Strategic Design Part I

Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development

Approximate Reading Time: 20 minutes

Editor’s note: Last Friday we published the introduction of a three-part series on Strategic Design. That segment identified the requirement for a “whole of community” approach to strategy and policy development and proposed strategic design as a framework that could facilitate some of the devoid intergovernmental collaboration. Today’s segment builds upon that introduction by defining and exploring two structural elements of strategic design: the observed system and the desired system. On Wednesday we will publish the last segment of this series, which will address problem set identification and cognitive map development. All figures included in this article are fictional diagrams developed for a training scenario, they are not intended to portray actual US policy or strategy. This series is a continuation of our conversation on design thinking. Previous OTH publications on this topic include The Military Design Movement: Drifting towards Embracing Uncertainty and Transformation in Complex Environments, Podcast 5- Designing Future Security: An International Roundtable on the Military Design Movement, and Podcast 1- Second Generation Military Design.

By: Jeffrey M. Reilly

Strategic design is a constructivist model focused on developing schemata to explore complex problem sets involving grand strategy and policy.

There are a plethora books and articles that offer insights into strategy formulation, but very few documents provide a structural understanding of how to enrich collaboration across diverse groups of stakeholders and enhance the effectiveness of the process. This analysis seeks to begin a conversation on how to leverage key aspects of design to side step common pitfalls inherent in strategy development. The intent is not to advocate a prescriptive methodology, but simply to provide a basic organizational framework for enhanced collaboration and coordination.

What is Strategic Design?

Strategic design is a constructivist model focused on developing schemata to explore and examine complex problem sets involving grand strategy and policy. It exists as a multidisciplinary framework that assesses systemic challenges within a macro-level environment, identifies problem sets, and formulates the vision necessary for strategy implementation. Similar to operational design, strategic design begins with developing an understanding of the environment. However, strategic design’s focus goes far beyond a region or joint operations area (JOA). The primary reason for this is the problem and/or solution may exist far outside the confines of a distinct region or area of operations. Strategists must be able to recognize global system linkages, understand the effective use of the national instruments of power, and evaluate actions that impact the long-term attainment and preservation of national security interests. Applying design principles also functions as a tool to see potential events that would otherwise be classified as “Black Swans.” Design, however, is not meant to be predictive. It is a mechanism that enables preparation by identifying prospective changes in the environment affecting the ability of strategic response options to anticipate, adapt and respond in uncertain environments.

The greatest challenges in examining the international environment is it exists as a multifarious, interactive, and constantly evolving series of systems. It encompasses all actors and factors that either influence or have the potential to influence national security. Understanding the environment requires a holistic critical analysis of the environment’s systemic interconnectivity. One of the best constructs for framing the environment involves the deliberate bifurcation of the environment into two interrelated subsystems that foster a shared understanding of the environment’s interconnectivity. The two subsystems are the observed system and the desired system.

The Observed System

The observed system is an analytical construction of how you believe the environment currently exists and functions. It consists of regularly interacting, interdependent, and independent elements that affect national security. Strategists begin framing the environment by examining key factors such as principal actors and their interrelationships; cultural relationships; historical context; physical geography; demographics; disruptive technology; and the lenses of key political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII) factors.

There is no exact alchemic prescription for visualizing the observed system because the observed system is a construct of what one has the capability to see and understand. Additionally, the term “observed system” does not necessarily convey that what one is observing is the system as it actually exists. Not all variables are readily visible or have evolved sufficiently to be systemically linked. Some environments evolve over time and may not be self-evident. Another critical realization is that not all observed systems are openly accessible and access to an environment’s systemic information is not always equal. As a result, the accuracy of a depiction of an observed system is dependent upon two essential variables: access to information and the ability to critically analyze that information. An example of this is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Most nations have very limited access to North Korea, and this directly affects what can be observed and mapped within the DPRK’s environmental context. Concepts such as the DPRK’s juche are superficially understood by the West but have a tremendous impact on North Korea’s national “will to act.”

