I’ve followed Phil Arena and Thomas Oatley’s back and forth on Dani Rodrik’s op-ed with some interest. The question of human agency, and how much scholarship allows us to change the world are topics that are perennial in academia and I can think of few better online figures to discuss the implications of political economy and rational choice than Arena and Oatley.
So what about the question of scholarship and change? Although some of my interests have changed lately (and when I get my dissertation proposal together they will seem even more of a break from my past writing), I still enjoy strategy and security studies, which are obviously heavily applied fields. The history of strategy is a story of governments, rebels, tribes, and other political entities changing the world through purposeful violence or the threat of it, and one of the largest figures in contemporary strategy began his career as a nuclear strategist for the United States government.
So with this, it might be expected that I would agree with Rodrik on this point:
In order to change the world, we need to understand it. And this mode of analysis seemed to transport us to a higher level of understanding of economic and political outcomes. But there was a deep paradox in all of this. The more we claimed to be explaining, the less room was left for improving matters. If politicians’ behavior is determined by the vested interests to which they are beholden, economists’ advocacy of policy reforms is bound to fall on deaf ears. The more complete our social science, the more irrelevant our policy analysis.
The problem, though, is precisely the last sentence. As Phil Arena noted in his critique of Rodrik’s op-ed, it is the natural inclination of those who study politics to want to understand how to change the world. Many BA and MA programs play to students’ desire to think of themselves as change agents. From Marx to critical theory, there has also always been a powerful strain of political thought that places an immense importance on knowledge allowing the intellectual to change the world.
The idea that knowledge should give us leverage over the social and political world and allow us to positively alter it is likely something few would disagree with. I certainly believe it, otherwise I would never have been able to devote so much of my time to the study of military history and strategy. 9/11 and the worst military setbacks of the Global War on Terror occurred when I was in high school, and the most important decisions made in the Iraq and Afghan counterinsurgencies were gamed out when I was in college. Yet I also find some reasons to feel doubtful.
In Martin Heidgger’s essay on technology, the prickly German philosopher makes a crucial distinction between a kind of knowledge that helped to harness nature’s power and knowledge that would challenge and change nature itself to put it at complete human command. This is a crude oversimplification of a very complicated essay, but it is the root idea at the heart of Christopher Coker and Antoine Bousquet’s must-read books on technoscience and war.
Science allows us to control, manipulate, and order the social, political, and natural worlds. There is certainly good in this, but also much peril. The history of modernization theory and the discontents of high modernism in general should be prominent warning signs. Does this mean we ought to give up the goal of using science—and social science in particular—to change the world for the better? I’m not, by any means, advancing a critique of science that suggests we ought to replace it with something else because of historical misapplications.
But the 20th century’s problematic record of using science—and particular social science—for engineering human social improvement does suggest the need to weigh how much we can control of social and political systems with caution and humility. Particularly as we enter a world comprised of more and more tightly integrated man-machine systems created by human ideas with a potential for breakdown and contagion. Iraq and Afghanistan are cautionary tales in my own intellectual development, but for me another formative event in my own life was the 2008 subprime crash.
The crash economically pummeled many people of my generation. My current research interest in common mechanisms of disaster and failure in large-scale sociotechnical systems such as the financial system stems from my realization of the illusion of control we have over these systems and the costs such illusions have inflicted on many of my friends and peers. If Iraq and Afghanistan and the failures of state-building motivated me to study political science and strategy, the 2008 crash motivated me to dig deeper into things like critical transitions, complex network models of political economy, and agent-based simulation of social complexity.
Thus, I have a philosophical disagreement with Rodrik that political science knowledge should be judged by whether or not it allows us to gain leverage over the world and change it. There should be equal worth placed on knowledge that informs us of our limitations and sometimes shows the barriers to change cannot be surmounted. Political economy has value because it shows much of the “under the hood” calculations actors make and how it results in unfavorable outcomes.
To be fair, Rodrik also wants to focus on ideas as the exogenous means by which we can climb out of the hole. But as Oatley observes, the question then becomes whether ideas are really necessarily independent of the processes that political economy models and thus can be used by outsiders to disrupt those processes. Oatley questions whether a focus on ideas will really lead us away from the central problem Rodrik identifies. What if ideas are, in fact, endogenous mechanisms in the suboptimal outcomes Rodrik dislikes?
Second, ideas have a certain fixity to them that those who seek ideological change often underestimate. Dramatic changes in systems of political economy driven by ideas are disruptive because the mechanisms by which a given system survives are often deeply rooted. Shifts in our own political economy from a laissez-faire polity still rooted in small-town “village” culture to an technologically advanced, multiethnic industrial power with a robust social welfare system were accompanied by economic ruin, political turbulence, and bloodshed of a kind that would make even Americans who lived through the 1960s blanch in horror. Of course, that is what produced the modern American state. But it also could have conceivably produced something far less benign. In a new book on FDR, we find the idea that democracy in America would not survive the Great Depression was extremely plausible to many opinionmakers. Otherwise the sweeping New Deal reforms may have never taken place.
Finally, there is always the problem of the unintended consequences of ideological change. The norm of border fixity prevented aggressive conquest. But it also may have doomed many postcolonial societies to endless internal warfare and predation from neighbors. A single battle is no longer considered a valid legal or political means of solving disagreements. But this may have also legitimized the practice of protracted warfare and ideological mobilization of the nation as a whole. But I think many people would see that the idea that conquest is no longer tolerated as a good thing. Certainly many people in the last 150 years saw the end of aristocratic norms and the rise of nationalism as a good thing too. But those two developments produced vast amounts of human suffering.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use science—and social science especially—to change the world. We absolutely should. But the process of doing so is always fraught with moral peril and complication (doing nothing is also fraught with similar problems) and knowledge that contributes to understanding of our limitations, knowledge that closes as well as opens doors, should be equally valued in the academy and the policy community as knowledge that enables change.
