Our Culture, Our World

A. J. Bacevich

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 68 (December 1996): 18-21.

For students of strategy, the most persistent controversies revolve around elementary issues. Is strategy an art or a science? How far beyond military operations does the realm of strategy extend? What precepts should guide strategic analysis? Or is it an error even to presume the existence of such precepts? The persistence of disagreement over such basic matters is attributable in the first instance to the strategists' inability to answer the most fundamental question of all: What is strategy?

And yet, though they may disagree about what precisely strategy is, strategists do not differ about where the responsibility for formulating strategy lies. By common understanding, strategy is the province of political and military elites. Strategy emanates from the top. It is devised in the palace, the cabinet room, the supreme headquarters. It is debated, drafted, and approved by the prince and his ministers and then disseminated for implementation to those sworn to do the prince's bidding.

A corollary of this general agreement is that the influence of the people on matters of strategy is likely to be baleful. Dropped into conversations relating to strategy, phrases like "public opinion" or "domestic politics" are freighted with pejorative connotations. Left unchecked, these phenomena subvert the careful, considered formulation of high policy. They signify unwelcome intrusions into the sphere that strategists have claimed as their own, interfering with the proper exercise of their craft. To strategists, the people are by nature fickle and shortsighted. They are too easily swayed by sentiment, images, and considerations extraneous to sound decision making. Even when strategists are willing to concede that a policy initiative requires public support, it is not debate that they seek but unconditional acquiescence.

Even in democratic America, this notion that strategy should be cordoned off from the common folk is well-enshrined. Indeed, it qualifies as one of the central tenets of the American strategic tradition that has evolved since the end of World War II. In the influential writings of George Kennan, for example, the perniciousness of public opinion and domestic politics forms an abiding theme. Lamenting the "histrionic futility" of so much American statecraft, the legendary diplomat and historian used his influential memoirs to denounce official Washington's penchant for truckling to popular prejudices. American politicians, according to Kennan, all too readily sacrifice strategic coherence to grab even passing political advantage through the "mere striking of attitudes before the mirror of domestic political opinion." This, he suggests, has been the central defect of American policy.

Among Kennan's heirs in the American foreign policy establishment-an incestuous guild of government officials, senior military professionals, policy-oriented intellectuals, and insider journalists-his critique continues to resonate. Notwithstanding the ultimate success achieved by postwar U.S. grand strategy, they recall the contest as having been at times a close-run thing. With near unanimity, they trace the lapses marring that record at least in part to the mishandling or misreading of public opinion. Thus, in this view, Truman's conscious decision to "scare hell out of" the American people led him to overstate the Communist threat in the late 1940s, thereby setting the stage for the hysteria of McCarthyism and making it all the more difficult for his successors to distinguish between real threats and phantasms. Similarly, in the early 1960s, a determination to immunize himself against charges of being "soft" on communism drew John F. Kennedy into reckless adventurism in Cuba and Southeast Asia. Most damaging of all, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, blundered into an unwinnable war lest he suffer the electoral consequences of being blamed for the "loss" of Vietnam.

Thus, in the strategist's hierarchy of the essentials of statesmanship, few qualities rank higher than having the courage to "do the right thing" regardless of public opinion. Leaders who allow themselves to be imprisoned by the polls or who gauge decisions according to calculations of partisan advantage to be gained or lost invite disaster. In contrast, those who make politically tough but strategically principled decisions in the face of adverse public opinion-like George Bush in the Persian Gulf-earn high honors.

Since the collapse of communism and the end of the Soviet threat, however, the relevance of the old principles is no longer self-evident. As those principles have lost their salience, the authority of the foreign policy establishment itself has collapsed. Much to the chagrin of the members of that establishment, today's would-be successors to the Wise Men of the early Cold War-renowned figures such as Kennan, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Paul Nitze-have failed either to fit the old principles to our new situation or to devise adequate replacements. No new "Long Telegram" has arrived at the State Department message center to galvanize Washington into action. No new Truman Doctrine has been proffered to instruct or harness the masses. Both the Bush Administration's "new world order" and Clinton's "strategy of enlargement" fizzled, apparently exhausting the foreign policy elite's capacity for Big Thinking.

As a result, rather than being formulated in accordance with some carefully crafted blueprint, U.S. national security policy appears to be evolving willy-nilly as a byproduct of events. Reaction rather than anticipation has become the order of the day. American goals and American initiatives stem not from farsighted decisions emerging from the White House but from the need to improvise a response to the sundry crises that have followed in the trail of the Cold War: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the plight of the Kurds following Desert Storm, starvation in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda, massive refugee flows out of Haiti and Cuba, the shadowy threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program, seemingly interminable civil war in Bosnia, and on-again, off-again jousting with a weakened but unchastened Saddam Hussein.

