Does Culture Trump Strategy?

Cross-posted from

The always interesting John Hagel tweeted a link recently to an old post at  Mill’s-Scofield Innovanomics, a blog run by a business strategist and consultant with a science background, Deb Mills-Scofield.

Summer’s Trump Cards 

….Culture Trumps Strategy: The best made plans are worthless if they’re not aligned with the culture. Sometimes the strategy can help transform the culture (for good or bad), but if the culture doesn’t support it, it won’t happen.  Perhaps that’s why I think CEOs need to be CCS’s – Chief Culture Stewards.

Challenge:  Start to check the health of your culture – really, be brutally honest -before the end of August.

This was interesting to me.

Obviously, Mills-Scofield was concerned here with “business strategy” and organizational theory and not strategy in the classical sense of war and statecraft. As Dr. Chet Richards has pointed out, unlike a military leader in war, businessmen are not trying to destroy their customers, their employees or even their competition, but while not the same kind of “strategy”, the underlying cognitive action, the “strategic thinking”,  is similar. Perhaps the same.

So, shifting the question back to the original context of war and statecraft, does culture trump strategy?

On twitter, I had a brief twitter discussion on this with Marc Danziger who was sympathetic to the proposition of cultural supremacy. I am not so sure, though I think the relationship between culture and strategy is an iterative one, the degree to which culture matters in strategy is highly contextual and is determined by how broadly you define cultural values as being directly operative in driving the scenario. Some disjointed comments:

  • Your own cultural-societal worldview shapes politics, policy and politik. So indirectly, culture will be a determining factor in conceiving “Ends” worth spilling blood and dying for – particularly in wars of choice. When war, especially existential conflict is forced upon a state by an enemy attack, some of the initiative and room for constructing artful or limited “Ends” has been lost and becomes secondary to survival. Even Stalin’s normally overweening and murderous ideological preferences mattered somewhat less in Soviet policy and strategy the day after Operation Barbarossa began than the day before.
  • If the Ends in view imply forcing a political settlement upon the enemy – “compelling him to do our will” – than the enemy’s culture matters a great deal. All the moreso, if the war entails COIN, military governance of an enemy population and reconstructing an enemy state to our liking. The enemy culture is part of the operational environment because our use of military force (destruction) is going hand in glove with substantial political activity (construction) – mere physical control of the population is not enough, though it is a precondition for success. MacArthur’s role as SCAP in post-war Japan demonstrated an exceptionally shrewd blend of coercion and concession to traditional Japanese cultural touchstones.
  • If our Ends are much more limited – degrading enemy operational capacity and/or simple, spasmodic, punitive expeditions to impose costs on an enemy state or entity in retaliation for aggression; or, if we intend to stand off-shore and strike with air and naval superiority – than the enemy culture matters far less. Force is being used to “bargain” at a very primitive level that does not require much cultural nuance to understand and the message of “we will hit back” . Likewise, if the war is an unlimited one of extermination and Carthaginian peace, enemy culture matters far less than your military capacity to execute your strategy.
  • Your cultural worldview shapes your grand strategy or statecraft because great and lesser powers are not coldly playing chess for material interests alone when they engage in geopolitical conflict and warfare but are establishing, evolving and protecting a national identity on the world stage. What Thucydides called “Honor”, the British “Paramountcy”, Richard Nixon “Credibility” and Joseph Nye “Soft Power” may all have been intangible expressions, difficult to quantify, but are very much part of the strategic calculus of war and peace.
  • Finally, it is important to note that strategic employment of brute force has a large role in setting the parameters of where and when cultural nuance and interpretation matter and exercise political leverage during war. Extreme violence disrupts and warps the cultural norms of belligerents, usually for the worse. It was the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon that awoke the romantic pan-German nationalism of the 19th century that eventually united Germany and transformed it into the terror of the world in the 20th. The First World War ushered in a century of ideological monstrosities and revolutionary state terrorism on an epochal scale of murder unequaled even by the butchery of the Romans or Mongols. War is often the Abyss that looks into you.


11 thoughts on “Does Culture Trump Strategy?”

  1. Since the background picture to the link is Jihadi: None of the quotes sources – Sun Wu, Clausewitz, et al would have blinked for a second or given much further pondering before uttering a verdict of punitive destruction, even extermination.

    All of them would have launched nuclear weapons on 9/12/01.

    “They” in this case don’t have a culture left, they’re cannibals skittering about their own ruins, trying to resurrect a dead past with Human Sacrifice.

    You’re over-thinking the problem.

  2. MacArthur could change Japanese culture because the American military destroyed a large part of Japanese culture — the military and urban core — and the remaining Japanese ruling elites cooperated because they had a threat they shared with the Americans called the Soviet Union.

    It also helped a great deal that both American and Japanese were “high trust” cultures where deals made were honored by both sides.

