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Strategic Culture and Threat Assessment


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Title: Strategic Culture and Threat Assessment

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

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 enemys morale.
  • National character studies in World War II
  • Russell Weigley, The American Way of Warfare
  • Jack Snyders work on Soviet nuclear strategy

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 Koreas drive for nuclear weapons
  • Struggle to consolidate Iraqi democracy
  • Muslim protests over Danish cartoons
  • New arenas in the war on terror

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?

Early Studies of Culture and Politics
  • National character studies of 1940s and 1950s
    Ruth Benedicts The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
    (Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
  • Early work defined the roots of a nations
    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

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
  • Beliefs and values including
  • a commitment to democratic principles and
  • 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

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.

Strategic Culture Rediscovered The Rise of
  • In the 1990s, a third generation of scholarly
    work reasserted the utility of cultural
  • 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).

Constructivism and Cultural Studies
  • The constructivist research program focuses on
    identity formation, with connections to
    organizational process, history, tradition, and
  • Special attention to the role of norms in
    international security. For more detailed studies
    of norms in world politics.
  • Tannenwalds studies of the nuclear taboo and the
    norm of non-proliferation (Spring 2005).
  • Legros work on military restraint during World
    War II.

Third Generation Studies
  • Alastair Iain Johnstons 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.

Germany, Japan, and Organizational Culture
  • Thomas Berger focuses on antimilitarist
    political-military cultures to explain patterns
    in these countries foreign policy behaviors.
  • Banchoffs path-dependent model of German
    foreign policy.
  • To John Duffield, the 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?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).

Nuclear Norms and Taboos
  • The study of security norms lies at the
    intersection of culturalist and constructivist
  • 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.

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
  • 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.

Areas for Further Attention
  • Seeking a common definition
  • Delineation of the ways that strategic culture is
    created, maintained, and passed on to new
  • The question of the universality of strategic
  • 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.

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

Develop Common Definitions
  • Snyders 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
  • 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.

2. Explore the Origins of Strategic Culture
  • Potential Sources of Strategic Culture
  • Physical Political Social/Cultural
  • Geography Historical Experience Myths and
  • Climate Political System Defining Texts
  • Natural Resources Elite Beliefs Generatl
    Change Military Organizations Technology
  • lt-------------------Transnational Normative

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.

A Hierarchy of Strategic Culture?

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?

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
    Irans deep sense of insecurity.
  • Greg Giles argues that specific attributes of
    Shiism, which was adopted by Persia in the
    sixteenth century, both reinforce and expand
    certain traits in Iranian strategic culture

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

Non-State Actors? Supranational Actors?
Transnational Terror Networks?
  • Can the European Union (EU) establish a strategic
  • 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
  • Technology enhances the salience of substate
    extremist groups or fundamentalist groups because
    their ability to organize transnationally.

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
  • 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.

Conditions for Strategic Cultural Change
  • Under what conditions can strategic culture
    change? When might foreign policy decisions
    transcend the traditional bounds of strategic
  • 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

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.

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.