Played out under the hot glare of the media, each of these crises has been transformed into a tidy parable. Each parable in turn has yielded one or more sound-bite sized moral lessons-some positive, some negative- assumed to possess near-universal applicability. In the absence of principles, these sound-bites-"disproportionate force" (good), "mission creep" (bad), "exit strategy" (essential), "dual key" (unacceptable), "American leadership" (imperative)-set the parameters for subsequent discourse about policy.

A checklist makes a poor substitute for vision. Still, given the attention commanded by the "lessons" derived from such adventures as Desert Storm and Somalia, it is plausible to argue that a full-fledged new American strategy is emerging incrementally. In other words, even if elites have failed to devise an overarching conceptual framework, accumulated precedents drawn from the U.S. experience in a succession of cases are permitting those elites to stitch together a de facto strategy bit by bit.

That impression is misleading on two counts. First, it attributes to the crises of the post-Cold War era-and to the American response to those crises-a uniqueness and precedent-setting capacity that they do not deserve. Although obscured by the thick layers of rhetoric proclaiming the daunting complexities of the new era, much in the U.S. response to these crises is not new.

The Clinton Administration's effort to depict the recent U.S. intervention in Haiti as a break with the past, for example, is arrant nonsense. Rather, it is simply the latest episode of a long-running serial in which the United States has routinely used force to maintain a semblance of order throughout the Caribbean basin. Of course, some would differentiate between those earlier episodes and the restoration of President Aristide to power on the basis of motivation, with the present administration's devotion to democracy contrasting with the nefarious intent of its various predecessors both Republican and Democratic. But sustaining this view requires turning a blind eye to sordid truths about Haitian society and slightly less sordid realities of American politics, amounting to a willful suspension of disbelief that even Clinton's supporters are increasingly hard-pressed to carry off.

Nor does Clinton's decision to deploy U.S. troops to Bosnia constitute a defining moment. Certainly, it does not represent the first time a well- intentioned American President felt compelled to muck about in someone else's civil war. The soldiers dispatched by Woodrow Wilson into Mexico on multiple occasions and into the fledgling Soviet Union at the end of World War I would say otherwise.

There is a second reason why the "case method" will fail to produce a genuine new strategic synthesis. Developments are already raising doubts as to the durability of even the most prominent "lessons" derived from the crises that have preoccupied the United States since the end of the Cold War. If the cases themselves are not as unique as frequently depicted, neither are the precedents that they generate proving to have a lasting shelf-life. This is very much the case with the Bosnian intervention. There the United States has effectively jettisoned operational precepts that only a year ago appeared sacrosanct: sending troops only where vital U.S. interests are engaged and public support is secured and then using overwhelming force in pursuit of clearly defined objectives. Whether one judges this most recent American experiment in peacemaking to be judicious or the height of folly, President Clinton's initiative has in one stroke rendered the vaunted Powell Doctrine obsolete. Yet far from providing a template to guide U.S. policy elsewhere, the emerging Clinton Doctrine for the use of force proffers military action as a substitute for strategic coherence.

In other words, just as a new strategy for post-Cold War America will not arrive at the hands of a burnt-out policy elite, neither is it likely to emerge as a by-product of workaday crises that, whatever their intrinsic drama, are neither as remarkable nor as influential as commonly portrayed.

Instead, that new American strategy, if it develops at all, will emerge from an entirely unexpected quarter. It will be the product of the most dynamic force loose on the planet today, a force possessed of transcendent energy and yet riddled with spectacular contradictions, indeed, a force very much at war with itself. It will come from our culture.

In his provocative article "The Clash of Civilizations?", Samuel P. Huntington has suggested that in the coming era "the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural." Henceforth, according to Huntington, differences in culture will determine the agenda of international politics, driving powerful wedges between nations and pitting civilizations against one another. Although Huntington does not depict violent inter-civilizational collisions as inevitable, the overall tone of his essay suggests that managing relationships across critical cultural fault lines will pose huge challenges.

Why at the end of a century notable for extraordinary violence has culture assumed such an explosive potential? According to Huntington, culture has superseded ideology in its capacity to incite collective passions. It embraces the issues about which people care most and accentuates the divergence of views on those issues. "The people of different civilizations," writes Huntington, "have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy."

Implicit in Huntington's model is the assumption that the United States is at once embedded in and serves as the cultural vanguard of "the West." Huntington contrasts the nations of the West with what he calls "torn countries," defined as "countries with large numbers of peoples of different civilizations." Torn countries, according to Huntington, are highly susceptible to fragmentation and under duress may even disintegrate.

