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Ronfeldt’s In-Depth Review of America 3.0


 David Ronfeldt, RAND strategist and theorist has done a deep two-part  review of America 3.0 over at his Visions from Two Theories blog. Ronfeldt has been spending the last few years developing his TIMN analytic framework (Tribes, Institutions [hierarchical], Markets and Networks) which you can get a taste from here  and here or a full reading with this RAND paper.

David regards the familial structure thesis put forward by James Bennett and Michael Lotus in America 3.0 as “captivating”  and “compelling” for  “illuminating the importance of the nuclear family for America’s evolution in ways that, in my view, help validate and reinforce TIMN”. Both reviews are detailed and should be read in their entirety, but I will have some excerpts below:

America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 1 of 2) 

….Bennett and Lotus show at length (Chapter 2, pp. 29-45) that the nuclear family explains a lot about our distinctive culture and society:

“It has caused Americans to have a uniquely strong concept of each person as an individual self, with an identity that is not bound by family or tribal or social ties. … Our distinctive type [of] American nuclear family has made us what we are.” (p. 29)And “what we are” as a result is individualistic, liberty-loving, nonegalitarian (without being inegalitarian), competitive, enterprising, mobile, and voluntaristic. In addition, Americans tend to have middle-class values, an instrumental view of government, and a preference for suburban lifestyles. 

As the authors carefully note, these are generally positive traits, but they have both bright and dark sides, noticeable for example in the ways they make America a “high-risk, high-return culture” (p. 38) — much to the bane of some individuals. The traits also interact in interesting ways, such that Americans tend to be loners as individuals and families, but also joiners “who form an incomprehensibly dense network of voluntary associations” — much to the benefit of civil society (p. 39). 

In sum, the American-style nuclear family is the major cause of “American exceptionalism” — the basis of our freedom and prosperity, our “amazing powers of assimilation” (p. 53), and our unique institutions:

“It was the deepest basis for the development of freedom and prosperity in England, and then in America. Further, the underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all of the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries.” (p. 52)The authors go on to show this for America 1.0 and 2.0 in detail. They also reiterate that Americans have long taken the nuclear family for granted. Yet, very different marriage and family practices are the norm in most societies around the world. And the difference is profoundly significant for the kinds of cultural, social, economic, and political evolution that ensue. Indeed, the pull of the nuclear model in the American context is so strong that it has a liberating effect on immigrants who come from societies that are organized around extended families and clans (p. 55) — an important point, since America is a land of immigrants from all over, not just from Anglo-Saxon nuclear-family cultures.

….As for foreign policy, the authors commend “an emerging phenomenon we call “Network Commonwealth,” which is an alignment of nations … who share common ties that may include language, culture and common legal systems.” (p. 260) Above all, they’d like to see the “Anglosphere” take shape. And as the world coalesces into various “global networks of affinity” engaged in shifting coalitions (p. 265), America 3.0 would cease emphasizing democracy-promotion abroad, and “reorient its national strategy to a primary emphasis on maintaining the freedom of the global commons of air, sea, and space.” (p. 263) [UPDATE: For more about the Network Commonwealth and Anglosphere concepts, see Bennett’s 2007 paper here.]

Read the whole thing here.

America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 2 of 2)  

….Overlaps with TIMN themes and propositions

Part 1 discussed America 3.0’s key overlap with TIMN: the prevalence and significance of the nuclear family in the American case. This leads to questions about family matters elsewhere. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is more to TIMN’s tribal form than the nature of the family. I also spotted several additional thematic overlaps between America 3.0 and TIMN, and I want to highlight those as well. Thus, in outline form, this post addresses:

  • Seeking a fuller understanding of family matters beyond the American case.
  • Gaining a fuller understanding of the tribal/T form.
  • Anticipating the rise of the network/+N form.
  • Recognizing that every form has bright and dark sides.
  • Recognizing the importance of separation among the forms/realms.
  • Recognizing that balance among them is important too.
  • Cautioning against the exportability of the American model.

