Le’ Notes #1: Strategic Culture, Geography, and Politics

This post covers the essentials on strategic culture and its links with geography and politics.

To make sense of the world, we need a pair of glasses. Glasses have two lenses, otherwise, you would lack depth perception. This analogy also holds true when we’re discussing defense/security policy. Policymakers need a “pair of glasses” that allows them to make sense of the world around them. One of those many glasses is strategic culture.

It would be dangerous to assume that Soviet crisis decisionmakers will tailor their behavior to American notions of strategic rationality. – Synder, J.

We can trace back strategic culture to the work of Jack Synder (1977) [PDF], who first argued that the Soviets would not concede to any form of limited bargaining when it came to nuclear weapons. Synder argued that since the Soviets have had a long history of being invaded, their policymakers had a “Never again” mindset, which influences their strategic decision-making. The Soviets would never allow any city to be destroyed by American nukes. Furthermore, Synder also argued that there was a tendency for the Soviets to go on a full pre-emptive strike if it even caught a glimpse of an American missile. All in all, Snyder thought that since the Soviets had a different strategic culture to the Americans, they would have different strategic behavior.

Synder’s “strategic culture” then gave rise to more studies of strategic culture after the Cold War subsided. Early thinkers, such as Colin S. Gray [paywall] and Yitzhak Klein [paywall] then began to develop the idea further.

Klein defined strategic culture as:

…habits of thought and action (political, strategic, operational, tactical, or some combination of these) of particular national military establishments. (p. 4)

Klein mostly focuses on strategic culture as a uniting paradigm in strategic planning. Since there are so many elements to national security and defence, these elements need to be united by a coherent vision. Strategic culture is one way to bridge politics and military, to balance ends and means.

Gray proposed that geography would be the overarching determinant of strategic culture. Since geography has a certain physicality to it, states would have no other choice than to construct their strategic decisions based on the geography surrounding them. So, a continental power would be better off focusing on developing land forces compared to seapower.

Adding to Gray’s geography hypothesis, the Indian strategist, Kautilya, also proposed a theory of mandalas. The state nearest to you, the one that borders you directly, would be your “natural enemy”. While the outermost state or circle would be your “natural ally”. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Depending on how belligerent (or as belligerent as you perceive them to be) your neighbours, there is a possibility for all concentric circles to work together as a security community.

Kautilya’s Mandalas (source)

Kautilya’s mandala theory adds a new dimension to the geography perspective of strategic culture. States that border one another tend to have more wars, as seen in Europe. Their strategic cultures would be geared towards war. A state that is located far from other states, like insular Japan, could have a strategic culture that is more isolationist and reluctant to engage in outside conflict. So, there is also a geostrategic component to strategic culture.

Moving on to more contemporary examples, Johnston [paywall] provides an expanded definition of strategic culture:

Strategic culture is an integrated  ”system of symbols (e.g., argumentation structures, languages, analogies, metaphors) which acts to establish pervasive and long lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.

Look at how Johnston expanded the concept of strategic culture. Johnston included a “system of symbols”. This refers to the cultural parts of a society and more often than not, history and values, which helps them form basic assumptions about their environment. Supposedly, these symbols form the strategic preferences for states. In other words, a combination of culture, values, and history provides a basic guideline of what is what and who is who. Furthermore, states go further to justify these strategic preferences using whatever they can, such as propaganda.

To put this in an example, a Singaporean strategic culture would be formed by a certain awareness of being a really tiny island amidst really huge states such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and a history of colonialism and strife. As an effect of growing up in these situations, a Singaporean strategic culture would put much emphasis on self-reliance, total defence, and a degree of suspicion towards its neighbours.

Johnston also sets up a mechanism to determine whether or not a strategic culture exists, which can be grossly simplified as the following:

  1. First, pick a certain time frame in a society’s history. Then, find out their “ranked strategic preferences” through research.
  2. Second, pick another time frame in that history. Compare the ranked strategic preferences.
  3. If the preferences remain the same, there might a strategic culture present. If not, then there might not be a strategic culture.

However, Johnston also advises us that sometimes, strategic culture has no effect on strategic behaviour. This is a given, since there are so many factors involved in strategic behaviour.

What happens when history changes?

…was my question during the lecture. Strategic culture is mostly constructed by bricks from historical and cultural values. However, when a contending historical perspective arises, it becomes a political battle to push for the status quo. Depending on the outcome, there might be changes to a strategic culture as a new narrative is accepted, but there might not be.

As a case, it has been long accepted that the strategic culture of Indonesia is inward-looking and obsessed with protection from separatists. This view was mainly held by the Indonesian Army, who for years since independence, fought against separatists across the archipelago. Now, what happens when this inward-looking posture is challenged by a new narrative, one that emphasizes Indonesia’s ancient maritime regime? It becomes a political battle between policymakers and other stakeholders to determine whether or not a new strategic culture is required.

The bells ring… and open questions

  • Strategic culture is one of the ways policymakers and strategists make sense of the world they live in. It helps them formulate their strategic behaviour and often guides them in their interactions with other states.
  • Strategic culture is mostly influenced by geography and history. However, a degree of politics also influences strategic behaviour.
  • Strategic culture can change or might not exist. There is also a possibility of two states having similar strategic cultures due to proximity or other factors.

And some open questions that I still have:

  • What are the limits of strategic culture in determining state strategic behaviour?
  • Is strategic culture a reliable tool in examining state behaviour, or is it too loosely-defined?

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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