Strategic culture: a reliable tool of analysis for eu security developments? Strategic Culture: the concept

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Strategic culture: a reliable tool of analysis for EU security developments?

Strategic Culture: the concept

The concept of strategic culture is not a new one. In the past it has been applied in various ways and to a range of countries (e.g. Japan, Germany), regions (e.g. Scandinavia, Pacific Ocean) and security institutions (e.g. NATO) in order to examine the main aspects of their security policies. It has been the case that by applying the notion of strategic culture to certain case studies scholars try to explain continuity and change in national security policies. In addition, academics involved in the study of strategic culture attempt to create a framework which can give answers as to why certain policy options (and not others) are pursued by states.

We can trace the development of strategic culture back to the 1970s. During this period scholars such as Snyder examined Soviet deterrence policy and concluded that US analysts failed to predict Soviet reactions. This happened because they took for granted the fact that the Soviets would react the same way as the Americans would do in certain cases. However, policy outcomes proved that this kind of ‘behavioural prediction’ on behalf of US scientists (based on rational-actor paradigms and game theoretical modelling in analysing superpower relations) proved to be wrong. As a result of this failure to predict reactions, a number of scholars came to the conclusion that each country had its own way to interpret, analyse and react to international events. This brought the question of a state/national culture back to the agenda and created a new wave of literature which focused on the development of a new tool of analysis, notably that of strategic culture.
According to Iain Johnston we can distinguish three generations of strategic culture scholars. One of the first generations of academics who talked about the importance of strategic culture was Snyder. Strategic culture according to Snyder can be best defined as ‘the sum of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of a national strategic community share with regard to nuclear strategy’1. Iain Johnston also mentions that strategic culture is: ‘an ideational milieu which limits behaviour choices’. This milieu consists of ‘shared assumption and decision rules that impose a degree of order on individual and group conceptions of their relationship to their social, organisational or political environment’2. Johnston mentions the importance of military influence and Grand strategy doctrine in the study of culture. As he argues, ‘Strategic culture is an integrated ‘system of symbols (e.g. argumentation, structures, languages, analogies, metaphors) which acts to establish pervasive and long lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious’[…]Thus strategic culture as a ‘system of symbols’ comprises two parts: the first consists of basic assumptions about the orderliness of the strategic environment, that is, about the nature of the adversary and the threat it poses (zero-sum or variable sum) and about the efficacy of the use of force (about the ability to control outcomes and to eliminate threats, and the conditions under which applied force is useful). Together these comprise the central paradigm of strategic culture.’3
Colin S. Gray was another influential first generation scholar. In his work Nuclear Strategy and National Style, Gray defines strategic culture as ‘referring to modes of thought and action with respect to force, which derives from perception of the national historical experience, from aspirations for responsible behaviour in national terms’4. What Gray called responsible behaviour was many times the point of inspiration for many scholars. One of the main ideas behind the notion of strategic culture was to explain actions and ideas which seemed to be at odds with what would be ‘rational’ for a state to do. As Iain Johnston argues: ‘Rather than rejecting rationality per se as a factor in strategic choice, the strategic culture approach challenges the ahistorical, non-cultural neorealist framework for analysing strategic choices…..Strategic culture is compatible with notions of limited rationality (where strategic culture simplifies reality), with process rationality (where strategic culture defines ranked preferences or narrows options) and with adaptive rationality (where historical choices, analogies, metaphors, and precedents are invoked to guide choice)’5. Therefore as far as strategic culture analysts are concerned there is no universal model of rationality and what is rational for one state can be irrational for another.
We should also take into consideration that it is the history and experiences of each state that point to the rational/irrational political choices that each particular state will follow. As Iain Johnston argues ‘Different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree, by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites.’6 Working on similar ideas Ken Booth produced a book called Strategy and Ethnocentrism. In his work Booth tried to use examples from history in order to demonstrate that culture can have certain distorting effects in the study and practise of strategy which consequently lead to mistakes when it comes to IR analysis.7
During the 1980s and 1990s the study of strategic culture went very much ahead of its initial ‘nuclear’ field of study and evolved thus examining many other security issues. Much of the work produced by the first generation lacked much of the necessary cohesion and methodological rigour. In addition, the puzzle between strategic culture and behaviour was not solved and this was one of the topics that the second generation of strategic theorists explored. The cycle of analysis was enriched by contributions from the second and third generation of scholars who have contributed by exploiting important ideational independent variables. These scholars expanded the strategic field of study by adding new elements to the debate.
A characteristic notion of this ‘new’ strategic culture is given by Kerry Longhurst. According to Longhurst, strategic culture today can be best defined as ‘a distinctive body of beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding the use of force, which are held by a collective and arise gradually over time, through a unique protracted historical process. A strategic culture is persistent over time, tending to outlast the era of its original inception, although it is not a permanent or static feature. It is shaped and influenced by formative periods and can alter, either fundamentally or piecemeal, at critical junctures in that collective’s experiences.’8 Strategic culture analysis can be also seen as an attempt to find out the impact of deep-seated values and beliefs when it comes to decision-making in security matters in general. As Longhurst suggests: ‘The logic of strategic culture then, resides in the central belief that collective ideas and values about the use of force are important constitutive factors in the design and execution of states’ security policies’9.
Furthermore, another useful definition comes from Colin Gray in his late works who defines strategic culture as ‘the persisting (though not eternal) socially transmitted ideas, attitudes, traditions, habits of mind, and preferred methods of operation that are more or less specific to a particularly geographically based security community that has had a necessarily unique historical experience’10. Gray also suggests that: ‘Strategic culture is a toll which denotes the emotional and attitudinal environment within which the defence community operates. Ideas about war and strategy are influenced by physical and political geography-some strategic cultures plainly have, for example, a maritime or a continental tilt – by political or religious ideology, and by familiarity with, and preference for, particular military technologies. Strategic culture is the world of mind, feeling and habit of behaviour.’11 Carnes Lord takes a similar view and creates his own version of strategic culture not just in terms of military practice but in terms of the social, political and ideological characteristics ‘centrally constitutive of a state’. For Lord, strategic culture was the traditional practices and habits of thought by which military force is organized and employed by a society in the service of its political goals’. Lord identifies six factors which created a strategic culture: the geopolitical setting, military history, international relationships, political culture and ideology, the nature of civil-military relations and military technology12. Katzenstein also created a new strand of thought by using aspects of sociological analysis on the Japanese Foreign policy. As a consequence, Katzenstein used a mixture of political-military cultural elements and based his theory on two main aspects of security- the cultural/institutional and the national identity dimension13.
The logic of strategic culture resides in the central belief that collective ideas and values about the use of force are important constitutive factors in the design and execution of states’ security policies. Theorists suggest that at the core of every state or security community such as the EU lie a range of shared values and beliefs relating to the use of force which is the collective’s culture. As Alan Macmillan suggests ‘ The decision making process in matters of defence is not an abstract construct based purely in the present moment but is, rather, steeped in the beliefs, biases, traditions and cultural identity of the individual country-all of which feeds into its strategic culture.’14 This culture is shaped by formative episodes in times of crisis and is highly influenced by experiences of the past. Furthermore, change in strategic culture is gradual in nature and is most likely to occur in the forms of adjustments so long as the core values stay intact. Beliefs, feelings, fears, aims and ambitions are the unobservable aspects of each strategic culture. They are the core values that form the foundational elements of it, giving it its quality and characteristics. These foundational elements are derived directly from formative experiences and have been internalised, creating a fairly consensual or centripetal nature to the strategic culture. Importantly, whether these experiences were actually lived through or not by all individuals in a given collective they are points of common reference and remembrance. These elements form each nation’s strategic culture. As a result, practices and policies are direct outcomes of these foundational elements. It is also argued that strategic culture produces tendencies and influences but does not always determine behaviour because sometimes other external factors act as obstacle to state preferences 15.
Different scholars use different components in order to define strategic culture. For instance, Kerry Longhurst identifies three main components of strategic culture. Firstly there are the deeper qualities that have their origins in the primordial or formative phases in the development of a given strategic culture. These are called ‘foundational elements’. These foundational elements comprise basic beliefs regarding the use of force that give a strategic culture its core characteristics. Beliefs are semi-permanent and can contribute to the construction of a national identity which leads to a kind of ‘national paradigm’ in strategic matters. Foundational elements are highly resilient to change. Extending out of these foundational elements are the manifestations of strategic culture, the long-standing policies and practices that actively relate and apply the substance of the strategic culture’s core to the external environment, essentially by providing channels of meaning and application. These aspects of strategic culture are called regulatory practices. These regulatory practices are less resilient to change. Midway between the foundational elements and regulatory practices are the ‘security policy standpoints’. These standpoints are the contemporary, widely accepted interpretations as to how best core values should be promoted through policy channels, in the sense that they set the preferences for policy choices. On the other hand, Jones gives us an alternative account of strategic culture elements when he argues that there were three levels of inputs into a states’s strategic culture: a macro-environmental level consisting of geography, ethno-cultural characteristics and history, a societal level consisting of social, economic, and political structures of a society, and a micro level consisting of military institutions and characteristics of civil-military relations16.
Every generation of scholars questions different issues and examines alternative options. The third generation of scholars was wary of avoiding the determinism and nation stereotyping of the first generation. This is partly to the conceptualisation of culture culture in a variable way. For instance, as Iain Johnston suggests: ‘Legro suggests that culture is rooted in recent experience. Elizabeth Kier views political-military culture as a product of changing domestic political contexts, hence varying as domestic politics varies. This generation is explicitly committed to competitive theory testing pitting alternative explanations against each other. Kier for instance pits structural realism, bureaucratic organizational models, and the concept of military culture against each other. The range of optimal strategies can vary dramatically depending on which end the preference spectrum one examines’17. It is important also to notice that for this generation of scholars: ‘culture either presents decision-makers with limited range of options or it acts as a lens that alters the appearance and efficacy of different choices’18. This explanation leaves room for some other supplementary factors of influence of state behaviour.
The strategic culture of the EU
As far as the EU Foreign Policy analysis is concerned, many scholars in the past have studied many aspects of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. Their works can be categorised in two main trends. The first group of researchers deals with questions of Development and External Relations whereas the second group aims at explaining issues of security and defence. My project fits best in the second group of works although it does not identify with the approaches taken by the CFSP scholars. Strategic culture does not emerge from a positivist background which is very much the case of previous CFSP/CESDP studies.
As far as the EU is concerned there are often diverging opinions on where CESDP is leading us. Optimist scholars such as Jolyon Howorth, Cornish & Edwards as well as Anne Deighton suggest that the EU is slowly assuming an important role in international affairs. Cornish & Edwards also give a definition of the EU strategic culture as ‘the institutional confidence and processes to manage and deploy military force as part of the accepted range of legitimate and effective policy instruments, together with general recognition of the EU’s legitimacy as an international actor with military capabilities (albeit limited).’19 This is a different culture though because much of it not one based on defence -as this is very much a NATO field-but on the willingness to make a difference on crisis and conflicts. Rynning also stresses the change of EU from an actor of ‘providing relief’ to one of promoting democracy’. On the contrary, scholars such as Lindley-French support the opposite and tend to lead the view that security is to remain under the auspices of the nation state. However, the vital issue is that there is a debate on whether or not an EU strategic culture is evident which makes my case study important in academic terms.
I should also add that the topic is not only limited in academic debates. It is very much a pragmatic as the EU prepares its own security shield under the auspices of CESDP institutions and it is now vital to apply the strategic culture concept in order to analyse its policies and aims in depth. Javier Solana has recently presented an EU concept of security and the first EU mission have already taken place in FYROM and Congo. There is a difference between the EU concept and the EU culture with culture being the framework in which the concept has been created. My future task for my thesis will be to analyse is the culture in which this concept was born. There is a culture which produced this concept and probably a form of ‘European national interest’ within it. I attempt to analyse what lies behind the written strategic concept.

