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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Want to Innovate in the Military? Beware of the “Machiavelli Effect”

USS Gerald R. Ford
200604-N-QI093-1142 ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 4, 2020) The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier have operated together underway. Gerald R. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains at sea in the Atlantic Ocean as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ruben Reed/Released

This week the Pentagon named billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg the chairman of the Defense Innovation Board. This advisory body advertises itself as a catalyst for adaptability within the Defense Department at a time when changes in technology and the threat environment are galloping along. It supplies top leadership with “independent advice and recommendations on innovative means to address future challenges through the prism of three focus areas: people and culture, technology and capabilities, and practices and operations.”

Culture ranks foremost among these. In fact, it stands above and rules them all. Bureaucratic culture shapes how people think and react to the events, opportunities, and stresses of the day, and it enforces preferred ways of doing things by levying a variety of career incentives and disincentives—promotions, raises, or awards for officially sanctioned behavior, punitive measures such as demotions or firings for going against accepted practice. It influences which technologies an institution seeks—or, just as important, opts not to seek—and how it incorporates them into the organization’s endeavors. And it molds the institution’s repertoire of practices and operations.

So Mayor Bloomberg and fellow board members should concentrate their efforts on Pentagon culture rather than yield to the temptation to make the Defense Innovation Board all about physical things like military technology. Get the culture right—bias it to favor innovation—and many good things will follow in the other focus areas. Shatter all barriers to free thought and experimentation. Or they can let cultural dysfunction persist and watch the Defense Department’s competitive edge over the Chinas and Russias of the world shrivel.

Switch gears now. I’ve been reading a quirky but entertaining and enlightening book about technological innovation—or rather, a decades-long slowdown in technological innovation—through the wonders of Kindle. Titled Where Is My Flying Car? and authored by engineer and futurist J. Storrs Hall, the book asks why the ultra-high-tech future confidently prophesied during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century—the future depicted in the popular 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, to use Hall’s metaphor—has never come to pass.

To set up the inquiry the author observes that the technology for flying cars has been feasible since the 1930s via innovations such as autogyros, contraptions fusing technology now used in rotary- and fixed-wing aviation. Yet no firm has successfully brought affordable flying cars to market. Private aviation from your family driveway remains out of reach except for those able to afford pricey, maintenance-intensive private helicopters along with supporting infrastructure such as helipads.

What stunted aviation entrepreneurship? Where Is My Flying Car? divulges a wealth of fascinating insights into aeronautical engineering, but it’s really about political, social, and, yes, cultural barriers to innovation. Hall catalogs factors that intervened in the process of fielding a family-friendly flying car. For instance, cataclysmic historical events such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War siphoned away resources that could have gone to bring about a Jetsons future. Chief among these factors, though, is American society. The author opines that the prevailing culture turned hostile to technology during the 1970s, crippling the scientific-technical enterprise. The “Great Slowdown” Hall perceives had manifold baneful effects, not just in aviation but in nanotechnology, space flight, you name it.

By what mechanism did a society grown ambivalent about technology inhibit technological innovation? Through obvious villains such as an excess of government regulation, to be sure, but Hall mostly blames something he dubs “the Machiavelli Effect.” By that he means that entrenched interests vested in the status quo fight furiously against challengers. They act as gatekeepers, directing funding and other professional incentives to initiatives that support the status quo, denying it to those that might upset the status quo—i.e., to innovators—and otherwise doing their damnedest to discredit would-be gatecrashers.

If Hall is right, the Machiavelli Effect works against a freewheeling, experimental, playful culture that celebrates and rewards tinkerers for trying out wacky ideas rather than punishing them for attempting to institute a paradigm shift.

But why look back to a Renaissance Florentine philosopher-statesman, Niccolò Machiavelli, for insight into gee-whiz technologies that never were? Because the dynamics Machiavelli saw at work in Italian city-states half a millennium ago are characteristic of all institutions. A city-state was a society made up of human beings, with rulers, nobles, and the multitude. A company is a society with top management, executives of various ranks, and workers. The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is a society. And the Pentagon is a complex society in its own right, merging civilian with military folk in the common defense enterprise.

It’s no stretch to apply Machiavellian insights penned in the sixteenth century to understand defense innovation in the twenty-first.

In The Prince, his most renowned tract, Machiavelli maintains that contenders who make themselves princes acquire a state “with difficulty, but retain it with ease.” Difficulties “arise in part from the new order they are forced to introduce to set up their state and ensure their own security. Nothing is harder to do, more dubious to succeed at, or more dangerous to manage, than . . . introducing a new order.” That’s because the founder of a new order “makes enemies of all those who have done well under the old, and finds only halfhearted defenders” among those who would do well in the new regime. Instigators of change fear “adversaries who have the law on their side.” Also blameworthy is “the incredulity of man.” By that Machiavelli means that human beings “intrinsically do not trust new things that they have not experienced themselves.”

Hence, he foretells, beneficiaries of the old, familiar order will assault the prince “in full force,” while prospective beneficiaries of the new will take his side only tepidly. The philosopher advises the prince to trust to his own skill and to “use force to achieve his innovations.” After all, concludes Machiavelli, “all armed prophets were successful, while unarmed prophets came to ruin.”

