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Wikistrat, Work, and Junior Kissingers

July 1, 2011

The first day after exams, and I’m  … writing essays? It’s my first day of technical freedom after finishing my final M.Phil. exam on the history of Iran from 1979 to 2005 (the year when Ahmadinejad was elected), but I’m slaving away on our team’s entry on Wikistrat, an online “grand strategy competition” for teams of students from the usual suspects of schools – Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Columbia, IIT, Tel Aviv University, etc. – fancying themselves what I might call junior Kissingers: future strategic planners, standing over maps of the world and divvying up the spoils among the victors. For those who aren’t familiar with this world, the gist of the competition is this: teams from various universities are assigned to play the role of a great power in the world system, like the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India, or the EU (which we’re playing as). Unlike, say, a game of Risk or Diplomacy, where your actions in the course of the strategy simulation are closely tied with what other people do, Wikistrat is more of a policy-planning scenario. You try to identify what your power’s long-term interests are, what your ambitions are for the next, say, 25 years, and then defining a grand strategy for how you want to get there. Not only that, but part of Wikistrat’s conceit is that, instead of merely writing policy briefs to some central planner – how things might work in the real world – you instead use a Wiki-style platform (i.e. like Wikipedia, with open editing among a certain group of people) in order to encourage more teamwork and open editing. Instead of, say, Paul Wolfowitz, coming up with the first audacious draft of your policy planning guidelines, you have … me coming up with the first draft of where the EU should be headed in the next twenty-five years. I enjoy writing, even if I can be verbose in my first drafts (Exhibit A: this blog), and so that’s been the way of the road thus far.

Dr Strangelove

Tim's Friday evenings: plotting how to become more Strangeloveian whilst drinking enough tea to secure his bodily fluids until 3 AM the next morning

But I’ve enjoyed the process greatly. While I’m normally not so big of a fan of “strategic studies” and much of the direction of the discipline of international relations, I find the collaborative aspect of the Wiki tremendously useful, and it’s certainly more interactive and a richer learning experience to have content up online instantly, rather than the turnaround time associated with sending out drafts of papers. Moreover, I feel that policy planning exercises tend to demand a deeper knowledge of history and national trajectories than what you’ll usually find in political science departments, with their quant-heavy focus, today. Certainly, your overall level of analysis can be more superficial than you might like it, but I find it a fun exercise to collaborate with others (something that takes place less frequently than it should in the academy), to try to show that historians, or more precisely people with a historical training, can have really intelligent stuff to add to foreign policy conversations, and to learn loads myself as I try to find ways to connect EU monetary policy with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to Japanese domestic growth rates to everything else. I like it, and it reminds me of what Anne-Marie Slaughter said about the perverse values and incentives that prevail in Washington national security circles today: instead of throwing the twenty- and thirty-something young men and women into the fire who are eager to put in twenty-hour days and survive on Chinese takeout, pizza, Red Bull, and occasional stints in an exercise room in the nuclear bunker, we have an up-or-out system that can either break families as someone indulges in megalomaniacal careerism or self-worship, or that condemns fathers who take their kids to soccer practice, cook for their families, and want to, shockingly, spend time with their children or the women they love, as “unserious” or “failures.” (I specifically single out fathers here, since women are already expected to do the cooking, the soccer practices, and find time to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement). So, in the meantime, here I am, sipping my third cup of tea for the evening, plogging away at Wikistrat. (You can see some of our analysis here.)

Dolla Dolla

Intellectual growth makes the exercise, but five-digit rewards are always a nice addition.

Did I mention that we’ve been doing this for three and a half weeks already? No, I’m not insane. There’s a $10,000 prize, and the possibility of some part-time employment if things go our way. To paraphrase a catchphrase from a New York Times article that my friends and I enjoyed: “People make the party, but blini are always an exciting addition.” Along the way in search of money, glory, and beautiful women, I feel like I’ve gained a bit of perspective on this strange policy-land, this universe where consultants travel from conference to conference, from corporate boardroom to corporate boardroom, sharing their secrets about world markets or military comparative advantage to corporate tycoons and generals. For the post, I’ll try to focus on just two things, though – one concerning group work dynamics and the other concerning a personality type in the policy world that I’d call Junior Kissinger.

