Air University Review, January-February 1967
Major John W. Chapman, USAFR
Strategy “is a method of thought. . . .” So says, and rightly, General André Beaufre in An Introduction to Strategy (1965). Is there a single and unique method, one which the very nature of the subject imposes on strategic thinking? According to the General, the aim of strategic thinking “is to codify events, set them in an order of priority and then choose the most effective course of action.” This definition has an unmistakably Gallic ring to it. For it invites toward a Cartesian clarity and is the product of a philosophical style of thinking known as “rationalism,” the assumption of which is that through the grasp of concepts and principles the apparent disorder of our world may be comprehended and ultimately managed. Compare a typically American philosophy of strategic thinking expressed by Bernard Brodie in reviewing two of General Beaufre’s recent books: “strategy being essentially the pursuit of success in certain types of competitive endeavor, a pragmatic approach is the only appropriate one.” British strategic thought is perhaps best exemplified by the “historical empiricism” displayed in the work of Captain B. H. Liddell Hart. Russian thinking would appear to be influenced by the postulates of Marxism, and it is evident that Mao Tse-tung’s writings and pronouncements are very much a reflection of his own experience.
These gross contrasts suggest that there is no one universally accepted method of strategic thinking. Rather there are various styles in strategic thought, each of which has its roots in philosophical tradition and historical experience. This is not to say, of course, that strategic thinking is arbitrary or undisciplined. Clearly it is disciplined and purposive thought, not scientific, strictly speaking, but obviously something more than an art. My purpose here is to identify and compare leading aspects of American strategic thought and to appraise their significance. I shall attend primarily, although not exclusively, to the works of Herman Kahn, Thomas C. Schelling, and Bernard Brodie, for their writings are of sufficiently extended nature to make possible a reliable assessment of the influence of style on substantive strategic recommendation. (Some contributions of The RAND Corporation, and of Albert Wohlstetter in particular, are examined by Bruce L. R. Smith in his The RAND Corporation .) My hope is that by revealing such influence we may become more sensitive to the various dimensions of strategic thinking and more aware of the inescapable role of judgment in strategic decision.
First, let us consider Herman Kahn, who is perhaps the greatest strategic thinker of the twentieth century, our contemporary counterpart of Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher known in his own time as the “Monster of Malmesbury.” Kahn, formerly with RAND and the founder and director of the Hudson Institute, is a Hobbesian not only in the quality and toughness of his thought but also, and more important, in that throughout his analyses there is an emphasis upon the present consequences of future insecurities. This is the theme which unifies Kahn’s work and which is distinctive to the style of his strategic thinking. Some quotations from his leading work, On Thermonuclear War, will illustrate my thesis. He tells us that “. . . a nation is most likely to go to war when it believes it is less risky not to go to war.” And later in the same book he says that “the fear of future instability caused by an insufficiently controlled arms race is so great and growing that it may create pressures for preventive war or other destabilizing moves.” This perspective generates a strategic conclusion: “Independently of any international crisis, the general pressure on all nations to control the spread of armaments and the technological race could put pressures on the Soviets to try to establish a world hegemony, pressures which the threat of the Minimum Deterrence forces might not be able to balk.” Like Hobbes’s men in the “state of nature,” Kahn’s nations look anxiously to the future and find it disagreeable; rational fear for their security drives them into mutually destructive action. Without a “sovereign” to guarantee reciprocity, there can be no peace, only competition.
In a world where future perils loom large in the calculations of statesmen, Kahn sought security and stability in the possession of a “Credible First Strike Capability” (CFSC). Only “Type II Deterrence” could deter the provocative and forestall competitive instability. The analogue here is with the Hobbesian sovereign endowed with sufficient power to curb the mutual terrors that infect all in the “state of nature.” Kahn’s belief in the efficacy of a CFSC accounts for his interest in “the explicit capability for increasing our strength very rapidly whenever the other side provokes us.” Hence also his continuing advocacy of measures for active and passive defense; a credible firststrike capacity depends on being able to handle a retaliatory blow. More recently and more generally, Kahn has argued in his Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962) that “The pressures toward war are likely to be restrained effectively only if the fear of punishment is not diminished to the vanishing point.”
