27 February, 2013

Strategy Is Who You Are

A lesson from the business strategists: an organization's strategy is a reflection of its culture, not grand plans made by its leaders. An example from Ancient China shows how this truth applies to crafting strategies of war and peace.

I firmly believe that theorists of war and diplomacy have much to gain from studying the business world. Those fascinated with the rise and fall of great powers should turn their gaze to the rise and fall of companies and corporations. Why? There is a lot more data to work with. One of the great frustrations I have with social scientists studying competition and conflict--especially practitioners of International Relations--is their general tendency to create the sweeping "theories" that rest on relatively few case studies.[1] Only a handful of great powers have risen or fallen over the last 200 years; an immensely larger number of companies have done the same. While the similarities cannot be pushed too far (a nation-state is far more complex than the average corporation), those interested in competition and conflict between human organizations would be foolish to dismiss the massive amount of literature and history provided by the study of business.

The following discussion, taken from the business strategy blog Silberzahn and Jones, is a terrific example of the insight business literature can offer those who seek to make sense of international affairs:
Individual and corporate character is often at the root of how strategy emerges in an organization. Most business books cultivate a Cartesian vision of strategy that is created by the top management team or a CEO hero or a mathematical void, and communicated to the lower-echelon humans for mere implementation. In fact, strategy making rarely works like that. In a landmark study, Stanford professor Robert Burgelman showed how, in fact, strategy is to a large extent the outcome of countless micro-decisions by operating and middle managers. The crucial insight was that decisions are tied to the resource allocation process. Everyday, in their work, managers make decisions on how to allocate their scarce resources (time, energy, attention, money). They choose certain tasks against others. They call certain customers, and not others. They advance some projects, not others. They prioritize. The managers base those prioritizing decisions on the organizations’ explicit (identity) and implicit (cultural) values. For instance, if the organization values customer relationships, they will call long time customers, even if those calls do not yield much. In a more profit-oriented organization, managers will ignore these customers and call the most promising ones. Sometimes the values are not explicit: corporate strategy might decide to favor segment A, but if sales people find it more profitable for them to call segment B customers, they will do so. If all sales people do the same, the firm eventually finds itself present in segment B rather than the planned segment A. That is to say, the actual strategy emerges from the actions of the lower echelons and these actions are really the product of social mechanisms such as hiring, training, allocation and control processes, incentive systems, or even corporate customs. In short, the actual strategy is the result of what you do, and what you do is in large measure the result of who you are. Often senior management eventually recognizes these emergent strategies instead of creating them....In short, strategy is ultimately a reflection of an organization’s identity and culture, and should be the central dimension when considering strategic issues. (Emphasis Added). [2]
Professor Burgelman's study provides two insights that can be applied directly to the work of the grand strategist.
  1. Strategy is primarily a process of resource allocation. The actual day-to-day decisions of men in the field are more important than visions articulated by charismatic leaders, strategies developed by working committees, or programs championed by policy wonks. (For example, the Australian government can publish a Defence White Paper declaring that the Royal Australian Navy will be a major regional player by the year 2030, but this will never reflect Australia's actual strategy if the country's defense budget continues its relative decline.) Strategy is what an organization does, not what its leaders say it ought to do.
  2. What members of an organization do is a reflection of who they are. How decision makers on the lower and middle tiers prioritize information and assignments depends on what they believe about the purpose of the organization and their work within it. Where legislation, memos, or rules do not reach (and in some circumstances where they do), values and culture will guide these daily decisions. Strategy is identity in action.

I outlined how this decentralized, identity-driven process of crafting and implementing strategy has played itself out across American history in a previous set of essays. [3] However, the process can be seen at the center of history made far from America's golden shores. One of the most interesting examples can be found in China's imperial past.

From the Han Dynasty to the Qing, every imperial regime to claim the Middle Kingdom had to face the strategic dilemma posed by the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. Their response to this challenge varied widely from one period to another. The first to face it were the early emperors of the Han Dynasty. Han Gaozu, founder of the dynasty, decided against open confrontation with Xiongnu nomads after they ambushed and nearly killed him in 200 BC. Sima Qian records the treaty arrangements that rescued the Han:
Gaozu dispatched Liu Jing to present a princess of the imperial family to the Chanyu [Xiongnu version of a 'Khan'] to be his consort. The Han agreed to send a gift of specified quantities of silk floss and cloth, grain, and other food stuffs each year, and the two nations were to live in peace and brotherhood." [4]

This was the beginning of what would be later called the Heqin, a treaty system in which the Han allowed the Xiongnu to trade with Han merchants and agreed to send a caravan of luxury goods to the Xiongnu every year and a royal "princess" whenever the a Chanyu came to power. The Xiongnu, for their part, promised to halt their raids on the frontier and treat the Han as brothers. The system lasted for 60 years. It ended during the reign of Han Wudi. It would be another 150 years before peace would come to the frontier.

