in play (“I want to be healthy enough to . . .”). So no matter how bad a situation is for any country, their leaders are always thinking beyond just getting by, because some vision of progress is required to maintain morale among the “troops,” who, if they sense no purpose or way forward, will turn on leadership that seeks only personal survival.

2) Recognize internal pain but speak to external possibilities

The best grand strategies acknowledge what is wrong with their nations but don’t get stuck on that point – or let their strategies become overwhelmingly “internalized” on that basis (e.g., “Only after we comprehensively fix our country can we hope to address this complex world.”). Whatever reforms or internal “housecleaning” is required are but a stepping-stone to expanding and exploiting external opportunities, thus the grand strategy’s (hopefully) compelling logic is added to whatever domestic impetus exists for necessary change. Plus, external opportunities are often the cure for what ails internally, or at least a crucial part of the overall solution. This is the basic logic of comparative advantage and effective grand strategies are all about maximizing that exchange for the nation as a whole. In their best forms, the twin efforts at reshaping the internal and external environments are conducted in a co-evolutionary fashion that recognizes valuable interdependencies, with neither strategy holding strict superiority over the other.

3) The sale needs to be both internal and external

Grand strategies need to be so organic to the nation’s ethos that they are less “sold” than virally spread (they just feel right – right now), with the key being to tap into the society’s natural tendency toward this or that vision of its place in the world. Every nation has its capacities for “depressive” isolationism and “manic” evangelicalism, and depending on the desired course correction, hot-button memes are typically employed to fire-up the faithful. The best grand strategies recognize this deep-connection requirement at home, but likewise understand that it’s just as important to market the desirability of the vision to the outside world (or as much of it as will be immediately affected). Hegemony is a mixture of fear (hard power) and attraction (soft power), so the external sale cannot be neglected. In today’s interconnected world, influence resembles respect: it cannot be imposed but must be earned.  

4) Modeling yourself on a pathway that worked

Grand strategies are stories at heart – national narratives. Experts say there are only so many stories in this world (boy meets girls, the quest, etc.), and the same can be said of grand strategies. The most coherent entries this week all evoked some past power’s rise and choices they made along the way. One China team’s grand strategy, for example, read an awful lot like Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 vision of future American power. Yes, Hamilton was most definitely interested in the survival of the United States, but he also aimed to replace Britain as the global power by the mid-19th century and used that grand measuring stick in every major decision he pursued. Of course, not every nation can aim that high all the time, and America itself, in its turn-of-the-20th-century rising phase, often took to arguing the rules of the system (see the arbitrationism of Theodore Roosevelt and Elihu Root) as a means of covering its hard power deficiencies and – later with Woodrow Wilson – expressing its sheer idealism. We see some of the same impulses in today’s India and Brazil, and good entries from those teams ably captured that mindset.

5) Choices must be made

The best grand strategies presented last week made clear choices versus simply enunciating broad goals. They all passed the “as opposed to . . .” quip/test (“You say your nation’s number one goal is to expand its influence regionally, as opposed to . . . diminishing its regional influence?”). They offered just enough specificity to make clear that alternatives were considered and passed over. For example, the absolute survival of the North Korean regime is one thing, but North Korea achieving international acceptance of its status as a nuclear power is quite another, because the latter involves a number of real choices while the former appears to accept none. And yet clearly the two goals can be cast in co-evolutionary terms.

6) Stick with the big picture

The best grand strategies aren’t just about justifying the here-and-now but about shaping the there-and-then. They are a roadmap to a future region/world you want your country to inhabit at a particular perch, and that perch must be better than the one you occupy today, because unless you’re aiming for better, you’re not likely to keep what you’ve got in this increasingly competitive landscape. But because any future comes replete with uncertainties, tactics will invariably change over time. As much as every government seeks to bring “all elements of national power to bear” on this or that goal, you don’t want the tactics to overwhelm the strategic logic – the means determining the ends. The best entries last week left the tactics for Week 4’s stress-testing exercise and stuck with the high road of elucidating the essential choices made.

7) Some boldness is required

Good grand strategy is not simply waiting for events to fall your way, but neither is it trying to shape everything. The former replaces choice with expectation while the latter represents no choice at all. The best entries last week struck a balance between realism and idealism, typically without mentioning either because their logic was plainly apparent.

8) Fidelity versus flights of fancy

The most trapped teams last week were those deeply committed to representing their nations as honestly as possible, meaning they erred on the side of “fidelity” – a war-gaming term for realistic portrayal (“Is this like it would happen in the real world?”). Clearly, every team needed to keep its vision grounded in reality (i.e., you have to be able to get there from here), but the highest performing ones consistently leaned forward into likely events, key trends, etc., sensing maximum flexibility in the earliest phases rather than endgames. They persistently sought opening-move opportunities, and when they chose caution over boldness, it wasn’t because they were uninformed about the choice.

