New Books on Al Qaeda’s Strategic Culture

In 2011, my PhD supervisors asked me about a planned case study on Al Qaeda’s strategic culture. Now, there are two books out that address this issue:


  • Michael W.S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
  • Donald Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).


There are now some case studies and further analysis to answer this initial query.


Alastair Iain Johnston’s third generation of strategic culture focused on organisational studies. A relevant book that may link this third generation to the study of terrorist organisations is Vahid Brown and Don Rassler’s Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).


I’m also looking at Peter Bergen’s reportage on Al Qaeda – so his forthcoming book United States of Jihad: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda in America (New York: Crown, 2015) may also be relevant.

Australia’s Strategic Culture

Deakin University’s Ben Eltham and I have a new paper out in Contemporary Security Policy journal that draws on my PhD research. Taylor & Francis has the electronic copy available online now to journal and institutional subscribers; the print version is due out 23rd July.


Here’s the article’s abstract:


This article draws on fourth generation strategic culture debates to show the gap between the rhetoric of Australian defence and the more modest reality. Our analysis shows that these limits derive from tensions between national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures. There are serious debates in the nation regarding the preferred course of the Australian military and security policy. This article frames these debates by examining the ‘keepers’ of Australia’s national strategic culture, the existence of several competing strategic subcultures, and the importance of norm entrepreneurs in changing defence and national security thinking. Strategic subcultures foster compartmentalization, constraints, and bureaucratic silos that narrow national conceptions of security threats and opportunities, and impinge on the formation of coherent foreign and defence policy in relation to the Asia-Pacific region. This analysis shows that a distinct national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures endure beyond individual governments, placing potential limits on Australia’s interface with other Asia-Pacific strategic cultures in the future.


My thanks to Wooster College’s Jeffrey Lantis for organising the CSP special issue on strategic culture; the three anonymous and extremely helpful reviewers; and CSP‘s editorial and production staff.

A PhD Write-Up Update

From an email to my PhD Supervisor about what I’m working on:


  • A revised Chapter 1 on strategic culture will now include a new conceptual framework that examines and integrates the SC literature on two dimensions: theory-building and foreign policy analysis. For now, I have dubbed this a ‘spectrum framework’. It incorporates feedback from the ISA panelists, and from Jeffrey Lantis on recent theory-building / research design debates in the so-called fourth generation (post-2000) of strategic culture. I will contrast the proposed new framework with Alastair Iain Johnston’s generations framework (from his PhD and book Cultural Realism, and from the 1995 International Security article ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’).


  • A revised Chapter 2 will include a formal model of strategic culture / subcultures in terrorist organisations. Jacob Shapiro’s recent book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) is directly relevant, and may answer some of the concerns you initially raised about how to study terrorist organisations from an organisational perspective. For the chapter format I am using as a ‘writing model’ example Chapter 2 from Michael C. Horowitz’s PhD and subsequent book The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) in which Horowitz presents his Adoption-Capacity Theory.


  • Rather than a separate methodology chapter I am thinking of integrating this into methodology sections in the two case study chapters. The methods to be used are: causal / decision / process tracing of the Peter Bergen / Steve Coll / Michael Scheuer / Lawrence Wright investigative journalism  (Al Qaeda chapter), and interpretivist / qualitative / thematic text coding of Robert Jay Lifton / Haruki Marukami interviews (Aum Shinrikyo chapter). Two of the key methods books I am using are Derek Beach and Rasmus Brun Pedersen’s Process-Tracing: Foundations and Guidelines (University of Michigan Press, 2013), which I picked up at ISA, and Greg Guest, Kathleen MacQueen, and Emily E. Namey’s Applied Thematic Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012). I attended a couple of ISA panels with Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations) that were helpful to think through methodological issues.


  • I have some material for Chapter 5 on Conclusions / Further Research.


  • I have started to scope some material that might inform future journal articles beyond the PhD, such as the use of knowledge representation / microfoundations for the underlying logics, and computational cultural psychology as one of several new methodologies for future case studies. I also found this week a parallel approach to my case studies in the new book Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014) which uses an experimental political science approach to study organisations, and which has Jason Sharman (Griffith University) as a book co-author. So, more for post-PhD work, I am also considering experimental research methods as a possible avenue.