The implications of this discourse for Michael Bloomberg, the Defense Innovation Board, and the Pentagon are bleak. Innovators within the military-industrial complex are not princes from Italian states of old, armed with the physical might to compel members of the society to accept a new paradigm of statecraft. In effect Machiavelli is pleading for the Pentagon’s prince, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to deploy his power as the United States’ top defense official to reform an old order that stifles strategic, operational, and technological dexterity. But in his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli insists that individuals do not readily embrace change. (He verges on saying they can’t change.) According to him, a state or institution that finds itself out of step with the times must change out leaders mired in the past for new leadership suited to the new normal. Only thus can a society prosper amid change.

One hopes Secretary Austin is that unicorn whose existence Machiavelli doubts: a guardian of the old order with the wisdom and resolve to usher in the new. Modify the culture to reward innovation, and watch a hundred flowers bloom.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Joe Comment

    February 15, 2022 at 11:20 pm

    I agree with some parts of this, but the example about the flying cars is just ridiculous. Yes, it’s technically feasible and many prototypes have been built, but there are a lot of practical issues in the way of making it an ongoing business, similar to what happened with the supersonic flight and the Concorde. Blaming it on some kind of anti-tech culture that allegedly started in the 1970s is completely unfounded given the explosion of many other types of tech since then.

  2. John Donovan

    February 17, 2022 at 12:56 pm

    Sec Def Austin may not be the change agent you seek. He promised to sell his stake in Tenet Healthcare Corp. within 120-days of ascending the Secretariat, but he apparently demurred. There is no record he sold his million dollar stake in Tenet prior to it increasing 300% during the last year. Tenet is a geographically dispersed health care provider who would benefit from widespread medical injuries possibly caused by an experimental vaccine. DOD whistleblower doctors have documented just such an increase in vaccine injuries in the Defense Medical Epidemiological Database (DMED). could that be why Sec Austin is mandating an unapproved, experimental vaccine? mandate vaxx injuries to increase the number of future patients, future patients provide a revenue stream for decades to come, assured income stream increases the value of the company, company’s stock goes up… as does Sec. Austin’s portfolio. Thank you men and women of the Armed Forces…

  3. David Chang

    February 23, 2022 at 11:33 pm

    Democratic party do not worship God, they worship science.

    The permanent energy in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas” is nuclear power.

    But weapons of Democratic fantasies, such as wireless charging Tank and F-35, solar power aircraft carrier, are difficult to be real.

    I suggest that Democratic party agree more budget of Space Force first, then build space-based solar power plant and space elevator.

    God bless us.

  4. David Chang

    February 23, 2022 at 11:45 pm

    And so,
    Democratic party have worshipped golden calf in New York city, the space elevator could be called the tower of Babel.

    God bless us.

  5. Eric-ji

    March 13, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    Innovation is a failure-tolerant process. The military is not failure-tolerant.

    Innovation is disruptive. Look at file-sharing’s impact on the music & film industries. Or ride sharing on the taxi industry. That kind of disruptive change is only embraced by the military when it has been demonstrated by someone else, outside of the military.

    Look at Leo Windecker, the father of stealth technologies and military drones both. A dentist. Congressional pressure got the ball rolling on the first stealth plane designed & built by Windecker. The military wasn’t interested. But it worked & opened their eyes.

    Windecker’s drones were of no interest to the US military until the Israelis put them to such good use.

    The other way innovation is injected into the military is during warfare. Especially against a superior foe.

    To think an advisory board can bring innovation (as opposed to incrementalism) is wishful thinking.

  6. Johannes Sayre

    March 24, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    In 1977, passive solar homes were being built, and, having been taught a valuable lesson by the 1973 arab oil embargo, the US had set itself on a path of rising fuel economy standards for transportation. The social introspection driven by the Boom generation in response to the negative aspects of their parents’ sociocultural value structures was producing useful results in terms of resiliency, sustainability, and international collaboration, replacing the old European imperial ethos (with the current Russian government now its only remaining practitioner) of endless conflict for the purpose of overconsumption of resources. The Boom generation notably were the developers and implementers of the technological innovations underlying our current technological advantage. Free, loosely structured societies, with a large demographic of capable, empowered individuals who freely choose to collaborate to advance the common good, advance faster.

    Then the conservative revolution happened, started by Thatcher and Reagan, and for the last forty years that crew has been working vigorously and without interest in dialog or bipartisanship, to dismantle those advances. With preference for a program of political reaction, social reversion, and philosphical reductionism that is intellectually bankrupt, and compromised and corrupted by its wishful insistence that satisfaction of personal greed produces the best collective results. Along the way, they have dismantled American manufacturing capability, and the broad distribution of wealth in this nation which produced the skilled workforce that produced the advances in technology we take for granted today. Similarly, casting government as a villain seems misguided when government, not the private sector, drove and funded the fundamental innovations which underlie current information technology infrastructure. The decrease in federal funding of research relative to the Cold War period has detracted from our sustainment of our rate of technological advance, as well as of an educated public prepared to work on in those sectors.

    You get out what you put in. The 1970s were a necessary correction to the ignorant application of technological force to conquer nature, and to a gluttonous society congratulating itself on its own overconsumption. We could move forward with our development, constrained by the understanding that we exist within the structure of our environment, and must not only respect its limitations and fragility, but can leverage the services it can provide. Instead, we’ve spent 40 years demanding the free-market high-return fantasy some of us want, and thinking that somehow someone else will pay for and maintain it. We’ve forgotten the cost in blood and work to establish the postwar free world and its advantages, and as a result they’re decaying while we argue about why markets should not be regulated and whether faith or reason, and enthusiasm or capability, are better bases for a modern society.

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