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Strategic Culture Theory: What, Why, and How

Summary and Keywords

The concept of strategic culture has become widely used in the field of international relations, primarily in the context of efforts to explain the distinctive strategic behaviors of states through reference to their unique strategic properties. Despite this, a great deal of confusion remains regarding what strategic culture is, and how it may be used in the context of academic research. Two problems produce this confusion: much strategic culture literature continues to conflate culture-as-ideas with the behavior and artifacts through which those ideas become manifest, and strategic culture scholars have incorporated within their definitions of this concept overly narrow assumptions about where strategic culture may be said to exist.

To address these weaknesses in the literature, strategic culture is redefined as consisting of common ideas regarding strategy that exist across populations. This definition is narrower than many because it defines culture as common ideas rather than as ideas plus behavior (or as ideas plus artifacts). This matters not because it solves the methodological challenges faced by those who seek to study ideas, but because it forces us to confront these challenges directly in the context of efforts to understand the different ways that patterns of ideas may produce patterned behavior. This definition is also broader than many because it refuses to dismiss the possibility that common ideas related to strategic matters may exist across populations that are not bounded by the borders of existing countries. The rationale for such an approach is simply that one ought to look and see how common ideas are in fact distributed across populations, rather than assume that patterns will conform to taken-for-granted political units.

Keywords: strategy, culture, grand strategy, security, policy, identity, military force, empirical international relations theory


Even though the number of works on strategic culture continues to grow, it remains an area of theory that is confused and confusing. Thus far, the concept has been used primarily in works that seek to explain the distinctive grand strategy choices made by nation-states in terms of their distinctive cultural attributes. Despite the general agreement that exists regarding the purpose of the concept, however, scholars continue to debate the question of how it ought to be defined (Haglund, 2014, p. 310). A review of the literature regarding this concept leads one to a troubling conclusion: scholars appear to have considerable confidence regarding what strategic culture does yet do not know what it is exactly.

Many working in this field have expressed concern regarding this point, even as they continue to advocate the use of the concept in academic research. A common starting point for those works that have sought to address this problem is the debate between Colin Gray (1981, 1986, 1999a) and Alastair Iain Johnston (1995a, 1995b, 1999) regarding the proper definition of the concept. Scholars have tended to either choose a side in the Gray–Johnston debate (e.g., Morgan, 2003, p. 8), or to attempt to accommodate a diversity of existing views within an expanded definition of strategic culture. John Glenn (2009, p. 541), for example, identifies an array of conceptions of strategic culture, arguing that the term itself describes a general approach to the study of international politics rather than a single theory. Similarly, David Haglund (2004, p. 502) has contended that strategic culture is not a theory but a research program. Peter Schmidt and Benjamin Zyla (2011, p. 485) have even argued that the explanatory power of strategic culture is enhanced by uncertainty about what it is because that “allows conceptual and theoretical elasticity, and thus promises to be inclusive of a variety of scholars and theoretical traditions in international relations” (see also Lantis, 2014, pp. 167–168).

While academic debate can be healthy, this article has at its heart the goal of offering a clear explanation of what strategic culture is. This goal is pursued for the following reasons. First, research should start with a precise description of what the basic terms mean. In other words, if the concept of strategic culture is to be useful to international relations scholars, it ought to be defined. Second, a distinction can be drawn between how a concept is defined and how it is studied. As this article demonstrates, much of the uncertainty regarding what strategic culture is stems from the confusion of ontological and methodological questions. Questions of methodology (and the epistemological positions that sit behind them) are different than questions of ontology and, as Colin Wight (2006) has argued, scholars ought to address the latter before turning to the former. Indeed, it is argued in the final section of this article that a better understanding of what strategic culture is can help identify interesting research questions, thus driving forward a productive research agenda. This article also argues that a clear understanding of the core concept can help confront (but not easily overcome) the methodological challenges that strategic culture research entails.

The definition advocated here is intended to be brief, clear, precise, and broad. “Strategic culture” refers to patterns of common ideas regarding strategy distributed across populations, and the term “strategy” refers to matters pertaining to organized violence. This definition is both narrower and broader than many others that exist. It is narrower in the sense that it is centered on a precise definition of culture—patterns of common ideas across populations—whereas many existing definitions conflate culture with the many practices and products through which it is expressed. In another sense, the definition provided above is much broader than many currently in circulation, primarily because it does not confuse the question of what strategic culture is with questions about why scholars should study strategic culture and where it should be sought. The adoption of this definition is advocated here on the grounds that it is crystal clear about what strategic culture is, and because it leaves questions about where and how strategic culture operates to be answered through empirical investigation.

