THE BLOG
09/18/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Prepping for Game Day

"It takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to have spectacular results..." -- Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach

"The only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary." -- Legendary Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi


More than raw talent or organizational history, the ability for a team to maximize its chance for success on any given Sunday is its preparation leading up to game time. Likewise, success on the field of foreign policy rests upon a country's ability to apply intellectual rigor to the development of its strategy, ideally before that strategy must be implemented. With the myriad crises occurring recently, that preparation is even more critical so that a nation such as the United States can develop a playbook and be focused going forward. A failure to do said preparation will lead to reactive policies that will sow doubt about the nation's reliability among allies and partners, and may even create outcomes that run counter to one another on the global scene.

Therefore, like a team preparing for game day, the United States can break down its preparation in foreign policy into three basic but critical elements:

Know Yourself. The first and most critical step for a team is to acknowledge and understand its core strengths. The US reputation abroad is built on its support of universal values such as individual empowerment, freedom of speech and religion, and championing rule of law that preserves human dignity. By contrast, China and Russia focus on a transactional policy, using the accumulation of resources as their guiding principle. The United States needs to avoid the perception of falling into this mold and remain focused on the preservation of human dignity to the maximum extent possible in its policy development.

As a related strength, because of the continued appeal of the United States to others, be it idealistic or realistic, its ability to build alliances and partnerships is unrivaled. If coalitions were built based strictly on realistic criteria such as economic or military power, then China in particular should be able to rally a large number of other nations to its cause. The United States, in contrast, creates an environment of trust for those who stand for the same goals and succeeds where a nation like China fails.

Know Your Opponent. Unlike a football team needing to study for one opponent, the United States needs to study for more than 200 nation-states, plus transnational groups such as Al Qaida and ISIS. That volume of tape review necessitates a large number of resources and trust in one's own team and respect for the other. Resources include the need to strengthen and/or retool the alignment of certain government agencies, such as combatant commands for the Department of Defense and regional assistant secretaries for the Department of State, plus increased resources in both money and personnel for the State Department as a whole. Trust includes empowering and listening to those analysts and experts within the US government for a given region, state, or transnational group, as well as systematically creating integrated teams.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker is just one example of a high-level, integrated team that allowed for a more comprehensive study of Iraq and the various factions in play. And respect on the global field requires a commitment and accountability by senior leadership to embed the cultural understanding of the nation or entity in question into the decision-making process, something that the United States has historically not done well.

Know the Rules of the Game. In foreign policy, the rules are what nations make of them. Since 1945, the world has generally operated on the systems created and nurtured by the United States, be they financial (using the US dollar as the global currency), diplomatic (creating and housing the United Nations), or military (building the largest alliance structure through NATO and other bi-lateral alliances). With that, the rules are constantly under challenge, as the creation of the New Development (aka BRICS) Bank as an alternative to the World Bank demonstrated.

It is therefore critical that the various stakeholders in the US government understand those rules that the United States holds dear and wants to defend through clearly articulated policy, while also creating mechanisms to allow for adaptations of the rule set that maximize benefit to the United States.

Preparation for game day is neither exciting nor easy. It requires an intense amount of study and if not built on a solid foundation of analysis, can quickly lose focus and become reactive. For a nation like the United States, every day is game day, with multiple opponents and shifting rules further complicating the task at hand. It is therefore critical that leaders in the US government use this simple frame of reference to provide clarity to the creation of policy and strategy, so that the United States will do the work as a unified team to maximize success on the field.