As Kahn’s confidence in the determination of the
How best to deal with these anxieties that make for aggression? On Kahn’s
escalation ladder, “the more terrifying the upper rungs, the more all the
thresholds are strengthened.” His policy, as was Hobbes’s, is to fight fire
with fire; only a greater fear can prevent the lesser from driving men into
panic. And given a fear that restrains, reason recovers influence. According to
This brief survey of Herman Kahn’s leading ideas is sufficient, I think, to show that while his strategic posture has evolved or changed, the style of his strategic thinking has not. The latter is thoroughly consistent and unified, its consistency and unity depending upon his Hobbesian political presuppositions. Kahn understands that a great and fundamental purpose of political activity is the provision of security and further that human rationality itself depends directly upon the achievement of security. This was Hobbes’s message, and Kahn has brought it home to us once again with a force and clarity worthy of the master. In this light, strategic analysis and thought in a context of competitive insecurity can at best buy time. Time for what? For survival. Political effort cannot be expected to reach a solution for the problem of insecurity. Neither a politics of bargaining nor a politics of incrementalism can lead to world order. Moreover, insecurity irrationalizes; persisting anxiety means political irresponsibility and places a premium on strategic resolve. Kahn is forced to entertain the prospect of an apocalyptic transformation of the world’s political structure, triggered by the intensification of terror to an intolerable degree. In the meantime, with the passing of CFSC we may stave off general war with intelligence and the cultivation of restraints—not forever, but only for a time.
In my opinion, the important thing to notice about Kahn’s strategic concepts
is that they are firmly based upon a classical insight into the nature of
political activity. He does not offer an abstract definition of strategy as
does, for example, General Beaufre, who says that it is “the art of the
dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute.” Rather,
on the basis of his conviction that the perception of future danger energizes
men to self-defeating and ultimately irrational competition, Kahn proceeds to
explore the alternatives logically, quantitatively, and comprehensively. And
the outcome of his analyses is preordained. Given his basic presumption about the
nature of political activity, there can be no escape from insecurity and
consequent irrationality in strategic effort. There is no purely strategic
solution to our predicament; only a political solution is adequate, imperfect
though it may be. Ultimately only freedom under law, the Western ideal, will
suffice. Note also that no moral solution can serve as a substitute for a
politically organized society, world-embracing. Morality, in the form of
tradition and courage, can help to buy time by supporting restraints; reason
and experience both suggest that it would be unwise to ask for more. Kahn’s
commitment to the liberal tradition of the West is shown by his belief that
only through enforceable law can security be provided and rationality
sustained. Kahn’s style of strategic thinking is rooted in Western political
theory, and his “grand strategy” is a projection of the political experience of
the West. Perhaps his critics would do well to recall that the “Horror on the
Compare now with Kahn a thinker who comes to strategy from economic theory, Thomas C. Schelling, whose strategic thinking is characterized by an emphasis on uncertainty. Uncertainty, not insecurity, which is the dominant note in Kahn’s thinking. Schelling sees strategy and military activity as comparable to oligopolistic bargaining, the outcome of which is theoretically indeterminate and hence fraught with uncertainties: “The fact of uncertainty—the sheer unpredictability of dangerous events—not only blurs things, it changes their character. It adds an entire dimension to military relations: the manipulation of risk.” (Arms and Influence [1966)) Here an insight derived from economics is used to illuminate strategy and to unify and give a distinctive style to Schelling’s strategic thinking. If Kahn is a Hobbesian, it is perhaps no less appropriate to link Schelling with Machiavelli, but not because he is Machiavellian; rather Schelling tends to think somewhat abstractly, to concentrate on the discernment of principles, those which apply in the manipulation of risk against the background of strategy conceived as the “diplomacy of violence.”