9) The necessity of a happy ending

Like General David Petraeus entering Iraq in 2003 (“Tell me how this ends.”), I as judge perused last-week’s entries for some semblance of what I like to call a “happy ending.” As I wrote in The Pentagon’s New Map, “Everybody needs that happy ending, that sense of hope in the future, otherwise you are simply trying to sell people diminished expectations – not a great motivator.” The best grand strategies presented compelling roadmaps to futures worth creating, sometimes for the larger world but always for the society in question. They were worth sacrificing for; they created a sense of something better that could be left to future generations. They were – in a word – simply grand.

10) Locating the essence of strategic opportunity

The top entries last week all portrayed once-in-a-lifetime regional/global dynamics that required bold responses (and yes, they are locatable for any country portrayed in this competition). Those teams made compelling arguments for action over caution on this basis, essentially flipping those arguments on their heads: by deeply grounding their strategies in keen analyses of future trends, they spotted unique openings that must be exploited because not to do so would cost too much over the long run. This is the essence of good grand strategy: spotting tomorrow’s inevitabilities and translating them into today’s proper tactical guidance, however “inconceivable” it may seem when judged by yesterday’s comfortable bias.



Grand Strategic Competition Update (Week 2)

As head judge of Wikistrat’s International Grand Strategy Competition, I wanted to update everybody on what’s emerged across the second week of the contest.  As you may already know, the competition brings together approximately 30 teams comprised of PhD and masters students from elite international schools and world-renowned think tanks.  Those teams, evenly distributed over a dozen or so countries (so as to encourage intra-country as well as inter-country competition), were challenged in Week 2 to come up with national and regional trajectories in relation to their country-team assignments (Brazil, China, EU, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Turkey & US).

As head judge, I assign points to teams based on their activity throughout the week.  In this second week, each team generated those two trajectories to the tune of about 10,000 words each, or close to 300,000 words across all the teams.  Naturally, a ton of interesting nuggets emerged, so here’s my hit list of provocative ideas.

1) US turns back toward Western Hemisphere as part of reduced global footprint, need to deal with drug/crime nexus, and desire to balance growing Chinese influence across region (BRAZIL1/Institute of World Politics 2)

Every new US president hits the ground running with the promise to pay more attention to the Western Hemisphere – and then promptly forgets the entire idea.  So far, Barack Obama has held to form, and yet the dynamics cited here make for a compelling argument.  A US that pulls back from the world and gets it own house in order must certainly look southward for some of its solutions – particularly on the disastrous drug war.  Brazil, as the IWP2 team points out, is the key dynamo of the region, so either the US recognizes that and accommodates Brazil’s ambitions, or it may find itself the odd man out throughout South America.

2) The European Union’s primary contribution going forward could be to show the advanced/advancing world how to live within its resource means (EUROPEAN UNION1/NATO’s Atlantic Treaty Association)

The EU1 team established as its primary “national” trajectory goal Europe’s energy independence by 2030.  While we can argue about the feasibility, there’s no question that the EU can and should be a leader on the subject.  All projections show the region experiencing basically flat energy consumption growth in coming decades, while improving its public transportation infrastructure in a big way.  Uncomfortable with relying on energy flows from restive North Africa, the tense Persian Gulf, and bullying Russia – and now freaked out about nuclear power thanks to Japan, the world should see a lot of ambitious brainpower put to this useful task.

3) The EU encouraging immigration from fellow Roman Catholic states/regions (EUROPEAN UNION2/Oxford)

This one elicited a “wow!” from me simply because I’ve never heard the option stated so boldly.  If you worry about the Islamic influx and the diminution of Christianity, why not get yourself some truly old-school Catholics from New Core and Gap regions, where the religious flame still burns hot?  Afraid of too much religion?  Then add a whole lot more.  Team Oxford is full of provocative notions like that, which is why they’re in second place after Week 2.

4) The future is all about who’s got the most global cities (EU2/Oxford)

I’m a big believer in this, because if you add up the coastal megacities of the world, you’ve got half the planet’s population and the vast majority of its connectivity and traffic.  Get the coastal megacities wired up right, and globalization can’t fail.  Team Oxford brought this out in their critique of Europe’s lack of global cities, saying that, besides London, none of the capitals really qualify on the scale of such behemoths as New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Istanbul, etc.  EU2’s point:  make the investment if you want to stay relevant in the rule setting.

