Who’s Red Teaming the Red Teamers?


Micah Zenko, a political scientist with the Council on Foreign Relations, recently published a Red Team Reading List of his “top twelve favorite red team books or reports, and top ten red team articles.”

According to the Red Team Journal, “red teaming” is defined as the “practice of viewing a problem from an adversary or competitor’s perspective,” most often by acting as a devil’s advocate, in order to facilitate decision-making.

Interestingly, the Red Team Journal’s editor, Mark Mateski, cautioned, “An overconfident or culturally biased analyst or team will not benefit as much from these approaches.”

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Glancing at Zenko’s reading list, one cannot accuse the scholar of overconfidence but, given its American-centric content, certainly indict him of cultural bias.

Zenko’s culture: U.S. academia and the U.S. government. (I am confining my analysis here to military red teaming.)

It is ironic (perhaps intentional) that a scholar who published a book subtitled How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy primarily relies on Anglo-American scholarship to ostensibly teach American policy makers to think like their adversaries in the world – a veritable “prince-free reading of Hamlet if I ever struck one,” as one English journalist would have put it.

Ostensibly, this makes sense since, judging from the book’s content, the “enemy” Zenko has in mind is American, i.e., the U.S. bureaucracy, rather than foreign states and non-state actors. Furthermore, the book focuses mostly on processes and offers advice how a red team should navigate the bureaucracy within American institutions such as the Pentagon or CIA to have an impact for which non-American sources are not needed.

However, part of the processes prescribed in the book is getting to know your foreign enemy which is clear from Zenko’s definition of red teaming. He describes red teaming as a “structured process that seeks to better understand the interests, intentions, and capabilities of an institution—or a potential competitor—through simulations, vulnerability probes, and alternative analysis.”

Here the book is rather weak. It showcases problems but remains weak on solutions. It repeats conventional wisdom taught at most U.S. business schools, D.C.-based think tanks, and U.S. military institutions of higher learning: how to “think critically” and how to influence senior leadership, but offering few specifics as to how to better understand America’s foreign enemies, despite repeatedly emphasizing the need for the development of cultural empathy.

Understanding the interests, intentions and capabilities of a potential competitor cannot be achieved primarily by relying on American scholarship on the subject as well as American case studies. This confines Zenko to an analytical space in which analysis is consciously and subconsciously applied to fit American thinking; it narrows the intellectual horizon. As Kipling would say: “[W]hat should they know of England who only England know?”

The danger of such an approach is that it creates a sense of diversity where there is none – a “herd of independent minds,” as an art critic once said—a phenomenon all too familiar for anyone following the development of policy within the nation’s capital. (The recent establishment of this ISIS Study Group is a case in point.)

To use a Platonic analogy: The book fails to help us escape the cave of common prejudice and conventional wisdom because, for one thing, it shows that such an escape is impossible if one wants to have an impact (e.g., analyses by outsiders who do not hold security clearances and who do not want to rise within the D.C. bureaucracy are often dismissed outright).

The book’s solution is simple: Pay lip service to “critical thinking,” and thinking “outside the box,” while categorically remaining inside the box; otherwise one’s analysis will not be taken seriously by people within the bureaucracy. This, presumably, is one reason why Zenko sticks to a rather conventional approach throughout the book.

As a result, Zenko’s claim that his book teaches “how to think like the enemy” is somewhat incorrect and needs to be qualified to note that after studying his (quite impressive) work one learns how U.S. academia and the U.S. military goes about thinking like the enemy—an important difference!

And while it is a useful book for anyone interested how red teams ought to operate within American bureaucracies and institutions, it largely fails to take into account the wider world and scholarship outside the cave, i.e. beyond U.S. academia and the U.S. military. (The Israeli, NATO and U.K. examples are confined to a few pages and do not offer alternative approaches. This is not surprising since Zenko notes that they “received instructions and socialization in red teaming from UFMCS [University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies]” – an institution run by the U.S. military).

Just look at some of the authors listed in his reading list (and in the bibliography of the book): David Dunning, an American scholar, teaching at the University of Michigan; Irving Janis, an American scholar, who taught at Yale University; Karl E. Weick, an American scholar teaching at the University of Michigan; William R. Torbert, an American professor teaching at Boston College; Amy C. Edmondson, an American scholar teaching at Harvard University; Anton R. Valukas, an American litigator; Benjamin Gilad, an American-educated Israeli who taught at Rutgers University;  and Gabriella Colenman, an American Ivy-League educated academic teaching at  McGill University.

Almost all the scholars and experts mentioned are either American, or have spent most of their professional careers within the “American system.” The language they write in is English, and the culture they are embedded in is first and foremost American. It confines their cognitive framework—group thinking on a national scale—and denotes what Robert Jervis in his book Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Politics cautions against as “premature cognitive closure, in which limited or incomplete images of others’ intentions lead to mistaken perceptions.”

I wrote earlier this year (See: “Can the United States Produce Good Defense Analysis?”):

Considering the worldwide dominance of the English language in the hard and social sciences (although 75 percent of the world population does not speak English), the dominance of the American educational system, the global role of the American military, and the sheer size of the United States (not to mention Canada and Australia) – in short, the preponderance of American hard and soft power around the globe – escaping the cave is no easy undertaking. It is obvious that growing up in the United States, going through an American educational system throughout one’s life, serving in the United States Military for a number of years, or working in the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C., will influence one’s perception of the world.

Why is this a problem? First, one develops a tendency to the see the world in a monocultural way, which can lead to a depreciation of cultural factors in red teaming; once we assume that American expertise and scholarship is universally applicable, then culture can safely be disregarded.

Second, as I noted before (See: “Is the Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall the Leo Strauss of Military Analysis?”), by remaining within the culturally accepted boundaries of analysis one is slated to fail in delivering objective assessments, best summarized in my previous discussion of Stanley Rosen’s book Hermeneutics as Politics:

Rosen argues that all analytical systems are founded upon “intuition” (hunches/guesses) and therefore lack a foundation other than self-assertion and the application of synthetic rules that are applied arbitrarily. Analytical philosophy, Rosen points out, specifically is related to the Cartesian plan of “ordo et mensura” the attempt to quantify the universe per measurements that man constructs via his will, imagination, or passion. For the analytical thinker, we cannot know things as they are, but only as we make them for our use or power.

Judging from Rosen’s assessment, it appears impossible to conduct objective analysis, since our minds are already pre-disposed towards a subconscious bias in selecting analysis that fits our own Weltanschauung. Zenko, acknowledges this in his book, but by sticking to the cultural environment he is used to, he merely amplifies that subconscious cultural bias, which is why the book remains stuck in its own analytical cave.

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