The Strategy Fallacy

Dogs are notoriously clingy. If you leave them alone to go to work, visit a friend, or any other activity that will necessitate you leaving the house for more than an hour or so, they will fear that you will never, ever, come back. I have often wondered how much of this is explainable in terms of the dog's limited "understanding" of the world. When I left California to travel for graduate school to the East Coast, I was told that my dog would still wait outside my door, in the belief that somehow, someway, I would magically emerge from my room in the way that I always did when I lived at my family's home back West. Silly dog, right?

As it turns out, my dog's behavior may not be so silly after all. One of the most fascinating parts of Margaret Boden's history of the cognitive sciences is her accounting of the cognitive and evolutionary origins of ritual and belief in the supernatural. A particular case in point is the demise of a loved one. The inability to "turn off" the intense feelings and bonds we have for others once they cease to live is an enormous problem. Hence the belief in ghosts, immortal souls, and the hope that somehow, somewhere, the people we knew and loved still exist in some higher form. This is not to discredit or mock such beliefs. They are the root of human civilization, and to say that a belief has been evolved over time is not to say that it is false, illusory, or worthy of mockery. Whether or not one believes in religion, one should at least respect the function it has historically served.

My point, however, is that we just simply do not do well with inconsistency, contradiction, and paradox. Life is very strange, terrifying, confusing, and at the end of the day is always overtaken by decline, decay, death, and eventual decomposition into the soil. It is with this rather morbid prelude that I segue into talking about the problem of strategy.

Today, we are consistently told that we are deficient in strategy. Some arbitrary set of elites "doesn't have a strategy." We need a strategy, the grander the better. The continued insistence that we are lost without one is one of the few consistent bipartisan trends I have witnessed, both historically and simply by reading the newspaper. I sometimes joke with my fellow strategy researchers that, despite the fact that we don't really have a real disciplinary home in academia, we are nonetheless the most popular field out there. Everyone, apparently, thinks strategy is good and wants a strategy!

Why might we attach such totemic purpose and meaning to strategy? Surely, many readers would answer, it is because strategy is so important to our lives. But think about your own life. How many important things in your life came as the result of a deliberate strategy? Did you meet your spouse according to some elaborate stratagem? Can it really be said that you used a strategy to raise your children, as opposed to making it up as you went along? Is your life as a whole the result of some big plan, or do you retrospectively re-arrange your own memories to make yourself believe that it is? How much control, day to day, do you even have over your own actions and behaviors?

The world is a messy place, and one of the many ways in which we impose meaning and order on the world is through the attribution of strategy to ourselves and especially others. Economists believe that the market is explainable via the aggregation of an enormous amount of individual strategies. Generals believe that the enemy's latest operations are a function of their overarching strategy. The troubling behavior of our coworkers is a result of a deliberate strategy to screw us over. Of course, the American uses of the term in a defense, foreign affairs, and corporate context have always been distinct. It is an underlying reflection of American optimism about the agency of individuals and groups -- with enough foresight, organization, and planning -- to bend the world their way. To understand this, it is necessary to take another and much deeper dive into the territory explored in the introduction to this essay.

Some psychologists distinguish between "epistemic" and "instrumental" forms of rationality. The former denotes the appropriateness of our view of the world. The latter concerns our ability to achieve what we want. To some degree, this distinction may seem arbitrary. How can we achieve our own goals if our beliefs about the world are incorrect? Yet there is also something to this distinction. Humans have the ability to re-arrange the world as they choose, and some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century have occurred as a function of it. If the facts get in the way, then we can shoot the messenger. If the people are not rising up as the revolutionary doctrine predicted, then they are obviously thought criminals due to be shunted off to the gulag and replaced by those that agree with our ideological aims.

This is a peculiar characteristic of our species. My dog can "believe" that I will be magically generated by my California room, despite the fact that I spend the vast majority of my time in Washington, D.C. There is nothing that my dog can do to force this prediction into becoming self-fulfilling. Yet, if my dog had the power of the notional absolute dictator, in theory this canine could force me under pain of death to emerge from that room every single day until the dog or I cease to exist. George Orwell's famous novels were not necessarily about Communism or oppressive government, but the power to manipulate basic human perceptions until any connection to a world outside of the closed ideological universe of the ideological system was irreparably broken. It is in this light that we must consider the costs -- as opposed to the benefits -- of strategy and strategic theories of the world around us.

The standard historical account of strategy ties its evolution to the evolution of war and politics. But an alternative history may emphasize other factors. As Christopher Coker noted in a recent history of the concept of heroism, there is a critical distinction between a hero like Achilles and even early modern characters in Shakespeare plays. Achilles is a vindicative and prideful man that does not perceive or care about crafting his violence to fit a wider instrumental design or purpose. This is not to suggest, as John Keegan bizarrely does, that in the past politics and mass violence were separate. War has always been "politics by other means" and will always be. Rather, it is that a particular view of human conflict as the rationalization of violence is more recent, and evolved with Enlightenment and later Industrial Revolution-era trends in science, philosophy, and politics that emphasized the instrumentation of the world.

