On ‘Strategic Atrophy’​ and the New East-West Interface

John Singer
5 min readMar 30, 2021

The most hackneyed word in the lexicon of Western thought needs serious re-evaluation. Across business and government settings in the West, infinite means (technology) are being mistaken for ends, operations are being confused for outcomes, “strategy” is something that is described afterwards, a watery residue of past actions taken in isolation from each other, then packaged and positioned in PowerPoints to sell the idea that this is what we intended all along.

The Main Drift is painfully apparent:

The West has reached a place where an inversion of the expected order has happened. “An epic global contest between autocracy and liberal values lies ahead,” predicted The Economist last week, framing the enervation — a strategic atrophy — in the minds of planners flailing to understand fully what feels like some unnatural East-West interface that is beyond current language to fix:

“The pull China exerts is no longer just a matter of size — although with 18% of world GDP, it has that too. The country is also where firms discover consumer trends and innovations. It is increasingly where commodity prices and the cost of capital are set, and is becoming a source of regulations. Business is betting that, in Hong Kong and the mainland, China’s thuggish government is capable of self-restraint in the commercial sphere, providing contractual certainty, despite the lack of fully independent courts and free speech.”

China understands that a single type of thing, now matter how good it is, cannot make harmony, writes Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard University, in Encountering China, his examination of Chinese engagement with the West. Bringing together leading experts in Confucian and Daoist thought, Sandel reveals the Eastern operating philosophy a linear-thinking West has trouble seeing and understanding: The highest virtue is harmonious relationship rather than justice. “The goal is to create a social environment where the circumstances of justice are such that justice does not have to be the primary virtue.”

It’s the common good that matters.

For China, their “governance model” is a simply a means to an end. Which is consistent with the argument that proportionality in aligning ends with means is the art of strategy and statecraft: the ability to grasp interconnections between pieces and parts, and then shape them into a system advantage.

Competing with a Modern Strategy is a game played at a system level. It’s a completely different orbit for action and imagination. It’s about changing the primary material conditions for creative leadership and content positioned with systems thinking, the same high-leverage mode of thought that China intuitively understands and is using to reorient the world according to their “rules.”

“The new policy toward China is one based largely on competition — economic and diplomatic — but it is also prepared to alternately cooperate or confront Beijing when necessary,” writes Lara Jakes from the New York Times in her coverage of the first talks between Chinese and American diplomats in Alaska earlier this month.

Which is confusing.

Isn’t a “strategy” always about competition? Have we in the West been hanging weird at the crap tables too long, hoping for the best from our technologies while ignoring the long slide of our concepts since the end of the 1950s?

In the view of Kurt Campbell, the White House Asia policy coordinator:

“The Cold War was primarily a military competition.” But “the modern ramparts of competition will be in technology,” he said, such as 5G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and human sciences. Competing in those areas would require “making progressive, ambitious public investment here in the United States so that we stay on the cutting edge.”

I’m doubtful.

Strategy is Not Technology

In an article for Sloan Management Review (What Strategy is Not), I argued that no one ever gains advantage from letting technology lead strategic visioning. This is the short road to parity. When the same communication and knowledge acquisition technologies are accessible to everyone, and everyone works with the same set of ideas to deploy technology the same way, there is competitive convergence.

“The nation’s war colleges received a brutal — if pre-emptive — failing grade from the Joint Chiefs, who declared that Joint Professional Military Education schools are not producing military commanders who can achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries,” wrote Thomas Barnett, author of the Pentagon’s New Map, and Lea Culver, chief executive officer of Creek Technologies, in a piece for PAXsims, a blog devoted to the use of games and simulation-based learning for policy innovation.

Because China increasingly matches our “mass” and “best technology,” the Joint Chiefs argued that America and the West will prevail in future conflicts primarily by having more capable officers, explain Barnett and Culver. “The Joint Chiefs were very clear: Comprehensively [develop] a ‘talent management system’ that produces officers who can “apply our capabilities better and more creatively” than our peer competitors.”

In other words, strategy is a creative act.

If the jumping-off point for new direction in the West is premised on the technical potential of technology, if we buy the sell that “transformation” and “innovation” and “progress” should be framed in technological terms, the odds are that we will stay stuck in the same confused haze that is keeping The Vision operating in crisis mode.

Seeing and thinking in terms of systems is the mother lode to mine for Big Innovation, the kind that solves for strategic atrophy. This isn’t a moral argument about “doing the right thing,” but an understanding that radical forces are changing not just the rules of the game, but the game itself.

The unmet need is a new category of ideas from which to create and compete.

It’s time to recognize, quickly, the foundational fragility of the Western approach to strategic thinking and understand that the weapons of mass entrenchment keeping the obsolete alive are more conceptual than they are technical. Our ideas are running on the watery residue of the past.

There is a withering from thinking and communicating in cliché, a vacuum of new words to foresee differently, that threatens to calcify the decline beyond anything the thin and threadbare language of “technology” can handle as novel vision. Any realistic appraisal of the next few years of history and action to reshape the Western way of Strategy has to be weighted heavily on the side of outcomes, not technical inputs, as the orientation for innovation.

While this is the year of the Ox in China, this may be the year of the Rising Tide in the West.

Author Info:

John G. Singer advises business and government on large-scale system change. He is the Executive Director of Blue Spoon Consulting, a global leader in strategy and innovation at a system level.

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John Singer

John G. Singer is the founder of Blue Spoon Consulting, a leader in Strategy and Innovation at a System Level.