war on the rocks

Professor, Tear Down This Wall: Is the Divide Between Security Studies and Strategic Studies Permanent?

April 18, 2016

Here at War on the Rocks, Joshua Rovner has written an insightful and provocative essay about the origin and nature of what seems to be a permanent rift between those who study security and those who study strategy. Many of the differences between security and strategy scholars that Rovner outlines are real; others are more illusory. The path to detente begins when both sides are capable of setting aside false binaries (politics vs. history, qualitative vs. quantitative) and bluntly addressing the real problem: a fundamental difference of worldview about war and peace. Those interested in security want to prevent, control, and regulate war. Those interested in strategy generally see their task as preparing to fight and win wars should they occur. Can there be any middle ground?

Both sides will need to make a stronger effort to see outside of their respective fields’ overarching worldviews and biases. As idealistic as this sounds, we should also be pragmatic about our expectations. The minimum that both sides should do is simply entertain the slight possibility that Joe Security or Jane Strategy might have a point here and there. Neither field has the full answer to the problem of war.

Rovner opens his essay by contrasting Eliot Cohen and Barry Posen’s differing takes on the balance of forces in late Cold War Europe, casting the story as one of a history-minded scholar clashing with a rationalistic mathematical modeler. Cohen argued that the conventional balance forces in 1980s Europe favored the Soviet Union. Researchers had failed to sound the alarm because they relied too much on abstract formal and statistical models. Posen, not one to neglect the importance of coercion and compellence in international affairs, responded with a second strike missile salvo against Cohen’s alleged misunderstanding of both the methodology of military modeling and the purpose of security studies scholarship.

It’s an old story: historically and qualitatively minded strategic thinker vs. abstract and Spock-like political science security specialist, and Rovner suggests that it is indicative of deeper divides between the strategy and security studies fields.   And at first glance, why not? Cohen is rare among American researchers in his combination of policy engagement and strategic acumen. Posen, while no slouch in his knowledge of matters military, is more of a traditional American political scientist.

The fact that this scholarly dispute took place within the pages of International Security, one of the few academic journals that both of Rovner’s tribes can publish in, makes the example particularly powerful. But there is something quite odd about this example: Cohen and Posen — both qualitatively inclined political scientists whose careers were shaped by the Cold War-era security topics studied by the academy — are perhaps not really opposites after all.

Posen’s most famous work, The Sources of Military Doctrine, is no game-theoretic treatise or statistical analysis. Rather, it is primarily a mostly qualitative and conceptual analysis informed by the study of history. One can quibble with whether Posen interpreted the history correctly, but Posen’s interest in interwar historical case studies certainly ought to establish his strategic studies bona fides. In fact, a cursory review of Posen’s CV finds him often eschewing elaborate formal and statistical models for very rich and qualitative analyses of topical subjects such as the American military “command of the commons” or Serbia’s political-military strategy in the Kosovo War.

The reason why Cohen and Posen have so much in common is that strategy and security both share an common rationalist worldview. As M. L. R. Smith argues, strategic theory also assumes rational actors, though not necessarily completely efficient ones:

The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.

This is not a contention that many security studies scholars would disagree with, although the devil obviously lies in the particulars.

Believe it or not, the International Security debate over the balance of conventional forces in Europe that Rovner references also was more than a struggle between Cohen and political scientists that “relied heavily on abstract models and ignored politics and the peculiar characteristics of the Soviet Union.” While Rovner vividly describes the cage match between Cohen and Posen, he neglects to also mention who else criticized Posen et al in the pages of International Security besides Cohen: a mathematical modeler by the name of Joshua Epstein. Epstein argued that mathematical models in security studies neglected key dynamic features of strategic interactions, treating them as rote bean-counting exercises. Epstein echoed Cohen in denouncing an attempt to explain the inherently “dynamic” process of war with “static” bean-counting methods.

While Epstein’s criticism was in large part mathematical, it was also historical in nature. Epstein attacked the historical grounding of models that political scientists used to justify their optimistic conclusions about the European conventional balance, referencing both historical work by historian Trevor N. Dupuy as well as significant 20th century and 19th century campaigns and major battles and operations from the 1805 battle of Austerlitz to the 1982 Falklands War.

