Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
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Two recent Presidential directives provide the framework for testing the application of the newest tools of information technology to the conduct of foreign affairs. If such tools are effectively applied and gain wider acceptance they could radically affect the management and even the substance of international relations.
On October 12, 1965, the President "directed the introduction of an integrated programming-planning-budgeting system [P.P.B.S.] in the executive branch," including the State Department. The system is a management method for measuring the effectiveness of expenditures in reaching program goals and had marked success when introduced by Secretary McNamara in the Defense Department. In implementing this system within the Defense Department there has been wide use of computer technology. Similar systems and technology are now being proposed and tested for the needs of the State Department.
The second directive was issued on March 4, 1966, when the President "directed the Secretary of State . . . to assume authority and responsibility for the overall direction, coördination and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the United States Government overseas." Within certain limitations, the Secretary now has the charter to become the manager of our foreign affairs rather than merely the coördinator.
The success with which the Secretary manages the State Department will depend to a major extent on his ability to meet its requirements for information and communications. These are now so complex that the question is no longer whether technology should be applied to meet them, but how. The success of such technology within the Department depends critically on three factors: (1) sound analysis at the highest level of the information needs of the Department; (2) the effective application of information technology to these needs, rather than simply the mechanization of the current inadequate information systems; and (3) the communication of the information thus collected to those who need and must act upon it.
To those who conduct our foreign affairs, as to the manager of a private enterprise, information technology poses not only questions of application but also challenges of change. For the application of technology not only changes the method by which an operation is performed, but frequently changes what is performed. Just as businesses are now able through technology to provide entirely new services to ever-increasing numbers of people, so will the scope, conduct and substance of foreign affairs change as technology is applied. Let me emphasize that what I foresee represents no panacea, no automated Foreign Service. My purpose here is to underline the fact that these new technologies raise major questions and require the most thoughtful planning.
The choices of instruments for decision and action are widening. The old obstacles to judgment and service are receding and are in the process of taking on new and, at this time, unpredictable shapes. It is my judgment, however, that as the new technology becomes applied to foreign affairs, reliance on personal judgment and personal and national moral standards will increase-not decrease. As the horizons of factual ignorance and misinformation fade, the decision-maker will be presented with vast new areas of choice.
If, for example, information systems are perfected by technology, what will be the role of the Ambassador? He could have available instantly all of the information and analysis available to the Secretary of State but might still lack the latter's overall view of national priorities and interests. Two or three hundred years ago, when it required days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years for an Ambassador to reach his assignment or to communicate with his sovereign, he was indeed plenipotentiary. There was no choice. He knew more than anyone at home about conditions in his assigned country, and orders regarding the most fundamental and long-term actions could not, in most cases, reach him in time to be relevant. Over the past one hundred years, with the coming of the telegraph, the wireless, the express train and the jet, the role of the Ambassador has diminished, at least in terms of his power to act. At home the number of people who know as much about his mission as he does has increased. As a matter of fact, the Ambassador's home office has at its disposal sources of information and analytical talents to which he has no access.
Now, however, the situation is changing again. If we so decide, the Ambassador will be able to have all the information relevant to his assignment. He could once more be designated in fact plenipotentiary if this were the wish of his superiors. On the other hand, as his home office will be able to be in even closer touch with his mission than before, the need to rely on the judgment of the man-on-the-spot could diminish even further. When the leaders of nations can confer for hours, face to face, on closed-circuit television, will the Ambassador's role become even more limited to that of an information-gatherer, pulse-taker and "holder of hands?" It is interesting to speculate on the kind of summitry we will have when such technologies really become effective.
Thus, the areas of choice between effective courses of action widen. Who makes the decisions? Who is the instrument of response? Other examples, perhaps more portentous in nature, will appear later. But even in this case of the Ambassador, the implications for foreign-affairs management are not to be dismissed lightly. If some sort of middle course is chosen, let us say by making the power of the Ambassador dependent on the sensitivity of his post or on his personal abilities, serious consequences to the prestige of our envoys could result. The fact that this problem has been developing for some time does not diminish its implications for the future. For, as the distance between alternative policies lengthens, deliberate or unconscious inconsistencies become both more obvious and more fraught with consequence.