I’m up in Infinity Journal looking at how to possibly reformulate American grand strategy. A lot of strong cuts here, especially recommend David Betz and Lukas Milevski’s pieces. Betz gets at a theme that I am exploring in my doctoral research: the power of connectivity and technology.
The Journal of Military Operations is out, with Justin Kelly finally solving the problem of operational art. I have tried in the past to get at this gordian knot, but Kelly’s idea of moving from “operational art” to “operationalizing strategy” is far superior and more conceptually succinct to any of my musings.
IJ and JMO are rare offerings—pure journals focused on the theoretical and practical issues of strategy and tactics. No service or national skew. That’s why I contribute to them, and why you should read them too.
One of the joys of being a PhD student is that you, at some point in time, rethink some of your deeply held beliefs. As my interest in complexity and chaos deepens, one of the things I’ve been forced to rethink is my dismissive attitude towards the role of complexity theory in war studies.
As Sean Lawson noted, systems theory since has had a long (and troubled) relationship with military theory. Chaos and complexity-based approaches to thinking about defense issues, on the whole, have been very fraught with difficulty. Mirroring the general problem that international relations has had with complexity, defense often reaches for metaphors without much content. Wilf Owen is right to make fun of observations as mundane as the fact that armies are complex and they adapt. This, in a time in which “butterflies and hurricanes” is a middlebrow cliche, is not a particularly useful insight.
As as a result, I unfortunately dismissed what could be a fruitful line of inquiry. I found myself reading late 80s and mid-90s works by Antulio Echevarria, Christopher Bassford, and others on chaos and complexity. One unfortunate aspect of the direction of military theory is that the move towards developing those sciences as a means of exploring and updating Clausewitz’s theory was effectively halted. This is understandable - Clausewitz came under severe attack by those who believed war irreversibly changed after 9/11 and a reactionary approach designed to vigorously defend Clausewitz and classical strategy more broadly was appropriate.
Enterprising Clausewitz scholars or classical strategists with an desire to contribute something new might deign to pick up where we left off in the 90s in terms of exploring Clausewitzian approaches to this field. The computational IR scholar Lars-Erik Cederman developed a model derived from Extreme Value Theory to analytically verify one of Clauswitz’s core insights about the shifts in warfare that resulted from larger political processes. Classical strategy theory is primarily qualitative and based off historical-interpretive methods. However, the dynamic models increasingly available offer a way to capture some of the contingency, contextual forces, and interactions that are key to classical strategic theory.
Complexity theory is not the only means by which Clausewitzian strategic theory might be integrated with other interesting approaches. Nash equilibrium-compliant game theory methods also can be a means of exploring new dimensions in Clausewitzian theory and classical strategy. As game theorist Phil Arena noted on Twitter, in some ways Clausewitzian strategic theory actually prefigured and inspired important elements of formal methods in political science. Clausewitz’s idea of the duel leading to a condition of absolute war, like rational agents in microeconomics, is a “useful fiction.” In reality, there are always political, material, and social constraints on conflict, just as norms are often external influences on game theory models. Yet the ideal-type helps us better understand the underlying processes at hand.
Wanted to make RS readers aware of this great edited compilation. There is a diverse array of historical work on the formation and practice of strategy in a variety of historical contexts.
My favorite chapter is Jeremy Black’s take on British strategy in the “long 18th century”—I was pleasantly surprised how many stereotypes about 18th century war were demolished in so little pages! Opinions may differ about the contributors’ interpretation of what strategy is, but it generally falls within Colin Gray’s own parameters of a “purpose-built” bridge between violence and politics.
Books like The Practice of Strategy are necessary for the strategy community in the same way human beings need food to grow. In order to appreciate strategy, contextual reading of cases in which political, economic, and military intersections are realized is necessary. My reading now is primarily in political science, international relations, big history, political methodology, computer programming, and some natural sciences (ecology, nonlinear dynamics, etc) so I unfortunately don’t have as much time or brainspace for books like these. I read it over a long period of time and just finished the last chapter this week.
In my blogs and Tweets, I have generally pooh-poohed the idea that mil-style gear equates to police militarization or that domestic use of unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles is a harbinger of Predator strikes on Main Street. In general, we can criticize the human cost and mistakes of poor national security decisions without raising the specter of 1984. Poor counterterrorism decisions abroad does not imply a dramatic transformation of American domestic life.
However, there is one national security-related political trend that should deeply disturb anyone that cares about American liberal democracy: the increasing frequency of calls for a revived draft and/or compulsory national service as a means of fixing social and political dysfunctions in American life. These calls, coupled with an obsession with declaring more and more areas of domestic life as a national security risks, suggest a troubling ambiguity about liberalism among American elites.
Across the political spectrum, critics are united in their view of the All Volunteer Force as the cause of deeper moral and political ills within American society. The World War II era of conscription is seen as the norm from which such comparisons are made. Andrew Bacevich argues that American society has become more selfish and individualistic as a result of the AVF. What was once a “duty” is now a “right,” Bacevich laments. That Bacevich is wishing for an America, that, for the most part, never was, is immaterial to the larger cultural critique.
Jason Fritz and Dan Trombly have already written about why specific proposals for compulsory draft and service do not pass a cost-benefit analysis. Anyone interested in the specific programmic details of draft and service proposals and political specific rhetoric and justifications should consult their extensive writings on the subject. Here, I want to focus on some of the negative (and mostly implicit) ideas behind some of these proposals.
