Whither Strategy? The S3C Conference, Crimea, a Freezing Day in Calgary, and the future of Strategic Studies

The 16th Annual Graduate Strategic Studies Conference convened at the University of Calgary hours after initial reports that unidentified and heavily armed forces had begun cementing control over the Crimean peninsula. By the end of the conference, it was clear that a large Russian invasion had been launched with the intention of dislodging Crimea from the Ukraine, presenting a serious dilemma for NATO members. Western nations found themselves completely unprepared for this scenario and with few appealing options for reaction.

Strategic Studies, since its inception as a modern discipline in the 1950’s has been the handmaiden of the security establishment and reflected the concerns of Western governments. Correspondingly, the post-Cold War era saw Strategic Studies moving away from conventional interstate war and nuclear deterrence to different approaches to conflict. As the NATO battlefield shifted from a conventional one to an asymmetrical one, the concepts of terrorism, human security, humanitarian intervention and counterinsurgency dominated the field. The assumption was that the conventional battlefield would become a nostalgic memory as a more complex security reality unfolded requiring the integration of social, moral and technological means far more sophisticated than those utilized in the past. While many of these approaches have reached theoretical and methodological impasses, they have essentially become the new orthodoxy of the field.

Recent events strongly challenge these assumptions. The actions of the Russian Federation fall in line with classic inter-state strategies. While many are reminded of the Cold War, Putin has actually utilized the Adolph Hitler playbook step by step. Here, a dictator passes laws discriminating against a vulnerable minority in his own country and yet is allowed to host the Olympics and turn it into a spectacle glorifying his authoritarian regime. Emboldened by the feebleness of the West and their willingness to pay tribute to him, he takes over a part of a neighboring country for supposedly irredentist reasons, to liberate his ethnic kin. All this is done in violation of an agreement signed twenty-years ago guaranteeing the sovereignty of a new and vulnerable state. The only difference being that, unlike Hitler, Putin did not bother asking the West for permission. Despite the fact that we have seen this entire scenario play out before, we still find the use of traditional power politics surprising. Inter-state war with Russia seems unthinkable to us, but the use of conventional military to improve national prestige and geopolitical standing seems natural to Russia.

The young scholars who gathered at the Rosza Centre on a freezing Calgary weekend allowed us a glimpse at the current state of the discipline of Strategic Studies. Are the future scholars of Strategic Studies prepared for the re-emergence of conventional threats and classic power politics? Has the focus on asymmetrical warfare and social factors given us a deeper understanding of conflict which can be assimilated to any future battlefield or have they distracted us from more powerful and dangerous conflicts with great powers?

The conference focused disproportionately on the “new” battlefield of the 21st Century and the post 9/11 orthodoxy of asymmetry and human security. Roger Patrick Warren of St. Andrews University gave a fascinating insight into the narratives inspiring mujahedeen fighters in Syria. Andrew McLaughlin of the University of Waterloo discussed the role of embedded journalists in the Iraq War, while Harris Stephenson discussed Canadian strategy in Afghanistan. Shaiel Ben-Ephraim of CMSS, highlighted the difficulty of achieving compromise based peace agreements in civil wars. Meanwhile, Ezra Karmel of the University of Victoria discussed the fragility of the Jordanian state.

The metanarrative behind these presentations is the controversy over threat of  “the Clash of Civilizations” and the threat of failed states which former Secretary of State Robert Gates had once called “the main security challenge of our time.” However, from a contemporary vantage point these threats seem almost quaint. Failed states tend to be in strategically peripheral areas, while great power threats emerge in strategically crucial regions such as Europe and East Asia. They also do not involve the potential for nuclear war. Furthermore, Islamic terrorism has proved to be mostly a threat to other Muslims and not to the West. As the University of Maryland START figures have clearly shown, the number of terrorist attacks against Western targets have declined precipitously in the last few years while inter-Islamic terrorism has skyrocketed. What is happening in the Middle East is not so much a war against the West but an internal Islamic conflict.

Nuclear deterrence was mostly absent as a salient topic in the conference. The only presentation which touched on deterrence in a meaningful way, was given by Joseph Andrew Buscemi of the University of Waterloo. In a colorful and insightful presentation, he explained how the United Kingdom had given up its famous blitz era system of civil defense in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. After a political battle, the concept of nuclear survivability was abandoned as an option despite the fact that it was an easier sell to the public. The stand Duncan Sandys took in this 1957 Defense White Paper is an example of both strategic foresight and political courage.

