Strategic Culture

Strategic Culture

A Conceptual Analysis

In his monumental work ‘The Art of War’, revered Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher Sun Tzu asserts: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” His assertion surely has relevance with any nation making its strategic choices. Any endeavour by a nation’s strategic community to achieve an in-depth understanding of their own strategic culture and that of their adversaries leads to a pragmatic strategic decision, policymaking and long-lasting strategic dividends. Though the concept of ‘strategic culture’ is relatively a newer one in international relations and strategic studies, yet its significance cannot be overstated. It is imperative for the students, writers and policy analysts to have a fair understanding of the concept.

What is strategic culture?

Strategic culture is a set of beliefs, attitudes and norms towards the use of military force’, often moulded according to historical experience. It is actually the viewing of strategy, war or national security through the lens of culture, or as some theorists suggest, it is the cultural understanding of war. Look another way: It is the orientation of a nation’s strategic community towards war and weapons. For example, the US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan are being inflicted more damage by the ‘culture’ factor of the Afghans than by their military strength. Even if the Taliban regime had not been that popular among the masses, when the country’s majority started viewing Nato as an occupying force, the youth’s recruitment to the resisting forces of Taliban became easy. The US strategists probably did not take this ‘cultural’ aspect into consideration while planning the invasion of Afghanistan – the history of the country, however, is vividly evident on it.

The ‘culture’ part of the phrase makes the concept vast and harder to define because the term itself lacks any agreed-upon definition. Admittedly, the question of culture did not attract much attention in international security studies and international relations theory until the last 10-15 years, when interest in culture, strategic culture and other ideational explanations for the behaviour of states has grown exponentially. The concept of strategic culture is intrinsically intricate as it encompasses the sociological, anthropological, psychological and geographical dimensions of strategic thinking and use of military force. However, the centrality of history or the historical factor in the study of a nation’s strategic culture or what some also call ‘the ways of war’ is paramount. It is mainly because history is the cardinal component in a nation’s cultural development. Even if it is for transformation or greater change in the strategic culture of any entity, a long time is required because it’s an evolutionary process.

Some scholars are of the view that it was only in the late 1970s and early 80s that the term ‘strategic culture’ gained currency, and the policymakers and military strategists started finding a connection between strategic thinking and culture. This, however, is not a right assertion as the similar prism was used by people like Thucydides and Sun Tzu in their works. Similarly, as India’s former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon said at a seminar that Chanakya’s treatise Arthashastra is one of the significant sources to understand India’s strategic culture, necessarily means a book that was first written on leaves of a palm tree is being found very relevant today to discern modern India’s strategic culture and foreign policy. Then, Carl von Clausewitz, a sagacious military strategist, also forwarded the similar concepts in his ‘On War’ by acknowledging war-fighting strategy as “a test of moral and physical forces”.


Clausewitz believed the objective of the strategy is not just to inflict a defeat to the enemy but to kill its morale to re-emerge and bounce back. He saw the conduct of war as a political, military and social phenomenon because the war, in his opinion, must be waged collectively by the government, its armed forces and its people – the people as a source of moral and popular support. Clausewitz’s thoughts about war-fighting necessarily included the notion of strategic culture, though he did not name it. Again, Quincy Wright in his book ‘A Study of War’ presented social and cultural roles in war and strategy.

In his historic article ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (1993), Samuel P. Huntington highlighted the role of conflicting civilizations in the outbreak of future conflicts and wars. Some analysts see even the incident of 9/11 and the resultant invasion of Afghanistan in the same context developed by Huntington in his book, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’. The central message of the book is that “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilizational identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.”

However, as far as the term ‘strategic culture’ is concerned, it was coined in 1977 by Jack Lewis Snyder, an American political scientist, currently a professor of International Relations at Columbia University. He defined strategic culture as “the sum total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of a national strategic community have acquired through instruction or imitation, and which they share with each other with regard to nuclear strategy.” Snyder included ‘nuclear’ factor as an integral part of his definition; however, that has been conflicted by most theorists. Again, many also disagree with Snyder on his definition’s “members of a national strategic community” part. Snyder posits that the elites of a nation would develop a specific strategic culture regarding the matters of security and military.

Snyder maintained that “as a result of this socialization process, a set of general beliefs, attitudes and behaviours patterns with regard to nuclear strategy has achieved a state of semi-permanence that places them on the level of ‘cultural’ rather than mere policy.” According to Snyder, other fundamental components of strategic culture include:

  • The settings in which security threats are perceived;
  • technological development;
  • strong cognitive content associated with attitudes and beliefs;
  • historical legacies; and
  • beliefs about the role of the military and concerned institutions in policymaking.

Ken Booth, a British International Relations theorist, came up with a slightly different definition of strategic culture in which he disagreed with Snyder on the two aforementioned points. According to Booth, “A nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behaviour, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force make the strategic culture.” In Booth’s definition, both the “nuclear” and “members of a national strategic community” components are being disapproved. However, among the modern theorists, Professor Kerry Longhurst’s definition sounds more comprehensive and more specific than more generalized definitions of both Snyder and Booth. Longhurst defines strategic culture as “a distinctive body of beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding the use of force, which is held by a collective (usually a nation) and arises gradually over time, through a unique, protracted historical process.”

The extensive debate among the scholars of strategic studies to arrive on some common yet comprehensive definition of strategic culture is still very much underway. A large number of authors have come up with varying and conflicting definitions. The concept is not as simple as it appears from its nomenclature. When a young researcher delves into these details in an attempt to untie the knots, most of the time (s)he gets nothing but more confusion. However, this doesn’t mean that one should not go into the details, rather one must be cognizant of the intricacy of the subject. Jack Snyder, the father of the concept, had to back-off from the further study of the concept when he witnessed the way his contemporary thinkers and theorists took and forwarded his original idea of strategic culture. The discussion must continue on the subject to achieve more clarity and to define the exact contours of the concept.

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