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Who needs strategy?

Written By: - Date published: 9:49 am, June 6th, 2018 - 39 comments
Categories: China, Economy, employment, International, Politics, us politics - Tags:

At the moment, the United States of America is headed towards full employment. Quibble about the stats if you like, but President Trump has been there long enough to make a difference irrespective of how much is directly attributable.

He also seems to be making international moves that are paying off. For the first time, the leaders of France and Germany are proposing a cross-European defence force, and there’s no way that would happened without Trump consistently questioning the role of NATO and individual national Defence contributions.

For the first time since Bill Clinton’s second term, there is going to be a summit with North Korea. President Trump is also pushing to total evacuation of US armed forces from Syria (of course that doesn’t mean he won’t intervene).

President Trump has also started to implement trade tariffs on steel and aluminium, and neither the sharemarkets nor the entire global economic order have seen their skies fall in. Of course, I hear you say, there’s still time.

Perhaps the idea that it’s necessary to have national objectives and realistic plans to achieve them, is overrated. Seems to be working for Trump.

There are plenty that argue that grand strategy forms a conceptual framework that helps determine where you want to go and how you ought to get there. The alternative is supposed to bring ad hoc, incoherent, and ultimately unsuccessful decision-making.

The thing is, Trump looks like he is making up successful strategies without waiting to write them down or fully formulating them in advance.

The almost total opposite of this more tactical form of government to President Trump, is that of the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. The headline unemployment is also pretty strong there.

But he could not be more explicit about where China has been where it is, where it is going, and how precisely it will get there.

He set that out in his address to his own Congress just two months ago. His rollout of the Belt and Road initiative, his increasing control of resources throughout the world, the controlled expansion into the South China Sea, it’s all there in black and white.

This is quite consistent from China’s great Marxist version of modernism, which involves marshalling not only the full instruments of the state, but also the land and its rivers, the sea and its islands, and all of its international partnerships, and the people itself, towards singular ends. Very, very few countries in the world still practise this degree of autocratic sovereign drive at that scale. But there is no doubt this degree of deliberate and long term grand strategy is working for China.

If it all works, China will continue to have a growing economy, a slower-growing and wealthier population, a reliable set of resources, a durable and unassailable set of trade links a and ports and routes, and a rapidly decreasing carbon footprint.

We have our own tiny echo of grand strategy, within Minister Shaw’s plans for decreasing carbon production within New Zealand. Only the faintest shadows of its form are emerging, but it is intended to be a long term, bipartisan, all-encompassing, whole-of-nation effort to transition to a low-carbon economy and society and environment.

This is but a faint pulse of the kinds of grand agreements that were formed in New Zealand from the 1960s to the late 1970s, in our own high-modernist phase. Back in the day, great compacts were regularly formed across unions and industrial sectors, with across-the-board wage rises, and the presumption that whole industrial sectors could be corralled within one large room and changes in government policy were very carefully negotiated. Anyone remember triple time? We still see occasional heroic leaders in the High Court and Supreme Court have to directly challenge the state to get wage rises, as in the care worker case, but it is fought tooth and nail all the way against the state, rather than alongside it as part of a meeting together of state, business, and people towards one grand strategy.

What we are observing through Trump’s version of political leadership is the kind that business leaders now tend to employ; emergent strategy. This assumes that the ends as well as the means should change based on circumstances. Successful strategies should form without being fully formulated in advance – and indeed the complexity and speed of the world often makes such formulations impossible. The important thing is not to plan but to learn.

The most conscious and explicit grand strategy formed in New Zealand in recent decades was the Growth and Innovation Framework, formed in the first term of the Clark administration. You get a sense of it from the Prime Minister here.

As the name suggests, it sought to enable the entire country not only to grow, but to lift productivity and wealth through innovation. It was launched amidst great fanfare by the Prime Minister, with significant buy-in from both the business and social sectors, and from central government agencies. It proved too hard to sustain across all the government agencies, and too hard to inculcate into Ministers as a grand narrative that drove every budget and every policy rollout. Grand narratives are grand because what they narrate is the social imaginary itself, but nothing of the kind has ever been tried here since.

Instead, slightly less grand strategies have been required to respond, for example, to the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes, to the accelerated growth of Auckland, and to the management of singular resources such as fishing. Here plans are formed to respond to events, and little more. The instruments of the state itself have continued to evolve, but by no means do they rise to the level of supercoherence required to implement a grand strategy.

