The Gray-Johnston debate and its ramifications for the study of

In document From Guilt to Responsibility and Beyond? : Change in German Strategic Culture after the End of the Cold War (Page 44-53)



The theoretical debate on strategic culture evolved as the so-called Gray- Johnston debate that has been taking place since the mid-1990s in various publications, culminating in two issues of the Review of International Studies (RIS) in 1999.97 The primary purpose of this sub-chapter is not to reiterate or

reassess everything that has already been said in this debate but rather to highlight some of the important aspects of it, which are of value for the con- duct of this study. In short, this debate can be seen as an intra-constructivist divide at the heart of which lies the dilemma of how to deal with causality and therefore the question: what does strategic culture explain, if anything, and how can we expect it to affect strategic behaviour?

In his early critique of the first generation of strategic culture scholarship, Johnston argues that “if strategic culture is said to be the product of nearly all relevant explanatory variables, then there is little conceptual space for non-strategic culture explanation of strategic choice.”98 He further asks “how

does one evaluate a strategic culture where thought and action seem incon- sistent with each other? Or, alternatively, is it always the case that one type of behaviour reveals one set of distinct patterns of strategic assumptions?”99

This critique continues in his piece in RIS in which he laments the all- encompassing nature and determinism of Gray’s approach.100 Gray, in turn,

rejects Johnston’s positivism on the basis that there is no conceptual space for the separation of behaviour from culture if all actors are ‘cultural actors’. Therefore, according to Gray, culture is best understood as providing the context for strategic behaviour which is a constitutive part of that very cul- ture. As a result, Gray concludes that “strategic culture provides a context for understanding, rather than explanatory causality.”101

Despite his hands-down positivist approach on strategic culture, John- ston’s critique of the first generation has its merits. When this debate is as- sessed in scholarly works, the attention regularly tends to be focused almost entirely on the link between strategic culture and state behaviour. But there are other important aspects about Johnston’s critique that are often ignored which need to be discussed since they reveal important aspects about how the option for strategic cultural change has been conceived. Even though

97 See Review of International Studies, 25:1 (January 1999) and Review of International Studies, 25:3

(July 1999).

98 Johnston 1995, p. 37. 99 Ibid.

100 Johnston, Alastair Iain 1999, ‘Strategic cultures revisited: reply to Colin Gray’, Review of Interna-

tional Studies, Vol. 25, Issue 3 (July 1999), pp. 519-523.

101 Colin, Gray S. 1999, ‘Strategic culture as context: the first generation of theory strikes back’, Review

Johnston makes clear that for a strategic culture to exist, certain strategic preferences need to be consistent across time; there are some points in his threefold critique of the first generation that problematize the question about the continuity of strategic culture. First, Johnston laments the first genera- tion’s view on the homogeneity of strategic culture. He argues that it is prob- lematic to assume (as the first generation does) that “a single strategic cul- ture emerges from its multiple inputs when each of these inputs could argua- bly produce an alternative, even contradictory strategic culture.”102 Second,

he criticizes Gray and others for not allowing space for instrumentality of strategic culture and therefore the lack of conceptualizing agency within stra- tegic culture. Third, as he rejects the first generation’s view of strategic cul- ture as “the monolithic, independent, and observable constraint on all actors behaviour”, he is puzzled why the first generation has not attempted to ask and answer the following questions: what is the source or repository of stra- tegic culture? Which time period is the most important in this regard? Why are certain historical sources considered formative sources of strategic cul- ture and others not? How is strategic culture transmitted through time and does it change through its transmission?103 In connection with the question

about the homogeneity of strategic culture, Johnston asks the important question “how does one evaluate a strategic culture where thought and action seem inconsistent with each other? Or, alternatively, is it always the case that one type of behaviour reveals one set of distinct patterns of strategic assump- tions?”104

