Terminology Proliferation is the Escape Hatch of Politics

Adam Elkus has an important post over at Rethinking SecurityAmerica Needs Sound Policy, Not Grand Strategy:

Every few months since 1991, there is a new op-ed calling for a new grand strategy or bemoaning the fact that the US doesn’t have one. I’ve written a few blogs/articles to this tune myself. But it’s time to realize that the problem lies with the very conception of grand strategy itself.

In Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks argues that the US needs a grand strategy:

Though different scholars and statesmen define “grand strategy” somewhat differently, at its heart, the concept is straightforward: Grand strategy is “the big idea” of foreign and national security policy — the overarching concept that links ends, ways and means, the organizing principle that allows states to purposively plan and prioritize the use of “all instruments of national power,” diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military. A grand strategy can’t be a list of aspirations, wishes, or even a country’s top 10 foreign-policy “priorities.” (When you have 10 priorities, you really have no priorities at all.) Grand strategy is the big idea that guides the tough decisions, helping policymakers figure out which of those top 10 priorities should drop off the list, which aspirations are unrealistic and impossible, and which may seem like good ideas on their own, but actually undermine the nation’s broader goals.

After this definition, Brooks then criticizes the Obama administration for not formulating one, But with such an expansive definition of strategy, is it ever possible to create one? The problem is that Brooks and other grand strategy writers searching for a “big idea” conjoin policy and strategy together.

To recap, policy (a condition or behavior) generates a strategy (an instrumental device) that executes it through operations and tactics. Policy, in turn, is the product of a political process. In my post on victory, I gave a Chinese food-flavored explanation of this in practical terms. Strategy is not supposed to be an “idea”—it is an practical method of getting things done, a purpose-built bridge between politics and raw violence. I will concede that sometimes a policy will require a global strategy to accomplish it—which is what Basil-Liddell Hart originally meant when he used the term “grand strategy” to refer to World War II.

The idea of grand strategy as both policy and strategy is by definition unachievable, and the source of much confusion.  By infusing normative policy elements into strategy, this fusion turns strategy into a manifestation of ideology rather than a technical device for getting things done.  Think, for example, of how debates about regional strategy and even the tactics and operations of COIN, drones, and counterterrorism have become proxies for domestic ideological political battles. This happens, in larger part, because the policy-strategy distinction in American national security circles is extremely weak, as strategy is taken to be politics and politics becomes strategy.

One sure way to detect politics is signs of desperate efforts to call politics something other politics. Though politics is the most elemental of human endeavors, disgust with overt political machinations is one of the most elemental of human emotions:

Who likes a brown noser?

Who likes a squealer?

Who likes the kid who gathers up his toys and goes home when he doesn’t get his way?

Who likes the guy who obviously looks out for number one?

In War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of EmpiresPeter Turchin cites experiments intended to reveal the ethical composition of any group of humans:

During the 1990s, several economists, most notably Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich and his colleagues, decided to test the assumptions of rational choice theory experimentally…what these experiments…reveal is that society consists of several types of people. Some of them–perhaps a quarter in experiments with American college students–are self-interested, rational agents – ‘the knaves’. These will never contribute to the common good, and will choose free-riding unless forced to [contribute] by fines imposed upon them. The opposite type, also about a quarter, are the unconditional cooperators, or ‘the saints’. The saints continue to contribute to the common pool and lose money, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most of them reduce the amount of their contribution). The largest group (40 to 60 percent in most experiments) are the conditional cooperators, or ‘the moralists’. The preference of the moralists is to contribute to the pot, so that everyone would be better off. However, in the absence of the mechanism to punish noncontributors, free-riding proliferates, the moralists become disgusted by this opportunistic behavior, and withdraw their cooperation. On the other hand, when the punishment option is available, they use it to fine the knaves [even though imposing a fine comes at a cost to them…and] the group [eventually] achieves the cooperative equilibrium at which, paradoxically, the moralists do almost as well as the knaves, because they now rarely (if ever) need to spend money on fining the free-riders.

Disgust with knavery leads saints and moralists to condemn any activity with the faintest whiff of knavery. This automatic disapproval drives saint, knave, and moralist alike to portray their own actions as driven by nothing more than the most saintly or moral of motives, as anything but political. Unfortunately, every human action is political: politics is inevitable. Politics is the division of power, for good or ill, and everyone either wants or needs power:

  • Knaves want power or they wouldn’t be knaves.
  • Moralists need power to punish knaves.
  • Even saints need power to be saintly: a saint without power is a dead saint.

