Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 1  /  

Strategic Culture: A Look at Europe

Strategic Culture: A Look at Europe Strategic Culture: A Look at Europe
To cite this article: Dowdall, Jonathan. “Strategic Culture: A Look at Europe.”Infinity Journal, Issue No. 1, Winter 2010, pages 23-27.

The concept of “strategic culture” is a simple one: that long-term trends in the preferences, priorities and policies adopted by states in relation to military force and international affairs can be meaningfully identified.[i] In claiming to explain how states may differ in their opinions and policies on the use of armed force, it is an alluring model that openly challenges a focus on power in international relations.

Yet under scrutiny, how useful is this tool for understanding the behaviour of actual states? By using the case studies of Britain, France and Germany, this paper assesses the usefulness of the “strategic culture” viewpoint. Under examination, the ingrained position of these states in terms of policy priorities and military capabilities does indeed seem to reflect a strategic-cultural interpretation with some accuracy. However, the theory also has limitations for understanding the behaviour of these states. Most notably, the theory lacks deeper insight about individual policy choices, and its inability to identify the source of change in a state’s strategic culture raises further doubts about its suitability as an analysis tool. Given this assessment, it should perhaps be concluded that, whilst useful, a degree of caution should be exercised when attempting to project strategic culture concepts onto specific international events.

So, what does “strategic culture” attempt to highlight in contemporary state behaviour? The approach in modern academia is an offshoot of the Constructivist school, as championed by thinkers such as Alexander Wendt.[ii] Wendt’s assertion that “Anarchy is what states make of it” created a new concept in international relations; namely that the nature of “threat” in the international system is not absolute, but relative to interpretation by individual states. Building from this, advocates of strategic culture have hypothesised that ‘strategic realities are in part culturally constructed’.[iii]

The school of thought that emerged has been fraught with internal disagreements, and an exact definition has never been universally agreed upon. However, broadly speaking, the concept suggests that the preferences and practices of states are the result of a ‘negotiated reality’ built up over time through public and political discourse into a ‘distinctive body of beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding the use of force’. In short, the way a state uses armed force is not decided by some “universal logic” of threat and defence, but a far more intricate relationship between history, context and culture. The result is a cultural “filter” through which states assess incoming international events, form policy responses and decide the eventual role of armed force within that response. [vi]

This proposed “filter” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it challenges a purely power-orientated vision of the world, as proposed by Realists. The Realist school remains the most widely referenced theory of international relations, and through focusing on power and the strategic goal of obtaining security, claims to explain almost all state behaviour. As such, the Realist school would predict that state behaviour, in a given context, can be judged by objective standards, such as geographical security, levels of resources and the manifestation of threats. Any given state, a Realist would argue, will behave in accordance with certain principles of power projection and security, irrelevant of historically held views or cultural factors. Realism claims that power, and the politics of power, are all that matter in international affairs. Strategic culture refutes this claim.

Secondly, strategic culture claims to provide a broad contextual background to the use of force that affects all policy decisions by a state. Essentially, strategic culture analysis claims to not only define what a state views as being possible with armed force, but what it can even imagine may be possible.[vii] It claims that strategic culture will form the boundaries of state behaviour in general, as well as in given circumstances. This assertion of durability is important, as it boasts a predictive power that can be of great utility to strategic analysis.

Due to these two factors, the theory has gained a wide following in international relations literature, and its application to the European context is a particularly common one.[viii]

To test the claims of strategic culture, the case study of the military preferences and priorities of Britain, France and Germany are very interesting. This is because all three states seem to have near identical strategic context. They all have comparable demographic statistics[ix] , stable democratic politics, possess membership in the EU and prominent positions in the UN[x], whilst all enjoying some of the highest-ranking economic productivity in the world.[xi] Yet despite these similarities, and contrary to purely power-based interpretations, these states demonstrate policy preferences in relation to the use of force that strategic-culturalists claim cannot be accounted for by simple “realist” assessments of resources and geography.[xii]

Indeed, by framing their preferences in terms of deeply held strategic cultural sentiments, it is possible in these three case studies to identify a meaningful correlation between strategic cultural observations and continuities in their foreign policies and military capabilities. All three need to be illustrated in order to examine the utility of the strategic culture concept.