Sir Winston Churchill, in discussing the process of making strategic wartime decisions, wrote: "Success depends on sound deductions from a mass of intelligence, often specialized and highly technical, on every aspect of the enemy's national life, and much of this information has to be gathered in peace-time." How much simpler the decision-making process might have been for him had it been possible then, as it is becoming increasingly so now, to centralize such information technologically.
In the State Department in Washington, some 2,000 telegrams are processed every day and an average of 70 copies is made of each. The resultant 140,000 pieces of paper daily are filed both centrally and in various user files. The Central Foreign Policy file alone grows at the rate of 600 cubic feet (400 file drawers) a year. The Intelligence staff has 200 professional employees who read and try to analyze some 100,000 documents monthly. Most of this information is filed to meet the personal requirements of those in charge of various bureaus and offices. Its existence is not known or useful to others. Senior officers must wade through stacks of telegrams and airgrams to get a few bits of significant information. The new or most important information is mixed with the old or trivial. In an emergency situation the central filing system is ignored almost entirely and a crisis team of experts on that particular situation or country is called together to offer its analysis and advice.
The problem of information-flow and use has been recognized in the foreign- affairs community of our government. Since 1946, some 363 projects and studies in information management have been undertaken, 172 of them in the State Department and 167 in the various successor agencies concerned with foreign economic assistance.
In one informational area of foreign affairs, technological solutions are being vigorously tested-collating information about the State Department's resources. A Foreign Affairs Programming System (F.A.P.S.) was established with the objective of bringing together all the strands of United States activities and resources abroad, country by country, to give both the Secretary of State and the Ambassadors a coherent instrument of command and control. Now elements of the F.A.P.S. are being refined to serve the P.P.B.S. being introduced at the President's direction.
In the spring of this year, Dr. Charles Hitch, formerly with the RAND Corporation and then, as Comptroller of the Department of Defense, architect of the programming system introduced by Secretary McNamara, was designated as the chairman of a newly appointed advisory group on foreign affairs planning-programming-budgeting. This advisory group is charged with developing a P.P.B.S. for the State Department. The Stanford Research Institute, State Department personnel, the Bureau of the Budget and the P.P.B.S. personnel of other agencies will work closely with the advisory group. It is expected that by fiscal 1969 a full P.P.B.S. cycle can be developed for Latin America-the first test region.
But major problems remain. Richard Barrett, Director of the Office of Management Planning in the State Department, puts it this way: "Secretary McNamara, in introducing P.P.B.S in the Defense Department, had a definite managerial concept and strategy in mind. State is trying to formulate a managerial strategy at the same time as it is trying to develop a system to support that strategy." The question is, in the absence of a management strategy, will the computer-now an integral part of the P.P.B.S. system-be used merely to decorate and speed up already obsolete processes? Will information technology simply be applied to existing information-gathering processes? Will more information be gathered only to become useless because the persons who need it do not get it, or get it at the wrong time? P.P.B.S., which is principally concerned with planning and budgeting, is only a small part of this dilemma. The problem becomes more complex and urgent, say, in the implementation of policy or crisis management.
But those who plan carefully may be able to learn much from business experience with the application of advanced information technologies. There are some 35,000 computer systems operated by private industry in this country today. But in 1954-just thirteen years ago-only the first few were being installed for commercial use. The lessons have been and still are learned by business the hard way: mounting costs for useless data, duplication of functions and personnel, large-scale errors in business operations and decisions. The key problem resides in the inability or unwillingness of management to ask itself what it really wants from technology. What kind of information is needed by which persons at what times? What is the relation of the costs of this information to the benefits derived? More and more such questions are being formulated with insight and imagination and, as a result, the latest technological capabilities have made possible not only a change in the methods but also in the substance of business operations.