After these points, the post ends by summarily noting that America 3.0 is more triformist than quadriformist in conception — but a worthy kind of triformist plus, well worth reading.

My discussion emphasizes the T and +N forms. Bennett and Lotus also have lots to say about +I and +M matters — government and business — and I’ll squeeze in a few remarks along the way. But this post mostly skips +I and +M matters. For I’m more interested in how America 3.0 focuses on T (quite sharply) and +N (too diffusely). 

By the way, America 3.0 contains lots of interesting observations that I do not discuss — e.g., that treating land as a commodity was a feature of nuclear-family society (p. 105), and so was creating trusts (p. 112). Readers are advised to harvest the book’s contents for themselves.

….Caution about the exportability of the American model: TIMN sharpens — at least it is supposed to sharpen — our understanding that how societies work depends on how they use four cardinal forms of organization. This simplification leaves room for great complexity, for it is open to great variation in how those forms may be applied in particular societies. Analysts, strategists, and policymakers should be careful about assuming that what works in one society can be made to work in another. 

….In retrospect it seems I pulled my punch there. I left out what might/should have come next: TIMN-based counsel to be wary about assuming that the American model, especially its liberal democracy, can be exported into dramatically different cultures. I recall thinking that at the time; but I was also trying to shape a study of just the tribal form, without getting into more sweeping matters. So I must have pulled that punch, and I can’t find anywhere else I used it. Even so, my view of TIMN is that it does indeed caution against presuming that the American model is exportable, or that foreign societies can be forced into becoming liberal democracies of their own design.

Meanwhile, America 3.0 clearly insists that Americans should be wary of trying to export the American model of democracy. Since so much about the American model depends on the nature of the nuclear family, policies that work well in the United States may not work well in other societies with different cultures — and vice-versa. Accordingly, the authors warn,

“American politicians are likely to be wrong when they tell us that we can successfully export democracy, or make other countries look and act more like the United States.” (p. 24)

“A foreign-policy based primarily on “democracy-promotion” and “nation-building” is one that will fail more times than not, … .” (p. 254)TIMN is not a framework about foreign policy. But as a framework about social evolution, it may have foreign-policy implications that overlap with those of America 3.0. In my nascent view (notably herehere, and here), the two winningest systems of the last half-century or so are liberal democracy and patrimonial corporatism. The former is prominent among the more-advanced societies, the latter among the less-developed (e.g., see here). As Bennett and Lotus point out, liberal democracy is most suitable where nuclear families hold sway. And as I’ve pointed out, patrimonial corporatism is more attractive in societies where clannish tribalism holds sway. 

Read the rest here.

This discussion about America 3.0 and TIMN seems particularly appropriate in light of the need to process, digest and distill the lessons of more than a decade of COIN and counter-terrorism warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and – increasingly- Africa. One of the more difficult aspects of COIN operations has been for American military and diplomatic to decipher the layered relationships and interplay of family honor, tribe, political institution, emerging market and networks in a nation shattered by dictatorship and war like Iraq or to import modern institutions and  a democratic political system in Afghanistan where they had never existed.

Many of these aspects were opaque and were understood only through hard-won experience (frequently lost with new unit rotation) or still remain elusive to Americans even after ten years of fighting among alien cultures which were also permeated by the sectarian nuances and conflicts of Islam. A religion to which relatively few Americans adhere or know sufficiently about, yet is a critical psychological driver for many of our adversaries as well as our allies.

Arguably, the eye-opening response of people to America 3.0 indicates we do not even understand ourselves, much less others

7 Responses to “Ronfeldt’s In-Depth Review of America 3.0”

  1. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Good post, and I’m glad you covered the reviews here.
    One minor quibble:  I agree that we Americans lack the mental machinery to deal with the interplay of familial honor (wasta), tribe, politics, etc.  But the problem goes deeper–we lack the ability to place the politics into such a context from which to derive a war from it.  In OEF specifically, we’ve come to see working with tribes as an end to themselves.  In OIF, we came to see protecting the population as an end as well.  I disagree–we should work with tribes and protect to population not as an end, but as a means to destroy the enemy.
    Therefore I see the connection between TIMN, family dynamics, and warfighting as tenuous.  To be sure, familly structure does seem to drive culture, and politics/policy, and therefore can impact warfighting.  But one must make sure we’re fighting for the appropriate ends with the right means.
    We messed up the strategy.  This is basic warmaking 101.  Just as Clausewitz.  “The first, most important thing…”
    Semper Fidelis,

