international analysis and commentary

The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones


A fierce debate has taken place on the alleged “failure” of analysts, political scientists, scholars of international relations, diplomats and the intelligence community to foresee the turmoil in the Arab World. Marta Dassù on “Aspen online” added more fuel to it.

To be sure, there are many kinds of “failure”: overestimation, underestimation, overconfidence, complacency, ignorance, inability to connect the dots. The post- 9/11 analyses, for instance, provide a full spectrum of different and spectacular ways to fail.

What is astonishing in this debate is the fact that nobody seems to care about one fundamental issue: the problem is less the method adopted than the very nature of the reality observed. What we watch is as important as how we watch it. The failure has nothing to do with the tools adopted; it is rather about missing the point. For decades analysts have been studying traditional variables and data sets, being unaware of the new societal environment created by new media, private agencies and informal groups. If there is a failure, it is the one regarding the stubborn “realist” approach to international relations, according to which only “hard power”, the economy and geo-political factors are structural elements in the understanding of world politics. A different outlook, based on the process of identity formation, ideas and values, would have been needed to fully understand what was happening beyond the façade of “order” and “stability”.  

One further aspect has been neglected in this discussion: the “missing link” between theory and practice in foreign policy. The subject is not new. Entire university courses are taught on foreign policy analysis. Non-orthodox approaches have been adopted in an effort to close the gap between academics and practitioners. Recently, some scholars came to me suggesting that we analyze the events in North Africa through the conceptual lens of “fuzzy logic”. Others are resorting to fractals and chaos theory, entropy and quantum physics categories.  In many cases, experts and scholars are eager to give advice to diplomats and international relations practitioners who are under terrible pressure due to precipitating events or due to the small window of opportunity they are desperately trying to catch. On the other hand, academics are frustrated with the lack of inputs coming “from the ground” that would allow them to better formulate their scenarios.

Like in the famous movie trilogy The Matrix, three main characters – the Architect, the Oracle and the One – play their roles without knowing the entire plot. First, there are the Architects, who design and incessantly correct the Matrix: in our case, university and academic centers dealing with international issues operate at this level. Second, there are the Oracles: “think tanks” crafting strategies, offering hints, suggesting policies. And third, are the “Ones” (self-appointed): diplomats, international organization officials, special envoys (to almost everything and to everywhere).

The Architects think they control the knowledge. The Oracles think they have a strategy. The Ones think they have a mission. But the Source can be reached only by connecting the bits.

Read also:
Egypt and the political science crisis
by Marta Dassù
The positivist illusion
by Michele Testoni
The shocks that always make a difference
by Ian O. Lesser
No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis
by Gregorio Bettiza
Reading the future: not our job
by Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE