Strategic Imagination: Meeting the Challenge

By Robbin Laird

Recently, Professor Brendan Sargeant, the noted Australian strategist, gave an inaugural lecture in a new series of lectures at the Australian National University on the evolving challenges facing Australia. He argued that underlying strategic policy is a set of assumptions about the world which make up the driving force of interpretative reality. As the world changes, simply continuing a particular path forward – which is a projection into the future of past assumptions about the world – can lead to policy disasters.

As he put it: “In times of great change, the challenge is to imagination, for continuity in strategy is likely to lead to failure.”

Recently, I talked with Sargeant about his lecture and about meeting the challenge of navigating an effective way ahead. Paul Dibb’s work which underscores the time urgency of understanding threats and what they mean, along with the challenge of addressing events early enough to have effective crisis management, clearly require the capability to read events, and to shape responses early in the crisis spiral.

This clearly requires strategic imagination.

This is how Sargeant put it at the beginning of our discussion.

“I actually think policy is a secondary discussion. The first discussion is, what’s driving the way you think about policy?

“And to me, there are two big drivers. One is the future. We don’t know what the future is, so we can only speculate about it. We can try and create various futures, but we cannot know what the future that will emerge will be. We must step in and think about what the various futures might be, and what are the pathways from those futures back to now, and what are the pathways forward.

“We need to think very specifically.  If you want to create a particular future or you think a particular future might emerge, what are you going to do about it between now and then. That’s where the strategy piece comes in because strategy is a pathway.

“The other big driver is how you understand yourself and your situation. What is driving the way you think about the world?  Are you’re sufficiently self-aware, or sufficiently self-critical of the assumptions that, in a sense, lead you to a particular perspective, out of which emerge policy solutions?

“One of the things I think are problematic about large, embedded, very stable institutions is that they start working for themselves and they see the world as a reflection of themselves, rather than seeing the world and thinking about, well, what sort of relationships should they have with the world?

“If, for example, you make, say, a force disposition decision for internal institutional reasons, without thinking about its impact on the world, that is a failure of understanding, a failure of thinking about the future. It also means that your decision-making is driven by your own needs rather than the needs of having to deal with strategic reality.

“Let me give an example which is derived also from your work on the Nordics and European defense. When you talk about the Nordics, you don’t talk about them trying to defeat Russia. You talk about them ‘managing’ the challenge of Russia.

“We are in a world of continuous process management, of continuing adaptation to constantly changing circumstances. One feature of crises is that they call you to challenge yourself and your assumptions about the world. You need to continue to do this because the world is always changing. You are continuously managing your relationship with a changing reality.

“And because you don’t know what tomorrow will be, you have to have sufficient adaptiveness to be able to respond and change. That is a very different world to the one where you just sit and forget, or because you have built a big force, you can assume that it will take care of everything. Or you live in a world that no longer exists. That is what I talk about when I talk about nostalgia.

“For me, when I look at a lot of our planning, it is very linear. It builds a set of assumptions. Those assumptions are built on what we’ve done in the past, and they project a linear projection into the future. As we know, the future is not what we think it will be.  We need a much richer, broader understanding of possibilities, built on a richer understanding of ourselves and our situation.

“We need to try to create future worlds by what we do, even though the world is not going to be what we seek to create. The question then is, how do we have sufficient adaptiveness and capacity to live in a range of future worlds, and to be constantly testing our assumptions of the nature of the world that we are in?

“Crises challenge our sense of identity; If they are big enough, they will challenge a country’s sense of what it is, and how it will operate into the world. You can succeed or fail on the basis of the extent to which you’re able to understand the challenge to identity as part of the challenge that a major crisis will create.

“Strategy, then, is preparation for the future crisis. We live in a world where we are not sure what the future crisis is. We also living in a time of crisis. In this context, strategy becomes something about the relationship between where you are, who and what you are, and the range of possible futures that might emerge.”

We then turned to the specific Australian case.

Australia is facing significant change as America’s role in the world has changed, as China is seeking its definition of the global order, and as technology reduces the traditional comfort of Australian geographical isolation.

“We have outsourced a lot of strategic policy to our senior partner, and we are paying for that at the moment. We need to develop a diplomatic and strategic culture which is far more aware of the contingency and volatility of the world, and far more willing to, in a sense, take risks. What I think we are seeing in Australia at the moment, with this COVID lockdown, with the closing of the borders, and the focus on domestic policies, is that our energy has turned inwards because there is a real fear and reluctance to step out.

“The real danger is that the world will force us to change before we realize that we have to change ourselves. There is a clear commitment to reshaping our military and rethinking policy in relation to our regional strategic environment, but the rethink is too slow, and it is not conceptually adventurous enough.

“As Paul Dibb has argued, we don’t have the luxury of warning time anymore. We don’t really have the luxury of space, which means that we cannot continue to operate at the pace or the rate of change that we have been used to.

“We need to be ruthless in our self-analysis, about our strengths and weaknesses, and who we are. We need to have a clear sense of the range of possible futures and the various responses that we may need to make. That is why I say a crisis is a challenge to imagination, a challenge to identity before it becomes a policy or a strategy challenge.”

We then discussed a major challenge, which is understanding the nature of your friends and adversaries.

The words allies and partners are frequently used in describing relationships for the United States or Australia, but what does that actual mean in a specific event and case?

The core competitors Russia and China and other authoritarian powers, like Iran, do not think like the leaders or publics of the democracies.

Understanding what a particular competitor or adversary is doing (and why) in a particular event which become a crisis and then a step in escalation is obviously crucial for escalation management.

“Your adversary is not a reflection of yourself. I think the hardest thing in policy and strategy is to be prepared to try and see reality as it is, not as you want it to be. Then it is a relationship between that and the pathways you build into the range of futures that might emerge. And to have adaptive capacities, to support a range of options and solutions.

“You have emphasized the importance of case study thinking as a way to do strategy. This makes a great deal of sense.

“With the case study method, every situation is different. If you are thinking about the future, you need to think about multiple futures, not a single future.

“One of the advantages of case studies is that that it actually gives you a methodology to test the future. When you are testing the future, you are not just testing the future, you are testing yourself in the present, because you have to think of two places in time at once.

“We don’t see enough of that in the strategic thinking. Bureaucracies are designed to create consistent outcomes over time.

“Bureaucracies assume that time is an infinite resource.

“That is certainly not the case in today’s strategic challenges and realities facing Australia.”

For an article highlighting the lecture, see the following:

Events, Policy Making and Strategic Imagination