  2. Marshall Says:

    A reference for the curious:
    In Afghanistan, the National Solidarity Programme was/is the centerpiece of a homegrown — and therefore culturally sophisticated — effort to promote democratic values and institutions. (I say “was” because the driving force behind it, Mohammed Ehsan Zia, was shuffled out of office as Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development after Karzai’s second election.)
    One could nitpick their documents and one can point to the research that says NSP wasn’t as successful as it ought to have been. Instead, one ought to think deeply about the audacity, the courage, and the phenomenal successes that did in fact take place in the face of nearly incomprehensible pressures. One should learn many lessons.
    There is a really good book to be written about NSP. Ah, if I only had a year…
    I had the good fortune to work with a bunch of the people involved with NSP. So, if anybody here does have that year, and the overwhelming interest, I’d introduce you.

  3. zen Says:

    hi Nate,
    I agree with you we messed up the strategy. I’d say the TIMN part would be not knowing how incredibly fantastic and unsuited military force was for the ends of  nation-building/democratizing in the forms of finely-tuned western norms in opposition to local, cultural preferences would be. It would have helped our cultural intelligence in forming policy.
    hi Marshall,
    Very brave and very outlier individuals. We had these folks too but mostly their radicalism is forgotten because their ideas triumphed so completely they appear now as “normal”to their descendents. 

  4. Marshall Says:

    My friends, Ehsan Zia included, to a person, welcomed the US troops and their security providing function. And to a person, they thought the US attempt at nation-building was absurd and undercut by the process of ongoing warfighting.

  5. david ronfeldt Says:

    many thanks, zen.  much appreciated.  i also agree with your wrapping up your post by pointing to possible implications for COIN.  i had thought about doing that with my post, but figured it would detract from keeping a focus on the “america 3.0” book. 
    here’s an apropos quote i almost used, from General David H. Petraeus, “Reflections on the Counter-Insurgency Era” in a recent issue of The RUSI Journal:  “This observation can be followed with one I offered about the need for appreciation of local customs, practices and religions – that is to say, that ‘Cultural awareness is a force multiplier’. Clearly, we must achieve and maintain a very detailed, granular understanding of the countries and societies in which we operate – and not just at the macro level, but village by village, valley by valley as well.”

    he points in the right direction — one that seems consistent with both my TIMN stuff and bennett & lotus’s 3.0 book — and i continue to wish that the human terrain program had been better designed and schooled. 

  6. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    Anytime, you had a very thoughtful review and I know firsthand that Bennett and Lotus were very interested in your comments about A3.0 and also with TIMN theory itself. 
    Regarding the COIN point re: Petraeus, two things: I notice that Kilcullen has a new book coming out on urban insurgency where he appears to be taking a leaf out of John Robb’s playbook or perhaps anticipating a post-modern networked 21 C. version of the Tupumaros/red brigades/baader-meinhoff phenomena, dense urban centers being the only place that will be safe from armed drone strikes by liberal democratic states
    Secondly, I don’t know if you saw this paper by a friend of mine, Pete Turner and his collaborators Rich Ledet and Jeff Stewart on Transition ops in COIN. They are working on a new paper which they will be talking about at Boyd & Beyond 2013 conference in a few weeks which I think will be of even greater interest to you in light of TIMN and your concerns with HTT. They bear watching. In any event, here’s their last paper:

  7. david ronfeldt Says:

    interesting pointers, thanks.  kilcullen’s book looks foresightful.  a quick browse/search of it at amazon shows several mentions of our “social netwar” concept, but it looks like he barely read our writings about it.  i found no reference to robb’s work, oddly.  onward.

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