Yet in a cultural sense, no nation more aptly fulfills Huntington's definition of a torn country than does the United States. In large measure, the insistence that we are a nation comprised of "many people from many different civilizations" constitutes the very bedrock of our national identity. That this diversity explains America's extraordinary vitality-E pluribus unum-has long been a staple of national mythology.

But this myth oversimplifies a complex reality. Cultural diversity cuts both ways. If it produces energy, it also generates friction. The United States may not be prone to disintegrate in the manner of other "torn countries" such as Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. But Huntington's litany of differences that provoke conflict between civilizations could be used without modification to describe the key divisions that presently produce conflict within America: fundamental disagreement over the relationship between God and man, individual and group, citizen and state, parents and children, husband and wife along with fiercely antagonistic views regarding the comparative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. In other words, the fractious battleground of contemporary American politics with its strong cultural content is a microcosm of global politics.

However indirectly, therefore, the forces fueling America's cultural dissonance-born of the demise of liberalism and given further impetus by the decisive resolution of the century's central ideological competition-will determine the role that the United States chooses to play internationally. Ultimately, the outcome of the culture war will determine American strategy. For this reason, the different camps vying against one another in that war deserve far closer scrutiny from strategists than they have yet received.

A preliminary step toward analyzing the strategic fallout of the culture war is to recognize it as a fundamental departure from the politics of the postwar era. Although still in common usage, the political vocabulary and political classifications from that era have lost much of their utility. At root, the culture war is not a dispute of Republicans against Democrats or conservatives against liberals. In its external dimension, it does not pit realists against idealists or internationalists against isolationists. It is rather a battle between three factions.

The first faction is the smallest, yet may also be the most problematic of the three: the postmodernist camp. American postmodernists are the radicals of the 1960s. Over the years, if they have not become more revolutionary, they have at least become progressively more perverse. They are fiercely antagonistic to religion and traditional social structures. They hold middle-class values in contempt and take cynical delight in flaunting accepted conventions of taste and morality. Although unlikely ever to achieve more than minority status, postmodernists wield disproportionate influence in universities and key cultural institutions.

The postmodernist contribution to conversation about U.S. strategy is likely to be entirely negative. Derisive of the established view, postmodernists will reject all American efforts to maintain the international status quo, aiming ultimately to undermine the legitimacy of American power. Although the postmodernists are unlikely to win the culture war, they may well succeed in disrupting efforts to conduct a comprehensible strategic dialogue.

The second faction in the culture war consists of technological visionaries, the swelling cohort of Americans-mostly young, mostly well- educated, highly energetic-who believe that technology is transforming society in ways that are fundamental, unavoidable, and irreversible. The centerpiece of their vision is an "information society" in which traditional culture will become passť, national identity will lose its purpose, and the nation-state will be superseded by global entities. The world of the technological visionaries is unabashedly secular, materialistic, and individualistic, and they regard the expansion of the information society not simply as an opportunity but as a mission. Persuaded that their purposes are benign and irresistible, they are blind to the anxiety, resentment, and resistance that their efforts will provoke.

The third faction in the American culture war is the cultural traditionalists. Adherents of this faction have several icons, chief among them Ronald Reagan-or at least the image of Reagan carefully fashioned by the former President and his handlers: patriotic, God- fearing, alive to the fears and aspirations of the ordinary citizen, in touch with the true spirit of America. Religion is integral to the traditionalists' vision of a healthy civil society. Even if not personally religious (though many are), cultural traditionalists are determined to preserve the idea of God. They are interested not in remaking global society, but in salvaging their own. Summoned at the dawn of the postwar era to exert themselves in the interest of peace and freedom, they made major sacrifices. Determined to reap some reward for their efforts, they bridle at the notion advanced by "inside the Beltway" elites that they are obliged to pay more. For all their suspicion of elites, cultural traditionalists are hungry for leadership and are susceptible to being used or misled.

These then are the chief protagonists presently arrayed against one another. They are, in their own estimation, waging a struggle for the soul of America-thus the utter seriousness with which they have committed themselves to their cause. No one can predict the outcome of that contest. Indeed, before it is finally resolved, the entire conflict may be transmuted, with the stakes revised and new perturbations introduced. Thus, the possibility exists that none of the current rivals will gain a decisive victory.

Of this, however, we can be certain: even though strategic issues will not figure largely in deciding the outcome of the culture war, the resolution of that struggle will determine America's orientation toward the world. As a result, those interested in discerning the emerging shape of American strategy would do well to shed their illusions that the deliberations of elites or the vexing dilemmas of crisis management will give birth to a new strategy. If the United States is to embrace the strategic vision that will enable it to avert, stanch, or prevail in a coming clash of civilizations, the "plain people" must first resolve the cultural conflict in their midst. This essential precondition for strategic renewal is a subject to which strategists would be well advised to direct their attention.

A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.