Reflecting on Jhonston’s ” Thinking about Strategic Culture “

Firstly this paper is indeed a great attempt to categorize the different paradigms of thinking in to strategic culture and to an extent it was successful to classify the available literature in three generations, and the author has also tried to move beyond and propose a new analytical method and also has suggested a methodology to be used for the proposed technique.

Predictably the author starts by juxtaposing the strategic behavior of US and Soviet that emanated from their respective cultures within the context of cold war. With no past civilization, incidents that happened in the last 50 years or so are indeed used as a historical setting when it comes to American Strategic Thinking. The lack of knowledge of historical and cultural moorings of Soviets has made Americans to assume that Soviets will react in a way Americans expected them to, given the same set of choices. But actually Soviets have not done that.

It is certainly to an extent correct to argue that Soviet Strategic culture depends mostly on pre-emptive attack and where as American Strategic Culture is mostly seen as messianic. The recent examples of Russian intervention in the Georgian crisis with respect to saving the South Ossetia from Georgian excesses and also the intervention of Russia in the crises of Crimea just proves the point. Whereas the approach of Americans was always wait and watch. The 9/11 is indeed an outlier, they have reacted in a way which they did when the attack was so severe in nature.

The categorization of the available literature in to three generations is appropriate. The first generation talks about any country’s strategic culture as a set of belief systems and codes which could be traced back to the historical, social, philosophical and ideological roots, in some settings they could be different entities (Social, Philosophical & Ideological) but in some cases all could be same. In some cases it may be the case where states have abandoned the old practices (ie, culture) and adapted to the new ones based on emerging situations, though this process is a lengthiest one. Let’s take the example of Israel, historically they were persecuted worldwide because of their religious association, but were taken care of in India. Most of their policy approach towards India is based on this historical experience. Their strategic thinking is anchored on some the historical events such as these. Policies like “Never negotiate with a terrorist “for example does come up with such historical roots. It is because of the lack of information or knowledge of political opponent’s cultural moorings, which made the Americans tick in their negotiations with Soviets, though it is a different story that Soviet was disintegrated at the end of cold war.

As highlighted it is important to note that the first generation literature has suggested the one jacket fits all approach and it was also vague and overstretched in its approach. I.e., in assessing a strategic culture of an entity every component under the sun needed to be taken in to consideration, i.e. Historical, anthropological, sociological, political, cultural, and institutional and others. With such a wide focus it is impossible to arrive at any meaningful assessment within a reasonable amount of time.

Then there comes the categorization of certain type of literature as second generation. This in principle rejects the cultural and historical basis to strategic culture as irrational. In my opinion such an assertion is an over simplification and problematic too. It is indeed convincing to note that the author also highlighted that given the same circumstances different states will act differently, and irrational choice for one can be a rational to the other. It is important to note that this realization was not there when Americans coined MAD based deterrence theories. The second generation literature also suggests that socialization of elites in different sociological settings has an impact on what decision or direction a state takes when given certain strategic choices. This is very true. Given the turbulence which India underwent in the run up to partition, Sardar Patel would have acted differently than that of Nehru as a leader. Situation was the same, but the involvement of two different leaders would have produced two different results. This explains the kind of socialization process these leaders have gone through. As a Prime Minster Narendra Modi will not take certain decisions which Manmohan Singh would have taken.

Author also explains that the assumption of the second generation literature is that most of the times leaders say one thing and do the other. This may not be the case with Democratic setups where personal beliefs of the new incumbent may have to take a back seat, because there are certain established procedures and norms, and it is a tedious process to bypass all of them easily. Take for example the procedure to amend the US Constitution, it is highly rigid and for that matter amending the Japanese constitution is next to impossible. Even if a particular leader might have come up from a process of socialization which believes that certain sections of constitution has to be removed, unless there is an overwhelming consensus for that, they cannot be removed or altered based on the will of a single leader or a coterie. In India too basic structure of constitution comes in to place.

But institutional constraints will come in the way of a leader only in democratic societies & other liberal democracies, this is never the case with dictatorial and theocratic regimes, say for example North Korea, Sadat’s Egypt or Gaddafi’s Libya. In those setup’s will of the leader is will of the state. May be that is why two democracies will never engage in war with each other (Democratic Peace Theory), but prefer to settle the differences through dialogue.

In addition to that this facet also talks about the fact that though there are some strategic choices which are guided by historical and cultural experience, states tend to change their culture based on the recent experience at times. For example America’s in particular and west in general their stated philosophy is to spread the democracy through whatever may be the means including through military if possible. But then ever since the launch of Global war on terror, due to economic strain in many of the member countries of NATO, there is an enormous pressure of public opinion to withdraw the troops from this entanglement, in this direction there are more than few member countries of NATO from Europe have already with drawn from Afghan war and the time table for the complete withdrawal of American forces has already been drawn and it is being executed as devised.

The assumption of the third generation literature is that the strategic culture of an organized entity is less rooted in history but based on the experiences of the recent past. In that way it is correct to suggest that the third generations represent the best parts of the previous two generations and leaves out the weaknesses.

The paper ends with suggesting that analytic approach should be employed in identifying the strategic choices of states and for this we need to look for symbols in human behavior in social psychology, anthropology, organizational culture, and linguistics. This is not only a long drawn but a tedious task to accomplish, unless this is looked in to within a specified and manageable timeline. Hence it is appropriate to say that with little tinkering in the third generation and simplifying the methodology, the thinkers on the lines of third generation can do a great contribution to the existing body of knowledge on Strategic Culture.

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