One unintended consequence of the Wiki format, or at least Wikistrat’s platform as developed by Daniel Green, the CTO of Wikistrat and an Australian programmer based in Tel Aviv, is that you can track on a very granular level who’s updating what, when, where, and – potentially – why. Ten percent of the total grading for the $10,000 prize comes from what the directors of the competition call “effective use of the Wiki,” which can be interpreted, well, Talmudically. What I’ve found entertaining are the new and creative ways in which the Wiki encourages what I might call creative procrastination. I consider myself pretty good about actually getting work into the system (i.e. writing content and having it out there for others to criticize), and so I have a relatively high number – in the top five – of what the system counts as “updates” – that is, the number of times I’ve clicked the save button on all pages. Occasionally, too, I’ve made comments, mostly on other teams’ pages asking them questions, as well as fielding questions or criticisms that other teams have made of our own team’s points. Fair enough, right? But when it comes to the overall comments rankings, I find myself destroyed: whereas I have, perhaps, thirty comments total, other teams’ pages routinely feature dozens and dozens of comments by team members jabbering back and forth about what they intend to do, about what they … intend to write (as opposed to, you know, actually writing), and … not a lot of actual content on the team’s page. Commenting, in other words, I find super-useful as a teaching mechanism to stage conversations about content that’s deployed on the website, but it also seems to be a fine way to convince yourself that you’re doing useful work when you’re not.

As a team (there are four other people, all Americans), I know we often worry about whether we’re using the Wiki effectively enough. I wonder sometimes whether there might be more gain in staging more online conversations on the pages. But I’ve found, in spite of other teams’ apparent efforts to climb up the comments ranking board with the force of Old Faithful, that what still works best for me in this digital collaborative project is regular weekly meetings in person with the other team members. It gives us a chance to check in, to read each other’s body language, where so much of the vibe and direction of a team project can be detected without even exchanging words. Recently over dinner, a friend asked me what (if any) my leadership style was, and this competition – working with four extremely intelligent and driven people – has caused me to be more conscious of that than before. I’m certainly not a screamer, and I don’t buy into most of the jargon and posturing of leadership studies. Rather, I try to direct our weekly conversations in a democratic direction, asking people what they thought worked and didn’t during the previous week’s efforts. I expect an exhaustive and comprehensive effort and results from my team members, and when we make it to first place in a week, there shouldn’t be any sense of congratulations – not until the end and final delivery of the product – but only a sense that we fulfilled expectations for this week. Sustained excellence and professionalism – but with a dash of playfulness, sprezzatura, and even libido around the edges – should be what characterizes our writings. They should be intelligent and analytic, but witty, funny, and self-conscious of themselves.

One further question this friend asked me at dinner was: how do you earn respect within the organization? Here’s a question that I think the Leadership Studies curriculum often gets wrong or doesn’t even answer. The real answer is: produce a lot, write a lot, and keep going, but also recognize your limits and your place within the team. Recognize that you are stronger as a unit than an individual. As time has gone on with the Wikistrat experiment, I have found that I function best – within this particular group, which could be different from other settings or working with different individuals – as the “content monster,” someone able of writing several thousand words a day, spitting out a marble quarry of ideas and suggestions that the sculptors – my teammates and editors – can hew and chip down into something tighter, more readable, and more analytical. One earns respect within the team setting, at least for something as writing-intensive as Wikistrat, by producing more content, and giving your teammates something to work with, so my answer to the friend’s question is simply: you produce good product, but you also place a hell of a lot of trust into your teammates to refine and focus your ideas ever more. I am continually shocked and dismayed by the number of people I work with who I know are a hell of a lot more intelligent than I am, but fail to earn respect, or find a place within cooperative working environments – be they strategy consulting like this, start-ups, or otherwise – because they just will not put the work in. You have to love it to do it.

Kissinger Fucks the World

The Man Who Screwed the World?

