TCS Daily

Imagination is Everything

By Robinder Sachdev - August 30, 2004 12:00 AM

The image of America is a derivative of the imagination of America. What America imagines, how it creates its self image within the country; and how it communicates its imagination shapes the image of America in global communities. America should sit up and take notice when the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks identifies "...failure of imagination..." as a key finding. After reading the recent report of the commission, the reader is left in no doubt about the clarion call for a renewed zest to imagine America. The danger is that the exhortation of the commission may be narrowly interpreted as a recommendation to focus only on beefing up the intelligence capabilities, thereby missing the woods for the trees.

This raises a key question: why the emphasis on imagination? America's moral leadership in the world hinges on the engine of imagination which it fuels with the values of freedom, respect for individual creativity, technology leadership, and innovation in thought and deed. This engine propels America and Americans towards a pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, and acts as a beacon for other societies to emulate if they find it attractive, which in most cases they do. There have been challenges to American imagination all along in history, several of them detrimental, some of them beneficial, but none as lethal as the current challenge.

The key challenge to the image and imagination of America comes from the asymmetry of the present conflict - which pits the state against a dispersed network of shadowy figures. This is indeed a severe structural constraint which America is grappling with, and much imagination and resources are being invested to engage in network-centric approaches to fighting terror. Several recommendations of the 9/11 commission, particularly those suggesting a re-arrangement of intelligence (including the creation of a centralized intelligence czar), are geared towards beefing up capabilities to engage with a flat, dispersed network.

But there is another major factor which is contributing to the asymmetry, and unless it is analyzed, and acted upon, the asymmetry will only grow. The enemy is striking at the imagination of America, thereby sapping its moral force, and more importantly, at the same time, is provoking a response more weighted towards knowledge rather than imagination. The more battle-weary America becomes, and the more it seeks quick-fix solutions that are based in knowledge, the more America weakens its imagination, and consequently its image in the world. Perhaps this factor may best be explained by using a quote from Einstein, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

Thus, there are two factors which lie at the root of this asymmetry. First, an opponent that is a dispersed and unidentifiable network. And, second, an opponent that is diluting the imaginative power of America. The danger is more on the second count. It is not only the image and noble output of America that is being attacked; America's very response to the war on terror is being pushed more and more away from imaginative ideas. The more America invests in state-centered (as opposed to network-centric) approaches, and in knowledge (as opposed to imagination and image orientation), the more this asymmetry will grow.

I am not arguing that America's response is skewed towards state-centered and knowledge-centered approaches at the expense of a network mindset and imagination. Brilliant minds and brave hearts are at work tackling this most wretched curse of our times. This is rather a caution or a call to be mindful of this pitfall. The challenge for America is to imagine first and then apply knowledge, rather than only be imaginative in using knowledge. Einstein's observation about knowledge and imagination need to be ingrained in each individual and institution in this asymmetric conflict. Knowledge is not an end in itself, and knowledge should be a tool for imagination in this conflict.

An enemy that is network-centric; that is eroding the message of imagination of America - and importantly, that is also forcing American response away from imagination - has to be countered in ways that are rooted in imagination. The imagination of America must be reinforced to win this war on the ground, and to carve a space for the image of America in global communities.

But how can this be translated into viable action? It requires acknowledging that US foreign policy has a global impact and, more importantly reconciling to the fact that global communities are relevant in affecting US security.

A liquid foreign policy is a crucial ingredient in the war on terror. The traditional framing of foreign policy, wherein knowledge is gathered in a hub-and-spoke model, is inadequate to deal with an enemy who is spread out in an unidentifiable network in more than 50 countries and waging asymmetrical warfare. A liquid foreign policy adopts a two-tier approach. First, US foreign policy is framed at a number of different nodes outside America, and each node develops a global foreign policy for the needs and security of America from a 360-degree global view (and not as a foreign policy assessment only for that particular country where it is located - the traditional model).

The stand-alone foreign policies emanating from such nodes will be richer in insight about how global issues can be handled from the perspective of the communities where the nodes are embedded; they will better identify the levers, relationships, intelligence, and knowledge bases which are often freely floating in its environment; and, they will be relatively free from groupthink. It is an old adage in cultural studies that the best way to learn your own culture is to live in another one. Thus, liquid foreign policy extends this learning from the world of cultural studies into international relations by postulating that the first tier of foreign policy analysis and recommendation is done by living in other cultures.

The second tier of liquid foreign policy then collates the inputs from the different nodes embedded in global communities, and layers them with overarching US goals and imagination. Such an approach to foreign policy-making is perhaps the closest that a state can come to thinking and functioning like a flat network. The networks of the adversary are fluid and keep morphing, and feed upon synergies between nodes, even though the nodes may be unlinked. Each node has its own global and local agenda, while the image and imagination of Al Qaeda is what links them all.

An approach rooted in liquid foreign policy may correct some of the asymmetry with respect to the structural disadvantage that the state finds itself in when combating a flat network of unidentified scope and loose structure across global communities. Such an approach also contributes to imagination, and harnesses knowledge from the global communities to serve the image and imagination of America.

The founding principal of The Imagindia Institute at New Delhi, the author is also a founding member of the Washington, DC-based US India Political Action Committee, and an Adjunct Faculty in communications at American University, Washington, DC


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