The ability to critically analyze information within the observed system is equally as important as access to information. When strategists develop an observed system, they must be able to analyze available information in depth and comprehend what the information implies for both the strategy and policy. An excellent example of this is understanding the impact of literacy on the strategy in Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan’s literacy rate is 38.2% and it ranks 154th out of 161 nations in literacy. Although this seems like an innocuous bit of information for an underdeveloped nation, it has a major effect on both grand strategy and policy. Literacy affects Afghanistan in several important ways. The first is the countrywide lack of literacy is the single biggest obstacle undermining the building of effective Afghan security forces. In 2012, only 14% of the individuals entering the Afghan armed forces were literate. US military officers told the auditors that promoting literacy makes the Afghanis easier to train, more efficient and skilled in their work, and more knowledgeable about human rights and the rule of law. Security forces cannot be effective unless they can read and write orders and understand basic manuals associated with tactics, administration, equipment, and maintenance. Literacy is an important enabler to professionalize security forces, reduce corruption, enhance stewardship, and increase recruiting. The magnitude of Afghan illiteracy presents an incredible challenge and it dramatically slows the ability to field Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces.

The second way illiteracy affects operations in Afghanistan is in information operations (IO). If the majority of the population cannot read or write, the mechanism used to communicate IO has to be modified to accommodate that factor. Traditional IO methodologies do not work among illiterate populations. Evidence to support this supposition is shown in an October 2010 survey conducted by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) in Afghanistan. This survey interviewed 1,500 men in northern and southern Afghanistan. 68% of the respondents in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces had seen photos of the planes striking the Twin Towers on 9/11. However, 92% of those respondents could not relate the photos to the events of 9/11 or identify the role those events played in international intervention. Both Helmand and Kandahar provinces are among the highest rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan. If the data from these surveys is accurate, they are essentially stating that Afghans in the most hostile areas to international intervention had no idea why the US was in Afghanistan…nine years after entering the country.

But, perhaps the most significant implication of a low literacy rate will have for a strategy is on the future of a nation. In today’s international environment, no nation can compete effectively or be self-sufficient without an educated workforce. Low levels of literacy also imply that multiple decades of investment will be required to create that workforce. If the Singapore and Finland models of transforming education were applied to Afghanistan, it would take at least three decades of investment to change Afghanistan’s current pattern of illiteracy.  The challenge for Afghanistan is it is still at war and it has two national languages, Dari and Pashtu. These two factors would probably extend the investment to five decades. The question then becomes does the international community have the will to support that investment and is there a strategy and policy in place to meet that challenge. Analyzing these types of factors through the lens of the observed system significantly enhances in the development of effective strategies and policies.

The overarching goal of visualizing the observed system is learning how the system currently functions and understanding how the system will change in reaction to a particular strategy or policy intervention. Although it is extraordinarily difficult to prevent bias from creeping into the observed system analysis, it is imperative to eliminate as much bias as possible. This includes refraining from introducing proposed national strategic end state conditions and national strategic objectives into the examination of the observed system.  Integrating end state conditions and objectives into the observed system analysis prejudices observations and reduces the ability to fully understand the system. Analyzing the observed system in a relatively pure state presents an opportunity to discover crucial systemic linkages that are normally either overlooked or deleted from consideration. Pure system analysis positions strategists with a significantly better perspective on the possibilities of how to change the system. Ideally, the observed system analysis should provide a synthesis of global and regional system linkages. An example of this is Arab Spring.