For example, certain items can now be mass-produced by inserting a magnetic tape into a computer which guides the machine in the manufacturing process. Instead of manufacturing such items at headquarters and shipping them where required, it may be cheaper to ship the magnetic tape and manufacture the items in the market areas. Imaginative thinking through of technology makes entirely new processes and procedures possible.
Banking systems, credit-card companies and airlines are among those operations whose present scope of service would be impossible without the relatively intelligent use of information technology. One can only imagine the chaos if, for some reason, governmental operations-from traffic control to internal revenue collection-were to return to the limitations imposed by pre-computer administrative and clerical routines.
Today one can no longer think of just the computer. One must think in the more comprehensive terms of information technology or information systems. This fact is brought home dramatically by a review of costs. Ten years ago, the computer or central processor represented some 75 percent of the total cost of an automatic data-processing system. The so-called peripheral equipment-input/output devices, outside storage and communications links- accounted for some 25 percent. This is changing radically and by 1972 the cost relationships will be completely reversed. The cost of information processing and storage within the computer system will decrease 97 percent between 1963 and 1972, while the cost of communicating with the computer center will decrease by some 50 percent. The computer is emerging from its glassed-in throne room and, as it becomes increasingly accessible to those needing its services, the links between it and society proliferate both in number and in complexity.
This complexity itself simplifies the relationship between man and machine and makes the machine more and more an integral part of society. The information systems of today already are beginning to provide us with the ability to ask the computer questions through keyboard desk sets, light pencil drawings on a television-like screen, or, still to a limited extent, by voice. Answers to such questions come back through a print or on a screen, or both. For instance, an engineer can make a sketch with a light pencil on the screen; the computer converts this sketch into a precise engineering draft which appears on the screen and can be rotated in perspective or altered at will. When the engineer gets what he wants he can either have the design printed out in hard copy or converted to a tape which runs a machine tool which, in turn, cuts the designed part out of metal. A typical multi-station system in a large corporation allows hundreds of managers across the country-and eventually across the world-to query a centrally located computer from their desk sets and receive instantaneous replies in visual form.
The key questions that have to be answered in order to build these systems and make them work usefully are: (1) Who needs the information? (2) What kind of information must be made available, in what detail, and how currently? (3) Must the system be complex enough to allow for machine guidance of the questioner if the question is unclear or unanswerable in the form presented?
In other words, what do we want from our technology? As our commercial systems are beginning to demonstrate, we can get what we want.
In the management of foreign affairs, information technology gives us usefully the chance to review what we are doing as well as what we want to do. I shall try to show that it will affect not only who makes the decisions or who is the instrument of response, as in the case of the Ambassador, but that for this and even more complex questions it will also change what the decisions are about. Further, it will determine whether decisions or conscious responses in particular instances are necessary at all, or are built into the system automatically.
The question of what we want raises, in turn, numerous questions which must be solved organizationally. Who will make the initial and continuing decisions on the data to be fed into the information system? How is data to be weighted for analysis and summary conclusions? Should more than one system be set up-for example, one for the State Department and one for the Central Intelligence Agency? Who should have access to the information from one or more systems? Should there be a switching center which controls who gets what?
However, I shall not concern myself here with these organizational questions. The answers to them will depend in large part on how we envisage the total impact of information technology on the substance of foreign- affairs management. The form we want the conduct of international relations to take-and we still have the weight in the world to shape that, if we assume the leadership-will have a profound effect on what the world looks like.
When Hitler embarked on the direct course leading to World War II, beginning with the announcement that Germany would rearm and culminating with the occupations of the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, three principal arguments were made by those who counseled against intervention: (1) Hitler could not threaten Europe because Germany did not possess the means for all-out war and, therefore, he should be permitted to assert claims which might be legitimate; (2) Hitler already possessed enough power to make intervention too costly; and (3) Hitler, after he achieved Germany's immediate demands, would live in peace with his neighbors.
