Identity Politics and the Orthodoxies of the National Security Policy Community

16 January 2024, 1215 EST

In 2015, Linus Hagström, a professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, questioned the wisdom of Sweden joining NATO in a coauthored opinion piece. After its publication, some of his colleagues, especially those in the Swedish military, ostracized Hagström. Some even accused him of being a traitor, “running errands” for Russian propaganda, and called for him to be fired.

So what actually happened to Hagström? Simply put, he committed heresy. In the national security policy community, some ideas become orthodoxies in which dissent against them is profane. For many at the Swedish Defence University, one of these ideas was an (until then) unquestioned belief in the idea of NATO membership.

This kind of thing isn’t unusual. Scholars that straddle the policy/academia line always run the risk of running up against national security orthodoxy. Trying to be policy relevant and work directly with practitioners opens this door wide open. Hagström certainly wasn’t the first, and he is unlikely to have been the last.

There are different reinforcing factors as to how these orthodoxies are maintained. Some of it comes from a professional military education system that discourages and even penalizes dissent. Given the role and influence of the armed forces on the national security policy community, this essentially institutionalizes orthodoxy in the war colleges, defense universities, and service academies upon which a significant amount of research access (and funding) relies. 

Orthodoxy can also be maintained by purely social pressures. If you’re teaching in D.C. and occasionally advising the Pentagon or State Department, why burn bridges by diverging widely from policy preferences? Stephen Walt describes this pressure well as, “the more exclusive the company becomes, so the incentive to avoid any steps that might lead to being cast off the heights of Olympus grows ever greater.” Criticizing policy orthodoxy can be the exact kind of misstep that leads a researcher to lose that high-value social access to policymakers.

But what’s the problem?

Orthodoxy leads to bad policy. Policy debates rely on an academic marketplace of ideas where old shibboleths and new breakthroughs can be contested, falsified, and refined. This is not some ivory tower discussion about the value of intellectual diversity. When that marketplace closes, bad policies can result.

When a policy consensus forms around a certain orthodoxy, be it neoconservatives’ belief in regime change or restrainers’ confidence in reducing military presence abroad, dissent starts to get crowded out. This tyranny of consensus strips away the need to consider alternative viewpoints or evidence and new ideas are simply kept out of serious policy discussions.

We can see an anti-China orthodoxy being cemented around the national security community today. Most ‘serious’ think-tanks that directly advise the Pentagon and State Department have built specific programs that exclusively focus on China such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies China Power Project, the Center for a New American Security China Challenge, and the Hudson Institute’s China Center. Even the most casual look into these centers recent publications shows a strongly hawkish bent. Frequent Congressional testimony, alongside hefty funding from major defense contractors and the DoD, ensures a direct line onto policymakers’ desks.

One dogma of the China hawk orthodoxy is that war is inevitable and it will be a quickly escalating, region (and possibly world) wide conflict that will decide the fate of the two nations. This is especially reinforced in wargames that use this narrative. A review of think tank wargames in War on the Rocks found that most wargames, including a particularly influential CNAS game played by members of Congress, made no room for de-escalation and did not consider any possible incentives for negotiation. The designers of the wargame all had years of experience working either directly in the DoD or in RAND advising the department. Dogma requires a priesthood to maintain it, and this is who and how it looks in the case of China.

Publicly, there is of course a significant discourse surrounding these orthodoxies. Over 65 organizations pushed back on the anti-China hawkishness prevalent in government in an open letter protesting the Strategic Competition Act of 2021. Think tanks like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the Stimson Center, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists serve as places for foreign policy dissenters to go, and are certainly influential in their own right. There is no shortage of discourse in academia and wider research communities, particularly as we start to look abroad as well.

There nevertheless remains a significant core of scholar/practitioners who have an outsized influence on policymaking and in maintaining the orthodoxy of the national security community. Dissenting voices can find themselves, like Hagström, excluded from high-level policy forums and even derided as subversive. This tendency towards branding dissent as subversion risks repeating the worst, McCarthyite tendencies in American intellectual life that helped fuel the foreign policy disasters of the Cold War.

The clique you claim

There are few in the national security policy community who do not cling to some form of orthodoxy. Having a bias or a preferred explanation is not the problem. The problem is when it becomes tribal and critical voices are excluded, particularly in policy relevant forums. It’s not a secret at this point that critical voices both from the academy and government were systematically excluded from policy debates throughout the decision to launch a global war on terror, and that a neoconservative orthodoxy fueled that choice.

The temptation for researchers to stress policy relevance risks reinforcing orthodoxy. Scholarship demands looking into alternative perspectives and even taking counterintuitive stances seriously. The policy world struggles to abide these intellectual needs. We should be aware that ascribing to policy dogmas, particularly when married to political preferences, can be dangerous. Puritanism in method or belief system is hardly beneficial when it prevents one from critically analyzing decisions about decisions to go to war, to spend trillions on defense, or to authorize covert programs.

There is hope for national security research community. Much to the Swedish Defence University’s credit, it resisted calls for Hagström’s ouster. Indeed, it went in quite the opposite direction. He is now the deputy head of his department. Dissenting voices can be raised and promoted, but only if vigorously defended and policymakers are open to questioning, rather than reinforcing, orthodoxy.