A Surplus of Strategists—But A Lack of Good Strategy
What does the U.S. government have to show for millions spent on strategic education?
If you happened to be waiting for your morning coffee at the Starbucks in the Pentagon, you might not be aware that you are surrounded by what is probably the world’s highest density of strategists. Every year, without fail, thousands of mid-level and senior military officers as well as their civilian counterparts will complete some form of professional education that prepares them to be strategists or emphasizes strategic thinking. But what is the true payoff of all the money the U.S. government spends on “strategic education” aside from all those fancy certificates on office walls in Washington DC? A quick look at the last two decades of American global strategy suggests strategic education may simply have become a rite of passage instead of something to be put into practice.
To be sure, every student who attends a strategic education program is undoubtedly familiar with Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who famously wrote that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” But it seems that two decades of American strategists have forgotten (or worse, never truly absorbed) Clausewitz’s prescient admonition that politicians and military commanders must “recognize the kind of war they are undertaking, neither mistaking it for, nor attempting to turn it into something it cannot be because of the nature of the circumstances.” Our track record certainly leaves much to be desired. Over the past twenty years, the $6 trillion Afghanistan and Iraq debacles were followed by more regime change in Libya, plunging that country into a civil war (and subsequent proxy war) that rages to this day. Western attempts to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad were blunted by Russian support, ensuring Assad remains firmly in control. American strategy failed to deter Russia from invading Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. Finally, the hawkish consensus emerging in Washington (i.e. a “New Cold War”?) that conflict with China is increasingly likely—if not inevitable—risks excessively securitizing every aspect of the U.S.-China relationship.
How did we get here? The United States, at least since industrialization, has won its wars (when it’s won them) through the overwhelming application of force and firepower. We have essentially churned out awe-inspiring amounts of war material that we brought directly to bear on clearly identified and traditional (nation-state) opponents who could not match or withstand it. While not necessarily pretty, it was effective. This highly linear approach (action “x” will lead to predictable/intended effect “y”) to warfare became our default strategic playbook.
Unfortunately, such a linear approach is often insufficient in highly complex, interconnected, and interdependent environments. In today’s world, the challenges are much more multi-dimensional and don’t often present a clearly identifiable military center of gravity—never mind one whose damage or destruction can be easily translated into political objectives.
This gets at the fundamental problem: for the United States, the typical answer is to militarize problems that may elude purely military solutions. Our national security leadership appears incapable—even after immense amounts of so-called “strategic education”—to be able to look at an emerging strategic challenge and ask themselves: 1) what are its unique characteristics and requirements; and 2) do we actually have the tools/capabilities to achieve the desired political outcomes? Lacking this ability, they too often default—ineffectively at best and catastrophically at worst—to the toxic belief that if we just apply enough force, we can achieve whatever goal we desire.
Instead of learning from our past mistakes, we are doubling down on failed strategic approaches. The same voices that led us into the strategic fiascos of the past two decades still loom large in contemporary security debates. Turn on any cable news show and you’ll see one of the architects or enablers of these failed policies lecturing us on the “right way ahead.” Apparently, even relying on one’s “gut instincts” alone (as one recent Air Force memo suggests) is an acceptable means of making strategy. Part of this problem, however, lies in a dangerous culture of toxic positivity within the national security establishment. There is a big difference between a proactive, “can-do” approach and a failure to simply look facts in the face. The unintended consequences and outcomes of excessively linear thinking over the last twenty years underscore this reality.
So, is there a better way to educate our national security leaders? Ultimately, today’s complex strategic environment requires a fundamentally different set of skills. To be sure, we need a strong understanding of strategic foresight, future literacy, and complex systems. We must also acknowledge that today’s hyper-connected strategic challenges are not so much solvable as they are merely manageable. Strategic foresight—which involves the practice of envisioning alternative futures in order to better sense, shape, and adapt to change—can help. It cultivates a tolerance for uncertainty, which cognitive psychology tells us can reduce judgmental bias and promote non-linear thinking.
As we shift to building artificial intelligence-based platforms and data solutions, we must also deliberately develop intellectual capital. Seizing and occupying the high ground in national security requires more than just “buying things,” developing weapons systems, or pursuing disruptive technologies. It requires security professionals to have the cognitive capacity to leverage them. Perhaps most importantly, we need a new approach to strategic education that produces leaders that are humble and not paralyzed—or worse, driven to obsolete default behaviors—by the unavoidable uncertainty of today’s complex world. We need more leaders who can bring themselves, when appropriate, to say “no, we probably can’t achieve that through military means, but we might be able to do this with the range of tools we have available.” After twenty years of failures, American taxpayers ought to know that their government has a plan to effectively leverage this cadre of strategists in whom they have invested so much.
Josh Kerbel is a member of the research faculty at the National Intelligence University, the academic arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Lt. Col. Jake Sotiriadis, USAF, Ph.D., is a career Air Force intelligence officer. He currently serves on the research faculty at the National Intelligence University and is Director of the Center for Futures Intelligence.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. intelligence community or the Department of Defense.
Image: Felix Mittermeier/Unsplash.