NEWS18 March 2015

Understanding minds essential to successful military strategy, general tells Impact 2015

News UK

The need for strong, long-term strategy on international affairs is stronger than ever – and market researchers have a role to play in mapping the “human terrain” of geopolitics, General Sir Richard Shirreff told Impact 2015 today.


In his keynote speech at the London conference today, Shirreff described the threats posed by Russia to European security, and by the rise of jihadism in troubled states around the world. Shirreff has served in conflicts from Kosovo to Northern Ireland, and was NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

He said that in Western Europe, there was too often a reluctance to “do what needs to be done” and a preference for short-term politically palatable moves over long-term strategic solutions. Strong, strategic leadership, he said, relied on being able to show clarity of thought, to manage ambiguity, take calculated risks for the long term and to understand the landscape in which a potential conflict was evolving – particularly the human landscape.

“You can’t design strategy unless you understand the minds of people and the landscape you’re operating in,” he said. Understanding people’s hopes, aspirations, fears, and their need to feel protected, gave military strategists a clear advantage; the flip side of that was that to fail to take people’s views into account was to hand an advantage to their adversaries.

Strategic leadership, he said, meant not having all the right answers, but rather choosing between the least wrong ones – training for certainty, and educating and preparing for uncertainty.

The nature of conflict has changed, and is constantly evolving, Shirreff warned. Terrorist organisations are shifting from one illegal business model to another, often outpacing those tracking them, and international incursions can be carried out “under the radar”, as in the case of Russia’s moves into Crimea. There, he said the manipulation of minds showed how the integrity of state could be undermined without the need to invade.

“We live in dangerous and difficult times and if we’re to surf the complexity of these times, we must understand the world we live in and above all have the best possible feel for the human terrain. As market researchers, you have real skills that could add to organisations like NATO. The world needs insights based on rigorous research,” he said.

Shirreff also discussed the work of Gender Force, a not-for-profit organisation to protect civilians against sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. In its pilot programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is using a range of research techniques – from recruiting reliable local sources of information to interviewing and even satellite tracking – to understand the true scale of the problem and the people affected.