Strategic Inflection Points: Myth, History and Russian Foreign Policy

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Theoretically, an inflection point is an intersection on a curve, where the curve changes its direction. Two characteristics of an inflection point are that the change is caused by an outside agent (hence my use of the word ‘intersection’), and that the change of direction is dramatic, if not opposite, to the previous course. The second characteristic is what makes an inflection point, a ‘strategic’ inflection point. If the change were not dramatic but a mere fluctuation, it would lose the magnitude of its impact, and would therefore not be strategic. Like Grove, I believe a strategic inflection point is not exactly a point but a dynamic transition caused by the collision of an outside agent with a system, and resulting in a markedly different (sometimes opposite) re-arrangements of the constituents of the system.

I believe that the bigger the impact of a strategic inflection point, the harder, and often impossible, it is to predict. The recognition of a strategic inflection point is a hindsight process from an analytical perspective and a 50-50 wild gamble if we are more prone to intuition. The 9/11 attacks were in hindsight certainly an example of a strategic inflection point: a move from state vs. state warfare to asymmetric warfare, where a variety of non-state actors are involved. Attacks from non-state actors are not new phenomena, and cannot be qualified as strategic inflection points as such. What added the “strategic” part to the 9/11 inflection point, was the magnitude of its impact. Seven years after this event, there has been enough speculation and analysis on this subject that I believe I have few original thoughts to add to the discussion. As to Hurricane Katrina, like any natural disaster, I do not consider it a strategic inflection point. Perhaps one way a natural disaster could qualify as a strategic inflection point would be to examine it under a climate change/environmental degradation category, but this will remain outside the scope of this discussion.

What I would like to do in the pages below is look at strategic inflection points first from the perspective of a myth (the myth of Theuth as narrated by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus), then a historical event (the collapse of the Soviet Union), and finally offer a theoretical summary of the dynamics of power. The choice for my first example is based on past extensive academic research on the transition between an oral to a written culture in ancient Greece, and the role of memory in this transition. My second example pertains to my current research on Russian foreign policy, which I intend to use for the final project of this course.

Our Western tradition of philosophy and metaphysics is one based upon a system of opposites.  Many of the early Greek thinkers conceived the universe as a unity, but a unity formed by a harmonious combination of polarities, bound together by necessity:  mind vs. body, good vs. evil, speech vs. writing, memory vs. forgetting, etc.  These opposites cannot stand alone as independent entities, but can only exist and function in pairs.  The second term in each pair is thought of as the negative of the first.  Language is also rich of terms that contain their opposites in one “form”, such as the word pharmakon, which in Greek can mean both remedy and poison.  Socrates’ own death by drinking the hemlock becomes ambiguous given the dual nature of this word.  A pharmakon is then something like a catalyst for change in the power dynamics of opposites. In our strategic inflection point, it plays the role of the outside agent causing a dramatic re-arrangement of the system.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates narrates the following myth:

Socrates:  Very well.  I heard, then, at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth.  It was he who first invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing (grammata).  Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon.  Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians.  And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one: and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or the bad points of the explanation.  Now Thamus is said to have had a good deal to remark on both sides of the question about every single art (it would take too long to repeat it here); but when it came to writing, Theuth said, “This discipline (ta mathēma), my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories (sophōterous kai mnēmonikōterous):  my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom.” (Phaedrus, 274 c-e)

The art of writing is presented to the king of Egypt as a pharmakon which will improve memory and bring wisdom.  But in itself, writing has no value unless the king Thamus (another name for Ammon) accepts it.  The pharmakon comes to the king not only from the outside, but also from below.  The king’s ignorance only affirms his sovereign independence.  He does not need to write.  He speaks or he dictates his word to scribes. The god of writing, according to this myth, is a subordinate character, a kind of an ingenious servant. His gift is not only useless to the hegemonic power but it is also a menace in that it threatens its very foundation, its raison d’etre. This ambivalent figure, the god of writing, or simply writing, or pharmakon is thus both a remedy and a poison.  Writing, according to Plato, has a double dimension:  no more a remedy than a poison.  Hence, the logical objection of the king to the pharmakon as an aid to both memory (mnēme) and wisdom (sophia); under the pretext of supplementing memory, it makes one more forgetful; instead of increasing wisdom, it diminishes it. 

Applied to our argument on strategic inflection points, the outside agent has the inherent dual capacity of creating growth and decline, opportunities and threats, winners and losers. And this duality translates into something more: ambiguity, uncertainty, slipperiness, and outright deception, which make possible outcomes obscured and extremely difficult to predict. Faced with a transition point situation, a leader who needs to make urgent decisions is like the Egyptian king: he can choose to assert his hegemonic authority by disregarding the intruder or accept the challenge and try to transform it to his advantage. The choice will ultimately depend on whether the leader is the suicidal, proud hero type of the Ajax variety or the “cowardly” but sly Odysseus crop, who despite all challenges thrown at him by the Gods, eventually manages to get back to his Ithaca.