The key test for the Trump administration’s performance is not whether it is pursuing some long-term plan behind the scenes, but whether it is capable of allowing successful strategies to develop incrementally. Not having a grand plan isn’t stopping him from succeeding either at home or abroad.

Whereas the measures for Xi Jinping’s China are as clear as a set of Key Performance Indicators in a really large contract: is there singularity of messaging and of debate; is there sufficient resources to build all the goods ordered; is the population getting overall wealthier sufficient that they see no pressing need for democratic reform; are trade and security routes set for their necessary long term draw of resources from the world; are they continuing to succeed as a country.

The test for New Zealand’s current government, between the U.S. and China in strategic theory and in lived reality, is whether it can get out of perpetual repair mode and into something that determines our best possible future. That may or may not require a national strategy – but it sure requires something like strategy to emerge.

39 comments on “Who needs strategy?”

  1. Quibble?? You mean die laughing…

    Funnily enough its actually Trump himself who poured cold water on US unemployment figures, this is from 2016, but I’ve not heard of any fundamental changes in American data gathering so I guess it still stands

    “Donald Trump seems quite certain that the real unemployment rate is higher than the 4.9 percent that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported it to be. A lot higher.

    “Don’t believe these phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment,” Mr. Trump said in his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night. “The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”

    Mr. Trump might be bombastic, but he’s not entirely wrong.”


  2. Gosman 2

    A pro-Trump post on a leftist blog. I sense trouble brewing…

  3. Gosman 3

    What were the lasting outcomes of all of these grand agreements that NZ put together in the 1960’s and 1970’s given we were in a real economic mess in 1984?

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    LOL–a love letter to the “Mango Mussolini”…

  5. David Mac 5

    Trump uses the Nike model: ‘Just Do it’.

    I see The primary advantage of leaping in boots and all and not adhering to a carefully plotted plan as the availability of adjustments along the way. The ease with which sails can be reset to suit unforeseen prevailing winds.

    Nasa did not have a path plotted for their moon mission, they adjusted Apollo’s trajectory over 600 times whilst on the journey.

    • greywarshark 5.1

      And what was Nasa’s goal for this mission? What was the point in expending squillions and denuding the planet? To satisfy curiosity, and allow scientists to punch the air saying aren’t we clever, and have an exciting, satisfying climax? Where is the cost-benefit analysis for this expenditure? Can you have a cost-benefit analysis when there probably isn’t any benefit? Questions that will never be answered satisfactorily to me.

      • McFlock 5.1.1

        Apollo gave us advances in materials sciences and engineering, was followed by Skylab and the space shuttle (as steps to a mars mission) which enabled massive advances in global climate research and solar research (leading directly to the identification, monitoring and progressive healing of the ozone hole we’d caused, and observation of global warming), and of course Hubble, which has enabled us to make great leaps in physics, not to mention GPS and the practical validation of hypotheses that, in part, enable us to discuss these things via computer.

        I for one don’t want to return to the 1950s.

        • Draco T Bastard


          The benefits that we’ve got from the US Space program are so vast as to be damn near immeasurable.

        • greywarshark

          Mmm. What did the 1950s ever do for us? It was just after WW2 when the scientists had planned and built and exploded the big bombs, and were going nuclear next. Communism was the target so there could be no peace while the hatred and fear that it or fascism would swamp us.

          So NASA probably did save us by giving all the eager beavers space to aim at, and we have made great leaps, towards annihilation. Yes great things eh.
          The benefits are immeasurable, light years away. Meanwhile in Cambodia the skulls are piled high, on Hawaii the volcano shoots, in Guatemala it echoes Pompeii with people coated and concreted in ash. Can we use machinery to help the victims out, build search and rescue robots to save lives or bring victims out to their families who can grieve and bury them? Things that are sort of useful to ease our pain in living?

          Papua New Guinea – they have had a vision of civilisation that tantalises them as it comes to mine or cut something that is valuable to the world and take it from them, and then goes and leaves them a system that has no money for the medical help they need, but leaves them with a dose of syphilis. 4% of the pregnant women have it, but they have no supplies needed to check who, and act to save the babies.

          There just isn’t the room in our hearts and minds for the present and touchable, our attention is all on the fabulous lost space worlds. Read space fiction and do something for each other with the money otherwise burnt up in space.