No matter the motive, no matter how saintly, moral, or knavish it is, it needs power to be realized. No power? No nuthin’. This bitter truth makes all human activity inalterably a continuation of political activity.

Politics is all-pervading but everyone conspires to pretend otherwise. The line dividing what is politics from what isn’t is hazy but everyone knows what politics is when they see it: politics is whatever the other guy is doing. Your own attempts to expose the sordid maneuvers of your opponents as mere politics were forced on you, after much reluctance, by motives whose purity stands in stark contrast to their knavish perfidy.

This reciprocal cycle of coverups and uncovering coverups becomes an arms race to generate ever better names for political activities intended to convince saints and moralists that political activities aren’t political activities after all. Relabeling politics as something else, something disinterested, even-handed, and pure, is one ready way to disperse suspicion of knavish motives. These relabelings of politics are particular offenders, acting as universal escape hatches that let their wielders pass off their politics as something other than politics:

  • policy
  • grand strategy

Policy is portrayed as the objective, virtuous, and expert pursuit of ponies for everyone. Framed this way, policy is politics without the division of power. But politics without the division of power is impossible. “Policy” is a mythical beast. “Policy making” is mere politicking, trading one favor for another to offset one interest with another, persuading through influence when possible and enforcing compliance with violence when impossible. But this reality reeks of knavery so it must be wrapped in the most virtuous lies imaginable. Hence we see a dramatic proliferation of “policy makers” and “making policy” where we’d normally expect to see politicians and politics. WIth so many policy makers making so much policy, you’d think the good and true would be breaking out all over. But, looking around, we see nobody down here but us dumb humans, horse trading with each other to get incrementally ahead.

“Grand strategy”, like policy, is an attempt to divorce politics from politics through politics, leaving behind a vacuum inhabited only by virtuous technocrats. In reality, they’re both attempts by one political group to escape the power of another political group, hopefully gaining more power for themselves in the process. The formulator of “grand strategy” is often an aspiring political actor who lacks the gifts necessary for political success. So they whine from the sidelines, falling back on a passive-aggressive strategy of victimhood where they denounce expertise in politics as squalid while advocating its replacement with their own (implicitly) more virtuous expertise. They attempt to reframe political questions as technical questions best handled by professional specialists. If a political question can be reframed as a technical question, resolving it is a merely an implementation detail. Such technical minutia should be beneath most politicians. Their attention should be devoted to truly important questions, leaving details to the poor peons.

Political questions delegated to enlightened technocrats and specialists don’t stop being political questions. It only rearranges the deck chairs, increasing the power held by enlightened technocrats and specialists while reducing the power held by their overtly designated political masters. While clarifying, classifying, and codifying may seem to be merely technical questions, every clarification, clarification, and codification is one aspect of what Swen (Sun-tzu) called shr (shih) in his Bingfa (Ping-fa). Ralph Sawyer translated shr into English as “strategic configuration of power”. Defining values is inextricably tied up with the division of power: every human value contains an implicit strategic configuration of existing power intended to bring about a new strategic configuration of new (and more) power alongside its explicit aspiration.

Policy and grand strategy art are merely the continuation of politics with the addition of other layers of obscurity. Using those terms merely continues and adds to their obscurity. Politics cannot be divorced from human existence. Better to bite the bullet and accept the fact that nothing will ever replace politics that is clearly recognized and acknowledged by all participants as being politics.

5 thoughts on “Terminology Proliferation is the Escape Hatch of Politics”

  1. He completely contradicts his point. Our strategists think a never ending wishlist is a strategy. Its not. He makes that point himself and completely contradicts hiimself. Policy can’t fix an endless wishlist of desires.

  2. @Onparkstreet – I thought it was just me – James Garner’s daughter Gigi is celebrating her father on Tumblr – promoting his autobiography (can’t recommend it highly enough – it is great – funny –

    I got onto tumblr once to tell her how much I liked the book and her father –


    When I finished it wanted to tell her how much I liked the book but I’ll be !@#$% if I could figure out how I got in the first time! Like Brigadoon, maybe the portal is open only every 200 years!

  3. @ Bill – Hey, I saw that Garner autobiography in the book store, right next to a book on Steve McQueen too. I have too many books piled up at the moment but I wanted to read it. What a great actor!

    JF – I don’t know what I was trying to say in my first comment now that I reread it? Maybe I’ll expand on the points in a post because even I am confused by what I wrote….


    – Madhu

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