PLANNING is thinking ahead with a view to action. It is thus an organic ingredient in the whole process of conducting foreign affairs, not the monopoly of a cloistered few. Indeed, most planning, and some of the weightiest, is neither so labelled nor done by planners so called. In the interest of furthering progress in the art, it may be useful to discuss the nature of planning in foreign affairs and some of the practical problems involved.

The urgency of planning in our age of international flux and danger needs no argument. It is perhaps less often remarked that the difficulties tend to increase with the urgency--in the field of disarmament, for example. A better understanding of those difficulties should be helpful in the effort for better planning which must never cease.

The basic function of planning in foreign affairs is to provide a timely evolution of policy. It is for this purpose that the planner must look as far ahead as the mind's eye can usefully see. He is the apostle of the future. He must speak for the changes that are coming, the problems we must one day confront and should now be getting ready for.

In foreign affairs as elsewhere the future and the past fight an endless battle over the present. The past has its claims too: a policy which ignores them will be capricious, unstable, unrespected and disastrous. Yet the pull of the past increases with the square of governmental size; so the claims of the future have to be put with increasing energy in the world of today, where the inertial momentum of bureaucracy is deflected with difficulty from established orbits.

The need for new ideas in preparing for the future is often stressed, but it is more an expression of discontent than a definition of what is wanted. The important thing is relevant novelty, as Alfred North Whitehead used to insist. Creative advances in planning as in science often lie in devising not so much new abstractions as fortunate adaptations of familiar ones to new problems. In any planning shop there are likely to be a number of ideas lying about which have repeatedly been tried out in one context or another and laid aside: then one day a different problem emerges, and somebody picks up one of those unemployed ideas, gives it a slightly different twist, and slips it deftly into place as part of a winning strategy. This weaving of ideas into the fabric of action is particularly the function of the governmental planner because he is close to the scene.

Another aspect of getting policy to evolve in time rather than too late is not at all a question of new ideas but rather of making people face up to what they really know already. Much of the inertia of government derives from the weight of vested interest, consisting partly in natural identification with existing policy on the part of those who fight daily for its success, partly in the amount of time, effort and money invested in carrying out a given policy, which it seems unbearable to write off. Thus the obstacle to timely change often lies not in lack of ideas but in unwillingness to focus on them, because to do so would jeopardize too much that is held dear.

In this respect the planner's job lies not so much in producing new thoughts as in reworking the same ones until they finally sink in. It is a difficult task because too much hammering merely leads people to discount the advocate as hopelessly biased. This side of the planning art calls for an internal diplomacy armed with the skills of a Hebrew prophet, Machiavelli and a ward-heeling politician rolled into one. As always, the vital question is timing--to seize the moment when some turn of events or fortunate mood disposes key people to listen and the public to support.

From these observations it is understandable that anonymity is vital for the planner as such. If he performed his gadfly role in public his position would rapidly become as intolerable as Socrates' did. The leaders responsible to Congress and the nation for the conduct of foreign affairs rightly receive the credit for the successes of foreign policy, including its planning, as well as answering for its failures. The anonymous planner may be forgiven if he relishes the irony of sometimes being most effective just when the press is describing him as moribund.

Planning like any other intellectual inquiry can be viewed as a process of problem-solving. As such it involves selecting and formulating a problem, gathering and sifting relevant data, developing hypothetical solutions, and--in the successful case--concluding with the solution judged best. If the outcome is a plan, i.e. a design for attaining a stated goal, the problem becomes how to achieve the proposed goal, and the chosen solution is the pattern of action recommended for its attainment. In other cases the outcome of planning may be simply a change in the direction of policy, or the more effective programming of an existing policy or plan.

Stated in such abstract terms, nothing could sound duller or more pedantic. But planning in foreign affairs needs to shun pedantry like the plague. The worst of its occupational diseases, in or out of government, is the routine reshuffling of platitudes. Certain problems, such as the acute polarization in the Near East, are so important that they must be studied again and again even if the results are persistently negative. But when standard topics are rehashed and elaborated for the sake of going through the motions, such as "having a plan" for country X or fashionable subject Y, the result is not merely failure but to give aid and comfort to the enemy by dissipating national assets.

In contrast, the scouting phase of planning, the restless search for the live problems that are ripe for solution--or imperative whether ripe or not--is one of its most vitally creative tasks. Problems come at the planner in countless guises and from many angles. Some are assigned by his superiors; others may be suggested by a harried desk officer, a Congressional debate or lunch with a military colleague. They may consist of difficulties to be overcome or opportunities to be exploited. But they almost never arise in finished form. Often they go through a long period of incubation--the worrying stage, in which they are repeatedly scrutinized, experimented with and quietly mulled over until a formulation is discovered which gives promise of results. Even after systematic planning is begun, the problem is apt to undergo further development as new insights show how it can be made more precise or broken down into pieces which the planner can take hold of. The art of making the problem manageable is neither easy nor reducible to formula, but it is essential for success.