In 2011, massive protests erupted across Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and numerous other Middle Eastern and North African countries. For decades these countries had suffered human rights abuses, political repression, corruption, food scarcity, and incompetent economic mismanagement. However, on December 17, 2010 a virtually unpredictable spark occurred that would change the Arab World. A Tunisian named Muhammad Bouazizi got into an altercation with a Tunisian officer over the confiscation of a fruit cart. In protest, Bouazizi set himself on fire igniting a disruption to the system that is still being felt today in countries like Syria and Libya. On the surface the causation of the Arab Spring movement was repression, but the reality is much more complex. Many of the manifestations that erupted can be traced to physical and economic water scarcity in North Africa and the Middle East. Water is one of the most precious elements on earth and it is absolutely essential for human life. Water is also an important economic factor governing food production and industrial development. When the Arab Spring movement occurred, there was another region suffering from the effects of physical and economic water scarcity, North Asia. In late 2010 and early 2011, a winter drought over 5,000 miles away from North Africa and the Middle East amplified the impacts of the Arab Spring movement. In China’s Eastern wheat-growing province, a crop failure forced China to purchase vast volumes of wheat on international markets to feed its nearly 1.4 billion people. This doubled global wheat prices exacerbating tensions in the Arab World. Water scarcity already affects every continent. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate examples of observed system analysis. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the types of factors and functions that may affect both grand strategy and policy. The emphasis on global analysis is recognition of the dynamic role globalization plays in the postmodern world and the fact that both potential solutions and additional problem sets may exist beyond the region and JOA.

The insights derived from a global level analysis also generate the depth and fidelity necessary for comprehending the salient factors and functions affecting the environment at the regional level. This crucial foundation provides strategists with the means to more fully understand inter and intra-regional actor relationships and contextual features that may have been overlooked by traditional analyses.

The regional assessment of the observed system shapes the detailed identification of how the environment reacts to internally and externally derived stimuli. Figure 2 illustrates a regionally focused examination of the observed system. Similar to the global analysis described earlier, strategists must understand macro regional trends and potential shocks to the creation of effective strategy and policy.

When the observed system is graphically portrayed at the global and regional levels it affords strategists the means to communicate and collaborate with very diverse agencies and international partners. The essential feature of this type of analysis is it creates a deeper understanding for those involved.

The Desired System

Based on a thorough assessment of the observed system, the desired system analyzes the perceived tension between the strategic political direction provided by national or multinational authorities and the adversary’s desired political end state. The desired system process should begin with a fundamental comprehension of national or multinational purpose and the identification of key national interests. This is in striking contrast to operational design which is guided by national strategic end state conditions and objectives. The rationale for this difference in emphasis is at the strategic level national purpose and national interests are intended to articulate why you are taking action. Knowing why is a fundamental prerequisite for shaping long term success and instilling innovation and flexibility into the development of any strategy. If strategists understand the national interests at stake (why we are taking action), the capacity to correctly adjust actions required in an evolving environment is significantly enhanced. Focusing solely on national strategic end state conditions and objectives limits the ability to react to environmental changes or take advantage of emergent opportunities.

Although strategy relies heavily on understanding what actions need to take place for success, environments are extraordinarily dynamic and they begin to change as soon as the first action occurs. The farther you move away from a strategy’s initial action, the amount of control you possess over achieving the desired outcome decreases dramatically. The reason for this is environmental reactions geometrically increase in the number of possible outcomes. This requires strategists to understand not only what the national interests currently are, but also what range of interests will be acceptable in the long-term. Establishing an acceptable range of interests builds flexibility into the strategy process by distinguishing which interests must be attained from those that are nice to accomplish.

One of the greatest obstacles to this construct is the fact that we do not have a recognized taxonomy of national interests to guide policy vision and development. As an analytical instrument, the term national interest has been used since the 16th and 17th centuries and has origins in the United States as early as the founding of the constitution. The term national interest was written about by Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and a host of other political theorists that explain specific national interests in relation to historical contexts and key events. Although these authors’ examples are helpful in gaining an appreciation for contextual factors, they do not provide the means to clearly communicate their prioritization or importance of their accomplishment. Donald E. Nuectherlien contends that there is a tendency for foreign policy to be determined by institutional prejudice and past policy rather than by a systematic assessment of national interests. In 1973, Nuectherlien published United States National Interests in a Changing World outlining four basic levels of national interests. This type of framework is intrinsic because it assists in identifying and clearly communicating national interest priorities. Nuectherlien’s levels are:

Survival Interests:  The very existence of the nation-state is in jeopardy, either as a result of overt military attack on its own territory or from the imminent threat of attack should an enemy’s demands be rejected.