This article proceeds in three steps. The first section provides evidence for some of the confusion regarding the nature of strategic culture before explaining in greater detail the definition favored here. The second section extends this discussion of strategic culture to some research questions that are amenable to empirical analysis. Some of these questions are already associated with strategic culture research, but others are quite different, thus demonstrating the value that this definition adds. The third section turns to the question of how strategic culture research ought to be undertaken. It emphasizes the importance of the detailed analysis of distributions of ideas across populations, and of avoiding any reliance on stereotypical claims regarding such phenomena as “national character” or the “weight of history.”

What is Strategic Culture?

The purpose of this section is not to deliver a blow-by-blow account of the historical evolution of the concept of strategic culture; many such accounts are available already (Haglund, 2004; Lantis, 2009; Lock, 2010; Poore, 2004; Sondhaus, 2006). Instead, its purpose is twofold: to highlight some general problems that pervade existing definitions of the concept and to explain how and why the definition favored here offers a superior foundation on which to build a strategic culture research agenda. Put simply, this section advances a simple but defensible conception of strategic culture, one that properly sets up scholars for the practical challenge of engaging in strategic culture research.

This section identifies two problems that pervade many of the definitions of strategic culture. The first involves the conflation within many definitions of strategic culture of ideas on the one hand, and either behavior or material artifacts on the other. The second problem results from the tendency of scholars to incorporate into their definitions assumptions regarding the existence, importance and form of particular strategic cultures. The effects of this tendency are to both obscure the meaning of the term strategic culture and to close off potentially valuable research questions. The definition of strategic culture advocated here represents an effort to avoid these problems, each of which is examined in greater detail below.

The first of two problems that pervade much of the literature on strategic culture is centered on the question of whether culture should be defined as being comprised of only ideational content, or instead as being comprised of both ideational content and something more, such as material practices (behavior) and/or the material products through which ideas become manifest (artifacts). Students of strategic culture will immediately recognize this as one of the central issues that has been debated in this field during the past two decades. However, this ongoing debate has done little to erase the confusion that exists about what strategic culture is; indeed, it has added to that confusion.

The notion that culture refers to “ideas-plus-behavior” has been in circulation within the strategic culture literature since the earliest definition of the term appeared in Jack Snyder’s 1977 article on Soviet strategy. For Snyder, strategic culture refers to “a set of semi-permanent elite beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns socialized into a distinctive mode of thought” (1977, p. 8). Many strategic culture scholars have supported this position. Ken Booth defined strategic culture as “a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat and use of force” (1990, p. 121). Alan Bloomfield and Kim Richard Nossal, too, have seen strategic culture as “the habit of ideas, attitudes, and norms toward strategic issues, and patterns of strategic behavior, which are relatively stable over time” (2007, p. 288). Perhaps most prominently, Colin Gray, drawing on the work of Raymond Williams, has argued that “culture is ideals, it is the evidence of ideas, and it is behavior” (Gray, 1999a, p. 52). In the eyes of each of these scholars, therefore, culture is comprised of ideas and something more, be it patterns of behavior or, in the case of Gray, patterns of behavior and the artifacts in which ideas are recorded.

Alastair Iain Johnston (1995a, pp. 8–10) has criticized the conflation of ideas and behavior within definitions of strategic culture on the grounds that doing so produces “mechanistically deterministic” claims, where strategic culture as “cause” cannot be distinguished from the effects it is said to produce. Such claims are problematic because they produce tautological reasoning: “strategic behavior A is a product of strategic culture B, and we know that strategic culture B exists because it is expressed in strategic behavior A.” The way that Johnston’s argument is typically framed is as a position grounded in a positivist epistemology, one that requires the identification of strategic culture as an independent variable, the effect of which can be measured relative to those of other such variables. However, it is not necessary to adopt a particular epistemological position to criticize Gray’s definition of strategic culture; a definition that is all-encompassing does not help explain what is being studied (Sondhaus, 2006, p. 9). Indeed, Gray made this point exactly:

Everything a security community does, if not a manifestation of strategic culture, is at least an example of behavior effected by culturally shaped, or encultured, people, organizations, procedures, and weapons. A critic would be correct in observing that if strategic culture is everywhere it is, in practicably researchable terms, nowhere.

(Gray, 1999a, p. 52)

Gray then goes on to provide an entirely unconvincing counter to this criticism, stating that such a “critic, however, would have missed the point (that, for example, Germans are Germans and, it is postulated, have had certain strategic cultural tendencies)” (1999a, p. 52). This type of argument is still present in strategic culture literature but, as Andrew Scobell (2014, p. 212) has noted, it constitutes at best a type of “dead-end circular logic.”