Epstein even references primary Soviet sources that informed his thinking and analysis, contrasting his knowledge of such sources to what he argued were overly simple and context-free military theories and models. So perhaps the divide is not really between the abstract models of security studies and the qualitative historical context of strategy. If not that, what is it? Unfortunately, Rovner is all too correct about the true divide between those interested in security and strategy: politics.

As Rovner observes, security studies scholars and strategy scholars principally differ in that the former largely view war as a failure and the latter do not. Hence, security studies scholars view their cousins in the strategy world as not concerned enough about preventing war. Strategists often view security scholars being too wedded to the status quo and too quick to dismiss the utility of force as a response to aggression or instability. Rovner explains: “because [strategists] focus on strategy (a theory of victory) they are eager to dive into the specifics rather than bemoaning the event.”

Security and strategy are really separate disciplines because they both begin from fundamentally different premises about their subject matter. One can see a substantial amount of security studies scholarship in academic political science as oriented around the singular challenge of preventing and controlling the horrors of great power war. This creates an intellectual, theoretical, and also practically methodological focus that is diametrically opposite to that of strategic theory. To be interested in strategy is to admit that tension reduction and conflict prevention may fail and that there is some value to thinking about the manner in which organized violence during war is translated into political currency.

As Rovner implies, the real divide between Cohen and Posen on late Cold War security in Europe was a classical Cold War clash between a neoconservative and a more realist one. Cohen devoted his career to pondering the complexities of how violence is translated into desired political outcomes, analyzing topics from the reasons behind military failure to the relationship between soldiers and statesmen in wartime. Posen espoused a theory of military doctrine which assumes that soldiers have an inherent bias towards destabilizing offensive solutions and has also argued (contra Cohen) for a grand strategy based on caution and restraint.

In short, security scholars see themselves as firefighters and often indirectly or directly imply that strategists are arsonists. Strategists, in turn, see themselves as doctors who do not want disease outbreaks to happen but know everything there is to know about how viruses do their deadly work. Is there no hope of any common ground? This essay cannot tell you how to bridge this gap overnight, but as a starting point some attempts at mutual respect, understanding, and basic empathy can go a long way.

Strategy scholars should not scoff too much about the status quo bias of political scientists. Indeed, strategists often are the first to admit that the empirical record of using organized violence to achieve political aims is a very messy one. Conversely, political scientists ought to acknowledge that it is important that someone be able to talk about the details and mechanics of military operations even if they seek to prevent war itself from breaking out. Strategists are free to argue that preparing for war is the best way to ensure peace, but need to understand that their cousins in security studies may feel with some justification that preparation can be counterproductive without careful consideration of its potentially malign effects.

On that very note, strategists also should not make Colin S. Gray’s statement “[i]f Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz did not say it, it probably is not worth saying” their hill to die on. This is not intellectual rigor. Rather, it is unjustified prejudice. There has been much of value written about war and conflict since the 19th century, and the strategic community should pay attention to it regardless of whether or not it flatters their intellectual predispositions. Clausewitz himself was heavily inspired by ideas from other fields and any aspiring Clausewitzian ought to mimic the dead Prussian’s habit of reading widely and promiscuously. There might be a slight chance that strategy could receive a more respectful hearing if it acknowledged some validity to the last half-century of social science research on overlapping problems.

But by the same token security studies scholars will not convince their peers in the strategy world about the merits or demerits of a given security policy without grounding their analysis in the enormous amount of work produced about strategic affairs. As Richard Betts noted in 1997, expertise in strategic affairs is rare and perishable. It often has to be “smuggled” into political science and history departments, both of which often regard it with a mixture of suspicion and hostility. Above all else, security studies scholars should realize that they have won the academic battle and control the commanding heights. Being generous to their weaker and more harried comrades in the strategy field might go some ways towards getting mainstream security studies ideas into strategy scholarship alongside Gray’s holy trinity of Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz.

In the long run, it is up to those who individually research strategy and security to look beyond what their dissertation advisors have told them and make the broader connections. Easier said than done; drawing connections is a big professional risk in today’s academy. However, scholars who research guns, terrorists, tanks, and nukes are also no strangers to daring and risky maneuvers in general. As the Special Air Service motto goes, “who dares wins.”


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos, U.S. Marine Corps