Fast-forward to 1989.

Could anyone have predicted, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet system, which ended the Cold War? Despite hindsight arguments that the collapse was predictable due to the discernible economic and political decay of the Soviet Union by the late 80s, no one actually predicted that on an early November day in 1989 people will take down the Wall with hammers in Berlin while millions of others in the satellite countries would take to massive demonstrations on the streets, in what I can describe from personal memory as mass euphoric hysteria or hysteric mass euphoria, or both. The end of the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union is certainly one of the most dramatic strategic inflection points of the 20th century. It is true that the internal decay of the system was predictable and even predicted though various channels, not least of which theoretical. Already in 1947, George F. Kennan, ironically echoing Hegelian-Marxist dialectic principles, wrote:

…the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the end of the Cold War was the re-distribution of power in the system of international relations from bipolar superpowers to…? I leave this sentence unfinished because despite the temptation to say unilateral power, with the U.S. as the dominant superpower, I believe the post-Soviet power dynamics are changing so rapidly that we should be careful not to rush to conclusions. The U.S. might still be enjoying a certain privileged position in the pantheon of international relations, but the emergence of regional powers, regional power politics, reliance on interconnectedness and interdependency as opposed to traditional allies, is quickly shifting toward a multipolar system, whose center of gravity might ironically end up being the periphery.

In this light, the end of the Cold War might be seen both as a triumph of peace over conflict or as the return to a more dangerous system, in which each newly emerged power will be willing to fight tooth and nail for a larger chunk in the power distribution system. Regardless of whether one adopts an optimistic or a pessimistic view, one thing is sure: we are in the middle of a new political strategic inflection point – a rapidly developing process of regional powers coming to parity with the established superpowers. This, according to power transition theory, signals a red alert. Power transition theory is an international relations theory developed in the late 1950s, which postulates that war is imminent when the distribution of power between the dominant state and “the challenger” reaches approximate parity. It is not a purely realist theory like other systemic IR theories in that it focuses not only on power, but also on “satisfaction” (an interesting divergent discussion outside the scope of this paper would be on the trend of happiness theories and happiness economics. One of the main arguments is that conflict will only occur if the following two conditions are present: first, “the challenger” achieves parity with the dominant power; second, “the challenger” must necessarily be dissatisfied with the existing power status quo set up by the dominant power, so that it would wish to re-write the rules of the game, so to speak. Therefore, a weak dissatisfied challenger or a strong satisfied challenger are not to be feared. The power transition theory is practically opposite to the Cold War balance of power theory according to which equality of balance keeps the peace.

Now, how can theories of power and analysis of strategic inflection points provide practical guidance to political leaders or business executives? What conclusions from the above theoretical discussion and historical and mythical analogies can we draw when looking at Russian foreign policy today and Russian leadership?

One essential component of Russian foreign policy is Russia’s view of itself, i.e. self-identity. What is Russia and who is ultimately Russian? I would like to argue that Russian identity (at least post 1917) is based on negation. Russia’s view of itself has historically been a reaction to the West, i.e. Russia has seen herself as the counterbalancing reaction to what she has labelled Western capitalism and imperialism, a sort of a global “saviour” from the evils of the West, or in the words of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz:

…a collective body, a human society, cannot be the Saviour…Guilt is individual, it is my guilt. Sin is universal – not I am guilty but society, and I can be saved not through my own effort (Grace given to me) but by the collective of which I am a particle. That’s why they [Russians] are always in search of the kingdom of God, but I placed in time, substituting for it Communism, or perhaps, in the future, another type of eschatology. (Milosz and Merton, The Letters, 28)

I was reminded of this type of “reactionism” when I read the following sentence in Grove’s book: “Intel equalled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?” (p.90) Well, how could Russia give up its identity as the “counterbalancing” force to the U.S. (and certain parts of Europe)? How can it transform itself from a reactionary to a pro-active player; one that sets the rules of the game, not merely plays by them? It would seem, Vladimir Putin might just have the “right” idea of how to do that. Whether, the West likes to admit this or not, he has managed to ride the wave of success through a transition period of the gloomiest and direst economic and political degeneration, which characterized Russia in the 1990s. By hook or crook, intelligence and agility, vision, and belief in his mission, he has managed to reposition his country in quite a favourable position in the international arena. The sustainability of his policies is irrelevant to this discussion. He has shown leadership and exceptional determination in a period of serious crisis for Russia. That he might not do as good a job in a situation less characterized by crisis, is possible. Grove remarks that “People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.” (p.92) I agree only partly. Passion is the underlying quality of a leader, and that which makes other people follow him. Hence, it might be good to have a dispassionate analyst or adviser, but when it comes to leadership, passion is key.