The Xiongnu and Han peoples - Image source

Why did the Han change their policy on the steppe? In part, the new policy reflected a new balance of power within the Han world. The greatest threat faced by the earliest Han dynasts were not steppe nomads, but powerful regional kings and generals who had been enfeoffed by Han Gaozu upon his ascension to the throne. Both these men and their source of power were destroyed during the Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms (154 BC), leaving the Han free to campaign outside of the dynasty's borders.

The Han could never have fought the Xiongnu without this political centralization. But the mere fact that such centralization occurred did not mean war was inevitable. An important part of the change in Han foreign policy was the change in philosophy sanctioned by the Han court.

Contrary to popular stereotype, Confucian officials have not always dominated Chinese imperial courts. Their influence grew and waned at different times. The first Han dynasts were not Confucian at all. Their preferred philosophy was something scholars like to call Han Syncretism; contemporaries called it the Huang-Lao school of philosophy. While the particulars of the philosophy are complex, it can be thought of as applied Daoism. Even a cursory reading of early Syncretic texts betray the stark contrast between it and later imperial thought:

"The foundation of governing lies in making the people content. 
The foundation of making the people content lies in giving them sufficient use of their time for farming. 
The foundation of giving them sufficient use lies in not stealing their time. 
The foundation of stealing their time lies in restricting the state's endeavors. 
The foundation of limiting desires of the ruler lies in his return to his innate nature." [5]
Returning to or staying with the "innate nature" of things was a central point of both Huang Lao and Daoist thought. They proclaimed that the greatest good was not anything they could hope to make from their own efforts, but "that which is pure and unmixed, unhewn and simple, innate and direct, and which has never begun to become adulterated." Thus their goal was not to change the world, but to live along side it. These early dynasts believed that "adaptation [should be] the guiding principle of the ruler." [6]

These beliefs had clear policy implications. In marked contrast to later periods, the early Han intervened little in the economy (one commentator goes so far as to call them "libertarian" [7]) and did nothing to impose their philosophy on the populace at large. As far as foreign affairs were concerned, the early Han thought it best to live and let live. The nomads were living according to their "innate nature" and the Han were doing the same. Better to adapt to them than try to change them.

Confucian intellectuals found all of this reprehensible. Their vision of society was radically at odds with that presented by the Daoist and early Han. Where the Daoists believed that the state that interfered the least governed best, Confucians asserted that the government had a duty to nurture the people, perfect their natures, and ensure that proper hierarchy and ritual were adhered to. This is why heaven allowed the Han Dynasty to exist in the first place! Participating in treaties that named barbarian warlords "brother" to the Emperor threw the entire system upon its head. Confucians in the court were some of the earliest proponents of a more aggressive frontier policy. This debate raged for decades.

When the debate is boiled down to its most basic level, the two factions had different visions of what the dynasty was for. The first vision was held (as far as we can tell) by the majority of officials, soldiers and emperors until the reign of Han Wudi. By the time of his reign court demographics had changed and a slim majority of officials were Confucians. As time went on they would come to dominate both the court and the landed aristocracy that the Han depended on to carry out the imperial will. This Confucian revolution went hand in hand with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. [8] Their strategy was rooted in who they were.

The pattern is seen across world history. In How Rome Fell Adrian Goldsworthy suggests that the ultimate failure of the Roman Empire was that the only real strategic priorities of emperors and their underlings was their own survival; "emperors and government officials had forgotten what the empire was for." In his excellent The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth Arthur Waldron chronicles how the Ming dynasty's foreign policy and frontier strategy changed from one of engagement and trade to one of isolation and wall building as a group of literati hostile to "barbarian" influence fought to gain control of the court and discredit their political enemies. The Great Wall of China is testament to their success. Kwasi Kwarteng argues that strategy in the British Empire did not follow any predefined grand plan conceived in Whitehall, but was the result of dozens of decisions made by imperial officials on the spot. [9]

The common theme? In all of these cases actual policy was not the product of calculating strategists at the top of the hierarchy but a reflection of the identity and sense of self interest of those a few rungs down.



[1] The IR community itself seems to be growing more discontent with these 'paradigms' and grand theories. See Steven Sadleman. "Lamenting the Loss of Light, Grand Theories, and Old Boy Networks." The Duck of Minerva. 5 January 2013. Also see the "End of International Relations Theory" panel to be hosted by European Journal of International Relations.