There are signs that a strategic culture is already developing through a socialization process which is considerably accelerated by the institutional arrangements put in place in the EU since the decisions of the Helsinki European Council in December 1999. In 1999 in Helsinki, EU leaders reached an agreement on setting a European military goal. This was a new but dynamic development. A headline goal of 60,000 troops along with the emergence of capability goals demonstrated that there was something happening underground that EU scholars have failed to explore. 1999 was a crucial Europe but this was not the beginning of European security. The process of change though has started much more earlier. There were many discussion for a Europe of security since it creation but it was mostly the pressures emerging after the end of the cold war which gave new impetus to the project of CESDP.

A change of mentalities also took place. As Cornish and Edwards suggest: ‘there seems to be a positive approach among the military, as well as others, to the inclusion of the military dimension’ within the EU. They may not (yet) have acquired the ‘habit’ of seeking agreement that has often characterised much of the EU’s work but there is at least a ‘can try’ approach if not a ‘can do’ one’20. Many of the military personnel come from a NATO background which will be of vital importance in maintaing the transatlantic link. It is inteereting to notice that the commitment by an institutionalisation of the military options within the CFSP/ESDP has already taken place. In addition, there is the development of external responsibilities in terms of conflict prevention and management that has been quietly proceeding within the EU. If the first development smacks of a neo-functionalist determinism, the second, more pragmatically, indicates how the military option is becoming a part of the EU’s range of policy instruments. It suggests that ‘Civilian Power’ Europe has already begun to evolve a strategic culture. C & E
Rynning suggests that the strategic culture of the EU is of a very special nature: As Running argues: ‘there are areas of political-military activity, such as policing actions of various types on the external borders of the EU, and the limited application of military force in the context of post-conflict reconstruction, peace-building and development aid, where perhaps a unique, ‘gendarmerie’style EU strategic culture has been germinating.’21 This is a normal outcome as the EU is unique and therefore its strategic culture is unique too.
The EU is expected to have a very special strategic culture because of its nature of foreign policy. State formation implied that the army had an important role to play in forming the identity of each state. However, the EU had no military and the emphasis on foreign policy was put on soft elements of external relations. We should also take into consideration that the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ foreign policy has been blurred by latest developments in the field with new works from scholars aiming at bridging the gap between the two camps. However this does not limit its role in strategic culture. For instance, it may be the case that an EU strategic culture, although deals with questions of security and defence, is still based on the idea of the projection of the EU as a primary civilian power. This can be also derived as a conclusion when the EU strategic concept is studied in detail. It may also be the case that there might be a spill over of working practices ‘ethos’ from CFSP to CESDP. For instance, Rynning argues that soft politics in terms of multilateralism cannot be ignored: ‘Once action takes place outside the NATO framework, the European emphasis on diplomacy as well as explicit UN Security Council mandates emerge clearly. Moreover, the EU may be able to react as fast as NATO can – using a framework nation to kick of the operation (e.g. France in Congo) and then subsequently pulling it into the EU proper- but the EU has a concept of force that is less robust that that of NATO.’22 In terms of military power Rynning suggests that the European use of force will likely resemble that of the doctrine of just war: military coercion will take place only when mandated by international law (jus ad bellum), and the use of force will be severely constrained (jus in bello).
Many scholars of EU studies focus on the role of the European elites and it seems that their role in the EU security developments cannot be underestimated: ‘As in the past, policymakers rooted in nation-states are reluctant to surrender initiative and power, but now in the current context of political union and CFSP/ESDP elites seek decision-making compromises in the shape of elaborate but also cumbersome bureaucracies and rules that are suited to the process and culture of negotiation but not designed to optimise European executive authority. The outcome is an intergovernmental construction with common European ornaments that is capable of exercising structural but not coercive power’23
