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.

17th April 2010: On Tom Barnett’s ‘The Pentagon’s New Map’

From a note to strategic foresight senior lecturer Dr. Joseph Voros:

I have Tom Barnett‘s first book The Pentagon’s New Map. He has spoken with Don Beck and the Integral Politics people. I haven’t yet read his second book or later work, which may have changed.

Conceptually, Pentagon’s New Map appeared after a mid-’90s debate between neo-Kantian cosmopolitanism and the classicist school of strategic history and tragic realism. The former resonates in programs at Columbia, Cornell or RMIT, through people like Mary Kaldor, Alexander Wendt and Saskia Sassen. The latter prevails more in the military colleges and realist-oriented political science departments, as exemplified in the work of Colin S. Gray, Michael Handel, John Mearsheimer, Ralph Peters, Stephen M. Walt, and Robert Kaplan’s reportage. So, Pentagon’s New Map appeared at the end of the Clinton Administration and the start of George W. Bush’s presidential first term.

Barnett rapidly found an audience amongst US foreign policy people that were either outside the process or looking for new ideas. To me, the strength of his first book lies in an awareness of dynamics, compared with other popular books at the time which had one or two-factor explanatory models. From a ‘history of ideas’ perspective, whether he was aware of it or not,
Barnett synthesized ideas from Kenneth Waltz‘s Theory of International Politics (1979) on the neo-realist importance of structural variables, from Immanuel Wallerstein’s centre-periphery model, and from Carter era strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose Grand Chessboard of envisioned Eurasian geopolitical integration recently inspired Muse‘s prog-rock album The
. Thus, part of the appeal of Pentagon’s New Map may have been
that it was a ‘half-step’ along from the thinking of the time, and that there
was an earlier theoretical base.

Whilst co-writing an academic paper on Twitter and Iran, last year, I revisited Barnett’s first book as part of the background research. I was surprised to find that, in the case of Iran at least, whilst the conceptual frameworks and language were different, Barnett’s solutions were similar to the prevailing ‘neoconservative’ school of thought. For example, he felt that Iraq regime change would alter the Middle East, and that US strategic information operations to support Iranian protesters would also facilitate regime change, a worldview traceable to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) and also made in Robert Kagan and William Kristol’s edited volume Present Dangers (2000), which outlined the ‘neoconservative’ approach to salient foreign policy issues. Again, this may help to explain why his first book found an appreciative audience: Barnett’s solutions resonated with other advisers, and with the popular works of Tom Friedman and Benjamin Barber. As discussed, the same issues apply to any theorist or analytical framework, and reflect artifacts of a thinking process rather than the person.

This raises various issues for foresight students and practitioners who may want to work in a ‘worldviews’-type area like foreign affairs or trade. The trans-disciplinary focus of foresight and futures work can mean that practitioners gravitate to ‘meta’-frameworks which may lack rigorous
theory-building, theory-testing and evaluation. To minimize this, it helps to have some background in the history of ideas and culture, and political philosophy, particularly as Peter Katzenstein, Alaistair Iain Johnston and Patrick Porter demonstrate in the ‘strategic culture’ literature. Foreign policy frameworks that differentiate between diplomacy, informational, military, economic and other levers are useful, such as Terry Deibel’s Foreign Affairs Strategy (2007). Finally, the varied work of these scholars illustrates this rigour and cycle of theory-building, theory-testing and evaluation: Stephen G. Brooks on global security and trans-national corporations, Jon Sumida on Clausewitz and other classical military theorists, Stephen Biddle‘s multi-method analysis of military power projection, and Dexter Filkins‘ multi-perspectival conflict reportage.

The One-Species Dilemma

Dr. Michael A. Aquino once posed a central question of Setian philosophy to me. Rephrased from memory, it was something like: ‘Why is it that Earth has only one species which has the self-aware consciousness to create civilization, symbolic systems, and other complex manifestations? Why not two or more? What would it be like if there was more than one species?’

In this email exchange Dr. Aquino did acknowledge research into ape and dolphin communication, which perhaps has significance for Lilith Aquino’s Utterance of Arkte. I pose this as a philosophical, existential dilemma, and not as a position of species infallibility.

Within the Temple of Set, Dr. Aquino and others referred to this self-aware consciousness as the Gift of Set. Category 17 of the TS Reading List explored this in more detail, in the following categories.

Continue reading “The One-Species Dilemma”

Decision Sciences For The Masses

Malcolm Gladwell‘s new book Outliers: The Science of Success (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008) appears to be the publishing event of the week.

Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) spearheads a group of writers who are masterful at using anecdotes about insights from statistics, system dynamics and the decision sciences that will interest a broad readership.  This group also in  Chris Anderson (The Long Tail), James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds), Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan), Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist), Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics), and Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The New New ThingMoneyball) also belong to this group.  Apart from outliers and tipping points these books explore intuitive decisions, long tail distributions, the Law of the Many, chance, low probabilty high-impact events, martingales, and data-driven decisions.  Each author has a different background: Taleb is an epistemologist and former trader, Anderson is a technology pundit, and Lewis, Gladwell and Surowiecki are essayists and journalists.

For me, six observations emerge from these authors.  First, they have a writing style that appeals to a broad audience.  Second , they provide an introduction to quantitative elements of decision-making and judgments.  Third, their publishers have created a niche market in airport reading and popular science paperbacks.  Fourth, they differ in their approach to theory building: Anderson, Gladwell and Surowiecki take an insight, interview people, and promote it; Taleb, Harford and Lewis draw on their domain experience; and Levitt and Dunbar illustrate how a subject matter expert can collaborate with a journalist to reach a broader audience.  Fifth, their books have seeded a range of Web 2.0 strategies, which vary in rigour, validity, generalisability and applicability to real-world analysis.

Finally, their publishers have used their marketing appeal to build an audience during turnarounds and post-acquisition integrations: Gladwell and Surowiecki helped revive The New Yorker, Levitt and Dunbar’s blog gained The New York Times an Internet readership, and Anderson revamped Wired after Conde Nast‘s acquisition.