A Strategic Clarion Call: Part I

Looking at my own intellectual journey, I find that creativity usually comes in short bursts that punctuate long periods of reading, reflection, and hard work.  About two weeks ago the National Security Blogosphere saw a great burst of creativity by the mind of Zenpundit.  In this post (read every word!), Zenpundit identified several issues that the last couple of years of operations in Iraq have brought to the fore:

  • The importance of policy and doctrine to be meme-ified.  This means that all levels of international relations, ranging from high-level grand strategy to the infantry tactics that make COIN operations successful, must be transmittable and digestable by the various power-brokering actors of the global stage.  I refer to this as the Meme-ification of Policy.
  • The tactical and operational art of COIN are without strategic foundation.

The first issue–the Meme-ification of Policy–has been an issue only since the breakup of the Soviet Union.  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.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, American grand strategy has defied meme.  Various concepts–globalization, black swans, Y2K, COIN, etc., have managed to spread among elites, but there has been very little coherence among these concepts.

The second issue–that tactical and operational levels of COIN lack a strategic foundation–is even more important.  In his post, Zenpundit encapsulated a “Kilcullen Doctrine” with bullets, which may serve as current boilerplate counterinsurgency dogma:

  • First, planners should select the lightest, most indirect and least intrusive form of intervention that will achieve the necessary effect.
  • Second, policy-makers should work by, with, and through partnerships with local government administrators, civil society leaders, and local security forces whenever possible.
  • Third, whenever possible, civilian agencies are preferable to military intervention forces, local nationals to international forces, and long-term, low-profile engagement to short-term, high-profile intervention.

The ideas behind this “Kilcullen Doctrine” are, on the face, unremarkable.  One might quibble with ideas here and there–for example, that perhaps large numbers of infantry working intrusively in a foreign society might be preferable to “lighter, less intrusive” methods.  Or perhaps that this doctrine gives short shrift to the utility of Direct Action missions against terrorist kingpins.  Reasonable and well-respected experts may disagree on these points.  But the most damning critique of this Kilcullen Doctrine is levied by Zenpundit himself:

“…Kilcullen’s three principles are an operational and not a genuinely strategic doctrine. In fairness, no major COIN advocate has ever said otherwise and have often emphasized the point. The problem is that a lot of their intended audience – key civilian decision makers and opinion shapers in their 30’s-50’s often do not understand the difference, except for a minority who have learned from bitter experience. Most of those who have, the Kissingers, Brzezinskis, Shultzes etc. are elder statesmen on the far periphery of policy.”

In fairness to others, Zenpundit hasn’t been the only one making this point.  Andrew Exum, of abu muqawama, has been making this point for some time now.  In any case, Zen and Ex are right.  COIN doctrine is applicable only to the tactical and  operational levels of war.  As of yet, nobody has created a strategy, let alone a grand strategy, that is capable of being executed and understood up and down the levels of international relations.  COIN tactics remain without strategic foundation.

This critique doesn’t only apply to the Kilcullen Doctrine.  Such critiques have been very forcefully levied by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum themselves against the tactic of using unmanned robotic drone aircraft to attack key leaders in the Pakistani Taliban.  They argue, essentially, that such attacks are the substitution of technology for strategy, and that such a substitution will ultimately do more harm than good to American interests.  Read:  Blowback.  (It’s good to know that Kilcullen seems to be aware of the problem of a lack of strategy and grand strategy.)

The Kilcullen Doctrine and the Drone Attacks both are cases of Tactics Without Strategy.  Some are now looking to Thomas P.M. Barnett to supply the necessary grand strategy to compliment the Tactics.  Indeed, that is the implicit argument of Tom’s first book on Grand Strategy, The Pentagon’s New Map. The second book, Blueprint For Action, is essentially an amplification of various points and implication of PNM.  Barnett’s third book, Great Powers attempts to provide a basis for Barnett’s grand strategy by using certain narratives of American history.  (Here I must confess to have only read the first two books of Barnett’s trilogy.  GP remains in my anti-library.)

In PNM, Barnett very slickly attempted to build a possible grand strategy for post-Cold War America.  The starting point was a political map of the world, with points plotted for the several military operations undertaken since the Cold War had ended (PDF).  The points were then connected, thereby outlining two regions of the world:  The Functioning Core and the Non-Integrating Gap.  Barnett believes the Gap to be the source of instability of the world, and consequently American grand strategy ought to be focused on integrating the Gap into the Functioning Core–the areas of the world that Barnett believes to be globalizing, trading, integrating, growing economically, and stabilizing populations.

