Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 2  /  

Strategic Culture: More Problems than Prospects

Strategic Culture: More Problems than Prospects Strategic Culture: More Problems than Prospects
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antulio J., “Strategic Culture: More Problems than Prospects”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Spring 2013, pages 4-7.

The concept of strategic culture has grown more popular of late than its problematic origins and dubious attempts at application warrant. Once described as having undergone three generational shifts, the concept is now in at least its fourth generation, and is no better for any of them. Over the span of more than four decades, the theory’s diachronic and synchronic tensions have resisted resolution. The concept fails, in other words, to account for change over time as well as commonality in time. It attempts to privilege continuity over change in the former sense, and uniqueness over similarity in the latter sense. Its empirical base, moreover, has not gone beyond broad generalizations that do little more than reaffirm national and cultural stereotypes. The idea of strategic culture is, therefore, in need of another more critical examination. Such a re-examination can only lead to the conclusion that, on the whole, the concept’s problems far outweigh its prospects. No doubt this condition will continue to attract scholarly interest in the hopes of resolving these tensions. However, for policymakers and strategists, the concept is best avoided, at least for another generation or two. There are enough tautologies involved in formulating policy and strategy already. It is not clear that the credibility of the process can withstand another one.

Problems with Theory

The theory of strategic culture was originally advanced by Jack Snyder in a monograph entitled, Soviet Strategic Culture, published in 1977.[i] Snyder used the concept to challenge the core assumption underpinning US policy regarding “limited nuclear options,” namely if deterrence failed, both sides would still act with restraint by selecting targets and weapons that would minimize damage. As a counter to that assumption, Snyder argued that the Soviets “may be more favorably inclined toward unilateral damage limitation strategies than toward cooperative ones.” American and Soviet strategic thinking he said “had developed in different organizational, historical, and political contexts, and in response to different situational and technological constraints.” Mirror-imaging, in other words, was risky. It is worth noting that Snyder’s monograph was published by RAND; and as was typical of its products at the time (and still is), his piece addressed a specific policy issue—in this case, potential vulnerabilities in US nuclear flexibility doctrine. It is also worth noting that an underlying theme in Snyder’s study was the credibility of “game theory,” a widespread but controversial analytical approach that tended to represent opponents as “generic strategists”, who were “culture-free and preconception free.” Snyder’s concept of strategic culture was one way of highlighting the vulnerability of that theory. In his view, Soviet responses might well surprise American strategists because the two sides could be thinking along different lines, or from within different belief structures. Moreover, these differences could possess a quality of “semipermanence” that placed them on the level of “‘culture’ rather than mere ‘policy.’”[ii]

All told, Snyder’s theory was more useful not as a separate field of study, which it eventually became, but as a means to expose the limitations of mirror-imaging in strategic analyses. The tone of his monograph is tentative: it discusses strategic culture as a theoretical counterweight, rather than as an established fact. The theory itself was based on two broad, but ultimately indefensible assumptions. The first of these was that historical circumstances and experiences are by definition unique; and they thus lead to distinct concepts or ways of thinking. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that many historical experiences are shared, such as wars fought by alliances against common enemies, or intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment, or economic and technological transformations such as the Industrial Revolution. To be sure, shared experiences would have to pass through separate cultural filters; but those filters also expand in the light of shared experiences. In contrast, Snyder’s assumption of cultural uniqueness inclined too far in the direction of impermeability or insularity. While all cultures are surely unique in some respects, the historical record shows that their modes of thinking are not necessarily insular. Russian and Western cultures, for instance, interacted over many centuries, and influenced each other in various ways.[iii] As a result of this interaction, they have developed methods of understanding each other, however imperfect. A search for cultural differences, in other words, will yield cultural differences.

Snyder’s second assumption was that substantial continuity persists despite significant change. Indeed, the essence of strategic culture is that a “large residual degree of continuity” remains, despite changes in “objective conditions.” Snyder’s term for this was “semipermanence” (a neologism). However, “semipermanence” does not describe a real condition. A thing can either be temporary or permanent: not both. To use this term is to set aside or eliminate the impact of change rather than taking it into account. Once change is so removed, the influence of so-called constants, such as geography or climate, is left unchallenged. Ignoring the tension between change and continuity, thus leads to a different kind of distorted picture. It is one thing to search for unique and enduring attitudes or values: it is another thing to create them.

