Cultural Revolution in Intelligence

The piece below is my contribution to a special report on the revolution in intelligence affairs and was originally published by the International Relations and Security Network. Particularly insightful is the editorial by Kris Wheaton and a topic piece by Ken Egli on the potential role of academia in intelligence collection and analysis.


Cultural Revolution in Intelligence: From Government to Business Enterprise

Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a document entitled Vision 2015: A Globally Networked and Integrated Intelligence Enterprise. The first part of this bold intelligence community statement begins with an evaluation of the “shifting strategic landscape,” the defining characteristic of which is said to be uncertainty:

“We live in a dynamic world in which pace, scope, and complexity of change are increasing. The continued march of globalization, the growing number of independent actors, and advancing technology have increased global connectivity, interdependence and complexity, creating greater uncertainties, systemic risk and a less predictable future.”

Uncertainty has become one of the trendier concepts over the past few years, and is currently used profusely in the jargon of a variety of disciplines from intelligence to complexity and network sciences to corporate and risk management. The intelligence community is not the trendsetter. Originally stemming from the physical and natural sciences, the emergence of the concept of uncertainty has been accompanied by the development of a homogenized lexicon to talk about “new risks” generated and driven by globalization and network growth to a point where domains previously falling outside the scope of intelligence and security have been securitized. These domains run the gamut from society and culture to demographics and health to economics and finance to innovation and technology to natural resources and the environment. Regardless the domain, we now talk about complex adaptive systems whether we are examining conceptual physical models, bio organisms, tribes and clans, financial markets, terrorist or organized crime networks, or corporate knowledge management.

The list of globalized mashed-up vocabulary is long. It would appear that whichever way we turn, we find researchers, analysts and managers trying to detect emergence patterns, spot uncertain and unstable environments, aggregate and mine various types of data, develop systemic and holistic strategies and approaches, build resilient models, integrate systems within systems, collaborate and share knowledge across domains, form strategic partnerships, build agile infrastructures, transform organizational cultures and mindsets, and win the war for talent.

So how, apart from adapting to a new vocabulary, is the intelligence community going to achieve the transformation it so vehemently advocates? How is a largely static government enterprise to turn into a dynamic business enterprise? What is actually happening in the process of transforming the culture and mindset of the intelligence community so it may accomplish its mission to create decision advantages? What kind of education is needed to kick start the transformation? Is descriptive qualitative analysis obsolete and should the intuition-led approach be substituted with formal structured methodologies?

Vision 2015 proposes that in order for the intelligence community to transform into an enterprise able to provide decision advantage to policymakers, it must transform from a government enterprise into a “globally networked and integrated intelligence enterprise.” In other words, the intelligence community must start thinking and acting like a business. How well does the business metaphor hold in the government/national security context?

Government, critics of the business analogy have argued, is not comparable to business because it cannot be responsive to market forces since it has a higher purpose: public welfare. These critics also see the competitive advantage of intelligence in the community’s ability to “steal secrets”, which further implies a stronger emphasis on collection over analysis. Such an argument epitomizes the mentality and culture that the new vision is trying to counter. It is a snapshot, a still life if you will, of the Cold War mindset as to what characterizes intelligence. This mindset envisages a centralized national customer, promotes the obsession with secrecy, places value on the finished intelligence product rather than the process of intelligence, and treats flexibility as a foreign word.

Applying a business metaphor to intelligence processes in the national security context is not only valid; it is highly desirable. What the market is to business, international relations is to government. Are we to believe that government should not pay attention to the forces driving the developments on the international arena and respond accordingly? With globalization, where once particular domains were immune to changes outside their immediate environment, and cause-effect analysis had a more linear dimension, the interconnectedness and resulting complexity of drivers cutting across disciplines, calls for non-linear approaches both in terms of collection and analysis.

For at least two decades now it has widely been acknowledged that the so-called intelligence cycle (the process of collection, analysis and dissemination) is an idealized Platonic model that is not only obsolete in today’s environment, but also dangerous and misleading. The first step toward transforming the intelligence community from a creeping and decrepit government apparatus to a dynamic enterprise is providing whatever education necessary to curb the old mindset. Business and national security intelligence share the same strategic objectives: avoid surprises, identify threats and opportunities, gain competitive advantage by decreasing reaction time, and improve long- and short-term planning. With this in mind, the intelligence community should most certainly be responsive to market forces. It should allow for the formation and dismantlement of processes on a need basis. If a process is recognized to be “unprofitable”, it should not be allowed let to drag on for decades because government institutions have a “higher calling”!

Vision 2015 recognizes that the most difficult part of implementing the envisaged transformation is cultural change:

“The first and most significant impediment to implementation is internal and cultural: we are challenging an operating model of this vision that worked, and proponents of that model will resist change on the basis that it is unnecessary, risky, or faddish.”

Yet the real challenge of transforming the culture lies neither at the top (the Cold War veterans of the intelligence community who by the sheer force of nature are on their way out) nor at the bottom (the fresh-off-college Generation Y recruits who may have the “right” attitude and ideas but too little real world experience to know how to best apply them). The challenge lies in the lack of mid-level leadership as this is the level at which bottom-up generated ideas are filtered to form strategic direction at the top and get the buy-in from the customer. Inability to recruit and sustain competent middle management will translate into either empty rhetoric and a hodge-podge of recycled vocabulary, or in stagnation, lack of flexibility, and death by a thousand paper cuts.

