American Strategy’s Conceptual Muddle

Mark Safranski and I have an article at Small Wars Journal on why post-9/11 strategy’s conceptual muddle has led to confusion and the need to substitute operational methodologies for foreign policy.


No Carriers, No Problem

Defense correspondent Toshi Yoshihara and Naval War College professor James Holmes have a timely piece on Chinese preparations for cross-strait war:

“China does not need to compete symmetrically or across the globe to challenge US staying power in Asia, which Washington considers the main theater. That Beijing cannot fight the United States in a one-on-one contest in the Pacific says little about the strains the PLAN can impose on US naval forces short of an all-out sea battle.”

China is maximizing cheap technologies such as missiles to provide a defensive umbrella for its units in a Taiwan theater contest. Meanwhile, the gap in capabilities between US technologies and emerging Chinese technologies is steadily eroding. This is not necessarily a new point, as focus on “anti-access” weapons has been a staple of US strategic analysis of China since the mid-1990s. The larger question–which is open for debate–over whether carriers are, as the authors termed it, “wasting assets,” and that China can effectively contest sea control in Asia beyond nearby waters.

The Imperial Meme

Tell ’em how you really feel, Joshua Foust:

“Afghanistan in 2009 is not Afghanistan in 1839. If a Russian looked at American Civil War history and used that as a justification for some kind of policy toward America, he’d be laughed out of the planning session. Why we think it’s okay to look 160 years into our past for ideas for Afghanistan, when we can look to the 1990s and 2000s is beyond my ability to understand.”

Foust is right. A deep knowledge of historical trends and political cultures in a state can be used as a means of understanding it. But extrapolating from a sole data point 160 years ago to create plans for foreign policy is questionable at best. The enthusiasm, however, for looking at British solutions is not likely to go away. If comparing America to Rome was all the rage in 2002-2003, the implicit foreign policy meme is that the US is Britain during the “Indian Summer” of the late 19th century. While there are many similarities to the US and Britain (e.g. both are primarily sea powers), we should not take the metaphor too far.


RTJ editor Mark Mateski asks:

“I want to consider the goal of achieving non-linear effects consistently. Does it work in the real world? Sometimes it does, certainly, but for all the papers and presentations trumpeting the advantages of non-linear strategies, my sense is that consistent success remains elusive. This is despite the fact that current U.S. strategists and leaders have been raised on complexity, systems perspectives, RMA, transformation, and effects-based operations. I would guess that for every thousand strategists who read Sun Tzu, fewer than a hundred can implement the principles effectively and consistently outside of the classroom. Why? Good strategy is never a checklist exercise. Context counts, and it changes. Even the best strategist is susceptible to biases. Incomplete information, deception, the fog of war–the list of challenges is long and daunting. … So, what’s the answer? What can we do that we’re not doing already to generate better real-world strategies?”

Mateski is making an extremely valuable point about problems with non-linear effects. There are two things at play here.The first is that, as both Jomini and Clausewitz agreed, individuals who can draft and apply effective strategies are extremely rare. Studying strategy is worlds away from implementing it and designing it. In fact, the perilous thing, as Joseph Fouche memorably noted, is that study of strategy and geopolitics can even create a narrower view for the “geopolitical nerd”:

“He suffers from a contradiction: he can see the narrow slices of reality that he specializes in exquisite and even excruciating detail. Unfortunately, he sees the world outside as a mixture of his tiny area of expertise writ large and a land populated by large bright shiny ideals that he can see in all of its fine shades. Based on this perception, he can formulate responses perfectly calibrated to exploit his unique domain knowledge to remake the world in the image of his vision. However, the nerd’s intentions suffer from a major defect: they are usually fatally out of sync with the means available to achieve that vision”

Second, one of Sun Tzu’s fatal flaws (which is shared by complexity, systems methodologies, effects-based ops) is that he emphasizes a level of knowledge and understanding about the world that most do not possesses and will never acquire. In the American context, this is even more galling because of continuing ignorance of other cultures and continuous de-emphasizing of history.