Rethink needed on Russia-Ukraine war and “wicked problems” of 21st century

8 March 2022

The current war between Ukraine and Russia demonstrates the failings of governments to embrace strategy and statecraft, according to experts at The Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Jochen Prantl and Professor Evelyn Goh say governments everywhere need to better deploy strategy and statecraft to combat the complexity of the “wicked problems” of the 21st century.

They describe strategy as the art of creating power and statecraft as the skill of governing a sovereign state.

Pre-designed cookie-cutter solutions to international issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as domestic challenges including bushfires and floods, are not working, Prantl and Goh argue in a new paper.

In the case of Russia, Prantl blames a sense of betrayal by the West that runs deep in Russian society.

“Historically, Russians have been knocked down a lot and they always get back on their feet, so it makes sense to engage them and help when they are down so they don’t come back angry,” he says.

“Despite considerable diplomatic efforts and early successes to deal with the post-1991 legacy of the demised Soviet Union, the West ultimately failed to take up the opportunity. We didn’t bother to take and follow through a holistic and long-term system’s view in dealing with Russia. That’s why we are in so much trouble now.

“In the case of Russia and the many other wicked problems being faced, we’re calling for a change of mindsets, a paradigm change, in how governments approach these complex issues.

“There is too much of a tendency to break problems up into components and then address them in isolation from other components, rather than addressing them holistically in their systemic context.”

While governments have fallen into the trap of blaming significant events for policy short-comings, there has been a definitive lack of effective strategic policy to deal with the aftermath of crises, Prantl and Goh say.

“COVID-19 has shown that while governments are keen to protect their countries from the vicissitudes of globalisation by closing their international borders, they are still reluctant to accept that national defence against COVID-19 clearly cannot be achieved within a state’s borders alone,” Goh says.

In Australia, an incoming government will need to address significant challenges within the Australian Public Service to develop effective policies, especially in managing security and economic risks, according to Goh and Prantl.

“The incoming government needs to embrace the fact that strategy and statecraft often appear elusive in the face of these wicked problems and these intersecting threats and risks,” Goh says.

“As corporate strategists have known for some time, approaching wicked problems requires us to be explicit about their complexity and to find ways to operate within this complexity, rather than persist with policy tools that are not fit for purpose.”

Professor Jochen Prantl and Professor Evelyn Goh are researchers at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. These insights are drawn from their paper Rethinking strategy and statecraft for the 21st century of complexity: a case for strategic diplomacy, published in the International Affairs journal.

Story: Michael Weaver, College of Asia and the Pacific
Photo: Jan Reinicke on Unsplash

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