This point is important because it not only reflects the issue regarding norms and their functions but it also raises the question of whether specific strategic ideas and thinking translate into certain strategic practices but not others. Part of this can be explained by how Johnston presents the issue. He presumes that strategic cultures are either homogenous or that there is con- siderable variation within and/or between different states. This becomes evi- dent when he presents his analytical model. Johnston talks about ‘the central paradigm of strategic culture’ – the role of war in human affairs (frequency of conflict in human affairs); the nature of adversary and the threat it poses (ze- ro-sum nature of conflict); and the efficacy of the use of force. He argues that this paradigm “reduces uncertainty about the strategic environment; but it is shared information that comes from deeply historical sources, not from cur- rent environment.”105 On a more operational level, Johnston argues, the

question becomes “what strategic options are the most efficacious ones for dealing with the threat environment, as defined by the answers to the first three questions”, and continues that “depending on where along these con- tinua particular political decision makers are based, their strategic decision

102 Johnston 1995, p. 38. 103 Ibid., pp. 38-39. 104 Ibid., p. 49. 105 Ibid., p. 46.

preferences ought to vary accordingly.”106 Importantly, Johnston argues that

“it is at this level of preferences over actions where strategic culture begins to affect behavioural choices directly. Thus the essential empirical referent of a strategic culture is a limited, ranked set of grand-strategic preferences that is consistent across the objects of analysis (e.g. textual sources for potential an- swers to the central paradigm) and persistent across time.”107

Hence, the existence of enough internal variation between states along these continua becomes the necessary prerequisite for Johnston to argue that the strategic choice is different among a number of states because he as- sumes that different groups sharing different strategic preferences naturally align themselves differently along these dimensions. However, this model does not explain variation in strategic behaviour within one particular state very well, such as Germany, since participation in military crisis management operations would then be explained by decisions of a group in power that has a strategic preference for this sort of action. As strategic decisions of German governments have to be approved by the majority of member of the German Bundestag, this model becomes redundant because it cannot explain why German decision makers, who arguably do not have a consistent strategic preference in offensive strategy over time, have at times opted for one (how- ever, this would not qualify as offensive in the sense of Johnston’s layout of strategic preferences). Johnston’s analytical model is too linear as it assumes that all the dimensions of this central paradigm – the role of war in human affairs, the nature of threat and the efficacy of the use of force are equally important in determining strategic choice across time. Moreover, the ap- proach assumes that strategic culture is a collective endeavour – yet it does not tackle this with the question of the agents of change – such as powerful key politicians in the German cabinet.

On the second point, however, Johnston is right in criticizing the first generation for not conceptualizing agency within strategic culture. However, Johnston’s own treatment of agency is not very convincing. In his account, strategic culture is “an integrated system of symbols (e.g., argumentation structures, languages, analogies, metaphors) which acts to establish perva- sive and long-lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in international affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.”108

First, as was already touched upon, Johnston presumes that possessing certain grand-strategic preferences will lead a group of political decision makers to opt automatically for a certain kind of strategic policies. Here, one could accuse Johnston of committing the same crime of mechanistic deter- minism as he attributes to the first generation. Second, Johnston hints to a

106 Ibid., p. 42. 107 Ibid., pp. 42-43. 108 Ibid., 46.

manufactured ‘aura of factuality’ thereby referring to the possibility that stra- tegic culture can be used in an instrumental fashion. But this argument does not provide any added value given Johnston’s definition of strategic culture which presumes that grand strategic preferences have to be consistent across time and therefore Johnston overstates the importance of instrumental usage of strategic culture. If we understand instrumentality as a political effort to legitimize certain viewpoints, back up specific interests or as the aim to ma- nipulate the strategic agenda, then it is more or less business as usual for po- litical actors so it is hard to imagine why it would be any different in terms of strategic culture in the first place. However, as discussed at the beginning of this chapter, the views expressed in the second generation scholarship high- lighting the role of instrumental agency, i.e. the usage of strategic culture as a political resource, is not as straightforward as Johnston would have it.

