Mechanisms of strategic cultural change 53 

In document From Guilt to Responsibility and Beyond? : Change in German Strategic Culture after the End of the Cold War (Page 65-72)

2.2. Existing accounts of strategic cultural change 52 

2.2.1. Mechanisms of strategic cultural change 53 

Meyer’s study was among the first serious studies to set out to explore the question of a common, European strategic culture. Meyer compared the po- litical elites of several EU member states as well as similarities and differ- ences in their strategic discourse in an attempt to discover the persistence and transformation of strategic norms on the European level. Indeed, for Meyer, strategic norms are a key component in understanding continuity and change in strategic cultures, because he strongly agrees with Martha Finne- more’s argument that norms can be understood as ‘reasons for action’. Meyer argues that Johnston’s account is “better in line with the arguments of mod- ernist constructivists concerning the use of non-material factors within a re- search design that aspires to identify causality and advance explanations.”153

As Meyer writes regarding the study of strategic culture, “(w)e are therefore dealing with theories, which can tell us whether the strategic behaviour of collective actor, ‘X’, is possible on the grounds of defending a constituent norm, ‘Y’, against violation. Behaviour ‘X’ could still occur, but would have to be caused by other considerations.”154 The merits and demerits of positivism

and post-positivism were discussed earlier in the context of the Gray- Johnston debate and there is no need to repeat them here. Suffice it to say that when Meyer talks about ‘mechanisms of strategic cultural change’ it means that these are causal mechanisms which can bring about real change in strategic culture.

As I argued in the first chapter, the approach that understands norms as ‘reasons for action’ is plausible, but, in contrast to Johnston, I also argued that this is not all there is to how norms affect strategic thinking and strategic behaviour. First off, norms cannot be reduced solely to the role of ‘explanato- ry variables’ in the framework of strategic culture because real life simply does not work that way. For instance, take a classic example of a fire alarm situation in a classroom. If the alarm goes off, we will get out of the class even

153 Meyer, Christoph O. 2006, The Quest for a European Strategic Culture. Changing Norms on Secu-

rity and Defense in the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 17.

if we did not smell any smoke, because it is considered the appropriate way to act in such a situation. However, whether the school is actually on fire or not, we do not get out primarily because it is an appropriate way to behave in a situation like that. Rather, we get out above all because otherwise there is a possibility that we could be burnt. Similarly, if the act of leaving the class- room would for some reason be regarded as going against the prevailing norms, we would still get out or at least attempt to do so if the classroom caught fire. Now, one could argue that even when behaviour deviates from what is considered to be the norm in a given situation, actors are still aware that they are not abiding by that norm. Hence, norms certainly constitute and regulate behaviour one way or the other, but they do not necessarily de- termine its outcome, which may depend on a multitude of factors. This is why norms alone cannot explain change in terms of outcomes. But norms do play an important role in the process of strategic cultural change (or continu- ity) because they embody the collectively accepted and approved ways of thinking and doing, even if we don’t always abide by them. In short, as ‘rea- sons for action’, norms are part of the explanation, not the explanation itself. Meyer would most likely agree with this distinction because he argues that “norms and ideas do not only come into play at the decision-making stage, but perhaps more importantly, at every stage of the cognitive process ranging from issue-selection, interpretation and evaluation, which precedes and feeds into the identification of interests and options for action.”155 Crucially, by re-

ferring to previous studies Meyer further states that so far, “(t)he evidence is that norms tend to be followed under conditions when policy-makers have sufficient time to consider their choices, when a large group of actors is in- volved, and when uncertainties are high.”156 Hence, situational factors matter

when norms are put to test.

Meyer’s solution to the Gray-Johnston problem is so to speak to embrace the best of both worlds, i.e. to pursue a causal explanation of strategic cultur- al change by focusing on specific ideational, cognitive or normative compo- nents without resorting to an over-determination of outcomes along the lines of national essentialism (e.g. Germans cannot help but act as Germans).157

This is a stance that makes sense in cases in which we are able to determine what the relevant norms, ideas or cognitive positions are in a given strategic culture. Therefore, in order for Meyer’s solution to work, strategic culture needs to be unpacked into its ideational, normative and cognitive compo- nents. Meyer’s key argument is that “changes in national strategic cultures as well as the norms and narratives underpinning them can and do occur, if ex- isting cognitive schemata are challenged either through a constant stream of similar, or a repetition of the same kind of discrepant information, or it can occur through the accumulated, high intensity exposure to such information.