On to Junior Kissinger. I have to admit that, sometimes, in these sorts of competitions or policy settings, I feel a bit self-aware, even awkward as someone with a humanities training, and with an interest in the places themselves rather than “policy” as an abstract area of study (which has never made much sense to me). Occasionally, when I interact with the worst stereotypes of these people, they tend to portray themselves as future Vulcans or Masters of the Universe, ready to step into leadership positions in major international organizations without, in my mind, sufficient training beyond classrooms and bureaucratic environments. Another aspect of the policy world that can be mystifying are the people who are perpetually “too busy,” as if it is something fashionable. When I went to a policy symposium in Washington, DC, thankfully with a bunch of graduate students in Slavic Studies (not IR or Governance Studies), we, who spent so much unstructured time obsessing about our own productivity, were rather bewildered to meet this world of bureaucrats and people from the foundation world who insisted that we would be dismissed as irrelevant if we could not boil down our projects into two or three bullet points. Granted, concision is a virtue. But what puzzled me was how people who prided themselves on being Masters of the Universe a) seemed to read so little, in the sense of good history, good literature, the kind of stuff that maybe makes a Fermor or a Wolfowtiz, and b) how they took so much pride in their being busy. It worries me. Nassim Taleb, whose writings I enjoy, writes:

Professionalism is part of the problem. People want to be seen to be doing something. It is an engine of office politics. So they formulate plans and theories based on forecasts of events – including potential black swans – which are impossible to predict. In other words, much ‘planning’ is worse than doing nothing. When someone says he’s busy, he means that he’s incompetent. Having a stupidly busy schedule isn’t a sign of being important. It means that you become insulated from the real world.”

So how has the Wikistrat competition born out my thoughts on this strange world? Unfortunately, often times I’ve seen too much bad Kissingerian analysis, pulled straight from this week’s game of Diplomacy: too much talk about “hegemony,” “power politics,” “the structure of the global power system,” and so on and so forth. Arrogant twenty-five year olds like myself like to see themselves as Masters of the Universe, and given a chance to indulge in grandiose rhetoric, we do. Perhaps in reaction to this all, in our analyses, I’ve tried to focus more on topics that I think that Junior Kissingers tend to pay less attention to: media ties (we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the political implications of Eurovision; educational exchange (I’m trotting out an idea this week, taking the ad hoc development of the Shia Islamic Cultural Center in Hamburg as a model of where the EU can go with international Muslim education in the future. For those who don’t know, the Islamic Center in Hamburg has been a major place for Shia interaction with Western ideas – Khatami directed it for a while. We’re proposing to do something along the lines of ERASMUS, but between Hamburg, London, and – more daringly – Kazan and Grozny, where Russia’s major centers for Islamic education are located. Add Istanbul and Qom to the mix, and you have a really interesting story); and the world of finance and investing (here my friend Zach Miller, a major contributor to the team, has been huge) have all been big themes. True, focusing on this stuff can draw us down to the level of tactics, but it also keeps us talking about concrete proposals and problems, and I think that’s refreshing in policy discussions. Still, too often I see teams commenting endlessly on their own pages and talking in the language of broad strategic language – without a lot of beef in terms of specific proposals about new or altered institutions behind them. Alas.

Azerbaijani Eurovision

I'll dance to that: Junior Kissingers don't focus so much on cultural ties like Eurovision

We’ve got two more days to go before it’s all in, and then it’s up to the whim of the judges to see if yours truly will have some extra pocket change for trips throughout the next couple of months. I’m still being characteristically indecisive about summer plans myself: I need to book tickets for Berlin soon, but it’s unclear how long I should stay there. There’s the possibility of extending a Persian course into early September, and there are good archives in Berlin, and it’s so nice in the summer. But another part of me, maybe more ballsy, wants to go to Uzbekistan, to travel, to research, to write, and perhaps even to sit in on some Uzbek language courses in Samarkand. And I’d love to attempt to write a piece on the Savitsky Collection, one of the most interesting museums in the world – in the middle of the desert in Karakalpakstan. I’d like to add some Turkic to my language repertoire, especially with only one semester of Turkish underwriting everything. I’m holding my breath.

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