The question of traumas is also eminent: It was the EU’s bad experience in Kosovo that finally pushed the member states to move forward. Indeed, disillusionment with the current status quo has led to reform. The evolution of the EU strategic culture is gradual in nature and goes along with national/international variables (what is called fine tuning most of the times but also fundamental change in times of crisis). The creation of CESDP institutions as well as inter-ministerial meetings and debates related to security and defence issues may form the pattern of a ‘fine tuning’ option. Change happens when new issues and problems arise that need to be dealt with. Problems might lead to a discussion about the usefulness of existing policies and consequently to a change of these policies. With the creation of the CESDP, EU member states form a common culture by addressing common security and defence problems
Therefore, I explain the emergence of strategic culture as a product of various influences. A single strategic culture emerges from its multiple inputs, when each of these inputs could arguably produce alternative, even contradictory strategic cultures . I can identify two important categories that influence it. The first one is the domestic context (EU internal politics, state rivalries) and the second is external factors (international relations, multilateral institutions and settings of foreign policy, times of crisis (e.g. Iraq War, Kosovo bombing). As far as the nature of strategic culture is concerned some scholars may argue that when dealing with other states or bloc of countries: ‘objective or external forces are important but they are secondary, even subservient to the strategic culture which either colours or even decisively shapes a state’s response to change in the external environment’ (Kerry Longhurst, b:2000). However, the EU might be the exception to this rule. If we are to examine the EU, we examine an entity that had no direct involvement in wars, although it has been very much itself a product of the Second World War. Its civilian power status which has been so much propagated by various EU actors makes the creation of a unified EU strategic culture a difficult task but not an impossible one. Multilateralism is a characteristic of the CFSP approach and there is an interaction between the EU and the others that requires a framework. Neighborouring states, big powers such as Russia and the USA, regional blocs, security organisations such as NATO and the CSCE have all a vital input in the policies of the Union. In addition, the ‘no statal’ status of the EU makes other important powerful experienced players such as the USA or NATO more eager to influence its security policy outcomes.
We must also bear in mind that strategic culture may not be a unified factor but on the contrary it may be characterised by fragmentation and in the case of the EU, it may consist of a number of sub-cultures that overlap thus creating a dominant culture. The opposite might be also a possibility: the EU forms a culture from ‘above’ which is diffused in a ‘top-bottom’ manner. We should also take into consideration that there are many national differences and opinions on the use of force. For instance, countries such as France and the UK support the idea that force must be used to defend interests but countries such as Austria, Finland and Sweden argue that force must be restrained as much as possible24. UK and Denmark believe that strategy must be based on transatlantic partnership whereas countries such as France and Belgium mostly support European autonomy. Therefore, the issue here is where does the centre of gravity is located and whether the centre of gravity can be found within CESDP institutions.
The EU may be also developing into a hybrid version of a Deutschian security community. Karl Deutsch distinguished between a ‘pluralistic security community’ where the governments and societies of two or more states discount the possibility of mutual warfare, and each ceases to make financial and military preparations for aggression or defence in respect of the others but their institutions and authority are not integrated, or an ‘amalgamated security community’ where a kind of ‘merging’ takes place. The state factor is important. In the EU case, the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures and its member states may share a common but to a great extent fragmented strategic culture. According to Iain Johnston: ‘this is not because states face similar structural conditions or share similar formative historical and cultural experiences. Rather it is because, as states, they share a common process of identity creation despite differences in regime type, historical experience, level of economic development, geography etc.’25
Roles, fears, ideas, beliefs all influence behaviour. Strategic culture is an alternative way of explaining strategic behaviour. Each state and security institution has a strategic culture. Therefore the EU has one too. It may be the case that the EU strategic culture is a ‘weak’ strategic culture, a culture that is in the process of formation, an embryonic one. There is already a limited academic debate on the topic which requires further clarification and expansion. I choose to follow the strategic culture path because I think that conducting a study on the EU from a strategic culture point of view will give us new valuable facts about the way EU conducts its security policy. Due to the relative lack of research on the topic of EU strategic culture I understand that this is not an easy task. There is a lot one should look for and fieldwork in CESDP institutions must form the basis of every reliable EU research. This is the beginning of an idea, the challenge is ahead.