Grove goes on to describe his anxiety upon presenting to the people at Intel’s Oregon facility the new strategy of switching from memory chips to microprocessors, and his surprise that they took the news much better than he expected: “These people, like our customers, had known what was inevitable before we in senior management faced up to it. There was a measure of relief that they no longer had to work on something that the company wasn’t fully committed to. This group, in fact, threw itself into microprocessor development and they have done a bang-up job ever since.” (p.94) I can’t help but draw another parallel with Putin’s leadership. Again, despite Western criticism and internal opposition to his leadership methods, Putin has been an immensely popular leader. One could easily see the same type of “measure of relief” among the Russian people when he turned away from what the West considered “more democratic” policies of the Yeltsin period back to centralized, hierarchical authoritarianism thereby decreasing the level of uncertainty so uncomfortable to a people used to be ruled by the iron fist for decades, if not centuries. One Russian daily observed recently that there was communism and democracy, and then, there was a third way – the Putin way: extreme right wing nationalism (my addition). It is both surprising and understandable that the people of Russia should be so enamoured with their leader. Russia is, after all, the birth place of various reactionary, revolutionary and terrorist forces, coupled with an uncanny dose of affinity toward religious mysticism – a powerful cocktail indeed!

In summary, a study of strategic inflection points is comparable to a study on the dynamics of power. Viewed from an international relations perspective, balance of power theory seems more applicable to the Cold War era while the emergence of regional power challengers to the international status quo is better viewed through the prism of transition power theory. While on the losing side of the power coefficient less than ten years ago, Russia is rapidly regaining influence in the geopolitical sphere through strong but not necessarily sustainable leadership and foreign policies. National identity and energy security will be the two defining factors that decide if Russia is to coast through its current strategic inflection period as a winner or become a marginalized loser in the international power reshuffle.


Can structured methodology reduce intelligence failure?

If there is one single common “concept” that occupies the minds of all four authors, Jervis, Betts, Marrin and Clemente, this “concept” would be uncertainty. All four authors present their views on uncertainty applied to intelligence analysis, with varying degrees of optimism, pessimism and fatalism. It seems that uncertainty has become quite a fashionable concept, and is currently used profusely in a variety of disciplines from complexity to intelligence to military strategy to corporate management to the social sciences.

The temporal aspect of this fascination with uncertainty has striked me as rather exaggerated in that it is hardly specific to modernity. The examples from history from the 19th c. Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (I take this as an arbitrary starting point; any other one would do as well) to as far back as the Delphic oracle are pertinent illustrations of mankind’s preoccupation with uncertainty and the desire to eliminate the latter, be it by military force or strategy (>Gr. Strategos, ‘general’) or by means of spiritual evocation of an intermediary oracle to interpret – call it what you will – God’s, fate’s, Chance’s “intentions”.

The negative aspects that all four authors attribute to uncertainty and particularly Betts’ fatalistic approach, are precisely a result of our modern obsession with certainty, security and risk elimination. In my view, uncertainty is not only not an obstacle but the very heart of opportunity, which in turn is more a source of optimism than of pessimism. The statement “failure is inevitable” (substitute failure with success or any other noun) sounds little more than a false truism. It is reminiscent of the type of Parmedian philosophy which asserts that all is one and change is impossible. I would go as far as to argue that this type of reasoning is a product of conscious and/or subconscious Christian rhetoric of the type that burns scientists and philosophers at the stake.

Being better at ease in Herakletian water, I would argue that nothing is inevitable because everything is in a flux. This flux, which is often ambiguous, uncertain, now visible, now not, sometimes linear, more often not, is precisely the strategic place of opportunity, the forking of the path, and the place where the potential for great leadership can emerge. To go back to Clausewitz, it is precisely in times of great uncertainty that great leaders are born, he argued.

All that said, there are a number of points that Betts raises, with which I concur. First of all, the idea that intelligence reform, whether procedural or product-oriented is based on trade offs, seems to me a logical observation in a world view that is based on polarities. What’s more important (Betts makes a mere mention of this but Marrin takes the argument a few steps further) is how, or rather where, such trade offs can be optimally utilized when the binary system of polarities assumes a more complex and amorphous form through the injection of sub-polar categories, i.e. when we are presented with additional “circumstantial evidence” that dilutes the black and white picture.