Price Signals and Publishing

Today, I received notification that Contemporary Security Policy has accepted an academic article on Australian defence and national security policy I coauthored with Deakin University’s Ben Eltham.


Eltham also wrote for Australia’s New Matilda on the late economist Gary Becker and price signals:


Becker’s idea of “human capital” has been among his most influential. This is the notion that getting an education is, in a very real sense, investing in yourself. “If you’re in an environment where knowledge counts for so much, then if you don’t have much knowledge, you’re gonna be a loser,” he once said.

Attitudes like this make Becker the patron saint of neoliberalism. As no less a thinker than Michel Foucault observed, Becker saw the rational individual as an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings.


Juxtaposing what we wrote with Eltham’s analysis offers insights about academic publishing.


Research managers have adopted Becker’s advocacy of human capital. This means that academic publishing is often judged on three output measures: (1) journal rankings; (2) academic citations; and (3) the government income a university receives for each academic’s publication.


This has some subtle effects on academic publishing. Fields like anthropology or political science — which require fieldwork or extensive modelling — have different publication rates than some laboratory-based science. The latter enables researchers to publish more papers. This creates a Matthew Effect or Winner-Takes-All dynamic: more income is generated and hopefully more academic citations will occur. These outcomes are examples of Becker’s pricing signals: each publication becomes an output of workload activities (for cost and business process management) and a monetisable income stream (for J-curve patterns in entrepreneurial venture capital: an academic will generate more value as their career unfolds).


These price signals have anchoring, disposition, and representativeness biases that can lead some research managers to potentially misjudge the effort involved in getting a paper published. This is where Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s heuristic of having ‘skin in the game’ as a published academic author can be important to facilitate judgments. In our case, Eltham and I spent 18 months writing at least three drafts. We had to rewrite sections for two changes in Australia’s federal government. We had to address new literature. Our special issue editor also edited the paper. I edited the endnotes twice. We got extensive, critical, and helpful comments from three knowledgeable reviewers. I also got feedback during an international conference panel — where I met the journal editor — and from seeing other panels on parallel research programs.


This also involved a lot of effort and coordination that formal workload models often do not capture.


Narrow interpretations of these price signals can also ignore cumulative learning effects. Eltham and I learned several things in writing our just accepted paper. We self-funded the research as academic entrepreneurs. An earlier article draft had a comparison of United States, United Kingdom, and Australian defence and national security exercises that might become a separate article. We started to co-develop a microfoundations model of strategic culture that first arose when Eltham recommended I read Dan Little’s Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Transaction Publishers, 1998). I learned a lot about national security and recent Australian policymaking innovations: a socialisation process.  These are just some examples of what occurred over an 18 month period.


Often, research managers bring up price signals in terms of value creation. However, can be in the narrow sense above of a journal ranking; citation metric; or a dollar value for income generated. Whilst these are important they are only part of the full spectrum of potential value creation that can occur when academic coauthors collaborate on a research article or a project. Yet the conversation is often as if tools like Real Options valuation or Balanced Scorecard reporting (which acknowledges learning) were never created. The problem isn’t the use of managerial frameworks: it’s that they can be used in a shallow and superficial way for less-optimal outcomes.


Collectively, these challenges mean that academics and institutions alike never realise the full spectrum of potential value creation from an academic publication. Becker saw investment. Foucault saw entrepreneurship. I see the potential for knowledge commons arbitrage. Perhaps that’s why academics enjoy the international conference circuit so much. Sometimes the potential value creation can be more like work-life balance: Taleb wrote Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) in solitude, to distill his life experience as an options trader and his love of classical philosophy. Read it on your next study leave period.

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.

ISA 2014: The Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence

The Social Construction of Russia's Resurgence (2009)
The Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence (2009)

I missed the Saturday sale of political science publishers at ISA 2014.


One of the books on my post-conference reading list is Anne L. Clunan‘s book The Construction of Russia’s Resurgence (John Hopkins University Press, 2009). Jack Snyder‘s original paper for RAND in 1977 focused on Soviet strategic culture and the socialisation of politico-military elites during nuclear detente negotiations (PDF). Clunan’s book looks like a useful social construction approach to contemporary issues of leadership and national image that Snyder, Colin S. Gray, Ken Booth and others explored in the first generation of strategic culture scholarship.