The lack of attention to conventional deterrence today among both scholars and practitioners is troubling. Public opinion today does not comprehend the importance of classic deterrence concepts such as credibility, commitment and red lines. This is why the American decision to compromise its credibility by ignoring its own “red lines” in Syria was applauded by the public and the media. The West, and particularly the Ukraine, is now paying the price of this conceptual neglect. The return of nuclear deterrence to the center of both policy-making and strategic studies is necessary to avoid the recurrence of this travesty.

Interestingly, Canada is quite comfortable in the new-old paradigm of geopolitical rivalry. The members of the Canadian establishment who were invited to speak at the conference possessed a remarkably old fashioned concept of geopolitics. Kelly Williams, Director of Strategy and Government Relations at General Dynamics Canada, told the young audience that the pillars of Canadian security do not change, only Canadian ambition does. Rob Huebert, Senior Research Fellow at CMSS and known Arctic hawk, warned that “whatever happens in the Ukraine will spill into the Arctic.” Reil Erickson, pilot in the Royal Canadian Air-Force evinced a very old fashioned view of air power, stating that fighters are there to guarantee air superiority and deny aerospace to the enemy. Interdiction and missions’ related to human security are secondary. Her personal experience in intercepting a Russian bomber in Canadian airspace may have had a hand in constructing this cold war mentality. This mentality may be what is behind Stephen Harper’s swift old-school reaction to the Russian invasion, the withdrawal of the Canadian ambassador to Moscow “for consultations”.

The scholars on the Canadian panel at the conference had a more nuanced vision of the Canadian role but one that similarly stressed continuity. Matthew Wiseman of Wilfrid Laurier University talked of the traditional role that Canada has played as “monkey in the middle” between the United States and Russia, particularly after the development of missile technology which could overfly the Great White North. Therefore, a great deal of the involvement of Canada in great power struggles has less to do with Russia and more to do with the alliance with the United States.

However, this alliance has also traditionally been part of a strategy of homeland protection against a constant Russian threat. Tiffany Vinci of Carleton University pointed out that the focus of Canadian intelligence gathering throughout the cold war was the Soviet air threat. This same threat led to the creation of NORAD as well which heralded an era of increased Canadian-US closeness. Not much seems to have changed on this front. As Rob Huebert summed up the panel he pointed out that those same concerns are as pertinent as ever since Russian bombers continue to fly in Canadian airspace. Thus not only do cold war institutions continue to exist well into the 21st Century, but they continue to be utilized to counter the very same threats.

However, the call for the importance of human security and domestic factors which has dominated Strategic Studies discourse for the past decade or so was still heard loud and clear. In fact, the salience of the term in non-academic settings such as the military and the private sector were particularly striking. Mark Lalonde, Director at CKR Global Risk Solutions spoke of the considerations the private-sector takes into account in assessing investment risk. These are largely human security elements, such as unemployment, literacy, access to water and concerns of corporate responsibility much more so than interstate threats.

The ability to work and fight with diverse groups within nations facing internal security problems requires cultural sensitivity and the ability to work with different social actors, tribes and ethnic groups. Harris Stephenson of the University of Calgary spoke of the Canadian conception of war in this reality, which had integrated human security as a core concept. The War in Afghanistan, he claimed, could be seen as a four-block war integrating peacekeeping, humanitarian operations and civil-military cooperation alongside traditional war fighting. Riley Collins of the University of Calgary described the virtual simulation programs provided by the United States military as an attempt to prepare soldiers for this new and complex battlefield. These included not only the sorts of complex civilian oriented combat situations which are an integral part of COIN, but also intense and surreal cultural orientation training. For example, recruits are put in social settings and taught what the appropriate reaction to social situations would be in the local culture. Collins said that this approach was based on the frightening yet intriguing concept that “empathy is a weapon.”

However, the deconstruction of the state in current Strategic Studies is unhelpful in understanding the extreme nationalism fueling Russian foreign policy. It distances the West from the strategic and cultural concepts motivating its geopolitical rivals. It seems that not much has changed in Russian foreign policy or in the inability of the West to understand it. As Patrick Cabel of the University of Calgary ably demonstrated, French Intelligence in the 1920’s did not know what to make of the Soviet combination of inferior capabilities and intense and aggressive nationalism. At first the USSR was not taken seriously because it was viewed as incapable of launching sustained military operations. However, the USSR surprised the French by signing the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany. By 1927 French Intelligence was increasingly concerned about Soviet intentions, and called the USSR “the most militaristic state in the world.” Misconceptions about Soviet intentions and capabilities would contribute to the Western failure to ally with the USSR against Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and then to predict renewed German-Soviet rapprochement through the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement.

