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Being Strategic About Revitalizing Strategic Studies Part I: Strategy, Objectivity, and Power

Orbis has published a piece calling for the revival of strategic studies. The BLUF:

Amidst recent Western military campaigns that have defied strategic logic and produced few, if any, tangible gains, the utility of force in contemporary conflicts is being questioned increasingly, yet very few useful answers are emerging. Unfortunately, policymakers have too limited an understanding of military affairs, and the officials and experts tasked to inform them often have vested interests or lack imagination. Whereas strategic studies scholars were once highly sought after to “think the unthinkable” and provide fresh ideas for policymakers, the field has since fallen on hard times and shows no signs of recovery. To resuscitate the field there is an urgent need for a fundamental re-evaluation of long-standing strategic concepts in light of present realities.

Obviously, I agree with a lot of this. But I'm afraid that the piece doesn't really address all of why strategic studies seems to have declined. And it at best proposes a partial solution. I have decided to respond at length about the issues that it raises, however, because it at least provoked a lot of thought (the goal of any provocative state of the field-esque conceptual piece in an academic journal!).

Strategy has fallen on hard times. This is something that me, my friends, and many of my colleagues agree with. But how can we make it better? To listen to many in the strategic studies field, the answer is to return to the basics. To some extent, I agree. We seem to unfortunately rediscover the same things over and over again after paying a horrific price. And we seem to be too beloved of passing intellectual fads at the expense of time-tested knowledge. However, strategic studies itself -- for a discipline that often fetishizes cold, hard realism -- has also proven itself largely incapable of objectively assessing its own self-inflicted woes. For strategic studies to return to a place of prominence, some tough love and self-criticism is ultimately needed. Granted, this alone is not enough. But is a basic condition for any kind of progress beyond the precarious state of strategy in 2016 America. Strategic studies needs to be strategic about its place both in the public sphere and the academy. This is a multi-part series about some hard realities that the field needs to face if it is to survive and thrive and how it can think more strategically about them. In Part I, I talk about the first and most contentious issue of strategic studies: it's relationship to power.

One cannot discuss the woes of strategic studies without a meaningful consideration of the history and role of the discipline, especially in the American context. Andrew Zammit of The Murphy Raid has been doing a series on this that I recommend highly. Crudely speaking, the concept of "strategy" itself in the West originated as an Enlightenment-era intellectual project. It was borne of the need for a central commanding figure (the "strategos") to control units on the battlefield. Strategy served as a means of creating favorable conditions via tactics, motivated by the underlying desired political purposes of the political community for which violence was being applied. As Zammit notes, the field's modern origin can be traced to the 1930s-1950s intellectual challenge of defending Western liberal democratic capitalist states against Nazism, Communism, and Third World militant movements. This is not to say that strategic thought was the exclusive preserve of the West or that the time prior to the 1930s was a strategic backwater. Rather, the institutional and academic groundwork for strategic studies as a field was laid during that period.

In America, where strategic studies would ultimately find its most prominent home, strategy came to be justified by arguments such as those articulated by Bernard Berodie in his late 40s- 50s work calling for the scientific study of strategic affairs. Future war was too important to be left up to the generals, involved weapons that required specialized expertise, and most importantly involved the integration of various considerations -- such as economics, technology, and diplomacy -- that the military did not usually deal with. Additionally, as Zammit argues,

[Scholars] believed that strategy was “not receiving the scientific treatment it deserve[d] either in the armed services or, certainly, outside of them.” With two nuclear-armed superpowers facing off, security scholars feared the next global conflict would be apocalyptic, so a greater government and scholarly understanding of strategy was considered necessary to avoid catastrophe. These scholars were also concerned that a long struggle against a fearsome enemy could lead to the militarisation of society, at odds with the United States’ domestic traditions. They believed that a strong core of civilian expertise in military affairs was needed to avoid civilian deference to the military (other than in the more operational and tactical questions that were more likely to be considered a purely military domain).