Like Johnston (1995a, p. 36), therefore, this article does not support the definition of culture as consisting of both ideas and behavior. However, before discussing further why such a definition has proven problematic, it is necessary to note that another distinct but related error is sometimes present in work on strategic culture, including that of Johnston. The problem here relates to the question of whether culture consists of both ideas and the artifacts (texts, records, etc.) through which culture is recorded and communicated. Johnston does not specify that such artifacts constitute a part of culture, but there are points where he refers to the existence of “strategic-culture objects (e.g., texts, documents, doctrines, etc.)” through which culture can be observed (Johnston, 1995a, p. 39). This presents exactly the same problem as does the conflation of culture and behavior. To argue that a document—a national security strategy publication, for example—constitutes a part of an ideational milieu rather than a product that is related to such a milieu would seem to be as flawed an argument as suggesting that an instance of strategic behavior constitutes a part of strategic culture, rather than being something through which it is expressed. Indeed, if a text is being produced through someone’s behavior, then the connection between these two forms of conceptual conflation can be easily appreciated. So, while Johnston’s criticism of the conflation of culture on the one hand, and behavior on the other may be correct, it is an equally valid criticism of those who conflate ideas and artifacts within their definitions of culture.

There are two reasons why the forms of conflation noted here should be avoided and thus why culture should be defined as comprising ideational content only. The first is that the relationships between ideas on the one hand, and both strategic behavior and material artifacts on the other, are worthy of sustained empirical research, particularly with regard to the different ways in which ideas are translated into behavior and artifacts and the ways that behavior and artifacts impact ideas. In the next section, the definition of strategic culture as ideas only helps to identify a range of interesting research questions. Assuming that all behavior and all artifacts are a part of culture does not prevent us from following such a research trajectory, but it does threaten to render such a path less visible.

The second reason not to conflate ideas with behavior and artifacts is that doing so merely threatens to hide, and does not solve, the basic research challenge that strategic culture scholars face. That challenge is simple to state: strategic culture scholars posit the existence of something (strategic culture) that consists (either totally, or at least in large part) of ideas, and ideas are not directly observable (Kilcullen, 2007, p. 49). Instead, the existence and form of ideas are inferred from the behaviors and artifacts through which they are made manifest. This is not to say, however, that such acts and artifacts constitute culture. Indeed, this challenge is made worse by the fact that strategic culture scholars are often interested in patterns of ideas held by people who are distributed across space, and who are deeply embedded in networks of interaction and communication that may be expected to modify those patterns of ideas over time (Gray, 1999a, p. 52). Indeed, it seems likely that the choice to include both ideas and behavior in definitions of strategic culture has been made by some on the grounds that doing so gives the appearance of making research more practicable. This is a point that is certainly evident in Gray’s (1999b, pp. 132–133) defense of his definition of strategic culture. It is also a point that is made explicitly by Bloomfield & Nossal, who argue that “because the human world is so inherently complex it is simply not realistic to separate ideational factors from behavior” (2007, p. 287).

The bad news is that unless the task of researching strategic culture is abandoned—as well as any other social phenomena constituted by ideas (norms, identities, etc.)—then the methodological challenge of researching something that can only be observed indirectly must be faced. To confront this challenge is to seek methods by which ideas can be examined; the problem cannot be solved or elided by conceptual sleight of hand. The good news on this front is twofold. First, scholars in many fields are seeking to study something that is both complex and not directly observable—those in the physical sciences have done so and continue to do so (see, e.g., Feng, 2010). Indeed, some of the great scientific breakthroughs of the past century have resulted from the creative efforts of those who sought evidence regarding the existence of things that they could not directly observe. Second, and as the final section of this article shows, social scientists already employ a range of practical methods that, however, imperfectly, allow us to generate knowledge about phenomena that, like strategic culture, are composed of ideas.

The clarification of the definition of strategic culture requires more than the mere excising from such definitions of the material components of behavior and artifacts. The identification of the types of ideas that can be said to constitute culture must be clearer. Culture is not a term that merely describes either the private ideas of a particular individual or even the aggregate of the private ideas held by members of a population. Instead, as Alexander Wendt (1999, p. 141) has persuasively argued, those interested in the concept of culture are concerned with particular distributions of ideas across a population. As scholars, we are interested in shared ideas, held by multiple people within a population. Further, however, common ideas, or the mean ideas shared by people across a population and that are known by those people to be so shared, are of central importance (Wendt 1999, pp. 159–160).