Vital Interests: Protection of the country against probable dangers to its political survival and economic well-being and the promotion of a peaceful international environment.

Major Interests: Potentially could affect the security of the nation, the economic well-being of its people, and the stability of the international system, if no actions are taken. 

Peripheral Interests: Those interests that do not involve a threat to the defense or the well-being of the American people, or seriously affect the stability of the international community.

Envisioning changes in the environment assists in developing realistic long-term national interests empowers the development of flexible strategies to ensure the national interests are attained. This also sets a foundation for establishing a thorough examination of the tension between strategic political direction provided by national or multinational authorities and the adversary’s desired political end state. A crucial component of analyzing the tension is recognizing not only points of divergence, but also points of convergence. These two areas assist in identifying the degree of separation between friendly and adversary goals. This requires an examination of the adversary’s national interests and a fundamental appreciation for what the adversary is trying to achieve. The natural tendency is to concentrate on divergence in an effort to prevent an adversary from their goals. However, using convergence to influence actors provides a mechanism that can advantageously shape current and future strategic environments. Failure to comprehend when to emphasize divergence and convergence can result in unintended and potentially catastrophic consequences.

An example of this is the negotiations instructions delivered by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Japan on November 26, 1941. This document, known as the “Hull note,” was in response to Japan’s occupation of Indochina on July 24, 1941. Prior to this, tension between the United States and Japan had been building since the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent invasion of China in 1937. The US response to Japanese aggression was to freeze Japanese assets in the US, embargo scrap metal shipments to Japan, close the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, and initiate an oil embargo against Japan. The oil embargo was an extraordinarily pointed response because Japan imported more than 80% of its oil from the United States. Furthermore, section 2, point 3 of the proposal Hull delivered required Japan to withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indo-China. The cumulative effect of US actions left Japan with three strategic options: acquiesce to essentially a US ultimatum, suffer the economic consequences of a stranglehold on natural resources, or fight. By the time Cordell Hull delivered the US proposal, the Japanese were already in the process of executing the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Although a military confrontation between the US and Japan was all but inevitable, the US may have leveraged points of convergence to either shape deterrence better or to gain positional advantage before a confrontation.

Understanding areas of convergence enhances the effectiveness of strategy in two other ways. The first is in returning to convergence during reconciliation. Accentuating the positives of pre and post conflict convergence offers a much more sophisticated approach to reaching the desired state of stability. The second is the internal convergence within the friendly goals. We typically think of affecting behavioral change within the human domain in terms of deter, coerce or compel. Strategies should also take into account suasion. The word suasion emanates from the middle ages and is slightly different from persuasion. Suasion means to appeal or influence through advising or counseling. An example of suasion would be leveraging advice to influence a reluctant international partner such India.

A common misperception in the dissection of friendly and adversary national interests and desired political end states involves the intricate nature of what an actor wants to do and what an actor is willing to do. A subtle but significant difference between these two contrasts affects the derivation of key planning assumptions, branches, and sequels. An illustration of this is China’s theory of unrestricted warfare. In February 1999 senior Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui published Unrestricted Warfare in response to perceptions about US global power projection. Unrestricted Warfare advocates going beyond traditional boundaries when necessary to achieve national political objectives. This text signals a willingness to use cyber warfare, information operations, and terrorism to attack both military and nonmilitary targets. These targets would include financial institutions, power grids, water supplies, and other key infrastructure components. In Qiao’s words, “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”

As strategists deliberate aspects of what an adversary wants to do and is willing to do, they must be cognizant of time. The temporal dimension has an effect far beyond being a limited resource. Developing strategy in a time-compressed environment is extraordinarily difficult, but time is also crucial in determining how long it will take to achieve the desired political end state and how long the effects must last. When national or multinational authorities promulgate strategic direction, they must have an acute awareness of the “will” to achieve the end state and the conditions necessary to maintain that “will.”

