I continue to work through the latest edition of Homeland Security Affairs and think about the question of risk management in the decision making/prioritization process. Philip Palin describes the threat as inspired by the National Intelligence Strategy:
- [F]our nation-states that present a “challenge to U.S. interests. These are Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.
- Violent extremist groups, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations
- The global economic crisis
- Failed states and ungoverned spaces
- Climate change and energy competition
- Rapid technological change and dissemination of information
- Pandemic disease
Two points that Palin makes and I think are quite valid is that in terms of ‘traditional’ threats (ones that threaten the existance of the current regime). There just aren’t any. Neither the four nation states or terrorists and other violent groups just don’t pose the same sort of potential threat that the Soviet Union did. The biggest threats to our current order, in fact, are far different. Economics, access to resources and environmental issues.
And yet, which receive the most attention when policy makers talk to the public. Let’s face it, apart from global warming (where one major party continues to even doubt it’s existance), how much discussion is there about the long term security implications of China’s dominance of the rare earth market?
The second point is that this is a pretty broad list.
A colleague who served for many years in the intelligence community has critiqued the National Intelligence Strategy as fatally flawed because it is so far-reaching. In his view it is undisciplined in target-selection and thereby condemns the intelligence community to almost certain failure. Limited assets will be stretched too thin. His operational concern is undeniable. Yet I perceive the greater flaw is too narrowly defining threats as externalities.
There’s good points on each side here. I’ve often held up for derision the concept in homeland security (and frequently used in fusion centers) of ‘all threats all hazards’. Four simple words but when put together in that way they mean absolutly nothing. The fact of the matter is, when you try to accomplish everything with a small organization you tend to do nothing particularly well. If you do manage to do a good job of fooling people into thinking that you are covering all the bases, you instill a bit of learned helplessness among the rest of the community who think you’ve watching everything.
The federal government, I’d argue, can (operative word: can) be different. It’s certainly big enough and broken down into enough organizations that you should be able to address all of these concerns with an adequate degree of coverage.
It might require a reorganization of some of the intelligence agencies (which, while highly unpopular within the community I’m sure, might be worth a look since they were all structured to address the problem that was the Soviet Union) but hey, nobody said this’d be easy. As Palin points out, our entire intelligence system was based on the premise that the Soviet Union was a predictable actor that had an ideology which led it to consistent behavior. Our current threat environment is made up of so many threats, many of them not directed by human actors (pandemics) or, at least, not intentionally so (economic conditions).
Side note: Palin says: “We are undoubtedly the most powerful nation on the planet. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.” Do we not feel most powerful because of the myriad of threats or because various decision makers have a vested interest in making us feel threatened? Discuss.
Sounding a similar note to KR’s recent post:
No complex system can be fully controlled. Can goals be cultivated? Certainly. Encouraged? Absolutely. Influenced? Yes. Guaranteed? No – even the effort will amplify tragic consequence.
So rather than chasing every kook and always focusing on the last crisis, terrorist attack or disruption, Palin argues for a resilient system which he defines as:
(1) the ability of a system to absorb or buffer disturbances and still maintain its core attributes; (2) the ability of the system to self-organize, and (3) the capacity for learning and adaptation in the context of change.
Our current inability to do those things today presents a set of behaviors in the homeland security environment which Palin describes as neurotic (which I really like).
So what has our neurosis brought us?
If any consistent strategy can be discerned it has much more to do with suppressing the likelihood of turbulence and responding to the messy consequences of turbulence, rather than accommodating the possibility (probability) of turbulence. In homeland security we have been much more focused on resisting change than adopting resilience.
Of course, that quote has applicability beyond homeland security. I’ve argued here before that our approach to some criminal environments is similar. Our tactics are all about resisting change rather than adapting, minimizing harm and channeling energy to our advantage.
And we kind of end where we begin. The question ‘why don’t we develop a resilience based strategy’ seems to merit the same answers as ‘why don’t we adopt a risk management based strategy’ and they’re probably closely linked (Perhaps even synonymous? Could you have a risk management strategy that wasn’t resilience based or vice versa?).