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💪 Antifragile foreign policy
By
John Fowler

Too many foreign policies are focused on pursuing stability at all costs. Antifragility provides an alternative way of thinking and acting that allows us to not only engage with the world and its randomness, but also grow stronger because of it.

⭐ This piece is inspired by Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile. It's a fascinating read about risk and randomness. I’ll do my best to adapt its ideas, but you can also check out a summary here.

On my first day as a baby diplomat, Dennis Richardson* - Australia’s chief diplomat at the time - gave my cohort some advice:

Everyone needs to formulate a worldview. Develop an opinion about how the world works and why, and then figure out what Australia should do about it.

Last week I explored some ideas for figuring out ‘how the world works and why’ by using the VUCA mental model. This week I’ll explore the second half of Varghese’s equation: if the pace of unpredictable geopolitical change is increasing, how should countries respond?

But first, a little detour…

The purpose of foreign policy

DFAT promotes and protects Australia’s international interests to support our security and prosperity.
-
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

Snooze.

I’ll translate:

The world is really scary and unpredictable, and because we’d like to not be robbed or killed, we'll do everything we can to promote stability and predictability.

And that’s not just Australia, that’s the goal of just about every foreign service on earth. In fact, trying to exert some control over the world in order to avoid unpredictable events has been the aim of every nation from Ancient Rome to Modern China.

The problem is, no foreign policy can ever reliably predict or prevent 'black swan events'.

For example, perfect military planning still wouldn't have saved the world in 1983, if a Soviet military officer named Stanislav Petrov had decided to fire nuclear missiles at America. Instead Petrov delayed launching the missiles, suspecting that the Soviet early-warning alarm was malfunctioning. He was right, and the world got very, very lucky.

Now hang on just a minute, wasn't that just gut instinct from a brilliant officer? It wasn't luck, it was flawless analysis!

Perhaps, but almost certainly not. The truth is, we humans love to ascribe good results to wise decisions, and dismiss poor outcomes as simply bad luck. Driving home drunk without crashing is ‘because I’m just a superb driver’, while getting pulled over by the police is ‘just my luck’.

Nassim Taleb believes humans underestimate the role of randomness and luck in the world so much that it negatively affects our decision making on an almost daily basis.

He calls this idea 'fooled by randomness' and yes, he’s calling us all idiots (and especially Edward Snowden).

What is antifragility?

Antifragility is Taleb’s answer for how to live in that mostly random world:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists random shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
- Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb.
Antifragile systems welcome random, unpredictable shocks because they actually benefit from them.

For example:

  • the rule of law: the acquittal of a murderer due to police corruption during the investigation might be seen as a shock to the system. But that stressor actually improves the judicial system overall, because citizens now have an increased belief in its fairness and impartiality.
  • weight training: lifting heavy weights stresses human muscles resulting in tiny tears and temporary damage. But after a short while the muscles repair themselves and the body becomes stronger as a result of the stress.

For a fuller explanation, check out this excellent video explainer.

Antifragility is not the same as stability

But John, you said that most foreign policies are focused on stability and predictability. Isn’t that the same as mitigating the risk of random shocks? And why do you ask yourself so many rhetorical questions?

No, and I’m not sure… should I be worried?

Let’s run a quick experiment:

👞 Step 1: Imagine a giant depression ravages the globe. Think about the political, economic, and social consequences of that disaster. Now list the five countries you think would come out the other side of that shock in the best shape.

👡 Step 2: Consider the five principal sources of geopolitical fragility according to Taleb:

  • a centralised governing system
  • an undiversified economy
  • excessive debt and leverage
  • a lack of political variability
  • no history of surviving past shocks

👟 Step 3: Repeat Step 1.

Did your list change? I'll bet it did, particularly if your initial list included countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, or Australia.

When we apply the idea of antifragility, messy regimes like Italy (whose political chaos is legendary) come out as more likely to thrive than more stable, in-control countries.

Key takeaway: any policy that pursues stability first is not preparing for uncertainty or randomness. A stable system merely kicks the can down the road until an inevitable black swan shock. How badly that black swan event affects the ‘stability focused system’ will most likely be down to luck.

So what might an antifragile foreign policy look like?

The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.
-
Boris Johnson, according to his former adviser Dominic Cummings

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a completely chaotic foreign policy. Or for Boris Johnson to be in charge of it, either:

The absolute state of this man. And yes, somehow, this is a real photo.

Let's take a few key pillars of antifragility and adapt them into some foreign policy rules of thumb:

  • Never lever up. Aka the first rule of gambling. A country that cultivates ‘us vs them’ narratives and demands that others ‘pick a side’, is essentially staking its future on randomness. While one country might believe that their side will triumph in any great showdown, the outcome will actually be in large part random.
  • Run many small experiments. Antifragile systems tinker liberally. In the foreign policy context, this might include funding interesting ideas with no obvious, immediate gain. Or perhaps it means rethinking the role of embassies; could digital embassies be the future of foreign services? Small bets on lots of outcomes increase the upside and decrease the downside of unpredictable shocks.
  • Pursue multilateralism. Regional or global cooperation is antifragile. Black swan shocks to a global system are distributed across many countries, meaning any one shock is less likely to destroy a country. More than that, with each stress test a multilateral organisation can learn and adapt, making it antifragile.

And there are many, many other ways in which the concept of antifragility can be applied to foreign policy.

Navigating an uncertain future

I think too many foreign policies are focused on pursuing stability at all costs as the antidote to an increasingly unpredictable world. And too many foreign policies are reactionary, responding inconsistently and often poorly to events as and when they happen.

I think we can do better. Acknowledging that the world is changing quickly and in unpredictable ways does not mean we ought to hunker back down behind national borders and prepare to ride out the storm.

Antifragility provides an alternative - a way of thinking and acting that allows us to not only engage with the world and its randomness, but also grow stronger because of it. We could do a lot worse.

*The original version of this piece incorrectly said that Peter Varghese was the head of the Australian foreign service when I joined. Do forgive my error.

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