The Debate

Why the US Will Continue to Suffer Surprise Attacks

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The Debate

Why the US Will Continue to Suffer Surprise Attacks

Let’s face it. It’s hard for the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment to escape their bubble.

The U.S.-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) published a new study by Mark F. Cancian examining potential surprises in a great power conflict. The study offers policy makers a number of recommendations not only how to think about surprise, but also how to avoid it, or at least mitigate its impact.

The study makes for an absorbing read. I especially recommend the appendix where the author offers 18 vignettes, based on historical analogies (e.g., Pearl Harbor 2.0-Drone-style), to illustrate the kinds of surprises — strategic, technological, doctrinal, diplomatic and political — that could potentially await the United States in a great power competition (i.e., war with either China or Russia) in the near future.

Cancian lists various factors that make the United States more vulnerable to surprise than other states in the international system.  He writes: “Status quo powers like the United States are naturally more vulnerable to surprise because they are deeply invested in the rules of an international system and have constructed warfighting techniques to fit that system.”

However, there is perhaps another reason, unmentioned in the report, why the United States may be more prone to surprises in the future: The preponderance of U.S. soft power in the world and the consequent difficulty in determining an adversary’s intentions and motivations.

Let me explain.

Summarizing the literature analyzing surprise attack (perhaps the biggest fear of any senior U.S. civilian and military decision-maker), Cancian notes that one of the themes that emerged is that countries have different risk assessments. “What appears to be irrational or irresponsible to us may be rational or justified when viewed from the adversary’s perspective,” Cancian notes. However, figuring out the enemy’s genuine perspective can be quite tricky.

One mistake that often happens in this context is mirror imaging, where American values and perspectives are mistakenly superimposed on an adversary, which makes understanding decision making across different cultures and political systems problematic. One reason for that is a purported general lack of empathy with adversaries. (Notably, empathizing with one’s enemy is the single most important lesson to learn for U.S. decision-makers, according to former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.)

American soft power, nonetheless, makes developing empathy for U.S. adversaries challenging: It is simply difficult to escape U.S. soft power, including U.S. academic institutions, popular culture and perhaps most importantly the English language, when you are trying to become a member of the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment.

As a consequence of this inability to abstract, analyses or opinions are consciously and subconsciously influenced and shaped by an American understanding of the world. Or to use a favorite depiction, U.S. soft power has the potential to turn U.S. analysts, military and civilian policy makers into “a herd of independent minds,” where ostensible intellectual independence can mask conformity.

For starters, given the preeminence of U.S. academic institutions and the English language it is rare to find a member of the foreign and defense policy establishment who did not go to an American academic institution, did not serve in the U.S. government (preceded or followed by a stint in a U.S. think tank), worked for a U.S. or global company where the language of communication was English (there is mounting evidence that the language we speak affects the way we think), or served in the U.S. or English-speaking military (or, on occasion, the Israel Defense Force).

Overall, the experience of the foreign and defense policy establishment is usually confined to countries with roughly similar cultures and language such as Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand (or certain Israeli academic institutions). Among other things, speaking the same language just makes exchanges easier. Foreign language learning experiences (e.g., Chinese or Arabic) are primarily confined to short periods of time ranging on average from six months to three years spent in a foreign country, or they do not exist at all.

(A simple Google search of bios in, for example, the DC-based think tank community or faculty of the major U.S. universities, will confirm my broad generalizations here.)

Spending one to three years in a country to learn its language and study its culture and to genuinely develop a sense of empathy in the process is difficult. This is made even harder if embedded in U.S. institutions (e.g., the U.S. military, USAID, or the State Department) while abroad. I can attest to this from personal experience. Having learned English at a relatively young age, living in the U.S. for over a decade, working for U.S. institutions, spending time with U.S. troops in war zones, and all the while studying and analyzing U.S. foreign and defense policy, I still would not consider myself an expert on U.S. defense and foreign policy. There is simply too much I still genuinely don’t understand about the United States.

More importantly, I regularly find myself incapable of empathizing with the mindset of the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment.  For example, I still struggle to understand the broadly bipartisan mainstream support for the U.S. drone campaign, the often-unqualified veneration for the U.S. military, or the tendency to treat amendments to the U.S. constitution like religious texts. I often wonder then, how a member of the foreign and defense policy establishment, who never experienced anything close to the total immersion into a foreign culture as I have in the U.S., can genuinely empathize with the country of their expertise.

As Cancian succinctly noted about red teams:  “Red teams are also not magical. Their perspectives still come out of the same society, and often from the same professional community, as the institution’s members and therefore share many of the same assumptions. That often limits how much of a different perspective they provide.” This can equally be applied to the U.S. foreign and defense policy community overall and is an important point to consider when soliciting or reading its members’ advice and opinions.  Consequently, without any genuine dissenting voices in the U.S. foreign and defense community that can exercise a certain amount of influence and are taken seriously, it will remain difficult for the United States to escape the proverbial Platonic cave and develop a better understanding of its adversaries and as a result reduce the risk of strategic, technological, doctrinal, diplomatic and political surprises.