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Does Culture Trump Strategy?

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.

Summer’s Trump Cards 

….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.


16 Responses to “Does Culture Trump Strategy?”

  1. PB Says:

    The culture she is talking about is the culture of the business itself not the larger culture of the society the business is operating within or even the culture of its customers (although those would be interesting areas of inquiry too). So applying what she is saying to our national security institutions would lead to questions about how the cultures of military, intelligence, diplomatic institutions (and the subcultures within each of those institutions) impact the execution of strategy? 

  2. Jeremy Kotkin Says:

    No. More simply, heck no. This line of thinking brought us a decade of an unwinnable war in Central Asia. War is about force. Politics is about culture. When politics fail, pain through war forces an enemy to your political will. 180 degrees opposite from the business environment the original context is about. While we’ve tried to learn their language, be sensitive to their culture and history, drink all the crappy tea they offer us, we failed at simple military strategy and the Taliban are poised to make a serious comeback after we leave. While we never should have gotten involved to the extent we have in Afghanistan politics and civil war, we screwed the pooch afterwards even more by thinking culture trumps strategy.

  3. Robert Paterson Says:

    I think that culture is all. CEO’s and General and political leaders all set and maintain culture anyway. We see this lower down as well. A new team leader embodies their view of culture. This fits the task or not.

    The prevailing American culture in itself offends traditional people and all the tea drunk does not hide from them what we stand for and it is THIS that they resent.

    100 years ago in the same place the Brits gave up trying to beat the locals. They had suffered 2 major defeats using their culture. They had a new policy of limiting trouble. To do that they put in place tow supporting systems. Both depended on the local culture not on the British. The political wing was staffed by lifers who came out as 20+ year olds. They learned all the languages and they took no sides. By the time they were 40, they had known all the tribal leaders for all their adult life. The other group were the warriors. Up to 4 Brits spent decades in tribal militias – utterly dependent on their men for their own safety. They used them to contain rogue elements. This meant in practice in feud situations that the Brits had to support their men. The Brits gave up their culture to operate this strategy of containment. It was effective and cheap.

  4. larrydunbar Says:

    I think a culture with the means can use strategy as a way towards an end. Likewise, strategy with a way can use culture as the means to an end.

    Your question, ” Does culture trump strategy”, relies heavily on the position of the strategist. Is the strategist culturally or structurally positioned?

  5. Marc Danziger Says:

    So – first off, the tools and military tech and structures we use are the product of our culture (hence why the ANA has so much trouble keeping trucks running, as an example). I don;t think you can extract our military capabilities from the culture that created them.

    Similarly, our military and ancillary orgs have their own subcultures that are specialized subsets of the larger culture we all live in.

    The reality is that most people we are in conflict with have different cultures – the Soviets, the Islamists, etc. etc. – and absent a decision to ‘kill them all’ (which is off the table – for cultural reasons, btw), we want to break their will, it’s important to understand both the limits imposed by our own culture on our understanding and behavior – and the limits (and opportunities) presented by the culture of our opponents.

    You simply can’t talk about these kind of activities and ignore culture; it’s the equivalent of the tourists’ “everyone is just like us, but with interesting food and different clothes”.


  6. seydlitz89 Says:

    To answer your question, yes, in my view.  Particularly when a culture/civilization/society were in the throes of political disintegration . . . conducting an effective strategy would be impossible.  But then the nature of such a culture would preclude the ability to see outside that particular culture, that is the ability to recognize the warning signs of its own dissolution(?) until it was too late?  The connections between culture and strategy are thus intimate, rather than “culture” being just another tool in the “strategist’s toolbox”. 

  7. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Been lurking on this post and the responses. Everyone makes good points, however Marc’s thinking is closer to my own. At the geopolitical level, I believe we have evidence that strategy can trump culture; WWII provides examples in both the European and Pacific theaters. A strategy was developed to bring Germany and Japan to their knees—along with their culture.
    Marc is right on our cultural limitations to use that sort of force in our modern world, but in reality, if a nation possesses the will and the tools/technology/methods, a good strategy will most likely prevail—a sort of variation on “might makes right…” I would submit that Marc touches the essence when he writes on the limits we’ve placed on ourselves. In my view, since WWII, we have not fought with the political will necessary to to bend the will of our adversaries. To roughly quote Ralph Peters, that would require a “fair amount of killing.” 

  8. PB Says:

    In a recent review of The Generals by Tom Ricks, Brian Linn writes:
    “Unwilling, or unable, to remove mediocre officers, superiors have resorted to micromanaging. This has created a culture in which top officers control rather than command, and in which subordinates are promoted for their compliance, not their initiative.”
    So does this culture trump strategy? 