If the intelligence community is serious about winning “the war for talent” (an expression around which its human capital strategy  is fixed), it should aim at developing its mid-level capabilities. “Investing in our people” is a nice enough sounding cliché. This does not mean, however, ensuring competitive compensation and providing competitive benefits because in the war for talent, there will always be someone ready to offer bigger, better, more competitive compensation packages. Adequate compensation should not be a strategic human capital goal. It should be a given. Strategically speaking, investing in people should translate into offering them the opportunity to grow their potential through continuous learning, which in turn, will increase their sense of ownership and loyalty. True, one can change a culture by throwing money at it, but the resulting culture is hardly the type that is likely to stand up to the values set in Vision 2015: commitment, courage, and collaboration.

Winning the war for talent is not a silver bullet for a successful cultural transformation. If we think of information as the currency in the world of intelligence affairs, then surely we must observe fluctuations in this currency as the external environment changes. The relative scarcity of information during the Cold War era resulted in putting a high price tag on information. Not only was there a lot less information available in contrast to today’s web- and telecommunications-networked world, but this information was collected secretly by means of human intelligence (HUMINT). Hence the culture in which the intelligence community operated was one that first, placed far greater emphasis on collection than analysis; and second, created a glamourous, cult-like image of secrecy.

The “information tsunami” as information overload is figuratively referred to, together with proliferation of telecommunication and media technology, has clearly devaluated not only information as a currency, but also its attribute – “secret”, thereby creating a shift from the emphasis on collection to that of analysis. More value is now placed on sorting out relevant information from the ubiquitous noise, which has resulted in the creation of a grey area somewhere between collection and analysis, namely synthesis. Yet synthesis is no new fad. It is an analytic process that every person in academia, from a freshmen to a graduate researcher to an established professor engages in daily. While some more progressive elements of the intelligence community have supported “outsourcing” the synthesis of open source information (the most voluminous type of information) to knowledge workers outside the community, be that academic institutions, think tanks, or in some ultra-progressive cases – crowdsourcing, such initiatives are still in the single digit count.

There is some evidence of cultural change in the intelligence community of acknowledging the value of open source intelligence (OSINT) such as the creation of an Open Source Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the ODNI sponsored Open Source conferences in 2007 and 2008, which served as an outreach activity to bring together intelligence professionals, academic institutions, think tanks, private sector intelligence providers and the media. Nevertheless, a successful cultural transformation from obsession with classified information to a wider use (not just acknowledgement) of OSINT has not been achieved.

While one of the key design principles upon which Vision 2015 rests is adaptability and the document duly declares: “The keys to adaptability are active engagement and openness to outside ideas and influences.” The implementation plan fails to mention either OSINT exploitation or openness to collaboration and contribution by non-community members, such as think tanks and academia, where a large volume of vetted OSINT resides. Failure to take actionable steps in this regard will not serve the community well in its attempts at cultural transformation. Promoting ideas without an actionable plan is like taking one step forward and two steps back; worse – it creates a “cry-wolf” image.

All that said, it should be acknowledged that the United States is a pioneer in promoting the use of OSINT among intelligence professionals. The OSINT discussion at  the EU-level is lagging behind. As for countries with alternative understanding of democracy, transparency and accountability, such a discussion is not only non-existent, but very likely sends ripples of cynical laughter in the midst of planning the next black PR campaign.

Another due acknowledgement in this discussion should be the fact that cultural transformation rarely occurs with a swipe of a blade, but undergoes various phases over a period of time. Following a re-evaluation of the definition of intelligence in the post-Cold War environment, the type of human capital the community wants to attract and retain and a makeover of inward and outward-looking operation models, is a re-evaluation of what constitutes quality intelligence products and the development of quality benchmarks. In this respect, Vision 2015 provides a bullet point under the section of adaptability actions, which reads as follows:

• Build the organic capability to conduct exercises and modeling and simulations throughout our processes (e.g., analytics, collection, mission management, etc.) to innovate and test new concepts and technologies.

For the reader unfamiliar with the intelligence community’s internal debates, the above provision might sound somewhat surprising. What? Doesn’t the community already have such capabilities? Aren’t collection and analysis done according to structured methodologies? Stephen Marrin, a CIA analyst from 1996 to 2000, reveals a different picture. In an article for the American Intelligence Journal (Summer 2007), he clearly outlines what is known in the community as the “intuition vs. structured methods” debate:

“Even though there are over 200 analytic methods that intelligence analysts could choose from, the intelligence analysis process frequently involves intuition rather than structured methods. As someone who worked at the CIA from 1996 to 2000, I possess firsthand knowledge of the kind of analytic approaches used at the time. While I was there, the reigning analytic paradigm was based on generalized intuition; an analyst would read a lot, come up with some analytic judgment, and send that judgment up the line without much focus on either the process involved in coming to that judgment, or making that process transparent to others. No one I knew – except for maybe the economic analysts – used any form of structured analytic process that was transparent to others. No quantitative methods; no special software; no analysis of competing hypotheses; not even link charts.”