First, we must emphasize the relative novelty of these proposals. They are not advanced out of a sense of danger to American life that motivated call-ups during the Civil War, World War I, II, or the Cold War. So a draft and/or service commitment of the kind critics propose would be a titanic shift in American political life. It would be truly without precedent. Why? As Dan has noted, most American wars have historically been fought by volunteers, in line with the desire of the founders to preserve a liberal political economy. Peacetime drafts were rare and correspond to national dangers. Drafts were used to sustain prolonged wars, in essence, not prevent them from happening or equally distribute the burden.
The Selective Service System itself is just a means of establishing a future mobilization base, and it is reasonable to expect that every citizen (including this author) agree to be potentially mobilized. In such circumstances, the amount of bodies to be thrown into the grinder would dictate a mass force capable of attrition. As a skinny, geeky, and frequently sickly PhD student, I have little martial skills to contribute beyond a faculty for defense analysis, but in a time of war all that would be necessary for me to do is allow myself to be gored in order to enable another man to breach a prepared, dug-in enemy position. That’s it. In industrial war against a worthy opponent, attrition is what matters and “God goes with the big battalions.” The purpose of a draft is to supply the bodies for big-kill industrial warfare.
The motivations for such new measures all lie within perceptions of injustice, distance between the military and civilian society, and a sense of a larger lack of social cohesion. There are two dominant themes. First, the idea that “skin in the game” will act as a break on military adventurism abroad. Second, the perception American society lacks meaningful connection with the military that protects it. An addendum to the latter worry is a sense of a problematic lack of societal cohesion that might be plausibly cured through devotion to something greater than the individual.
The idea of “skin in the game” is much less problematic than the idea of using the military as a means of promoting greater societal cohesion. Both, however, are without precedent in American life. Conscription has been used to order to enable—to feed—war rather than restrain it and has always historically been understood as such. And the idea that harmony between the soldier and citizen should be imposed by the state smacks of authoritarian philosophy.
The burden placed on a small portion of soldiers during the Iraq and Afghan wars and the seeming obliviousness of a consumption-based civilian society certainly gave a sense of urgency to these calls. But as Tom Ricks reported in the late 90s, a sense of worry over supposed civilian decadence, selfishness, and weakness had already begun to circulate among some in the national security community.
First, let’s be blunt: the idea of a draft as a brake on foreign policy adventurism abroad amounts in practice to the forcible impressing of American youth as hostages to guarantee “responsible” political behavior and policy outputs (e.g. policy outputs the foreign policy critic agrees with). It also suggests that many view the American public and their elected representatives as too decadent, corrupt, and feckless to make responsible individual or collective decisions without threatening the personal safety of their offspring and close relatives. Dan has questioned whether it would even work without imposing significant costs on both the military and society.
The vast majority drafted (in keeping with WWII and Vietnam patterns) would never see combat to begin with. Manpower shortages in World War II, in fact, occurred for this very reason. Despite the presence of a draft, a few shouldered the burden of the many. It is not that rear echelon tasks were unimportant—the war effort depended on it, as did a large civilian workforce. But it is unlikely that a draft today would alleviate the central injustice of a few men shouldering too heavy a burden for the nation.
A more restrained foreign policy, as I have often written here, would be a net good for America. But I can see equally valid cases why it would not be. In any event, the problem is not necessarily the validity of the policy goal but the idea of using the military as a tool of social engineering.
More disturbing is the idea of what compulsory, nonmilitary national service entails: forcing large numbers of young men and women to work for the government, likely with little to no compensation, for the greater good of a supposedly morally adrift society. Instead, we might have Americans democratically collaborating to create a more perfect union through established mechanisms of political discourse, not conscripted labor. Why must we regiment society, with citizens forced to serve the government in peace, digging ditches and building roads, in order to somehow be seen as validly participating in public life? Even if peacetime service has no military orientation, it smacks of the logic that Robert Heinlein deployed to justify his militarist utopian society in Starship Troopers. Are our societal divisions so deep that we must embrace such measures? How does forcing Americans to submit to such measures make us a better society or have more reverence for the military?
It would be one thing if America faced a genuine external or domestic threat that necessitated a garrison society or mass mobilization, but as Micah Zenko recently noted the US is in a period of relatively unprecedented security. American societal cohesion, while perhaps frayed, is not nearly troubled enough to justify forced peacetime service and regimentation of society. To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that these calls suggest we are on the cusp of a “Seven Days in May” scenario. Much of the negative implications I discuss here are completely implicit, the product of benign ignorance rather than the spread of Prussian militarism.
But let’s recognize these beliefs for what they really are: militarism. It is indicative of an underlying feeling that society is wrong and the military is the vehicle that will change it. Calls for regimentation of society, however, do not occur in a political vacuum. We are told that obesity, K-12 education, the national debt, and infrastructure are all matters of national security. More and more aspects of domestic life must feed national security. It is not beyond the pale to think about childhood obesity as a health threat or collapsing infrastructure and bad education policy as a barrier to American national competitiveness and prosperity. But as a matter of national security?
I am not arguing here that a high-ranking military officer has no right to say the obvious: that fat kids who can’t fight makes mobilization problematic. If it were the 1970s, with uncertainty over whether we could hold the Soviet hordes back from overrunning all of Europe, anything that prevented the mobilization of military manpower to stem the Red onslaught could be plausibly seen as a grave threat that necessitated some government interference to rectify. Cold War-era infrastructure, R&D, and education policies were also necessary to prevail in a global strategic competition with the most fearsome, militarized, and murderous enemy that America has ever known. But today no such enemy exists, and thus the justification for militarizing American life also is gone.