There is one further perplexing issue about Johnston’s definition. John- ston seems to assume that strategic choices indeed ‘flow logically’ from this ‘strategic culture paradigm’ without giving further thought to the possibility that something else could cause them. What makes this view problematic is not that it takes something as ‘given’ but the fact that this ‘logical flow’ is the assumption behind Johnston’s claim about the distinction between culture and strategy and what makes him argue for a definition of culture that can be falsifiable. This assumption more or less requires Johnston to treat strategic preferences as stable over time and not as ones that can be considered to change or even vary. For Johnston, every state has a certain range of strategic preferences to choose from, and the strategic decisions then flow logically from the pool of these preferences. More importantly, he makes the assump- tion that the use of force is in any case a viable option if the outcome can be controlled – but this raises a rather instrumental point about the use of mili- tary force and completely overlooks any issues that have to do with the politi- cal process of legitimating such a decision in the first place.

In contrast to Johnston, Colin Gray argues that “strategic culture should be approached both as a shaping context for behaviour and itself as a con- stituent of that behaviour”.109 For Gray, “(c)ulture or cultures comprises the

persisting (though not eternal) socially transmitted ideas, attitudes, tradi- tions, habits of mind, and preferred methods of operation that are more or less specific to a particular geographically based security community that has had a necessarily unique historical experience.”110 Hence, for Gray, strategic

culture is a constitutive concept that is informed by sociological and anthro- pological writings about culture. Gray argues that Johnston’s critique is mis- conceived and that he does not grasp the nature of strategic culture by trying to approach it as falsifiable. In his words, “anyone who seeks a falsifiable the-

109 Gray 1999, p. 50. 110 Ibid.

ory of strategic culture in the school of Johnston, commits the same error as a doctor who sees people as having entirely separable bodies and minds.”111

For Gray, strategic culture is “a context, something that surrounds and something that weaves together”.112 Importantly, Gray’s overall thinking is

that strategic culture cannot explain the strategic behaviour of strategic ac- tors but it can explain the meaning of the content of that action. Gray gives an example of British warfare during World War II. He argues that strategic culture cannot explain why Britain embarked upon a long continental mili- tary campaign but it can explain why the continental role was so different for Britain than for the other major European powers. Moreover, “the idea of strategic culture does not imply that there is a simple one-for-one relation- ship between culturally traceable preferences and actual operational choices. The claim rather, is that culture shapes the process of strategy-making and influences the execution of strategy, no matter how close actual choice may be to some abstract or idealized cultural preference.”113 According to Gray, we

cannot make falsifiable arguments about strategic culture because “the unity of cultural influence and policy action denies the existence for the study of cause and effect.”114 Hence, instead, we should ask questions such as ‘what

does the observed behaviour mean’?

Gray makes a couple of important remarks about the study of strategic culture. First of all, we can talk about strategic culture because it is some- thing that is distinctive in every security community. It seems that for Gray, strategic culture is a tendency to implement strategy in a certain way which then produces traceable patterns of behaviour – regardless how the cultural preferences equate with the outcomes. If we adopted Gray’s thinking in this study per se, strategic culture could then explain why the question of partici- pation in out-of-area military operations is more difficult for Germany than it is for France, for example. Following Gray, then, it cannot explain why Ger- many chooses to actually participate, or not. This makes sense when strategic culture is constructed along the lines of traceable patterns of behaviour, in other words, patterns of continuity. However, it becomes more complicated when we take the possibility of change in strategic culture more seriously when, for instance, we encounter situations or in Gray’s words ‘contexts’ where there is no definite pattern that could be traced. Of course, this is a non-issue for Gray who believes that “(s)cholars who prefer to look only to recent history as the determining influence upon contemporary strategic cul- ture, would be well advised to change concepts. If strategic culture is held to be significantly reshapeable on a year by year, or even on a decade by decade,

