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24th September 2009 | Draft

We Are on the Brink of Failure in Responding to Global Crises

Afghanistan as a strategic metaphor

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The following text reframes the global strategic challenge, using the failure of conventional application of resources in Afghanistan as a metaphor. It has been developed as an editorial experiment using simplistic substitution, with due apologies, from the excellent text regarding the challenge in Afghanistan by Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown (We Are on the Brink of Failure in Afghanistan: this is our last chance, The Guardian, 18 September 2009).

It is produced on the occasion of a historic General Assembly of the United Nations, the Pittsburgh G20 Summit Meeting, and publication of a report by an international group of environmental scientists and economists, coordinated by Brian Walker (Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions. Science, 2009, 325). This indicates that the world faces a compounding series of crises driven by human activity, with which existing governments and institutions are increasingly powerless to cope with (see also Human-made Crises 'Outrunning Our Ability To Deal With Them,' Scientists Warn, ScienceDaily, 17 September 2009). Other such editorial experiments are listed below.


The crucial question on the planet today is not whether the various wars against hunger, poverty, ill-health, climate change, environment degradation, drug addiction, and the like are important. They are. It is not whether the consequences of failure are serious. They are. It is a much more brutal question: can we succeed? And the answer is no. Unless we change both our current policies and our present attitudes, failure is inevitable.

The reasons are manifold. The international community continues to lack a united strategy with clear priorities. Intergovernmental institutions are all over the place. President Obama's plan is taking too long to be applied. Those engaged in such "wars" are fighting them at full capacity, but their governments are not. Respect for national governments, to which we are tied, is not rising, but falling. We lack a political plan that works. And it is far from clear that the various strategies in place are working. All of this has led to erosion of public support for these "wars" at a frightening rate.

There are no quick fixes. But we need to start immediately, to forge a co-ordinated response to each of these problems and, above all, to show the strategic resolve to see it through.

The central failure is the absence of any clear international strategy. The business community think the planetary challenge is economic growth; the environmentalists think it's safeguarding ecological systems; the religious think it's enhancing spiritual values; the scientists think it is lack of research; and for the technologists its the lack of R&D investment; and the politicians think it's the lack of political will to change.

World leaders repeatedly call for international conferences to review progress. These will be a waste of time if they do not produce the single united international strategy that has so far been so disastrously lacking. The United Nations, too, has to wake up to the fact that it faces a catastrophic failure with very wide consequences for its own future, unless it can start working like an integrated alliance, rather than a hotchpotch of the committed and the half-hearted.

We now have strategic expertise of the highest quality, as exemplified in Afghanistan by the US Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, recently joined by Britain's new head of the army, General David Richards, the first person to hold that post with actual - and much admired - command experience there. There is a chance for a new start. But the word from Washington is that the overall strategy is floundering and the political plan is taking far too long to put together.

Some say the fault lies in institutional infighting, with those endeavouring reform imprisoned in institutional conventions and ignored by operating and intelligence services. Others say the problem is the personality of those seeking to instigate such innovation. Whatever the reason, there is a perception of lack of co-ordination and drift.

Excellent reports on the challenges facing world governance have been produced. But why is it taking so long for their strategic conclusions to be properly implemented? Much rests on imminent, long-anticipated overall plans, such as that of the G20. There is a need for a change in strategy and a change of gear.

National governments need to change gear too. The recent speeches of national leaders should have been a clarion call to their nations. Instead, they have tended to be lectures rationalizing policies of the past. We all know our leaders will never be comparable with the historical exemplars of our nations; their chief means of persuasion are not their charisma, but volcanic vituperation. Nevertheless, they must find better means to tell us what the wars in which we are engaged (virtual or otherwise) are for, if they are to reverse the alarming erosion in public support. The peoples of the world are not squeamish. They have shown time and again that they are prepared to put up with pain and sacrifice, provided that they are convinced of the cause and see a reasonable chance of success.

You cannot win a war on half-horsepower. The world's leaders need to make it clear that this struggle is now the world's first priority and we will strain every sinew to win it. In most of our recent wars, leaders have formed a special war cabinet. Why not now? Why not a minister for global challenges in every country? Why have we not assembled the very brightest from our national agencies to form a co-ordinated team to see this thing through?

Success in response to these global challenges will not be won by the bomb and the bayonet. It will be achieved by development and local ownership. So why the many inconsistencies in the allocation of our resources -- with the non-essential receiving far more funds than those that are ever more potentially dangerous, implicating those who are poorest?

We also need to think again about governance. If, despite the cloud hanging over democratic processes, those who are part of the problem continue to be returned to power, we have to ensure that when re-elected they act very differently from previously. Their institutions must not be made up of from the unfragrant coalition of those complicit in crime and malfeasance that they have put together to get themselves elected. They should constitute a genuine government offering a unified strategy, which will clean out corruption and pursue an aggressive policy of integration of those who are willing to pursue their aims through the constitution, rather than by inappropriate force.

This should include a recognition by the international community that a programme to strengthen local government, running with the grain of traditional local structures, will be more effective than pouring more money into national centres of power. Traditional local politics are the key to the challenges of the world, not western models of centralised government.

We must also take a long, hard look at our tactics at field level. The policy of "clear, hold and build" in rural areas might have worked in the past, but since then, the situation has moved heavily against us. Now, in the rural areas at least, we are no longer combatting challenges which have their source elsewhere, but, in most of the areas of territorial dispute, a war among the people there.

The aim of recent global strategies was to resurrect our lost opportunity. The theory was that, if our change agents moved in, there would be a spontaneous reaction from the locals, abandoning inappropriate local patterns of behaviour and seeking international protection and development. But in most cases it hasn't happened, leaving our change agents once again overextended and isolated in protected centres, from which they can only dominate an area large enough to increase their vulnerability, but too small to begin the development process.

If this is so, it's time to consider plan B. One option would be to concentrate our forces in the cities in future, so as to deepen the effect of the development process where it matters most, and then build out from there as force levels and resources allow.

Beyond that we may even have to consider plan C, a modern version of the old policy, which would use strategic insight and special forces to prevent inappropriate patterns from re-emerging and undermining fruitful behaviour or becoming a haven for aggressive exploitation, while we concentrate on the rest of the world outside the areas dominated by such patterns.

All this will be very uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as reinforcing failure with more lost lives. It is not yet lost in global society. Not quite. We are in the territory of the last chance. There will be no more.

Similar editorial experiments
elucidating systemic patterns in the light of general systems theory
Such experiments point to the possibility of "mining" familiar, memorable and readily accessible articulations for more generic, fundamental insights relevant to the strategic challenges and style of the 21st century. Such insights may be found in unexpected places as argued by Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999)

Gaia: La Belle Dame sans Merci, with apologies to John Keats (2009)

Towards a Generic Global Issue Statement: evoking an instructive pattern of unquestionable responses (2009)

Australia's Low Population Future: Launch of Australian Government's White Paper on the Population Reduction Scheme (2008)

The Charge of the Light Brigade: revised in celebration of current global strategic management initiatives  (2008)

Universal Declaration of Responsibilities of Human Intercourse: a draft proposal (2007)

Interplanetary Security Council:

Convention on the Rights of the Child Within (1997)

Transformation Metaphors: derived experimentally from the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) for sustainable dialogue, vision, conferencing, policy, network, community and lifestyle (1997)

5-fold Pattern Language: proposed for inclusion in Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1984)

World Dynamics and Psychodynamics: a step towards making abstract "world system" dynamic limitations meaningful to the individual (1971)

Universal Declaration of the Rights of Human Organization: an experimental extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1971)

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