Condivergence: Grand strategy and small visions

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 13, 2019 - May 19, 2019.
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Growing up under the beautiful night skies of Borneo, I remember my father talking to me about the lost visions of his generation that went through the Second World War, revolution, inflation and total social disruption. My old history teacher, who told us inspiring stories of historical change in his boring voice, once remarked that “every failed generation becomes the teacher for the next”. My generation of post-war baby boomers created the most wealth for a few and also massive debt for the next generation.

Meanwhile, the green forests of Borneo are rapidly become a brown cover of oil palm plantations.

Small wonder then that Climate Kids — the new generation that has yet to inherit power — are protesting against the present leaders’ lack of attention to the looming climate change. I recently had the honour of meeting Sir David Attenborough, who worked tirelessly his whole life through his

BBC Earth shows on how nature is changing before our eyes. You must watch his Climate Change: The Facts on YouTube to appreciate how the world is warming up fast and how billions will be affected.

Suppose we all recognise that a disaster is looming, what can we do about it?

First, we need to understand that there are a lot of “climate deniers”, meaning those who deny that there is even a problem. Most prominent among them is US President Donald Trump. There are also many who think the problem will go away or that someone else will take care of it.

Second, there are techno-optimists who think we will invent something to make the problem go away. I have no doubt that technology is an important part of the solution but many technologies do not get implemented because vested interests are against them or they require huge political will to implement.

The crux of the problem is that we cannot get political agreement on what to do exactly, not when the big powers are at loggerheads over even the smallest issues.

Third, there is the fate of all Cassandras — in Greek mythology, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy,  foretold the disaster but no one believed her. If you predict the danger of climate change too early, everyone will say there is not enough evidence. Some prefer to shoot the messenger of bad news, so no one wants to tell the truth. The result is that no one acts until it is too late.

Mainstream intellectuals, therefore, like to work on a grand strategy to deal with anything because that gives them a sense of purpose and importance. The historian John Lewis Gaddis, who teaches a course on grand strategy, formerly at the US Naval War Academy and now at Yale University, has just written a book entitled On Grand Strategy (Penguin, 2018). He uses the analogy of English philosopher Isaiah Berlin that all thinkers are either hedgehogs or foxes. Hedgehogs understand one thing very well whereas foxes are more open-minded, constantly looking at new things. Gaddis also quotes a major 2005 study by psychologist Philip Tetlock who looked at the predictive abilities of experts or strategists classified as hedgehogs and foxes. The study showed that foxes were more proficient predictors than hedgehogs.

Berlin, who developed this analogy while talking about the historical perspective of Tolstoy (famous for his book War and Peace), considered the Russian author as a fox who believed that he was a hedgehog. Napoleon, who was the master of grand strategy, made the fatal mistake of marching into Russia and was defeated more by winter than by Russian armed forces. The hedgehog who does not adjust his view when the context changes is doomed to failure.

The Chinese have a saying: “The top have their grand strategies but the bottom have their underhand counter-strategies.” For every strategy, there is a countervailing strategy that neutralises or defeats the strategist. The bigger the hedgehog that believes that he is right, the more vulnerable he is to his own ego and hubris. The Chinese evolved this insight from the observation that the emperor is far away and by the time his policies are implemented in the distant villages, either the policy is diluted or the small people simply ignore the imperial edict because it is not worthwhile or too costly to enforce anyway.

The Russians were the first to invent what is known as the Potemkin village — Potemkin was a minister of Catherine the Great, who arranged for a train of actors to go in advance of the train in which the empress was travelling “to visit the people”. At each train station, the actors would show the empress how well off they were and how much the people loved her. Top people simply do not “get” how the poor are faring. This self-delusion was the origin of the Soviet joke from the planned economy — “we pretend to pay the workers and they pretend to work”. This strategy became a ruse to fool oneself.

Grand visions may not, therefore, work well but good narratives that the public can understand will. The world currently comprises 7.6 billion people travelling in a leaky 21st century Noah’s Ark. The leaders in the ark are fighting each other instead of mending the leak and preparing for the next tsunami.

There is the denier bully who thinks it is better to decide who is the boss before you deal with the problems. Then, there is the techno-optimist who is sure that new technology will be invented to solve all the leaks (and may even prevent the storms). Then, there is the seer who says everything is fine because it is very cheap to fix the leaks, so no one fixes anything.

Success comes from those who can tell the narrative better to persuade everyone that there is a common cause to cooperate, as well as the need to compete on finding alternative solutions. Finding a shared narrative is not easy because climate change hits everyone unevenly. The rich think they can escape to New Zealand or just pay for better lifeboats. The poor will be the worst hit and, therefore, have the best cause to revolt or migrate.

Hence, even the rich cannot escape because the larger population living on the edge (currently in water and food-stressed regions such as sub-Sahara Africa, the Middle East and Central America) will migrate north to cooler climates and richer regions. The richer countries of the North will numb themselves as if they were in the Game of Thrones. Winter is coming and the poor are the undead.

What we have witnessed since 2010 is that the Arab Spring has melted into an Arab Summer heat storm. And the population in the failed states are moving northwards to cooler climates. As one World Bank study shows, failed states and terrorism have climate change origins. No country is an island onto itself — what happens in one part of the world will impact that island either through rising seas, tsunamis or migration.

It is, therefore, very likely that no grand strategy will work for climate change. It will have to be a broad framework in which we will have to search for and test solutions from diverse sources, tools and technology. Big men like to have big visions and grand strategies. That is our tragedy. We may instead have to trust the small and many visions to create a shared ownership of the wisdom of crowds.

The Chinese process of development through experimentation, in which the central government sets the parameters of desired change and the lower levels of government work with the private, foreign and state-owned enterprises to innovate, compete and evolve to local circumstances, has led to surprising successes. This framework hinges on a sound feedback mechanism, in which everyone feels that they own a stake in shared prosperity. If that feeling of trust or sharing is lost or the feedback becomes skewed (as in the case of the Potemkin village of self-deception), then the mechanism will not work.

The grand strategy of neo-liberal development was not wrong in articulation but terrible in its outcome of excessive concentration of wealth with bad feedback until it was too late. Free-market liberalism was achieved at the expense of excessive consumption funded by excessive debt (postponing costs to the future) and over-exploitation of natural resources without due regard for the consequences.

This is why I am adverse to the trap that many brilliant people fall into — that working alone, one person can find the silver bullet to kill the climate monster. No such silver bullet exists. None of us is smarter than all of us. Brexit has shown that today’s complexities are beyond some of the brightest and smartest of people. We must show humility in the face of largely unknown unknowns. We must allow small people to have their say but we must have a framework for a bottom-up feedback mechanism to work. Big people work best when they are listeners.

There is a time to act and a time to allow events to unfold by themselves. How this is done will be considered in my next article.


Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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