  9. zen Says:

    Excellent comments. This is a matter that requires much thought.
    Does the operational-institutional culture of a uniformed military (or other fighting force) trump strategy? It can, when it is at variance with reality. Between Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Prussian military culture became ossified and ritualistic, obsessed with the minutia of the peacetime parade ground drill and barracks martinet rather than the rigors of the battlefield for which the drill had been established, and when the French came, the deluge.
    interestingly enough, Major Kotkin and Seydlitz are in agreement about what force can do if the will were present with which to do it. Our elite is readier to have young Americans die in modest numbers than young foreigners die in large numbers.
    Larry is correct that where the strategist sits has a lot to do with the answer.
    Think Scott has a good point on what level are we operating at – in a village or at 52,000 feet or in the basement of the White House?
    Rob has a point on efficiency and culture in small wars
    Going to ponder this some more. 

  10. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    This post came up at dinner last night. Two thoughts came to mind during the exchange. One was the requisite ends: what and why are we attempting to bend the will of the adversary? And, do we possess the requisite will to exact/prosecute those ends. Lord knows we have the ways, good people could disagree on the means, but I find will to be the most scarce at the top levels. Consider Vietnam; we tactically carried the battles, but strategically ham-strung our military to subdue the North—and had we prosecuted like WWII, we could have bent them to our will—and I might be wrong. When the ROE effectively ties one hand behind the backs of not only the generals, but the guy with the bayonet, the result is a bunch on “one-handed forces” engaging those with two and fewer constraints.
    I mentioned Ralph Peters above. In his prescient 1997 essay Constant Conflict,  (US Army War College quarterly Parameters), he described with pretty remarkable clarity, the world as it remains. What does remain to be seen is whether we possess the convictions of a Great Power, capable of denying the savagery of militant Islam. For does not strategy arise from a conviction of the value of our way of life, and that it be guarded/defended, even when the costs are high?
    As you know, I’m finishing a book on what I call a To Be or To Do Culture, and have been working a narrative to describe the inner dynamic—one of the inner dynamics is a system of values and order—much like George the Elder’s “line in the sand” rhetoric in the 91 Gulf War; defining a boundary over which if the enemy chooses to cross will meet certain and swift destruction. These may seem extreme, however at the very core, life and death are extremes. The value we place on our way of life has necessarily in the past, resulted in the death of our adversaries (I go back to WWII). That said, (and I apologize for wandering) a strategy based on the conviction that there are things in our way of life worth the lives of our military in their pursuit of and killing more of the enemy that are worth the risks (and bad press). A brutish business to be sure, but when strategy is based on conviction much of the “gray” fades, with clarity of purpose and ends that will enable us to prevail…

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Consider Vietnam; we tactically carried the battles, but strategically ham-strung our military to subdue the North—and had we prosecuted like WWII, we could have bent them to our will—and I might be wrong.
     My best understanding of secondary sources, which is supported from reading 1967-68 FRUS of convos of Dean Rusk and the LBJ transcripts with various individuals, is that LBJ seemed to operate on the erroneous legacy assumption of “monolithic Communism” and that North Vietnam had a mutual-aid treaty that would have drawn Red China and the “USSR into WWIII if America attempted to crush Hanoi and forcibly reunite Vietnam under Saigon or dictate a peace.
    Now the trouble with this widely held thesis about LBJ’s strategic decisions regarding the war is twofold. First, most experts in the Communist bloc, including at State, were well aware of the Sino-Soviet split. It would have been very hard to miss given the hyperbolic level of Anti-Soviet propaganda blaring from Peking about revisionism and “social imperialists” at the onset of the Cultural Revolution and well before that as relations between Mao and Khrushchev disintegrated into personal insults and public challenges to Moscow’s moral authority over the Communist world. We knew very well the world had changed since Korea and even had a diplo channel to the Chinese in Warsaw which we did not exploit under Johnson.
    Secondly, LBJ was a pathological liar and relentless manipulator of his associates and rivals. He was also a bully and a coward, as I read his character. That Vietnam caused him great anguish I do not doubt, but I can’t give much credence to any of his self-justifications whether we are discussing the investigation of the Kennedy assassination, the war, Soviet relations or American politics unless it is corroborated elsewhere. My take is that the prospect of pursuing a WWII kind of conflict in Vietnam daunted him and did not fit with his vision of himself as a great historical benefactor like his idol FDR or the building of the Great Society and the fear of Chinese intervention was a plausible excuse to demur ( one made easier by Ike’s ruling out nuclear war over Southeast Asia a decade earlier) and pursue Westmoreland’s strategy instead.
    I like the concept of “an inner dynamic” of “a system of values and order” very much. We had one in the Eastern Establishment (of which Bush the Elder was one of the last vestiges) but not with the political generation that came of age in 1968-1974 which cohabits uneasily with those of 1980. Politically fractured and ethically challenged leadership makes for poor stewards

  12. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Many thanks!
    Methinks “a system of values and order” required critical judgement; which has become an anathema in our meta-culture. As Harvey Mansfield said:
    “Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism—hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that don’t change.” 