Common ideas are powerful and worthy of investigation because they are linked not merely to subjective causes of behavior but also to social, structural causes of behavior. The key to understanding these structural effects is to appreciate that culture is intimately connected to practices of communication—common ideas constitute communicative practices as meaningful, because it is only if ideas—about words, symbols, grammars, etc.—are commonly held that individuals can communicate meaningfully to one another (Milliken, 2001). In one sense, therefore, communicative practices are enabled by culture; in another, culture operates to constrain communicative practices (Fierke, 1998; Guzzini, 2000; Hopf, 1998; Jackson, 2005). This matters because it expands the understanding of the range of mechanisms through which culture may produce patterned behavior (Risse, 2000, p. 5; Fierke, 2000, p. 338; Johnston, 1995a, pp. 156–165). For these reasons, strategic culture scholars ought to define culture as consisting of common ideas.

Accepting that culture consists of common ideas, two further questions need to be answered: which common ideas are of particular relevance to strategic culture scholars, and to whom are those ideas common? Or, to put these questions in other terms, which ideas should strategic culture scholars seek to examine, and across which populations should they be sought? At this point, a second flaw in the strategic culture literature emerges: an overly narrow definition of the scope of investigation is produced by existing definitions of this concept. The remainder of this section demonstrates that scholars have tended to define strategic culture in a manner that takes for granted certain features of contemporary international affairs, thereby limiting the contribution that strategic culture research can make to an understanding of world politics (Lock, 2010, p. 707).

As noted in the introduction, the starting point for much strategic culture research is the belief that strategic culture represents a property of formal political communities, the most notable of which are nation-states. Importantly, this position is shared by both sides of the Gray–Johnston debate. For Gray, strategic culture describes ideas “that are that are more or less specific to a particular geographically based security community that has a necessarily unique historical experience” (1999a, p. 56). Johnston’s (1995a, p. 36) definition of strategic culture also emphasizes the nation-state as the “container” of strategic culture. Furthermore, even those who have attempted to move beyond this debate have continued to conceive strategic culture as a property of already existing political communities. A number of works have examined the question of whether or not the European Union can be said to have, or to be developing, a strategic culture (Meyer, 2005, 2006; Rynning, 2003; Schmidt & Zyla, 2013). Jeffrey Lantis (2009, p. 43) has noted the possibility that nonstate actors may possess their own strategic cultures, and Alan Bloomfield (2012, pp. 452–453) has argued that, while strategic cultures can be expected to be fragmented into various subcultures, that fragmentation occurs within the boundaries of the state. This final point is also similar to that made by scholars such as Elizabeth Kier (1997), who have sought to analyze the roles played the organizational cultures of national military forces. Overall, therefore, it is clear that much of the existing research has taken for granted the notion that strategic culture must be a property of distinct political (or security or identity) communities.

Also taken for granted is the notion that the ideas that constitute strategic culture are those related to the use and threat, by states, of military force. Again, this position has been common to most strategic culture scholars regardless of their location in the ongoing debates about the concept. Johnston’s (1995a, p. 36) definition of strategic culture is clear on this point: it consists of ideas about “the role and efficacy of the use of military force in interstate political affairs.” Gray (1999a, p. 50) defines strategic behavior (and by implication, the scope of relevance of strategic culture) as “behavior relevant to the threat or use of force for political purposes.” Even those scholars that differ in what they take to be the appropriate definition of the strategic element of strategic culture do not depart radically from this default position. Most common here is the broadening of the definition of strategy—sometimes through reference to the concept of grand strategy—so that it includes mechanisms in addition to that of military force that states may apply in the context of their security policies (Kilcullen, 2007; Legro, 2000; Neumann & Heikka, 2005). In all cases, however, the presumed content of the ideas that constitute strategic culture relates almost entirely to the proper use of the mechanisms, most importantly national military forces, that are available to governments as they interact in international politics.

None of the positions noted here is implausible, at least insofar as they are intended to form the scope conditions for distinct research projects. There is nothing wrong with researching the distribution of common ideas within a nation-state, for example, regarding the role of military force. Indeed, this would seem to be one of the most obvious types of questions relevant to strategic culture scholarship. After all, such patterns of common ideas may emerge—through the use of, for example, national educational curricula—and they can be identified using some practical mechanisms. Common ideas may be translated into the patterned behavior of the military policy of a state through mechanisms such as nationwide elections in which political parties employ modern public polling.

