The unintended consequences of analytical doctrine may make us more vulnerable to surprises.
Two recent events, the surprise Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the massing of Russian troops on Ukrainian borders, have brought to the surface the debate about the role of assessment and analysis in informing policy decisions. In the case of the former, we ask: how could this event not have been foreseen (i.e., why did the analysis not clearly predict it)? In the case of the latter, we are provided with varying estimates of the likelihood of President Vladimir Putin’s malign intentions and his probable timescales for action. Will he invade, or won’t he? By spring or after?
So many retrospectives on foreign and defence policy decision-making end up asking similar questions: how did we not know? Why did we not anticipate? Why did we not understand? Reviews often tend to focus on the phrase ‘warning failure’, a failure to provide an alert clearly enough such that action could be taken. Sometimes this is unfair because there is no advance information – it is a genuine shock – and sometimes it is unfair because predicting a future course of events is difficult. The UK now has a formal, professionalised assessment and analysis capability within its civil service, with shared training, standards and tradecraft. Multiple analytical bodies feed into the centre, the Joint Intelligence Organisation and the Joint Intelligence Committee, which sit within the Cabinet Office. Their role is to analyse events and produce assessment, understanding and key judgements which form the basis on which policy decisions are taken. But two elements of the doctrine which guides assessment and analysis in the UK make its job harder than it needs to be.
The first is that assessment and analysis in the UK system does not include as a formal part of the assessment process an analysis of what we or our friends might do, or of our own capabilities and weaknesses. Both of these are critical factors in shaping how the future evolves. A huge amount of diplomatic effort goes into understanding the thinking of allies, with Embassies reporting back to London, but this reporting on our friends’ intentions and capabilities is not subjected to the rigour and discipline of the professional assessment and analysis process, which is focused on adversaries. Typically, a pure foreign and defence policy analysis on the intentions of an adversary is a combination of attempted insights into what is motivating the leadership (those who take decisions), and analysis of underlying factors which might influence their decision-making. Understanding the capabilities and the motivations and intentions of an adversary is always difficult, not least because it requires predicting their likely future actions when even they might not know what they are. But this analysis is weaker because it often does not include an analysis of what the UK, Europe, the US or our allies in the region might do or are able to do.
In every conflict scenario we are engaged in, we must consider ourselves a pivotal actor if there is any point in our involvement at all
If you think about this for even a moment, you have to ask what it tells us about our assumptions regarding our own actions. Is it that they are inconsequential – i.e., they will have no effect on the outcome? Is it that we assume they will be perfect – that we will choose the best possible course of action, so that if the outcome is still not as desired, that must be the result of the bad actions of others or ineluctable fate? If neither of these is the case, then a piece of assessment on the likely actions of a malign actor which does not include an assessment of the likely actions of the less malign actors (those on your side, depending on your perspective) is simply incomplete.
In every conflict scenario we are engaged in, we must consider ourselves a pivotal actor if there is any point in our involvement at all. How can we produce an assessment on the next steps of the Iranian nuclear programme without knowing how they might respond to what we might do, unless we assume our actions will have no impact at all on Iranian decisions? How can we make the best possible assessment on what Putin might do in Ukraine unless we also know what the US, Germany, France, Ukraine and the UK might do? It is difficult to corral the Western alliance into one single voice or course of action – it could be the US, the UK, Europe, NATO or any constellation of actors who make a decisive move. One lesson we have learned repeatedly is that we seldom understand US decision-making as well as we think we do. We make an assumption that the Americans will do what they say they will do, and that they will tell us beforehand. But history shows that US decision-making is just as complex and flawed (and influenced by domestic considerations) as anyone else’s.
The second inhibitor is the structural division at every level of the process between assessment and policymaking. This important doctrine goes back to Lord Butler’s Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction of 2004, the principles of which have formed the backbone of UK government assessment in the 17 years since publication. It stated that: ‘the assessment process must be informed by an understanding of policy-makers’ requirements for information, but must avoid being so captured by policy objectives that it reports the world as policy-makers would wish it to be rather than as it is. The JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] is part (and an important part) of the UK’s governmental machinery or it is nothing; but to have any value its product must be objective’. The recommendations called for ‘clearer and more effective dividing lines between assessment and advocacy’, having examined whether ‘analysis or assessment appears to have been coloured by departmental policy or other agendas’. Although it found no evidence that assessments had been influenced by the policy positions of departments, it stressed that policy imperatives must not dominate objective assessment.
It was and is an absolute that assessment and analysis should be objective and independent, and policymaking should be a separate process. But if assessment of the future actions of an adversary or future direction of a problem is produced in isolation from the process which considers answers to the question, ‘What should we do about it?’, then there is no part of the process where the rigorous thinking and analytical techniques of the professional assessment and analysis capability are applied to the possible futures conjured up by policy choices. That total separation of analysis of an adversary’s actions from analysis of the effect of possible policy choices (including our own effect on the adversary) means that it is not possible to say in a piece of objective and independent assessment: ‘if we do this, X might happen and if we do that then Y might happen’. The full concentration of the analytical effort is on the adversary, and because of doctrine that same effort is not directed towards how we might affect the adversary’s choices.
Policy options analysis is core business for our US and other allies. There is no reason why the UK should not also do this
Even suggesting that there should be a role for analysis in helping to explore possible consequences of policy choices is akin to blasphemy. Butler’s recommendations were there for good reasons, which continue to be valid, and some might argue are more important than ever. But they do have unintended consequences, and it is time to question whether some of these may be harmful if applied absolutely. It is important to acknowledge that the circumstances now are very different, because other Butler Review recommendations have been implemented. The assessment community has been professionalised, with the introduction of an analysis specialism with a career structure, professional training and room for advancement. Similarly, Butler’s recommendations that analysts should employ the formal techniques of challenge and develop tradecraft to seek to address risks of groupthink and ‘prevailing wisdom’ have been thoroughly embedded in training and doctrine. The concept of the assessment community in the civil service as independent and objective is sacrosanct, and this ought to mean that there is room to explore whether it might contribute in limited and controlled circumstances to policymaking through providing analysis of the likely effect of policy choices. Policy options analysis – evaluating the likely impact of pursuing different policy options, conducted with intellectual independence from the vexatious responsibility of actually having to put those options into practice – is core business for our US and other allies. There is no reason why the UK should not also do this.
There are at least two live crises brewing out there: Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan. We are going to need the ability to read our allies as well as our adversaries, to know what the impact of our actions might be, and to have an honest professional assessment of what we are and are not capable of.