  13. L. C. Rees Says:

    What today calls culture is what yesterday called “customs and manners”. For example, Montaigne wrote a few classic essays on customs and manners. John Jay wrote in Federalist 2: “With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.” Deep culture, the truly unconscious assumptions embedded in customs and manners, probably doesn’t get trumped by strategy unless the strategy is so tightly wrapped around a culture’s tropes that it can run on fumes during downtimes. The more disposable forms of culture like fashion can probably be affected by strategy but likely only in unpredictable ways. The deep retribalizing of the complex ancient civilizations of Southwest Asia by the Arabs is one of the great cultural transformations. Whether this outcome was derived from the strategic intent of Abu Bakr, Omar, Muawiyah, or Abd el-Malick is unlikely.

  14. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi L.C.,
    Thanks for providing the Montaigne links!
    Did not the “unconditional surrender” goal of WWII Allied strategy alter Japanese and German cultures in some ways? While the manners and customs may not have been affected on the street, certainly their political cultures were overhauled. 

  15. L. C. Rees Says:

    That’s a complex question. Listening to a bunch of different perspectives on the defeat of the Axis powers, it may be that what happened was a highly contingent switch of political power from a milder strain in German or Japanese culture to a particularly virulent strain followed by an equally highly contingent switch back to a milder strain. Our part in the highly contingent switch was taking political power from one set of Japanese or Germans (representing the fascist/nationalist/Nazi strain) and giving it to another set who seemed more palatable. Yet, even then, the most America-friendly Japanese or German politicians would resist initiatives like trying senior Japanese Army/Navy officers or Wehrmacht officers like Guderian or Manstein for war crimes because it tainted the whole nation. They would also find ways of subtly suggesting American wrongdoing like the Japanese hyping their victimhood at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, their insistence that leaders like Yamishita were executed as scapegoats, or the German dramatization of the bombing of Dresden as an unmatched atrocity. The cultural sea change seems to have come in German during the 1960s as part of the broader wave of student uprisings that swept the Western world during that unholy hippy decade. Our victory in World War II probably helped bring that generational change about. We are not a potted plant. But some of that influence may have been brought about by the prosperity and cultural cachet produced by our overall victory and not the specific policies put in place during our occupations.

    I always think of ten Japanese soldiers about to launch into a Banzaii! charge during WWII. Nine out of that ten may be thinking, “This is nuts!” but the one whose sole thought is “BANZAII!!!!!!!!” can make the others verbally shout “BANZAII!!!!!!!!” and charge that machine gun nest because the correlation of political forces in his favor prevents the nine from discovering that they constitute an effective anti-BANZAII!!! majority.

    The general beastliness shown by Japanese soldiers during WWII was a deliberate practice first encouraged by a faction of Japanese officers during the 1920s. Japanese soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and WWI were known for their tight discipline. The sort of rampant indiscipline of the China Incident-WWII era was something that disgusted the Imperial establishment but the Kwangtung army faction disgusted them with their chronic insubordination but the Japanese establishment did nothing to correct it and was more than happy to accept the fruits of empire that chronic indiscipline brought about.

    The American occupation seems to have suited some members of the Japanese establishment just fine since it defanged the crazies in the Japanese military and destroyed the infantile turf battles between the Army and Navy that drove much of Japanese foreign policy. Those same establishment figures were of course annoyed at being ruled by a foreigner and defanged many American initiatives with passive aggressive resistance. Jonathan Rauch has even argued that the Americans for a time became the equivalent of an opposition party in the Japanese political system: the Japanese could maintain a semblance of unity amongst themselves while making changes because we “forced them to do it”.
    There was a vigorous strain of liberalism (in the European sense) within Germany that unfolded over a time frame similar to that of its neighbors on the continent. It was thwarted by Bismarck. If there was no Bismarck, Wilhelm I might have abdicated c. 1862 in favor of Friedrich III and liberalism in Prussia would have been ascendent. There was a general turning away from the excesses of mid-nineteenth century lassiez-faire and liberalism during 1870-1900 that challenged liberalism all over Europe in favor of socialism on the left and mercantilism on the right. But in other nations liberalism had stronger cohesion because it had achieved some political gains but Bismarck retarded liberalism for a generation. Even then the strain never went away and some of it even found its way into the SPD and the Center party and thence into the SPD-CPU-CSU politicians like Adenaur and Brandt who came to power with American connivance in West Germany afte the war.

  16. larrydunbar Says:

    “I don;t think you can extract our military capabilities from the culture that created them”

    You have to, or get it from your enemy. Who else loves you baby?

    I mean you may “extract” the “ways” of your enemy, but the means still pretty much depends on your culture, unless you are able to replace the means (resources including human resources) of your actions with that of your enemy. What’s happening in Mexico could answer that question. The drug cartels are learning the “ways”, where are they getting the means, from fast and furious or from the Mexican culture?

    I guess the question then is: can you take the resources from another OODA loop and still remain your “self”? I would have to think about that one.

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