Comparison of Kahn and Schelling suggests that an emphasis on uncertainty, as distinguished from insecurity, does tend to place certain possibilities in a rather different light. One of Kahn’s central strategic conceptions is that the danger of general war imposes restraints further down the “escalation ladder.” Schelling’s “bargaining” orientation raises a doubt, or at least a question, here. He says that “a main consequence of limited war, and potentially a main purpose for engaging in it, is to raise the risk of general war.” Surely here emerges an issue of the first importance on which different styles in strategic thinking bear divergently. Does the prospect of destruction sober men and operate to sustain their rationality, or does it enable the reckless to exploit the rationality of others? We have no conclusive empirical evidence on which to rely in facing this question. Apparently for Kahn the possibility of general war functions as a sort of impersonal sovereign threatening each and all with destruction for deviation from rational behavior; it is in the main a stabilizing influence. For Schelling, however, this possibility offers an opportunity—”potentially” at least—for deliberate use of danger and risk; resolve can be exerted to extract advantages from the more rational. Thus risking becomes integral to bargaining, and rationality is placed on the defensive. In such a situation, lacking in theoretical stability, attention naturally turns to psychologically grounded restraints in the form of established thresholds and to precedents that may have arbitrary, legalistic, and traditional dimensions. Strategic conduct becomes a process in which principles derived from Gestalt psychology are applicable, principles that indicate or govern the modes in which impli negotiation works and which suggest points which restraints may be expected to hold or give way. Such considerations are of more than merely speculative interest in view of the “past dynamic tendency toward unrestrained war” revealed in the analysis of World Wars I and II by George H. Quester (Deterrence before Hiroshima: The Airpower Background of Modern Strategy ). Even if the difference between Kahn and Schelling is only a matter of degree, it could be extremely important the appraisal of our strategic environment. The precariousness of the situation will inevitably influence strategic decisions, and here cautiousness could be as dangerous and provoking as its opposite. Misestimation of the strategic balance may lead us to “recalibrate evaluation” (Fred Charles IkIé, How Nations Negotiate ) or may invite “strategic deception” (Arnold L. Horelick and Myron Rush, Strategic Power and Soviet Foreign Policy ).
Consider now the bearing of these ways of thinking upon the nuclear-conventional distinction. Here emphases upon insecurity and uncertainty produce more nearly convergent results. In Kahn’s perspective, so long as there was the probability of maintaining a Credible First Strike Capability, it seemed pointless to inforce this threshold. Once this possibility has gone, then he comes out for a “no-first-use policy”, and this alteration in posture is full consistent with the essentials of his strategic philosophy. On the other hand, Schelling thinking of strategy in a “bargaining” perspective and convinced of theoretical indeterminacy, would strengthen this threshold and so seek to preclude the use of nuclears in exploitative strategies. Moreover, to him the very introduction of nuclears will alter “the environment of expectations” in an unfortunate and invisible manner: what has happened once people will expect to happen again. But psychological restraints, even if well founded and respected, would seem to offer only fragile protection. Miscalculation is always possible and without restraints in depth, could lead to fatal escalation. Quester argues that a factor “perhaps increasing chances of dangerous miscalculation in the atomic age, is the degree to which the nuclear-conventional distinction has become the principal focus of qualitative restraint.” Here emerges what I would describe as a case of strategic perplexity. Considerations of both insecurity and uncertainty point toward the retention of the nuclear-conventional distinction, and yet its worth may remain in doubt, for, once it is breached, there may be no stopping point, unless indeed Kahn is correct about the restraining effect of the threat of general war. Other styles of thinking may put the whole question of the distinction in a new and different light, as we shall see in our examination of Bernard Brodie’s strategic ideas.
I do not wish to exaggerate the differences between Kahn and Schelling. For it is clear that Kahn has come to view military activity under a stable balance of terror as a form of bargaining and has also come to give greater weight and value to attitudes as the foundations of restraints essential in the working of a strategy of deterrence. There is much upon which he and Schelling would appear to agree, and this is reasonable, for analyses based upon insecurity and uncertainty may usually be expected to support one another. Still there are at the very least nuances that should not be overlooked and possibly dimensions that deserve further exploration. Future insecurity and present uncertainty are not the same thing, and measures or prognoses based on the one need not logically flow also from the other. Notice that in Kahn’s view it is the prospect of future greater insecurity or risk that is likely to determine a nation upon war; men look ahead and their vision of the future shapes their present action. Schelling seems to make uncertainty the prime motive for war; not diffuse anxiety but specific danger governs. “The premium on haste—the advantage, in case of war, in being the one to launch it or in being a quick second in retaliation if the other side gets off the first blow—is undoubtedly the greatest piece of mischief that can be introduced into military forces, and the greatest source of danger that peace will explode into all-out war.” In this sort of situation, in which there is pressure of an intense kind on each side to pre-empt, it may not greatly matter whether analysis runs in terms of uncertainty or insecurity—both are clearly present. What is of interest, however, is that Schelling’s temporal horizon seems much nearer than Kahn’s; it is the clear and present danger that moves to action, whereas for Kahn the relatively remote is always gnawing at men’s minds. Intuitively one senses that this kind of short-run uncertainty and insecurity could be dealt with more easily—perhaps because of the effectiveness of hardening and dispersal, now demonstrated—than the sort of insecurity which pervades Kahn’s analyses and seems impervious to any attempt at solution other than political.