Certainly it is reasonable to try to think about what incentives, such as increased taxes or more restrictive war powers, might help create better political behavior in matters of war and peace. The harm to the AVF is real and should not be ignored. But the extremity of drafts-as-social engineering and the lack of faith in democracy and liberal political economy it implies is bracing.
As Jason Fritz powerfully argued, we should also question the idea that a fusion of the civil and military sphere suggested by these ideas is good for either the military or civilian society. Regimentation, obedience, and duty are necessary ingredients for any kind of war machine. But are they right for civilian society without a threat big enough? Consequently, the ideas of individualism, leisure, entrepreneurship, and moral relativism popular in civilian life do not contribute to military effectiveness.
The strain, toll, and suffering that civilian political decisions has inflicted on the All-Volunteer Force is tragic and unjust, even if Dan has demonstrated that the practice of going to war without a draft is the rule rather than the exception in American life. The ridiculous attitude towards veterans that many Americans have, from paranoia over the specter of out-of-control vets or the stupid need to ask every veteran they meet if they killed anyone, is symptomatic of a problematic civil-military divide. Of course, the divide runs both ways. For every dumb civilian gawking at a veteran, there is a soldier disgusted with a commercial, morally relativistic civilian society that does not match up to the communitarian ethos of the armed services. Such thoughts are just as unhelpful as the civilian mistrust of the soldier.
But the idea of a draft or peacetime compulsory service as a solution for these ills is the public policy equivalent of a signature strike. As Aaron Friedburg argues the only thing that we could call a consistent “grand strategy” in recent times is our preference for maintaining a liberal capitalistic political economy at home and a civilian as opposed to military domestic culture. This, as Jason Fritz has suggested, is the root of the Huntingtonian tradition of civil-military relations.
Looking for American militarism? Look no further than your local op-ed page the next time a public figure calls for national service or says that your fat kid is a threat to the national interest.
I’ve decided to rename and redesign my long-dormant personal blog and use it as a notebook for reflecting on my ongoing doctoral studies in international relations. You can read the “About” page here, which explains the refashioned blog’s overall purpose. My first entry on “long data” and social science can be read here.
Rethinking Security will continue to be a home for thoughts that do not easily fit into the other blogs I contribute to. But I do want a place for unstructured thoughts—-most of the things I want to write about are not firm and confident blog-eds.
I’m hoping Logics of Transformation can be a place where I can explore ideas that interest me rather than argue theory or policy. I’ve tried and failed to develop an offline research notebook and on the advice of my friends Dan Trombly and Kelsey Atherton I’ve revived my old personal blog.
Perhaps one of the most deeply frustrating things for me as an analyst of security and strategy is the tendency of observers to ignore contextual factors when denouncing recurring military or strategic trends that they presume to be modern and endogenous to the organizations and actors they critique. My friend Dan Trombly is very skilled at conjuring up history to look at the deep roots of these trends and deflating technologically-based explanations. But I think his work has evolved in a more useful direction lately: from making a claim to precedent to explaining why these trends recur over time.
I ran into this problem when trying to write an Ab M post about the “militarization” of the CIA. Certainly I looked at historical precedent, policymaker demand, and the means by which the CIA and the military have always had a fairly porous relationship. But then something really obvious smacked me over the head: we’ve been engaged in 11 years of nonstop war, including two large stability operations with substantial regional elements. Every arm of the USG and military was enjoined to support the wars—why should we be surprised that the CIA also adapted itself to short-term projects heavily oriented towards military support? People cheered when Robert Gates backhanded the services for not “fighting the wars we’re in,” but boo the CIA for doing the same? There is an element of having one’s cake and eating it too in such critiques, if only because they ignore the context of war inducing greater militarization in response to policymaker demand.
In the cyber realm, I’ve felt a similar sense of aggravation when remembering my reaction to the crestfallen reaction to the Sanger leaks on Stuxnet. There was an attitude, reflected in op-eds written at the time, that Stuxnet meant a loss of innocence in cyberspace akin to nuclear warfare’s perversion of atomic science. Never mind the extensive interest by foreign armies and intelligence services in computer network operations. Never mind that those same foreign militaries built up said cyberattack capabilities over a period of 20 years because they perceived American cyberpower and its ability to enable net-centric conventional military operations as a existential threat. Americans have normalized this structural power to the point where it is invisible, but others have not. Does this mean the US should give up on its structural cyberpower? Not at all. But let’s put the blame for the emerging “cyber arms race” where it belongs: on adversary adaptations to counteract American military power and cyberspace’s role in enabling it.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in thinking context is important. I’ve been enjoying reading this book as I chase shiny object after shiny object in formulating my dissertation topic, and it is useful for policy audiences as well. Haven’t quite gotten to the end, but goes a long way to explain how contextual understandings can enrich any sort of inquiry.
Can America’s poor strategic performance in the wars be reduced to aspects of personality? The question is relevant to those considering sources of strategic competence and is not as silly as it might seem. But first, some myths must be dispensed with.
I have seen a lot of critiques of this article (including factual: former Line of Departure blogger Carl Prine noted in a conversation with Doctrine Man that WWII veterans plunged America into Vietnam, and JFK’s vaunted tactical expertise, as a friend pointed out to me, did not help in planning or executing the Bay of Pigs operation), but I’ll cut to the chase on Paul V. Kane’s primary idea. Below:
First, the vast majority of our current leaders have only a theoretical, intellectual, and abstract knowledge of the military and war — not an experiential, visceral, and personal understanding. The proportion of our key decision-makers who have served in the military and have personal experience with defense is in steady decline. …People who have not served in uniform or combat are often ill equipped to understand how conflict and armies work (or, frequently, how they don’t), how war moves to capricious rhythms, and how war plans last only until first contact with the enemy. …Being a veteran does not inoculate someone from making stupid or reckless decisions about war — not at all. But an executive who’s never been to war needs first to be brutally honest with himself — to know what he does not know — and second, to surround himself with veterans whom he trusts.