In terms of policy preferences Britain and France share a common willingness to deploy force on the world stage that seems to reflect strategic cultural traditions.[xiii] A historical acceptance of the legitimacy of armed force as a policy tool is matched in both states by numerous examples of deploying armed force in both unilateral and multilateral circumstances.[xiv] These interventions have often been far from home, reflecting a colonial history and broader feelings of the importance of their respective influence world-wide.[xv] Each has also sought to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, despite the cost, in order to guarantee their status as important security brokers world-wide.[xvi] Perhaps most importantly, the populations of both countries, whilst often known to resist individual military deployments based on unique criticism[xvii], do not question the concept of their troops being sent abroad. In short, both have a faith in “hard power” as a policy tool that seems to reflect a strategic cultural trend, each guided by particular, relevant factors of history and culture.

In marked contrast, Germany has displayed a strategic cultural policy preference that many argue illustrates a profound ‘historical anomaly’.[xviii] Despite being the largest and most economically powerful of the three states, the ‘major external shock’[xix] of defeat in World War II has created ‘antimilitarism’ in German strategic culture that has proved ‘immensely durable.’[xx] The resultant ‘culture of restraint’[xxi] has been characterised by a devout adherence to multilateralism and non-involvement in military operations aimed at maximising their global self-image as a reliable political partner.[xxii] Whilst a slow reduction of legal and constitutional impediments to Germany utilising armed force has occurred over the past two decades,[xxiii] German public opinion continues to be more staunchly antimilitarist than their British or French cousins. In general, political commitment to armed engagements remains controversial.[xxiv] Thus, in contrast to the other two major European states, Germany possesses a strategic culture deeply reticent about the role of armed force, utterly at odds with a realist perspective, which is reflected in a policy preference of ‘restraint’.

These contrasting strategic-cultural policy preferences proceed to shed light on the military capabilities and practices of each state. For instance, the focus on global military relevance in British and French strategic culture has influenced the pace and scope of military reform since the end of the Cold War. Both radically restructured their armed forces in response to the newly emerging “expeditionary” priority that proceeded the lack of existential threat from the USSR.[xxv] Britain and France also remain committed to ambitious “legacy” projects, such as an aircraft carrier program.[xxvi] The strength of their respective strategic cultures clearly acted as a catalyst for the great deal of political energy required to carry out this re-structuring. Their levels of military spending, amongst the top four largest military budgets in the world, also illustrates this connection between strategic culture and policy commitment to armed force.[xxvii]

In contrast, Germany, with its lack of political will and domestic consensus around the use of force has undergone only intermittent military reform for power projection since unification.[xxviii] Indeed, not only does Germany have a €16 billion shortfall in its military budget compared to the per-capita commitment of Britain and France[xxix], but the military capacity of German troops has also been compared extremely poorly with other European states.[xxx] That a state with the economic and political position of Germany has such a low level of military deployability seems evident that strategic culture can fundamentally affect the practice of military policy in a state.

Under examination, it seems that the theoretical implications of strategic culture on the policy preferences and resultant military capabilities of states have a strong correlation. Britain, France and Germany display policy alignments consistent with long term strategic cultural trends, proving that ‘a distinctive approach to strategy can become engrained in training, institutions and force postures’.[xxxi] This seems to prove the usefulness of the model in helping understand state behaviour, and stands as a potent argument against the power-obsessed tendencies of Realism.

However, there are also some severe limitations to the strategic culture model that need to be explored. These revolve around its lack of deeper insight about the particular strategic choices of a state, and the inability of theorists to identify the direct source of change in a state’s strategic culture.

The initial problem is that whilst strategic cultural readings may illustrate broad trends, it ‘lacks theoretical rigor in demonstrating the linkage between identified cultural trends and actual behaviour’ in particular complex situations.[xxxii] An example comes from assessing the specific form that the policy preferences identified above have taken shape in each state.

For Britain, an “Atlanticist” stance to defence policy has been identified, that has seen it walk a “tightrope” between European security and more global commitments to military co-operation with the USA.[xxxiii] In contrast, France has been attributed a “Gaullist” preference based around the priority of ‘autonomy of action’ from exterior (especially US) policy alignments.[xxxiv] Meanwhile, Germany has consistently demonstrated an ‘admirable subordination of its own interests to the broader EU project’ as the core of its multilateralism.[xxxv]

These strategies may reflect the broad assertion that Britain and France utilise military force, or prioritise international military capabilities, whilst Germany does not, but there is also immense nuance and political negotiation behind each policy path. For instance, the British relationship between US and EU defence initiatives is an immensely complicated one, characterised by forays into deeper EU co-operation[xxxvi], retreats from policy positions[xxxvii], and a general process of “muddling through” complex political processes.[xxxviii] French policies towards the EU and military force have demonstrated a similar schizophrenic streak, with advances in the European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) initiative paradoxically causing a crisis of identity in the wider French vision of its role.[xxxix] Similarly, German debates over the reform of the Bundeswehr (armed forces) have been characterised by debate over the wider social implications of reform on the Zivildienst[xl] (civil volunteering) program, as well as budgetary concerns.[xli]

What such factors illustrate is a lack of deeper insight in the strategic cultural approach to explaining the more complicated realities behind policy decisions.[xlii] To be fair to the theorists, it has been suggested that a policy decision may be the result of numerous interrelating public, political and military factors that complicate a ‘unitary understanding of strategic culture.’[xliii] Yet regardless, this reduces the utility of the model, as the complex context of any particular policy event is not adequately captured by strategic culture theory.