Some additional light, not much, may be thrown on the styles of thinking here under scrutiny by turning to other issues. Credible First Strike Capability would appear to be a destabilizing force, and as such one which Kahn could not ignore. How does he handle this? He remarks in On Thermonuclear War that “the main destabilizing effect of Type II Deterrence can be handled in part by not keeping the first strike forces on alert.” This would seem satisfactory from an American point of view and appealing to one who places his faith in Hobbesian sovereigns. But could one expect the opponent to accept a position of lasting strategic inferiority?—the Russians do not appear, in the recent past, to have been willing to do so. Here one feels that Kahn’s politico-strategic philosophy may have led him into wishful thinking, rather rare for him. Above all one feels that Kahn would avoid, if possible, getting into a situation where the “bargaining” aspect of military activity and strategy becomes prominent. And this is certainly consistent with his basic political and strategic outlook that the “prudence instilled by fear” (Klaus Knorr, On the Uses of Military Power in the Nuclear Age ) depends on the magnitude of the fear.
Kahn, more than any other thinker, has pressed the desirability of having effective civil defense, both active and passive. Initially it was fundamental to the possession of CFSC. More recently, he has urged civil defense, on the ground that it could make the difference between losing or not losing our society and ideals. On the other hand, Schelling argues that “sheltering” would be a “dramatic signal”; but he does concede that it could be “graduated.” Conceivably each side could take steps to protect populations without triggering the other, provided that the necessary understandings were arrived at. Still Kahn exhibits continuing belief in the desirability of being able to increase one’s defensive strength quickly. Instinctively he seems to yearn for ways in which to restore the force of rational calculation and reduce the influence of factors such as resolve and capacity for risk-taking and so to eliminate so far as possible from the strategic equations the element of uncertainty. For to him, a coincidence of insecurity and uncertainty can only prompt toward explosive escalation or pre-emption.
A style of thinking which emphasizes uncertainty may not diverge often from a style which emphasizes insecurity, but the divergence could be crucial for strategic calculation. Further comparisons, and further analysis of the various forms of uncertainty, may well be in order if we are to grasp fully the various dimensions of strategic thinking. Consider that, in a world based on a firm balance of terror, uncertainty might well decline in importance. Insecurity would also likely decline, but one suspects not as much. For, as Quester says, the very stability of such a world might lead or tempt to “daring ventures.” And again these, only disciplined imagination might prove effective.
Bernard Brodie is a strategist whose style of thinking differs significantly from those exhibited in the works of Kahn and Schelling. Brodie describes himself as a “pragmatic thinker and derides the “romantic” and “mechanistic” and other deficiencies which he detect in the writings of others. By comparison with Kahn and Schelling, Brodie seems inclined to regard the world as not so pervaded by either insecurity or uncertainty as they would have it. In his perspective the relevant alternative narrow down sharply. We are indeed in a difficult and dangerous situation, but situations have a structure to them, which is open to historical and analytical investigation; we can, as we have in the past, think our predicament through. Brodie’s concern with the structure of the political and strategic environment derives possibly from his background in political science; analysis in that field typically runs in terms of the shaping influences which the structure of an institution exerts upon its constituent processes. In this connection, perhaps one should notice also his earlier work, A Guide to Naval Strategy, naval strategy being an area of strategic thinking which is peculiarly responsive to reflection that is styled structurally. In any event, Brodie is resolutely empirical, looking hard at the given and specific situation, manifestly reluctant to drift off into conceptual speculation; it helps in differentiating him from other strategic thinkers to stress his sensitivity to the structural aspects of strategic confrontations. He exhibits a bracing suspicion of the abstract, of thought that moves on rails of principle—he once said that the classical principles of war are little more than refined common sense—and of the overly sophisticated. Compare his reference to “the marvelous clarity of the choice between nonwar and destruction” (in Escalation and the Nuclear Option [1965, 1966]) with talk of “thresholds,” “bargaining,” “escalation ladders,” and the like.