Snyder’s theory of strategic culture not only rested on dubious assumptions, it also suffered from the definitional vagueness and tautological snares that have plagued the general concept of culture. He defined culture as: “the sum total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior that members of a national community have acquired through instruction or imitation and share with each other.”[iv] According to the wording here, without knowledge of the “sum total”, it is not possible to talk about culture. Moreover, the sum total, if such a thing exists or can be known, would be impossible to represent. In addition, Snyder’s definition contains terms, such as “conditioned emotional responses” and “habitual behavior,” which convey a sense that culture both defines behavior and determines it.

Snyder’s tendency toward inclusion rather than exclusion is not unusual among definitions of culture. One example of such a definition appears in one of the official publications of the US military, which refers to culture as the: “distinctive and deeply rooted beliefs, values, ideology, historic traditions, social forms, and behavioral patterns of a group, organization, or society.”[v] It should not be surprising then, that we find the same tendency carried over to definitions of strategic culture, which one scholar recently defined as: “a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, customs, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force.”[vii] Similarly, any number of variables are said to constitute strategic culture: geography, climate, natural resources, organization, traditions, historical practices, political structures, ideology, myths, symbols, generational change, and technology.[vii] Such broad definitions and limitless variables make it impossible to determine what strategic culture is.

While scholars have long admitted defining culture (or strategic culture) is difficult, they have not entirely acknowledged the implications of what they admit. Clearly, such definitions are tautological; but circular reasoning is more than an intellectual embarrassment or a minor inconvenience for the discipline. If an object of study cannot be defined and isolated, then genuine scientific analysis cannot begin, and defensible conclusions cannot be drawn. Precise definitions are also a safeguard against determinism, which makes an idea both a cause and an effect. To be sure, some definitions of strategic culture are more selective. However, one cannot compare Soviet strategic culture to American strategic culture unless they are defined in the same way. Otherwise, the concept is useless to policymakers and strategists. Nor can one compare an approach defining strategic culture as the “context” within which strategic debate and formulation take place to one that defines it as the way in which “members of a military or political elite approach the problem of winning.”[viii] Drawing general conclusions from such approaches is not possible, and the field of study cannot advance, despite its popularity. Ironically, neither of these approaches needs the label of strategic culture. It adds nothing to their efforts. Definitions of strategic culture have, thus, not only confounded the study of it, they have diverted worthy endeavors from other topics.

Problems in Application

The theory’s flaws notwithstanding, it was enthusiastically embraced, and too hastily applied. The literature concerning the concept’s use describes it in terms of three waves or generational shifts.[ix] These follow a loose thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression, which is reason enough to arouse our suspicion. Not surprisingly, none of the shifts resolved the underlying tensions in the theory. Leaving our suspicions aside for the moment, it can be said that a fourth shift has emerged, not mentioned in the literature.

The first wave (or thesis) began in the early 1980s as scholars picked up Snyder’s original concept, and applied it in a search for other “distinctly national” approaches to strategy and their core determinants.[x] To be sure, it is reasonable to expect that Russians, Americans, Chinese, and others would think differently about strategy. However, as discussed earlier, the search for uniqueness—for “distinct modes of strategic thinking”—went too far.[xi] Also, removing change from the search for core determinants meant that strategic culture was seen as predictive.

The second shift, or antithesis, began in the early 1990s, with Snyder’s criticism of the manner in which his initial theory was being applied.[xiii] Rather than serving as an alternative to rational-actor models, as he had intended, it was being used to predict strategic behavior and to justify specific defense policies precisely because, as previously noted, Snyder’s theory and the pictures it created facilitated such use. Snyder was joined in his criticisms by a number of other scholars, who also added that strategic cultures were rarely as unique as assumed, and that many were, in fact, subjectively constructed.[xiv] The concept was not abandoned; however, nor did its growing popularity appear to have suffered in any way.

