Instructor: David Schuff, Section 003

Systems Thinking Blind Spots in US Foreign Policy

A good example of an institution that could have, and can still, benefit from systems thinking is the United States government, particularly in its approach to foreign policy in the Middle East. In our reading, we learned that systems thinking is especially valuable in situations where the same problem persists or has been made worse by past attempts to fix it. My view on this is not meant to be an oversimplification of the cultural and political influences in the Middle East that are beyond the scope of US government involvement. It is more an observation that historic US involvement in the area can be characterized by huge blind spots in the systems thinking approach. These blind spots are summarized by Jamie P. Monat as “failure to recognize unintended consequences, failure to recognize and understand feedback loops, fixes that fail, poor root-cause analysis, and seeking the wrong goal”(article link). One commonly scrutinized example is the CIA’s involvement in the arming of civilians in the 1980’s to combat Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. This approach demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the underlying sentiments and values of the nation, leading to a failure to predict what would happen once the objective was met. The unforeseen consequences of this are still felt today, almost four decades later. Since then, the US government has persisted in its interventions in the Middle East with questionable success. In developing future foreign policy it would be incredibly beneficial to incorporate a systems thinking approach to better understand and solve complex problems and avoid unintended consequences.

One Response to Systems Thinking Blind Spots in US Foreign Policy

  • Hi Grisselle – I really enjoy the fact that you presented systems thinking from a foreign policy perspective that showcases the concept can be applied outside of a business setting. I think your analysis of the U.S failing to employ a systems thinking approach to foreign policy in the Middle East having resulted in questionable success is spot on. An additional example to support your assessment of U.S foreign policy missteps in the Middle East includes what former President Obama also describes as “unintended consequences” in the Iraq. The 2003 military intervention in Iraq destabilized the region and bred anti-American sentiment. That sentiment manifested itself in a terrorist group called Al Qaeda in Iraq which eventually evolved into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Essentially, while the U.S removed a brutal dictator in Saddam Hussein, it’s seemingly myopic, siloed thinking strategy led to the development of another major foreign policy challenge that persists to this day. So, I agree, applying a systems thinking approach to future foreign policy would be beneficial and a step in the right strategic direction for U.S foreign policy.

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