What is problematic here is that current definitions of strategic culture do not merely enable us to ask and answer questions about how culture influences the military policies of nation-states; they suggest that such questions are the only ones that are relevant to those who posit the existence and importance of a cultural component to strategic affairs. For these reasons, this article advocates the adoption of a broad definition of strategic culture, one that does not stipulate which ideas should be investigated beyond requiring that they be patterned across a population (by which is meant simply a number of people) and that they be related to strategy (defined broadly as matters pertaining to organized violence). A broad definition of strategic culture—such as that posited here—will not preclude the engagement of scholars in research about national strategic cultures, but it will open this field of scholarship to an array of interesting and important questions, all of which can be logically connected to the concept of strategic culture. On one hand, as demonstrated in the following section, through contemplation of this broad definition, interesting research questions can be formulated regarding other patterns of ideas across other populations of people and about other matters related to organized violence. On the other hand, this approach encourages scholars to seek to observe patterns of ideas regarding strategic matters that may exist and to examine what those patterns of ideas do. A good research program—and that is what the general term “strategic culture theory” is used here to refer to—is one that helps scholars to ask interesting and important questions, and one that encourages us to seek answers through empirical research rather than conceptual elaboration.

Why Study Strategic Culture?

This section highlights some relevant questions that strategic culture scholars may ask. The goal here is, of course, not to produce an exhaustive list of questions that, together, should comprise the strategic culture research agenda. Instead, it is to do two things: first, to map a range of questions that can serve to illustrate the broad scope of potential strategic culture research and, second, to locate within this map some examples of existing work, thus showing that the research agenda sketched here promises to be inclusive of much existing literature.

Given the broad definition of strategy advocated here—again, the term is used here to refer to organized violence—the types of ideas that strategic culture scholars ought to be interested in mapping would seem to include those related to questions of (a) the identity and form of the organizations that should and do utilize or experience organized violence; (b) the purposes to which organized violence can and should be directed; and (c) the utility of organized violence as a technical instrument. The relationship between this basic schema and many prominent existing works ought to be clear to students of strategic culture. Johnston’s (1995a) work on Chinese strategic culture, for example, serves to identify within Chinese history the emergence of particular ideas regarding the use of force, to trace the transmission of those ideas into contemporary discourse, and to consider the impact of those ideas on Chinese grand strategic practice. Other works have engaged in similar types of research regarding a great many countries, including the United States (Farrell, 2005b; Harris, 2014; Klein, 1988; Legro, 2000; Lord, 1985; Rasmussen, 2003), Russia/the Soviet Union (Glenn, 2004; Heikka, 2000; Jones, 1990), Japan (Morgan, 2003), India (Bakshi, 2002; Basrur, 2001), Australia (Bloomfield & Nossal, 2007; Burns & Eltham, 2014; Evans, 2014), and Canada (Massie, 2009; Nossal, 2004), to name but a few. Several collections of works aim at the comparison of national strategic cultures (Biehl, Giegerich, & Jonas, 2013; Booth & Trood, 1999). None of these specific examples of research covers every matter raised above, but they clearly fall within the scope of strategic culture research outlined in this article.

If existing work is not necessarily inconsistent with the definition of strategic culture laid out here, what is the value added by this broader definition? To illustrate this, it may help to describe some research questions that may be generated through contemplation of this broader definition. One key starting point, here, is to avoid assuming that ideas only will be patterned in uniformed ways across populations defined by the existing boundaries of nation-states. First, such patterns may exist, but they must be confirmed, and, second, their presence across different types of populations ought to be investigated rather than merely dismissed.

Two relatively conservative steps in terms of an approach to strategic culture analysis can be made from here. A first such step can be taken “downward” to consider the varied patterns of ideas regarding strategy that may exist within nation-states. Such work already exists in at least two forms. On one hand, several strategic culture scholars have noted the existence of multiple strategic cultures (Johnston, 1995a; Massie, 2009) or subcultures (Bloomfield, 2012) within a given political community. On the other hand, evaluations of the cultures of state agencies that deal with matters related to strategy (such as the military) can also be construed as contributing to a larger strategic culture research project (Farrell, 1998; Hull, 2005; Kier, 1995, 1997; Legro, 1994). After all, that certain patterns of ideas regarding strategy would emerge in such organizations may be anticipated because of the work that is done within them to produce shared understandings of strategic affairs (Goldstein & Keohane, 1993, pp. 20–24). Notably, however, the recognition that diverse patterns of common ideas may exist within a nation-state may be seen as threatening the relevance of the concept of strategic culture. This is not the case, as questions of conceptual design should be properly separated from those that require empirical answers. How ideas are patterned across a population is an empirical matter, and not one to be settled through definition.

