Bringing Strategy Back Into IR?
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.