Managing the Risk of Nationalism

Via Redwood Dragon, we find Body and Soul‘s The Doctrine of American Infallibility (1,900 words, plus over 3,000 words in comments). Is (Dave’s phrase) “modern American nationalism” imbued with an inability to admit systemic error? And if it is, what should we do about it?
I’ve written about risk management many times over on Arcturus; in the most relevant such post, I mentioned the fundamental error of “failing to acknowledge that there are any risk management strategies other than avoidance and acceptance.” (MEDACT’s predictions, unsurprisingly, were not realized.)
Before going further, I should quote the PMBOK (pp 142-3) on the available risk response strategies:

  • Risk avoidance is changing the project plan to eliminate the risk or condition or to protect the project objectives from its impact. Although the project team can never eliminate all risk events, some specific risks may be avoided.

  • Risk transfer is seeking to shift the consequence of a risk to a third party together with ownership of the response. Transferring the risk simply gives another party responsibility for its management; it does not eliminate it.

  • [Risk] mitigation seeks to reduce the probability and/or consequences of an adverse risk event to an acceptable threshold.

  • [Risk acceptance] indicates that the project team has decided not to change the project plan to deal with a risk or is unable to identify any other suitable response strategy. Active acceptance may include developing a contingency plan to execute, should a risk occur. Passive acceptance requires no action, leaving the project team to deal with the risks as they occur.

Stereotypical anti- and pro-war stances fall into the first and last of these: “don’t invade, we might kill some noncombatants” vs “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” Step one in achieving greater understanding is to recognize that while there are people on both sides of the issue who really do fit the pattern, there are far more who do not.
Good risk management practice would erode any doctrine of American infallibility; to quote again from the PMBOK (p 129): “To be successful, the organization must be committed to addressing risk management throughout the project. One measure of the organizational commitment is its dedication to gathering high-quality data on project risks and their characteristics.” Such data gathering is the antithesis of an insistence on historical perfection.
But if self-congratulation is no strategy, neither is hand-wringing. In describing our involvement in Southwest Asia in risk-management terms, I inherently imply that success is not only possible but can become more likely with time — the opposite of a quagmire.
The two cases presented in Jeanne’s post are combat in Afghanistan and reconstruction in Iraq. The identified risks are the death of noncombatants, especially children; and schedule/cost/quality problems in rebuilding. These are nontrivial concerns, and as (I hope) moral people and as taxpayers, we need to be vigilant about them.
For the combat environment, risk mitigation should take note of the following:

  • The use of extremely reliable precision-guided munitions presents an exceptionally lethal risk to persons in target areas, who are now hundreds of times more likely to be injured or killed, by comparison with the unguided bombs and missiles of past wars. It must therefore be balanced by equally improved target assessment. For a relevant development, see the optimistically titled Micro-drone aerial spies preparing for takeoff.

  • Conversely, relatively indiscriminate munitions should be phased out or at least upgraded to facilitate safe disposal of unexploded units.

These are significant scope/quality improvements, and will take time and (substantial) money to implement. For Iraqi reconstruction, corrective action requires a more strategic decision: should the work be delegated (risk transfer), and if so, to whom? Many Americans do not trust the UN to oversee such a task. This is complicated by the additional need to nurture civil society in Iraq to a relatively healthy condition; an organization which can’t keep dictatorships out and even puts them in charge of things is an unlikely candidate for this role (a while back, I jokingly suggested a new cabinet department).
It’s hard to foresee any significant policy changes in this area — there just aren’t that many organizations, public or private, who seem capable of performing the work. But American resentment over paying for it is inevitable. And if other nations are added to the list of defeated former enemies in the next few years, such resentment will become a high-profile campaign issue. Keeping from blowing up kids in Afghanistan may seem easy by comparison.

3 thoughts on “Managing the Risk of Nationalism”

  1. Is (Dave’s phrase) “modern American nationalism” imbued with an inability to admit systemic error?

    I don’t think so. My impression is that many Americans are critical of their country, and that as a society we eventually, in most cases, correct gross mistakes.

    Social critiques like the Body and Soul post, on a variety of topics, are frequent and AFAIK have always been.

    Also, note that the Body and Soul post cites mainly journalists and military people who are cited by journalists. There may be a sampling bias here.

    I think it would be helpful to ask also whether modern Islamic civilization and, to a lesser extent, that of European socialism, are “imbued with an inability to admit systemic error.”

    Your general points about risk management are good.

  2. Ahem, the American Federal government is among the most accountable national governments of the face of the planet.

    The Stockholder law suit makes American corporations the most accountable to share holders on the face of the planet. As the ELF scandle in Europe and the bank crisis is Japan (compared to the American S&L scandle) show that the American system addresses with corruption far better than any other market system on the planet.

    In the specific case of the American military’s use of cluster muntions, Iraq showed that the combination of the tactical munition dispenser cluster bomb and the wind corrected muntion PGM kit made for the deadliest weapon of the war. Post war analysis showed it was inflicting _40% casualties_ on selected Iraqi air defense and Republican Guard units.

    At best, the US military will use fewer cluster bombs and more thermobaric weapons to achieve the same sorts of precision guided area affect kills.

  3. I agree with the general gist of the post, and would only add that non-action has just as much if not more risk than action. There is this widespread psychological fallacy that *doing* something is somehow “risky”, versus the perceived safety of maintaining the present course.

    At least if you *choose* to go in, or stay out, you are forced into a rational assessment of the pros and cons. If you maintain your present course by default, then eventually you are going to hit the rocks, and you won’t know it before it’s too late.

    On balance I was against the war, but I view the default anti-war attitude of most of Europe as an extremely worrying head-in-sand attitude that will eventually cause a hell of a lot of problems in the long run. They have basically become unthinking “inertialists” i.e. at all costs don’t act to destabilise the status quo, no matter what the arguments for doing so, or how dire the consequences of inaction. Very reminiscent of the 1930s.

    America and the UK (also the Spanish leader, and Australia), on the other hand, at least recognise the need for *decision*. Even if they had decided not to invade Iraq, it would have been for specific, not general reasons.

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