Want Better Strategists? Teach Social Science

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America needs better strategists. And if that wasn’t clear enough from the past two decades of U.S. strategy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s new vision and guidance statement for professional military education brings this need into focus.

This clarity provides a welcome and necessary change and should drive reform. Unfortunately, proposals to fix professional military education often begin with one’s preferred methods. James Lacey’s recent essay, for example, suggests the new vision “demands large increases in the use of history-based case studies” despite the fact that the Joint Chiefs use the word “history” only twice in their 11-page document. In my reading, the guidance is far less prescriptive.



Perhaps my proposal is merely a reflection of my own biases as well. Even if this argument merely reflects my view as a trained political scientist, however, this perspective has not yet been well articulated. In this essay, I make the case for why social science education should provide the core of a professional military education program aimed at developing strategically-minded officers. I also identify where social science falls short in the unique task of educating joint warfighters and I discuss why and how it should be supplemented and adapted to advance the vision of the Joint Chiefs.

The U.S. military does not need or want all officers to become social scientist researchers, but applied social science can nevertheless help develop strategic thinking because it: (1) focuses on human behavior and influence; (2) develops comfort with competing theories; (3) requires creativity; and (4) uses evidence and iteration to better understand the world and adapt to change. In any professional military education curriculum, there always should be room for history and time for broad reading and reflection. But, combined with performance-based practice and tailored assessments, programs centered on social science education are the best way to meet the Joint Chiefs’ intent to build better strategists.

What is Strategy?

Most officers do not understand what strategy is, much less how to do it. This problem is bigger than professional military education. It starts in U.S. military doctrine and cultural understanding.

According to Joint Publication 3-0, “Strategy is a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater or multinational objectives.” Joint Doctrine Note 2-19 adds, “In its simplest expression, strategy determines what needs to be accomplished, the methods to accomplish it, and the resources required by those methods.”

In other words: ends, ways, and means.

Although Joint Doctrine Note 2-19, in particular, does provide a more nuanced discussion of strategy throughout the text, neither of these doctrinal definitions adequately describes the fundamental and essential nature of strategy. Instead, they describe a plan: how to use (ways) available resources (means) to accomplish a given goal (ends).

Plans are important. Plans can be useful. Plans can help you solve complex problems. One can even develop plans that account for uncertainty and risk. But a plan is not the same thing as a strategy, and planning is not necessarily strategic. Plans focus on one’s own actions while strategy focuses on influencing others to help achieve desired goals and adapting when initial efforts to influence others fail.

Having a theory of influence alone is also not enough. The core problem of strategy — and the reason it both transcends and subsumes planning — centers on interaction and influence in service of political priorities. Strategy is required when you interact with other autonomous and thinking beings. Unlike nature or the environment, other actors can create; they can react; and they can anticipate. Other actors are sovereign, and they have different values, interests, and ideas about the world. They can also attempt to imagine what values, interests, and ideas you hold as well as what challenges, decisions, and opportunities you will face. Other thinking actors can cooperate or compete, or they can attempt to influence other actors or change other actors’ perceptions of them. As a result, a static plan or theory is rarely sufficient when dealing with other actors. Even with contingency planning, you can’t anticipate all possible reactions, and often the very act of anticipating and planning for a particular reaction changes the other party’s calculus.

Carl von Clausewitz famously used several different metaphors to describe the interactive nature of strategy, calling it a duel or a wrestling match. Other scholars have referred to strategy as a game of chess. But, in reality, the interactive nature of strategy is far more complex. Military leaders are rarely confronted with a situation where opponents are clearly delineated and the rules neatly defined. Instead, strategists face a collection of actors who can all make their own choices. In most cases, one cannot know with much certainty whether these actors are allies, adversaries, agents, or whether they have even decided how they intend to act or how they perceive others’ interests and intent. Nor can they know the same of other actors. Military officers must also interact with competing advisors and agencies within their own government, while often developing narratives to communicate with audiences among the mass public. Sometimes perceptions of what all these other actors know and want and value are wrong, incomplete, or misguided. But through repeated interactions, a strategically-minded officer can gain more information and attempt to make sense of the world. Perhaps as importantly, she can assess whether and how words and actions influence adversaries, and understand when strategic plans do not — or cannot — achieve their desired effects.

Strategy is thus an interactive process of influencing other actors or groups to advance one’s priorities. It tries to understand how one’s own words and actions will affect other actors and it attempts to develop creative approaches to anticipate other actors’ behavior and exert influence on them to advance desired priorities. The strategic process can produce, refine, or replace strategic plans that contain priorities, sequencing, and a theory of influence. Although strategic plans can be written or articulated, strategy itself is dynamic and relational. Strategists must develop theories, rapidly discard them, and adapt them based on new information.