The contradiction lies in Kane’s strong contention that leaders with a primarily “abstract” understanding of war tend to make bad decisions and his repeated weakening of this contention with qualifiers that veterans can also make reckless decisions. Indeed, Kane even notes that “frequently [the military’s] first inclination or recommendation is off the mark, inadequate, or undesirable.” Then Kane further weakens his point by admitting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, two of America’s greatest strategists, did not serve but had been “tested in other ways.” How to resolve these contradictions?
Kane has an implicit theory that military experience provides the following: (1) solid understanding of the nature of war (2) solid understanding of the mechanics of military operations and (3) a way of generating moral virtue that we expect in great civilian leaders. The fact that he has to repeatedly qualify and weaken this theory suggests that it is empirically untenable. Civilian leaders without military backgrounds have demonstrated “good enough” understandings of the nature of war and what can be done with tactics, and Kane admits that combat is only one means by which the moral mettle of potential leaders can be tested. Moreover, as Kane implicitly recognizes, some veterans have demonstrated poor understanding of strategy, tactics, and the nature of war as well.
This, however, still does not get to the dominant flaw in Kane’s argument. The biggest flaws is that Kane implicitly assumes that a given war has obvious or objective lessons. Some who served thought World War I was such a horrible affair that it meant tossing all of the political and strategic assumptions of the prewar years aside. In contrast, a prominent German literary intellectual genuinely enjoyed the experience. There is a hidden assumption of a unmediated process between experience and better (to Kane, strategic decisions he agrees with) policy outcomes. Most popular accounts of pre-WWI military doctrinal development are flawed, but there is some truth to the notion that the military professionals of the era saw what they wanted to see in pre-WWI conflicts in Europe, Asia, and Africa. So there is a big problem with associating experience with better policy outcomes.
There is, however, a tiny grain of truth in Kane’s polemic. Certainly, civilian leaders with mastery of politics and economics have a leg up in thinking about crucial aspects of strategy that are not mentioned in Kane’s article. Ignorance of both was fatal to “war for war’s sake” figures. But strategy is “done” as tactics and any competent strategist must be able to assess how and if it can be done. Moreover, a lack of understanding of the nature of war can be fatal. Clausewitz counseled his readers to use theory to re-assess personal experiences and use history as a substitute for lack of the latter. Lincoln, as noted by James McPherson, was an military autodidact that spent days immersing himself in Napoleonic warfare histories and textbooks in the Library of Congress to give himself a grounding in the strategic sciences of the era. Spencer Ackerman argued convincingly last February that Syria intervention proposals displayed indifference to both tactical and strategic aspects of war and warfare. So Kane is on to something, but just barely.
Donald Schon, cited by Christopher R. Paparone, also counseled the practitioner to be reflective about his or her profession and critically examine the tacit assumptions built up by repeated practice. Unfortunately, the latter does not come easily because people aren’t great in general about dealing with things like confirmation bias or resisting the socializing effect of professional cultures. Strategy is no different. Robert McNamara was a failure not because he was ignorant of war (he played a critical role in statistical analysis of airpower in World War II) but because he never bothered to think in a reflective manner about his tacit assumptions. The Errol Morris documentary Fog of War is basically a film-length lament by McNamara about his many failed assumptions and their lethal impact in Vietnam.
Kane suggests that political leaders without military experience should lean on their advisers for help. But his Cuban Missile Crisis example could benefit from a reading of Graham Allison on the ways in which the operational codes of service cultures skewed military advice. Political decisionmakers, former military or not, will always have to deal with the fact that their advisers may be constrained by organizational agendas and unconscious biases. Unfortunately, no leader will have all the relevant experience, information, historical context, or technical knowledge to be able to conclusively judge for themselves what course of action is best. Every kind of decision in a crisis situation is based on intuition, some of it highly unrealistic. As Joseph Fouche of the Committee of Public Safety noted, Churchill’s relentless defiance after the defeat of France only looks wise in retrospect. It turned out to be the right decision, but had Japan never attacked would America still have come to Britain’s aid? Certainly Roosevelt involved the US in both European and Asian conflicts before Pearl Harbor, but was heavily constrained domestically in doing so. Historical evidence suggests that the argument for intervention was more of a “close call” than popular memory would have us believe.
Some like to reduce questions of policy failure to questions of folk morality. Individual explanations are not inherently untrustworthy—at times political scientists and sociologists can overrate structural explanations for suboptimal outcomes while ignoring the role of individual agency. Nonetheless, not all individual explanations are useful. Expect to see more articles like Kane’s as the reality of the strategic failures of the last decade set in.
I’ve been reading the Global Trends 2030 report in between my Comparative Politics exam (earlier today) and my International Relations Theory exam (due tomorrow night) and something didn’t seem quite right.
I do want to do less planned/more off-the-cuff writing and less overly planned blog posts. This is a good opportunity. Consider this less a specific argument than a series of variations on a theme. There’s a chance that the journey won’t end up anywhere productive, and this post does ramble considerabably. But I have found the process of thinking about it extremely useful for thinking about some of the holes in our understanding of “failed” states, foreign policy, and future warfare.
The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the state, which has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on the Transformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.
We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.
