I’m just dashing off a short article, spinning off a chapter in the book I’m writing. In turn, here’s a short post about the short article. Work it baby!
Strategy, I contend, is inherently about making judgments in time. We seek to use violence instrumentally to reach some desired future state. And we are guided by the past when we do so. Strategy is temporal.
The problem is that we are not good judges of time. Utility theory, the basis of many rational actor models, is fundamentally flawed, because we do not have consistent, stable preferences. The very act of choosing an option, for example, increases its value to us – a phenomenon known as the endowment effect. Preferences are not revealed by choices, so much as created by them. That’s particularly true if the choice we make is emotionally engaging, as war is – passionately so, ofttimes.
As for memory, our only handrail, we also construct that from our present condition too – leading, among other biases, to mood congruent memory. Memory truly is postmodern – a view that emerges from neuroscience, that hardest of sciences. In other bad news for rational models, we are poor judges of risk, overweighting improbable events, particularly if we have vivid memories of previous examples.
Where does that leave strategy? In a fix.
We frequently lament our limited capacity for strategic thought – but without a clear, imminent existential threat, there is always scope to interpret the national interest. Strategy becomes an act of imagination. Trouble is, the future we imagine we want might not actually be so pressing when we actually arrive there. And the cognitive models of cause and effect that we draw on to guide the way are susceptible to all sorts of flaws – our memories are unrepresentative constructions that underweight chance and overweight the emotionally engaging.
So when it comes to balancing ends ways and means, or even discerning them – the very essence of strategy – forget it. Instead it’s perhaps better to think about strategy in its less ‘grand strategic’ sense – and instead conceptualise it as the organisation of power in the moment, in response to contingencies. Stop trying to anticipate the future so much, because, as Philip Tetlock has shown, we are rather bad at it.