Warring Tribes Studying War and Peace


Forty years ago an intense controversy gripped the intelligence community over estimates of the Soviet strategic threat. Hardliners outside the community had complained that intelligence analysts were routinely underestimating Soviet capabilities and intentions because they relied on social science models that assumed rationality and reduced threat assessment to a bean counting exercise. What they should be doing, said critics, was looking harder at the intangible factors that provided a more comprehensive view of Moscow’s designs. The hardliners demanded that the intelligence community open its doors to outsiders who could form an alternative judgment based on the same classified information.

The Ford administration resisted this proposal for a while, but finally agreed to hold the so-called “Team B” exercise in 1976. Unsurprisingly, the outsiders came to much more worrisome conclusions about the Soviet Union, and the executive summary began with a broadside against what they saw as a narrow quasi-scientific methodology that caused intelligence analysts to go awry. Underestimates of the Soviet threat, Team B concluded, were

due in considerable measure to concentration on the so-called hard data … and the resultant tendency to interpret these data in a manner reflecting basic U.S. concepts while slighting or misinterpreting the large body of “soft” data concerning Soviet strategic concepts.

A decade later, a similar fight broke out in the pages of International Security, the leading U.S. peer-reviewed journal of security affairs. Eliot Cohen, now the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argued that the conventional military balance in Europe favored the Soviet Union. Cohen criticized academics who offered a more optimistic view, arguing that they relied too heavily on abstract models and ignored politics and the peculiar characteristics of the Soviet Union. Barry Posen, now the director of the MIT Security Studies Program, responded by arguing that Cohen missed the purpose of military modeling, which helps unpack the various issues associated with war so that decision-makers are not overwhelmed by complexity. And not only did Cohen miss the point of the exercise, he misunderstood “the nature of scholarship in the security studies field.”

Echoes of these clashes continued after the Cold War. Scholars who opposed the Iraq war in 2003 argued that there was no urgent need to fight Iraq, which was a thoroughly broken conventional power by the time the war began. Hawks, on the other hand, pointed to the basic viciousness of the Saddam Hussein regime, and believed that regional stability was impossible as long as he remained. And while critics warned that the act of regime change would provoke anti-American hostility, supporters believed the destruction of Iraqi forces could eventually produce a durable regional peace.

These debates were not just between hawks and doves, or idealists and realists. They reveal a longstanding divide between two approaches to the study of war and peace. Security studies deals with a variety of issues, including the causes of war, defense analysis, force posture, and grand strategy. Strategic studies focuses on war itself: the use of organized violence to achieve political objectives. These two fields overlap a great deal, and in some respects are inseparable. Questions about force posture, for example, affect both the causes of war and the nature of the fighting after the shooting starts. Similarly, strategic decisions made in wartime have enormous consequences for grand strategy in the aftermath. For these reasons the security studies and strategic studies communities ought to be in constant conversation. Both sides will benefit greatly, yet the gap between them remains.

I’m lucky to have a background in both communities. I did graduate work at the MIT Security Studies Program and taught strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. Spending many years in each camp gave me a profound respect for how they approach similar problems. It also left the impression that much more could be done to bring them together. Indeed, conversations over the years have revealed a deep and troubling skepticism on both sides.

The strategy–security gap has serious consequences. Outstanding scholars who ignore the other side miss chances to broaden their own work. Some of the leading voices in strategic studies have written about grand strategy without engaging the decades-long debate about that term in the security studies community. Instead they revert to vague definitions issued by military strategists who were principally interested in the challenges of translating organized violence into political goals, and who spent little time thinking about how force fit into the larger question of stability and national security in peacetime. They wrote about how to win wars, not how to win the peace. While they provide enduring ideas about war, they do not provide a reliable foundation for understanding grand strategy.

Security studies also suffers from inattention to strategic theory. Political scientists who think in strategic terms often treat adversaries as rational actors in game theoretical equations. What counts as “strategic interaction” in these models ignores the many factors that strategists understand as central to the actual experience of war: fog, friction, emotion, and other obstacles to clear thinking under fire. Security studies scholars also invest in hypothetical campaign analyses based on the balance of capabilities, while setting aside the politics at stake and the less tangible factors that are likely to affect the nature of the fight. (I plead guilty to this tendency.) Just as strategists must not let ephemeral beliefs about resolve and emotion obscure the measurable military facts on the ground, security studies practitioners must not assume that the pre-war balance will produce a certain outcome.

The gap separating strategic and security studies is puzzling. These two camps have much in common and much to gain from one another. What has caused them to drift apart? At least five factors are responsible.