          • Draco T Bastard

            Meanwhile in Cambodia the skulls are piled high, on Hawaii the volcano shoots, in Guatemala it echoes Pompeii with people coated and concreted in ash.

            Wow, that was ALL due to the SPACE PROGRAM?


            Yeah, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

            • greywarshark

              I think you are lacking in imagination. Too literal to make that leap of understanding beyond outdoor physics into the physics of the mind. So instead of imagining it you have to create it in 3D or maybe 4D if that exists.

              • Draco T Bastard

                Ah, upset that you’ve been proven wrong you go full Ad hominem.

          • McFlock

            The work of NASA and the technology required to overcome their big problems gave us quite a few tools to help us overcome our smaller problems, too.

            • greywarshark

              Thanks McFlock
              I was reading through and had an ah-ha moment when I saw the smoke detector. But it was invented by someone else. Toys for the boys still.

              Just thinking what comes to mind. A Doc here has invented something that will help babies in poor countries – that is good. Then I remember hearing about the problems of getting cellular phones available in Africa.
              That is a story, quite exciting also demanding on the entrepreneurs.

              • McFlock

                No, a better smoke detector isn’t toys for the boys.
                It’s more lives saved.

                But there are many more benefits to space exploration than just little shit like discovering the origins of the universe.

                • greywarshark

                  I didn’t mean that smoke detectors aren’t important. I just meant that the other things are mostly not. Handy to have seeing they are there. Something I would like is a way to repair nerves so people in wheelchairs can get function back in their bodies, and then have it affordable for anyone.

                  I don’t care about the origins of the universe but am fascinated with the real living universe which is wonderful. And people are wonderful and awful and change all the time. Plenty to study and learn here.

                  The problem is that we are so stuck up with how smart we are in thinking of abstract things. We will destroy our universe getting materials to go into space. We could think of it like magic fascinating to look at, and wonder at, and get on with living in harmony instead of pumping up science to a prime level. The inventions and findings take us further away from the study of man and woman and all things, We might one day get to the stage that we would hear positive things mostly on the news.

                  That’s enough from me.

                  • McFlock

                    In the meantime we have CAT scanners and advances in prosthetic robotic limbs, as well as active research into telemedicine and remotely operated surgery (mars mission in particular again).

                    Fuck magic. That’s just technology we don’t have access to, hidden from us by some annoying jerk who’s after adulation.

                    Give everyone the apparent power of a magician – that’s what science does. We can fly high, swim deep, and have the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of our hands. Sunsets are pretty, but so are the regular steps between the elements in xray crystallography. We can walk upon the shoulders of giants, and stand in awe at how much more there is to see.

                    • In Vino

                      Romanticism at its best, and most enjoyable. But after a few elitists have tasted your joys, will they be able to get the mass of humankind to do enough to avoid the looming mass extinction?
                      If not, that beauty will die with its beholders.
                      Not that I want to rain upon a fun party..

                    • McFlock

                      Well, beauty is always fleeting.

                      But the “looming mass extinction” is unavoidable (for greater or lesser interpretations of the term) without some serious scientific advances. And we only saw it coming because of science.

                      As for only the elites seeing the beauty of the universe, how many cores does your computer have? Are you an elite?

    • McFlock 5.2

      yeah, but they had a clear objective and timeframe, with categorical pass/fail criteria.

      Trump doesn’t.

      • greywarshark 5.2.1

        Trump – a passing comet, a shooting star, a meteorite, a gas cloud, a black hole?
        The orange hair adopted as alien camouflage?

        Perhaps the personification of The Crab Nebula.

      • David Mac 5.2.2

        Yes, I guess I’m trying to say that not committing to a hard and fast plan can be a strategy in itself although in Trump’s case I fear it has more to do do with ‘Don’t put it in writing and stay light on your feet’ is the ideal stance for a polished bullshit artist to adopt.

    • Draco T Bastard 5.3

      Quote of the Day – Planning is Everything, Plans are Nothing

      We know this for sure – any forecast about the future is wrong. All forecasts are predictions about the future, so the forecast has to be wrong. Is the forecast worthless? Of Course not. But all Plans and Forecasts must have the ability to adapt to the emerging situation

      The path is never true and needs be adjusted.

      • David Mac 5.3.1

        I enjoy those occasions when we agree Draco.

        It’s like starting a family, if we all planned to wait until we were ready to go, we’d all be 50 year olds with newborns.