This leads to the final important limitation of the strategic culture concept – its inability to identify with any clarity the source of changes to a state’s strategic culture.[xliv] It is widely agreed that a “massive external shock”, such as complete economic and political collapse, may alter the historical makeup of a state’s strategic culture. The case study of Germany and Japan’s pacifism after World War Two is used widely as proof of this assertion.[xlv] However, there is substantial disagreement over the exact process of less severe, incremental processes of change to a strategic culture.[xlvi] Here the case study of Germany’s gradual re-alignment from a policy position of almost total antimilitarism to a more nuanced semi-militarist stance over the 1990s is instrumental in illustrating this debate.

It is widely accepted that Germany has slowly come to accept a limited responsibility for military action over time, concluding with the deployment of German forces in active war zones such as Kosovo (1998-1999) and now Afghanistan that would have been unthinkable in 1990.[xlvii] However, there is a great deal of debate over how this process took place, and what this reflects in strategic cultural analysis.[xlviii] One potential perspective, the “Structuralist” approach, sees public opinion and zeitgeist as being the most important aspect of change. Another perspective, the “Actionalist” viewpoint, believe politicians instead actively debate international events, and if necessary, re-adjust the historical parameters of strategic culture in line with necessity.

Confusingly, both processes seem to have been at work in the German evolution of strategic culture. On the one hand, clear international pressure from the US combined with a growing sense of commitment to the EU in the Bundestag to give policy actors such as Schroeder and Scharping ‘strong incentives for the political manipulation of reform’.[xlix] This led them to attempt to re-phrase the public debate in reference to “responsibilities”, and gradually shift political willingness to use force.[l] Nonetheless, it has also been observed that public perception of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and the emotive response in Germany on the subject of preventing genocide, was the ‘primary catalyst for German foreign policy restructuring’.[li]

Given these interpretations, Baumann & Hellmann wisely conclude that such changes in strategic culture are influenced by both the schools of thought suggested.[lii] Yet equally, this is a vague assertion, and the difficulty of confirming exactly which factor has the largest influence on the formation and re-formation of strategic culture represents a weakness in this model.

Clearly, considering Britain, France and Germany in terms of their respective strategic cultures, illustrates historical differences in the policy and practice of armed force. By proposing an ‘intervening variable between stimuli arriving from the strategic environment and a state’s response to those stimuli, strategic culture aids an understanding of state behaviour by shedding light on factors other than power in the international system.[liii] However, the usefulness of this theoretical model must be tempered by an appreciation of its limitations, notably its lack of insight to more complex policy processes and its incoherent response to the issue of changes within a state’s strategic culture over time.

Where does this leave the debate between Realist and cultural viewpoints of state behaviour? Even with the weaknesses identified above, the evidence in Europe continues to point towards cultural interpretations, and not Realist ones. As Europe enters an uncertain 21st century, the sluggish but potentially momentous move towards EU military integration is seeing a historically unparalleled level of co-operation and subordination of national interest. The strategic culture of security co-operation at any cost, lest Europe once again be torn apart by great power conflict, is so deeply ingrained in the institutions of Brussels, that it remains almost inconceivable that a purely power orientated viewpoint could emerge in modern Europe. A strategic culture of co-operation has trumped power as the political tool of choice in Europe.

Ultimately, it is in this historically exceptional agreement between sovereign states that strategic culture seems manifestly the more accurate of the two theories. Put simply, power does not provide all the answers. As long as the limitations above are borne in mind, the strategic culture approach provides a more historically relevant and accurate model for understanding international affairs.


