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)  My 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.

13th February 2012: Dan Drezner on the New Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on the new Al Qaeda and threat escalation:


That said, I’m going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago.


I reached a similar conclusion here using Richard Ned Lebow‘s counterfactual method. As did John Mueller, and Adam Curtis in his documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). September 11 could have been much worse.

13th December 2010: GWOT Counterfactuals

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, suggests that the 2003 Iraq War was a significant recruitment tool and self-justification for Al Qaeda. This prompts what political scientist Richard Ned Lebow calls a counterfactual: an alternative history or series of events if different choices had been made. What if the US neoconservatives had not strongly influenced the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? What if the US had pursued a more multilateral and international approach to fighting Al Qaeda? What if the US had killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late November or early December 2001? What if the US had not invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

The Bush Administration — along with many counterterrorism analysts and policymakers — embraced the frame ‘Global War on Terrorism’ or GWOT immediately after September 11. Apart from making war on a tactic, this immediately locked the Bush Administration into a line of thinking based on historical analogies including to previous wars and antifascism. It didn’t leave a lot of room to maneuver when conditions worsened in Afghanistan and pre-surge Iraq. Lebow’s counterfactuals approach suggests that rather than taken as a given, GWOT unfolded as a series of foreign policy decisions where other possibilities and strategies existed and that remained unexplored. Perhaps that’s why in his second term Bush quietly abandoned the term, and the successor Obama Administration has conceptualised its national security in a different way.