The Case for Social Science

Given the nature of strategy, social science education is uniquely suited to provide the core framework for strategic development for professional military education institutions. Although a social science education alone is not sufficient to develop strategic thinkers, it is necessary.

The social sciences explore how ideas, interests, institutions, and material factors influence individual and social behavior. Although psychology, political science, economics, sociology, and other social science subfields are clearly not the only way to study human interaction, social scientists provide a diverse collection of approaches to study a broad array of problems. More importantly, they provide unique insight into strategic interactions between different groups and actors and offer methods with which to assess the behavior of groups and actors. In other words, social scientists study interaction and influence, the core of strategy.

Although there are some deviations, social science in general is nevertheless unified in its commitment to apply the scientific method to the study of human behavior. Social scientists develop assumptions and hypotheses, and they create theories with observable implications that they can test. When new evidence contradicts an existing hypothesis or theory, the hypothesis or theory can be scrapped or modified. Of course, this approach does not guarantee scholars will always be right. Far from it. In fact, the application of the scientific method assumes they will often be wrong and need to be corrected.

There nevertheless is a critical difference between scholars and practitioners. Social scientists formulate and test hypotheses to develop knowledge, whereas practitioners formulate and test hypotheses about how the world works so they can act on those hypotheses. But the broader interactive and adaptive approach that social scientists use relies on the same fundamental methods and concepts that strategic leaders must replicate, usually more quickly, in practice.

Social science also provides a structured, systematic way to think about which historical cases matter, and in what ways they matter. Why should a military officer analyze one case and not another? Although officers clearly benefit from a wide understanding of history, available time to read and study is always limited. Social science provides methods — especially through case selection and controls — to help officers understand which cases they should study in depth. And it provides a method for officers to maximize their limited time by comparing cases in a structured, focused way. To draw valid conclusions from historical cases, strategically-minded officers need to define selection criteria, conduct comparisons, and be clear from the start which factors they can control for and what conclusions they can validly draw.

Practice Makes Strategic Performance Better

The goal for professional military education should not be to create junior social scientists or professional researchers. That is neither what the U.S. military needs nor what the Joint Chiefs of Staff guidance expects. Rather, the military needs officers who can apply social scientific thinking to fight the nation’s wars and develop military policies and options to advance U.S. national security interests.

As currently structured, however, professional military education doesn’t actually educate officers on how to apply social scientific approaches or the scientific method; rather, professional military education generally teaches students limited information about some social science theories and concepts, or it explains things that social scientists study or know. Although it is useful for officers to have a solid grasp of economic concepts like incentives and scarcity, international relations theories like realism and constructivism, psychological understandings of group and individual behavior, or American national security decision-making institutions and processes, knowledge of these topics does not make one a strategic thinker. That takes practice.

In a phenomenal 2018 essay, Celestino Perez outlined why strategic practice is so essential:

To be sure, a room full of top-tier political scientists or historians can apply scholarly methods, produce new knowledge, and engage in edifying conversations. But a room full of scholars is not the same as a room full of competent strategists and military planners. A group that excels in discourse does not equate to a group that can do strategy. The military and civilian educators we hire must come to appreciate the military students’ obligation to repeatedly practice configuring a visual depiction of a given problem’s relevant strategic environment and, in so doing, an awareness of potential sites and modes of intervention.

Put simply, strategy is about doing. While discussing concepts in a classroom setting or writing a research paper might also contribute to strategic understanding, the same methods that prepare a dissertation candidate for a career researching and teaching are not the same methods that develop the strategic practices necessary to advise as a staff officer or exercise judgment as a commander. Knowing how to apply social scientific methods and insights in a strategic context is not the same as writing a book or publishing in a journal. If the military wanted to produce social scientists, it would be far more effective and efficient to tear down the war colleges and send its top officers to civilian graduate schools. At the same time, however, the general framework of developing competing theories or hypotheses, testing them, and refining them as you collect new information can be extremely beneficial to strategic thinking when refined through tailored pedagogical approaches designed to educate military strategists.

While lectures and seminar discussions may sometimes still be required to achieve certain learning objectives, professional military education should expand the use of experiential learning. Workshops, wargames, simulations, and practical exercises should form the core pedagogical approaches to applying social scientific methods in strategic interactions. Iterative exercises can present novel scenarios or historical cases involving multiple actors with different values and interests. Making military officers apply social scientific methods, practice the strategic process, and adapt strategic plans is the best way to help them develop the skills they need.