For the sake of clarity, it should be said that “intuition” is meant here not in the sense of some extrasensory paranormal activity. It simply refers to arriving at a judgment by means of extensive experience that cannot be clearly demonstrated. Another word commonly used to describe this process is heuristics, or a rule of thumb. The preference of old school intelligence analysts for using intuition rather than structured methodologies stems from the historical Cold War mindset that was described above, and the reasons for its perpetuation are to be found in…human nature.

During the Cold War, the intelligence community operated in an environment characterized by opposing ideologies, the bulk of analysis constituted political analysis: political situation assessments, profiling of political leaders, etc. To attempt to quantify such analysis would rightly be considered pseudo-science. Qualitative analysis, which is often based on intuition (that is opinion vs. fact) is suitable to such an environment and to the problems it is tasked to analyze. However, with the securitization of domains previously not on the agenda of national security professionals such as energy security, environmental issues, proliferation of networked non-state actors, qualitative analysis falls short in its ability to provide the type of rigorous analysis the new vision outlines. Perhaps even more importantly, in the aftermath of 11 September, analysis based on non-structured methodologies evades both the transparency of how the analytic judgment was formed and the ensuing accountability.

Significantly, a number of academic intelligence programs have sprung up during the past decade offering advanced education in the field of Intelligence Studies. It is interesting to note that most of the advanced degrees they offer are Master of Arts degrees rather than Master of Science degrees. This indicates that the debate whether intelligence is an art or a science persists. A cultural change will not follow until people in the community stop thinking along black and white lines. Intelligence is both an art and a science. Resistance to implement structured methodologies stems from habit, from “this is not the way we do things around here” mentality, from the numerical illiteracy inherent in the Humanities and many Social Sciences, and a “if it were so great, why do you have to always prove it to me” attitude. Countering such deeply ingrained habits will take time and there are no quick fixes to this problem other than investing in people’s learning on the job. The intelligence community’s return on investment will be nothing short of realizing its lofty vision.

How Literature Can Enhance Intelligence Analysis

Some months ago while watching a televised performance of the Scottish play, it occurred to me that dramaturgy would be an interesting potential to explore in relation to alternative intelligence analysis. Here was a staging of a whole host of issues that the intelligence analyst is confronted with on the job: early warning, denial and deception, human leadership profiling, and assassination to name but a few. From the very first scene of the three witches providing “early warning” and nature foreshadowing the impeding gloom and doom of the story to the self-reflections of a king (and queen) losing the power of their title to the subtle change in patterns of light vs. dark in all their metaphorical expressions, the play is full of lessons and analogies that the intelligence analyst could use as a prompt to boost his/her critical thinking skills.

What a pleasant surprise then, to discover last week a paper by Jeffrey White, “Shakespeare for Analysts: Literature and Intelligence”, published by the Joint Military Intelligence College. In this paper White makes a powerful argument for the value of reading literature both in terms of teaching new analysts ways to expand their imagination in order to be able to better discover patterns and make sound interpretations and also aiding seasoned analysts gain more multifaceted perspectives on human behavior in complex situations.

In Shakespeare’s historical and tragic plays, White finds a wealth of resources pertaining to human behavior that he claims is of enduring interest to intelligence analysis: conspiracy, treason, assassination, moral corruption, poisoning, civil war, inner-circle behavior, political relationships, the effects of asymmetry in culture, power, and personality, succession, rivalry and faction, loyalty, political violence, the analysis of motives, and the handling of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The paper is not only an intellectual reading exercise; it also provides concrete sets of questions that the author has developed through his reading of Shakespeare to aid the analyst frame the issue he/she is tasked to analyze.

Here is a crunched exerpt:

Questions to examine when looking at a leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry V

  • How did he prepare for his future role?
    How did he exercise leadership?
    Was he self-aware in doing this?
    How did others – allies, enemies and subordinates – see him?
    What was his response to the possibility of failure and defeat?
    How did he manage the uncertainty he faced?
    How did he weigh the responsibility that he had to carry?

Questions to examine when looking at a weak leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry II

  • What are the dimensions of leadership failure?
    What is it like to lose power?
    What is it like to believe yourself to be in charge, but to actually be failing?
    What is it like to see yourself as a failure, and know it’s your fault?
    What is it like to see your opponent win?
    How do your supporters see you as you lose?
    What is it like to usurp a crown?
    Is success ever final?

Questions to examine the pure exercise of force
Source: Shakespeare’s Richard III

  • What is it like to covet the throne?
    What is it like to be willing to do anything to win it?
    Can one enjoy oneself in the gaining of it?
    Can a person be evil and still have admirable qualities?
    What are the limits on the exercise of power and the use of force?
    What are the implications of evil at the pinnacle of leadership?

Questions to examine civil war
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy

  • What are the key dynamics of a civil war?
    How does violence expand?
    How does violence become personal?
    How does the use of violence evolve as a civil war emerges?
    How is violence justified, to the self and to the group?
    What kinds of behavior and actions does it produce?
    What do the leaders see as the civil war process begins and progresses?
    What do they do in response?

Questions to examine plotting a coup
Source: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  • When is a coup justified?
    What rationalizations are employed?
    When is the right time?
    How do the plotters see one another?
    How does opposition arise?
    What are the internal dynamics?
    What is the range of behaviors among the principals?
    What are the consequences, intended and unintended?

