Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Update on Deconfliction

The obscure word #deconfliction has started to appear in the news, referring to the coordination or lack of coordination between American and Russian operations in the Middle East, especially Syria.

The Christian Science Monitor suggests that the word "deconfliction" sounds too cooperative, and quotes the New York Times.

“Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter sharply took issue with suggestions, particularly in the Arab world, that the United States was cooperating with Russia, and he insisted that the only exchanges that the Pentagon and the Russian military could have on Syria at the moment were technical talks on how to steer clear of each other in the skies above the country.”

But that's exactly what deconfliction is - "how to steer clear of each other" - especially in the absence of tight synchronization and strong coordination.

The Guardian quotes Gary Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, who says such jargon is meaningless and is designed to confuse the public. But I think this is unfair. The word has been used within military and other technical circles for many decades, with a fairly precise technical meaning. Obviously there is always a problem (as well as a risk of misunderstanding) when technical jargon leaks into the public sphere, especially when used by such notorious obfuscators as Donald Rumsfeld.

In the current situation, the key point is that cooperation and collaboration require something more like a dimmer switch rather than a simple on-off switch. The Americans certainly don't want total cooperation with the Russians - either in reality or in public perception - but they don't want zero cooperation either. Meanwhile Robbin Laird of SLD reports that the French and the Russians have established "not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting ... despite differences with regard to the future of Syria". In other words, Franco-Russian coordination going beyond mere deconfliction, but stopping short of full alignment.

Thus the word "deconfliction" actually captures the idea of minimum viable cooperation. And this isn't just a military concept. There are many business situations where minimum viable cooperation makes a lot more sense than total synchronization. We could always call it loose coupling.

Helene Cooper, A Semantic Downgrade for U.S.-Russian Talks About Operations in Syria (New York Times, 7 October 2015)

Jonathan Marcus, Deconflicting conflict: High-stakes gamble over Syria (BBC News, 6 October 2015)

Robbin Laird, The RAF Unleashed: The UK and the Coalition Step up the Fight Against ISIS (SLD, 6 December 2015)

Ruth Walker, Feeling conflicted about deconfliction (Christian Science Monitor, 22 October 2015)

Matthew Weaver, 'Deconflict': buzzword to prevent risk of a US-Russian clash over Syria (Guardian 1 October 2015)

Ben Zimmer, In Conflict Over Russian Role in Syria, ‘Deconfliction’ Draws Critics (Wall Street Journal, 9 October 2015)

More posts on Deconfliction

Updated 7 December 2015 

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