This place and agent of change is, I believe, correctly identified by all four authors as the margin, or the periphery. It is particularly fitting to think of strategy in spatial, not only temporal terms. The periphery, not the center, is often the space of pragmatic change. The center of gravity, to use a military term, represents not only the strength of a system but also its vulnerability. Again, history is rich with precedents of the shifting dynamics between the center and the periphery. Bolko von Oetinger, a strategist for Boston Consulting, argues in “Constructing Strategic Spaces”(Nov 2006) that “Strategy requires regular visits to the periphery in order to explore and learn” precisely because the center does not always remain the center and because “outsiders on the periphery are happy to traverse the distance to the center and conquer it.” He provides a fitting example of a center-periphery dynamic, with consequences the center could not have anticipated at the time. He takes 31 October 1517 as a temporal indicator of radical spatial change and asks (rhetorically): could Pope Leo X in Rome have anticipated that the 95 Theses Marthin Luther nailed to a church door in Wittenberg (the periphery’s ends by Roman standards) on that day would eventually result in Rome’s loosing its privileged position as the center of Christianity?

Going back to Betts article, I found his descriptions of patterned behavior in the face of strategic surprise well thought of and instructional to an intelligence analysis student. I agree with his evaluation of the difficulties and ultimate small benefit of applying worst-case scenario methods as particularly ineffective in terms of operations. Further, if multiple advocacy increases rather than decreases ambiguity and uncertainty, I would argue that this method should only be used in cases where decision-making and good leadership go hand-in-hand, i.e. when political leadership is synonymous with intellectual rigor, courage, and a dose of entrepreneurship.

The Devil’s Advocacy method is to me an intellectual exercise, which should be limited to academia. While guilty of the pleasure of playing this game myself, I believe it does little else than encourage mistrust among the “wrong people” (decision-makers) at the “wrong time” (time for decisive action rather than intellectual speculation).

Jervis identifies more or less the same intelligence failure causes – uncertainty, ambiguity and deception – and offers valuable practical examples for improvement of the intelligence processes and products. One thing that struck me as rather unique in his paper was his emphasis on human resources. In my professional function as chief knowledge officer, I’m confronted with similar HR issues that shape the internal environment. Particularly worthy of note were the sections on multidisciplinary training and the vertical-horizontal organizational structures, and how the former inhibits quality analysis/performance at the expense of organizational politics.

With regard to Perrow’s “error-inducing system”, which Jervis chooses to support through what he calls “informal norms and incentives of the intelligence community”, my response is the same as with Betts’ argument. Providing alternative competing hypotheses should be done with caution, depending on the customer. Further, the idea that intelligence analysis should borrow academic method of testing hypotheses by drawing predictions, is theoretically sound, and perhaps even applicable to long-term strategic analysis (or, on a second thought, maybe not as the more distant the future, the harder to make accurate predictions, except in Black Swan cases, where prediction becomes irrelevant), but has the operational trade offs of time and money. Therefore, I don’t think that any analytic method on its own can improve the analytic product. As Jervis argues himself, interlocking and supporting factors must reflect the requirements imposed by appropriate style: length of the analysis according to the consumer’s requirements, peer review processes among the analysts, and a horizontal hierarchical structure, to name but a few.

Another point that struck me as particularly apt was Marrin’s observation that: “The CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence – the home of analysts – appears to operate according to a culture that rewards service to policy makers but does little to distinguish between information and conceptual products.” Jervis expresses a similar opinion when he criticizes analysts for producing political reporting rather than political analysis. My personal opinion here is that this shortcoming is due to a certain type of an educational system that promotes knowledge over learning; the statement format over the question format. If I’m correcting in thinking so, it would take a long time to overhaul the fundamental principles that form our didactic processes. Another explanation could be a cognitive one, i.e. it takes less mental effort to produce a statement than to come up with a question. And, finally, it could be psychological: reporting facts is largely an anonymous activity that more people would be comfortable with than making a prediction or asking a question, which is an expression of individualism, and by extension more open to criticism.

In this light, I read the final Marrin and Clemente article with great enthusiasm because the medical analogy is a comparative method I’ve spent some time musing over myself in its application to religion, philosophy, writing, and memory. My only concern with this method is that it would attract a certain breed of human, be it an academic dilettante  or professional, whose passion for comparative analysis (of any type), would be the emphasis of theory over practice. And while I think a certain amount of theory can be beneficial to intelligence, its main purpose is and should remain actionable.

The analogy provided by Marrin and Clemente between the process of arriving at a medical diagnosis by medical professionals and articulating an intelligence analysis assessment by intelligence professionals provides an alternative way of looking at the discipline of intelligence analysis, and it is for the most part, useful.