Questions to examine family matters, the behavior of members of small groups or “inner circles” – could be particularly useful when looking at clans, tribes and some organized crime groups
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Is “family” important in the politics of “tribal” or “lineal” societies?
    How do the relatives of leaders affect the political situation?
    Are family and political power inseparable in dynastic or traditional societies?
    What are the consequences of poor family political management?

Questions to examine the role of women in politics
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Can women play important political roles in traditional societies?
    What are these roles and what are their limits?
    What tools and methods do women have available?
    How do they actually exert power and influence?
    Under what circumstances can they emerge as political players in their own right?
    Do women have any special advantages?

Questions to examine loyalty and honor
Source: Shakespeare’s King John

  • Are loyalty and honor absolute or contingent?
    What is the basis for loyalty to political leaders?
    How is loyalty won and kept?
    What are the boundaries of loyalty?
    Is anyone totally loyal or completely honorable?
    Why do people break oaths or change sides in a political contest?
    What justifications do they employ?
    What are the political and military consequences of dishonorable actions?

White concludes with the sound observation that literature, and the works of Shakespeare in particular, is a good starting point for examining political psychology. It helps the analyst with pattern recognition on a basic human level that transcends cultural differences. I find this argument particularly viable and would add that, the reading of myths has a similar power to evoke patterns that are universally applicable even if the particular mythological hero is associated with specific geo-cultural characteristics. There is a difference between how an individual and a group would react to particular circumstances. Where the group reaction might help define certain cultural peculiarities, the individual reaction to a situation of fear, power coveting, revenge, loyalty, etc., in my view, follows a more general line, one not specific to culture, ethnicity and/or religion, but specific to the “human condition”.

Finally, in terms of concrete application of literature to the process of intelligence analysis, I must fully voice my support for White’s argument that reading good literature contributes to the analyst’s ability to write better – a largely undervalued and underestimated skill in intelligence analysis. In White’s words:

“As we go down the road to “digital production” and “knowledge packets”, concepts that are fundamentally antithetical to story telling and sense making, it will be increasingly important that quality writing continue to be one of the essential elements by which we measure quality analysis. As his skills as a playwright matured, Shakespeare hardly wasted a word. ”

See here Perseus resources on Shakespeare.

Late Night Thoughts on the Patriot Act: Size Matters

With George W. Bush paying his last tribute to European allies, and the potential for a strategic inflection point with the choice for a new American president, here are some thoughts for more benign supporters of the current administration (i.e. myself) on what I consider the President’s most enduring legacy of his mandate, namely The Patriot Act of 2001. It’s just my musings on intentions.

My aim here is to demonstrate how a single action can be perceived (and proven to be) both a success and a failure. First, I will outline the a priori argument, which shows the Patriot Act as an example of successful Congressional oversight. Second, I will look at the problem from an a posteriori approach, and try to show how and why the Patriot Act can also be perceived as a failure of Congressional intelligence oversight.

An a priori approach emphasizes the honorable intentions that prompted an action in the first place. An a priori argument is the notion that bad things are sometimes the right thing to do, not because the end is good, but because the motive is good. This argument falls in the domain of ontological ethics developed by the philosopher Emanuel Kant. In analyzing ulterior motives, Kant points out that something could look good, and really be bad, and vice versa. He argues that only if an action springs from a desire to do good with no expectation of reward or benefit, is the action truly good, and goes on to discuss under what conditions will people do good without ulterior motives and/or expectations. The answer is “duty”. Leo Strauss has summarized Kant’s doctrine succinctly: “The moral worth of an action proceeds from the goodness of the will by which that action is animated, which in turn means the purity of that will – the goodness of the will in its abstraction from every empirical end. Purity of will implies purification of the will of all substantive intention, the animation of the will only by its self-respect, its respect for the formal principle of will in general, in other words respect for law as such. Duty itself means the necessity of performing an action out of respect for law.”

When the Patriot Act was signed into law in 2001, it met with almost unanimous support from all directions of the political spectrum. It was seen as “the right thing to do”, as the nation’s “duty” to protect the ultimate raison d’etre of a democratic state – the rule of law (or in Kantian terms, Rechtstaat). Congress approved the Patriot Act in order to try to better deal with the new challenges emerging in the geopolitical arena: the rise of non-state, transnational and asymmetric threats, most notably exemplified by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While terrorism is not a new phenomenon, 21st century transnational terrorism poses an unprecedented challenge. It challenges the institutional and legal foundation of intelligence by combining features of both internal and external threats because it operates both inside and outside boundaries. The Patriot Act was successful in identifying this new challenge and saw to it that former strict divisions between external and internal intelligence, i.e. between the CIA and the FBI, erected in the aftermath of Watergate in the 1970s, were less strictly enforced. It allowed for freer and better information exchange and collaboration between the different intelligence agencies, including the FBI. Further, it allowed non-citizen terrorist suspects to be detained for up to 7 days without a hearing, and in some cases where an individual was certified to be a threat, it allowed that the individual could be held indefinitely. Moreover, non-citizens, who were found to have raised funds for terrorist activities could be deported. The FBI was granted greater freedom in accessing electronic communications. The Treasury was authorized to order banks to reveal sources of suspicious accounts and sanction uncooperative institutions.

