The Case for Unconventional Thinking

Victor Nakas.

When George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency in January 1989, he directed his team to propose a creative new strategic approach to dealing with a U.S.S.R. that was becoming less repressive and more amenable. His national security adviser called the results disappointing.

Though Bush deserves credit for engineering the unification of Germany and encouraging the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, it was hard to find signs of unconventional thinking among the president and his advisers. He seemed to want creativity but only within a narrow framework. Such was the case when his national security team met following the failed August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Only then, as the foundations of the U.S.S.R. were wobbling, did Bush and company begin to seriously consider whether the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was in the U.S. national interest. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney alone said unequivocally that it was.

Given all that had preceded the attempted coup — resolute steps toward national independence by the Baltic states, moves by leaders in the other republics, especially Russia, to assert their sovereignty — it is baffling why the Bush administration had not commenced, months earlier, to think through scenarios that assumed the U.S.S.R. would implode.

One might argue that, even if Bush or his advisers had quietly mused to themselves in passing about a world without the Soviet Union, there were good reasons for not voicing their private thoughts. For one thing, working at the highest levels in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department is exhausting — an unending stream of challenges vying for attention. Under such circumstances, speculative thinking is a luxury. Add to that the problem of press leaks, a favorite game played by insiders in Washington to feed their egos or to influence policy decisions. Imagine if, in the middle of delicate negotiations with Gorbachev to gain his assent for a unified Germany, word had seeped out that someone in the U.S. government was brainstorming about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The revelation could have been explosive.

But the cost of failing to consider all the possible “what-ifs,” particularly during periods of instability or dynamic change, can also be heavy. Vladimir Putin is suffering the consequences for behaving as despots often do, by all accounts relying exclusively on his own judgment and tolerating only sycophants who dare not give him candid advice. Preceding the Russian invasion, apparently no one at the Kremlin was authorized to game out all the possible scenarios such as: What if the Ukrainians put up a determined resistance, what if Russian fighting forces prove to be inept, what if European countries addicted to Russian energy grow a backbone? With the benefit of hindsight, all of these anticipatory failures might seem like head-slapping blunders. Except that at the beginning of 2022, no one was predicting that, should  Putin attack Ukraine, it would be a monumental strategic blunder yielding the opposite of what he had intended.

What kind of out-of-the-box thinking is called for at this hinge point in European history to supplement or counterpose omnipresent conventional thinking? U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signaled the direction it might take when he made the surprising public statement that Russia needs to be “weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” In light of that, how might the United States and its allies capitalize on the Russian military’s vulnerabilities over the coming decade if the opportunity presents itself? What of the territorial integrity of Russia? It is, after all, the country with the world’s largest landmass. What would happen if Russia were so weakened by sanctions that its narod rebelled against its own government, as it did in 1917? What if those same sanctions so hobbled the Russian military, preventing it from acquiring the technology and spare parts necessary to replenish its stocks of modern weaponry, that China might be tempted to reclaim Siberia?

Perhaps the most interesting future-oriented speculative thinking for Lithuanians would revolve around Kaliningrad (Karaliaučius). The territory was originally settled by indigenous Balts (Old Prussians) and for most of its history was under the control of the Germans or the Poles. In 1945 it was ceded to the U.S.S.R. as a spoil of war. Today Kaliningrad is the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. The oblast’s heavy military presence constitutes an implicit threat to Poland and Lithuania, with which it shares more than 300 miles of border. If Russia were to collapse, what might the future hold for Kaliningrad? Would it remain part of the Russian republic, possibly as a large demilitarized zone? Or might it become a territory administered by the European Union for a defined number of years pending a final resolution of its status?

Given all the nuclear weapons Russia possesses, this might strike some as irresponsible, even crazy, talk. But is it really? The times call for bold and far-reaching questions to be pondered confidentially somewhere in the bowels of government. For history is neither static nor linear. It undulates and zigzags; less frequently, its changes are eruptive. Lithuanians of all people should appreciate that. In the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. Today, by land area, Lithuania is 23rd.

One hopes that the United States and Lithuania each has the foresight to assemble a small cadre of experts, distinguished by their keen understanding of history, as well as their creativity, imagination, and aversion to groupthink. They could be tasked with developing a detailed array of future scenarios, especially highly improbable ones, so that harried political leaders, faced with an unexpected, momentous turn of events, don’t have to throw up their hands in dismay and say, “What do we do now?” Leaders deserve to have access to both kinds of thinking: one that is conventionally within the box and the other — comfortably outside it.

The article was published in “Draugas NEWS”, May 2022 edition.