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Strategic Culture and Threat Assessment Jeffrey S. Lantis Second Annual Joint Threat Anticipation Center Workshop The University of Chicago April 4, 2006 PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Strategic Culture and Threat Assessment Jeffrey S. Lantis Second Annual Joint Threat Anticipation Center Workshop The University of Chicago April 4, 2006. Cultural Approaches to Strategic Studies. Thucydides and Sun Tzu

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Strategic Culture and Threat Assessment

Jeffrey S. Lantis

Second Annual Joint Threat Anticipation Center Workshop

The University of Chicago

April 4, 2006

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Cultural Approaches to Strategic Studies

  • Thucydides and Sun Tzu

  • Clausewitz: War and war-fighting strategy as a “test of moral and physical forces,” with the goal to eliminate the enemy’s morale.

  • National character studies in World War II

  • Russell Weigley, The American Way of Warfare (1973)

  • Jack Snyder’s work on Soviet nuclear strategy (1977)

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Recent Events Have Renewed Scholarly Interest

  • September 11 terrorist attacks

  • U.S.-China trade disputes

  • Nuclear tensions with Iran

  • Deterioration of transatlantic relations (Europeans = Venutians?)

  • North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons

  • Struggle to consolidate Iraqi democracy

  • Muslim protests over Danish cartoons

  • New arenas in the war on terror

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New Attention Prompts New Questions

  • What are the ideational foundations of national security policy?

  • Do cultural theories, newly inspired by constructivism, provide us with better explanations of national security policy?

  • What are the origins of strategic culture?

  • Who are the keepers of strategic culture?

  • Is strategic culture “semi-permanent,” as most supporters suggest, or can it evolve over time?

  • How universal is strategic culture?

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Early Studies of Culture and Politics

  • National character studies of 1940s and 1950s: Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946)

  • Early work defined the roots of a nation’s character, or culture, in language, religion, customs, socialization, and the interpretation of common memories.

  • During the 1950s, popular studies in sociology and anthropology: Mead, Douglas, Geertz, and Levi-Strauss.

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Political Culture

  • In the 1960s, political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba launched a high profile study of the concept of political culture.

  • Defined it as “that subset of beliefs and values of a society that relate to the political system.”

  • Beliefs and values including:

    a commitment to democratic principles and institutions

    ideas about morality and the use of force

    predispositions toward role of country in global politics.

  • Political culture manifests itself on at least three levels: cognitive, evaluative, and expressive.

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Strategic Culture and Cold War Nuclear Policy

  • In 1977, Jack Snyder develops theory of strategic culture to interpret Soviet nuclear strategy.

  • Clear alternative to realist interpretations.

  • Elites articulate a unique strategic culture related to security-military affairs that is a wider manifestation of public opinion, socialized into a distinctive mode of strategic thinking.

  • His prediction: the Soviet military exhibited a preference for the preemptive, offensive use of force and the origins for this could be found rooted in a Russian history of insecurity and authoritarian control.

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Strategic Culture Rediscovered: The Rise of Constructivism

  • In the 1990s, a third generation of scholarly work reasserted the utility of cultural interpretations.

  • Theoretical work on strategic culture, domestic structures, and organizational culture advanced significantly in this period, influenced, in part, by the rise of constructivism.

  • In his path-defining works of the early 1990s, Wendt argued that state identities and interests can be seen as “socially constructed by knowledgeable practice” (1992).

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Constructivism and Cultural Studies

  • The constructivist research program focuses on identity formation, with connections to organizational process, history, tradition, and culture.

  • Special attention to the role of norms in international security.For more detailed studies of norms in world politics.

  • Tannenwald’s studies of the nuclear taboo and the norm of non-proliferation (Spring 2005).

  • Legro’s work on military restraint during World War II.

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Third Generation Studies

  • Alastair Iain Johnston’s Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (1995).

  • Defines strategic culture as the “ideational milieu that limits behavioral choices,” from which “one could derive specific predictions about strategic choice.”

  • Focus on the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) for contemporary theoretical test.

