4GW: A solution of the second kind

Solutions of the first kind:  new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles,
software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies).

Solutions of the second kind:  new ideas about tactics and strategy.

Solutions of the third kind:  new ways to shape our institutions (aka politics),
usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people.

Shawn Brimley has provided an example of a solution of the second kind with “A Grand Strategy of Sustainment“, posted at the Small Wars Journal (20 March 2008). I agree with almost everything he says, which seems to be in the broad current of work about grand strategy in the era of post-trinitiarian conflicts — in which 4GW has become the dominant mode of war. William Lind, Chet Richards, me, and many others have said similar things.

Most of these works focus on description of a desired new tactic and strategy, with little analysis of why we in fact do things differently or how can our institutions effect these new ideas. Such analysis usually features ample use of “American should do” this and that. A key factor in solutions of the second kind is why we have our current policies, and that answer suggests the cure used by each author.

  • Ignorance — Folks just do not have the necessary information about costs and consequences. Providing information starts the process of reform. This has worked in some aspects of public policy. News about the benefits of adding chlorine and fluoride to drinking water, or the bad effects of smoking tobacco, initiated political and social processes which eventually implemented desirable institutional changes.
  • Innocent mistakes or stupid leaders — As with ignorance, the cure is information about costs, consequences, and alternatives.
  • Schemes of corrupt or evil leaders — The remedy is not just information (as above), but also alerting citizens to the motives of those initiating and/or supporting these policies.

The common assumption to all of these is that change will start once people see the right solution. This is the “Dear Abby” class of solutions, in which the advice is good but operationally useless — since the problem is not imagining a better state but how to implement it.  There is another perspective, in which two factors make public policies difficult to change — and these factors should be the focus of analysis when recommending changing policies.

  1. Structural: policies result from constellations of powerful private interests that gain from them, and will actively resist change.
  2. Procedural: few public policies offer clear and compelling benefits on the scale of public heath programs (stop smoking, live longer).

Accordingly, I recommend that the community of people concerned with American geopolitical policy concentrate their efforts as follows.

  1. Showing the costs and weaknesses of current policies is both useful and necessary to effecting change, and must continue. But describing alternative new policies to each other probably contributes little. We have long since reached the point of repetition, imo.
  2. Unique definitions are polluting the discussion. We need some agreement on the words as well as the music. I made a first cut at this here, for example in the relationship of non-trinitarian conflict to 4GW. Also, agreeing to use the “DOD Dictionary” would help (JP 1-02, see the pdf here).
  3. Shift the focus from imagining alternatives to devising ways to implement them. That is, the interesting analytical problem is the factors supporting current polcies and institutional structures, and how to change them.


An even better comment on Brimley’s proposed strategy was posted by Dan Kervick at Matthew Yglesias’ blog:

Another “Grand Strategy”.  Awesome.  Let’s make room on the shelf next to all the other grand strategies.


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Post in the series “Solutions to 4GW”:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind

5 thoughts on “4GW: A solution of the second kind

  1. “Folks just do not have the necessary information about costs and consequences.”

    Also, for many situations, the information is very subtle, and rationality leads to perverse consequences. E.g., there are some biologically anomalous humans who smoke tobacco cigarettes and suffer no ill effects. Is it genetics, nutrition, some other factor? We don’t know. Unfortunately, these anomalies get noticed and *imitated* by the broad masses of people who will get cancer from smoking, and thus the oncologists stay busy.

    In the context of 4GW, this means that perverse information will get noticed and acted on, leading to major catastrophes that theoretically should have been avoided.

    Physics is simple, chemistry is a little quirky, biology is very quirky, ecology is computationally infeasible, and economics is incalculable. Systems of increasing complexity become less and less amenable to fixing by giving folks the “necessary information.”
    Fabius Maximus: This was a methodologial recommendation for the “4GW community.” Any thoughts about it? Or about the odds of this happening?

  2. “Structural: policies result from constellations of powerful private interests that gain from them, and will actively resist change.”

    One key to implementation would be to sell the elites on how they can profit from structural changes to American grand strategy. How to sell them on 4GW? Argue that imperfect occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have hampered development of those countries’ resource sectors. Thus, better 4GW = efficient occupation = multilateral investment = resource extraction = record profits.

    A 4GW-capable military will also allow the Anglo-West to project power into more areas, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. where elites covet access to resources. Selling anything to decisionmakers must hit their pain points. For the ruling class, these pain points are often greed-based.
    Fabius Maximus: That’s useful advice! In fact, that’s the sales pitch of those advocating DoD use methods and insights of the social sciences to further a neocolonial program — and in a few years they have succeeded on a scale probably beyond anything they imagined.

  3. How does this grand strategy fit into the hot war against the new Barbary pirates? Europe doesn’t seem to think they are any more of a threat than they thought they were the first time the US went to war in Tripoli, when Jefferson was President. They have made their redoubts in every Muslim country this time, and in Muslim ghettos of many non-Muslim countries. And by aiming to be popular the US leaves itself even more vulnerable to the pirates’ masterful manipulation of the media by use of the management of savagery. How can the US avoid the perception it is at war with Islam when it is actually at war with the pirates who fight under Islam’s black flag of Jihad? Can it? How tightly bound is Jihad to Islam?
    Fabius Maximus: Interesting analogy. After 9/11 I wrote that the fight with al Qaeda was not war in any meaningful sense, but crime (Chet Richards discusses this at length in his new book If We Can Keep It). As such Congress could act under its powers to “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations”.
    As for your questions about the nature of the jihadists, and the role inside Islam, the web is filled with folks confidently chattering on about this — having no real knowledge on the subject except what they get from other equally ignorant Americans. They are the equivalent of the folks ranting about the evil Hun during WWI. It is one of the essential questions of this conflict, and requires deep knowledge to answer. I have zero expertise in this field, so will not join the chorus.

  4. Fabius:
    How would an effort under the imprimatur of the Congressional powers “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations” appear?

    Would it involve the very next phrase in the Constitutional list of Congressional powers? “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water”?

    This would mean a much larger role for companies like Blackwater, and an interesting commercial aspect to the present global Counterjihad.

    Note that I agree that Congress has been sadly deficient in asserting its powers and duties in the current situation. Rather than declaring War Congress passed an authorization for the use of force to the Executive branch and fobbed off oversight to the Judiciary, thereby abandoning its Constitutional roles and responsibilities.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s an interesting idea! Perhaps one for Chet Richards, who believes in privatizing more of our defense apparatus. I was thinking of applying traditional law enforcement and intelligence methods — perhaps even covert ops — against overseas entities responsible for terrorism. That is, treating it as “enhanced crime” not “war.” I never developed the idea, but your analogy brought it back to mind.

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