#Monday Musings: Mercy A. Kuo

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?

Steve Tsang – my mentor at Oxford University. As one of Europe’s leading China experts and frequently consulted by the UK Government, particularly its Foreign Office, Steve’s tutelage proved foundational and transformative in my intellectual growth. In our countless Oxford tutorial sessions, he taught me to think strategically – understand the difference between context and content, discern what is central from what is important, test the veracity of sources, and craft cogent arguments.     

Charlotte Del Duca – my mentor at the Central Intelligence Agency. Having reached the upper echelons of leadership as a strategic planner at the Agency, Charlotte helped me hone strategic acumen. Under her mentorship, I developed intellectual skills and intuitive sense to ascertain order amid disorder, see patterns in chaos, and identify the stakes and consequences of high-impact decision-making.

2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

The Histories by Herodotus. Known as “the father of history” Herodotus produced the first historical analysis of the Greco-Persian Wars. History provides context. Strategy is framed in a specific context. History is the foundation upon which strategy is constructed. 

My Life by Golda Meir. More a portrait of a strategist than strategy, Golda Meir’s role in the founding of Israel was a testament of how a strategist’s leadership faced victory and defeat. As Prime Minister of Israel (1969-74) Golda Meir viscerally understood the adverse context and existential stakes of Israel’s nationhood, “Many people have lost wars, and many people’s countries have been occupied by foreign powers. Our history is much more tragic. Hitler took care of six million Jews. If we lost a war, that’s the end forever – and we disappear from the earth. If one fails to understand this, then one fails to understand our obstinacy.” Golda Meir’s leadership underscores that strategy serves a purpose – it is not the goal in and of itself.     

3. What do you want your legacy to be?

I recall the morning of September 11, 2001 when the first plane hit the first World Trade Center tower in New York City.  As my CIA team of colleagues and I watched in real-time from Washington, DC the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, my team chief began to weep in sheer shock of what was unfolding before our very eyes. Days later President George W. Bush came to the Agency to speak a word of encouragement to all of us. Afterwards the President thanked and shook the hands of each and every intelligence officer, despite the extremely long queue waiting for him. Having had the privilege of serving my country and witnessing inspiring leadership at all levels during September 11 and its aftermath, I aspire that my legacy would simply be: to lead in honor and serve in humility.  To lead is to honor the commission or calling that life has given you. Honorable leaders respect, cultivate and protect the talents of those with whom they serve. They honor the bonds of camaraderie whether facing adversities or accepting accolades. To serve in humility is to understand the privilege of serving God, country, family, and community. It is a conscientious recognition that the value of life is measured by how much we give, rather than how much we gain. Service is sacrifice.

Mercy A. Kuo is the president of the Washington State China Relations Council, columnist for The Diplomat, advisory board member of CHINADebate, and advisory council member of the Asia Pacific Institute at the American Jewish Committee. She was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research and served as an analyst of Northeast and Southeast Asian political, security, and military affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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