The hegemonic rise of the concept of strategy cannot be separated from these broader currents in human history. Strategy is both a way of viewing the world and simultaneously ordering it. The duality of this representative mode can be seen in the use of the tabletop wargame. The tabletop game is a particular abstraction of a strategic contest, a reduction of the clash of wills to the movement of pieces on a board. However, it is also a way of making the world fit the abstraction. One can experiment with courses of action, design sophisticated strategies and tactics, and even use it to control the movement and operations of forces in real time. For a simple and even toy-like game, it is a powerful technology.

And, to be fair, it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Strategy as a body of knowledge grew concurrently with what historians of technology viewed as the "control revolution" in the 19th century. The control revolution became necessary because information -- not energy or fuel -- became necessary to manipulate and direct industrial economies and management networks of an unprecedented scope. The idea that something as abstract as thought could control complex machines is the root of modern computing and artificial intelligence, and it is a very strange idea even today despite its age. But the fact that it is strange is not necessarily as important as the fact that it is seductive.

This essay is titled the "fallacy" of strategy for a particular reason. Strategy gives us tremendous power to achieve our goals. But it also comes at an enormous price. The danger of strategy lies in the fantasy that arranging the world in a particular manner to suit our needs is a good, prudent, or even praiseworthy endeavor or at the very least should be regarded as such a priori. This may sound imprudent and nonsensical. Why shouldn't we try to deliberately arrive at a way of achieving our ends through purposeful action? Is that not the basic foundation of everyday life? But please bear with me nonetheless.

Why might strategy be a detriment as well as a benefit? For starters, we can say that there are significant limitations on our ability to make good decisions. Cold Warriors dealt with the failures of classical beliefs about rational action by claiming that they were simply a more convoluted route to realizing one's goals. This is very plausible, and well grounded in a host of scientific literatures. But WHICH goals? WHOSE goals? The very nature of large bureaucracies is that the "enemy" is a phantom on the horizon that the typical functionary does not encounter. Even in the military only a tiny portion of men see combat action relative to the enormous rear echelon that keeps them well-fed, equipped, and informed. So yes, people are looking to maximize some kind of utility function. However, it is hard to see how one can do so using performance measures derived from the often hazy, vague, and amorphous goals of the governing institution one inhabits. The cynical, if accurate, take is that people pay more attention to unspoken measures of fitness within the organization than what the organization claims as lofty and noble goals.

Even if we move beyond organization sciences, we can see plenty of evidence that our behavior is not controlled by what we believe to be our higher-order goals. The goal of "getting to work without a car accident" does not necessarily dictate how people drive on the freeway. Nor does the stated goal of "destroying the Islamic State of Iraq" necessarily explain the observed behavior of the Obama administration. Absent post-hoc evidence of an often unrealistic quality, it is hard to tell what people are "really" trying to do, and rationalizing their behavior in light of their either observed or implicit preferences is an unfortunately crude but unavoidable way of making sense of the world. Why crude? Well, it very well may be that the actors that we are observing cannot really explain what they are doing either even if we injected them with the proverbial truth serum or had complete access to their inner thoughts.

The fact that we often lack real understanding of our own behavior is important. As countless psychologists and philosophers have noted, other functions fill in this gap for us. We tell ourselves certain things, make certain attributions, and create models regardless of their veracity. This becomes important for strategy when we consider something else about ourselves: the way in which the ways our ways of getting what we want may be directed towards ourselves as well as others. The famous "Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis" and its variants suggests that we first evolved a capacity to mislead ourselves before we could mislead others. This is intuitive in a somewhat depressing way. The most convincing lie that we can tell to others to control them is one that we believe ourselves. It is why states that believe themselves to be only warring on account of self-defense -- no matter how obvious their aggression -- could very well sincerely believe their own lies and propaganda. It is why political systems founded on systematic lying, deception, and subversion are so effective at subverting others.

Thus, the cruel irony of strategy is precisely the way in which it is simply another way for us to deceive ourselves. Beyond the technocratic trappings of planning, organization, and realism that often surround strategy in the West, there is a significant amount of mysticism and bullshit. We look back at some of it and wonder "how could they believe ___" or look to the present and lament our elites' failures to make and execute strategy because of mysticism and bullshit. We wanted steely Bismarckian thinkers. Instead we got the F-35, political claptrap, and a giant squiggly map of Afghanistan that not even the generals that read it could really make sense of. It sucks, but how avoidable is it?

Sadly, one must also conclude that the endless buzzwords, needless complexity, and pseudo-intellectual claptrap produced by the military-industrial complex and its corporate counterparts is a feature, not a bug, of strategy itself. Why would it not be? The Soviet military system, for example, was founded on an ordered "scientific" hierarchy of military concepts that fit with the particular ideological diktat of the party bosses. The American defense system's endless amount of levels of war, classification of war types, baseless "new war" theories, and boundless enthusiasm for moronic intellectual fads is simply a more anarchic and freewheeling variant of the war hierarchy of its former rival.

