James Holmes

Welcome to the League of Mad Strategists

A meeting of the minds: Carl von Clausewitz, Edward Luttwak, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Imagine, if you will, a congress of the League of Mad Strategists. Huddled around a world map in some nondescript, dark-paneled room are Prussian soldier and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Edward Luttwak, and intellectual gadfly Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Together the theorists debate the nature of international competition and warfare, and identify some solutions to — or at least ways to think about — timeless problems.

Clausewitz starts. He's the prophet of interaction, yet he's all about rationality. Indeed, the precept that cost/benefit analysis must govern any war effort lies at the heart of his landmark treatise On War. But events have a way of confounding the most level-headed soldier or stateman. That's because the enemy gets a vote in competitive endeavors, and he invariably casts it to thwart our goals.

Compounding this clash of wills is the inexorable human tendency to overextend oneself amid the throes of combat. Which is where Luttwak weighs in, invoking the "paradoxical logic" of competition. Combatants that press their advantage further than they should expose themselves to "ironic reversals" of battlefield fortune. Overextension results in a local mismatch of forces.

Even the strong are prone to ironic reversals. They attenuate their strength when fighting far from home. A weaker power defending its home ground can raise the costs to its adversary to prohibitive levels, or even prevail outright. But the defender is hardly immune to overextension. If it succumbs to temptation, the conflict takes on a seesaw character. That's why Clausewitz likens armed strife to a wrestling match on a grand scale. The belligerents grapple constantly for strategic advantage. The momentum lurches back and forth erratically, like mercury.

To take a real-world example, Luttwak believes China has let hubris — outrageous arrogance that begets self-defeating behavior — get the best of it. By picking fights with its neighbors simultaneously, he maintains, Beijing risks uniting a hostile coalition that can push back. I concur.

Finally Taleb gets into the act. The keeper of the Black Swan — the notion that human beings are linear thinkers highly susceptible to the unforeseen — suggests a remedy for ironic reversals of fortune. Or rather, he suggests how leaders can arrange things so as to benefit from fateful, and unavoidable, turnabouts. His latest theory goes by the ungainly term "antifragile." Taleb points out that we usually assume the opposite of "fragile" is "robust," or "resilient," or some other synonym connoting the ability to withstand unexpected setbacks.

Not so, says this mad hatter of social science. In reality some systems actually benefit from Black Swans. Leaders sort through the wreckage, reflect, and improve. A fragile system shatters when struck a sharp blow; a robust system lumbers on; an antifragile system reaps positive gains. Big, ponderous, centralized organizations tend to be fragile. Decentralized, nimble organizations can recoup their mistakes, which are many but remediable. They adapt to and learn from Black Swans.

Memo to statesmen and commanders: decentralize your organizations, push authority down to junior people, and watch marvels commence.