The third shift began in the late 1990s in response to the criticisms offered by Snyder and others. In essence, it was an attempted synthesis that re-cast strategic culture as an explanatory “context,” rather than the determinant, of strategic behavior.[xv] The synthesis did not succeed entirely because contextual factors which explain, must also to some degree determine, otherwise they lack explanatory power. Despite Snyder’s denials, his original concept did have deterministic elements in it. To be valid, any theory of strategic culture would have to be able to do both, explain and predict, at least broadly. Yet none has.[xvi] Constructivism has also been part of the synthesis, as recent studies of British, Chinese, Japanese, and Israeli strategic cultures show.[xvii] Ironically, in many ways the constructivist turn has merely taken anthropological studies back to their classic frames of reference, which describe culture as the product of dynamic social processes.

The fourth shift is characterized by the concept’s politicization, and its subsequent use in the public sphere. An example is how prominent political figures, such as Javier Solana, have publically used “strategic culture” to make policy announcements and to create or manage expectations.[xviii] Solana announced that the European Union had embraced a “strategic culture that fosters early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention.”[xix] In this case, the term signified a seemingly broad agreement to put in place mechanisms that would facilitate certain kinds of strategic interventions, while also reaffirming some of the EU’s collective values. Another example is found in Robert Kagan’s provocative assertion that: “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”[xx] Kagan essentially claimed that the United States and Europe had developed diverging strategic cultures. Americans, in his view, were more comfortable using hard power, or military force, to extend the reach of policy; Europeans, in contrast, saw the reliance on military force as crude and naïve, and instead preferred diplomatic measures marked by “subtlety and indirection.”[xxi] His subsequent elaboration of the argument in Paradise and Power (2003) revealed that, as with the American way of war, the phrase “American strategic culture” had become an extension of politics by rhetorical means.

Kagan’s Paradise and Power presumed to speak for American strategic culture, and his rendition of it promoted his world view as broadly representative. Absent from his discussion were the dialectical tensions that have defined American politics and strategy from the start. What emerged was little more than a one-dimensional representation; a caricature of the American world view that was perhaps true of the administration of George W. Bush; but not of the administrations immediately before or after it. The fact that the concept of strategic culture facilitates such facile representations is another of its major flaws. Snyder’s attempt to distinguish between “mere policy” and strategic culture only begs the question as to whether the latter is not better thought of as a form of grand or meta-policy, since it lacks particulars as well as the durability to span different administrations.

Kagan’s assertions regarding the celestial origins of Americans and Europeans also show that the boundaries between waves or generational shifts are not rigid. The search for distinctly national approaches to strategy often went hand in hand with the politicization of the concept. Perceived differences between American and European political perspectives shaped the concept of strategic culture. Those applications, in turn, influenced what the major differences were perceived to be, and subsequently what American strategic culture was, and was not. As the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, the question of what American strategic culture was became increasingly associated and intertwined with identifying what was wrong with it.

In sum, although Snyder’s concept of strategic culture provided a thoughtful counterweight to the self-reflexive sterility of rational-actor models, its dubious assumptions kept it from being more than that. It provided a viable rationale for acknowledging asymmetry in strategic thinking. However, because it overlooked the influence of shared experiences, the impact of change, and the dialectical tensions of politics, it never adequately described individual strategic cultures. After four generations of effort, it could manage little more than one-sided assertions grounded in vague generalities, stereotypes, and caricatures. In short, it has succumbed to a certain cultural determinism brought on by the concept’s basic definitional vagaries and unresolved tensions. Ironically, while the concept may remain intriguing to academics for that very reason, its problems and flaws make it too risky for policymakers and strategists.