  • Two Chinese strategic cultures in action: “one a symbolic or idealized set of assumptions and ranked preferences, and one an operational set that had a nontrivial effect on strategic choices in the Ming period.”

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Germany, Japan, and Organizational Culture

  • Thomas Berger focuses on “antimilitarist political-military cultures” to explain patterns in these countries’ foreign policy behaviors.

  • Banchoff’s “path-dependent” model of German foreign policy.

  • To John Duffield, “[t]he overall effect of national security culture is to predispose societies in general and political elites in particular toward certain actions and policies over others. Some options will simply not be imaginedノsome are more likely to be rejected as inappropriate or ineffective than others.”

  • Military organizational culture studies (France, Kier; India, Rosen; Latin American countries, Ebel, Taras, and Cochrane).

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Nuclear Norms and Taboos

  • The study of security norms lies at the intersection of culturalist and constructivist research.

  • The non-nuclear norm or the “nuclear taboo”

  • The puzzle: why nuclear weapons were never employed by the superpowers during the Cold War?

  • Thomas Schelling first raised the concept of a “nuclear taboo” in the 1960s.

  • Schelling described an emerging tradition of nonuse of nuclear weapons: “a jointly recognized expectation that [nuclear weapons] may not be used in spite of declarations of readiness to use them, even in spite of tactical advantages in their use.”

  • Theme taken up in recent works by T.V. Paul and Nina Tannenwald.

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A Research Agenda for Strategic Culture

  • Greater understanding of ties between culture and state behavior.

  • Strategic cultural studies have provided rich descriptions of particularistic cultures and identities.

  • Acknowledgement of important links between external and internal determinants of national security policy.

  • Cultural studies have been informed by cross-disciplinary linkages to anthropology, historical research, sociology, and psychology.

  • Inspired by constructivism, scholars have begun to explore ways in which strategic culture is shaped and may evolve over time.

  • Much more than an “explanation of last resort.”

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Areas for Further Attention:

  • Seeking a common definition;

  • Delineation of the ways that strategic culture is created, maintained, and passed on to new generations;

  • The question of the universality of strategic culture;

  • Exploring the applicability of western and traditional models to non-western countries?

  • Many cultural scholars recognize the need for a defined ontology as well as falsifiable, middle-range theory.

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A To-Do List for Strategic Culture

  • Develop Common Definitions

  • Explore the Origins of Strategic Culture

  • Identify the Keepers of Strategic Culture

  • Delineate Scope Conditions

  • Develop Models of Strategic Cultural Change

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Develop Common Definitions

  • Snyder’s definition of strategic culture as “a set of semi-permanent elite beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns socialized into a distinctive mode of thought” set the tone for decades of investigations.

  • Today, definitions still blur the line between preference formation, values, and state behaviors.

  • Strategic culture interpreted as: a generator of preferences, a vehicle for the perpetuation of values and preferences,and a force of action in revitalization and renewal of these values.

  • Constructivism has not advanced the search for a common definition.

  • Ontological agnosticism may not provide a sufficient base for theory-building in strategic cultural studies.

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2. Explore the Origins of Strategic Culture

Potential Sources of Strategic Culture:


Geography Historical ExperienceMyths and Symbols

ClimatePolitical SystemDefining Texts

Natural Resources Elite BeliefsGenerat’l ChangeMilitary OrganizationsTechnology

<-------------------{Transnational Normative Pressures}-------------------->

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3. Identify the Keepers of Strategic Culture

  • Culture is a set of shared assumptions and decision rules.

  • But how are they maintained, and by whom?

  • Properties of collectives versus individuals?

  • Studies of policy discourse mean that culture is best characterized as a “negotiated reality” among elites.

  • Leaders respect deeply held convictions, but may choose when and where to stake claims of strategic cultural traditions.

  • Leaders decide when and where to consciously move beyond previous boundaries of acceptability in foreign policy behavior.

  • Perhaps leaders are strategic “users of culture”who “redefine the limits of the possible” in key foreign and security policy discourses.

