Why Resilience Is Vastly Overrated

What's to come?
March 19 2012 7:12 AM

Taking Resilience Too Far

Resilience isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to national security.

Soldiers in Afghanistan.
Our goals are less about stopping bad things from happening and more about limiting their effects

Photograph by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.

On March 23, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, policy, and society—will be holding a live event in Washington, D.C., on the concept of resilience. Academics, policymakers, and other experts will discuss resilience in the environment, business, national security, even the Constitution. Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Emily Bazelon will be there, too. To learn more and to RSVP, click here.

Last week, the shooting rampage by an American soldier in Afghanistan prompted renewed debate about why U.S. forces are there and how fast they should come home. As the withdrawal date nears, troops are racing to stabilize security and shore up the Afghan government to withstand a Taliban resurgence and prevent the re-emergence of terrorist safe havens. Nobody mentions “winning” the war. Instead, our goal is resilience: We are training Afghans to soldier on without us.

Resilience has never been more important in the discussion of U.S. national security policy. It’s also never been more overrated. In people, resilience is that inner ability to recover from setbacks—being down but not out, bouncing back, carrying on. But in countries, it also means something more: Accepting that some bad outcomes are inevitable and building in capacity to absorb the blows. By definition, resilience focuses more on recovery than prevention. And in national security, that's a big deal.

Resilience is fast becoming a silent cornerstone of American policy. These days, our goals are less about stopping bad things from happening and more about limiting the effects when they do happen—whether it’s creating computer networks that can resume operation after a cyber attack, developing homeland security programs to accelerate recovery after a terrorist strike, or helping new democracies withstand violent insurgencies. This month, the Army rolled out a new training program to prepare for what it sees as the wave of the future: “indecisive conflicts.” Soldiers are now practicing how to support a host government against a witches’ brew of insurgents, drug traffickers, terrorist networks, and other bad guys. Indecisive conflicts are all about resilience. Victory is inherently elusive. Bouncing back and persevering are the best that we can do.

It was not always this way. During the Cold War, resilience mattered, but not nearly so much. Because the Soviet enemy was clear, its destructive capabilities were well known, and the specter of nuclear war hung in the balance, our goal was preventing conflict, not recovering from it. The Cold War was a very dangerous time, but predictably so. The primary threat was always the same: Mutual assured destruction left little to the imagination. Sure, there were some nasty surprises. Kennedy never imagined Khrushchev would dare deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. But the looming danger of nuclear annihilation had a way of focusing the mind on preventing war in the short run and defeating the Soviets in the long run. Other than ensuring a second strike nuclear capability, resilience was not a major part of Cold War security thinking. You don’t worry about “bouncing back” when you think a single coordinated attack could destroy everything.

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The post-9/11 threat environment is very different. Today the world is less dangerous in absolute terms but more unpredictable. Nuclear holocaust is less likely (despite the current crisis in the Middle East), and, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, by every conceivable measure, humans are less violent than at any time in recorded history. Uncertainty is our bigger security challenge. America’s adversaries are more numerous, more diverse, more hidden, more connected, and more nimble than the Soviet Union ever was. Exactly what danger they pose is also wildly unclear. Will terrorists ever be capable of obliterating Los Angeles, or will they succeed only in causing Americans to disrobe more clothing in airports? Could cyber attackers take down the power grid or devastate global financial markets, and if they could, will they? How likely is a natural or manmade global pandemic? Nobody really knows. But Washington is filled with reports about various threats du jour, nearly all of which are hard to fathom, may never materialize, and could kill us all tomorrow. No wonder resilience has caught on. When clarity is lacking about what bad things must be prevented or how to prevent them, developing the capacity to recover after a disaster sounds like a good idea.

But it can go wrong. Rebuilding a community that sits in a flood zone shows plenty of resilience but less wisdom. American Idol contestants who have no singing ability but compete year after year are resilient—and delusional. Winston Churchill once joked that success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. But there is a fine line between perseverance and stupidity. Sometimes it is better to give up and pursue a different course than continuing down the same failing path in the face of adversity.

The potential problems are particularly acute in foreign affairs, where effective resilience requires a tireless effort to adapt to changes in the threat environment. In the world of national security, bad things don’t just happen. Thinking, scheming people cause them. Allies and adversaries are constantly devising new ways to serve their own interests and gain advantage. Each player’s move generates countermoves, unintended consequences, and unforeseen ripple effects. Forging an alliance with one insurgent group alienates another. Hardening some terrorist targets leaves others more vulnerable. Supporting today’s freedom fighters could be arming tomorrow’s enemies. Effective resilience in this realm is not just bouncing back and trying again. It is bouncing back, closing the weaknesses that got you there in the first place, and trying things differently the next time. Adaptation is key. A country’s resilience hinges on being able to adapt to continuously changing threats in the world.

The trouble is that American national security agencies are notoriously bad at adapting to continuously changing threats in the world. Our government bureaucracies are resilient, but in all the wrong ways. The worst agency structures, cultures, and practices seem to grow back like weeds, no matter how hard reformers try to kill them. Ineffective agencies never die, bad employees stay forever, and innovation is often short-lived, sucked into the black hole of “the way things are done around here.”

National security agencies have tried mightily to adapt to new challenges, but their stories give more pause than comfort. Although the Defense Department was officially created in 1947, it took 40 years before the services really started working together as a unified team. Coordination was so poor that during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, one Army officer had to use his AT&T calling card at a local pay phone to call in air support for his troops because the Army and Air Force did not even use the same radio frequencies. Nineteen CIA directors and four directors of national intelligence have all tried and failed to manage Washington’s sprawling set of intelligence agencies for the past 60 years. Why? Because when Congress established the CIA after Pearl Harbor and the director of national intelligence after 9/11, turf-conscious agencies fought back and watered down legislation so that no new “intelligence czar” would ever have the power to knock their bureaucratic heads together. Transformation is the FBI’s mantra, but 10 years after 9/11, the Bureau’s traditional law enforcement culture is sabotaging its efforts to become a domestic intelligence agency. Special agents still reign supreme, while intelligence analysts who are vital to “connecting the dots” are relegated to lower level jobs and treated like second class citizens. The FBI’s resilience is dooming it to fail.

Resilience sounds good, but don’t be fooled: Not all resilience is beneficial. In national security agencies, it is usually just a fancy word for dysfunction.

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