A crisis is not just a terrible state of affairs. Policymakers presume that a crisis is also a decision point, however unwelcome. And indeed a crisis always calls for a response. It is not, though, a free-floating decision but more like a point on a line defined by earlier decisions. For policymakers, a crisis decision falls on a line, one with a history, a trail, a tail.
As a former U.S. diplomat, I offer eight principles to confront crises. The first four are easier to grasp for an individual, the last four harder to handle for a state. I present the principles as adjustments of approach in the format of “think A and not B.” For illustrations, I have drawn on experience from 25 years of service abroad and reflections as a student of history.
1. Contingency not inevitability. There never was an inevitable war or peace. History forms itself from contingencies, from opportunities seized upon or passed over, from action or inaction. History does not ride on rails, already laid, to destinations, already fixed. It is more like a bus traversing a road network with the driver able to make turns, right or left, right or wrong. One wrong turn often leads to another. And then, as Winston Churchill said of the early phases of World War I, “the terrible If’s accumulate.” A bus has a driver, a state has a head; both make decisions that affect a larger group. In steering through contingencies, leaders are thus decisive. For example, the Serbian assault on Vukovar in 1991 could have evoked a resolute Western response, but none was forthcoming — a choice made, a chance lost.
2. Intuition not knowledge. Crisis managers never have complete information. If they did, they would not face a fluid contingency but a fait accompli. They must rely on intuition, a rare form of insight, a higher manifestation of judgment. According to Walter Lippmann, De Gaulle had it, Adenauer did not. De Gaulle had “second sight into the nature of history.” Adenauer was “the hero of the German rehabilitation but not the prophet of the German future.” Intuition seems to be an innate gift rather than an acquired skill. Its mystery lends it mystique.
3. Clarity not complexity. In the vortex of crisis and the swirl of advice, the crisis manager must take a decision with a sure understanding of essentials. Too often, complexity overwhelms. President Wilson at Versailles in 1919 tried to master the world’s problems. He stumbled not because of intellectual shortcomings but political shortsightedness. In the end, to cite a trenchant verdict, he bought the League of Nations from France and Britain with a bad peace instead of selling it to France and Britain for a good peace. He had forfeited clarity of purpose.
4. Humility not bravado. A crisis is a storm, a collision of large forces. A crisis manager must convey confidence and show courage — and yet also recognize limitations and own up to mistakes. Humility is born of honesty, a chastisement of ego. Clarity need not fall by the wayside and resolve most certainly not. It is a paradox: Humility fortifies more than bravado. In this attribute, President Lincoln towers above all others, both in his century and the next.
5. Implementation not policy. Decision-takers imagine they are policymakers. But it is implementation of policy that shapes its success. Every crisis confronted throws open new contingencies in the implementation phase. In Bosnia in 1996, diplomats struggled to implement the Dayton peace settlement from 1995. In Kosovo in 2008, diplomats struggled to implement the Ahtisaari independence plan from 2007. Management of implementation can have an impact that is equal to leadership of policy. Implementation is a process not an event. Germans call their national holiday the Day of Unity — but disingenuously, since October 3, 1990, witnessed the moment of unification not the attainment of unity, which took much longer and cost far more than anticipated.
6. Consequence not cost-benefit. Crisis managers get trapped into narrow calculations of cost weighed against benefit of a particular course of action. They lose sight of the consequences of inaction. Action always incurs cost; inaction always generates consequences. We see this phenomenon every night on TV with the huge waves of refugees fleeing conflict, especially the war in Syria. Western non-intervention in Syria did not settle the matter but set things careening down a different path of peril.
7. Coalition not mission. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, American policymakers let the mission determine the coalition, and not the reverse. However plausible sounding at the time, the step undermined U.S. standing with some longstanding allies. Putting the coalition first can lead to paralysis, but focusing on the mission foremost can end in division. International coalitions and organizations, as Dag Hammarskjold, second secretary-general of the United Nations, said of the U.N.: “It may not deliver us to heaven but can save us from hell.”
8. Humanity not nationality. This principle may be the hardest of all to put into practice during a crisis. The nation state remains the chief framework for organizing political and legal affairs. Increasingly, however, our economic and social pursuits take place beyond national borders. Every crisis of our age spills over borders, and yet crisis managers still think primarily in national categories. Refugees are testing that approach. The bigger their flow, the greater their challenge. The steps toward a greater appreciation of the human dimension are halting. But Western culture has a rich literature to enliven this progress.
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