    • mikes 5.4

      Yep he’s definitely a risk taker which can often pay off although it can sometimes cause a disaster (hence probably why he’s been bankrupted more than once).

      IMO it’s better than just more of the same old same old even if there are risks.

  6. Sanctuary 6

    Objective: The purpose of the operation.

    Strategy: What battles and where you fight them in order to support attaining the objective.

    Tactics: How you win the battles.

    It is a fatal to assume that Trump has no objective. Trump has an objective, it just isn’t a traditional one of the objective serving the national interest.

    Trump’s objective is to use the office of the president of the United States to massively enrich himself, and to ensure that he gets away with it. The traditional objectives of the office of the president that are supposed to serve his policy platform or the national interest have been turned on their head by Trump. Under Trump, the president is not there to serve the nation. Instead, the nation is at the service of the president, to be pillaged and ransacked for the maximum profit of the con man who became the accidental president.

    If you grasp Trump’s objective, then his political strategies and tactics make a lot more sense.

    • Bill 6.1

      I agree.

      Trump, and much more importantly, the admin behind or around him, are in the business of making sure impediments to any future enrichment of the rich are removed.

      In many ways (I’ve said this previously) his announcements and pronouncements bring a refreshing, unguarded honesty to “the capitalist project”. Not for him and his cohorts, any intelligently couched opinions for the sake of hoodwinking the fucked over.

      The fucked over are part of the idea of “greatness” he bangs on about. It will only be by and by that they discover they were, and are, to be no part of it.

      I’d like to think the left in the US has got its skates on and is preparing to take advantage of the moment “Trump’s America” comes apart at the seams, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like the Democratic Party is doing quite a good job of squelching the left (at least in terms of possible representation at the government level).

    • Gosman 6.2

      Explain his North Korean strategy in the terms you have framed it in then.

  7. bwaghorn 7

    Hasn’t Ardern done a Trump by killing oil exploration with minimal consultation . ? Political genius and courage right there . Didn’t give the vested interests time to rally just dropped an ace high full house and sat back and smiled .

    • dukeofurl 7.1

      Minimal consultation is not when you get an agreement with the government parties, its when you announce a flag referendum with out even asking any one.

      The reality was the the 2018 block offer was moving along and if it was to be stopped it had to be done then, plus interest was already low
      Big oil player quits New Zealand as offshore activity dries up

      When was the last time any offshore exploration found something ? 1970s?

  8. adam 8

    Who cares if they junk jobs.

    Low paid and utter crap right.

    Because the mantra is always – Jobs, jobs, jobs.

    Quality of life, peace, and no more demagogues – probable a bit much to ask the devotees of liberalism.

    • David Mac 8.1

      Ha! Yeah I think that’s a valid consideration Adam.

      We cried as our garment industry went offshore, pine for the good old days of an acre of women sitting at sewing machines at Cambridge Clothing in New Lynn.

      Nobody aspires to spend their entire working life stitching the stiffening into the collars of business shirts.

      Bring on the robots to pick Kiwifruit and the five day weekend.

  9. Tamati Tautuhi 9

    Unfortunately NZ has not had an Economic Growth Strategy, we had the Old National Farmers Party under Holyoake/Marshall etc with the subsidies and livestock incentive schemes to produce more product we couldn’t sell.

    Then we had the Mad Dog Muldoon schemes with his Think Big projects where he knew better than Treasury, followed by the Lange & Douglas with the Cash Up the Assets program, which was carried on by the National Government.

    Then we went through the Labour Knowledge Wave Economy Period, the Financial Hub of the South Pacific aka Panama Papers under John Key.

    Then the latest strategy has been Mass Immigration, Dirty Dairying, trash the environment and the Auckland Housing Ponzi Scheme with New Zealanders borrowing up a storm competing with Asian buyers to get on the property ladder.

    Unfortunately if a country doesn’t have a road map or a clear plan of what they are doing how will it actually get to it’s desired destination ?

    The Magic Bullets above have failed the average New Zealander ?

  10. Macro 10

    The US unemployment rate continues a trend which began under the Obama Admin. There are a number of factors for this trend in declining unemployment numbers, one of which we see here in NZ also. That is an increase in older workers leaving the work force, and the number of younger workers entering the work force decreasing. This is a purely demographic factor and has little to do with economic policy.
    Note the bulge in the graphic of “baby boomers” all at retiring or approaching retirement age.
    Furthermore pay rates remain below typical levels when the unemployment rate is this low. These are junk jobs.

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