Use of the term "strategy" has long implied an efficient, professional approach to marshalling available resources in the face of both adversity and opportunity. This view has been reinforced by its military origins, notably as cultivated by warrior kings and heroic generals, and more recently by statesmen, think-tanks and corporate strategists. Institutions like NATO thrive on strategic formulations and cultivate such options through a multitude of scenario exercises. The United Nations system has been heavily influenced by this perspective. Strategic concerns are the epitome of mainstream seriousness.
There are aspects to this mind-set which are however difficult to articulate in the rational environment of strategy making. There is great resistance to consideration of issues which might be considered to bear upon, or undermine, the adequacy of strategy-making. These issues are by nature difficult to present in an acceptable manner. Metaphor is however helpful in this respect.
1. Imperial clothing
The story of the Emperor and his invisible clothes is much appreciated by children -- and perhaps only by children. For only children are prepared to point out the incongruity of a person of the utmost respectability who allows himself to be clothed in material that is invisible to all -- in order to conform to acclaimed advances in the prevailing principle of style.
It is worth asking the question to what extent the international community parades itself in such invisible clothing. Is it too farfetched to see many of the "principles" advanced by the best and the brightest as weaving the stuff of such invisible clothing? Is it not clothing on which extensive commentary is made and sought -- with Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to some whom others claim to be terrorists? How else to judge the niceties of seeking signature to peace treaties from opponents who attach no value to such documents, and are themselves indicted for human rights abuses?
It is sad to consider the possibility that the future may cringe at the manner in which the international community adorns itself in "universal values" and "universal human rights" with little capacity to deal with any real differences in practice. Like the Emperor, it celebrates the illusory nature of its consensual achievements, whilst demonstrating collective impotence in the face of massacre, genocide and gross exploitation. Given the mandates of United Nations military observer forces in places (such as Rwanda "refugee camps") where massacres are committed, would the response have been any different if gas ovens had been set up as at Auschwitz? Has "observing massacre" become the ultimate strategy for humanity? At what point does "bearing witness" become obscene?
2. Professional priorities
The global social and economic systems have become highly complex and are dependent on complex technologies. The components of complex systems fail, whether because of defects, wear and tear, or because they are designed to fail after a period. There is necessarily a heavy investment in system maintenance at all levels. Many are dependent for their livelihood and career advancement on responding to such failure. In periods of recession, there is much competition to provide such services.
Complex systems therefore become dependent on specialized expertise. Those providing such expertise are naturally proud to acknowledge their unique contribution. Unfortunately they are wont to exploit the cultivated incomprehensibility of their skills at the expense of ignorant outsiders and of the socio-economic system as a whole. The challenge for any strategy, whether global or local, is the questionable nature of the expertise offered.
The dilemma is best illustrated by the basic automobile maintenance services offered by a garage. If a vehicle is taken in for inspection or repair, it is common for the charges to be higher than expected. Unexpected "defects" are found. The specialistrecommends that parts "at risk" be replaced -- to minimize the risk of an "accident" when driving. The layperson is totally incapable of determining whether the risk is genuine. Components in good working order may even be replaced by worn components -- in order to ensure later business when they fail. The specialist plays on the ignorance of the person seeking advice. Only the reckless and the uncaring accept unnecessary risk -- especially where others are involved.
Increasingly, in all areas of expertise, economic pressures require that intervention be made so as to ensure further business. Physicians make unnecessary tests prior to unnecessary surgery --skilfully referring patients around a network of colleagues -- all in the name of the health of the patient (and without reference to their own economic and professional advantage). Honest specialists remain silent when they become aware of malpractice by their colleagues -- for fear of professional sanction. Who would venture to criticize the need for further consultation? In the present climate can a specialist even distinguish at what point his services, or those of his colleagues, become inappropriate?
Most strategies are designed with the support of consultants functioning under such economic and professional constraints. Is it any surprise that strategies have been less than adequate to the challenge?
3. Dissolving resolution
Strategies are developed, negotiated and announced with much fanfare. Some negotiations among specialists, as in the case of the law of the sea, may have taken many years. Impassioned, moving speeches, and photo opportunities, celebrate their final approval and signature. It is from then on that the acclaimed "resolution" to act starts to dissolve.
Like New Year's resolutions the participants derive most of the positive benefits from the brief moment of pledging adherence to the strategic principles. The community bathes in consensus. Constituencies are duly impressed. Opponents are silenced.
Like a foreign colonial power, those resolving action lay a burden on the future -- strategists effectively attempt to colonize the future. The future, like the colonized, is often highly reluctant to accept that burden. It may actively seek liberation from the burden by pursuing some alternative course of action. In the light of democratic principles, it may indeed be asked how legitimate is the authority of the past when those living in the present have not been consulted about the legitimacy of its control upon their lives.
For a politician, a strategy from the past has decreasing value. It is not news. Opponents offering alternative strategies can then easily attract the support of a fickle public. "Young tigers" in any hierarchy can exploit the vulnerabilities of the strategy formulated in the past.
In a society focused on the short-term, provisions from the earlier strategy can be "watered-down" or "rolled-back" -- as with the environmental achievements in the USA. Clearly it is in formulating strategies that lies the political pay-off. It is in avoiding the unpleasant aspects of their implementation that political skill is demonstrated.
Constituencies now have little expectation that politicians or governments will fulfil pledges. In 1995 the French government was even obliged to vow to fulfil a pledge to other governments. Resolution is now subject to rapid devaluation. But, as with New Year's resolutions, it is questionable whether resolving to act on a resolution is a credible response. Strategies have a short effective shelf-life in relation to their original intentions.