[i] For the historical source of the “strategic culture” concept in the “ways of war” literature of the inter-war period, see Berger (1998) pp.9-15 and Sondhaus (2006) pp.1-3
[ii] For the roots of Constuvtivism, see Wendt (1992)
[iii] Booth found in Sondhaus (2006) p.5
[iv] For the “three generations” of thinkers and their disputes, see UzZaman (2009) pp.74-82. For the definitions debate, see Sondhaus (2006) pp.123-130
[v] Exact wording provided by Longhurst, though a comparison table of definitions can be found in Soundhaus (2006) pp.124-125. Table 5.1
[vi] Basrur & Forrest Morgan, found in Sondhaus (2006) p.9
[vii] Duffield (1999) p.771
[viii] See for instance the work of Rashed UzZaman, Jack Snyder, Colin Gray and Lawrence Sondhaus, as discussed in UzZaman (2009) pp.69-82
[ix] See CIA World Factbook for population sizes per square mile and other comparable characteristics.
[x] Security Council membership for France and Britain being particularly important.
[xi] The 4th (Germany), 5th (France) and 6th (Britain) largest economies in the world respectively. Figures from 2008 World Bank estimates, found at
[xii] For the realist perspective of state behaviour and its belief in the uniformity of state motivation, see Waltz (2001)
[xiii] See Sondhaus (2006) p.14 and p.20 respectively.
[xiv] Unilaterally, recent history has seen Britain in Sierra Leone (2000) and France in the Ivory Coast (2004). Multilaterally both are currently engaged in Afghanistan.
[xv] For Britain’s “uniquely global outlook” see Miskimmon (2004) p.281 For French perceptions of global grandeur see Irondelle (2008) p.155
[xvi] For the priority of nuclear weapons as a “great power status” tool, see Howorth (2003) p.182
[xvii] See for instance the broad anti-war sentiment that has developed over the controversial Afghanistan mission, poll-figures available at
[xviii] Berger (1998) p.1
[xix] For the concept of a “major external shock” as a pre-requisite for strategic cultural re-alignment, see Berger (1998) pp.23-25
[xx] Sondhaus (2006) p.44
[xxi] For an exploration of this concept, see Baumann & Hellmann (2001) pp.62-63
[xxii] Lantis (2002) p.22
[xxiii] For a chart of this progress, culminating in active armed involvement in Kosovo (1999), see Dyson (2005) p.66 Fig.1
[xxiv] See opinion polls found in Maull (2000) pp.70-80 and for the ongoing domestic debate about armed force, see Noetzel & Schreer (2008) pp.211-213
[xxv] The scope and structure of reforms, see Sondhaus (2006) p.19 for Britain and Irondelle (2008) p.162 for France
[xxvi] For Britain see Rogers (2006) and for France see Irondelle (2008) p.162
[xxvii] Figures found at
[xxviii] See for instance the comprehensive failure to meet the targets of the Konzeption de Bundeswehr proposed in 2003, despite a seven year time-scale. Noetzel & Schreer (2008) p.217
[xxix] Meiers (2005) p.158
[xxx] See for instance the assessment of US, German and British Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, in Bollen, Linssen & Rietjens (2006)
[xxxi] Colin Gray, found in Sondhaus (2006) p.4
[xxxii] Criticism forwarded by Johnston (1999) found in Sondhaus (2006) p.8
[xxxiii] Gordon, found in Smith & Timmins (2001) p.154
[xxxiv] Vaisse (2008) p.5
[xxxv] Sondhaus (2006) p.44
[xxxvi] Such as St Malo in 1998
[xxxvii] For the rocky path of US-British relations, see Niblett (2007) pp.627-630
[xxxviii] Hood (2008) p.196
[xxxix] For the “reincarnation/incarnation” debate, see Irondelle (2008) p.154
[xl] Conscripts undertaking civil service jobs as a substitute for military training, a political and economic source of great controversy. As discussed in Dyson (2005) p.365
[xli] Indeed, budgetary concerns have been identified as fundamentally shaping all three states policy orientations since the end of the Cold War, as discussed in Dyson (2005) p.365 and Cornish & Edwards (2005) pp.258-261
[xlii] See the work of Rejesh Basrur as discussed in Sondhaus (2006) pp.8-9 for such criticisms.
[xliii] Critique forwarded by Colin Gray, found in UzZaman (2009) p.82
[xliv] See Berger (1998) pp.23-25 and UzZaman (2009) p.70
[xlv] As discussed in depth in Berger (1998)
[xlvi] For an outline of these disagreements, see UzZaman (2009) pp.74-82
[xlvii] See Lantis (2002)
[xlviii] Arguments found in Baumann & Hellmann (2001) pp.62-72
[xlix] Dyson (2005) pp.368
[l] For this process of policy manipulation, see Dyson (2005) pp.368-373
[li] Lantis (2002) p.39
[lii] Baumann & Hellmann (2001) p.64
[liii] Sondhaus (2006) p.9

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