Despite major advances in intelligence technology, our ability to comprehend the motives of Russian foreign policy seem no more advanced today. Perhaps rather than deconstructing the state, it would be more helpful to return to the concept of strategic culture. Iain Johnston argues that ‘different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree, by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites.’ Not surprisingly, the concept was first coined in 1977 in order to better understand the enigma of Soviet nuclear policy and it remains as useful today as it was when Jack Snyder wrote “The Soviet Strategic Culture : Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations” in 1977.

Samantha Hossack of the University of Calgary gave an incredibly topical talk, in analyzing the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979. She asked the question “what made the USSR invade a sovereign state in 1979?” The answer of course being for the same reason it invaded one now. Just as German aggression was greatly exacerbated by its two-front vulnerability, so is Russian belligerence fueled by legitimate fears. Russia is obsessed with security due to incredibly destructive invasions by foreign powers. In order to prevent that, it has traditionally created buffer states under its control. In 1956, 1968, 1979 and 2014 it attacked when pro-Russian governments lost a grip on power and threatened to remove the protection provided by these buffer states. Yet, the West has forgotten these lessons.

As Colin Chia from McGill University pointed out, great power prestige and nationalism are major factors in the formulation of Russian and Chinese foreign policy. Using Deborah Larson and Alexei Shevchenko’s model, he pointed to the nature of great power ambitions. These elements include the creation of a sphere of influence, the pursuit of deference by other great powers and revanchist impulses. The theory seems to fit Putin’s Russia perfectly. Russia is using the Ukraine and Georgia to establish a wider sphere of influence. It seeks EU and US deference in the Ukraine and recognition of their superior status. It has also utilized its former control over Crimea and its irredentist claims on the local population to justify its aggression in the area. This classic great power policy shocked US Secretary of State John Kerry. He recently accused Russia of behaving “in a 19th century fashion.”

The liberal tradition of Western states discourages this sort of collectivist and statist view of power politics. Chia claims that Canada seeks its identity and prestige outside of geopolitics, by emphasizing its excellence in hockey for example. However, it is not absent from the calculations of Western states either. Harris Stephenson of the University of Calgary made a case for the continuing importance of prestige in Canadian policy. In explaining why Canada had decided to take on the demanding role of COIN in the Kandahar area rather than controlling “an empty hilltop somewhere”, he said that officials had stated that since “Canada was a serious nation” it should take on a serious role.

The United States however has an utterly different concept of national prestige, and this has been both a hindrance and a boon to its global position. This is part and parcel of the manner in which the Obama administration misunderstands Russian foreign policy and its motives. As Tim Anderson of the University of Calgary convincingly demonstrated, much of American thought is based on moral precepts rather than realpolitik. Anderson showed how the neoconservative approach to American foreign policy is fully applicable to the Kantian categorical imperative. Ultimately that approach, and most major American approaches to American foreign policy, stress the benefit of the international community and not just the national interest of the United States. This has increased American cultural appeal, or as soft power. As Anderson said, the conception among policy elites is that “American hegemony is for the benefit of all mankind.” However, this lens of morality and American expectionalism is unhelpful in comprehending the foreign policy interests of classic power politics driven powers such as China and Russia.

The overt focus on the wrong variables and the lack of attention to classic explanations and cases does pose some interesting philosophical questions. Does the academic and Western focus on innovation, change and the individual mean that we are losing sight of the timeless truths of politics and strategy? One thing is for sure, from the vantage point of March, 2014, the insights of history and the classics of strategy seem more insightful than ever while the post 9/11 orthodoxy of asymmetry and human security seems dated and incomplete. Perhaps we should heed Sun Tzu’s advice (quoted in the program) “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim. PhD Candidate.



One thought on “Whither Strategy? The S3C Conference, Crimea, a Freezing Day in Calgary, and the future of Strategic Studies

  1. Saira Bano says:

    Unfortunately i could not attend this conference but your blog gave me very comprehensive description of the conference and challenges that strategic studies is facing. Really enjoyed this piece. Beautifully written!!! Hats Off!!!

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