Here is why I am now feeling queasy about this problem, presented as a series of bullet points rather than a coherent argument. These are some reasons that we have to be careful about making categorical arguments about either the decline of the state or the rise of non-state actors. One of which is that the sociological aspects of state emergence and decline are generally not incorporated into these assessment, which draw on theories of international relations or impressionistic interpretations of military history. Historical sociology and comparative politics suggests some problems for the idea of a unified baseline of a shift in the balance of power between states and their competitors:
1. We still lack a general, widely accepted theory of how states emerged to begin with. Charles Tilly’s idea of war making the state in early modern Europe made waves, but since then many others have stepped into the breach. Although Tilly’s theory and some variations has been tested in Latin America, Africa, and some parts of Asia we have not really seen an aggregation from middle-range theory into general theory. State formation, comparative nationalism, and ethnicity is an evolving field that offers few universal answers for policymakers. Thoughtlessly applying a maxim like “war makes the state” won’t get us anywhere—war destroyed the state in many parts of the contemporary Third World.
At most we have a patchwork of different causal mechanisms that emphasize competing military, economic, and ideological explanations for state legitimation, creation, and consolidation. I want to get back to David Ronfeldt and Philip Bobbit’s work, which I read a long time ago, to see if there is a way to get beyond some of these conceptual issues. I also find Boaz Atzili persuasive in the idea he advances that the problem is not really state decline, but that the international environment’s system of fixed borders makes it hard for new states to replicate some of the causal processes that led—with different variations—to the rise of strong states across the world. Jack Levy and William R. Thompson make a similar point, arguing that many new states’ inability to be able to exert power across their peripheries makes low-level war in the international system more likely than interstate conflict.
State failure is also similarly complicated. In Africa, Robert Bates has argued that changes in global economic structure made predation an optimal choice for governments, leading to domestic challenges and violence. The very fragility of many states, as Jay Ufelder pointed out, can be observed in their unstable structures, transportation systems, and other public works. Soppy Western odes to the glories of authoritarian Chinese modernizers run counter to the reality of shoddy infrastructure that collapses only nine months after construction:
In this version of the world, it turns out that massive infrastructure projects are not just about supplying public goods to keep citizens happy. They are also—maybe mostly—about giving cronies ways to launder big loans that are really more like political payoffs than social spending. By spending large portions of those loans on improving real estate they’ve often seized from hapless citizens, the cronies get to inflate the value of their assets while distributing shares of the loot to a bunch of people on whose support their influence depends. If authoritarian rulers were serious about upholding a social contract with their citizens, they would write strong building codes and establish effective inspection regimes that would protect these big investments. But they don’t. …They aren’t benevolent but brutal modernizers constructing a better future for their grateful subjects; they’re mafia bosses oiling the machinery that keeps them alive and well fed. These guys aren’t investing in public well-being; they’re investing in political loyalty.
2. What is a state? This might seem like a fairly simple question to answer but it is not exactly easy. Without getting into the state/personhood debate, there is a common assumption that states exercise a monopoly of force and a related assumption that states utilize government-controlled professional armies. This does not necessarily wash in history and we have found powerful governments that shared power with a variety of private actors. In fact, as Daniel Trombly noted, there is a long history too of government cooperation with illicit networks in exerting power as well abroad. Robert Bunker also edited a volume on criminal states with plenty of examples of governments and criminal cartels and organizations being part of a general system of relational authority.
I am not convinced by the idea that the rise of private military corporations poses problems for the state, glib quotations from Machiavelli aside. In fact, we have reason to believe that far from undermining the state in Europe, mercenary groups may have been one of the triggers of the military revolution in the early modern period. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the term “monopoly of force” has always been misunderstood. It is really, like Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war, best seen as an ideal type rather than an essential feature of statehood. Weber used simplified ideal-types frequently as a baseline even if most things surveyed would not necessarily fulfill them. Monopoly of force sits on a continuum of possibilities rather than absolutes. Why is that a useful perspective to take?
The previous few paragraphs suggest the need for us to understand and accept a variance, due in part to political, economic, and even geographical contexts—in the development of states with a monopoly of force. It is difficult to think about whether the provision of state authority as we understand it was ever as widespread as we think. Westphalia, is after all, something of a convenient myth for political scientists that tends to obscure more than it enlightens. Daniel Nexon has also made a strong case using network theory that an older form of organization rooted in dynamics of indirect rule never really went away to begin with. Nexon’s work is a fresh wrinkle in the mostly tired debate over “American Empire.”
States, non-state actors, and the seams in which both connect to external international relations have always posed a big problem for American diplomacy. In order to gain viable commercial or military arrangements, the United States has had to become a political actor in societies experiencing political turmoil or transitions. Much of the problems of American diplomacy in the Americas and Asia during the late 19th century to the 1920s dealt with the challenges of states in revolution and transition that the US hoped to indirectly influence and control. Failures to exercise indirect authority through trusted agents frequently leads to direct and many times counterproductive intervention.
3. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.
In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.
Some are also synergistic. Categorical inequalities can make strong ties attractive. The origin of the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles, as the documentary Bastards of the Party lays out, can be explained by the transformation of African American collective action networks into criminal organizations. Successive law enforcement crackdowns on the Black Panthers altered the shape of the trust network into a criminal network. The Japanese Yakuza were originally a collective security organization for low-status individuals that also grew into a criminal network.
As Daniel Little summarizes, Tilly became very interested in the stickiness of trust networks despite all state efforts to eliminate them:
In line with Tilly’s lifelong interest in taxation and state-building, the idea of resource extraction plays a central role in his analysis of trust networks. A central theme is the struggle between the tax-collecting state and the elusive, tax-evading trust networks that exist in civil society. ”Rulers have usually coveted the resources embedded in such networks, have often treated them as obstacles to effective rule, yet have never succeeded in annihilating them and have usually worked out accommodations producing enough resources and compliance to sustain their regimes.” ….Consider these avenues that Tilly advances as collective strategies for protecting a given trust network against the pressures of the surrounding state: concealment, dissimulation, clientage, predation, enlistment into the regime, bargaining, and dissolution.
