The ‘prose’ vs ‘essence’ of strategy

There’s always a danger of the prose of strategy overriding its substance. This review of Ron Robin’s fascinating book highlights how brilliant thinkers can become captive to such false cognates.

“Powerful nations and empires enjoy a certain luxury in how they make decisions. Herodotus tells of how the Persians, when confronted with a question of foreign policy, would first consider the problem sober, then consider it again when they were drunk. A courtier aiming to sway Louis XVI could not rely on appeal to necessity; counsel had to be laced with wit. Bon mots, wisecracks, and puns ruled the day.

If you are tempted to think that the United States operates in a more reasonable fashion, Ron Robin’s The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter will disabuse you. The Pentagon is no more immune to claims of form and style than was Versailles.

Robin’s book is about a rabid form of foreign-policy thinking that speaks with placid assurance about “reality,” that presents itself as “pre-emptive” but takes the form of outright aggression, that claims to be “strategic,” but is often more enamored of tactics than actual strategy.”


A Culture of Growth by Mokyr

Mokyr’s fascinating take on institutions and ideas:

Why did modern science emerge in the West and nowhere else? Although Mokyr studies the early modern period, the cultural roots of scientific thought may in fact lay further in the past. The Western tradition—with its Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman elements—was inherently fractured and unstable to begin with. The cultural synthesis of the High Middle Ages, which combined Christian religious beliefs with rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, was an uneasy melding of dogma, reason, and appeals to authority. Then, in the early modern period, a number of sweeping developments (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas, and the invention of modern scientific instruments) shattered the convictions behind Europeans’ existing conceptual system, leading to widespread doubt and controversy.

Yet in the long run, fundamental skepticism is not a practical worldview. Doubt led to a crisis of the early modern European mind, which helps explain why the pioneers of early modern science, such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, made such a sustained effort to establish the scientific method as a new foundation for knowledge—one based on empirical observation, experimentation, and reason. In a world, moreover, that was often ravaged by violent conflict, these men put an emphasis on developing peaceful and reasonable ways of settling disagreements, such as by subjecting arguments to public debate and experimental confirmation or disconfirmation.

Mokyr repeatedly stresses that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of modern science: cultural traditionalists were certainly not doomed to lose. This is where the enlightened elite was so critical; although Enlightenment thinking was always a minority viewpoint, in early modern Europe, it was one held by a culturally influential elite. This elite became convinced that general progress through increased knowledge was both possible and desirable and that their new knowledge, obtained through the methods of science, should be spread in order to enlighten the people. “Cultural entrepreneurs,” as Mokyr calls them—people such as Bacon and Newton—were especially successful in promoting their scientific views, a rather surprising success considering that science, in its early years, not only was counterintuitive but also often failed to produce any practical results.

For Mokyr, then, the key development in early modern Europe was what he calls “the market for ideas,” in which intellectual suppression was difficult and better rewards for intellectual innovation were developed. Protective institutions in which ideas could be discussed, and through which they were ultimately spread, flourished. One of the most important institutions for this market was “the Republic of Letters.” This republic, which developed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a nonhierarchical, transnational community of scholars who corresponded with one another about new developments in the arts and sciences. The republic created a social arena in which reputations were built on the development and dissemination of new knowledge, knowledge that other people could test, contest, and use. It had an organizational infrastructure of universities, learned societies, and salons, and it profited enormously from the development of a pan-European network of publishers, booksellers, and postal services following the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century.

The market for ideas that Mokyr describes was pluralistic and politically fractured yet at the same time intellectually integrated. It was therefore difficult to suppress offending ideas, since scholars could always offer such ideas to the highest bidder, ranging from the rulers of states to local entities such as towns, universities, guilds, or estates. The Republic of Letters, as Mokyr emphasizes, was a uniquely European phenomenon. Mokyr compares developments in Europe with those in China. Although China was highly advanced in many regards, no comparable culture of growth ever developed there, in part because it lacked a true market for ideas. That was a result of China’s political structure: China was a bureaucratically centralized empire that was much more effective than Europe’s competing states in enforcing ideological orthodoxy.

The real failure of imagination?

Interesting thoughts by Hew Strachan:

“Strategists, for all their pontifications about the future, have failed on two counts. First, they have become too politically aware in their views. Politicians need to buttress current institutions, and in doing so feed the narrative that the institutions are robust and reliable, despite their need for reform and reinvigoration. Strategists need to be tougher, and to speak truth to power. Since the end of the Cold War, geopolitical pressures have taken the common ideologies of the “west” — democracy and liberal capitalism — in divergent geographical directions. Globalization, for all its rhetorical flourishes, has mattered less than regionalism. The United States has turned from the North Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific and East Asia. Meanwhile Europeans are driven by an opportunistic Russia and a flood of refugees to look to their eastern marches and the Mediterranean.

Secondly, strategists have failed because they have allowed their understanding of strategy to be dominated by their commitment to the status quo. Strategy has become obsessed with the mitigation of risk and the minimization of threats, rather than with the exploitation of the opportunities which risk presents. Strategy has to respond to and even initiate contingency, not to be fearful of it. Both the Brexit vote and the election of Trump amplify the risks which we face, but they also — like Hans Christian Andersen’s child — expose the emperor’s nakedness. We shall not master risk if we do not also embrace it.

What Gen. Mattis’s favorite strategist thinks about the election of Trump

Mind the gap…

Interesting piece that the theory-practice gap arises from tensions within academia…

“What about this topic is attracting so much attention? And what is significant about the attention it is getting? Many of the articles suggest reasons for the gap. One reason is that the ways academics and practitioners think about many issues is very different. A second is that academics’ time horizons are much longer than practitioners; while practitioners often need to make decisions quickly, academic research typically takes a much longer time.  Yet another is that academics and practitioners use different types of communication styles; the language in academic articles often isn’t very readable by practitioners. Next, while some groups of academics advocate strongly that in order to be rigorous, research cannot be relevant, other academics counter that rigor and relevance are very compatible.  Finally, academia and management practice often have different incentives. Publishing a scholarly article is more of an incentive for an academic than a practitioner, while solving a particularly crucial business problem is more of an incentive to a practitioner. …

We believe that the gap is actually a surface manifestation of deep tensions that are present among academics.  We noted earlier that there is often conflict about the gap between particular academic tribes.  These tribes are scholarly communities for academics, and one of the ways the academics signal their belonging in their tribe is in their claims about the gap and what should be done.  Thus, discussion of the gap often signals underlying tensions about how much and where particular academics feel they belong or not.  It also signals ongoing underlying tensions about performance, due to frequent disagreements between academic tribes regarding what the focus of scholarly work should be.”