The Vision Thing

Rick Docksai's picture

Singapore and the United States hold one trait very much in common: Both face external security threats and must exercise foresight to avert them. In fact, the United States could boost its own security considerably by adopting some of Singapore’s national-security-planning practices. This is according to Sheila Ronis, Walsh College professor and chair of management and communications, who addressed the World Future Society’s Washington, DC, chapter on Thursday evening, January 17, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bethesda.

“I really want to see challenging of conventional wisdom in the Singapore sense,” she said. “I think it’s in challenging those assumptions that we can really start to create our future and ensure that it’s the future that we want.”

Sheila Ronis (center, in red) speaks with an audience member following the presentation.

Dr. Ronis headed a Vision Working Group as part of the Project on National Security Reform, a coalition of analysts that has been formulating recommendations for U.S. security strategy, under a U.S. Congressional charter, since 2006. In 2010, Dr. Ronis’ group recommended that the U.S. government set up an executive-branch Center for Strategic Analysis and Assessment to be a thinking space for scanning for security challenges and developing “grand strategies” for navigating them.

We have real-life models for this Center, Dr. Ronis added: Finland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom each have such a body. Dr. Ronis viewed Singapore’s system in person last year on several trips. It includes a number of independent offices:

  • Strategic Policy Office
  • National Security Coordination Secretariat
  • National Security Coordination Centre
  • Horizon Scanning Centre
  • Centre for Strategic Futures and the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Centre (both in the Office of the Prime Minister)
  • Centre of Excellence in National Security (at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University)

Each compiles knowledge of the geopolitical environment—often with outside help from universities, think tanks, and other organizations—submits all assumptions to testing and retesting, and communicates its findings to lawmakers. Independent though they may be, they are also inter-dependent. Each agency relays assessments to the others and works with them to form and continually update their policy recommendations.

This interactive intel network enables Singapore’s leaders to be very adaptable—and not just on strictly military threats. For instance, Singapore grappled in recent years with water security. Then the leadership, working with the analysts, devised strategies to keep the water supplies flowing for many years to come.

“They were brilliant about putting together a water strategy that allowed them to become water-independent,” she said.

The U.S. government needs a strategy system such as this, Dr. Ronis went on to say. It has individual think tanks, such as RAND. And dozens of U.S. agencies undertake planning initiatives of their own. But there is no overarching, whole-systems coordination bringing it all together. The U.S. government, as a whole, goes about day-to-day operations without any overall awareness of where it is and where it is heading.

“We really have no long vision for what the country is about to become,” she said.

Her Vision Working Group agrees that a permanent, Executive-Branch-level Center for Strategic Analysis and Assessment would be an optimum vehicle for this whole-systems-thinking. It would integrate thinking and analysis from across government and outside government to create scenarios and solutions for multiple policy goals, such as energy independence, increasing the numbers of U.S. science- and technology graduates, enhancing access to health care, coping with religious extremism internationally, and anticipating future war threats.

The U.S. system wouldn’t need to be exactly like Singapore’s, she added, but there are some elements that it should have. It should encourage networking, both internally and with outside partners, and should undertake outreach to think tanks, academia, the private sector, and the American people. It should make assessments for the next 10 years, the next 20 years, and even the next 50 years. It should present its assessments in workshops, seminars, and an annual “state of the world” conference. Civil servants should run the agency, so that changes of administration don’t disrupt its work or politicize the results. Scenario activities, surveys, risk assessments, and simulations should all be in its ongoing repertoire. Above all, it needs to be a “learning organization” in which critical thinking and creativity thrive, conventional wisdom always undergoes questioning, and systems thinking, “visioning,” and the incorporation of new information and structures are all staples of everyday work life.

“Global interdependence is now a reality, and national security issues must always assume a global focus. A nation must develop knowledge of its competitors as well as of itself,” she said.

George H.W. Bush once spoke dismissively of foresight—i.e., ““the vision thing.” In the years since, too many U.S. officials have likewise showed too much propensity for the present and for present-oriented conventional thinking. How prepared was the United States for the fall of the Soviet Union—never mind seeing it coming, but actually being ready to deal with the aftermath and to ensure that it wouldn’t be more messy or painful for the populations in its wake than it had to be? Likewise, how prepared were U.S. officials for Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation?

How much preparation did U.S. officials exhibit during the emergence of the “Arab spring,” much less during its many subsequent turns for the worse—i.e., Egypt’s democratic hopes tottering; the implosion of Syria; the Bengazi slaughter; etc.? What level of preparation can we expect U.S. officials to show in the face of plausible future upheavals, such as the dissolution of North Korea or a major economic downturn in China?

Nowadays, no country’s government can afford to sit back and wait for change to happen. National well-being depends on leaders going to work on future challenges in the present. Dr. Ronis made an eloquent case study of how Singapore is achieving this—and Finland and the United Kingdom, too. So the question lingers: If these three can do it, why not the world’s only remaining superpower? The future won’t wait for the answer.