Obviously many states in the world could only wish to have the public security problems of America and Japan. Trust networks in many parts of the world are vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to integrate into public life. Alternative sources of power not only exist but have powerful capabilities. These trust networks and private armies can be exploited by foreigners as well. As Dan notes, a favorite strategy of Cold War American spooks was to find a low-status trust network and arm them as a counterinsurgency or unconventional warfare force. Congo has many alternative sources of power, and Rwanda just happened to exploit one of them to great effect.
Many states will continue to experience public order problems, some of which rising to the level of war and others being criminal violence. The distinction between the two, if easy in concept, will always be difficult to tell in practice. We should also disabuse ourselves the idea that criminals do not have politics or ideology. John P. Sullivan and I have long argued that Mexican drug cartels have politics that are not recognized by observers that ignore cartel struggles over control of both legitimate and illegitimate political and material resources as well as the role of narcocultura in shaping public order. John’s latest publication gives us a succinct definition of narcocultura and tells us what it leaves out:
Guillermoprieto (2009) defines narcocultura in a broad sense as a “twisted relationship with power” often exemplified by corruption. In a social or cultural context—the one we are examining here—she defines narcocultura in a narrower sense: the production of symbols, rituals and artifacts - slang, religious cults, music, consumer goods - that allow people involved in the drug trade to recognize themselves as part of a community, to establish a hierarchy in which the acts they are required to perform acquire positive value and to absorb the terror inherent in their line of work.
As John notes, the missing link in this conception of narcocultura is that misses precisely the elements of traditional Mexican trust networks—the “social bandits” that have been present for most of Mexican history. The simultaneous provision of public goods, use of barbaric violence, usage of propaganda, silencing of opponents, and corruption of surrounding governmental forms allows for a “criminalization of politics and politicization of crime.” Narcos are successors to the traditional Mexican social bandits, but create dual zones of authority with their command of the illicit economy, adroit utilization of symbolic violence, and ability to simultaneously elicit fear and love.
Looking at the Mexican cartels and dismissing them because they don’t seek to control the government is a mistake precisely because narcos “radically alters power structures, economic access, and cultural life. arco imagery from narcocorridos to narcopintas (graffiti) pervades Mexican life. The images can’t be avoided on TV, in social media, on the airways, and in the streets on contested, plazas, colonias, cities and states. The result is narcopolitics.” John certainly recognizes the role of market forces in the production of narco-imagery but the key impact is the proliferation of cultural artifacts of violence and power in Mexican life.
5. We can make an at best an extremely imperfect comparison that fewer competing political forms to the state exist that can matter on the international level. City-states, empires, communes, sovereign monarchies, and urban leagues are generally less prominent than before. Most people not named Samuel Huntington find the ideas of civilizational political units to be empirically unsupported. The role of the market and its demands in shaping the sovereign choices of European states today could be seen as data point in favor of a more complex array of non-state authority. But those same trends also might mark the rise of a different yet evolutionary state form rooted in a different set of economic relations.—not state decline.
Precisely assessing the balance of power between the state, trust networks, and warlord and rebels is difficult because international system is messy and the interior lives of states are even more messy. States and other complex societies are not structures that are self-sustaining. They take force, material reward, and political legitimation to sustain and this is always costly. Some elect to give up trying, abandoning their peripheries or internal spaces to others and emerge only to exact tribute or punishment.
What does this all add up to?
I promised you at the beginning that this was a journey without a clear direction, but I do want to make one point: how can we really say that the state is in decline or non-state actors are in the ascendance when many of the states most at risk from violent non-state actors were never politically powerful or socially cohesive to begin with?
A state that purposely weakens its armies to avoid a coup and struggles to manifest control over its peripheries is vulnerable to hard men and the predatory neighbor that backs them. We don’t really have to think about 2030’s exotic technology to imagine the empowerment of non-state actors when 700 men caused an army of 40,000 men to turn tail and run for their lives. These 700 men were not Gerard Butler-esque Spartans. They were simply willing to fight and die, and their opponents were not.
Infinity Journal recently released a brief that notes that war, strategy, and policy are not well-taught in IR courses:
“[M]ost IR courses talk around war, as if it were ancillary, something avoidable, an aberration — so long as war isn’t studied, it isn’t a threat. Unfortunately, most IR degrees do not offer the student a full appreciation for how strategy works or how war extends the reach of policy. Many IR courses do not actually give us a functional understanding of policy.”
The current state of separation between strategy and international relations does not have to be terminal. I am not suggesting that IR should consume strategy, but rather that a bridge be built between the two fields of inquiry to facilitate fruitful analysis and scholarship. The study of ends, ways, and means and the conduct of war is useful for anyone studying or practicing international relations, and strategy has much in common with certain aspects of IR.
First, it should be acknowledged that there are certainly many elements of IR and strategy that inherently cohere. There are functional areas of IR such as the study of civil war, deterrence, strategic bombing, or military doctrines that directly take on aspects of strategy. One’s perspective on IR also impacts how you view strategy’s core assumptions. Certainly realists may be more kind to the idea that the nature of war remains consistent across time than those who place stock in the power of norms, institutions, and ideas. Likewise, whether or not you believe in balancing, hegemonic wars, offensive vs. defensive realism, or Graham Allison’s organizational and/or bureaucratic politics model does matter for how you look at the origin and conduct of wars.