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Longhurst, Kerry, (2000) ‘The Concept of strategic Culture’ in Gerhard Kummel & Andreas D. Prufert (eds), ‘Military Sociology’ Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden

Katzenstein, Peter, (1998), Cultural Norms and National Security: Police and Military in Post War Japan’, Cornell University Press

Katzenstein, Peter (ed), (1996), ‘The Culture of National security’, Columbia University Press, New York,

Smith, Steve, Booth, Ken (eds), (1996), International Theory: Positivism and Beyond’, Cambridge University Press,

Rosamond, Ben, (2000), Theories of European Integration, MacMillan Press Ltd

Warleigh, Alex, (2002), ‘Flexible Integration’, Sheffield Academic Press
Longhurst, Kerry, (2000), ‘Strategic Culture: The Key to Understanding German Security Policy?’, University of Birmingham


Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Thinking about Strategic Culture, International Security, 19:4, pp. 33-64

Checkel, T. Jeffrey, (2004), ‘Social constructivisms in global and European politics: a review essay’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 30, pp. 229-244

Cornish, Paul and Geoffrey Edwards, ‘Beyond the EU/NATO dichotomy: the beginnings of a European strategic culture, International Affairs 77, 3, (2001) pp. 587-603

Kavalski, Emilian, ‘EU Outreach in the Balkans: Setting Normative Appropriateness?’, Aberystwyth Journal of Word Affairs (1)

Lantis, S. Jeffrey, (2002) ‘Strategic Culture and National Security Policy’, International Studies Association

Rynning, Sten, (2003), The European Union: Towards a Strategic Culture?, Security Dialogue, Vol 34 (4): 479-496

Steans, Jill, ‘Engaging from the margins: feminist encounters with the ‘mainstream’ of International Relations, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 5, No. 3, August 2003, pp. 295-316

Internet sources

Jolyon Howorth, ‘Saint-Malo Plus Five: An Interim Assessment of ESDP’, Policy Papers No7, November 2003, (20/05/04)

1 Snyder 1977:8 in Longhurst: a 2000:302

2 Iain Johnston

3 Iain Johnston

4 (Colin S. Gray, Nuclear Strategy and National Style, (1986), Hamilton Press)

5 Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Thinking about Strategic Culture, International Security, 19:4, pp. 33-64

6 Ibid

7 Booth, 1979

8 Kerry Longhurst: b: 200

9 Ibid

10 (Gray 1999:51 in Longhurst b:2000)

11 Gray, 1999

12 Lord in Longhurst:b: 2000:303

13 katzenstein, 1996

14 Ibid

15 Gray in Longhurst:a:2000

16 Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Thinking about Strategic Culture, International Security, 19: 4, pp. 33-64

17 Ibid

18 Ibid

19 Cornish & Edwards

20 Cornish & Edwards

21 Rynning

22 Rynning

23 Ibid

24 Rynning

25 Iain Johnston

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