Lest it be thought that foreign affairs planning is intrinsically a slow-moving business, I should add that some problems have to be shot on the wing: an opportunity for their solution may appear only briefly, never to return. Some of the turning points of history in our century offered such evanescent choices, as when we decided to resist the North Korean invasion in 1950.

Realism in problem formulation bears fruit in a realistic relationship between means and ends in the plans produced. This is the proper meaning of "clarifying objectives," so often stressed as a part of the planning process. Grandiose goals, however emotionally appealing, which merely float in the sky like so many Platonic ideas, are an unmitigated vice in serious planning. But it is a hard one to eradicate because of the human propensity for wishful thinking which at times threatens to reduce planning to cheer-leading. For example, a projection of the world in 1965, which sought to be realistic by contrasting the world as it is tending to become in 1965 with the world as it could probably become given efforts that are feasible, was resented in some quarters because it seemed to aim at less than perfection.

Too much of the talk about "objectives" in foreign affairs is really a mere luxuriating in aspirations. Unless applied to something we can realistically propose to accomplish in finite time, the term is a misnomer. It seems in fact to have been borrowed from military planning, for much of which the tangible accomplishment of stated results by a fixed time is both feasible and essential. In foreign affairs we have far less control of men and events, therefore far fewer occasions when it is sensible to use the word "objectives." More modest expressions such as "aims," "interests" or "directions of effort" are usually more accurate names for the vectors of policy.

As the conceptions of ends and of means grow by interaction throughout the planning process, ends take the lead in general, but it is the increasing grasp of means which shapes the pattern in detail because it is the key to solving the problem. The formulation and exploration of various possible courses of actions thus makes up the main content of planning.

The planner's tools are put to work both in selecting problems and in developing solutions. His most indispensable tools are his own qualities of mind and experience. He needs an original and inquiring turn of mind, imaginative in projecting and combining new policies and tracing the chains of probable action and reaction out ahead of the immediate situation. But equally he needs balanced judgment, common sense and a shrewd eye for what is possible--remembering Bismarck's definition of politics. He must be good at analyzing emerging trends and the implications of alternative ways of dealing with them. He also needs intuitive flair, a sixth sense for relevance and timing.

By way of background, the planner requires much that can be acquired only by practicing his own art. But to it he should bring a variety of knowledge and skills in one or more major fields of foreign affairs, political, economic or politico-military, including some operating experience both abroad and in Washington. Experience in or with other agencies of government is also desirable. A professional or business background can likewise be useful, as can scholarly attainments in science, the humanities or social disciplines. No individual can combine all these things, but any planning group should possess a stimulating and balanced assortment of them.

Another planning tool of great importance is conversation with people known to be most provocatively thoughtful, whether in government or private life. Reflection and conversation in turn are nourished by the vast body of reports, analyses and ideas which are produced in Washington, or stream thither from all quarters of the nation and the world as nowhere else on earth.

More formal tools are afforded by systematic consultation with the wide array of government experts--scientific, political, economic, military, intelligence--who have relevant knowledge and may supply contributory studies. In addition, the planner is increasingly profiting by the collaboration of outside consultants and the work of the leading centers of foreign affairs research. These sources can be of use both in the preliminary phase, when relevant hypotheses are being developed, and later on as conclusions shape up and need to be tested against the judgment of persons representing a variety of backgrounds.

The end product of planning is as varied as its problems. Sometimes the product is zero. To work honestly at planning in foreign affairs is to learn many lessons in humility, and to admit again and again how many requirements exceed capabilities. It is also to see some events mock prudence and reward folly, and to wonder whether it would have been better not to plan. The random element bulks large, the options are often few and narrow, and no man by taking thought can hope to swing the ship of state more than a few degrees, at a time at least.

Fortunately failure is not the rule, particularly when the problem has been reduced to manageable dimensions. The rule is varied measures of usefulness, which depend in good part on how well the nature and limitations of the task at hand have been understood. It may be helpful to discuss these with regard to some of the main kinds of planning.

Long-range planning is in great demand today. It is widely developed in certain aspects of military and industrial planning, and many feel there should be more in foreign affairs. To a considerable extent this is justified, and not as a passing mood but as a constant imperative. Planners need continually to tell themselves, and be told by others, not to let the press of current problems crowd out the slower-moving, less insistent but often more basic questions that lie out ahead. The path of least resistance is always toward worrying about what everybody else is worrying about, instead of about what nobody is but somebody should.

Moreover, human foresight is short at best. We must keep trying new ways of increasing its range and grasp. In this connection it is useful to learn what is applicable in foreign affairs from the methods of industrial and military planning, as well as to be alert for novel applications of research techniques such as game theory and operations analysis.