At the same time strategy is also cross-paradigm. Social culture, political ideology, domestic politics, and bureaucratic preference are all part of the analysis of strategy. One does not have to be a neorealist to study strategic theory, and in fact some strategists have harshly criticized IR concepts such as offense/defense theory. Colin S. Gray advances a synthesis of liberal and realist ideas in making the case that the Soviet Union and the United States had legitimate security concerns as well as mutually incompatible domestic regimes. Strategic literature often focuses on states but also recognizes that sub-state and/or cross-state actors are meaningful within the international system.
The short answer for why IR and strategy have diverged lies in questions of method. I took a course in Net Assessment from CSBA’s Barry Watts in the fall of 2010 that introduced me to an fascinating rebuttal Watts wrote to Robert Pape’s work on strategic bombing. Using insights from complexity science as well as post-1980s advances in quantitative military analysis, Watts observed that outputs such as the decision of a government to bow to the demands of a military coercer will rarely have easily discernible, linear, and correlate inputs on which a predictive theory could be constructed.
Echoing J.C. Wylie’s dichotomy between cumulative and sequential modes of strategy, Watts observes that Pape’s view of strategic bombing ignored the way effects in one area of operation could have subtle effects on others. For example, the massive diversion of German war production to air defense efforts interfaced with pressures on the Eastern front. Watts also points out that Pape’s idea that Japanese surrender was predicated on Tokyo’s realization that it could not defend the home islands defies historical accounts of the panic inflicted by both nonnuclear incendiary bombing and nuclear attacks. Ignoring these effects leaves one without a clear idea of how Germany and Japan ultimately were defeated, and the important role air power played in those outcomes.
Analysts of strategic theory are generally uncomfortable with “either-or” explanations and seek holistic ideas of causation. I refer to Colin S. Gray’s paper on battle outcomes in the Battle of Britain as an example. Certainly Gray puts more weight on some factors than others but he emphasizes their complex interaction. Williamson Murray writes about the contingency of the German victory in 1940, looking at how a better led and trained French force might have prevented German breakthrough in the South.
The contextual and holistic approach also tends to appeal to practitioners from the policy and operational worlds because it feels intuitively right to them. That is why we see a stream of papers, blogs, and magazine articles targeted towards policy audiences that insist that war is complex. It is, and that can sometimes be lost in IR approaches to studying conflict. We still can’t really agree on what precisely led to Serbia’s capitulation in the Kosovo conflict, and Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman’s frustration with the state of the debate led to them echoing Watts in calling for a synthetic look at airpower’s interaction with other factors.
Thankfully, political methodology has since caught up with some of strategy’s methodological demands. There are a number of methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis that can help an analyst capture some of the factors that have traditionally eluded political science approaches to war. They are too numerous to elucidate here, and those interested in exploring further should order some of the Oxford handbooks in the previous two links for a look at where the field is currently sitting.
Complexity-based approaches, including some methods that incorporate agent-based modeling, are also now beginning to be explored. In particular I am very interested in exploring the idea of co-evolution as a means of interpreting strategic history. One can also note that Clausewitz himself was a prototypical social scientist. Just because strategy and the conduct of war is complex does not necessarily mean that social science is not methodologically well-equipped to examine either.
At the same time there are also very concrete differences between IR theorists, who are looking to create broadly scientific knowledge about the political world, and military historians trying to capture the intricacies and complexities of the past. It may be true that the dividing line between such cross-purposes has been significantly blurred but it has not completely eroded. Strategic theory—the study of ends, ways, and means—straddles those boundaries somewhat uneasily. Even so, strategy need not be alien to IR.
As M.L.R Smith noted, “[strategic theory] advances a set of propositions that if true can be held to explain certain facts or phenomena. In this regard, strategic theory reveals itself less as a set of hard and fast rules, but more as a series of purposive assumptions that guide analysis.” Those assumptions are probabilistic. Clausewitz notes that sometimes “war by algebra” occurs and the enemy backs down without a fight after assessing the correlation of forces. But it’s significantly more likely that combat is needed to compel strategic decision.
Highly abstract large-N theories that depend on regression methods, game theory and formal modeling all have gotten a bad rap in the past but have their place in assessing certain kinds of strategic questions as long as their limitations are acknowledged. Quantitative approaches in general have not been treated fairly—certainly they have been misused but qualitative models are just as imperfect in their representation of highly complex realities. Putting common assumptions to formal rigor can also illuminate strategic problems, as Phil Arena demonstrates in his look at two-person attrition games.
At the end of the day, no one method or model will be able to capture all of the complexity of war. But that’s OK. Strategy is conceptually very simple but also very difficult to practice. So where can we innovate? In his rebuttal to Pape, Watts suggested applying complexity-based approaches and favorably cited Robert Jervis’ System Effects. George Mason University’s Aaron Frank is doing precisely that, looking at the applicability of evolutionary theories to the Military Revolution debate and doing agent-based modeling of intelligence processes. Certainly those approaches have weaknesses of their own but also suggest promising ways forward. There are also useful new methods being advanced in the field of military innovation/diffusion by Michael Horowitz, Dima Adamsky, and Evan Laksmana.
Ultimately strategic theory should not be subsumed into IR. There are historical traditions in strategic theory that will always mark it as a distinct—and interdisciplinary—entity. Edward Mead Earle created the American strategy field by bringing together historians, political scientists, sociologists, and hard scientists into a single forum to consider the challenges posed by the Axis. Strategy is eminently practical and as such will always be rooted in such interdisciplinary assemblages.
Instead of swallowing strategy whole, IR should simply borrow from it, just as it borrows from economics, anthropology, law, philosophy, and sociology. Likewise strategy has borrowed a great deal of underlying assumptions from IR’s various strains to explain state and non-state strategy and conduct of war. More fruitful exchange can only improve both fields and make them more useful to those seeking to better understand the dynamics of human conflict.