This has created a problem that strategic studies has hitherto been incapable of resolving: the conflict between its normative justifications and its claim to be a neutral and objective observer of human conflict. The Orbis article briefly mentions this when it notes that "the key challenge now, as in the past, will be to ensure sufficient autonomy so that it can be possible to be 'policy-relevant' without becoming part of the policymaking 'establishment' " but does not really address the difficulty of doing so in great detail. Critics of strategic studies often have a standard set of objections that I will summarize below briefly:

A: Strategic studies is merely window-dressing for American foreign and national security policy. This is Noam Chomsky's "new mandarins" argument: that the purpose of strategic studies is to provide intellectual gloss to whatever bloody adventure that Washington has dreamt up lately.

B: Strategic studies is simply a means of legitimizing unncessary slaughter by rationalizing what is frankly unrationalizable. This argument, articulated by Martin Shaw, is that "strategy has come to contribute to slaughter on a scale unimaginable even in the bloody era on which Carl von Clausewitz reflected."

There are several stock responses to these criticisms, some of which Colin S. Gray advances in his response to Shaw. Gray argues that strategists do not make policy, they execute the policies that political communities choose. The anger of Shaw and others, thus, should be directed towards the policymakers. Additionally, Gray notes that he has a different "philosophy of history" than Shaw that holds that conflict will always be a latent possibility within the international system. As long as war remains a possibility, strategy will have a use. "Strategy is not the problem.... the problem lies wherever the origins, causes, and triggers of wars are bred....strategy often must be the solution, or a necessary enabling support for the solution." This is in keeping with Brodie and others's argument that as long as World War III loomed on the horizon, a neutral and disinterested corps of scholars are needed to study strategy and tell politicians and generals about its dynamics.

I find this defense by Gray and others to be lacking, but before I begin, a disclaimer. Some critics of strategic studies, such as Chomsky, have an purely ideological objection to any and all Western foreign and national security policies. To these critics, everything America and its allies do that involves violence is wrong and never can be right. There is nothing that strategic studies as a field can do to satisfy them other than to blame the West, as seen in the intellectual farce that is so-called "critical" studies on terrorism. However, strategic studies cannot hippie-punch its way out of the ethical dilemmas inherent in the position it has carved out for itself, even if some hippies do deserve punching.

First, strategists have played a critical role in shaping and justifying foreign and national security policies. Many counterinsurgency theorists, for example, did not choose to intervene in Iraq and do not bear responsibility for much of the confused political assumptions behind the war in Afghanistan. But they provided intellectual firepower for the political decision to escalate in both theaters. In 2006-2007, the Bush administration's prosecution of the war in Iraq had been completely discredited and both liberals and "old boy" Republicans were pushing for alternative policies that involved mixtures of drawdowns and offshore balancing. As Tara McKelvey noted in 2008, counterinsurgency advocates provided a credible alternative to what had previously been a series of failed and unpopular policies. This was even more true in Afghanistan, where a far more bitter battle between advocates of light and heavy involvement ensued after President Obama took office in 2008-2009.

One should also note that both civilian and military counterinsurgency architects intervened (via op-eds, interviews, and books) in these public debates. They were far from being neutral technicians who implement the directives of political communities; they helped shape the parameters of policies that strategy implements. This was also true in the Vietnam era, as the Orbis piece notes: "[i]n their attempt to demonstrate their relevance during the Vietnam War, the field's scholars became overly politicized.... to be heard by U.S. policymakers effectively meant toeing the official line." But this is underselling the problem -- strategists helped shape the official line! To understand why this is inevitable, an analogy to software engineering is offered. The idea of "programming" was invented by the military-industrial complex, and as a student of strategy that also is a computer programmer I have noticed many similarities (both good and bad).

The so-called "waterfall" model of software development begins with requirements discovery and elicitation, which are formalized in a specification. After the spec is made, the software is conceptually modeled and designed, the programs and subprograms are outlined, and then the software is developed and tested. When the specification is met, the software is then deployed and maintained. This has an uncanny similarity to how the US military planning process ideally works: a political leader generates a policy aim that requires the use of force, a strategy is devised to accomplish it, and then the strategy is implemented through tactics on the ground. The waterfall model is simple and intuitive but also, as most software engineers know, extremely flawed. Why? And what does this have to do with strategy?

