Strategic Culture and State’s Choices

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Strategic Culture and State’s Choices

A theoretical analysis

Strategic culture is a ‘cultural’ lens to view strategy.
The role of culture or cultural attributes in a nation’s orientation, especially of its elite decision-makers, towards war and strategic affairs has long wielded tremendous significance. As armed conflicts are among the most sensitive and troublesome matters for a state and society, ignoring cultural aspects in this regard seriously hinders holistic understanding of issues. Wars, weapons and strategies have been an integral part of the historiography and anthropological studies of civilizations since aeons. In the recorded history of war, the significance of understanding culture as a part of strategy can be found in the works of classic thinkers and strategists like Thucydides and Sun Tzu.
There were also phases in the history when, in the formulation of policy and strategy, cultural aspects were relatively ignored as it was a difficult and imprecise analytical tool. Also due to Revolution in the Military Affairs (RMA) and massive technological advancement, the abstract ideas such as culture could not stay relevant. However, in the recent times, the concept of strategic culture has regained a centrality. With the emergence of social, cultural and civilizational theoretical frameworks in strategic studies, international relations and politics such as cultural imperialism, social constructivism, and clash of civilizations, etc., the strategic culture as an analytical tool or theoretical framework has successfully attracted attention.
To comprehend the concept of strategic culture, we must first understand what is meant by ‘culture’.

Undoubtedly, culture is one of the most complex phenomena, and to reach at an agreed-upon definition of the concept is a formidable task. At present, we can find both complex and simple definitions of culture. For example, Kroeber and Parsons give a complex definition by restricting the usage of culture to ”transmitted and created content and patterns of values, ideas and other symbolic-meaningful systems as factors in the shaping of human behaviour and the artifacts produced behaviour.” On the other hand, a rather simple definition has been given by Geert Hofstede who says that culture is “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” In a nutshell, shaping of behaviour of the individuals of a specific community and giving them a distinguishable identity are two main features of culture.
Now, let’s find out how to exactly define the term ‘Strategic Culture’, and the very first definition must be from the one who coined the term.
In 1977, Jack Snyder, in a study titled; “The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Options,” 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 share with each other with regard to strategy.” Then, another renowned strategic thinker, Colin Gray, opines that “modes of thought and action with respect to [force], derived from perception of national historical experience, aspiration for self-characterization, and from state-distinctive experience.” Here Gray emphasizes on the perception a nation develops and then hardens by its repeated historical experiences. This perception, ultimately, translates into the strategic behaviour of the strategy or policymaking community of the country.
For example, Pakistan’s experiences of hostility with India and of betrayal from the US have hardened the national perception about both these countries. Based on this perception, Pakistan’s strategic culture would always reflect in its strategic and foreign policy choices. Among such strategic choices was the development of nuclear weapons amidst back-breaking financial constraints and mounting international pressure. Similarly, Pakistan is still unwilling to recognize Israel despite various strategic incentives. It is another example of Pakistan’s choices that are based on its deep-rooted, ideological strategic culture. Studies have established the same about the strategic choices of various nations, e.g. Russia, China and USA, depicting their respective strategic cultures.
Another definition, by Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi, would make the point further clear. To him, strategic culture is “the collectivity of beliefs,

norms, values, (and) historical experiences, of the dominant elite in a polity that influences their understanding and interpretation of security issues and environment, and shapes their responses to these.”
To bring home the point, finding answers to the forthcoming questions about a nation’s social and cultural choices seems imperative:
What kind of cultural values people of a nation have firmly embraced?
Who are their national heroes, role models and main sources of inspiration?
What they believe are their existence-threatening fears, vulnerabilities and insecurities?
What is their collective sense of glory and humiliation?
What interpretations of historical events they generally subscribe to and cherish?
What are the standards of their love for, or aloofness from, their homeland?
What are their levels of commitment towards their religions and ideologies?
What is the intensity of their readiness to sacrifices for the sake of some greater national causes?
These factors collectively contribute to the formation of their national cultures and thus add to the development of their strategic culture.
Admittedly, culture is more powerful than religion but it varies from society to society and, in some societies, religion does play a pivotal role in moulding and constituting the strategic culture. Several theorists are of the view that strategic culture influences the choices of the elite policymakers only. And it has hardly anything to do with public sentiments and opinions. This might be true in the past, but in today’s emerging democracies, characterized with widespread sources of knowledge and revolutionized access to information through numerous social media platforms, public opinion has achieved far greater role in influencing the national policies.
A nation’s strategic culture highlights its long-term strategic thinking and provides the reasons behind a state’s different choices from various available strategic options. The study of ‘national character’ is of utmost importance while making strategic decisions. Most importantly, before going to war with any country, it is imperative to have prior knowledge of the nature of society, history and culture as they play a pivotal role in analyzing a nation’s resilience. Along with Just War considerations, a thorough study of strategic culture of the adversary must be among the top priorities of the country’s strategic community. Sun Tzu, a highly-acclaimed ancient Chinese strategist, emphasized knowledge of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. Along with material factors, strategic culture must also be among these consideration because to know about the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent’s’ strategic culture can help bring decisive outcomes from the war. The annals of history bear testimony to the fact that the countries that did not seriously consider strategic culture in their strategic calculations had to face severe consequences.
The example of US invasion of Afghanistan is a pertinent case to prove the point. Despite having enough historical and cultural evidence that suggested not unleashing any misadventure, the US went on with the invasion. Hot-headed decision by George W. Bush pushed the US troops into the swallowing swamp of Afghanistan – Earlier, similar blunders were committed by Britain and USSR. Many thinkers and strategic advisors recommended the US not to take this suicidal plunge into the ‘graveyard of empires’ but, unfortunately, all such voices went unheeded. On the contrary, the role of ‘material power’ was miscalculated as ‘conclusive’. Even before invading Afghanistan, the US made the similar miscalculation about Vietnam.
This reality needs to be accepted that revolution in weaponry and development of modern technology are still unable to transcend the role and power of culture. Americans realized afterwards that it was far more important to know the culture and motivation of the enemy than to have more advancement and precision in their war-fighting technologies. This is also true that sometimes, while making some strategic choices, a nation’s traditional strategic culture clashes with the demands of rationality.
This fact must be kept in mind that the concept of strategic culture has been going through intense debates. As mentioned above, ‘culture’ itself is one of the hardest concepts to define precisely and accurately. As the term is elastic and the chances of misinterpretation are higher, while making choices, states must not ignore the strategic culture but rationality and pragmatism must be given more weight. Also, the students of international relations and strategic studies must be very cautious in employing the concept as theoretical framework in their inquiry. Before doing so, an in-depth study of the concept and how it impacts a nation’s strategic and foreign policy choices is inevitable.

The writer is a noted educationist and a visiting faculty in the Department of International Relations, University of Okara. Email:


Muhammad Ali Asghar

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