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Case in point: Separating rational arguments from cultural bias

The big idea: Distinguishing rational arguments from those based on an organization’s cultural bias (the way we do things) and political considerations (what’s in it for me) can lead to a more robust analysis of the options for dealing with military challenges.

The scenario: Our nation has reached a tipping point. Economic stagnation, high unemployment, unprecedented government deficits and debt growth require us to cut spending while creating jobs. Beyond that, demands on the military are building on many other fronts: runaway debt in partner nations, internal power struggles in regions traditionally assumed to be stable, expansion of China’s influence and concern over its military intentions, humanitarian issues in failed states and terrorism threats, weapons of mass destruction and natural disasters.

Whether ensuring the flow of international commerce, responding to natural disasters, creating economic opportunities or deterring a regional hegemony, the strength of the military is vital to the nation remaining globally connected, relevant and effective.

The goal of some states and non-state actors is to create environments that restrict our regional access or disrupt the flow of commerce. In addition, the possibility of high-tech weapons landing in low-tech hands — such as non-state or proxy actors — is likely to rise. Any disruption in commerce could diminish U.S. influence, and lead to the targeting of civilians.

The resolution: Military challenges are often divided into traditional challenges (peer and near-peer competitor conflicts, for instance, China) and nontraditional challenges (weapons of mass destruction, climate change, cyberattacks, energy security, international terrorism, natural disasters, sea piracy, global demographic changes, financial crises and pandemics). A rational analysis of economic loss from economic, geopolitical, environmental, societal and technological risks has to be balanced against any possible loss of life.

As our military downsizes, cultural considerations are important. The military is strategically evolving to become more flexible and agile to address a broader range of challenges, whether major combat operations or irregular challenges.

Political considerations are equally important to achieving success with limited resources. Activities to improve local stability and to build the capacity of targeted states to provide their own security, govern themselves and reduce the discontent of their populations should be a priority. Improved understanding of cultural, social, political and economic factors is essential to engaging the increasingly complex global security environment. Agility, flexibility and a long-term commitment of both military and civilian assets are essential.

The lesson: Having a framework for decision making can help. It can force examination of assumptions and help avoid the four decision traps: anchoring on the first alternative, framing without careful consideration of assumptions, sunk cost that is no longer relevant, and media visibility causing blindness to other alternatives.

Thomas A. Cross is a lecturer and senior director of Executive Education with oversight for military leader executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

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