At the recent ‘New Directions in Strategic Thinking’ conference, a common character trait could be found amongst the world-class collection of participants: pessimism.
Not only pessimism about the state of the world today, but also a belief that being a strategist requires one to be pessimistic. ‘We are paid to think of the worst that could happen,’ as one participant put it.
Certainly there’s a wisdom to that notion. Strategy is fundamentally tied to the use of force in international affairs. It’s the tool of states who are afraid they won’t be able to live unmolested by others. It requires an understanding of how pain is caused, how people respond, and why it’s sometimes necessary—and even moral—to cause the death of others.
Likewise, a few minutes scanning social media or the opinion pages will quickly convince all but the sternest of souls that the world is aflame. Authoritarianism is on the rise, territory seems less sacred, nuclear weapons remain, violence is on our streets, and hatred and fear are the soundtrack to our politics.
Yet there’s an important distinction to be made between pessimism and caution. The wary concern themselves with what could occur and take precautions. The pessimists believe not only that the worst could happen, but that it inevitably must. And thus they see the world through this predictive lens.
Pessimists expected to see the use of chemical weapons in the Second World War and nuclear weapons in the Cold War. Pessimists expected a counter-balance to the US to emerge in 1991 and declared food supplies could never keep up with population growth. Pessimists told us regional and international institutions would never last, and that international law will never stop a national leader who harmed their own people.
To the pessimist, the most truthful line ever written comes from a piece of fiction by Thucydides: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. But it’s just not true today. The world has 192 countries, most small, and most of whom live in relative autonomy and peace. Since the so-called return of hard power, Russia’s neighbours in eastern Europe haven’t prostrated themselves before Moscow, any more than China’s neighbours in maritime Asia have bowed to Beijing.
The Gullivers may break the odd bind or two, but they are increasingly willing to submit to the Lilliputians’ constraints for reasons of their own national interest. For good and ill, many Lilliput’s (such as Taiwan, North Korea or Islamic State) now drive the agenda as much as they are subject to it. Meanwhile, war is increasingly rare, poverty substantially reduced, living standards radically improved, and human wealth growing at a staggering rate. Compared to 1800, humanity is at a minimum 2,900% better off materially (it really may be closer to 10,000%), while we consume 70 times more goods and services today.
The point isn’t that all our problems are solved, that differences between states have disappeared or that war is over. Of course these challenges are still with us. Rather, my argument is that by adopting a pessimistic lens we are likely to impair our understanding of the true state of the modern world. If entire countries submit to pessimism it can sap social resilience and leave us unwilling or unable to seize opportunities for peace.
Growing pessimism in the west has encouraged a view that our armed forces are weaker than they really are. Half of Americans no longer think the US military is the strongest in the world. This growing perception has led to poor management of the Pentagon by Congress, and fuels the criticism—made by Donald Trump and others—that the US should simply turn its back on the world.
Growing pessimism has encouraged a view that our economies are smaller than they are. Many younger Australians who came of age during the GFC underestimate the economic importance and resilience of the US. That has led to views that we can’t afford to say no to Beijing, and that we ought to stand aside from the US and fellow small countries in Asia because some day China will ‘rule the world’.
Growing pessimism is likely also encouraging a view that terrorism cannot be solved through conventional measures, and requires blanket bans of migration or clothing for our security. Such a pessimistic policy prescription will only make western counter-radicalism and messaging much harder.
Strategists don’t need to be ‘happy warriors’, but any profession which is focused on clear thinking ought to worry about a culture which conflates pessimism with wisdom. Strategy requires ‘seeing what needs to be seen’. To the degree we adopt or accept a pessimistic lens which obscures the world, we make our understanding weaker and our job harder.