Alternatively, a second step can be taken “upward” through the consideration of the patterns of ideas regarding strategy that may exist across interstate (and supra-state) organizations. Such research has already been carried out regarding the European Union (Heiselberg, 2003; Martinson, 2004; Meyer, 2006), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Cornish & Edwards, 2001; Risse-Kappen, 1996) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Acharya, 1999), but one can imagine the possibility of patterns of common ideas existing among members of a variety of other regions (Ben-Dor, 1999) or organizations, such as the United Nations Security Council or the African Union. In each of these institutions are people who regularly interact on matters pertaining to organized violence, and such interaction represents a fertile ground in which to look for strategic culture.

Critics may argue that such organizations lack the deep historical origins possessed by nation-states and that such a lack precludes the use of strategic culture analysis (Gray, 1999b, p. 151), but this is exactly the type of argument that strategic culture scholars need to avoid. Strategic culture research is concerned with patterns of ideas regarding strategy that exist across populations. Again, one may expect that such ideas will refer to historical legacies; narratives describing the shared historical origins of a population are politically powerful, and those narratives often include ideas related to strategy (accounts of battles, losses, victories, etc.) (Weldes, 1996; Weldes, Laffey, Gusterson, & Duvall, 1999). But strategic culture scholars ought to be concerned with the ideas actually present across populations at a given point of time. In other words, a primary concern ought to be histories (as narratives) rather than history (as events). Thus, the creation of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) may involve precisely the kind of narrative construction—the production of histories explaining the origin and sources of cohesion of an IGO—that should be of interest to strategic culture scholars.

Thus far, the value added by this broader definition has been limited to the consideration of patterns of ideas across populations defined by the political boundaries of organizations other than nation-states. However, these are not the only possible patterns of ideas across populations. Furthermore, the existence of patterns of ideas across populations does not necessitate the presence of friendly or peaceful relations amongst the members of those populations. As Wendt (1999, p. 141) has noted, common ideas can be “conflictual or cooperative” and “being enemies can be as much a cultural fact as being friends.” These ideas open the space for strategic culture analysts to consider much more than merely the patterns of ideas within organizations engaged in strategic behavior; they allow us to conceive of realms of strategic culture that constitute as meaningful strategic interaction between actors and that thereby serve to constrain and enable the behavior of those actors. The key point here is that culture is a necessary requirement for meaningful communication, and strategic behavior—that involving the threat or use of force—serves a communicative role. Even the military industrial warfare of the two World Wars was not meaningless interaction between culturally isolated entities (e.g., Legro, 1995); those conflicts were intense social interactions between actors that possessed at least some shared ideas about the practice in which they were engaged (see also Barkawi, 2006). The potential for common ideas to be distributed across security communities that are engaged in conflict with one another should be explored. Common ideas about the types of actors that engage in strategic behavior, the types of values that underpin strategic reasoning, and the utility of different forms of violence may well be shared across entities, even as they persist in using violence against one another. Indeed, as Barkawi (2006) has suggested, not only can social interaction proceed alongside military conflict, war can itself form a social practice that serves to generate patterns of common ideas.

Returning to some of the general questions noted here, an important space for strategic culture research emerges. Strategic culture does not merely affect the strategic choices made by individual states; it can constitute as meaningful and thus shape the character of much wider understandings of what warfare is (Farrell, 2005a; Luckham, 1984) and who—that is which types of actors—may engage in it (Klein, 1994). Thus, changes in warfare, like those that followed the Napoleonic Wars, can start to be considered as (in part) cultural shifts; that is, as changes in the distribution and content of common ideas about warfare (Avant, 2000). Useful points of collaboration may thus be found between strategic culture theory and both Constructivist (e.g., Wendt, 1999) and English School theories (e.g., Bull, 1995). On a narrower scale, the declining use of national conscription and the growing dominance of all volunteer forces can be investigated from a strategic culture perspective (Burk, 1992). What effects on patterns of ideas across national and transnational populations may such changes produce? And might there be greater uniformity in the ideas regarding strategy shared by the members of a transnational professional military community than there are in the ideas shared by military and civilian members of a national community (Farrell, 2001)?

Importantly, what is being proposed here is not a mere list of “interesting questions”; it is a research agenda that promises not only to spark investigation of new and interesting questions but also to help scholars to link together a variety of bodies of research that share an interest in the examination of the ways that common ideas produce patterns of strategic behavior. This research is of value to the extent that it may highlight how the findings developed through individual projects can help to shed light on one another. For example, research findings about global patterns of common ideas regarding strategic affairs ought to help scholars investigate the distinctive strategic culture content of particular nation-states. Indeed, the default starting point for much strategic culture research—that strategic behavior is carried out by nation-states—represents the product of a global process of, amongst other things, cultural change. Similarly, research on the patterns of common ideas evident across a national population may help us to better understand what is distinctive about the strategic culture content shared by members of a national military organization or political party. Finally, research on patterns of ideas across local populations—as opposed to global or regional populations—may offer insight into complex processes of transmission (the generation of particular patterns of ideas) and translation (the manifestation of ideas in behavior or artifacts) that are less easily examinable within the context of strategic culture research that operates on a grander scale.