ISA 2014 Roundtable on Strategic Culture

This week, I’m speaking on a PhD-related Strategic Culture roundtable at the International Studies Association’s annual convention in Toronto, Canada (program):


‘Strategic Culture Is Dead; Long Live Strategic Culture’: New Directions in Research

Thursday 27th March 2014, 4pm – 5:45pm, TD43, Maple West Room, Sheraton Center Toronto


International Security Studies


Chair. Jeffrey S. Lantis (College of Wooster)

Part. Christopher Twomey (Naval Postgraduate School)

Part. Patrick H. M. Porter (University of Reading)

Part. Alan Bloomfield (University of New South Wales)

Part. K.P. O’Reilly (Carroll University)

Part. Justin Massie (University of Quebec in Montreal)

Part. Alexander G. Burns (Monash University)

30th January 2013: PhD Confirmation of Candidature Document

Confirmation of candidature is a PhD project’s one year milestone. You can download the second, revised version of my PhD Confirmation of Candidature document here. It outlines my project scope, some of the relevant literature, key research questions, and methodological framework.


My thanks to Michael Janover, Pete Lentini, Ben MacQueen, Andy Butfoy, and Luke Howie at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry for their critical feedback.

12th January 2013: Nuclear Iran & Strategic Culture Research

Bill Keller in The New York Times on new books about nuclear weapons proliferation:


What has been sorely missing from the debate about Iran’s nuclear program is a serious, reported effort to understand what goes on in the minds of the Iranians. David Patrikarakos, a journalist who has written for a number of high-end British periodicals, fills that void with “Nuclear Iran,” a cleareyed history of the Iranian nuclear program, enriched by access to a number of key participants and a wealth of scholarly empathy. The book contains more administrative detail and diplomatic byplay than a lay reader will crave, but it also includes a succinct and subtle rendering of modern Iranian political history and a digestible primer on the basics of nuclear science. (For the record, Patrikarakos, unlike Bracken, believes that, as counterproductive as an attack on Iran might be, “the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is worse.”)

In large measure, the history of nuclear Iran is the story of the relationship (“pathology” might be a better word) between Iran and the United States. Our present Iran problem, we are reminded, is partly of our own making. We installed the shah, who embraced nuclear power as a flag of Persian modernity. We indulged Saddam Hussein in his brutish attack on Iran — a war that led Iran’s Islamist government to conclude that it was on its own in the world. The fact that we invaded Afghanistan while paying court to terrorist-­breeding (but nuclear) Pakistan taught Iran that weapons of mass destruction command deference. Then, in the Bush axis-of-evil years, our hard-­liners convinced their hard-liners that nothing short of regime change would satisfy Washington. Add these understandable fears to a long history of xenophobia and Persian status anxiety, and it would be astounding if Iran didn’t at least contemplate acquiring the bomb.


When a young Jack Snyder wrote a 1977 RAND monograph that conceptualised strategic culture he tried to understand Soviet politico-military elites and their decision-making on nuclear weapons. David Patrikarakos‘s book joins David Crist‘s The Twilight War (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) in exploring the strategic interdependence of Iran’s nuclear development program with United States politico-military decision-making. A nuclear Iran is thus exactly the kind of geopolitical problematique that contemporary researchers interested in strategic culture might study. Snyder was part of a so-called first generation that might have used national country studies to understand the Iranian leadership. Now, this is the domain of political psychological profiling and estimative assessments for strategic intelligence. The so-called second generation would highlight the strategic interdependence of Iran and United States decision-making, and strategic alliances — including the US support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the George W. Bush Administration’s decision in late 2001 to invade Afghanistan in order to end the Taliban regime’s support for Al Qaeda. The third generation might examine the evolution of institutional decision-making which has led to the “present Iran problem” for the United States. The fourth generation might examine how the international system and regional developments helped to shape United States and Iran decision-making; and might also compare Iran as a case study to countries like South Africa and Libya that have rolled back their nuclear capabilities. Patrikarakos and the other authors that Keller profiles might be the beginning of a literature review for a research program on United States and Iranian strategic cultures, and their decision-making and threat perception role in nuclear capability-building.