Of course, there are those who claim that you do not have to explicitly use social science in these kinds of exercises, arguing that practical experience itself is what really matters. But, whether they realize it or not, almost everyone develops theories and mental models. The advantage of applying social scientific thinking is that it forces officers to be explicit about their assumptions and expectations, the conditions under which their theory holds, and the facts that would force them to modify or abandon it. In other words, social science prepares officers to adapt when their theories and models don’t match reality. The “practical” person is far less likely to have a good theory or to adapt when the facts don’t match their theory, because they haven’t developed and practiced the skills necessary to do so. As a result, curriculum reform should devote just as much attention to the design of assessments as it does to the development of course or lesson reading lists.

Where Social Science Falls Short

Although modified social science education emphasizing practical application should form the core of strategic education at professional military education institutions, it is not a panacea. Social science has several drawbacks that instructors should be aware of, and attempt to mitigate, during instruction and assessment.

Contemporary social scientists often face perverse incentives, especially pre-tenure, that encourage them to ask questions they can answer instead of the questions that are most vital or relevant. In strategic interactions, the practice of judging strategic success based on the things that are easiest to measure can have devastating consequences. In addition to examining the strengths of developing hypotheses and variables to measure, joint officers should also examine historical cases, such as the Vietnam War or Operation Enduring Freedom, where these practices helped perpetuate false narratives of progress.

Social science typically also focuses on probabilistic explanations or patterns of behavior. While these patterns may provide useful approximations of how a situation should be expected to play out over many cases, uncertainty in predicting behavior in a particular case can be quite significant. Social science does offer great insight into probabilistic risk taking, but it can also miss specific features of individual cases or fail to account for contingent factors that can have significant consequences. Historical cases can help joint officers develop a deep appreciation for the challenges of leadership, the importance of contingency, and the challenges of acting under conditions of great confusion and uncertainty. But knowledge of history and the analysis of comparative historical case studies are not in competition with social science; they are social science. And social sciences also provide thoughtful methods to identify and select relevant cases, and to identify when the lessons a particular case may not apply. As a result, social science and history can be used in tandem.

As a tool, social science is also value neutral, though it remains subject to the same types of bias that other disciplines face in terms of framing and question selection. The scientific method applied to social and strategic questions can help identify relationships and patterns of behavior that have immense moral implications, but it cannot arbitrate between them. A grounding in ethics and philosophy will remain necessary to supplement the strategic education of officers.

Finally, a social science education alone cannot guarantee officers will develop creativity or imagination, and human agency ensures that strategy will always be a challenge. Adam Lowther and Brooke Mitchell addressed some of these challenges in a recent essay, and — indeed — the Joint Chiefs’ vision mentions the need to develop creativity or imagination nearly twenty times. While reading science fiction or great literature is its own reward, it also helps develop empathy and imagination. So, too, do cultural studies and immersion programs. Although social science and strategy both require the application of imagination to be successful in their aims, broad reading and deep thinking can never be abandoned. And professional military education should allow time for officers to reflect.


Professional military education programs produce many officers who can develop plans, but few who can think strategically. As the Joint Chiefs articulated clearly, professional military education programs need to produce “strategically-minded warfighters or applied strategist who can execute and adapt strategy through campaigns and operations.” In other words, the U.S. military needs officers who can apply social scientific thinking to fight the nation’s wars and advance U.S. national security interests.

Professional military education programs organized around social science education — supplemented with broad reading in history, philosophy, and other fields — and practiced through performance-based exercises and tailored assessments are the best way to meet the Joint Chiefs’ vision to develop strategists who will be prepared to adapt to the challenges of future warfare.

The theory that professional military education centered primarily on historical case studies will produce strategically-minded officers has been the dominant approach to professional military education for decades. This theory has not produced the desired results. It is time to acknowledge the evidence, discard that theory, and adopt a new one focused on the practical application of social scientific thinking. Doing so will provide new information with which to assess this new theory, as both students and other strategic actors anticipate and adapt to these changes. U.S. professional military education programs can then refine and adapt their approaches based on that new evidence. But the U.S. military needs better strategists, and professional military education cannot afford to remain stuck in the past.



Dr. Jim Golby will join the Clements Center for National Security as a senior fellow in July. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimgolby. These views are the author’s and do not represent the Department of Defense or the United States Army.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Staff Sgt. Chanelcherie DeMello)