The definition of strategic culture offered here thus provides a foundation for a much broader research agenda than has been the case so far. In addition to the study of the distinctive cultural properties of particular nation-states, this modified definition brings into view the potential for strategic culture research regarding both substate variation in the distribution of common ideas regarding strategy, and cultural coherence across states, either in the context of inter-state structures (international organizations or alliances, for example) or even transnational populations (such as military professionals). Furthermore, this definition highlights that strategic culture research ought to focus on the mapping of common ideas, and not merely of those common ideas that constitute relations of amity and cooperation. Ongoing patterns of conflict ought to be expected to produce common ideas about strategic matters—such as who is fought against as well as who who is fought for and with.

How to Study Strategic Culture?

The previous section presented a series of suggestions regarding what it is that strategic culture scholars may investigate, but how is such research best carried out? This question is of practical importance to those interested in this field, but it is also a problem that has had a significant impact on the character of existing definitions of the concept. One of the major points in the first section of this article was that some of the confusion about the definition of strategic culture has resulted from efforts to avoid the methodological challenges associated with investigating something that is not directly observable. However, this challenge ought not to lead us to despair; this challenge is one that must be addressed through empirical research as it cannot be addressed through epistemological or conceptual elaboration. Furthermore, scholars in other fields are also facing the same type of methodological challenge. The remainder of this section draws on existing work in related fields to help illustrate how strategic culture scholars may undertake the following three tasks: (a) to map the common ideas that constitute strategic culture at a given point in time, (b) to trace where those ideas have come from, and (c) to examine how those common ideas may impact on strategic behavior. Importantly, while this section does identify some requirements for “good” strategic culture research, it does not discuss in detail specific research methods; such details are widely available in research method texts.

Let us start with the mapping of strategic culture, that is, the identification of how particular ideas are distributed across a population at a given point in time. There are two elements to such a mapping process. One involves the identification of particular ideas regarding strategy and often involves the charting of the structure of such ideas. Strategic culture scholars refer to such structures of ideational content by noting interest in, for example, “argumentation structures, languages, analogies, metaphors, etc.” (Johnston, 1995a, p. 36). The second part of this mapping process requires the identification of the distribution of such ideas across a population. These tasks need not be carried out in order: they can either start with a particular idea (or ideational structure) and then trace its presence across a population, or start with a population and investigate the types of ideas regarding strategy that are common to its members. Research methods or techniques that are likely to be relevant here are surveys, on the one hand, and forms of content analysis and discourse analysis on the other. The identification of the structuring of ideational content regarding strategy—such as the charting of myths, analogies, or argumentation structures—may well require forms of discourse analysis (Abdelal, Herrera, Johnston, & McDermott, 2009, pp. 6–7; Phillips & Hardy, 2002; Hardy, Harley, & Phillips, 2004). The mapping of the distribution of ideas across populations, on the other hand, would seem to require either the use of surveys and/or content analysis (Neuendorf, 2002).

To recognize that one may employ content analysis to map the distribution of ideas across a population is to acknowledge that evidence of the presence of ideas may be found in the “texts” produced by members of that population (the term “texts” in used in very broad terms here; see Ashley, 1996). A survey—even one involving the use of a mere questionnaire—may be understood to be a means of generating such texts. In many cases, however, scholars may seek to identify, collate, and evaluate content that has been generated without the use of a survey. The availability of such texts is likely to vary considerably from context to context, but there are a great many places—particularly in an era of online communication—where one may find relevant content. This is a particular area in which creativity is useful—given that the direct investigation of people’s ideas about strategy is impossible, any means of gaining indirect evidence of those ideas is to be valued. A final alternative to the use of surveys may be to observe the cultural experimentation that is carried out by others. Individuals often test their cultural competency; they try to deploy language, either in new ways or in new contexts, but still with the intent that it will be meaningful to others. However, these experiments cannot ensure that communicative practices align with the common ideas shared by members of the audience; rather, in this way, knowledge of the common ideas is tested. Such experiments can prove successful or not, but through observation of those who engage in such experimentation indirect access to the ideas shared by members of an audience may be gained. In particular, it may be possible to leverage such experimentation for use in research on strategic culture through the employment of ethnographic techniques.