5) India changes when the last generation of “ruled Indians” leaves the political scene (INDIA1/Indian Institute of Technology)

I love passing-of-generations arguments, especially with the supermajors like China and the US, and this is the best one I’ve ever heard on emerging supermajor India.  It makes perfect sense:  India’s not much more than half-a-century old, so it’s long been ruled by people who remember the before time of British rule.  So long as they’re setting agendas, it’s a departure from the past versus a deep embrace of the future.  Bottom line:  expect a lot more diplomatic innovation out of India, and a much more proactive role in shaping the world and setting rules.

6) India’s sell is “German quality at Chinese prices!” (INDIA2/Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)

Of course, most everybody cites the democracy thing as India’s differentiating model, and it most certainly is in the political realm, but globalization is driven by economic models – or competing “consensuses,” if you will.  Washington had its in the 1990s and China’s captured a lot of imagination in the 2000s, but India is well-poised to capture that ideological flag in the 2010s – the decade of the emergence of the global middle class.  That middle class, like any that emerged before on national scales, cares about quality for its money spent.  China seeks to meet that expectation, but lacks the political system – for now – to regulate it well.  Can India do better?  We’re all better off if it does and ups the competition globally.  And no, it’s not a fantastic goal.  Remember:  China loses labor over the next several decades, while India adds a fantastic sum (300 million or so).

7) Iran pins its hopes on China, but China will ultimate choose Saudi Arabia (PAKISTAN1/Claremont Graduate University)

Lots of chatter among the Iranian teams on future economic alliance with China, but Claremont’s Pakistan team made a compelling argument for China picking Saudi Arabia:

In the coming years, Pakistan foresees China making a decision as to whether or not to source its energy from the Saudis or the Iranians.  China will side with the Saudi bloc for three reasons.  First, given Iran's commitment to its nuclear program, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry favors Pakistan due to Pakistan's nuclear expertise and its close links with the Saudis.  China, therefore, will not risk alienating both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to appease Iran and India.  Second, the Saudis have larger reserves than the Iranians.  As the global leader in proven reserves, the Saudis are able to remain the chief energy provider into the next 80 years, making them a better long-term bet for the Chinese (the Chinese have also transferred strategic missiles to the Saudis – a level of cooperation not seen with the Saudis and Indians).  Third, geographical considerations come into play in that Afghanistan's continuing instability closes off its options to act as a reliable pipeline from Iran to China.  In that sense, the Saudis offer a more natural supply source to the Chinese in terms of volume and the security of transported oil.  If push comes to shove, the Saudis will eschew their energy exports to India if it means obtaining a nuclear deterrent to answer Iran; China also is in a better position to offer more favorable terms owing to its more advanced level of development than India.  The redundancy is that their petrol will still have a stable and sizeable market in China.  India will initially be reticent to harm its security relationship with Israel, but will do so in the longer term if it has to placate Iran and gain access to its energy.  Geographically Pakistan offers a conduit between Saudi energy from the Arabian Peninsula through the Indian Ocean to China. 

That is some beautifully argued logic; that PPT slide writes itself.

8) Pakistan goes from globalization “separator” to connector (PAKISTAN2/Yale)

Matching Claremont’s visionary national projection, Yale takes this point even farther in emphasizing how Pakistan must be the global connectivity “answer” before Afghanistan can be stabilized.    Both teams emphasized how connecting China to the Persian Gulf will help break Pakistan of its current north-south security paradigm. Yale took the point a bit further to emphasize how stabilizing the security relationship with India could set Pakistan up as the ultimate all-direction energy conduit for South Asia – just like Turkey positions itself in Southwest Asia.  The Claremont-Yale duel on this subject pushed me to pen a Time Battleland blog post on the subject.  It’s my highest compliment:  this stuff is good enough to steal!

9) By sticking with the dream of playing external Leviathan, Russia continues to eschew the much-needed internal System Administrator force, and with its borders so indefensible – and “expanding” with climate change, Moscow is looking at a future of outsourcing its boundary security (RUSSIA2/New York University)

I don’t want to steal my own thunder here.  Check out my Time Battleland blog post Thursday morning.

10)  Russia as the future waterpower of Eurasia (RUSSIA2/NYU)

This is a staple of my current brief:  I show you who’s got more water than people (global percentage share) and then show you who’s able to export grain (water turned into human energy).  Naturally, Russia and the other Black Sea powers (Kazakhstan, Ukraine) are big players in this regard.  Factor in climate change and the northward movement of agriculture, and Russia becomes a major waterpower of the 21st century.  I’m talking Canada BIG!

