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New Years’ Resolutions for Strategic Theory

All in all, the 2000s were a banner decade for strategic theory. Much of it was new or relatively new theories such as Hybrid Warfare, Fourth Generation Warfare, or Netwar. As the hipster Clausewitz (h/t Deichmans) image hints, some of it was old as well. Counterinsurgency came back in style too. Of course, the impetus for this strategic debate was the worst terrorist attack in American history–and nine years of what many now call the “Long War.” As 2010 emerges, here’s five new year’s resolutions (arbitrary number, I know) for strategic theory. Unlike your rather fantastic pledge to actually run a marathon this year, these pledges matter.

      1. The era of Kennan and Nitze is over. Find some new role models.

Many foreign policy theorists today publish books that reach back to 1945-1962–the apogee of tough-minded Cold War liberalism–for ideas on how to handle America’s present strategic challenges. Many of them negatively compare our present leadership and foreign policy conduct to the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan. Others self-consciously seek to write a “Long Telegram” for the 21st century. The problem with this, however, is that the challenge of the Soviet Union and worldwide Communism is worlds away from the present strategic environment. As admirable as Kennan and Truman were, forward-thinking strategists should not look to answers from men who lived in an era without Facebook. We can emulate Kennan’s tough-mindedness, worldliness, and conscience without necessarily worshipping his person as a holy idol.

      2. Conventional operations still matter. Come up with some new ideas.

One doesn’t have to be a COINtra to see that state-to-state warfare is still an ever-present risk in many of the world’s flashpoints. But for all of the talk of a “hybrid” focus and adaptation, there has not been very much writing or debate on conventional warfare concepts since 2001. Doctrinal learning and debate has understandably focused on preparing the armed services for expeditionary counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, which has been, aside from the brief 2003 conventional phase of the Iraq War, the dominant strategic challenge. Strategic thinkers need to revisit and rethink conventional concepts, readiness, and doctrine, before an American equivalent of the 2006 Lebanon War painfully reveals flaws that have accumulated in peacetime, This is not to argue that hard-won experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are non-transferable, but that some attention needs to be thrown “Big Army’s” way.

      3. The COINdinistas and COINtras are both right. Time to pass the peace pipe.

The emerging strategic debate of the 2010s is the clash between “COINdinistas”–soldiers and civilian thinkers who believe that counterinsurgency and stability operations is the immediate future of war and deserve special consideration–and “COINtras” who are suspicious of the COIN’s doctrinal assumptions, warn of strategic overreach, and focus instead on building up traditional combined arms competencies. While it is difficult to see how both views can be reconciled (and rightly so, we need the debate), both get important things right. The military is ultimately a tool of policy, and counterinsurgency has to be integrated into the strategic toolkit available in order for US policy to be accomplished. U.S. involvement in insurgency and counterinsurgency has been constant since 1776 and shows no sign of going away. That being said, COINtras, who tend to espouse Realist views, are correct that the United States is currently overstretched and should not seek out intervention with general purpose forces. Moreover, even the favored model of special forces and drones should not be so easily resorted to. Lastly, the COINtras do have a point about COIN theory’s weaknesses. The larger problem, however, is the nation’s post-Cold War strategic drift–and both COINdinistas and COINtras can and should agree that the real issue is not COIN or “Big Army” but America’s problem with strategy.

      4. Stop blaming Clausewitz for things he didn’t say.

Clausewitz did not believe in the “trinitarian” framework often ascribed to him. Neither was he responsible for World War I. He didn’t invent political correctness. And the 200-year old Prussian is not responsible for the formula-like (and very Jominian) way that his ideas are used in US military education and doctrine. Rather than using poor old Carl von as a foil for new ideas, those ideas should be advocated on their merits.

      5. There is a world of theory beyond US-UK-AU. Read more non-Anglophone writers, past and present.

Reading civilian and military security publications, you’d get the impression that English-language authors from the Anglosphere are the only strategic thinkers who matter. Only Sun Tzu and guerrilla war theorists such as Mao Zedong or Che Guevara sometimes ends up on contemporary strategy reading lists. But there are many writers, past and present, who have produced valuable insights. The Indian philosopher and statesman Kautilya, for example, is regarded as “the first political realist.” Pakistani soldier S.K. Malik’s The Quranic Concept of War tries to imagine the Just War from a Islamic perspective. The Soviet Union’s stable of military writers provide a very interesting counterpoint to American writings on technological change with their “military-technical revolution” framework, even if there is (like the American RMA) much to disagree with. My most recent favorite non-English works read were Gaullist-era French military theorist Andre Beaufre’s Introduction to Strategy, French World War I general Ferdinand Foch’s collection of lectures The Principles of War, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) professional military education compilations The Science of Strategy and The Science of Campaigns (you won’t find either in Amazon, you can find both in English through interlibrary loan), JFCOM analyst Jim Lacey’s edited compilation of jihadist writers (know the enemy) The Canons of Jihad, and Soviet writer V.Ye Savkin’s The Basic Principles of Operational Art.