[i] Jack Snyder, The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Nuclear Options (Santa Monica, Ca.: RAND, 1977), v.
[ii] Snyder, Soviet Strategic Culture, v, 39.
[iii] For recent discussions, see: “Was There a Russian Enlightenment?” A conference held at Ertegun House, Oxford University, November 10, 2012;
[iv] Snyder, Soviet Strategic Culture, 8.
[v] Michael G. Mullen, Officers Professional Military Policy (Washington, D.C.: J-7, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2009); compare this definition to Geertz’s description of culture as a “historically transmitted pattern of meanings” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 4.
[vi] Ken Booth, “The Concept of Strategic Culture Affirmed,” in Jacobsen, ed., Strategic Power; cf. Sondhaus, Strategic Culture, 5.
[vii] Darryl Howlett, “Strategic Culture: Reviewing Recent Literature,” Strategic Insights IV, no. 10 (October 2005);
[viii] Compare: Colin S. Gray, Nuclear Strategy and National Style (Lanham, Md: Hamilton, 1986) to Wayne E. Lee, “Warfare and Culture,” in Warfare and Culture in World History, 5.
[ix] The three shifts are summarized in: Dima P. Adamsky, American Strategic Culture and the US Revolution in Military Affairs (Oslo: Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2008), 8-12; see also Lawrence Sondhaus, Strategic Cultures and Ways of War (London: Routledge, 2006), 1-13; and Jeffrey S. Lantis, “Strategic Culture: From Clausewitz to Constructivism,” Strategic Insights IV, no. 10 (October 2005);
[x] Compare: Colin Gray, “National Style in Strategy: The American Example,” International Security 6, no. 2 (Fall 1981): 35-7; Ken Booth, Strategy and Ethnocentrism (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981).
[xi] Adamsky, American Strategic Culture, 8.
[xii] For a rejection of the notion of strategic determinants, see Hew Strachan, “Operational Art and Britain, 1909-2009,” in The Evolution of Operational Art from Napoleon to the Present, John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University, 2011), 100.
[xiii] Jack Snyder, “The Concept of Strategic Culture: Caveat Emptor,” in C.G. Jacobsen, ed., Strategic Power: USA/USSR (New York: St. Martin’s, 1990), 4, 7.
[xiv] Compare: Yitzak Klein, “A Theory of Strategic Culture,” Comparative Strategy 10, no. 1 (1991): 3; Alastair Iain Johnston, “Thinking about Strategic Culture,” International Security 19, no. 4 (Spring 1995): 32-64. Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University, 1995) makes the case that the Chinese approach is closer to that of the West. For an opposing view, see Yuan-Kang Wang, Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics (New York: Columbia University, 2011). Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (London: Hurst, 2011), warns that the perception of difference may matter more than the reality.
[xv] Colin Gray, “Strategic Culture as Context: The First Generation of Theory Strikes Back,” Review of International Studies 25, no.1 (1999): 49-69; see Stuart Poore, “What is the Context? A Reply to the Gray-Johnston Debate on Strategic Culture,” Review of International Studies 29, no. 2 (2003): 279-84.
[xvi] Peter Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (Columbia, NY: Columbia University, 1996); Colin Gray, Out of the Wilderness: Prime Time for Strategic Culture (Washington, DC: Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2006); Theo Farrell, The Norms of War: Cultural Beliefs and Modern Conflict (London: Lynne Reinner, 2005); and “Strategic Culture and American Empire,” SAIS Review 25, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 2005): 3-18.
[xvii] John Baylis and Kristan Stoddart, “The British Nuclear Experience: The Role of Ideas and Beliefs (Part One),” Diplomacy & Statecraft 23, no. 2 (2012): 331-; Wang, Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics; Morgan Forrest, Compellence and the Strategic Culture of Imperial Japan: Implications for Coercive Diplomacy in the Twenty-first Century (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003); Avi Kober, “What Happened to Israeli Military Thought?” Journal of Strategic Studies 34, no. 5 (2011): 707-23; Lantis, “Strategic Culture: From Clausewitz to Constructivism;” and Ted Hopf, “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations,” International Security 23, no. 1 (Summer 1998): 914.
[xviii] Paul Cornish and Geoffrey Edwards, “Beyond the EU/NATO Dichotomy: The Beginnings of a European Strategic Culture,” International Affairs 77, no. 3 (2001): 587-603; and “The Strategic Culture of the European Union: A Progress Report,” International Affairs 81, no. 4 (2005): 801-820.
[xix] J. Solana, “A Secure Europe in a Better World. European Security Strategy;”; cf. Cornish and Edwards, “Strategic Culture of European Union,” 801.
[xx] See Robert Kagan, “Power and Weakness: Why the United States and Europe See the World Differently,” Policy Review 113 (June and July 2002); see also: Robert Kagan, Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Knopf, 2003). For reactions to Kagan’s argument 10 years on, see: Robert Kagan, “A Comment on Context;” Robert Cooper, “Hubris and False Hopes;” Daniel W. Drezner, “The Power of Economics and Public Opinion;” Charles A. Kupchan, “A Still-Strong Alliance;” and Mary Elise Sarotte, “Deciding to Be Mars,” in Policy Review (Apr/May 2012).
[xxi] Drezner, “Economics and Public Opinion,” 18.