  3. In the 20th century there are many examples of technocratic elites trying to impose some type of formal organizational system without paying any attention to the role of culture in shaping the behavior of the people involved. Everybody who has been part of a real world organization knows that there is the formal org chart hanging on the wall and there is the informal org chart that people carry around in the heads so that they know who really gets things done and who just cause problems. The technocrats forgot this in everything from housing projects, 3rd world development and the “best and brightest” phase of the Vietnam war.

    Culture is vitally important to the success of any program because culture determines how people make decisions. For example, in cultures such as the Anglo-sphere, Germany, Holland or Japan, individuals will usually choose to obey arbitrary rules on signs tacked up by public officials unknown to the individual. In most of the world’s other cultures, people will only obey rules handed down from someone they know personally. In the former cultures, technocratic elites have some chance of implementing rule based programed but in the later they are absolutely doomed because the population doesn’t believe that have a moral or practical responsibility to obey the technocrat’s rules.

    Having said that, war is a fast teacher. Despite all the ideological and cultural differences, all the free world and Communist militaries eventually used the German system first revealed in WWI. They had no choice because it is the only one that works.

    The real problem we face is not a determined and capable enemy but instead our need to transform without killing. Unfortunately, the very culture of the areas we wish to transform do not truly respect compassion, compromise and trade as we do. They see strength as absolute and ultimately grounded in killing, dying and ruthlessness. Our very attempts to spare the innocents of the region merely earns the contempt of the most aggressive.

    Paradoxically, a more ruthless pursuit of our enemies would probably save lives in the long run.

  4. “It also helped a great deal that both American and Japanese were “high trust” cultures where deals made were honored by both sides.”

    True. The Japanese are also able to accept and graft large chunks of alien cultures they find useful onto their own system while keeping their Japanese identity – as they did when they imported Buddhism from China in the Asuka period and Zen in the Kamakura period, or westernization and industrialization during the Meiji.

    “Having said that, war is a fast teacher. Despite all the ideological and cultural differences, all the free world and Communist militaries eventually used the German system first revealed in WWI. They had no choice because it is the only one that works.”

    Culture vs. Empiricism is a good test of any culture’s rationality

  5. James Bennett,

    In may ways, Japan and America are mirror image high trust cultures. The ability to get consensus is highly valuable in American individualized culture while rugged individualism against the consensus is highly valuable in homogenous Japanese culture.

    It also helped that MacArthur was acting out a role familiar to the Japanese and their elites. MacArthur can and did act out the role of Shogun.

    The flaws of his character that made him “a near-miss great man” inside America’s military and wider Western military-coalition politics made him perfect as military governor of Japan.

    MacArthur’s greatest achievements were not on battlefields like Inchon, but in the cloak rooms of Japanese politics & business between WW2 and the Korean War.

  6. Trent – The Japan today reflects MacArthur’s will. But you know that….Can’t think of another military leader with the influence on a country that he had.

  7. Can’t think of another military leader with the influence on a country that he had.

    Mohammed, Washington.

    Culture does trump strategy in a negative way. If we lose this long war, it will not be because we lost militarily or strategically. It will be because our culture was defeated and gave up. We are going to take a big step in one direction or the other next Tuesday.

  8. Japan’s success might truely be keyed on one fairly unique cultural trait: You earn the respect and emulation of the Japanese by defeating them. In most cultures, when faced with defeat, individuals and the culture as a whole will think, “That guy whipped our backsides, we’ve got get revenge.” The Japanese response has traditionally been, “That guy whipped our backsides, he can teach us a lot about fighting!”

    Learning from someone who defeats you is a common literary theme in Japan all the way up to current crop of Anime my son keeps watching.

    I read some translated letters of the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) to his son at the end of WWII and he spent over a good paragraph extolling in an upbeat tone, the technological virtues of the B-29 bombers then leveling every industrial area in Japan. At one point he writes, “Unfortunately, the B-29 is a magnificent aircraft…”

    That’s a pretty rare emotional response in the context of world cultures.

    I suspect the Japanese willingness to learn from those who defeat them comes from the Shinto idea that strength and success come from the gods rewarding sincerity above all things. Some anthropologist having even said that the Japanese don’t even have a concept of good and evil like the West of even China but instead divide the world into sincere and insincere. Certainly, the admired sincere villain doing the wrong things for sincere reason like loyalty or duty is a recurring artistic theme.

    Since victory comes from sincerity, it follows that the victor must be more sincere and therefore more moral than the defeated. with that idea, emulation of the victors by the defeated is not only practical but moral as well.

  9. I did actually realize it was a Taureg. Who have a crueler reputation than the Bedu.

    Notice the nostalgia in the comments?

    I’m quite sure if we committed to the utter annihilation of our enemies ways and means and will to war they’d be quite ready to listen. As long as we were ready to demonstrate on a daily basis our commitment to do so, as a matter of day to day administration. As in: BANG. Or HANG.

    Or maybe as has been discovered from time immemorial with Tribesmen: you have to either exterminate or completely crush all resistance or will to resist.

    Just as we did here in the good ‘ol USA.

    There’s no deal. Really.

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