111 Ibid., p. 53. 112 Ibid., p. 68. 113 Ibid., p. 55. 114 Ibid., p. 56.

basis, then culture probably is unduly dignified, even pretentious, a term to characterize the phenomena at issue.”115

The difficulty with Gray’s account is that he constantly treats strategic cul- ture more as a tendency to think or act in a certain fashion rather than as a response to emerging policy problems or security issues. For Gray, strategic culture cannot change other than as the result of reinterpreting new experi- ences. Yet he forgets that sometimes political decision makers have to make quick decisions based on scarce knowledge of what is actually going on or when they encounter situations that require novel policy responses. If these decisions deviate drastically from the given cultural preferences (say, certain culturally defined principles) then it is hard to argue that strategic culture constitutes strategic behaviour no matter what. Gray would argue that this does not matter since “human beings cannot help but be encultured into cer- tain cultures”.116 Hence, it becomes impossible to discern the influence of

strategic culture on strategic behaviour because it is somehow omnipresent. As a critique of Gray’s position one could posit that it is difficult to conceive of strategic actors as actually being the ‘context’ of strategic behaviour be- cause context does not implement anything, it just exists or does not and, strategic behaviour is strategic behaviour even if it does not produce any traceable patterns. This leads to inconsistencies in argument on Gray’s part. Consider for example Gray’s argument regarding British strategic culture that “(s)trategic culture explains why the continental role was, certainly psy- chologically was, so different for Britain, as contrasted with some other great powers, it does not explain why Britain chose to wage war as a continental power in those years. In other words, strategic culture provides context, even where the ¿nal choice is all but counter-cultural.”117 However, if what Gray

claims is correct, then strategic culture cannot explain either why Britain chose not to participate in continental warfare for a hundred years.

Gray’s argument makes perfect sense but only to a certain extent. If we are intent on pursuing a research design from which we can say something new about the functioning of strategic culture, then applying Gray’s approach is not very helpful. I am making this argument not for the sake of the analysis but because of conceptual clarity. Gray’s definition of strategic culture is just too all-encompassing. If, as Gray claims, we are the context of strategic cul- ture, then there certainly is no way of separating the structure from the agents that operate within. Whereas Johnston’s treatment of the term leaves much to be desired, it succeeds in framing one possible avenue of how to ap- proach strategic culture in analytical terms even though many would disre- gard it for being too rigorous in its positivist stance. Indeed, while Johnston’s approach has its proponents, it can be argued that the majority of strategic cultural accounts have either ascribed to Gray’s interpretivism or some modi-

115 Ibid., p. 52. 116 Ibid. 117 Ibid., p.59.

fied variant of it that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of its holism. For instance, Neumann and Heikka have argued for a concept of strategic culture under- stood as ‘the dynamic interplay between discourse and practice’. According to them, “(t) he point is to follow [Ann] Swidler’s shift of attention ‘down’ from conscious ideas and values — such as the idea of a grand strategy — to the physical and the habitual, and also ‘up’ from ideas located in individual con- sciousness to the impersonal arena of ‘discourse’.”118 Neumann and Heikka

also argue that “such a re-conceptualization is dynamic both in the sense that it introduces an understanding of change rather than stasis as the ‘normal’ state of affairs, and in the sense that it focuses on empirical change.”119 How-

ever, as I will discuss in more detail in the next sub-chapter in conjunction with critical realist metatheory, the discussion about strategic cultural change is not and cannot be limited to the realm of ‘empirically verifiable outcomes’, because these outcomes are the empirical manifestations of un- derlying causal processes. Indeed, it is unclear how a focus on practices is able to dig deep into the aspect of strategic cultural change, because the focus is solely on that which is empirically observable. Finally, Neumann and Heikka’s deliberate exclusion of norms, ideas and values from their analytical framework is highly questionable, because this would exclude the whole

In document From Guilt to Responsibility and Beyond? : Change in German Strategic Culture after the End of the Cold War (Page 44-53)