The always interesting John Hagel tweeted a link recently to an old post at Mill’s-Scofield Innovanomics, a blog run by a business strategist and consultant with a science background, Deb Mills-Scofield.
….Culture Trumps Strategy: The best made plans are worthless if they’re not aligned with the culture. Sometimes the strategy can help transform the culture (for good or bad), but if the culture doesn’t support it, it won’t happen. Perhaps that’s why I think CEOs need to be CCS’s – Chief Culture Stewards.
Challenge: Start to check the health of your culture – really, be brutally honest -before the end of August.
This was interesting to me.
Obviously, Mills-Scofield was concerned here with “business strategy” and organizational theory and not strategy in the classical sense of war and statecraft. As Dr. Chet Richards has pointed out, unlike a military leader in war, businessmen are not trying to destroy their customers, their employees or even their competition, but while not the same kind of “strategy”, the underlying cognitive action, the “strategic thinking”, is similar. Perhaps the same.
So, shifting the question back to the original context of war and statecraft, does culture trump strategy?
On twitter, I had a brief twitter discussion on this with Marc Danziger who was sympathetic to the proposition of cultural supremacy. I am not so sure, though I think the relationship between culture and strategy is an iterative one, the degree to which culture matters in strategy is highly contextual and is determined by how broadly you define cultural values as being directly operative in driving the scenario. Some disjointed comments:
- Your own cultural-societal worldview shapes politics, policy and politik. So indirectly, culture will be a determining factor in conceiving “Ends” worth spilling blood and dying for – particularly in wars of choice. When war, especially existential conflict is forced upon a state by an enemy attack, some of the initiative and room for constructing artful or limited “Ends” has been lost and becomes secondary to survival. Even Stalin’s normally overweening and murderous ideological preferences mattered somewhat less in Soviet policy and strategy the day after Operation Barbarossa began than the day before.
- If the Ends in view imply forcing a political settlement upon the enemy – “compelling him to do our will” – than the enemy’s culture matters a great deal. All the moreso, if the war entails COIN, military governance of an enemy population and reconstructing an enemy state to our liking. The enemy culture is part of the operational environment because our use of military force (destruction) is going hand in glove with substantial political activity (construction) – mere physical control of the population is not enough, though it is a precondition for success. MacArthur’s role as SCAP in post-war Japan demonstrated an exceptionally shrewd blend of coercion and concession to traditional Japanese cultural touchstones.
- If our Ends are much more limited – degrading enemy operational capacity and/or simple, spasmodic, punitive expeditions to impose costs on an enemy state or entity in retaliation for aggression; or, if we intend to stand off-shore and strike with air and naval superiority – than the enemy culture matters far less. Force is being used to “bargain” at a very primitive level that does not require much cultural nuance to understand and the message of “we will hit back” . Likewise, if the war is an unlimited one of extermination and Carthaginian peace, enemy culture matters far less than your military capacity to execute your strategy.
- Your cultural worldview shapes your grand strategy or statecraft because great and lesser powers are not coldly playing chess for material interests alone when they engage in geopolitical conflict and warfare but are establishing, evolving and protecting a national identity on the world stage. What Thucydides called “Honor”, the British “Paramountcy”, Richard Nixon “Credibility” and Joseph Nye “Soft Power” may all have been intangible expressions, difficult to quantify, but are very much part of the strategic calculus of war and peace.
- Finally, it is important to note that strategic employment of brute force has a large role in setting the parameters of where and when cultural nuance and interpretation matter and exercise political leverage during war. Extreme violence disrupts and warps the cultural norms of belligerents, usually for the worse. It was the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon that awoke the romantic pan-German nationalism of the 19th century that eventually united Germany and transformed it into the terror of the world in the 20th. The First World War ushered in a century of ideological monstrosities and revolutionary state terrorism on an epochal scale of murder unequaled even by the butchery of the Romans or Mongols. War is often the Abyss that looks into you.