Barnetts Core-Gap Globe

Barnett's Core-Gap Globe

Let us go back to Barnett’s starting point:  the plotting of American military operations from 1990-2003.  Does anybody not see a problem with this starting point?  I certainly do, on several bases:

  • The plotted military operations were drawn from the time period from the fall of the Soviet Empire through the date of publication of PNM (1990-2003, specifically).  This was the precise period when America was lacking a grand strategy to govern whether a given military operation should occur.  Instead, operations seemed to be undertaken on an ad hoc basis.  Such a basis cannot reasonably be used to discern a grand strategy.  There was certainly more to determining whether a given operation would occur than the occurance of something undesirable in the Gap.  How else to explain Core action in the 1991 Gulf War, and Core inaction during the Rwandan genocide?
  • In taking tactical and operational military cases, and then using those cases to discern a grand strategy, Barnett  put the tactical cart before the strategic horse.  Policy should drive Grand Strategy, which should drive Strategy, which should drive Operational Art and Tactics.  Barnett instead uses Tactics to drive Grand Strategy.  This is the most grievous and most fundamental error he makes.

The effects of that fundamental error are many:  they force the grand strategist to steer by the wake of the ship, rather than by steer from cues in the grand strategic environment, knowledge of himself as a global power, and knowledge of actual interests.  They also cause the grand strategist to assume that the types of operations that America ought to prepare for in the future are more of what happened in the 1990s.  Even more important, those tactical and operational COIN aficionados who look to Barnett to supply the strategic and grand-strategic foundations for their operations should realize that whatever basis Barnett supplies is only a tautology:  COIN tacticians look to Barnett to supply a strategic foundation.  The foundation of Barnett’s grand strategy are tactical operations.  Tactical COIN and Barnett’s Grand Strategy combine to make a self-licking ice cream cone!

Barnett would probably reply to my critique using a well-worn, and well-understood line of argument he often uses with military professionals:  Military thinkers need to learn to see war in terms of everything else, as opposed to seeing everything else in terms of war.  As a Clausewitzian who believes that war ought never be an end by itself, I heartily agree.  Grand Strategy exists to serve policy. That is precisely why I see the Pentagon’s New Map as a poor basis for a grand strategy.

Furthermore, Barnett has remarked numerous times on his blog how various non-military world maps resemble the Pentagon’s New Map.  Though such maps cannot be discounted on the basis of putting the tactical cart before the strategic horse, but they can be easily discounted on the basis that they force the grand strategist to steer by the wake of the ship.  Such maps are more in the realm of gimmickry, not grand strategy.

Now, before I go further, let me state that I like Barnett, personally.  He is highly engaging and very persuasive.  He adores the Green Bay Packers, as I do!  And strategically speaking, there is still a lot to Barnett.  He is one of the few grand strategists to have a good understanding of the intersection between economics and other forms of power.  And if you embrace his (flawed) assumptions, his grand strategy seems to make a good deal of sense.

But where Barnett deserves the most credit in the area of meme-ification of his grand strategy.  Zenpundit alludes to this:

“Dr. Barnett’s public example of intellectual proselytizing and briefing to normal people outside of the beltway is even more important.”

And Zenpundit is absolutely correct.  Barnett has managed to create an (albeit flawed) grand strategy that is easily digestable.  It has it’s own easily-understood logic, it’s own glossary of terms, and as Boyd would put it, it’s own (flawed) Orientation (PPT).  That Orientation is capable of being transmitted from person to person, is highly persuasive, and provides the capability for “Think Global, Act Local” action by myriad sorts of actors:  diplomats, military officers, financial wizards, corporate tycoons, media personalities, private citizens, etc.  Barnett deserves the highest praise for this!  Indeed, it is very difficult to critique Barnett without resorting to using the very lexicon he created!

So, where does this leave us?

We are left where we began:

  • We need a new grand strategy–one that doesn’t rely on past tactical actions for its basis.
  • We need to adopt Barnett’s method of proselytizing.  His translation of (flawed) grand strategy into a meme that is capable of viral transmittal to elites of all power-brokering disciplines must be emulated.

I will address a possible new basis for grand strategy in future posts.

Semper Fidelis.

7 Responses to A Strategic Clarion Call: Part I

  1. “We need to adopt Barnett’s method of proselytizing.”