Having looked at the Patriot Act from an a priori point of view, which shows that Congressional oversight was, for all intents and purposes – doing one’s duty in the name of national security – good in its inceptions, I would like now to turn to an a posteriori approach and show the results, and to a large extent unintended consequences, of the passing of the Patriot Act. It could be argued that the Patriot Act has, in a number of ways, infringed upon the notion of good governance as understood in a democratic society.

An a posteriori argument is a classic example of Aristotelean teleological ethics, according to which the end justifies the means. In other words, sometimes bad things need to happen because the consequences are good. Timing plays a major role in teleological ethics, with a focus on short-term consequences sometimes taking precedence over long-term. If we want to speak of the Patriot Act as a failure of Congressional intelligence oversight, it is precisely the failure of focusing on the short-term rather than the long-term consequences. Thus, while the Patriot Act enabled greater access to information and inter-agency cooperablity, it did so at the expense of departing from constitutional norms and civil rights and liberties which characterize democracy, with dire consequences for the U.S.’ public image both on the national level and abroad.

An a priori approach is one essentially based on retribution, eye for an eye, and is incompatible with the rule of law. It postulates that people who lie, deceive, or otherwise treat other people as a means to an end, deserve to be treated in exactly the same way. Since the war on terrorism is not a traditional military one, but rather politico-ideological and psychological, the aim of terrorist groups to destroy Western values, namely, to erode and destroy democratic institutions and governance, the Patriot Act has done little to reinforce democratic values. Instead, it has focused on revenge and the application of tactics which may have sufficed to deal with Cold War threats, but have clearly come short in addressing 21st century challenges and threats. Blurring the division between external and internal intelligence, while honorable in intent, has produced a number of unintended bad consequences for civil rights: uninformed surveillance of individuals, not always justified infringements on the “rights” of immigrants, asylum seekers an ethnic and religious groups, limiting or altogether eroding the rule of law that everyone should be treated equally before the law.

In conclusion, since it is mainly the internal intelligence activities that have come under attack in light of the civil rights infringement debate, Congress would do well to focus on those provisions of the Patriot Act which deal with foreign intelligence, allowing greater freedom of action, while enforcing stricter control, supervision and oversight internally. It should be careful to avoid extreme positions which leave little room for flexibility and adaptability. The rigidity of categorical imperatives are simply ill-suited to deal with the threat of transnational terrorism. Whatever approach Congress decides to adopt in the future, it should leave enough space for manoeuvring as the external and internal environments change. It should also develop the capability to respond as close to real-time as possible as an inability to do so will undermine even the most successful policy or approach. I came across a blog entry recently, entitled “Is your watchdog a lapdog or an attack dog?” Humor aside, let us not fool ourselves: neither a Bolognese nor a Rottweiler make for good watchdogs; size matters, but so does personality. Personally, I would feel safer with a German Shepherd.

Wiki source on web applications for presentations and digital stories

Cogdogroo is an excellent wiki compilation of web applications that can add pizazz to a dull text presentation or digital reports and stories.

Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Here is the final version of my part of the project on Russia. I hope to be able to publish here the team’s final report, which includes an analysis of competing hypotheses on Russian Reorganization of the Civilian Nuclear Energy Sector, a cost benefit analysis of Russia – Ukraine energy security relations, and a social network analysis of Dmitry Medvedev’s Leadership Network. However, I’m waiting for the permission of the other team members and the instructor to do so.

A brief evaluation of the effectiveness of the technique in relation to the topic

Using situation assessment to analyze Russia’s foreign policy toward the Balkans has as both its principal advantage and disadvantage the flexibility and resulting breadth of scope it offers. On the positive side, this flexibility functions to fill deficiencies in more formalized methodologies, where restriction of sub-methods and limitations of scope can result in an exaggerated focus on the particular details, failing to detect an over-arching pattern or structure. On the negative side, the potentially limitless options this method offers to the analyst can result in either oversimplification through generalization, or a lack of focus altogether. One way to avoid losing the string would be to commission situation assessments not of individual analysts but of an inter-disciplinary team. I believe this would only add to the potential multi-faceted direction this method is open to, while at the same time, keep the more wild fancies on a leash of peer review.

The elements I chose to include in this situation assessment, which in retrospect were best suited to the topic were the various IR theories on power and regionalism. In this spirit, I would advocate the use of open source analyses by various think tanks, especially if the analyst is not an area specialist. The potential pitfall of arriving at politicized information could be safeguarded against by a thorough source reliability check, which would take an infinitely shorter time than self-education of the analyst on a broad theme under the duress of a deadline.

Finally, the informal, descriptive nature of a situation assessment is conducive to writing in a narrative style, which is less prone to jargon and offers the analyst the opportunity to engage and “talk” to his/her client/decision-maker as the analysis unfolds. Not only does this make the reading experience of a person tired of reading report after report with uninspiring technical and/or management, or worse, bureaucratic language, but has the potential to establish good rapport between the two sides, minimize misunderstandings hidden in vague and ambiguous language, and add a dialogue-element to the analyst’s otherwise rather lonely job.

Introduction to Situation Assessment on Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans

I’m having so much fun writing this! The final product should be ready by Wednesday. Last minute comments welcome as always.

Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Situation assessment as a methodology aims to provide the context for strategic planning, decision-making and action. As such, it is primarily a descriptive methodology that examines events in the present and looks for patterns from the past. While the ultimate purpose of a situation assessment is future-oriented in that it serves as the starting point for generating hypotheses for alternative futures, the process of gathering and analyzing information that makes up a situation assessment does little in terms of logical speculation of the data by the analyst. This, at least, is the traditional approach of this methodology whether applied in the context of national security intelligence, business/competitive intelligence, assessment of military capabilities, or academic research of international relations and political science. Although the definition of situation assessment may vary slightly across disciplines – compare, for instance, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis in business, Case Study in international relations and politics, and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in military intelligence – the main characteristic of this methodology is its focus on providing a descriptive observational design.

The present situation assessment will try to demonstrate that a descriptive analytical method need not be confined to observational variables alone, but offers the analyst opportunities to present his/her decision-maker with a highly inferential, evaluative and nuanced assessment. I will argue that situation assessment is a particularly useful methodology for looking at complex, interconnected and interdependent environments, not only because it can provide simultaneously a detailed (microscopic) and big picture (telescopic) view, but also because it opens the possibility to distinguish between perception and reality.

One of the more important advantages of situation assessment as a method is its qualitative (open) rather than quantitative (restricted) selection of the variables – I prefer to call them elements – that constitute the observation. This allows the analyst the flexibility to adapt these elements as well as juxtapose them in different ways on the surface of the analytical landscape, with the gained benefit of exploring different perspectives, and by extension, make qualitative judgments about perception and reality, much in the same way one would analyze a picture.

This situation assessment begins with an introduction to why this particular methodology was chosen by the analyst to examine the topic of inquiry, namely, Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans. The first part is a discussion of the methodology itself, what elements and why they were chosen to constitute the situation assessment. In this section I examine the aptitude of applying a situation assessment technique to the study of a country’s foreign policy. Next, I attempt to determine the viability of analyzing a country’s foreign policy through international relations and political science theories by looking at both the epistemological (positivist and post-positivist) and constructivist camps. Given the distinctly regional dimension of the research topic, I focus in particular on theories with specific application to power distribution, balance of power and power transition. Having identified ‘energy’ as one of the two distinct means toward the end in Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans, I explore applications and implications of a theoretical model developed by Buzan and Weaver, known as Regional Security Complex Theory and its extension to energy security.

I then focus on Russia’s second regional power weapon – identity politics – through a descriptive analysis of historical, cultural linguistic and religious factors, with emphasis on the particularly Russian cultural ideology of Eurasianism as the counter-balancing ideology of the Anglo-Saxon “west”. This discussion concludes my traditional approach to the examination of a country’s foreign policy in a regional aspect, and I turn to alternative analysis as a complement to the more established methods of conducting a situation assessment.

Because I treat a situation assessment as a picture, i.e. as a snapshot frozen in time, or rather, in non-time, I introduce art history analysis as a possible analogy in looking at “the picture”. I believe a comparison of a situation assessment analytical landscape to 17th century Dutch still life is particularly appropriate in shedding light both on my original technique (cf.Greek ‘techne’ – art, craft) and topic for a number of reasons.

First, the significance of Dutch development and preoccupation with optic instruments such as the microscope and telescope in the 17th century bears a resemblance to current trends of strategic thinking, most notably the emphasis on “big picture”, holistic visions of reality. This offers a basis for comparison, especially where a situation assessment is concerned because its purpose is to piece together the details, so as to offer a bird-view (God-view?) of the situation. That said, I do not believe that this is entirely possible due to sheer cognitive limitations, so in my evaluation of the technique, I will argue that holistic analysis is an idealized ambition: it can open more doors, but it will not open all doors.

Second, still life as an artistic genre is comparable to a situation assessment in that it offers a picture of reality suspended in, what would appear to be the present moment, but could well be argued that it is a representation “out of time”. And third, the role of perspective and depth on the canvas is not unlike what various foreign policy tools aim to do in shaping both external perceptions of the state by other states, and creating self-perceptions of national identity. Hence, I believe, such alternative analogy could be useful to the intelligence analyst trying to distinguish between perception and reality by becoming aware of the deception inherent in the image.

Part I concludes with an evaluation of the technique in application to the particular topic.

Part II of this paper is where the technique comes “alive” in action to form the actual content of the situation assessment. It begins with an overview of Russian foreign policy, the traits and trends that define Russia’s role on the global scene. This overview borrows heavily from international relations and political science theories, and resembles what a political scientist might refer to as foreign policy analysis. This section is followed by a discussion of the soft and hard power tools available to the current administration in Moscow, and aims to answer three specific questions.

First: Is Russia aiming to regain its sphere of influence on the Balkans by building complex interdependencies among the countries in the region by means of securing bilateral pipeline deals? Second: How is Russia exploiting the issue of “common” identity in the region and why? Third: Assuming that no state on the Balkans currently holds regional leadership, can Russia fill this gap by transcending the geographical limits, which define the region and achieving political, economic and cultural hegemony on the Balkans?