The second and third tasks relate to the emergence of particular strategic cultures and their translation into strategic behavior, respectively. In either case, good research will need at least two elements; a mapping of strategic culture at a given point in time and an investigation into either the production of that distribution of common ideas or the translation of those ideas into behavior. In either case, this position rests on the notion that the mapping of strategic culture may capture the distribution of common ideas about strategy at a fixed point in time. It is important to note that this is a contentious claim to make (Herrera & Braumoeller, 2004, pp. 18–19). Indeed, the epistemological, ontological, methodological and political debate that has raged within strategic culture research may be understood as being centered on this very issue. While there is no space here to undertake a lengthy defense of the position adopted in this article, two points are worth noting. First, the argument that strategic culture scholars ought to conceive of distributions of common ideas regarding strategy as being, at least in theory, amenable to being studied at a fixed point in time is defensible on the grounds that such an approach may help to alleviate the problem of the tendency to thus far produce claims that rest too heavily on stereotyped notions of strategic culture as consisting of the entire historical experience of a national community. Second, this argument also forces us to consider why the rate of change in strategic culture from one state to another—from one distribution of common ideas to another—may vary across time and why such change may have accelerated in recent decades (Virilio, 2006).

The emergence of strategic culture could be examined in a number of ways. On one hand, the mapping of strategic culture may lead to the question of where certain ideational components have come from. This, as Haglund (2004, p. 494) has argued, may lead scholars to engage in forms of historical sociology to trace ideational components back through time. Alternatively, it may also lead some to draw upon a genealogical approach to trace the ruptures in ideational content over time (Tilley, 1990). Key to such research is the recognition that what is sought is not merely the location of ideational content in periods prior to that in which a particular strategic culture has been found to exist but also the identification of the mechanisms (of socialization and enculturation) through which particular ideas have been transmitted to the members of the population in which that strategic culture operates. Again, the historical experiences of communities has less significance here, and more important is the transmission across populations of particular histories (Masco, 1999).

Alternatively, research regarding the origins of strategic cultural content may start with the question of where within society (and why and by whom) work is done to communicate ideas about strategy to large populations of people. One may employ content analysis to study potential sources of strategic culture ranging from political campaigns (Farrell, 2001) to popular culture products (e.g., Weldes, 2003) on the grounds that these (and other) practices serve to transmit ideas to large audiences. This may seem like a broad approach to the study of the emergence of strategic culture, but it is important not to underestimate the volume of work that it takes to produce such cultural constructs (Enloe, 1996). Such research could aid in understanding the sources of strategic culture, though it ought to be twinned with the types of mapping exercises to determine whether these communicative practices actually led to the emergence of common knowledge.

Finally, how should the translation of strategic culture into strategic behavior be studied? Indeed, this is one of the primary purposes of strategic culture research; namely, to better understand the causes of patterns of strategic behavior. Like the study of the sources of strategic culture, one of the components necessary to this research task is the mapping of strategic culture at a given point in time. Following this, the specific mechanisms by which patterns of ideas should be identified across a particular population to determine how they translate into behavior. The nature of the mechanisms sought depends on the particular context in which strategic culture is thought to operate. An attempt to show how national strategic culture content shapes the strategic behavior of a state may focus on institutional mechanisms that allow popular opinion to shape policy outcomes (Hill, 2003, pp. 25–50). Of more interest, perhaps, are analyses of smaller-scale instances in which common ideas are translated into material behavior. For example, ethnographic methods may be used to evaluate the techniques used in military organizations to translate theory (common ideas) into material practice (Klein, 1989). Work that draws on the sociological concepts and methods employed by Pierre Bourdieu (1990) may be of particular utility here, as has been demonstrated by Edith Disler’s (2008) work on the role of gender in military life. Such research would make a valuable contribution to strategic culture research, and to cultural analysis more generally, as it would highlight at least some of the complex ways that culture and behavior are intimately connected.


Clearly, a discussion as brief as this cannot provide an exhaustive description of matters such as the flaws in existing strategic culture research or the potential research methods of use to strategic culture scholars. What has been made clear, however, is that strategic culture research is not uniquely challenging; scholars are currently engaged in researching phenomena that are also complex and not amenable to direct observation. The key step that has been taken in this article is not to solve the methodological problems facing strategic culture scholars, but instead to develop a definition of strategic culture that offers the capacity, first, to know exactly what is being sought and, second, to tackle these methodological challenges through the design of empirical research rather than through continued conceptual and epistemological elaboration. Finally, this discussion demonstrates the breadth of the scope of a strategic culture research agenda that is built on the idea that strategic culture consists of patterns of common ideas about strategy distributed across populations.


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