11) For Turkey to create a regional bandwagoning effect as part of its pursuit of regional leadership, it must pick one of three rivals (Egypt, Iran or Saudi Arabia) and its immediate partner (TURKEY3/Institute of World Politics 1)

It’s so obvious when you’re presented with the logic, and yet to date I haven’t heard anybody put it so well until I came across IWP1 entry this week.  All sorts of pundits are wailing about Turkey’s alleged strategic alliance with Iran, as if it means Istanbul has gone crazy Islamist when it has really gone crazy like a fox.  I spot a clever Turkey working all three possibilities with substantial vigor, actually providing a far superior US foreign policy than Washington is today. 

12) A realistic US plays System Administrator locally (Western Hemisphere) while satisfying itself as Leviathan balancer around the world (UNITED STATES2/Georgetown)

A nicely stated point that wraps up sensibly back around to Brazil1’s opening bid.

In sum, good stuff all around and a totally engaging week for myself as Head Judge.  My thanks to all the teams for their fine efforts and best of luck in the final week!


Grand Strategy Competition Update

As head judge of Wikistrat’s International Grand Strategy Competition, I wanted to highlight some of the takeaways that we’ve already gathered in the first week of the contest.  As you may already know, the competition brings together more than 30 teams comprised of PhD and masters students from elite international schools and world-renowned think tanks.  Those teams, evenly distributed over a dozen or so countries (so as to encourage intra-country as well as inter-country competition), are being challenged to come up with long-term grand strategies in relation to five issues:  global energy security, global economic “rebalancing,” Jihadist terrorism, the Sino-American relationship and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

By conducting this strategic planning exercise, Wikistrat seeks to create an instant-but-lasting community of several hundred young strategists from around the world in a sort of Facebook-meets-Wikipedia online environment populated with our unique wiki-based model of globalization.  Part of that effort involves creating expectations among participation that their future work will be both collaborative in execution and subject to intense – and peer-based – competitive pressures, but it also includes exposing participants to practical skill sets that they will use as future analysts/authors.  To further their avowed career goals, we’re also making the participants’ work available to government agencies and corporate firms interested in recruiting them as new hires.

Across the four-week competition, each team of 5-10 graduate political science students and interns will collaborate on the Wikistrat model to:

  • Forecast their team’s national trajectory;
  • Develop scenario pathways and national policy options for specific strategic issues;
  • Articulate national grand strategies;
  • Brainstorm future regional security environments (alternate futures); and
  • Simulate plausible scenarios of geopolitical crises.

As head judge, I assign points to teams based on their activity throughout the week.  In this first week, teams were tasked with enunciating their country’s national interests across the five international issues cited above.  The teams generated roughly 150 wiki pages, whose combined “weight” of almost 200,000 words approximates the size of your average “weighty” policy tome.

Since this is a first-of-a-kind experiment that competitively harnesses the collaborative analytic power of the “millennial” generation, we at Wikistrat are eager to share these initial observations: 

“Collaborative competition” actually works

I know what you’re thinking:  Of course Wikistrat’s grand strategy competition “proves” collaborative competition.  But we were genuinely surprised at how easy it was to track the following:  the country-team groups that were the most competitive – and interactive – with each another clearly outperformed those country groups where it was apparent that each team went its own way (meaning their entries were far more idiosyncratic).   After all, doesn’t it make sense to hold off revealing your positions until the very last minute – i.e., maintaining secrecy?  Because if you don’t, then your best ideas can be copied by your competition, right?

Well, by seeing up-front what your immediate competition is putting out there, you’re challenged to cover that bet and raise the bar even higher – or at least put your countering spin on the issue raised.  Point being, you’re forced to defend your ideas more fully and that effort only adds analytic muscle to the product.  Yes, the resulting works were more similar in terms of the ground they covered, but that only made the comparative analysis (my grading) all the easier.  The same would hold in the real world for a decision-maker.  Yes, the truly competing visions emerged in the end; their advocates were just forced to explain their strategies more fully by referencing common touch points.  And because the teams were in immediate competition with one another, the usual groupthink dynamics were avoided.

In general, the best predictor of any team’s overall finish was the level of its “internal” competition (e.g., the two other India teams competing with it to be the “best India”).  The tougher the in-house opposition, the more comprehensively any team’s ideas were tested before being released into the international “wild.”  In the end, a country-team’s success depended less on the “real” competition of other states than its willingness to slug it out preemptively in a collaborative fashion – even if all any team did was “cheat” by looking at the “next student’s test paper.”

Then again, real life doesn’t unfold with all desks turned toward teacher.

