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8.6 Global strategy and the game of go

Strategic thinking, as articulated for military or political purposes in the West, has long been closely associated with the skills of the game of chess. It has however been argued that the Vietnam war was lost by the USA because of reliance on such thinking when faced with opponents deriving their strategic insights from the game of go (see Scott Boorman, A Protracted Game: a wei-ch'i interpretation of maoist revolutionary strategy, 1969). Go is a board game which has been played in China for some 3,000 years and in Japan for over a 1,000 years. As with chess in the West, it has heavily influenced the strategic thinkers of those cultures. Over the past 30 years it has become widely known in the West. It is now recognized as of importance to strategic training in corporations or in management schools.

Given the importance attached to the strategic principles of go, and given the strategic disasters characteristic of international policy-making at the present time, it might legitimately be asked whether international organizations could not significantly benefit from an alternative approach to their strategic concerns. Western management approaches clearly have their skills, the question is whether they are sufficient to the complexity of the challenge faced by the international community. In the multi-cultural environments of international organizations, often resistant to some Western notions of management, there is every reason to be sensitive to the merits of alternative strategic disciplines, especially in the light of the strategic success of Asian corporations.

An attempt has been made to indicate the relevance of go to management in the West by Francis Touazi and Cécile Gevrey (Management d'Entreprise et Stratégie du Go, 1994). Both authors work with a large group of management consultants, Bossard Consultants, in France which has been using the strategic principles of go for 15 years. They are quite clear as to the value of go in shifting strategic frames of reference and moving beyond the logic of winner-loser to new understandings of co-existence. Many of their arguments for the relevance of go for the corporate world apply even more strongly to the world of international organizations faced with the strategic challenges of the times.

The authors outline seven principles of action fundamental to the strategic thinking implicit in the game of go:

1. Rationality harmonizes with creativity

Strategy cannot be effectively reduced to a an exercise in logical calculus. The go board of 361 possible positions (compared to the 64 in chess) renders impossible any reliance on exhaustive global analysis. It is a creative combination of theory, experience and intuition which appropriately orients strategic reflection.

In what policy-study centres are the strategies of the international community considered in this light?

2. Coexistence replaces elimination

Division of territory results from appropriate mastery of the balance of forces. In go this results from an exercise in construction. Players initially establish positions, then negotiate between them, to finally arrive at an agreement on the territories that each controls. The game thus becomes an exercise in coexistence, and in the construction of a common reality, in which each is dependent on the other. Elimination of the opponent, in contrast to chess, does not this strategic approach. Perfection is seen as an inaccessible horizon towards which, together, the players move in an a collective endeavour to master human passions.

A prime characteristic of international organizations is the battle for territory, with much effort devoted to the weakening and elimination of opponents -- whatever the size of their constituencies. Strategies are not elaborated to allow for the coexistence of opposing forces.

3. Connection contributes to the reinforcement of positions

Positioning pieces on the board is seen in terms of freedom and constraints on freedom. Deprived of freedom, pieces effectively suffocate and are removed. The desirable freedom of individual pieces can be protected by linking them together effectively --neither too closely nor too far apart -- to establish a harmony of form. Any such group plays both a dissuasive role and serves as a base for strategic initiatives at a global level.

Much attention is now devoted to networking individuals and institutions. Internet is providing a new communication environment in support of this process. However there is little understanding of how the "positions" and "territories" established can, through their interlinking, create a base for new kinds of global strategic initiative. Hyperlinks are suggestive of new possibilities but an integrating perspective is lacking.

4. The search for balance determines strategic choices

Although the pieces in go are not moved, once placed, the game is understood as a game of movement. Groups and territories are defined and dissolved throughout the game. Pieces constantly change their role and strength. Despite the apparent chaos of the game, the guiding strategic thread is the constant search for equilibrium. The most appreciated games, exhibiting the greatest strategic strengths, are those won or lost by a single point.

International organizations are far from seeking any form of balance or equilibrium -- except through lip service to the much abused "checks and balances". Although the international community is characterized by constantly shifting positions, the strategic thinking that underlines this is essentially static and can therefore only be reactive in response to any change.

5. A home-base is the strategic lever for the occupation of territory

Go players are totally free to position their pieces where they wish. But the need to establish a strategic home-base, backed by the boundary and corners of the board, becomes quickly apparent, reflecting a basic principle of economy. Territories are thus constructed from the boundaries and are negotiated when they extend in to the centre. But it is near such outer borders that territories are subject to attack and must defend themselves against invasion and encirclement in the later phases of the game.

Most international organizations are indeed preoccupied by the maintenance of their home-base and the extension of their territory to englobe the centre. Thus those preoccupied with development endeavour to subsume environment, and vice versa. The strategic weakness of most international initiatives has made them vulnerable to attack in their area of presumed strength -- as has become evident with the World Bank. New forms of strategic understanding are required to manage shifting bases of strength.

6. The global and the long-term take priority over the local and the short-term

Players are constantly confronted with the incompatibilities between apparent local success and its consequences for global failure in any strategic initiative. Strong players are capable of detecting strategically key positions in the apparent chaos of the multitude of pieces and intersecting groups. A global perspective is essential. In a game of go, immediate benefits are suspect because of the fluidity of the game. Much may need to be sacrificed to ensure the success of a global initiative.

Recent decades of the international action have been inspired by "think globally, act locally". Because of its failures, there has been a rejection of global initiatives in favour of local action. This has left highly successful local initiatives vulnerable to the consequences of global challenges. A new strategic balance is required between global insight and tactical local action.

7. Evolution and progress depend on mutual learning

The rules of go are of the greatest simplicity. It is however through the shared understanding of the game, and its long history, that its strategic principles can only be effectively mastered.

The prime characteristic of international strategic action is the low level of learning. There is little collective strategic memory. This is principally due to two factors: the immense investment in proving the effectiveness of failed initiatives -- avoiding candour; and the continuing emergence of new actors uninterested in learning from past experience.