Strategic Thinking

February 19th, 2011

I learned a vastly important lesson from B.H. Liddell-Hart’s book Strategy. It’s about military strategy, and Liddell-Hart’s central thesis is that the best way to win a war is to pursue a strategy that the enemy doesn’t expect, a strategy that does not directly approach your objective, but puts you in a better position from which to approach that objective. He calls this “the indirect approach”, and he presents a series of case studies demonstrating how the most brilliant victories are always obtained by brilliant application of the indirect approach, and the most wasteful slugfests are always the result of a pig-headedly direct approach.

I was particularly struck by his description of one of the early campaigns of the Prussian King Frederick the Great against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His opponent had invaded and Frederick led his army out to fight. However, Frederick did not head directly for the enemy army; instead, he maneuvered his army in an unexpected move to one side. The Austrians reacted by changing the direction of their advance to counter Frederick’s new position. But Frederick had once again changed direction and was now heading somewhere else. Again the Austrians responded with a countermove, but Frederick was luring them away from the good roads and into a region poorly served by roads. Once the Austrian army had penetrated deeply into this region, Frederick reversed course and, using the better roads available to him, was able to countermarch into a position far into the Austrian flank. Frantically trying to regain the initiative, the Austrian commander headed straight for Frederick, trying to force battle. But Frederick drove far into the Austrian rear, cutting off the supply trains that were vital to the survival of an army. The Austrian commander, cut off from supplies, had to surrender. Thus, Frederick won the campaign by a completely indirect approach and never fought a battle.

This idea of thinking far into the future has always stuck with me. One of the fundamental principles that guides my star is “Made each decision based on how you’d feel about it on your deathbed.” In other words, when trying to make up my mind, I give less weight to the circumstances of the moment and instead ask myself, “If I choose Door A, how will I feel about that decision on my deathbed?” It’s a clear and simple principle, and it has served me well through my life. In particular, it allows me to take the long view on all my decisions.

The trigger for this essay was a game of
Civilization that I played recently. I don’t play often, because the damn thing is such a tempovore, but I do occasionally enjoy taking a break from my standard 12-hour workdays (7 days a week). It occurred to me towards the end of the game that I have a standard strategy in playing: allocate the absolute minimum of resources on military strength during the first 75% of the game, instead concentrating on economic growth. Then shift to military production towards the end of the game and conquer the world. This strategy usually works well, because it reflects the long-term strategic thinking that is my wont.

Looking back, I now see that all of my successes were due to far-seeing strategy. I jumped into the microcomputer revolution because I could see plainly that these machines would profoundly change the world. I got into computer games because I had already developed some expertise in game design and could see that computer games would someday be a major entertainment form. My decision to pursue interactive storytelling was predicated on my realization that the greatest constraint on game design was its focus on things rather than people. I spent most of the 1980s developing my thoughts on the problem and committed my efforts to it in the early 1990s. So far, this decision has proved a failure -- I have not yet built workable interactive storytelling. But I believe that I will solve this problem, and if I do, I will be so far ahead of everybody else that I’ll make a huge fortune.

The vast majority of game designers aren’t thinking beyond the game they’re already working on, and when they do begin work on a new game, their starting point is always a current game. Few game designers ever bother to ask where the industry should be in five years, or ten years, or even further. There’s no strategic thinking in the games industry -- which is one reason why the industry is so firmly stuck in a rut.

American business is well known for its lack of strategic planning, but in fact most American technology firms demonstrate a solid respect for the future and the need to prepare for it. It is in the political arena that I find the greatest examples of astrategic thinking. The American attitude towards climate change provides us with a prime example of short-term thinking. The global warming denial crowd has talked itself into believing that it’s all a hoax, even as the evidence against them has grown to staggering size. They’re thinking only in terms of today’s costs and profits -- the likelihood of vastly higher costs in the future is beyond their perception.

Here’s another example: Republican attitudes towards immigration. They seem to think that immigration can be stopped by sealing the border. That’s an absurd belief: we can slow the pace of immigration, but we can’t bring it down to negligible levels. The technical challenge of policing 2,000 miles of border is beyond our capabilities. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to set up a Berlin Wall along our southern border, but don’t forget how many people were required to guard the Berlin Wall over its 20-mile course. There have been plenty of border walls in history: the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the Iron Curtain. These were effective only so long as they were garrisoned with large numbers of troops willing to use deadly force against trespassers. Can we afford to dedicate, say, 100,000 workers to this task, and are we willing to let them shoot immigrants? In the long run, the best we can do is keep immigration down to fairly low levels. And when the Hispanic vote gets large enough to be politically significant, the Republican Party will never live down its nasty attitude towards immigrants.

My last example is Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. I will not offer any moralistic condemnation of the Israeli policies, because such arguments tend to be discounted by supporters of Israeli policy. Instead, I will offer a more pragmatic argument by asking the Israeli body politic what its plans for fifty years from now look like. Does Israel truly believe that the current occupation of Palestinian territory is sustainable for fifty years? That strikes me as not credible -- the Palestinians have suffered Israeli occupation for more than forty years and they have shown no sign of giving up and accommodating themselves to a permanent Israeli occupation. They’ll be just as angry fifty years from now as they are today. Time is on their side, for a variety of reasons. First, do you really think that nuclear weapons will be as rare in fifty years as they are today? Do you think that other weapons of mass destruction will not become ubiquitous and cheap within 50 years? History is clear: weapons always become cheaper and more powerful. Sure, Israel will be more powerful in fifty years, but will it be able to defend itself against terrorism? Can it defend itself against an array of Islamic nations all armed with nuclear weapons? The Arabic populations surrounding Israel are all growing faster than the Israeli population -- can Israel fend off the tide for another fifty years? Worse, the Islamic economies are steadily gaining on the Israeli economy. In fifty years, Israel will be hugely outnumbered, outspent, and outgunned. What happens then? There’s only one answer: Israel will be crushed. Sure, they’ll nuke a lot of Islamic cities, but that will only insure another genocide against them. There are roughly six million Jews living in Israel -- the same number as were wiped out by the Nazi holocaust. It could happen again.

Israel’s only long-term hope is the conclusion of a solid peace with its neighbors -- and that must include the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Yes, this will be painful, but the longer Israel waits, the more painful the process will be. Building more settlements in the West Bank will not cement Israel’s ownership of that territory -- it will only make it harder to give up the settlements and reach a stable peace.

I cannot believe how short-sighted the Israeli body politic is.