Critical Strategic Studies, or Where Are the Peace Strategists?

16 December 2022, 2000 EST

We need a critical strategic studies, or maybe a strategic peace studies.  

Critical security studies, of course, is a venerable research tradition that I sometimes identify with. There are also scattered references to the phrase “critical strategic studies” out there in the literature, though it appears to be synonymous with critical security studies. And there is a pretty robust peace studies and “conflict resolution” program within international relations. 

But it’s the synthesis of peacemaking, strategy, and critical analysis that lacks its own banner under which to rally.

As far as I know, there is no coherent program of research grounded in not just critiques of power structures and the beliefs that underpin them, but also a normative commitment to something resembling antimilitarism and policy relevance on matters of “high politics.” This is increasingly the kind of work I do. Yet I’m not so sure that others—especially critical scholars—would recognize it as being in the analytical register of critical security.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call a thing. Maybe there’s no way to establish boundaries demarcating different flavors of security research anyway. But branding can be a way of consolidating knowledge, creating associations, and determining whom you want to be in dialogue with. And the boundaries separating strategic studies and positivist security studies are very fuzzy, yet denote distinctly florid sub-fields anyway. So there must be something to having a label.

I teach in a graduate-level strategic studies degree program, but also offer a huge freshman course (~200 students) every year called Intro to Security Studies. The latter is a mix of positive and critical perspectives geared toward policy analysis. Students quite reasonably ask what the difference is between the strategic and security studies curriculum, whether studying security is an on-ramp to studying strategy, and whether strategic studies is where you must end up if you’re interested in security. 

I don’t have good answers to these questions, but there are very clear tendencies separating strategic and security studies that I try to convey. The former is more historically grounded, qualitative, and more likely to reach for classical thinkers and make sense of set-piece battles. As Colin Gray once asserted, “If Thucydides, Sun-Tzu, and Clausewitz Did Not Say It, It is Probably Not Worth Saying” (this is a ludicrous statement, but revealing in its stupidity). 

Security studies, by contrast, tends to be more scientistic, quantitative, and oriented toward political-military affairs rather than war per se. (I should also note that there’s cultural variation on what these labels mean too—in New Zealand, for example, the subjects covered in strategic studies almost entirely fall within what counts as security studies in the United States.)

These are stylized differences and there are many exceptions, yet communities of knowledge and practice (and funding…) have coalesced around strategic and positivist security studies as distinct poles. 

Critical security studies tends to break from positivist security studies in a number of ways. First, it’s not scientistically inflected the way positivist security studies is, and favors methods like ethnography, immanent critique, and causal layered analysis over moneyballing and multivariate regressions. Second, it embraces insights from political philosophy and social theory with a zeal that matches a strategic studies scholar’s fondness for Clausewitz. Most importantly, third, the greater proportion of critical security research focuses not on war in any conventional sense but rather “non-traditional security,” reconceptualizing security in a manner that broadens the range of phenomena studied through a security lens and/or focuses on the security of individuals rather than nations.

But—and forgive me for possibly overgeneralizing—critical security studies is not oriented toward policy relevance per se. In my lifetime, attempts to “bridge the gap” between theory and policy have been the sole province of positivist security studies and IR. 

In critical security studies, the analytical move of critiquing a concept or policy choice and leaving it at that is far more common than the two-part move of critique and rescue. There is no “bridge the gap” initiative for critical scholars. Other than a relatively new (and very promising) network called Security in Context, there is not even a clearinghouse or associational site for analysts that seek to generate policy advice from a place of criticism and root-cause thinking, or with an explicit aim of challenging militarism in its various forms. 

But if you go back far enough in time to work by folks as intellectually diverse as Kenneth Boulding, Charles Osgood, C. Wright Mills, and even Hans Morgenthau (the 2.0 version), you find that their analysis was addressing itself directly to questions about what to do with state power. Their arguments were methodologically agnostic and grounded in critiques of prevailing ideas. And they were normatively committed to a vision of a less militarized national security state (or no national security state at all). 

In the 1980s, moreover, there was a rich accumulation of research referred to as “non-offensive defense.” It generated concepts proposing how to manipulate defense budgets, force posture, and military doctrine in ways that not only reduced risks of rivalry, crisis, and war but also created openings to bolster cooperation spirals and consolidate peace. 

Policymakers need more ideas like these, and they’re painfully absent from both think tank discourses and security-related academic journals. Like strategic studies, they focus on generating advice for the policy practitioner, and intervene in debates about the “high politics” of guns, bombs, and war. But like critical security studies, their concepts are informed by a normative commitment to something we might call antimilitarism, and build their logical, policy-digestible constructs out of critiques that show how power works. 

Critical strategic studies. Or strategic peace studies. Let’s go.

This is cross-posted at Van’s newsletter.