Saturday, April 25, 2015

The mind of empires: the story telling approach to strategy

This video is making the rounds on the Web. Here, Mr. George Friedman speaks of strategic matters in Europe and argues that the objective of the United States is to contain Russia in order to maintain their world empire. (note: this video has been removed from youtube after the publication of this post, but you can still find it at

What is that motivates governments in taking decisions that so often turn out to be tragically wrong? The problem is that we have no data on the inner functioning of most governments; that is, we don't know what leaders say to each other when discussing in private. We can, however, have some idea on the way of thinking of governments if we look at the public pronouncements of that category of "experts" that go under the name of "strategic advisers".

I have no direct experience in military matters, but I do in a field that is just as strategic; that of the energy supply and, more in general, the supply of mineral commodities that makes a country's economy function. In this field, I have encountered several specimens of the category of the "policy advisers" who are supposed to whisper wisdom in the ear of the world leaders. These people tend to use a story-based approach; something that I would define as "story telling based strategy."

I have already reported how someone who advised the Spanish government described the world's oil market in purely narrative terms; giving roles to each major producer and having them play in the great theater of the world. And his narration was totally unencumbered by facts and data. The clip shown at the beginning of this post has a very similar style. Mr. Friedman's epistemology of international matters seems to be based on a basic narrative concept: major world governments are given roles and then they are described as playing these roles in the world theater. The resulting play is not encumbered by data; it is, after all, pure narrative; story telling based epistemology. 

Least you accuse me of speaking without data myself, let me bring up at least one historical example of this approach. I can picture in my mind a cabinet reunion of the Italian government at some moment, in late 1941. I can imagine Mr. Mussolini standing up and saying, "You know, guys? I have an idea: we should declare war on the United States!" And everyone in the room nods and says, "Yeah, great idea, chief! Let's do that!"

What led the Italian government to take this disastrous decision? I think it can be explained in terms of the narrative models that they had in their minds. The documents we have from that time tell us that, in their minds, the dominant narration was that the Mediterranean Sea was an Italian lake. The US - as they saw the situation - had no more interest in controlling the Mediterranean Sea than Italy had in controlling the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know if Mussolini was influenced by some policy advisers in developing this narration, but it is clear that he and the whole Italian government badly misjudged the quantitative factors involved; that is the tremendous US military potential in terms of the human and natural resources it could muster.

Do you think this example is an exception? I don't think so. Imagine a reunion of the Japanese government, also in 1941, with someone standing up and stating: "gentlemen, it is obvious that if we attack the Americans at Pearl Harbor, they will surrender to us immediately afterward.." Their story telling models cast the Americans as weaklings who could be easily intimidated. Again, lack of quantitative data on the extent of the US human and natural resources led to disaster.

There are several more recent examples of monumental mistakes made by governments; we could discuss more of them, but it seems that the concept that government officers work on the basis of narrative models can explain most of what has been happening in the world. And, if they continue in this way, God knows what kind of new monumental mistakes will be made.

Mr. Friedman's speech is a good example of a narrative (unencumbered by data) that could shape the strategic thought of a government. It cannot be understood simply from the clip which is making the rounds on the Web. The complete speech is not just about warmongering, it is not simply an imperial advocacy speech (in part it is, though). It is a fascinating speech that deserves to be listened at. The problem with this kind of speeches that the fascination of story telling hides the ugly details of reality. There is no mention in the speech about the fact that not even an empire can plan wars without worrying about where it can find the resources needed. To be fair, Friedman does mention that if Germany and Russia were to form an alliance, they would have the resources to challenge the American Empire. But he never seems to wonder where the resources that created and maintain the American Empire are coming from right now and for how long they can keep coming. For instance, when he mentions oil prices, he says that low prices are "the new normal". And that, I think, says a lot the limits of storytelling as a guide to understand the world. (To say nothing about the lack of any mention about the grim reaper character waiting to go on stage: climate change).

In the end, these narrative models for leaders are just somewhat more sophisticated versions of the ones used by the media for "consensus building". These are based on the simplest and most primitive narrative device we know: "we are the good guys and they are the bad guys". In their public declarations, high level government officers will often follow the media narrative. Occasionally, however, as with these declarations by Mr. Friedman, their inner mental models briefly surface up from the depth of cabinet reunions. Do some governments know what they are doing? Probably yes, but, from the historical record of humankind, it must be a rare condition.

Our curse as human beings seems to be that we keep trying to force the world to behave according to mental models that were developed by our ancestors of long, long ago. Role playing models were probably working well when we were living in tribes of a few hundred individuals. They don't work anymore with those entities we call "states" or "nations", encompassing tens or hundreds of millions of people.  Will we ever understand that we have to base our decisions on reality? Maybe, but we'll have to be taught some more harsh lessons by the real world before we learn.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)