The last section of the analysis uses an alternative technique, namely an art analogy, to look at the individual players on the Balkans as well as the region’s periphery (Turkey and Cyprus) as though we were looking at a still life painting. The contradiction in the title of this section, “A still life of Balkan regional dynamics” is intentional. It aims to show that while a situation assessment and a still life can be perceived as static representations out of time, each country’s perception of each other along a spatial and temporal perspective, as well as its relation to the “blank” surface, exhibits a dynamic that is not apparent from a static snapshot of the situation. Since the more traditional approach to a situation assessment is closer to a static image, I felt justified in exploring an alternative technique to supplement the assessment with a more dynamic representation of reality.

It is important for this exercise to distinguish between allegory and symbol. A detailed discussion on this topic is out of the scope of this paper; for our purposes, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions will suffice, and I hope, convincingly justify my preference for an allegorical over a symbolic representation for each country on the grounds that each has a story to tell on the still life canvas of our situation assessment, rather than function as an idealized symbol, which would doom the actor incapable of change.

Allegory – a story, play, poem, picture, etc. in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically

Symbol – a mark or character taken as the conventional sign of some object, idea, function, or process

Thus, through the process of allegory, Bulgaria, with its machinations to please and benefit from both its NATO/EU partnership and Russia, becomes Janus – the Roman god of the gate and door who looks both ways. Romania, with its long history of fending off vampires becomes the garlic that would help keep Russia away from breathing distance. Greece, with a stable record of adhering to its proverbial reputation – “don’t trust Greeks bearing gifts – becomes the Trojan horse. In the Western Balkans, Serbia’s vocal support of Russian cultural kinship and little hesitation to assert its cultural and historical claims on the region, becomes a Kalashnikov. Kosovo, with its ambition to proclaim its “otherness” has finally got its own flag to show for it if nothing else. And Bosnia and Herzegovina is sweetening its bitter wounds with a lethargically brewing Turkish coffee pot.

In the background, but gaining in proportion are the S300 missile Cyprus, loaded not only with Russian ammunition, but a fat Russian wallet, and Turkey – holding tight to its application for EU membership as sticky Turkish delight. Russia – emperor of the surface, the “blank” – space absorbs these unfolding dynamics with the anticipation of the Minotaur waiting for his royal breakfast of seven youths and maidens.

The alternative analysis section of the situation assessment draws no conclusions. As a complementing alternative technique, its aim is to raise awareness of different perspectives and “throw” the more traditional parts on their heads, so to speak. As such, it is an exercise in thinking, not a logical argument.

The paper concludes with some thoughts on methodology in intelligence analysis in general and a summary of the experience in preparing this paper.

Scenario Planning as Part of Strategy Development

In my daily work, I hear the phrase “strategic planning” with such frequency that it has become by now a signal for “switching off”, i.e. stop paying attention…here we go again…not another strategy…and not the same strategy with different words, please! What a relief to read something actually intelligently written, like Conway’s article “Scenario Planning: An Innovative Approach to Strategy Development“, in which he makes a distinction between strategic planning and strategic thinking. Sure, it’s a piece dense with “management-speak”, but given the quality of ideas, one doesn’t mind the odd “innovative approach” or “setting direction”, or “immersion in foresight concepts”.

Conway argues that traditional strategic planning, based on deductive reasoning falls short of being effective in a complex, interdependent and highly uncertain environment in that it focuses more on past experience, data and fact driven thought processes. I’d like to call this the microscope-focused approach. What he advocates instead, or rather, in addition to, is “strategic thinking” as part of the planning process, or in other words, the ability to develop foresight capacity, a “big picture” view that is less concerned with the here and now of the details and the particular but adjusts the aperture to provide a universal, telescopic view. Of course, he doesn’t say “universal” vs. “particular”, which is how a philosopher might phrase the concept; nor does he use the microscope-telescope analogy, which would be more at home in the fields of myth, anthropology and psychology. Writing for a corporate audience, global vs. local is what one might expect to hear.

I think an interesting conclusion can be drawn from this observation. I believe Conway himself reaches this conclusion even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. In an environment of growing complexity and interdependence, strategic thinking implies being able to see connections that one might not do if he/she adheres to linear logic, and what’s more, one might never see by him/herself without the contribution of others. The crisscrossing of concepts from traditionally different disciplines and the fusion of individual brains into one collective intelligence is what strategic thinking for the 21st century seems to be all about.

I concur with Conway’s take on scenario planning as a way of creating alternative future narratives, and was happy to see the Dave Snowden reference on page 12. Although Snowden has become in the past few years a household brand name in (knowledge) management and a quote by him adorns the annual or centennial  corporate strategy paper of every Tom, Dick and Harry organization that likes to talk about “innovative approaches”, Snowden does often provide food for thought. [In my capacity as CKO, I once attended a presentation of his, which sparked enough interest to add his Cognitive Edge website/blog to my RSS feeds and read a number of articles he provides there under a creative commons license.] Conway outlines Snowden’s thoughts on the irrationality of human decision processes as a way of stressing the influence of human agency in strategy development. However, the quote ends too quickly. Elsewhere, when discussing the assumption of rational choice, Snowden goes through great pains to distinguish between “objective” reality and perceptions of reality. He argues that understanding these different perceptions or perspectives of reality can lead to strategic advantages and he sees narrative techniques (scenarios for our purposes) as a way to gain greater exposure to different perspectives:

The assumption of rational choice
Relaxing this assumption means that context and perspective become as important as rationality. This is an important reason that the Cynefin framework is not about “objective” reality but about perception and understanding; it helps us to think about the ways in which different people might be perceiving the same situation. For example, there is an old folk tale from India in which a wise man decides that in order to escape an impossible royal demand, he will fake insanity in the king’s court. He is operating in complex space because he is using cultural shorthands to provoke predictable reactions but is gambling that his ruse will seed the pattern he wants to create. He knows that from the perspective of his audience, who are operating in the space where things are bound by tradition and thus known, he appears to be acting chaotically, because they can conceive of no other reason for him to act this way in front of the king (who would surely behead him if he was faking). Thus by proving that he cannot be faking, he pulls off the fake. Understanding not only that there are different perspectives on an event or situation, but that this understanding can be used to one’s advantage, is the strategic benefit of relaxing this assumption. Narrative techniques are particularly suited to increasing one’s exposure to many perspectives on a situation. In management, there is much to be gained by understanding that entrained patterns determine reactions. This realization has major implications for organizational change and for branding and marketing. Our own work on narrative as a patterning device is gaining presence in this and other areas. Speculating, one of the most significant possible applications of this understanding is a move away from incentive-based targets and formal budgeting processes—both of which, we contend, produce as much negative as positive behavior. It is a truism to say that any explicit system will always be open to “gaming.” Paradox and dialectical reasoning are key tools for managers in the un-ordered domains.

C. F. Kurtz, D. J. Snowden, IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 42, NO 3, 2003,

Back to Conway, the scenario planning process he outlines is the same as that of Project Horizon. I wonder if the people responsible for managing that project did so intentionally, following Conway’s model or it was more of a Snowdean serendipity moment. I also wonder if the Project Horizon team answered the model questions from the decision tree for scenario planning that Conway provides. I must confess, I put the tree to test in terms of my own work and found it extremely difficult to answer the questions with “yes” and “no”. The reason for this is that it is often impossible to speak about an organization with one voice. There are, individuals, teams, silos, middle management, senior management – all open to change and dialogue to different degrees. Should one engage in scenario planning if the staff are open to change and dialogue but management isn’t and vice versa? If I attempt to answer this question, another point Conway makes comes to mind: “The organization will need to focus its foresight work – is it about helping the organization develop its preferred future and documenting that in a plan, or is it about considering all potential futures, whether possible, plausible or probable.” (p.21) From the point of view of management, I would say the focus tends to be on the former – developing your preferred future. From the point of view of staff – considering all options. How feasible is it then to apply scenario planning in a government organization, where both planning and decisions are more likely than not to be strictly top down? It takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit, of which government institutions are devoid almost by default, to engage in this type of exercise. Strategic or visionary thinkers are hardly welcome in such environments. At best, their boldest big picture strategy is dismissed as day-dreaming; at worst, it is seen as a threat to the managing body. In this respect, I find it commendable of the US government to support a project such as Horizon and would be very curious to know at what stage the project is two years after publishing the preliminary report. In particular, it would be interesting to know the progress on the Global Hazards Planning and Response capability, the US Government Partnership framework and the Global Affairs Learning Consortium since all these are sub-projects I am also trying to pursue in my work.

Scenario planning and the national security issue I’m working on (Russia and the Balkans):

I had already considered using scenarios prior to reading Conway and the project Horizon report, however, I’m not sure if scenario planning is appropriate when developing a situation assessment, which is the overarching analytical technique I’m applying to my project. In my view, a situation assessment should be limited to objective capabilities rather than alternative futures. I don’t think a situation assessment is or should be concerned with forecasting; rather it should be based on what Conway refers to as “traditional strategic planning” – deductive not inductive.

Still, had I chosen the same topic but a different method, I would apply scenario planning to examine potential “new” alliance formations on the Balkans. Bulgaria is a particularly interesting case due to its membership in both NATO and the EU, and its historical ties to Russia. Alternative scenarios could throw light on what role the country is going to play in terms of energy security in Europe. With four planned major pipeline routes transiting the country – 2 Russian projects and 2 EU/US-sponsored ones, it would be interesting to develop a scenario exercise to determine if Bulgaria will choose to “bandwagon” to the EU/US greater powers or become a Trojan horse by strengthening its ties with Russia. Other countries in the region (Romania and Serbia for instance) are less problematic because they have expressively stronger affinities to one camp or the other, hence the relatively low uncertainty would not merit the use of scenario planning. Greece could be another potential wild card despite its long history of NATO/EU membership. Dissatisfaction with some EU policies and a prospect of becoming a regional energy power through closer alliance with Russia, Greece’s behavior will be anything but predictable. Throw in Turkey’s contested EU application and the event that it actually succeeds, and a reshuffle of alliances and spheres of influence is sure to experience some major shifts. Cyprus, for one, will open its arms toward Russia even wider than it currently does.

To sum up, I would not apply scenario planning to my national security issue as long as I’m doing a situation assessment. However, I do believe scenario planning as a technique could be a valuable addition to long-term strategic analysis, especially when used to challenge assumptions about rational choice whether on an individual or a collective level.