In both cases, the belief is that somehow by ordering and controlling the language that we use to describe the world, we can gain mastery over it. However, upon closer reflection it seems that the function of such language is to protect the speaker from the outside world and its cruelties, and maintain a robust internal coherence. This is not the picture of strategy you likely were taught in school. Nor is it the picture of strategy that shows up in the op-ed pages. It is a very different view of the purpose of strategy, but also one that arises from empirical observation. And it is one that accounts for the pervasive nature of self-deception among elites that make strategy and the deception of those that endow those same elites with trust, authority, and resources.

This is by no means solely or particularly an American problem, but Americans have proven uniquely incapable of coming to terms with it. While a Communist may appeal to scientific Socialism to justify pseudoscience, the liberal capitalist appeals to a combination of religious fervor and amorphous fear. Get with the program, we need ___-centric warfare to revitalize our rigid and backward organization. If we do not change our programs to fit [insert management buzzword], our chief commercial rival will overtake us! ___ is a real problem, can't you see? We need to compete in the [thought leadership] zone!

One excuse that is often offered for such mysticism and bullshit is that, whatever the mysticism and bullshit is called or described, it is valuable if it helps someone achieve their goals. But this is also tautological. Again, as asked earlier, what goals? Whose goals? And how? By implication, it is tempting to conclude that this is simply just a reflection of signaling and self-interest. After all, everyone -- from academics to consultants -- needs to pay the bills, and one way to do this is to invent a problem that only they can solve. However, this explanation is still tautological. Why do people buy what is being sold? Even if the latest buzzword simply helps a CEO make others believe he or she knows what they are doing, why do they believe it?

The reader, by now, has likely surmised that I take a dim view of strategy's promises despite having spent a substantial portion of my young life studying it and writing about it. To me, even successful strategy appears to be something akin to an act of masochistic self-denial, chaining oneself to a mast to avoid the call of the sirens. The strategy field makes a fetish out of stoic and pragmatic realists for this reason, even if very few humans are ever capable of living up to such monastic expectations. So, then, why is strategy so important? Why does everyone talk about strategy with the implicit presumption that if only we had a nicely formatted, bullet-pointed, and well-planned Strategy we could somehow banish the omnipresent sense of misdirection and confusion we observe in how our elites handle an unruly world that refuses to cooperate with their slogans and platitudes?

At this point, I shall return to the case of my dog. Why does my dog expect me to come out of the door? Perhaps one can say the dog has learned from association, but I also don't see this as a particularly determinative explanation either. A famous philosopher once said that we will never know what it is like to be a bat, and I will never know what it really means to be my dog. For now, it's sufficient simply to observe that the dog's world is one in which I emerge from my room every day. For my dog, it simply just makes sense that I will emerge from my room. Hence, the dog sits by the door, wagging its tail and waiting for me to emerge. A world in which I did not emerge from my room simply just doesn't fit. However we choose to explain the dog's behavior, it's just easier for the dog to anticipate that I WILL come out of the door.

Returning back to the Boden example I cited earlier, this also suggests that perhaps we ought not to be so disdainful of belief in the supernatural. The Old Testament view of the world was one of hardship, loss, suffering, and putting one's fate in the hands of an often capricious deity whose nature could not be comprehended by mere mortals. The accuracy and precision of such cosmology is roughly equivalent to that of the secular theology of ordering the world that drives our societies. Yet the problem with our secular religion is that it does not give us a similar willingness to accept our frailty and limitations. Men and women endured enormous hardships because they believed that, whatever they suffered and endured, it was a part of God's plan. If they played along with it they might one day be liberated from the temporary burdens of the flesh and join their ancestors and loved ones in a better and higher place. Despite the impressive power of moderns to engineer the world to fit their needs and designs, it is never enough to make them truly satisfied. We do not really have an equivalent to this sort of confidence and faith.

The fragility of our secular faith is precisely why it must be perpetually renewed and reinvented. It is why the failures of real human beings to live up to its demands merely triggers calls for more organization, rationalization, calculation, and planning. It will, like Gatsby's green light, be the thing that propels our boats against the current. The bright future, ever-beckoning to us, yet forever over the horizon. Given the American disdain for history, it is also natural that we Americans are again some of the best examples of this secular insecurity. Such a pseudo-religious belief in the efficacy of our own ability to bend the world to our whims can only survive in an atmosphere where history is suppressed, distorted, and above all else, ignored and forgotten.

Despite all of this, I still have not really answered the question of why the need for strategy fits into the larger trends I describe.

We need strategy because a world without it simply does not make sense to us, much in the same way that we tend think of ourselves as purposeful, self-directed beings despite whatever philosophical and scientific evidence to the contrary. The task of the strategic analyst should not to be to encourage such beliefs. Nor, however, should it be to throw up one's hands and give up. Rationality will not save us. Nor will the so-called "realist" sense of the tragic. And, despite my comments earlier, a religious belief in the capriciousness of the world that we are just temporarily passing through is also not necessarily useful either.

The real virtue of the strategist may be located in the willingness to simply accept that the world may never make sense and to push on regardless. After all, as Thomas Schelling said, it is easy to find stability conditions for a system of interest when that system is dead. There may never be certainty, precision, or coherence. Ends may never be met with appropriate balancing of ways and means. Strategy demands a willingness to move forwards nonetheless.