155 Ibid. 156 Ibid., p. 19. 157 Ibid., p. 20.

The latter case has been described […] in terms of ‘external shocks’, ‘crises’ or ‘formative moments’ which can, but do not have to, lead to the revision and reinterpretation of collective memory and beliefs.”158

Clearly, the most obvious source of such mechanisms is the participation in and experience of warfare or conflict management that involves more or less directly the question of the use of military force. Hence, external shocks may cause change by putting the normative framework of strategic culture under pressure and by questioning the prevailing understandings of not only what kind of behaviour is morally acceptable or appropriate, but also by forc- ing the political decision makers to contemplate their response in the face of a new security threat. Even so, it is important to highlight the fact that new interpretations of existing norms do not necessarily overturn the ideational core of strategic culture, unless we can argue that there is a changed pattern of behaviour that relates to a transformation in the normative framework. Meyer argues that there are two further mechanisms of normative change that can gradually change strategic culture. As he posits, “(b)eyond the dra- matic case of normative change through military defeat or occupation, more gradual changes can arise also from international or transnational processes related to international law-making, peer pressure, naming and shaming, as well as arguing and persuasion. Agents of such changes can be epistemic communities of lawyers or the military profession, non-governmental organ- izations, the audio-visual mass media, international organizations or gov- ernments. At the same time, normative change may also occur gradually within societies because of the changing impact of historical experiences, opening opportunities for normative contestation as new groups occupy posi- tions of influence within a given society.”159

In contrast to Meyer, I posit that the mechanisms of change other than ex- ternal shocks can have significant impact on the evolution of strategic culture in areas that are not necessarily primarily concerned with norms or norma- tive influence per se. One such domain is practical and material defence and security policy co-operation that is aimed to be based not only on shared ide- as and values, but also on best practices, benchmarking, economic efficiency and viability. For instance, the Bundeswehr reform (discussed in detail in Chapter 5) can be seen not only as a solidification of the shift from territorial defence to out-of-area operations but also in the context of the broader de-

158 Ibid., p. 25.

velopments at the European and EU level toward a professionalization and specialization of the armed forces.160

In summary, the argument is that of all three of the mechanisms present- ed by Meier, the experience of warfare is the most significant, ‘first order’ mechanism of strategic cultural change, because as discussed at length in this thesis, it has the power to question directly the fundamental beliefs related to the questions of peace and war and the use of military force. In the German case this has been a particularly pertinent feature because it relates directly to the process of coming to terms with the German past. In this sense the changing impact of historical experiences is among the experiences that re- late to warfare, and should therefore be viewed as part of that mechanism, which is imperative in understanding and explaining continuity and change in German strategic culture. Moreover, the other mechanisms mentioned by Meier can be important in terms of change, but they serve rather as ‘second order’ mechanisms in that they are usually complementary to the experience of warfare. To be sure, there’s no doubt that the second order mechanisms can be powerful in their own right, and that the impact of generational change or public opinion on the evolution of strategic culture should not be underestimated.

Indeed, as a critical remark regarding the above delineation of the causal mechanisms into ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ mechanisms, one could of course posit that the generation that did the fighting in World War II in Germany has nearly vanished. Moreover, the generation of Kriegskinder, the last generation to directly experience World War II is getting older, and the political power in Germany is shifting to younger generations. But then, it seems that every generation experiences a war, either directly or indirectly, which has a considerable impact on the evolution of the respective strategic culture. In Germany, this has been the legacy of World War II and the Nazi past which will eventually continue, as an indirect experience, to be reflected upon and mixed with the direct experiences made with modern warfare and Bundeswehr’s current and future out-of-area operations. Hence, the argu- ment put forward is that in terms of causal mechanisms, it is primarily the evolving experiences related to warfare (of which reinterpretations of the past are an integral part) which have the power to challenge the status quo in strategic cultures and the existing beliefs and ways of doing things, regard- less whether we talk about the people in power currently or the millennials.

160 This shift is also reflected in the new White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of

Bundeswehr. It aims to balance the Bundeswehr role between global deployments and territorial de- fense, given the recent crisis in Ukraine and the unpredictability of Russia, reflecting the hybrid nature of emerging security threats. The new White Paper also underlines concepts such as ‘Pooling and Sharing’ as well as the recommendations of the ‘Rühe-Commission’ in 2015 in highlighting the ‘in- teroperability’ aspect of the armed forces of NATO-member states. See White Paper on German Securi- ty Policy and the Future of Bundeswehr (2016). Available at: (

Wilke’s account, which is discussed below, is similar to Meyer’s in that it aims to account for the causal mechanisms at work in strategic culture via the assessment of the normative and ideational structure of strategic culture. Yet his methodological approach differs from Meyer’s in one crucial respect, namely, that his view on causality is more nuanced than that of Meyer’s. Wilke has argued that “the incremental adaptation of the country’s strategic culture – defined by perception of threat and self, and its understanding of spatial and functional limits of the use of force – seems to have come to a preliminary conclusion. As adaptation has allegedly culminated in a final ‘Enttabuisierung des Militärischen’, entailing a readiness to defend German security ‘auch am Hindukusch’, we find sound and ample justification to look for the roots of Germany’s basic strategic cultural tenets and reasons for their change, paving the way for this new outlook in international affairs and in- creased sense of global responsibility, turning the former civil into an in- creasingly normal power.”161

On factual terms, there is not much to be disputed about the above state- ment, except for the alleged transformation of Germany into a ‘normal’ pow- er, which, according to the view presented in this thesis in Chapter 5, never was a very accurate description of what took place in German strategic cul- ture to begin with. Yet the more interesting part involves the form rather than the substance of Wilke’s argument, because, if change is coined in terms of incremental normative or ideational adaptation, it must be based on the assessment of the underlying social and political processes that are causing this adaptation.

