05/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama in Europe: Systems Theory and U.S. Foreign Policy

Back in the 1960s, MIT's Sloan School of Management developed something called the "beer game," which -- much to the dismay of MIT students -- did not involve shot glasses, ping pongs, or even beer. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate the challenges of managing a supply chain, and how inputs into one part of the chain could radically affect (usually negatively) decision-making elsewhere. It is a classic demonstration of systems theory, the idea that everything is interrelated and that you can't make a decision in isolation without it having an impact on a variety of other matters beyond your horizon.

Management guru Peter Senge, explained the importance of systems theory in The Fifth Discipline (which, despite the fact it was written for business leaders, should be read by everyone interested in American politics and U.S. foreign policy):

From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks more manageable, but we pay an hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic connection to a larger whole. When we try to "see the big picture," we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces. But as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile -- similar to trying to assemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while, we give up trying to see the whole altogether. . . .

Business and other human endeavors. . .are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often takes years to fully play out their effects on one another. Since we are part of that latticework ourselves, it's doubly hard to see that whole pattern of change. Instead, we focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.

With the obvious exception of the global economy, there are few systems bigger or more complex than the way governments interact with one another (and the way our government responds to those interactions). If a president wants to achieve his/her foreign policy goals, s/he must understand how his/her decisions have an impact on events over the horizon.

The Bush Administration never quite understood this. Its foreign policy tended to have a very limited horizon, and it failed utterly to think through the impact of its actions. To cite the most obvious example, it invaded Iraq thinking it would send a message to state sponsors of terror and nuclear club wannabes that the United States would not tolerate their misbehavior. The Bush team never really thought through the unintended consequences of the invasion: the radicalization of Muslims around the world; the anger of allies heretofore willing to let the U.S. take the lead in the fight against terrorism; the implosion of America's image; the costs (in terms of both human and financial resources) of fighting an insurgency after the success of the initial invasion; the erosion of military capacity; and the impact of diverted resources and attention on the war in Afghanistan.

In contrast, it looks like the Obama Administration recognizes that its decisions can have consequences far beyond the immediate challenge at hand. Obama's trip to Europe (and Iraq) demonstrated the degree to which he is trying to weave different challenges into what Senge calls a "fabric of interrelated actions." His bilaterals with Russia and China were crucial to success at the G-20. He had to balance humility and leadership if the G-20 and NATO summits were to demonstrate progress. He couldn't have a bilateral with Medvedev without also visiting Prague to reassure America's East European allies that they wouldn't be forgotten. He couldn't visit to Turkey to talk about better relations with the Islamic world without also recognizing Turkey's desire to be part of the EU. He couldn't ensure a shift in emphasis to Afghanistan without visiting Iraq and reassuring our troops there that a change in focus does not mean their efforts are not as important.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Obama achieved everything he set out to do, or that the Administration's application of systems theory is without flaws or mistakes. We won't know for some time whether Obama's trip will be as successful substantively as it was stylistically.

But over-focusing on details (such as the continued unwillingness of the Euro zone to support additional economic stimulus) obfuscates a larger picture: Obama took on a number of issues -- the economy, Afghanistan, Iraq, U.S.-Russian relations, U.S.-China relations, NATO, arms control, IFI governance, American relationship with the Islam world, terrorism, Turkey's membership in the EU, and U.S. support for its new allies in Eastern Europe -- and highlighted repeatedly their interconnection.

A good example of this is a story in Der Spiegel on the G-20 meeting (h/t The Agonist) that received almost no attention in the U.S.:

Berlusconi now spoke to [Obama] directly: "I would like to extend my congratulations to Barack Obama," he said, adding that the economic crisis had begun in the US. "Now he has to address it," he said and looked towards Obama. "We wish him all the best for the citizens of the US and the entire world." . . . "It is gratifying to see that good work has been done here," Obama began. "Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, it was not a matter of course that countries which were traditionally enemies solved problems together. After the Great Depression, a similar group did not convene until 1944. . . . It is important that we do not sell short the results of this summit. The press would like us to have conflicts. Instead we have attained great achievements. And it is important that we exude confidence."

He then lowered his voice: "It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the crisis began in the US. I take responsibility, even if I wasn't even president at the time." And he underscored how important it is for him "that we now genuinely make progress. Thank you." Applause.

The others couldn't believe their ears. Was that really a confession of guilt from the US? Was it a translation error, or at least an inaccuracy? Afterwards, this sentence fueled long discussions among the members of the German delegation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so impressed by Obama's statement that she rushed to tell her finance minister, Peer Steinbruck. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso reacted immediately: The proposal to hold the next summit not in Japan, but rather in the US, is something that he no longer rejects, he says, "now that the US has shouldered responsibility." . . .

The fact that Obama has now admitted [responsibility] sends a strong signal of hope to the world, perhaps the strongest to emerge from the G-20 summit in London last Wednesday and Thursday. Such an admission could begin to pave the way towards rectifying the situation.

This is a particularly good example of the kind of systems thinking necessary to deal with the complexities of the world today: Obama recognizes that he cannot achieve a range of goals -- more NATO troops in Afghanistan, a common agenda on Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapon, etc. -- without first acknowledging American responsibility for the current financial crisis. They're not separate challenge -- they're part of one big problem that cannot be broken down into small parts if we want to solve it. Taking it apart may look easier, but in reality, doing so only makes solving the larger problem more difficult.

One of the most important parts of the Der Speigel story is Obama's warning that "The press would like us to have conflicts. Instead we have attained great achievements." Now look at what Senge says:

Conversations in organizations are dominated by short-term events. . .The media reinforces an emphasis on short-term events -- after all, if it's more than two days old, it's no longer "news." Focusing on events leads to "event" explanations: "The Dow Jones average dropped sixteen points today," announces the newspaper, "because low fourth-quarter profits were announced yesterday." Such explanations may be true, but they distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and from understanding the causes of those patterns.

[T]oday, the primary threats to our survival. . .come not from not from sudden events, but from slow, gradual processes: the arms race, environmental decay, the erosion of a society's public education system. . .are all slow, gradual processes. . . .Learning in organizations cannot be sustained if people's thinking is dominated by short-term events. . . . Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is. . .pervasive.

Senge wrote that twenty years ago, before the 24-hour news cycle, before the Internet, before text messaging, iPhones, Twitter and all the other technologies we now use to keep up to date. If anything, what was already true then is blatantly obvious now: as a society -- not just as a nation, but as an increasingly interconnected world -- it is almost impossible for us to stop reacting to immediate events and start responding to systemic challenges.

From what we've seen so far, Obama understands system theory. He and his team have not succeeded in applying it across the board -- his foreign policy advisors seem to understand it better than his economic advisors, for example -- and he will still have to respond to (and have his long-term planning affected by) short-term events. But the signs so far certainly can offer hope to those who have watched administration after administration react as if each isolated event exists in a vacuum.