Incrementalism in an Age of Uncertainty

If you’re interested in naval affairs and the U.S. naval force structure, Galrahn has some reflections for the New Fiscal Year that are well worth your time. I’d widen the lens a bit and argue that the idea of introducing incremental changes to shipbuilding during times of rapid technological change and uncertainty could be applied more generally to diplomacy and strategy.

It’s become a trope to talk about the age of uncertainty that has emerged following the end of America’s unipolar moment. And part of the response has been a search for the IR equivalent of a unified field theory that will allow us to prepare ourselves for what is essentially an unfamiliar and rapidly evolving threat environment.

But perhaps what’s needed isn’t a moonshot, but a whole series of small steps designed to test the waters and field a variety of approaches, knowing that time and circumstances will select for the most effective ones.

That seems to be a fairly accurate description so far of what the Obama administration has done, perhaps intentionally, although I suspect not. And although the consensus seems to be growing increasingly gloomy in terms of its performance, I’d say that, with one admittedly significant exception (Israel-Palestine), the Obama team has not really blown anything in terms of its calculated approach. It’s true that the outcomes have been stubborn, but it’s an agenda made up almost entirely of hard-to-crack cases.

As for the criticism that there is no coherent line, I’m not sure the strategic environment calls for one. Coherence works well in stable environements where uncertainty can undermine solid structures. But in a time of uncertainty that is appearing increasingly unstable, trial and error, or incrementalism, makes more sense. Some have argued that it is precisely because of the current uncertainty and instability that the U.S. must be predictable, coherent and dependable. But I think that argument overestimates the degree to which the U.S. can master events.