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A Hierarchy of Strategic Culture?





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Identify Scope Conditions for Strategic Culture

  • What types of actors are most likely to have defined strategic cultures?

  • Does the literature imply that authoritarian systems more likely to have defined strategic cultures than are democratic systems?

  • Are authoritarian systems simply less likely to have definable strategic subcultures?

  • Can non-state actors have strategic cultures?

  • Can regional organizations or meta-cultural groups have some form of strategic culture?

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Authoritarian Strategic Cultures

  • Most studies focus on authoritarian states, implying that there are more measurable strains of strategic culture manifest in rigorous political ideology, doctrine, and discourse.

  • Studies of the North Korean ideology of self-reliance (Juche)

  • Iranian strategic culture is also rooted in a nearly 3000-year history of Persian civilization which lends itself to a fascinating combination of “cultural superiority,” “manifest destiny” and Iran’s “deep sense of insecurity.”

  • Greg Giles argues that “specific attributes of Shi’ism, which was adopted by Persia in the sixteenth century, both reinforce and expand certain traits in Iranian strategic culture” (2003).

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Scope Conditions for Strategic Culture

  • Kartchner (2006) has hypothesized, for example, that there is a set of conditions that may enable strategic culture to play a more dominant role in state behavior, including:

  • When there is a strong sense of threat to a group’s existence, identity or resources, or when the group believes that it is at a critical disadvantage to other groups.

  • When there is a pre-existing strong cultural basis for group identity; when the leadership frequently resorts to cultural symbols in support of its national group security aspirations and programs;

  • When there is a high degree of homogeneity within the group’s strategic culture;

  • When historical experiences strongly predispose the group to perceive threats.

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Non-State Actors? Supranational Actors? Transnational Terror Networks?

  • Can the European Union (EU) establish a strategic culture?

  • Can the concept of strategic culture apply to non-state actors operating across territorial boundaries where identities may be formed in the realm of cyberspace?

  • Cha: “The most far-reaching security effect of globalization is its complication of the basic concept of ‘threat’ in international relations” (2000).

  • Technology enhances “the salience of substate extremist groups or fundamentalist groups because their ability to organize transnationally.”

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5. Develop Models of Strategic Cultural Change

  • The focus of most studies of strategic culture is on continuity.

  • An intriguing characteristic of the latest generation of cultural studies, however, is recognition of the possibility of change over time.

  • Informed by studies of foreign policy restructuring and constructivist ideas on foreign policy as discourse.

  • Also a response to the criticism of prior generations of cultural models as static and unresponsive to systemic pressures.

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Conditions for Strategic Cultural Change

  • Under what conditions can strategic culture change? When might foreign policy decisions transcend the traditional bounds of strategic culture?

  • In my own work on the subject, I contend that at least two conditions can cause “strategic cultural dilemmas” and produce changes in security policy:

  • First, external: shocks challenge existing beliefs and undermine past historical narratives:

    Germany and the Balkans, 1990s

    September 11, 2001

    Aftermath of War in Iraq

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Strategic Cultural Dissonance

  • Dissonance may occur when primary tenets of strategic thought come into direct conflict with one another.

  • For example, a country with interpretive codes of support for human rights and an aversion to the use of military force.

  • In a recent study, Cruz argues that in special circumstances, elites have incredible latitude to “redefine the limits of the possible, both descriptively and prescriptively.”

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The Way Forward?

  • A modest goal: bringing culture back in to the study of national security policy.

  • Scholars must work to overcome barriers to integration of these contending approaches.

  • One of these is a certain defensiveness on the part of neorealists, who contend that culturalists (and constructivists) simply seek to supplant neorealism.

  • Constructivism also has limitations.

  • How far can strategic cultural models can stretch while retaining any sort of legitimacy?

  • Some recent studies consciously reject the need for rigor in their approach; some deftly avoid the advancement of middle-range theory.

  • But as Jeffrey Checkel warns us, culturalists and constructivists need to be very careful about the emergent “empirical ad hocism.”

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