But there is a great deal more long-range planning in foreign affairs than appears to be generally recognized, for a number of reasons. One is that people seem to expect a blueprint of the future, stating what will be done in year X, year Y and so on. Such scheduling of the future is possible where the relevant factors are largely under our control, e.g. in planning new weapons generations or space vehicles. But in foreign affairs they are by definition for the most part not under our control, nor are they predictable except in broad terms. It was possible to foresee many problems and opportunities in regard to emerging Africa, including particularly the Congo, but hardly the unique actions of individual leaders such as Colonel Mobutu or Mr. Lumumba.

Another widespread expectation is that long-range planning can be a prophylactic against trouble. Thus the Baltimore Sun in an editorial last October called for "a real effort to bring long-range care and coherence into our country's international relationships," thereby preventing such things as chaos in Cuba, or at least not letting them come as nasty surprises. Careful planning does indeed reduce the element of shock in diplomacy, and the main intent of the editorial is of course well taken--although it is only fair to add that crises prevented seldom make headlines. But given the uncontrollability of the foreign environment and the stormy character of our age, no conceivable amount or excellence of planning can hope to avoid frequent rough times in the years ahead. That would be true even if the Soviet threat did not exist. What the planner can and does do is to anticipate the sorts of rough time and the most likely ways of dealing with them, rather than the shape and date of particular events. The trend toward social revolution in Latin America is a case in point.

The kinds of long-range planning which are in fact widely and usefully practiced in foreign affairs are chiefly three, with many shadings and interminglings. One is a development of the sociopolitical implications of non-political changes. Some fields in economics, engineering and military technology afford relatively hard data supporting projections for five, ten or more years on which foreign policy planning can climb out into the years ahead, as it were, and go to work.

Another viable kind of long-range planning is analysis of present forces or trends considered likely to determine the framework of some aspect of the future over an extensive period. Thence are derived courses of action, many of which should be started now in order to deal most effectively with the forces analyzed and the problems they will tend to create. Planning of this type has evident value, and a great deal has actually been done. A number of examples may be found in published material such as the Rockefeller panels' reports, the studies prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and books sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and other centers of foreign affairs research. Ten-year planning for NATO and the studies which prepared the way for the Development Loan Fund and for United States sponsorship of the Act of Bogotá may differ in precision or sensitive detail, but scarcely as regards illustrating the scope and limitations of this kind of planning. It seeks those perspectives of the future which are most important to bear in mind while conducting foreign affairs today--"the futurity of present decisions," in Peter Drucker's phrase.

A third kind of long-range planning that has proven productive lies in creating a comprehensive philosophy and strategic concept for the national effort as a whole. Here the foreign affairs planner has a central contribution to make, although it extensively involves and must be coördinated with the thinking of social, economic and military planners. President Griswold's discussion of five revolutionary forces at work in the world of today, in last October's FOREIGN AFFAIRS, gives an excellent idea of the scale of problems with which such planning has to grapple.

The craving for some more redeeming image of the future is characteristic of times of trouble. The acute limitations of human forethought in our day are implied in the frequent question, "Can you see light at the end of the tunnel?" This question is a reminder that planning in foreign affairs is a passionate as well as an intellectual process. Its task is to energize as well as analyze. Inspired planning that conveys a sense of knowing where we are going is preëminently a function of the national leadership, but others can participate, as do the thoughtful public and indeed the whole ". . . wide world dreaming on things to come." So an ordinary planning team must be sensitive to the stirrings of a new spirit in the land, and may even share in its birth.

Contingency planning is akin to long-range planning in that it may reach years ahead, though against an unspecified date rather than across an approximate time span. Plans are seldom used unchanged in an emergency, but the fact that at least some of the problems likely to be faced have been thought out in a period of relative calm makes action more likely to be prudent and effective.

It is mistaken, however, to expect a plan for every contingency. The number of theoretically possible crises in the years ahead is virtually infinite. Even to try to plan systematically for all that are moderately likely would be a questionable expenditure of resources, for the same reason that it is bad business to over-insure against risks. One can spend so much time chasing possible fires in the future that little is left for the problems that demonstrably exist, including fire prevention. While general watchfulness should constantly scan the whole horizon for trouble spots, the selection of contingencies for intensive planning has to be a matter of judgment, estimating urgency and fruitfulness.

To conclude, planning is urgently necessary in foreign affairs today, and the quest for improvement must be pursued with vigor. More has been achieved than is publicly recognized, however, and a good deal has also been learned on how to go about it. Anonymity is usually essential. The best planning like the best car makes the least noise. Its finest fruit is the troubles that never happened.

At the same time planning is no panacea. We must shun delusions of omnipotence which project habits of domestic mastery into expectations of perpetual prosperity abroad. Our strongest effort, however brilliantly planned, can be only a fractional factor in the total sweep of historic causation. But that fraction may make the difference between success and failure.

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  • GEORGE ALLEN MORGAN, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Policy Planning; former Secretary of Embassy, Moscow, and Counsellor of Embassy, Tokyo; former Adviser, Planning Board, National Security Council
  • More By George Allen Morgan