There are a lot of reasons, but I will talk about several of the most prominent ones. First, the waterfall model assumes that the stakeholder from whom the requirements are extracted knows what he or she wants and can articulate what he or she wants perfectly at the first go. Second, it also assumes that what the stakeholder wants is technically feasible. Even if both conditions hold, the waterfall model also assumes that all of the problems of design and implementation can be predicted and planned a priori, and that the initial solutions chosen to these problems is the global optima in the search space of possible designs rather than local optima. All of these assumptions are wrong, and thus the actual practice of software engineering is very much a back and forth between the separate concerns, perspectives, and contributions of the people who formulate the big ideas and the people who have to implement it.

This is sufficient context to circle back to strategy. So, with the failures of this "waterfall" model in mind, for strategy to work there cannot be a Chinese Wall between the people who formulate policy and those who create strategy based on policy. The separation of planners and doers is a recipe for failure. an insight that is well-known in the fields of business strategy and organizational theory. Strategists shape policies in a variety of ways, and cannot be regarded as politically neutral actors that simply realize the will of political communities. Hence, Chomsky is right to question the neutrality of the "mandarins" and whether or not their self-professed scholarly objectivity is simply a fig leaf for their status as tools of power and participants in disasters such as the Vietnam War.

Because strategists themselves have often valorized government service above all else, an honest assessment of the field will have to admit some truth to Chomsky's criticism. Strategy lacks a rich and robust tradition of dissent, speaking truth to power, and anti-war activism in general. The reason why strategy is often distrusted by other fields due to the legacy of the Vietnam War is that it often seems like the only way to be involved in policy-relevant strategy is to be inside the Pentagon during the 1960s dreaming up schemes of 'strategic hamlets' in the South Vietnamese countryside, not protesting with a "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?" sign. And by conflating the study and practice of strategy with serving The Man, strategists open themselves up to radical critiques that they are merely tools of The System.

Because of their expertise in war and conflict, strategists are the ones who are best placed to make a radical critique of wars such as Vietnam. After all, it was the defense researcher Daniel Ellsberg, a man thoroughly versed in the rational sciences of game theory and behavioral decision theory, who concluded that the war was lost and that Nixon and Kissinger were lying to the American people about it. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, it has been rare to see strategists make common cause with left-wing and paleoconservative antiwar and anti-intervention activism or engage in antiwar activism themselves. However, this is not the biggest normative issue that strategic studies faces as a discipline.

For strategy to be accepted by those who are not a priori ideologically committed to serving the American security state, the language of war and strategy has to be a common, neutral, language that both hawk and dove can use to discuss matters of war and peace. Many in the strategic studies field believe that it already is. This, however, is only partially true. Strategy often justifies itself according to the following chain of logic:

  1. Man has taken up arms against fellow man from the beginning of time. It is naive and foolish to believe that he shall cease doing so.

  1. Strategy is the study of the eternal truths of how man fights fellow man, and if man is going to fight fellow man, we are better off having people specialized in the objective and neutral study of the organized use of violence.

  1. Just because strategists study war and conflict does not mean that they are fond of it or want it to happen. However, if war must come the strategist will be ready to win it.

This rhetorical maneuver neatly conflates the "is" and the "ought." Strategy is the objective and neutral study of the use of violence which just happens to be committed to the essentially ideological view that conflict in the international system is inevitable no matter what we want. I happen to agree with this view, but it would be intellectually dishonest to claim that it is not ideological in nature. Yes, war and violence are a constant. But their frequency, duration, and character have varied over time. And, as I will mention in Part II of this series, "[s]trategy offers eternally valid insights about eternally recurring phenomena" is a tautology. And as previously noted, these arguments are also disingeneous given that strategists have agency over the nature and form of the ends that political communities seek to achieve. They can tip the scales towards escalation or de-escalation due to their influence on govermnment decisionmaking and both elite and public perception of war and decisionmaking. Item #3 is especially disingeneous in this light due to the manner in which strategists are political agents themselves with preferences that seek to steer policy towards conformity with those preferences.