First, the authors identify parallels between the two disciplines. In terms of collection practices, they draw attention to the similarities of employed techniques to gather information upon which different hypotheses can be identified. They compare the medical history questionnaire a doctor first compiles in the diagnostic process to what can be roughly summarized as a situation assessment in intelligence, i.e. any known historical precedents or patterns of events and relationships between actors.

Second, the “review of systems”, i.e. the assessment of specific organs, can be viewed as similar to the individual steps in a country profile assessment, including foreign policy, domestic policy, politicians and political leadership, diplomatic relations, cultural, socio-economic relations, etc. Marrin and Clemente claim that the stage involving the physical examination itself is least conducive to analogy, except in the form of overseas visits aiming at gathering first-hand knowledge of the area, or alternatively, cables from government representatives stationed in the given area.

Finally, additional information provided by various technological systems, such as MRI and IMINT respectively, further reinforces the analogy.

What was interesting to note was the observation that “90% of all diagnoses are made by clinical history alone, 9% by the physical exam, and 1% by laboratory tests and imaging studies such as CT and MRI scans.” (p.710) This finding has interesting implications for at least two reasons. First, if we extend this analogy to the intelligence field, it would seem that in the science vs.intuition debate, intuition is the clear winner in practice. Secondly, the finding poses a serious concern regarding collection requirements, needs and spending. If a situation assessment will be the core component of the final intelligence product, and most of the data can be obtained by open sources, this would necessarily minimize requirements and costs. Further, as Marrin and Clemente observe, the human element, i.e. the experience and the developed intuitive capabilities of a professional from either field, will be indispensable in interpreting the raw data gathered from MRIs, IMINT, SIGINT, and other technical subfields.

In the analytical process, there seems to be a strong argument in favor of comparing how a medical doctor arrives at a diagnosis by examining alternative hypotheses and the way an intelligence analyst might employ Heuer’s method of analysis of competing hypotheses (ACH) .

Parallels also exist in the examination of causes of inaccurate diagnosis vs. intelligence failure: inevitable limitations in the collection and analysis; cognitive limitations of the practitioner/analyst, such as biases, stereotypes, etc; and failure in the application and implementation of scientific methods.

Marrin and Clemente also identify limitations to the proposed analogy between medicin and intelligence. Three key differences are worth acknowledging here. First, medicine has an advantage as a scientific discipline over intelligence in the sheer length in existence of the field, which offers medical practitioners a much wider empirical and theoretical knowledge base. Second, the difference in degrees of denial and deception are also noteworthy of the medical field’s advantage in that, only rarely, do patients conceal or deliberately manipulate their ailing symptoms, whereas in the intelligence field, denial and deception is standard practice. Finally, the doctor-patient relationship does not sustain a parallel to the intelligence analyst-decision/policymaker relationship in that “National security decisionmakers, however, do not make decisions only after receiving finished intelligence analysis (i.e. what a doctor would do prior to initiating treatment), in many cases they are their own analysts, and they have entirely separate sources of information.” (p.722)

The lack of trust between intelligence professionals and decision/policymakers, and the inadequate feedback mechanisms are a well known problem, which makes the doctor-patient relationship closer to a symbiotic one while leaving the latter incomplete at best, parasitic at worst, or even self-destructive.

A Business Metaphor in the Context of National Security

Applying a business metaphor to intelligence processes in the national security context is not only valid, but I would like to argue, also desirable. In reading Allen’s take on the business analogy, it seems that he is rather averse to this proposition. His first contra argument is that, unlike business, the government cannot be responsive to market forces. I disagree. What the market is to business, international relations is to government. Are we to believe that government should not pay attention to and respond accordingly to developments in the international arena?

Secondly, our environment is becoming more rather than less networked through globalization. Where once particular domains were immune to changes outside their immediate environment, and cause-effect analysis had a more linear dimension, the complexity and interconnectedness of elements cutting across disciplines and once clearly defined domains, calls for non-linear cause-effect analysis. If government is not responsive to market forces (which I don’t believe is the case in reality), then it most certainly should be.

Further, Allen goes on to say that since government functions are assigned by statute, should a certain direction/policy/requirement become “unprofitable”, unlike business, it cannot choose to simply abandon it. This may be true due to the bureaucracy inherent in government institutions. However, it is precisely this inflexibility and slow reaction to change that the government should address through reform, and use examples from business as guidance.

Finally, functions are assigned to government, Allen argues, because they have a higher, public welfare purpose that is not economic. Get off your high horses, Mr Allen! Why should economic purposes be necessarily painted in such a negative light?! Economic growth and prosperity through healthy competitive business, not only contributes to the “higher, public welfare”, but also helps bring stability and opportunities for many conflict resolutions by means of soft power rather than the not so noble practices of coercion and military intervention.

