ISA 2014 Reflection: A Spectrum of Strategic Culture Theory-building

At ISA 2014, I saw a range of panels on strategic culture, constructivism, causality, counterfactuals, forecasting, and intelligence analysis.


Four insights emerged immediately from attending these ISA 2014 panels and discussions:


(1) Strategic culture is a framework to understand how long-term, culturally transmitted factors and shared socialisation experiences can shape leaders and politico-military elites. I reached a different view to Michael Desch: strategic culture is not necessarily oppositional to Waltzian structural neorealism and can learn from the theory-building rigour of neopositivist international relations.


(2) Desch’s framing of strategic culture and structural neorealism as rival schools was in part due to constructivism’s popularity in the mid-1990s. Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein, Martha Finnemore and others explored the role of agency compared with Kenneth Waltz’s emphasis on structure. Strategic culture was posited as a dependent or mid-range variable. Yet if strategic culture is decoupled from this Lakatosian comparison of two rival schools then it can learn theory-building insights from both constructivism and structural neorealism: it becomes part of a spectrum.


(3) Strategic culture’s theory-building cycles suffer from the exodus of potential theory-builders. The first generation’s Colin S. Gray and Ken Booth each developed richer interpretative and theoretical approaches later in their careers. The second generation’s Bradley S. Klein delved more into critical and postmodernist theory. Alastair Iain Johnston left strategic culture after the so-called Gray-Johnston debate. The so-called fourth generation has focused more on foreign policy analysis as a means for theory-testing rather than the first generation’s emphasis on grand theory-building. ISA2014 made me consider that theory-building and foreign policy analysis are another possible spectrum to explore.


(4) ┬áMy most immediate theoretical interest with strategic culture theory-building lies in the development of formal models – specifically on the potential microfoundations of strategic culture. ISA2014 had a series of panels on puzzles and formal models that I did not get to see but that I took note of. John Vasquez and Richard Ned Lebow suggest different possibilities I will explore further.