A follow up to Part I.
How does a society, as opposed to individuals, develop a capacity for “strategic thinking” ?
While war is an obvious answer, it is not an advisable first resort. First of all, although war teaches hard lessons about strategy, the costs of losing a war are high. Secondly, the costs of winning a war can be high. Thirdly, few people, relatively speaking to the number involved, have any direct input into genuinely strategic decisions during wartime; most will either gain tactical experience or be relegated to support functions. At best, wars seem to create a cohort of excellent tactical leaders with the potential to, someday, mature into strategic leaders or strategists. At worst, from a war, the wrong lessons may be drawn and institutionalized to create a future disaster.
What conditions produce strategic thinkers for a state? A brief example from American history:
Here are some of the US leadership of WWII, the postwar “Wise Men” and their Cold War successors, collaborators, thinkers and military chiefs:
Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Stimson, Joseph Grew, Dean Acheson, Douglas MacArthur, Charles E. Bohlen, George F. Kennan, Paul Nitze, George C. Marshall , Harry S. Truman, Robert A. Lovett, Dwight D. Eisenhower , John J. McCloy , W. Averell Harriman, William Donovan, James F. Byrnes, Chester Nimitz, John Foster Dulles, James Forrestal, Vannevar Bush, Allen Dulles, Ernest King, Albert Wohlstetter, Dean Rusk, Hyman Rickover, Herman Kahn, Robert McNamara, Bernard Brodie, Fritz G. A. Kraemer, McGeorge Bundy, Richard Nixon, Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger
Some commonalities that these individuals shared, sometimes in pluralities and others in large majorities:
Above average to very high IQ
Middle class to high socioeconomic status
Ivy League education
University of Chicago
Skull & Bones
Scroll & Key
Nuclear weapons/arms control/power
This list could be expanded or reduced on a number of grounds. For example, the list is composed of men primarily because almost no women, with very few exceptions, even from elite backgrounds, had an opportunity during the first 2/3 of the 20th century to contribute to strategic decisions or policy making. We could also include other characteristics, but what we have is sufficient for some broad generalizations.
- First, these men generally engaged in careers that featured complex activities that stressed and rewarded incisive analysis of factual scenarios, assessment of risk and potential benefits, intuitive judgment and organizational abilities – law, politics, the stock market, diplomacy and corporate leadership. A minority of the list had formal training in advanced mathematics.
- Secondly, the men all had the social wherewithal and ambition to gain entry into educational and social institutions that were by definition, highly exclusive on more than a strictly meritocratic basis. For many from higher SES families, this presented no significant barrier but for the “outsiders” like Kennan, Nixon or Rickover, it was a formidable obstacle to overcome. In either case, there were social mores or even commonly held prejudices to which they had to adapt in order to “fit in”. Despite this demonstration of social intelligence, most members of our list were not professional politicians (but those that were made an impact on American history much greater than that of an “average” president).
- Thirdly, the presence of such overlapping experiential commonalities, while not creating a formal “strategic community” was probably sufficient to impart a strategic mentalité as to how the world really worked, red in tooth in claw, as well as implicit ideological assumptions as how the world ought to work, if perfected. This meant that strategic debates about American national security could take place within the framework of commonly held assumptions and reference points. While certain individuals might be disliked (MacArthur, Truman, Nixon) or regarded warily, with little trust (Nixon, FDR, Kahn) their strategic arguments were nevertheless widely understood within the elite and could be assessed on their merits – an excellent environment for building an elite consensus and continuity on matters of policy and strategy. This condition may be a political prerequisite for a democratic state’s formulation and adoption of a successful grand strategy.
If we wonder why the United States has been so ineffective at strategy in recent years, maybe we should look at how our current (and most importantly, future) elite’s formative experiences have sharply diverged from their strategically gifted WWII-Cold War predecessors.