The first two arguments were based on information which was inadequate. The third argument was based on an inadequate appraisal of the man and of the psychological forces in Germany which supported him. The proper use of the kind of information and communications technologies now or soon to be available to us could have placed in perspective the first two arguments. Vast quantities of intelligence, most of it not secret but only undigested, on production, manpower, foreign trade, resources and technological probabilities could have provided the Allies at any stage with an accurate picture of German versus allied capabilities. The imponderables would have remained-questions about who would side with whom, about Hitler, the man, and the psychology of his nation-but even these could have been subjected to analysis aided by information technology. This is not to assert that history would necessarily have been changed; information can still be ignored or misused, and those who make policy are influenced by many factors, some of them essentially irrational. But technology cuts down the area of the unknown, narrows the basis for rational decision.
Many treaties are based on promises to do or not to do things which the partner cannot know about. This is so especially with nonaggression or disarmament treaties and their corollaries. If the ability to collect and process vast quantities of data, ranging from atmospheric samples to economic and transportation statistics, can give any one nation an increasingly accurate picture of trends and unusual activities in other nations, will the universal realization that others can divine a break in faith make such treaties obsolete? This could make the response of one nation to certain actions by others automatic, perhaps pre-programmed through simulation. Such "gaming" on the part of many competing powers could give them such an improved view of the possible consequences of their actions as to save them from many hazardous international experiments. Perhaps, in a crude way, this already is happening. The nuclear test-ban treaty might be considered just a formalized acknowledgement of mutually perceived facts. Can the use of information systems which are increasingly becoming more responsive and accurate push forward this kind of acknowledgement into broader areas of arms control and, someday, even make certain kinds of treaties obsolete?
Both in the negotiation of trade agreements and in their execution, an agreed-upon data base can make almost automatic the evaluation of the impact of concessions and of the responses to the withdrawal or tampering with concessions. Perhaps the principal function of the future trade negotiator will be, first, to arrive at an agreed-upon data base and, second, to negotiate on the basis of his evaluation of the national interest involved in facts known to all. On the other hand, it may be decided that, although this procedure would simplify one part of the negotiations, the facts are of such a proprietary nature as to preclude their use in this manner. In either event, the choice of action will be broadened significantly.
Undoubtedly, information systems for the conduct of foreign affairs will have to include major techniques for the forecasting of technological and socio-economic change. In order to prepare for the consequences of economic development in the emerging nations, and in the international exploitation of ocean, sub-arctic and extraterrestrial resources, substantial revisions in international law and economic policy obviously are going to be required. Information technology could be applied immediately to the collection of relevant socio-economic data both on the emerging nations and on newly developing resource areas, and eventually could relate them meaningfully to alternative courses of action-what kinds of investments should be made and by whom, what should be the distribution of costs and benefits, etc. On this basis of information, the substance of the decisions in these fields could be altered fundamentally. National and international concern could be concentrated on real issues and realistic alternatives.
These are but a few examples of how information technology may have an impact on the conduct of foreign affairs. The form and substance of what we do in this field are already changing. It is essential that we understand this and act upon the understanding systematically, imaginatively and with the best techniques available to us.
In the same decade that the new technology has emerged, the number of countries with which the United States conducts relations has more than doubled, the number of departments and agencies involved in foreign affairs has vastly increased and our sources of information have taken a quantum jump. The very process of decision-making has become infinitely complicated. Under these circumstances, the challenge of conducting our foreign affairs intelligently, of grounding policy on the best possible information, is a challenge to modern management and its use of organizational systems and technological tools. Is modern management now being applied to the conduct of United States foreign affairs? I think that a beginning has been made. Perhaps in this beginning we may also find that our statesmen-not the technicians, but those who must decide what is to be demanded of the technicians-have begun to think about what they want. For, once again, this is the central question: What do we want from our technology? If we know, we can get it.