There is one area that Allen briefly discusses, where the business metaphor is not likely to be applicable, and that is information/intelligence sharing among the agencies. But even here we need to make a distinction between business vs. competitive intelligence and homeland security agency cooperation vs. agency cooperation in an international context.

By definition, business intelligence is an inward-looking process. It pertains to knowledge derived from analyzing an organization’s information and internal processes to help make better business decisions. Essentially, it falls under the knowledge management domain. Progress has been made here to facilitate internal information/knowledge/intelligence sharing both in the private and public sectors. Various knowledge management practices and technological tools have proliferated in the past decade to facilitate this process.

This is less the case with competitive intelligence and international inter-agency collaboration for obvious reasons. Even when an outsider is perceived to have friendly intentions, he is still an outsider; tables can turn quickly; and trust is always on a tighter leash. For clarification, I refer to competitive intelligence as gathering and analyzing information about your competitor’s activities (and general business trends) to further your own company’s goals.

However, despite intrinsic differences, both business and national security intelligence share the same objectives:

• Avoid surprises
• Identify threats and opportunities
• Gain a competitive advantage by decreasing reaction time
• Improve long and short term planning

With the above in mind, I think the utility of the business metaphor to the national security context is indispensable. What is more, both domains use more or less identical techniques in the way they go about their business. This brings me to the second part of the question: the role of early warning in business and national security.

In business, early warning intelligence provides executives and senior management with timely, valuable information about market and competitors that enables them to make strategic and tactical decisions more quickly. (definition from Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals)

In the national security context, early warning intelligence is supposed to provide anticipatory assessment of future problems to avoid strategic surprise. As in the business field, the recipients of this information are senior leaders and decision-makers, who are then expected to provide a course of action to address the threat.

It could be argued that one fundamental weakness of early warning systems is that they are better able to provide strategic rather than tactical intelligence. For example, strategic early warning was ample in the case of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. expected a Japanese attack well in advance, but early warning was unable to predict that this attack will happen on U.S. territory. Indicators pointed toward Southeast Asia. In the case of early warning prior to 11 September 2001, again, strategic assessments had correctly predicted bin Laden’s intentions to carry out a terrorist attack against the U.S., but were unable to pinpoint time and location.
In the business context, despite various whistle-blowers’ early warning indications, five weeks prior to Enron declaring the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, the company’s debt was still rated as investment grade by leading rating agencies. In the case of Grove’s company, Intel, early warning was there, but no one considered it significant enough to allocate time and attention to it before it was too late. After running a probability test to analyze potential effects of the “minor” design error on the chip that was to cost them USD 475 million and eventually result in the complete business re-engineering of the company, Intel’s management underestimated the non-linear consequences of this small probability – high impact event. The failure, as Grove correctly observed, was not technological; it was social. And the forces that prompted the reverberating reaction across the company and the computer industry as whole, were likewise prompted by social dynamics rather than technical design.

This brings me to the next problem, which I think is inherent in early warning, namely, the relationship between the warning analyst and his senior decision-maker in the national security context and the whistle-blower and his senior manager in business.

According to John Kriendler, who writes on NATO Intelligence Warning Systems (NIWS), “no matter how well-structured an early warning system, its success depends, above all, on the judgment and vision of political authorities. Ultimately, the political will to act individually and collectively, and, if necessary, to intervene is more important than any early warning tool.”

From the above, it can be deduced that for early warning to be effective, two elements must be in positive complementation to each other: the development of critical indicators, where analysis is based on a qualitative not quantitative approach and ensuring that “the nature and level of warning that is being provided is understood; feedback is essential.” (ibid.)

Why is leadership so important to the early warning process? As Grove says: “Most analyses of competitive well-being of business are static ones. They describe the relevant forces at any instant in time and help explain how they add up to favorable or unfavorable business positions. But they are of little help when a major change is taking place in the balance of these forces.” (p.27)

Just like peace time and war time require a different type of leadership and a different set of skills to manage either, so in business, a leader who has grown accustomed to a gradual and systematic performance, leading to few unpredictable results, will most likely be unable to react with the agility a surprise transition requires. It is at such times that “intuition” has higher value than structured scientific methodology: “Even those who believe in a scientific approach to management will have to rely on instinct and personal judgment.” (Grove, p.35)
Early warning intelligence is not suited to a 9-5 government routine, bureaucratic processes and quantitative reports. Rather, it resembles the R&D department of a company. Of all other forms of intelligence, it should be the one granted the most freedom in the way it fulfills its function, and the recruitment strategy should aim at finding individuals with highly developed visionary and critical thinking skills.

