Day: June 23, 2011

Sleepwalking Towards Strategy

Must strategy be named to be practiced? Nowadays we tend to look for strategy as something that folk write down and codify. We live in logocentric times, where strategy is linked to formal declaratory documents, advisory councils and institutions dedicated to thinking about how to relate our power and our commitments, our resources and our goals.
Of course, that dubious definition would disqualify all sorts of states from having a grand strategy, when the historical record suggests that in fact, their leaders were attempting to prioritise and rank effort, allocate resources to deal with competing demands, and orchestrate ends ways and means to keep the show on the road.

Even those who don’t think they ‘do’ strategy may still be doing it. This question arises as competing interpretations of the Clinton Presidency emerge, in particular its first term. One major judgment against the Clinton years was that on his watch, the US lacked a grand strategy of any kind. It was an ‘Eagle Adrift’ (though compared to the dogmatic certitudes and ideological fundamentalism of the Bush years after 9/11, some might be nostalgic for a time when we didn’t know exactly where we were headed). This was a President who came to Washingtonmainly interested in domestic affairs, who won his mandate by persuading others that it was about the economy, stupid, not George Bush Senior’s statecraft in the Gulf.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis summarises this moment of drift and empty slogans:
The Clinton administration spoke of “enlargement” and “engagement,” without specifying what was to be “enlarged” or who was to be “engaged.” It was a bad sign when President Clinton assured an aide in 1994 that Roosevelt and Truman had gotten along fine without grand strategies. They’d just made it up as they went along, and he didn’t see why he couldn’t do the same.
But grand strategies need not be the brainchild of one ruler’s mind. They can often be the cumulative creation of a wider political culture, a body of assumptions and shared myths – not to mention a convenient stock of ideas to use and abuse. Even ifClintonthought he was just making it up rather than following an overarching vision, there is arguably a different pattern to be found.
 Clintonenlarged NATO. He eventually had US forces intervene in the Balkans. Though he introduced cuts, he also sought to sustain an overwhelming military edge against potential competitors. He saw China-Taiwan relations, and the political order in East Asia, asAmerica’s business. He didn’t extract theUSfrom the Gulf. And despite his private dismissals of grand strategy, he still articulated a national security strategy in which theUSsecures itself by remaking the world in its own image, an idea that underlay all the policy moves above.
In other words, a ruler or regime that subjectively believes it has no grand strategy may well be objectively following the logic of one that it inherits. The grand strategic assumptions may be so familiar and powerful that it is mistaken for mere ‘common sense’, when it is a strong ideology that intervenes to define how the new masters define the nation’s interests. If we think of grand strategy not as a rigid plan but as a general (even loose) conception of how to relate the state’s interests with its power, the Clinton years should be seen not as a strategic vacuum of random drift, but as the consolidation of assumptions about America’s role in the post Cold War era, as the unchallengeable guardian of world order. Clinton’s diplomacy wasn’t so chaotic after all.

(Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer). 

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Friday Nerdism, A Day Early

Charli Carpenter has thrown down the gauntlet.  She has pondered (on facebook) whether/why IR folks have not been blogging about Game of Thrones.  Why?  Because we are tired.  Every episode is such great TV that we are left in awe.  Our brains are so focused on getting the names straight, understanding the dynamics within each family and between them, that we no brainpower left to use.

Spoilers lurk below:


Ok, that was an excuse.  The real reason is that I have not read the books yet, so my spelling of all of the names would suck.  But, let me use some simple IR theory to predict the next season’s key patterns (note that I am completely ignorant of what will happen since, again, I have not read the books).

First, we ought to see some balance of power dynamics with the various contenders shifting alliances.  We now have multiple contenders for throne: the Winterfell folks led by Robb, whatever forces Dany can bring together with her cute dragons, the two different brothers of the dead king, the Lannisters (easy to spot with their blond hair–and Charli is, suspiciously blond), and who else?  So, we might see King Robb ultimately bargain with Dany to join forces against the Lannisters, with Robb seeking a promise of allowing the north to secede.  If Dany is a rational actor, seeking to maximize her chances of successfully taking the throne, then she might go for this.  Of course, each side will face the problem of credible commitment as alliance partners often betray each other.  Once Dany wins (if she does), she could easily renege and refuse to recognize Winterfell’s independence.  It would not be the first time that a secessionist movement is betrayed.  (More on the IR of ethnic conflict applied down the road).

Second, there are other actors out there that might become greater threats.  Dany soon, yes, but then the walkers.  The Wall and the Rangers may not be enough to contain them.  Could perhaps an alliance be formed among the various forces when the Zombie threat becomes too great?  Drezner raises this possibility but presents too many theories for us to be certain.

Third, does democratic peace apply at all?  None of the actors has anything close to democracy (unless the Walkers have a representative political system, which I doubt).  But clearly Robb’s forces have willingly given consent to his leadership.  He originally compelled them via obligation, but now they have chosen (too much mead?) to give support to his secessionist effort.  So, if we focus on normative democratic peace arguments (as opposed to those focusing on structures or transparency), we might see what?  Well, given the absence of pseudo-democratic partners, um, never mind?

Fourth, first level analyses that focus on cognition and decision-making may be most appropriate because we have several actors that seem to be relatively unconstrained by institutions and norms.  Dany has only her dragons and a small coterie of ex-slaves and fallen horse folks, and she is in an alien world.  She does not know enough about the dragon past to have any clear set of normative restrictions and the identity is still pretty weak (what is implied by been a Dragon Queen in terms of adversaries, appropriate behavior and such?), so it is likely that her emotions (revenge for the assassination attempt) will drive her on.   Ned, late Ned, was imprisoned by his worldview.  The boy king is too young and too spoiled to buy into what is appropriate (no intersubjective identities and norms constraining him), demonstrated by rubbing his future consort’s face in the death of her father.  I am not sure that the Hand (Tyrian) will be able to restrain him, but, then again, the boy can be easily manipulated, right?

I will, for the moment, not apply constructivism since my previous musings at the Duck have proven that I am lousy constructivist.  I will say that identities matter. much in all of this  “A Lannister pays his debts.”  Ned and his honor.  That the ties of kinship bind the alliances thus far.  As I would expect.  But identities can be complex, containing multiple threads.  Will conflicting imperatives arise from a complex set of identities? Thus far, the only characters I can think of who fit this are Jon Snow (a semi-Stark and a Ranger) and Sansa (a Stark and soon to be married into the Lannisters).  Who else?  Oh, the bastard of the old King?  Hmmm.

As I have to catch upon on Obama’s Decision (almost as significant as Lebron’s), that is all for now, but please suggest to me alternative ways to apply IR theory.

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