 [2] Phillipe Silberzahn. "Crafting Non-Predictive Strategy, Part II: Start With Who You Are." Silberzahn & Jones. 21 September 2012. 

 For the study Silberzahn highlights see Robert A. Burgelman, "Intraorganizational Ecology of Strategy Making and Organizational Adaptation: Theory and Field Research." Organization Science. Vol. 2, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 239-262 

 [3] T. Greer. "Dreaming Grand Strategy". The Scholar's Stage. 12 May 2010. 

 And T. Greer "Manifest Destiny: A Case Study in National Purpose?" The Scholar's Stage. 24 August 2010. 

 [4] Trans. Burton Watson. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II. rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1991. p. 139 

 [5] Trans. D.C Lau. Selections from Huananzi in Sources of the Chinese Tradition, Vol I: From Earliest Times to 1600. 2nd ed. compiled by WM Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1999. p. 271 

 [6] Ibid, p. 270; p. 282. 

 [7] Murray N. Rothband. "Libertarianism in Ancient China." Ludwig Von Mises Institute: Mises Daily. 23 December 2009. 

 [8] My reading of these events is heavily influenced by Chun-Shu Chang. The Rise of the Chinese Empire, Volume 1: Nation, State, Imperialism in Early China, 1600 BC- 1 AD. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). 2007. pp. 135-161. And Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 1990. pp. 40-43. 

 [9] Adrian Goldsworthy. How Rome Fell: Death of a Super Power. (New Haven: Yale University Press). p. 418; Arthur Waldron, above; "With a Stony Stare: The Men Who Ruled The British Empire." The Economist. 3 September 2011.

26 February, 2013

Ominous Parallels: What Antebellum America Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime

Many people point to the hyper-partisanship of national Democratic and Republican parties as the greatest challenge facing 21st century America. When seen through the lens of another vapidly partisan political system - that of Jacksonian America - we see that the real danger is not noisy partisanship, but the iniquity it hides: for them it was slavery; for us, plutarchy 

Living amidst the raucous partisanship of contemporary times it is hard to imagine anything different than the endless battle between Democrats and Republicans that seems to define American politics. It has not always been so. There was a time in America's history where the Republic had no parties at all. In the days of the early Republic politics was an aristocrats game. In this world of lawyers and plantation owners political parties ("factions" as they were then known) were universally decried as the source of corruption and decay. The ideal statesman was  a man of independence and virtue; these republican qualities could not tolerate the "spirit of faction". As President James Monroe noted his inaugural address, "[it is] gratifying to witness the increased harmony of opinion which pervades our Union. Discord does not belong to our system.... The American people have encountered together great dangers and sustained severe trials with success. They constitute one great family with a common interest."[1] 
Martin Van Buren (Image Source)
Yet as the 1800s rolled forward it became clear that the old system of disinterested, aristocratic, and above all else, non partisan politics could not last. America was in the midst of a global growth revolution, and the masses it empowered would find their way to power one way or another - if not through mass political participation, then
through revolution. [2] Thankfully, America opted for the former. The architect of what was to become the new political system was a small and clever man named Martin Van Buren. 

