Building strategic capacity: what governments in Asia and Europe can learn from each other in the age of polycisis

By on 22/01/2024 | Updated on 23/01/2024
Idea generation: a cartoon of question marks and light bulbs coming out of heads
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Countries face a shared set of problems, and governments need to develop strategies to meet them. A new paper by Professor Jochen Prantl and Professor Evelyn Goh sets out the lessons countries can learn each other – from the need for strategic imagination to investment in resilience

Developing a structured and systematic way of imagining the future is more critical than ever in the strategic and policy environment of today, where governments are undergoing transformational change. As countries in Asia and Europe reposition in response to major regional and global strategic transitions, governments must prepare for a wide range of challenges.

How best should key strategic partners in Asia and Europe meet their future defence and security needs?

This is a key question that our new research, aimed to answer. Our primary objective is to support the development of strategic literacy for the complex challenges faced by governments. We looked at four examples of Asian and European strategic partners – Japan, Singapore, Germany, and the United Kingdom – which share many contemporary security challenges to examine how these countries mobilise power and exercise statecraft within a world where they now have less control over the future they want to inhabit.

Countries face a shared set of problems

Hyperconnectivity and power diffusion have triggered what the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report called a cascading ‘polycrisis’, which cannot be confined to a single policy realm or scale of analysis. Transnational diffusion of power makes power easier to obtain, but it also makes it harder to use and easier to lose. [1]

Multiple policy challenges – domestic turmoil in systemically important countries; power competition in the Indo-Asia-Pacific; war in Ukraine; pandemics such as COVID-19; climate emergencies; rising cost of living and inflation; weaponised interdependence; and disruptions in global supply chains – form a cluster of crises that mutually reinforce each other. There is a critical demand for diagnostic and policy frameworks – such as our Strategic Diplomacy model [2] – to penetrate the fog of the future to be better prepared for complex crises unfolding at multiple levels.

Cambridge theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, declared 24 years ago that the 21st century would be the age of complexity. Issue complexity puts state capacity to the test while the policy space to deliver public goods has shrunk. According to the latest US National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2040, there is a stark disequilibrium between the demand and supply side of government. This has spurred polarisation, populism, protest, and internal conflict in a range of countries including the United States. Thus, the need to develop strategies that are fit for purpose is very urgent indeed.

The need for ‘strategic imagination’ and other solutions

In the age of complexity, strategy is best understood as ‘the art of creating power’ [3] to regain and maximise policy space.

Our country comparison shows that – amongst the four cases – the smallest country, Singapore, has managed well to punch above its weight, with more agency, and to create more policy space than we might expect.

As we know from Gulliver’s Travels, ‘nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison’. Whether a country is ‘great’ or ‘little’ is not defined by sheer size or material power but depends on its capacity to navigate volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

There are three enablers to build strategic capacity.

The first is strategic imagination. Thriving in the age of acceleration and uncertainty won’t be achieved by technological determinism in the guise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in particular artificial intelligence. It will be determined by the ability to adapt, if not transform, our mental models trying to make sense of this world.

The critical skillset that needs to be nudged and nurtured is strategic imagination, both utopian and dystopian. Developing a shared understanding of the nature of the policy problems at hand and a shared imagination of the desired policy outcomes precedes any strategy, as the late Brendan Sargeant has taught us. [4]

The second is embracing uncertainty. According to Margaret Heffernan, we are addicted to prediction, desperate for certainty about the future. [5] Yet this is something we won’t get. Even with a complete – AI generated – set of data at hand, complexity resists to being simplified and will not reveal any clear path or obvious policy prescription. History won’t repeat itself either.

The best way forward is ‘to take a crude look at the whole’, as the late Nobel prize winning physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, once put it, and develop scenarios that look into alternative futures. Turning statecraft into futurecraft to strengthen a country’s preparedness is of critical importance.

The final enabler is investing in resilience. Resilience, the ability to withstand and bounce back from systemic shocks, is a source of power that must become the new efficiency benchmark. This requires an investment in crisis preparedness. In sum, the sine-qua-non of strategic policy innovation is imagination, out-of-the box thinking, resilience, and bravery to try and fail. Failure is the essence of learning and future success: in Samuel Beckett’s words, to try again, fail again, and fail better.

Find out more about this project and read the country reports at https://www.strategicdiplomacy.net/


[1] See Moises Naim, The end of power. From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states: why being in charge isn’t what it used to be (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[2] See Jochen Prantl and Evelyn Goh, ‘Rethinking strategy and statecraft for the twenty-first century of complexity: a case for strategic diplomacy’, International Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 2 (2022), pp. 443-469.

[3] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: a history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. xii.

[4] See Brendan Sargeant, Challenges to Australia’s Strategic Imagination. Centre of Gravity series paper #58. Canberra: ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, 2021.

[5] See Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020).

About Professor Jochen Prantl and Professor Evelyn Goh

Professor Jochen Prantl and Professor Evelyn Goh Strategic and Defence Studies Centre Australian National University

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