Disciplinary walls. Most strategic studies scholars are historians. Most security studies scholars are political scientists. The long-running and unhelpful rivalry between the two disciplines widens the gap between security and strategic studies.

Career incentives. Graduate students and assistant professors have to satisfy disciplinary requirements in order to get jobs and tenure. Historians and political scientists are compelled to publish in leading journals using the tools of their respective trades, even when other tools might make their work better. There is no incentive or reward for challenging entrenched disciplinary ideas about what constitutes good work.

Different ways of knowing. Security scholars believe in theory development and testing using formal models alongside quantitative and qualitative data. Their goals are not just the accumulation of evidence but a growing stockpile of theories about conflict, war, and peace. Strategists see this as a pernicious kind of positivism or “physics envy.” It bastardizes history by manipulating case studies so they fit the theory, turning complicated and difficult events into stylized narratives. They also suspect it makes teaching impossible because there are too many competing theories to fit on any reasonable syllabus.

Strategists believe theory has reached the point of diminishing returns. Instead, they look to the classics are sources of inspiration and guidance. As Colin Gray recently put it, “If Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz did not say it, it probably is not worth saying.” Security scholars view the infatuation with great books as dangerous. It risks treating them as dogma even if the underling ideas are logically or empirically problematic, and it stifles new ideas.

Different norms. I suspect that security studies scholars largely view war as a failure. They tend to focus on grand strategy (a theory of security), and see the outbreak of violence as proof that the theory failed. Conversely, strategic studies views war as occasionally necessary for peace and prosperity. Strategists do not see war as an obvious failure, but simply as a needed response to aggression or instability. They view security scholars as too wedded to the status quo, and too willing to prefer non-military, but suboptimal, solutions to political problems. And because they focus on strategy (a theory of victory) they are eager to dive into the specifics rather than bemoaning the event.

History in decline. The decline of diplomatic and military history in civilian academia has led to a siege mentality in places where they find refuge: war colleges and policy schools. While the security studies community is flourishing, opportunities for traditional historians and multi-disciplinary strategists are few and far between. My sense is that strategists blame the academy for their misfortune. Political scientists studying security are caught in the crossfire and suffer guilt by association.

There are no perfect solutions to these problems. Disciplinary incentives will continue to divert tenure-track historians and political scientists away from the collaborations needed to combine security and strategic studies. That said, there are ways to encourage mid-career and senior scholars to come together. This will not only benefit not only but influence how they advise graduate students, how they evaluate tenure files, and how they approach university administrators and donors.

The creation of multi-disciplinary centers combining strategy and grand strategy is perhaps the most important innovation, especially if these centers have the resources to attract full-time scholars from different backgrounds who share an interest in debating strategy and security. There are excellent centers at places like Dartmouth, MIT, and Georgetown, to be sure, but those are weighted towards security studies and political scientists. Putting a broader group of scholars under the same roof will act as a forcing function for critical questions: How do grand strategic decisions in peacetime affect strategic choices in war? How do wartime decisions affect grand strategy afterward? When and why do states make strategic decisions that are inconsistent with their broader grand strategy? When and why do states make grand strategies that make them vulnerable in crises and limit their strategic options in war?

A center can also encourage deeper conversations among strategists and security specialists by offering research grants for collaborative work. Annual grants can alternate between theoretical papers, historical papers, and current policy dilemmas. All, however, should follow the ethos that problem-driven research on issues as big as security and strategy cannot be accomplished by any single discipline.

Well-resourced centers can also act as a transmission belt for the product of these collaborations, ensuring that important ideas reach policy circles. They can organize private symposia for political and military leaders, creating an atmosphere that is friendly but intellectually demanding. Such gatherings would take professors and practitioners out of their routine — no panels for scholars, no briefings for policymakers. Examples include structured exercises in what Clausewitz called “critical analysis,” a vicarious learning experience in which participants put themselves in the role of decision-makers at critical moments. Similar events have proven extremely valuable for scholars and leaders alike.

Other solutions involve ways of getting scholars from disparate backgrounds into the same room at the same time. The Naval War College, for example, recently launched a postdoctoral fellowship within its Department of Strategy and Policy. Fellows will teach in the department for a year, soaking in strategic classics while pushing strategists to explore new ways to test their own ideas. These kind of initiatives should not be reserved for professional military education schools, however, but in mainstream political science and history departments. Familiarizing faculty with the possibilities of such collaborations are a good way of encouraging them to reward this kind of scholarship when they peer-review multi-disciplinary manuscripts, and when they make decisions about promotion and tenure. If young scholars believe such decisions will reward their efforts to bridge the security–strategy gap, they will be much more likely to take the plunge.


Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at SMU.


Photo credit: Edwin Wriston, U.S. Navy