The entire chain of reasoning sidesteps the issue -- which is again lightly examined by the Orbis article -- of whether strategy is just a prolonged exercise in putting a gloss on decisions that policymakers have already arrived at. This problem sits at the core of the "policy relevance" debate in political science. If we can assume that policymakers act strategically in the service of their own political interests, they will select strategies that optimize this utility function. They do not need strategists, in other words, to find a way of achieving a political community's goals, because what many might regard as national interests are separate from any given politician's personal interest -- gaining and maintaining their own power. So, at best, a strategist simply is a hired servant that finds a way of devising a program of military operations that helps a politician gain and maintain political power. At worst, he or she is just an PR agent that puts a serious intellectual gloss on the politician's real goals -- gaining and maintaining political power.

Now, these are some very harsh criticisms, and the question is always if the critic has any desired alternatives when making any kind of harsh criticism. The Orbis article notes that....

In today's context, the perceived political value of the outside challenger has not altered much since the Vietnam War. Policymakers may be willing to hear what these scholars have to say, but they are less willing to listen, especially when their advice conflicts with, or questions, their policy agendas. As a result of this discouraging context, today's “successful” strategic studies scholar is more likely to be one who legitimizes existing concepts and provides the odd bit of nuance rather than challenges fundamental principles. In such circumstances, the fact that the field has not regained the stature it once held is not surprizing, and its impact on policy has been, at best, minimal. The key challenge now, as in the past, will be to ensure sufficient autonomy so that it can be possible to be “policy-relevant” without becoming part of the policymaking “establishment.” This can only be achieved if scholars in the field are respected, not only for their special knowledge, but also for their independent perspective that sets them apart from political and bureaucratic interests.

....and concludes with the observation that

The prerequisite is an open-minded political and military elite that is willing to engage with the question of what can and cannot be achieved with the use of military force in the present day. It requires an elite brave enough to say that when the political idea is not feasible or the capabilities are not present, action should not go ahead. Conversely, when the political goal is attainable and capabilities are present, then it should be possible to develop appropriate concepts to carry it through. Strategic studies scholars have a key role to play here. Either they can work to devise these concepts, or in the absence of achievable ends and appropriate means, they can perform a useful public service by taking an independent, authoritative and critical view.

The problem with these lofty goals is that it is hard to see how the strategist can gain real autonomy in 21st century America. No one here in DC analyzes defense in a political, professional, or even personal vacuum. Issues of whether or not saying X will imperil a future political job, get one fired, or offend a drinking buddy at a NW DC bar all factor into what defense and security analysts here in DC say and write. Much in the style of Russian and Chinese court elites who could only frankly discuss political matters through parables and within the frame of existing mythology, foundational strategic and security problems these days are often only discussed via the backdoor through "what ____ says about ___" pop culture thinkpieces. It is also common to see military technologies such as drones debated furiously because the strategic purposes that they are used for are beyond discussion and considered settled matters. The fact that it is also professionally verboten to frankly attribute blame for the last decade and a half of failed wars also makes it inevitable that those outside the Beltway will distrust strategists and the national security community in general.

Unfortunately, the fact that antiwar radicals and disciplinary rivals in the social sciences have largely purged American universities of strategic studies makes it hard for there to be a meaningful institutional setting where strategic knowledge can be autonomously produced free of the career considerations that often force even the most outspoken among strategic analysts to engage in self-censorship and forced collegiality. So, there is also something mightily rich about the likes of Chomsky -- in driving strategists out of universities and forcing those who remain to live a precarious existence within disciplines largely hostile to strategic thinking -- observing that we are tools of power. He and his friends turned this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes, of course, there are brief moments when the powers that be have failed so thoroughly that outsider voices are tolerated and even encouraged. The vibrancy of the old strategy blogosphere, from Small Wars Journal to people like my friend Daniel Trombly (a George Washington University college student whose prolific geopolitical musings soon attracted the attention of high-profile names here in DC), stemmed from it being composed of a mixture of insiders, outsiders, and those in between who enjoyed writing about strategy for strategy's sake/debating big ideas and problems rather than purely out of the hope of professional advancement. As the wars of our time decline and the online strategy writing world profesionalized, it also became far more homogeneous and more of a reflection of the government sphere. Those who originally populated the old strategy blogosphere now are also a part of the system. I'm a case in point, as of the time of writing this post I am a fellow in a think-tank. Barriers to entry in the field have also arguably increased:

As old voices left the scene new ones entered it. Yet the demographics of the two groups are very different. No longer is the conversation dominated by people writing under pseudonyms and blogger tags. To write on strategy and international politics today is to trumpet credentials at the beginning and end of every essay and post. This is partly a reaction to the sheer amount of content now published; the more material published every day the greater need there is for heuristics that filter out the wheat from the chaff. "Read only those with proven expertise" is a simple one that fits the job. But its effectiveness is questionable. The problem is that the basic incentive structure behind internet publishing has changed. Somewhere in the late aughts, writing online became a respectable thing to do. Professors are advised to publicize their findings through blog posts and online editorials; think tank fellows have learned to condense their policy recommendations into internet sized articles. ....The old strategy blogosphere that was dominated by outsiders to Washington has been replaced by one dominated by writers from inside the beltway. ....The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. It is very hard for authors to cultivate a distinctive voice when writing for professional platforms, and it is these platforms that are at the center of the strategy-sphere today.

I am not going to say that this is the end of the world. Good work is still produced, and it is also more widely read than ever before due to the hard work put in to create professional platforms for writing about strategy, defense, and national security. Nor am I going to romanticize the old days of the strategy blogosphere, which often endorsed crap like Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and varied tremendously in quality. However, the point that I am trying to make is that the long-term post-Cold War condition of strategic studies makes for intellectual monoculture as a function of both professionalization and the strategist's lack of leverage. Even temporary shakeups such as the emergence of the strategy blogosphere ultimately were aberrations. Without a home in the university or other institutions that provide some meaningful distance between strategy and the government, strategists will lack autonomy. And without autonomy, it is hard to see how the ethical and normative problems of strategy's relation to power will be resolved.

This is not to say that serving the government is bad. Like Gray, I see working for the government as a noble and worthy endeavor and I also see civilian expertise in strategy and defense as a basic condition that must be satisfied so that we may have both a free and safe country. Without this external source of expertise, a military-dominated "deep state" like the kind that often rules in the Middle East is likely inevitable. However, a basic precondition of revitalizing strategic studies is that strategists need more leverage than they currently have. Strategists need to be free to offer their expertise to a more diverse set of policy stakeholders, as Deborah Avant argues in a post on the "multiplicity" of policy relevance. In other words, if the likes of Bernie Sanders need defense expertise for even a far left foreign policy, they should be able to assume that they can make a few phone calls and hire one of Eliot Cohen's disciples for the job even if Cohen is politically far to the right of someone like Sanders.

Going even further, if an NGO concerned with conflict resolution wants defense expertise, it needs to be able to make a few phone calls and hire a disciple of Edward Luttwak despite the fact that Ed has been very dim on the idea of conflict resolution. Granted, this depends on the willingness of either organization in the hypotheticals to listen to what the strategist has to say. But the point is that strategy's "policy relevance" has to move away from DoD as the major consumer and towards the idea of making expertise about "thinking the unthinkable" available to anyone who wants it and is willing to take such thinking seriously. The independence necessary to offer strategic expertise to a multiplicity of diverse policy stakeholders does not really exist yet, and as P.W. Singer notes the think-tank model is an at best imperfect substitute. That said, I would be remiss as a think-tank fellow if I did not also argue that think-tanks can do great good despite their flaws and imperfections.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss strategic studies' problems within the American university. After that, in the final post of the series, I will offer my own tentative recommendations for how the problems I diagnose might be mitigated.