Another aspect of time planners must consider is the relationship between the desired political end state and how long the conditions established will last. A phrase often used to describe political end state conditions is “long-term stability.” The problem is that long-term is never adequately defined. On 27 July 1953, an armistice terminated major hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The armistice created a 160-mile-long and 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK. When the armistice was signed, North Korea was not able to bring significant effects on the Republic of Korea. However, by the early 1990s advances in artillery systems, surface-to-surface missiles, and the DPRK’s nuclear program drastically altered regional stability. It is crucial to grasp the fact that long-term stability does not necessarily constitute an indefinite state of being.

Just as time affects the desired system, other actors have a dynamic capability to influence the political end state. As planners develop the construct for the desired system, they should assess the possible effects— both positive and negative—of all actors on desired end-state conditions. Some actors will be allies, some overt adversaries, some neutral, and some neutral with the potential to intervene. It is absolutely imperative to map actor relationships, understand their systemic links, and develop actions that will set the conditions for achieving the political end state. Mapping actor relationships assists planners with identifying strategic and operational assumptions and guides the development of associated branches and sequels. Additionally, it provides the strategic-level vision for whole-of-government, inter-combatant command, and multinational coordination.

Any investigation of systemic actor relationships must also include an examination of how the actors make decisions. Decision-making theory is supported by many studies that include the rational actor, cognitive, cybernetic, polyheuristic, and reflexive control models. However, actors draw from a diverse set of frames of reference to make decisions, and there is no universal decision-making pattern. The key is recognizing the differences in the patterns and their impact on strategy. It is also important to highlight that an ally’s decision making can have just as dramatic an effect on a strategy as an adversary’s.

In March 2002, the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom hinged on the creation of a northern front that would attack Iraq through Turkey. By early 2003, however, US equipment was sitting on ships circling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, waiting for the outcome of negotiations with the Turkish government. On 1 March 2003, the Turkish Parliament decided in a 264–251 vote to veto the deployment of an estimated 62,000 US personnel onto Turkish soil to attack Iraq.

This demand probably seemed reasonable to most US military personnel because the United States was offering $30 billion in grants and loan guarantees and putting pressure on Europe to accept Turkey into the European Union. But without intimate knowledge of Turkey, its domestic politics, and its strategic concerns, this proposal was extraordinarily unrealistic. The outcome was not only a denial of using Turkey as a northern front, but also severely strained US-Turkish relations.

The last segment of analyzing the desired system is identifying barriers to the desired political end state and national interests. Determining barriers facilitates analysis of a critical aspect of planning that is often missing: expectation management. When a strategy is formulated or undergoes a major revision, political leaders must understand the full scope of the strategy’s capabilities and its limitations. This fosters a more realistic examination of assumptions and promotes better decision making and risk analysis. Barriers exist in many forms, including time, military capabilities, interagency disputes, intergovernmental organizations, and numerous other key factors. As planners identify barriers, they must conduct a thorough assessment of the barriers’ impacts on the desired political end-state conditions and raise critical issues to the political authorities for decisions. A realistic appraisal of barriers assists strategists with conveying an accurate depiction of what can and cannot be accomplished, and it frames expectation management for political leaders. It also provides a basis to make effective recommendations when political leaders direct changes in strategic or operational-level resources.

The process of examining barriers during the analysis of the desired system is directly linked to correctly identifying the problem sets requiring resolution. As obvious as it seems, strategic limitations significantly affect the ability to solve the problems identified by political leaders. Excessive limitations may not only prevent policy success but also precipitate a new set of problems that political leaders are unprepared to deal with or accept. Consequently, correctly identifying the core problems that actually require resolution and associated problem sets is a centrifugal component of the desired system analysis. Figure 3 represents a depiction of the desired system that sets the foundation for identifying critical problem sets.

Dr. Jeffrey Reilly is a retired Army officer with 26 years of active duty service. He holds a Master of Science from the University of Houston and a PhD from the University of Alabama. Dr. Reilly has held numerous command and staff positions as an infantry officer. His planning and operations experience includes serving as a theater-level combined and joint operations officer, plans division chief, and member of the “two major theater war” plans team. Dr. Reilly currently serves as director of joint education at the Air Command and Staff College and as director of the college’s Multi Domain Operational Strategist concentration.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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