Mr. Van Buren honed his organizational skills as an aspiring politician in 1820s New York. His political machine was designed to break up the strangle hold the aristocratic Clinton clan had on New York politics by bringing the power of the masses to the fore. He armed his popular party with professional canvassers, campaign managersward committees, and party newspapers, soon winning elections because of it. The political theory behind this approach grew with its electoral success. As Mr. Van Buren saw it, the 'republican virtue' that prevented American statesmen from officially banding together was a thin disguise for very real, active, and often corrupt patronage networks. 
"In place of two great parties arrayed against each other  in a fair and open contest for establishment of principles in the administration of Government which they respectively believed the most conducive to the public interest, the country was overrun with personal factions. These having few higher motives for the selection of their candidates or stronger incentives to action than individual preference or antipathies, moved the bitter waters of political agitation to their lowest depths." [3]
Replacing this political system of 'bitter waters' with cohesive political parties held together on ideological lines would make American politics what it should be: a contest that put issues before individuals and allowed the American public to choose between policies and platforms instead of personalities or patronage. 
This philosophy served Mr. Van Buren well in New York, but he had a more difficult time replicating its success on the national stage. The problem was that Mr. Van Buren's new national coalition could not succeed electorally without the support of the Southern states - dominated then by the very gentry Mr. Van Buren's system was designed to upstage. Knowing his political theory flew in the face of their republican sensibilities, Van Buren tried a different tack.  
A few years before Mr. Van Buren hit the national scene the young Republic was challenged with immense political shock. The dispute arose over the vast tracts of new land American frontiersmen were 'claiming' from the wilderness; the dividing issue was slavery. The matter was brought before congress: should the institution of slavery be allowed to expand into the new states and territories? The explosion of emotions and outrage that followed shocked observers. Between Southern declarations like "[this debate] has kindled a fire which the ocean cannot put out, which only seas of blood can extinguish!"  and the Northern replies that followed ("if a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, then let it come!") it became clear that Americans of the North and South had two fundamentally different views of American democracy, and that these perspectives were not reconcilable. [4]  Congressional leaders managed to quench the ferocious fire unleashed upon the Union with a compromise that few really liked, but settled for out of fear of what would happen if they did not. Slavery was the greatest tyranny ever sanctioned on American soil, and was quite clearly the greatest divide - in terms of demographics, economics, or values -  to be found in the young Republic. It seemed that this would be the issue that was to define the times. 
But it did not have to beargued Mr. Van Buren. A national political party could save the Union from tearing itself apart. As he wrote to Mr. Thomas Ritchie, informal leader of "Richmond Junto", Virginia's most influential aristocratic bloc: 
 "Political combinations between the inhabitants of the different states are unavoidable and the most natural and beneficial to the country is that between the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North.... If [party identities] are suppressed, geographical divisions founded on local interests, or what is worse prejudices between free and slave holding states will inevitably take their place. Party attachment in former times furnished a complete antidote for sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings. It was not until that defense had been broken down that the clamour against Southern Influence and African Slavery could be made effectual in the North . . . . Formerly, attacks upon Southern Republicans were regarded by those in the North as assaults upon their political brethren and resented accordingly. This all powerful sympathy . . . can and ought to be revived."[5]  
 Mr. Van Buren recognized that disputes over slavery were the natural outcome of America's greatest  ideological and material divide, but there were other, less sectional issues available for debate. The republic was undergoing the most dramatic social and economic changes in her history and there was no unity of opinion on how a republican society should respond to this new world. That is what congressional orators and sharp tongued editors could argue about without fear of tearing the Union apart. 
The southerners, whose guilty consciences were pricked and morbid fear of slave revolts were aroused anytime abolitionist sentiment was expressed on the national stage, understood his point.[ 6] Moreover, they agreed that without Mr. Van Buren's highly organized, popular party structure economic ideals alone would not be enough to hold a coalition together. And so began the first popular party system in American history. Mr. Van Buren and his friends were to call themselves the Democratic Republicans, or Democrats. Their opponents - who took a bit longer to coalesce into an organized and united front - named themselves Whigs.   

The next 30 years were a spectacular display of American mass democracy. With oratorical flourish that makes modern politicians sound like grade school kids, Whigs and Democrats debated tariffs and toll roads, national banks and international trade, manifest destiny and civic virtue. But never slavery. Slavery was the elephant in the room that all refused to address. The refusal's most infamous expression was the congressional 'gag rule' that prohibited abolitionist petitions from being heard by the House of Representatives. With the gag rule in place the years passed on; national problems were debated, crises were resolved, and declarations of political theory were pronounced without ever addressing the great national contradiction to the young Republic's claims it was the land of justice and liberty. The problem was ignored until it could be ignored no longer, the number of men and women living in bondage increasing to 4,000,000 before the issue was resolved. Its resolution came at the cost of 750,000 American lives. [7] 

Today the greatest structural flaw of the American Republic is not slavery, but a rentier elite that dominates the upper echelons of American society. It is a socially cohesive bloc that has repeatedly resisted all efforts to keep America's leadership democratically accountable, financially liable, or open to the ranks of the legions below, who are often viewed with a paternalistic disdain. [8] The wealth and power of this group is simply on a different scale than that available to the average American citizen. The gap is only growing larger.  
And no politician is talking about it.  
As in the antebellum, today's hyperpartisanship has its uses. The issues are real enough, and the cultural divide between each party's demographic "base" is wide.  Politicians take advantage of this with over-the-top rhetoric, turning all issues into a cultural crusade against the radicalism of the progressive left or the bigotry of entrenched conservatism. The accuracy of these attacks is unimportant. The antebellum party system allowed Southerners to define themselves as 'Whigs' or 'Democrats' instead of 'slavers'. The current system serves its purpose just as well, allowing plutarchs to define themselves not in terms of power or privilege, but as part of a culturally cohesive group that represents 'real' America. With partisan issues taking the fore, politicians, lobbyists, and corporate big wigs  can plunder the American economy and strip American citizens of their liberties in a decidedly bipartisan fashion. [9] And thus the greatest structural faultline in America's body-politic and the most dangerous challenge to the integrity of her republican institutions and the liberties of her citizenry continues onward without public comment. And all of this without a gag rule. 
If the comparison of the antebellum Republic's political regime with its ailing modern descendent seems a bit chilling - well, it is. The last time America's sins broke through the partisan politics designed to hide them  the result was the most destructive war of her history. It is an ominous precedent.   