    You cannot just conjure your own P.T. Barnum, or George Kennan, or Billy Mitchell, or Tom Barnett out of thin air, however!

    The meme-maker and meme-promoter is in himself a Black Swan. They don’t come along very often.

    Tom’s “memes” serve another end, even if you disagree with them. By providing a single, self-consistent framework, they provide (1) something to shoot at, and more productively, (2) something to build-an-alternative-to.

  2. smitteneagle says:


    I agree generally on both counts. PT Barnum, Kennan, Boyd, Seward, Marshall, Mahan, and others aren’t conjured. Yet I don’t think it wise to just wait for one to come around…I am more of the opinion that such strategists can be made, through proper education, motivation, incentives, and self-discipline. Great strategists are rare, but they need not be Black Swans. As proof, I point to several cohorts of great movers and shakers to come out of various institutions. The West Point class of 1915 would be an example (of the 164 graduates, 59 became general officers, effectively leading the Army through WWII). Great cohorts can come out of great institutions.

    Today, however, I’m not sure out institutions are up to the task, which requires that we, initially, have to find a way of sound-biting grand strategy so that even the unlearned idiots running various power centers can execute grand strategy.

    Tom’s Lexicon is very rich, indeed. I’m not sure that any conception of grand strategy could be readily made without some reliance on his work, and many of his concepts are worthy of retention in any future grand strategy. My critiques of Barnett are more with his implicit assumptions and methodologies. That doesn’t mean that his entire grand strategy is total bunk, but it might mean that many of his prescriptions are incorrect.

  3. “…sound-biting grand strategy so that even the unlearned idiots running various power centers can execute grand strategy.”

    Perhaps the way to create the post-Barnett Meme Set or the Barnett 2.0 Meme Set, building on Tom but going beyond Tom, is not to have a new super-meme entrepreneur, or even a “class the stars fell on” but to be very 21st century, and have a decentralized hive-mind going, something like what it is going on now blogospherically, generate the new set. Of course, someone needs at minimum to be the referee or scribe to capture some of the brilliant bits that this virtual flying circus generates.

    I am being a little bit flip, but I am fundamentally serious.

    If you cannot count on (1) an institution producing genius (the Prusso-German general staff tried, and look where they ended up), (2) the appearance of a new, improved Tom whose ideas we like better, then that leaves (3) harvesting the best ideas that are currently being spontaneously generated — and perhaps seeding that conversation with your own ideas and refining based on the responses you get.

    “Hitting the books” is a necessary foundation for that. A lot of good stuff is already out there and a lot of good thinking has already been done.

    Being an amateur on these issues does not embarrass me. The more I read, the more I think that the cross-pollination is too useful to rule out (reasonably well-informed) amateur participation in these conversations. Also, the more I find that professionals are so focused on the immediately and necessary that they do not have the historical knowledge that some of us hobbyists possess.

    The Web, properly used, can the the kitchen where these ingredients get combined into something edible, even nourishing, if not a magic potion.

    I nominate Smitten Eagle as Head Cook.

  4. purpleslog says:

    It sounds like Strategy Ant process like this:

    1) Place to submit ideas is created.

    2) Submitter follows a canned format to describe.

    3) Submissions are made over a 2 week period.

    4) After submissions period closes a discussion period follows of 1 or 2 weeks.

    5) At the end of the discussion period, is a one week period of voting (for each: acceptable/not acceptable; also rank top 10 ideas)

    6) Publish results. Score based on F(acceptability, rankings) TBD

    7) Keep top 50%.

    8) Have one more week to discuss/ Vote again.

    9) Rinse / Repeat down to some manageable number. 5? 7?

  5. tdaxp says:

    A quick thought…

    I need to defend Barnett here. Barnett correctly saw where we were working, and then determined the way to optimize of forces for that reality.

    It comes down a question: which is less flexible, where we act, or how we act?

    The Cold War certainly implies Barnett’s answer. The US Military constantly prepped for a nuclear war that never happened, while repeatedly fighting actions that required Small Wars capacity.

  6. littlebangtheories says:

    Why should meme-fication become simplified or coherent if the ‘issues-threats’ themselves are not singular or as easy to define as the Soviets.

    The meme-fiers had it easy in the past.

    TB memes are Jobs interconnectedness and more jobs.
    I don’t see how past tactical actions singularly sustain TB’s memes in his blog.

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