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Memes, Policymaking, and Strategy

Memes, popularly understood as discrete cultural units analogous to genes that evolve through cultural interaction and exchange, were popularized by Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Memetics soon became a popular field of study in the 1990s complete with its own scholarly journal and a series of books expanding the concept. However, scientists have critiqued memetics for its inability to empirically prove its claims, and media and critical theorists who generally follow a social constructivist epistemology are also hostile to memetics’ Darwinian framework. But the idea of memes continues to dominate popular discourse on cultural production and even has been prominently featured in popular videogames.
      A Marine Captain blogging under the pen name of Smitten Eagle posits that memes are a good tool for understanding grand strategy:

“Prior to the early 1990s and going back to the beginning of the Cold War, the general meme of national security policy, and of grand strategy, was packaged in a single, transmittable word: Containment. The concept of Containment allowed for the transmittal of that grand strategy quickly among elites, who were then able to translate the general concept of Containment into the equivalent of Operational and Tactical decisions in a vast array of disciplines. An American Army general in his headquarters south of the Korean DMZ would be able to translate Containment into military decisions. A diplomat in Moscow, or Beijing, or Ankara, with an understanding Containment, would be able to translate that grand-strategic policy into diplomatic decisions at whatever level the diplomat is working, according to the locality he is operating in. Simply put, these grand-strategic memes allow the ‘Think Global, Act Local’ to operate in the national security realm, from the level of policy and grand strategy, through the levels of strategy, operational art, and tactics.”

      In this understanding, grand strategy is not so much a grand plan but a shared understanding and overall guiding concept that is transmitted laterally to elites and then down the ranks. SE argues that “[s]ince the breakup of the Soviet Union, American grand strategy has defied meme. Various concepts–globalization, black swans, Y2K, [counterinsurgency], etc., have managed to spread among elites, but there has been very little coherence among these concepts.” SE is right, but it’s also important to point out that since the end of the Cold War, we have seen hundreds of eminent foreign policy theorists and military officers offer their own overarching grand strategic concepts. Many of them have written breezy, irreverent pop-academic tomes that seem almost tailor-made for memetic production. So why hasn’t a memetic competitor to Containment arrived?
      Blogger Joseph Fouche makes the valuable point that strategy is created through an emergent and Darwinian process of “strategic aggregation:”

“The patchwork quality of strategy, with its imperfect construction and makeshift assembly, is a testament to the trial and error of actual strategic formation. Strategic observations are made, a random twist is put on it during orientation, decisions are made, and action is taken. Sometimes these random twists work. Sometimes they fail. Those twists that work are usually aggregated into strategy. Sometimes they’re ignored and twists that don’t work are included. Sometimes new twists are aggregated and old twists discarded. Hopefully, the new twists are useful. Many times they aren’t. The accumulation of useless twists may be harmful or it may be a wash. The only thing that matters in the end is whether a strategy helps a community survive and thrive in spite of its flaws and contradictions. A strategy doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than the other guy’s strategy.”

      Fouche also points out that a nation as diverse and politically divided as the United States should avoid a single guiding grand strategic concept and value a multitude of ideas that are digested and operationalized by a “strategic aggregator” akin to Buckminister Fuller’s comprehensive designer or a dispersed strategic aggregation network that acts as a kind of military-political artificial neural net.
      Where does this leave the meme? I think both Fouche and SE would agree that the strongest kind of grand strategy is a kind of shared understanding/infectious desire represented by the classical idea of the meme articulated by Dawkins and his successors. As SE suggests, the meme can be used as the standard to evaluate the coherence and attractiveness of a grand strategic concept. Aspiring foreign policy grand strategists: is the book you’re promoting on Charlie Rose or Meet Press powerful and attractive enough be sold in a 30-second Superbowl commercial? If not, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board at your favorite Adams-Morgan coffeeshop. “Dumbing it down” allows other people to take ownership of the concept and remix it to deal with a variety of complex exigencies. A complex and detailed plan is also unlikely to survive the rough and tumble nature of American politics. Grand strategic “source code,” on the other hand, provides something that can be hacked and distributed over a wide audience. I know the “open source” metaphor in modern strategic theory is far from original, but perhaps the Linux duck is our age’s Kissinger.