Clem Sunter

Hurray! Obama and Cameron are becoming foxes

2013-09-02 13:40

Clem Sunter

I recently had a conversation with an MIT professor who was out in South Africa for an alumni meeting. He said he was surprised that MIT had not come up with the idea of adding flags and probabilities to scenario planning before Chantell Ilbury and I had, because MIT normally comes up with new advances on any aspect of strategy first.

Strategic thinking: America versus Africa

My answer was simple. In America, he and his academic colleagues had all been brought up in a society which assumes it is in control. We live on a continent where people know they are not. Our thought processes, even in the case of the brilliant minds that MIT possesses some of which have won Nobel prizes, are to a certain extent determined by the frame of reference in which we are raised. US citizens or at least the ones that form the ruling class in fields like politics, economics and industry have a culture of control which influences the decisions they take even when those decisions are about the rest of the world. Increasingly, this culture is out of sync with the actual control the USA has over world affairs which, like Britain before it, has been declining over the last half century.

In Africa, we naturally look out before we look in. We survey the world around us first, knowing we are only in control of the responses to the changes we see happening outside and which could impact our lives in one way or another. That is why so many of Africa's ordinary citizens are innovative because they have to be. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. For example, it is the reason why so many world firsts are being achieved in places like Kenya for new applications for mobile phones. There was never the extent of fixed line coverage in Africa as there was in Europe. Now local businesses are vaulting over a few generations of technology to spearhead, say, the use of smart devices as electronic wallets capable of making payments at retail outlets and transferring money to distant relatives.

Foxes and hedgehogs

In the words of Chantell and myself, we are natural foxes in Africa. British and American leaders until now have fallen into the hedgehog category following the advice of Jim Collins in his book Good to Great; namely you will only move from being a good leader to a great leader if you believe that "anything that does now somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance." In other words, focus on your vision and create a world to suit your vision. Look in, then look out – the exact opposite of a fox.

David Cameron and Barack Obama have in the last few days changed all that. They have both looked out at the polls which suggest that the public do not have an appetite to get involved in another war in the Middle East. Instead of going it alone which Tony Blair and George W Bush would have done, they decided to seek the opinion of Parliament in the UK and Congress in the US before proceeding with military action against Syria's rulers.

The British Parliament have already voted against the idea at this stage and we will await the outcome of the debate in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Nevertheless, by changing the process of going ahead with military action from a unilateral one to one involving consensus, the two leaders have adapted their strategy from their initial instinct of immediate retaliation to a wiser, foxier and ultimately perhaps a more nuanced and successful alternative. Equally, each option has to be weighed up against the cost of doing nothing.

The age of foxes

In a region where the Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter; where your ally becomes your enemy and your enemy becomes your ally; where intelligence can just be a body of lies; where, apart from the use of chemical weapons, atrocities against civilians are a daily occurrence; where Iraq and Afghanistan have shown there is no end game of a stable democracy in which car bombs are a thing of the past; where Israel is in a perpetual state of readiness for any attack and where any peaceful settlement is a distant mirage; where sectarian and religious divisions cut the deepest trenches on the planet's surface -  you have to have the bright eyes, the agility and the adaptability of a fox to survive.

You have to look out, then in. You have to understand that however good your radar system is, there will always be black swan events that take you utterly by surprise. Above all, you must recognise that you are never fully in control of how events unfold and the best option may turn into the worst option in a matter of moments. Your mind must change in a flash. Otherwise, the law of unintended consequences may kick in. Welcome to the age of foxes. Obama and Cameron are beginning to understand we live in a complex world where the key is to be a visionary hedgehog with a foxy instinct and to be vaguely right rather than precisely wrong.

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