The utility of thinking things through before committing to action

Our grad student teams were all so chomping at the bit that we had to remind them constantly that this was not a war-game, but rather a strategic planning competition. The first entries by, and earliest conversations among, participants got to punch lines too quickly – in effect, “Shouldn’t we bomb Country X now?”  The whole point of spending this first week thinking through and debating each nation’s interests – before any moves were made – was to encourage everybody to consider what really matters to their country-team.  Before you can accurately judge which risks to run and what is to be gained by running them, you need a clear sense of what can be lost in turn. The most sophisticated consequence management involves avoiding negative outcomes in the first place. 

The most impressive team entries explored all sorts of consequences (“If X happens, then the up/downside is . . . “), and in doing so they revealed the oft-unmentionable truth that national interests aren’t always as “fixed” as they’re made out to be.  That was a lesson we hoped participants might discover on their own during this first week:  in this fast-paced and complex world we call globalization, virtually nothing is carved in stone any more. “Survival” comes in many forms, and genuine strategic thinking often begins with the impertinent question, “Well, why should we assume that . . . ?”

The tyranny of interests

Something we noticed:  the longer the list of national interests presented, the less creative the strategic thinking.  Why?  Every declared interest pre-programs the foreign policy response, so the more interests your country accumulates, the more fenced-in you are as a policymaker.  One of the pleasant surprises of the first week grading process was how creative the North Korean teams were on certain issues, primarily because they kept things very simple regarding acceptable regime survival.

Now, that can sound counter-productive when you consider the “thinking through” goal cited above, but thinking through what matters most to your country doesn’t necessarily translate into a long list of core interests.  More to the point, just citing those core interests doesn’t end the conversation (as in, “China simply doesn’t go there”).  In this ever more connected world, trouble comes looking for you – not the other way around.  Core interests certainly preface all subsequent policy arguments, but they don’t obviate any.

What you see depends on where you sit

Here we saw some teams play their countries too well:  the Japanese teams tended to be a bit too careful, the European teams a bit too focused on defining the best rules, the Israeli teams a bit too dug in, the American teams a bit too self-confident, etc.  Where the subject matter touched upon more geographically immediate interests, teams naturally tended to be more creative.  But when the subjects seemed more distant (“What does North Korea care about Middle East extremism?”), creativity decidedly suffered.

In many ways, though, the exact opposite should be true.  When it comes to diplomacy, that first and final tool of grand strategy, ambitious nations should indulge their creativity most where interests are thinnest, because that’s where they have the most wiggle room.  Not having a “dog in the fight” can be a good thing, strategy-wise, so long as you don’t overstep your limited interests.  Plus, if you always wait until the problem reaches your shores, you may be out of attractive options at that point.

Look sideways to see deep into the future

Here we might say, “Know your own history – but not too well.”  The more teams used past history to explain their national interests, the less strategizing they applied to the subject – the “grievance list” quickly overwhelming any instinct for creative thought.  Conversely, the more teams cited issues adjacent to the subject at hand – or what we call “interdependencies,” the better able they were to think through possible scenarios toward desired outcomes. 

In a networked world, such interdependencies become the source material for policy workarounds – or the rewiring of strategies.  After all, one man’s cul-de-sac is another man’s turnaround.  A favorite example: one North Korean team, surveying the course of Asia’s economic integration with the world, decided that its impoverished population actually advantages the country as the last great untapped cheap-labor pool in East Asia! 

Point being, orienting oneself is not just a linear historical exercise (what’s behind us and what’s up ahead?).  Rather, it’s a networking function of the highest order.  “Shallow thinking,” as some might diagnose, isn’t necessarily the great bane of the upcoming generation.  You can’t disaggregate complexity until you can aggregate enough touch points to achieve sufficient situational awareness. 

When everything connects to everything else (one definition of globalization), the ability to process information laterally becomes increasingly valuable.  Indeed, Wikistrat’s raison d’etre is to develop that magnificent skill-set in the next generation of grand strategists.


Wikistrat's Grand Strategy Competition - Week One

Greetings from the Wikistrat team!

In the last 7 days we've had 44,097 actions within the wiki with new information being added at an average rate of once every 10 minutes.

The Week 1 Challenge

Competitors, organized into 38 teams by school or institution, have been assigned either one of 13 possible actors. They were tasked with writing position papers on the following five issues:

  • Global Energy Security;
  • Global Economic “Rebalancing” Process;
  • Salafi Jihadist Terrorism;
  • "Chimerica" - China-US Relationship; and
  • Southwest Asia Nuclear Proliferation.

The standard of work has been outstanding and Dr. Barnett and the judging panel are hard at work preparing feedback and scores. We'll announce some of those next time.