New Advanced Analytical Techniques Course – opportunity for collaboration

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I’ve just started the last course of the Mercyhurst Applied Intelligence Analysis Program, which deals with the application of various structured methodologies to the analysis process. I’ve had to select a particular technique to work for in the following 2 months in relations to a topic that is of national security concern.

My chosen technique is situation assessment, and I’m working together in a team of 5 on various issues pertaining to Russia. And here is my topic:

Russia’s recent election has confirmed Dmitry Medvedev as Vladimir Putin’s heir. Western leaders are speculating as to the course and conduct of Russian foreign policy under the new leader. Medvedev has publicly stated that he will continue to assert Russia’s renewed strength on the international arena. But as events in Kosovo have shown, Russian foreign policy continues to be shaped by forces beyond its control.

Provide a current assessment of Russian foreign policy towards the Balkans in light of Dmitry Medvedev’s accession to the Russian presidency.

In the course of the next weeks, I’ll be posting thoughts and findings on this topic and some more theoretical things related to the methodology. If you are visiting my blog and have any information that you think is pertinent and you would like to share, I will be grateful and certain to acknowledge your contribution (if you wish so, of course).


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This is my planned outline so far, but it is subject to change upon my instructor’s input:

The purpose of a situation assessment is to gather context specific information and evidence to inform the decision-maker. As a methodology, it resembles an analysis of the external environment in a business context. In political science, it is more frequently referred to as a case study. A case study typically focus around a singular theses. The situation assessment outlines the process of gathering and analyzing the information needed to make an explicit evaluation of the thesis (i.e. Russian FP) in its “environment” (i.e. Russia’s role in the international/regional arena).


1. Historical background of Russia’s FP toward the Balkans

This doesn’t appear to be a part of a situation assessment according to the sources I was able to find, but I think it will add value to this particular thesis, so I’m rather keen to include it. One of my reasons for doing so will be to explain later on in the analysis why the Christian Orthodox card Russia’s been flashing toward the West should not be taken at face value.

2. Collect and evaluate internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions about Russia’s FP to the Balkans

This part of the analysis will focus on Russia’s bilateral relations with the different Balkan countries, as well as the EU and the U.S. I intend to use the SWOT technique to collect this type of information, as it will bring focus to the analysis by breaking it down into four broad categories:

S – strengths of Russia’s FP toward the Balkans

W – weaknesses of Russia’s FP toward the Balkans

O – external opportunities that might move the Russian agenda forward

T – threats that might hold Russia’s ambitions back

3. Evaluate the impact of specific events on actors

Here, I’d like to discuss Russia’s position on the independence of Kosovo. Why was this position taken and did it achieve its planned results? If not, will Medvedev abandon this course of “action” or continue along the same lines?


4. Define previous implied foreign policy strategies

Here I would like to examine Putin’s legacy and a few different scenarios for change under Medvedev. Given the unique Putin-Medvedev relationship, I will attempt to ascertain the extent of influence the two actors will have on shaping future Russian FP based on a political personality assessment.


Kosovo – one month old

kosovo.jpg The first month of independence has mostly gone well, but violence in Mitrovica yesterday shows that the opponents of independence can still threaten the new state and that there is a risk that Serbian-inspired partition will harden and Kosovo become a frozen conflict.

This, and more in International Crisis Group briefing  from Pristina.

Also of interest on this topic:

1. ISN Security Watch reporter from Sarajevo predicts more violence in Kosovo: worst still to come

2. ISN alumni and DCAF fellow examines the international reaction to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in Kosovo’s Controversial Independence

See also a local site that maintains a current list of countries who have recognized Kosovo, and those pending to do so.

In Defense of Open Source Intelligence

While intelligence academic courses and free range journalists are busy educating students and informing the general public of the benefits of open source intelligence, few intel agencies are ready to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

This article, for example, from the exposes the unwillingness of the Australian intelligence community to give up its fixation on secrecy and start employing open source methods to both its collection and analytical divisions. The author pays homage to U.S.’ pioneering spirit in this regard and laments Australia’s lagging behind.

The article states that according to a former senior defense intelligence officer, up to 95% of intelligence sought by governments was available from open sources, but Australian agencies focused on information obtained secretly.

Apparently the Aussie obsession with secrecy goes as far as barring intel officers from using the internet for security reasons, which in 2008 is not only ridiculous but outright irresponsible.