Wilke’s assessment of this incremental adaptation rests on his observa- tion that while “Cold War strategic cultural adaptation was largely informed by societal and elite learning processes about the devastating effects of au- thoritarian militarism and hegemonic strivings for power, since the 1990s German governments and subsequently society has begun to embrace a new understanding of international responsibility in security and defence, which still recognizes the specific reasons for the nation’s Cold War civil identity but is far more willing to actively respond to international demands and con- tingencies.”162 According to Wilke, this willingness is epitomized by the Ger-

man government’s decision in 2003 to agree to the draft of a European Secu- rity Strategy (ESS) which provides the declamatory proof for this new under- standing of responsibility to become a “normal” partner. His argument is that “if we find a consistency between norms and ideas put forward by national society and political elites […] and those addressed in the ESS, unanimous convergence towards a European strategic culture as well as substantial and lasting German Normalisierung can be argued to take place.”163

161 Wilke, Tobias 2007, German Strategic Culture Revisited. Linking the past to contemporary Ger-

man strategic choice, Lit Verlag, Berlin 2007, p. 12.

162 Ibid., p. 13. 163 Ibid.

However, I posit that Wilke’s argument falls short not only with regard to Germany’s ‘normalization’, but also as far as the link between German re- sponsibility and the agreement over ESS is concerned. First, the issue of a new sense of responsibility does not fit well with an understanding of Ger- many willing to become a ‘normal’ partner, because ‘normality’ as such does not provide any definitive standards as far as responsibility is concerned. Furthermore, no empirical evidence exists that would suggest that Germany agreed to the ESS in particular because of a new sense of international re- sponsibility. We could just as well argue that Germany agreed to the ESS be- cause it was in line with the tenets of its strategic culture. Indeed, the princi- pal restraint in all things military, which is still a prevalent feature of German strategic culture, fits well with the ‘soft’ power character of EU foreign and security policy. Hence, German agreement on ESS could be explained by the general ‘good fit’ between German strategic culture and the ESS rather than a new sense of international responsibility in terms of ‘normality’. Therefore, even if we could find empirical evidence to back up Wilke’s claim, the factors which underline continuity in German strategic culture seem to explain German attitudes toward the ESS better. Second, as will be argued in Chapter 5, the argument about norm convergence at the EU level is problematic, if it is taken to explain the formation of a common, European strategic culture. Most importantly, key differences remain between EU member states on the issue of the use of military force. Moreover, as long as the decision on wheth- er to use military force or not remains strongly in the traditional domain of nation states and in the hands of their executives and legislatives, the differ- ences between EU member states on this particular issue will directly impact the formulation of any kind of European strategic culture. Third, and im- portantly, if Germany would be adapting as Wilke describes the adaption process, it would seem reasonable to assume that Germany would not hesi- tate to use military force in a more consistent manner. Yet there has been no detectable empirical pattern of the sort since the end of the Cold War. This alone makes the argument regarding the link between increased internation- al responsibility and a desire to become a ‘normal’ power difficult to digest, because ‘normality’ would then refer to a status of normality regarding the use of military force, which in the German context, given its experiences on warfare and the German past, is a contradiction in terms.

However, despite the problematic nature of the substance of his argument regarding the adaptation of German strategic culture, Wilke’s methodological approach is quite detailed and sophisticated. Wilke understands change as normative and ideational adaptation. He aims to account for the underlying causal mechanisms of normative and ideational adaptation of strategic cul- ture by pitting constructivist logic against a rationalist one. His basic argu- ment is that constructivist logic would state that formative moments or criti- cal junctures initiate either learning processes or adaptation pressure that lead to adaptation of a strategic culture which enables new strategic choices or alternatively, and according to the rationalist logic, either structural

changes or material demands that initiate learning or adaptation enable new strategic choices.164 Hence for Wilke, change is ultimately to be understood

in terms of the causal mechanisms which underline the processual nature of change. Hence, he actually deviates from the Johnstonian angle and Meyer’s account in the sense that the underlying causal mechanisms are grasped in terms of ‘x leads to y through abc’ instead of ‘if x then y’, which, as discussed, refers to an understanding of causality as a static correlation the aim of which is to reveal the underlying causal mechanism as a natural law.165 Im-

portantly, what this methodological choice implies is that change is ultimate- ly to be understood in terms of dynamic processes, not only as static out- comes.

There are a couple of further points to Wilke’s methodological approach that need to be addressed before we turn to discuss Hilpert’s account. Firstly, even if the move from ‘if x then y’ to ‘x leads to y through abc’ enables us to contemplate strategic cultural change in the form of social and/or political processes, it does not fundamentally alter the way strategic culture is thought to function, because if the latter formula is true, then by definition so is the former. However, the advantage of the latter formula compared to the former is in that it does not ‘black-box’ all the intervening variables and hence the

In document From Guilt to Responsibility and Beyond? : Change in German Strategic Culture after the End of the Cold War (Page 65-72)