[1] James Monroe, "First Inaugural Address." 4 March 1817. par 19. (link) Perhaps this reflected President Monroe's desires more than it did the realities of his inauguration day. It was, however, a major policy objectives of his administration, and it is difficult to argue that his strategy to reduce overt partisanship (see this letter to Andrew Jackson) was unsuccessful.

 [2] I detailed some of the 'revolutionary' changes of the growth revolution in "The Dynamics of Human Civilization: Notes on the Growth Revolution, pt 1". The Scholars Stage. 4 August 2010. 

As the growth revolution rolled forward mass political movements become more and more common, usually revolutionary in character. In many ways, the popular political parties of the antebellum were the 'republican' answer to this challenge. See Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang ) 2002. pg. 17-41 and more broadly, Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1989.

 [3] Martin Van Buren. Inquiry into the Origin and Course of the Political Parties of the United States. ed. Abraham Van Buren. (New York: Hurd and Houghton). 1869. chap 1, par 4. (link) H/T to Watson, Liberty and Power, p. 68-69.

 [4] The first quote is Representative James Tallmadge of New York; the second is Representative Thomas Cobb of Georgia. Both quotations taken from Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2007. p. 148.

 [5] Martin Van Buren to Thomas Ritchie Washington. 13 January 1827. [link] Emphasis added. H/T to Watson, p. 88.

 [6] Slavers were deeply troubled with both guilt they felt for becoming wealthy off of a system of institutionalized tyranny and the fear that disturbance in the application of said tyranny might lead to insurrection. These feelings of guilt and fear were at the root of Southern society's fanatical reaction to even mildly abolitionist rhetoric and the draconian measures they took to stifle public discussion of the issue. See William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1965. pp. 11, 49-52, 64-72. 

 This is another facet of the antebellum politics that offers telling parallels with the present political order.

 [7] The statistics come from Jenny B. Wahl, "Slavery in the United States" EH Net. (Economic History Association. ) 2 June 2010. and Guy Gugliotta, "Civil War Toll Up By 20% In New Estimates." New York Times. 2 April 2012.

 [8] See T. Greer "America's Greatest Challenge - and Danger." The Scholar's Stage. 16 January 2010. While this crisis is rarely touched upon by mainstream politicos, the challenge has been detailed by perceptive observers of various political stripes.

 A short list worth perusing: Walter Russel Meade, "Establishment Blues" Via Media. 12 May 2011; Charles Murray, "Coming Apart: The New American Divide" Wall Street Journal. 21 January 2012; Mark Safranski, "Guns and the New Paternalism" 27 December 2012; Bill Myers, Matt Taibi, and Chrystia Freeland, "The Plutocracy Will Go To Extremes to Keep the 1% in Control" 19 October 2012;  Angela M. Codevilla, "America's Ruling Class -- And The Perils of Revolution" American Spectator. July-August 2010.

Notable book length studies include: Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co). 1995; Glenn Greenwald. Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. (New York: Metropolitan Books). 2011; Sheldon S. Wolden. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and Inverted Totalitarianism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 2010.

Chrystia Freeland, Charles Murray, and Anegela Codevilla have also written books along the themes presented in their articles above.

 [9] The PATRIOT Act and the various federal 'Bail Outs' bills are the most obvious and egregious examples of this type, but the 112th Congress has given us plenty of other opportunities to see Congressional bipartisanship at its worst.

 For example: Hr347 "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011" (Analysis: Mark Safranski, "The Era of the Creepy State is Here" 6. March 2012.)

 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (Analysis: Glenn Greenwald. "Obama to Sign Indefinite Detention Bill Into Law." Salon. 15 December 2011).

 "Fiscal Cliff Bill" (Analysis: Timothy P Carney, "How Corporate Tax Breaks Got Inside the Fiscal Cliff Deal" The Washington Examiner. 2 January 2013. and Timothy P. Carney, "Tax Hikes on the Rich to Pay For Corporate Welfare" Washington Examiner. 9 January 2012.)