In my last class we had a rather extensive discussion on the type of biases we should be careful to avoid when producing an intelligence product, and obsession with secrecy was…surprise surprise…high up on the list.  (see full list below)

This is not to say that Australia alone should be criticized for making advances toward intelligence reform with the speed of glacials melting (perhaps no longer an apropriate analogy). Risk-aversed Europeans are also tagging along, obdurate to common sense appeals by various individuals and NGOs promoting the use of open source intelligence, not as a substitute to secrecy, but as an efficient and far more economical complement.

My two cents on this: (and I can’t speak about Australia as I’m not familiar with the situation there) the time wasted brooding over “disasterous” American foreign policies and various expressions of anti-Americanism, would be better employed in recognizing the U.S.’ leading initiative in the field of open source intelligence and adopting and promoting the use of open source on local ground.

 List of Biases and Misconceptions

1. Best-case analysis – optimistic assessment

2. Conservatism in probability – tendency to avoid estimating extremely high or low probabilities

3. Defensive avoidance – refusal to perceive and understand extremely threatening stimuli

4. Denial of reliability  – attribution of irrationality to others who are perceived to act outside the bounds of one’s own standards of behavior or decision-making (Opposite of rational-actor hypothesis, can result from ignorance, mirror-imaging, parochialism, or ethnocentrism)

5. Ethnocentrism – projection of one’s culture, ideological beliefs, doctrine, or expectations of others; exaggeration of the casual significance of one’s own actions

6. Evoked set reasoning – information and concerns, which dominate one’s thinking based on experience

7. Excessive secrecy (Compartmental-ization) – over-narrow reliance on selected evidence, based on concern for operational security; narrows consideration of alternative views.  Can result from or cause organizational parochialism
8. Ignorance

9. Image and self-Image – perception of what has been, is, or should be (image as subset of belief system)

10. Inappropriate analogies – bias of “representativeness” or the perception that an event is analogous to past events based on inadequate consideration of concepts or facts, or relevant criteria

11. Lack of empathy – underdeveloped capacity to understand others’ perception of their world, their conception of their role in the world and their definition of their interests

12. Mirror-imaging – perceiving others as on perceives oneself

13. Organizational parochialism – selective focus or rigid adherence to prior judgments based on organizational norms or loyalties

14. Over confidence in subjective estimates – Optimism bias in assessment

15. Presumption of unitary action by organizations – perception that behavior of others is more planned, centralized, and coordinated than it really is. Dismisses accident and chaos; ignores misperceptions of others

16. Presumption that support of one hypothesis disconfirms others – rapid closure in the consideration of an issue is a problem

17. Prematurely formed views – premature closure in the consideration of a problem

18. Proportionality bias – expectation that the adversary will expand efforts proportionate to the ends he seeks

19. Rational-actor hypothesis – assumption that others will act in “rational” manner based on one’s own rational reference

 20. Superficial lessons from history – uncritical analysis of concepts, events, superficial causality, over generalization of obvious factors, inappropriate extrapolation from past success or failure

21. Wishful thinking (Pollyanna complex) – excessive optimism, hyper-credulity

22. Worst-case analysis (Cassandra complex) – pessimism and extreme caution, based on predilection (cognitive predisposition), adverse past experience, or in support of personal or organizational interests or policy preferences

23. Willful disregard of new evidence – rejection of information that conflicts with already held beliefs.

Crisis alerts for Armenia, deteriorating situation in Darfur, conflict resolution opportunity for Cyprus

The new Crisis Watch report was just released, identifying 12 actual or potential conflict situations around the world that deteriorated in February.

Among those is Armenia, where 11 days of protests after allegedly rigged presidential elections have resulted in a violent crackdown, a declared state of emergency and mobilization of the armed forces. 

Timor-Leste saw attacks on the president and prime minister, including the killing of former head of military police, who was himself instrumental in the attack on the president.

Rebel attacks on the Chad capital N’Djamena resulted in the killing of hundreds and the displacement of thousands of people while in Darfur, the Sudanese government attacked three towns and an IDP camp from both ground and air, marking the worst violence in the region in months.

Other places where the situation is reported to have deteriorated are: Cameroon, Comoros Islands, DR Congo, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Israel/Occupied Territories, Philippines, Serbia, and Somalia.

Perhaps contrary to many expectations, the situation in Kosovo is said to have improved since the declaration of independence on 17 February. Power-sharing negotiations in Kenya are giving a glimmer of hope for potential political stabilization. Pakistan’s elections proceeded relatively peacefully, with opposition parties sweeping to power. And in Cyprus, President-elect is committed to engaging in reunification talks with his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart.

Conflict risk alerts for March 2008 point toward Armenia, Comoros Islands and Kenya while Cyprus, Pakistan, Timor-Leste and Uganda are likely to see conflict resolution opportunities.