Should the UK institutionalise its Wise Men?

Aaron Ellis 6.12am

Ever since the end of the Cold War, this country has found it hard to think strategically. A parliamentary report last year stated, “We have simply fallen out of the habit”. It has also befallen the United States and both our foreign policies have suffered from similar problems. The ‘Big Picture’ is being obscured as policies such as humanitarian intervention and promotion of democracy take the place of grand strategy.

Governments have also found it hard to implement their chosen policies because of the lack of proper strategy - the sort that links ends, ways and means. This has been the case for military action, as we are witnessing in Libya.

The lack of any overarching ideas about our role and our interests has led to an incoherent foreign policy, as competing departments pursue contradictory policies even within the same country.

The problem is partly institutional. Jim Scopes, a former director of strategy at HM Revenue & Customs, has written that current reward and promotion mechanisms in the Civil Service “favour reactive (problem-solving) behaviour rather than proactive (strategic) approaches.” The Public Administration Committee has found that “the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor.” As I wrote last month, the makeup of government institutions is not the only factor in making strategies but it is an important one. The world is so unstable right now that it is essential for policymakers to understand the global environment if they are to form a sensible foreign policy - yet the structure of governments influences how they see the world.

If governments are filled with officials more comfortable with solving immediate problems then foreign policy will be reactive and short-termist. We need people to take the longer view.

We must bring together a select number of minds who will get this strategy right. Mark Safranski, an American blogger, recently floated the idea of a ‘Grand Strategy Board’ (GSB). It would include giant figures such as Henry Kissinger and Thomas Schelling, and would keep the President in touch with the ‘Big Picture’.

The UK should institutionalise its own ‘Wise Men’ in such a way. I believe that we even stand a better chance of creating a GSB here than in the United States. An American board would be a new institution doing the work of older, underperforming ones. A British version could be incorporated into our new National Security Council (NSC).

The usefulness of a GSB would depend on the extent to which a President or Prime Minister listens to it. The historian Hew Strachan - an ideal potential ‘Wise Man’ - warned in a recent lecture [video] that the fortunes of the NSC are tied to the personal preferences of the Prime Minister. If they felt, like Tony Blair, that a situation demanded the urgent use of force but his colleagues and officials on the NSC wanted to work out a coherent strategy first, then he could decide not to chair its meetings - thus downgrading the NSC’s authority. If this happened then the ‘brains’ of the NSC, the ‘Wise Men’, would be as removed from shaping strategy as if the GSB were nothing more than a glint in a blogger’s eye. Good strategy calls for responsible leadership too.

Of course, there are problems with a Grand Strategy Board - for example, deciding how members are selected - and these would have to be given greater thought. Nonetheless, the principle of institutionalising our ‘Wise Men’ is worth recommending.

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