In this study Brodie argues that there has been a “crucial change” in the “general strategic environment.” A stable balance of terror has been reached at the strategic level, and his evaluation of this development does differ interestingly from those of Kahn and Schelling. “Unless we are dealing with utter madmen, there is no conceivable reason why in any showdown with the Soviet Union appropriate manipulations of force and threats of force, along with more positive diplomatic maneuvers, cannot prevent deterrence from failing.” Strategic stalemate implies, of course, that “Type II Deterrence” is gone. “It is a fairly safe prediction that from now on neither side will be able seriously and convincingly to use for political ends threats of strategic nuclear attack, or anything that in scale is even close to it.” What are the implications of strategic stalemate?
According to Kahn in Thinking About the Unthinkable, “If (or as) the
balance of terror becomes more stable we can expect to see more study and
discussion of the theory and practice of Controlled Reprisal and Controlled
Counterforce.” And further, “as the balance of terror becomes more firm . . .
it is likely that explicit and implicit bargaining, negotiation, and a crude
kind of adjudication by ‘world opinion’ will become the rule in whatever
peaceful adjustments of
Compare Brodie’s appraisal of the implications of nuclear strategic stalemate, especially his position on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Escalation and the Nuclear Option. To him strategic stalemate means tactical freedom, and he suggests that “the use or threat of use of tactical nuclear weapons may often be counterescalatory.” Contrast this position with his former argument, in Strategy in the Missile Age (1959), that “between the use and non-use of atomic weapons there is a vast watershed of difference and distinction, one that ought not be cavalierly thrown away, as we appear to be throwing it away, if we are serious about trying to limit war.” Apparently Brodie has had occasion to change his mind on this issue. It should prove instructive to see why, especially so since Kahn, and presumably Schelling, continue to be so cautionary.
A number of considerations seem to influence Brodie’s stance on tactical nuclears. If any one consideration is decisive, it is his belief in strategic stalemate: there can be no general war. And this circumstance of itself offers encouragement to the provocative and the aggressive, those who would escalate, not to the top rungs of the ladder, to be sure, for they are gone; rather up the ladder for political advantage. Some such nations can be deterred, and safely so, by the threat to use, or the actual use of, tactical nuclear weapons.
In Brodie’s analysis in “What Price Conventional Capabilities in
Further, Brodie would appear to be distrustful of the more fancy, or fanciful, strategic conceptions; and he is rather more confident than many that the intentions of potential enemies can reliably be interpreted and forecast; politics is a less volatile activity than many are tempted to think; speculation about the us of resolve is no substitute for study of an opponent’s character and characteristic ways of behaving. Still an enumeration of considerations would not seem to exhaust Brodie’s analysis fully or to convey the full force of his argument. And this is the point that I should like to emphasize. It is his style of thinking that brings Brodie to suggestions, if not conclusions, that diverge from the recommendations of other strategists.
Brodie does not rely upon a crucial political insight to guide and unify his strategic thinking, nor does he brilliantly illuminate by exploring the analogy of war and oligopolistic bargaining. His method is to begin with direct analysis of the situation confronted; this sensitizes him to changes in the strategic environment, as he calls it; this in turn would seem to prepare him to place greater confidence in the possibility of forecasting political behavior, in estimating the pressures of codes and character in a situation. Here I would contrast Kahn’s assumption that political behavior is likely to be irrational, the more so when persisting insecurity is present, and his assumption that the irrational cannot be forecast. In this perspective, any confrontation is likely to seem more precarious than it would appear to Brodie. Contrast also Schelling’s emphasis on uncertainty, derived from his conception of military and strategic activity as dynamic processes containing their own inherent tendencies. Brodie would seem to be saying that the very structure of a confrontation imposes constraints upon the political and military processes that go on within it, including those human responses that would be called irrational. Stability need not be premised on the presence of a dominant and dominating power, as Kahn would have it; nor need stability be tied to the kinds of mental processes revealed by Gestalt investigation. Ultimately what is at stake among these thinkers is a theory of the requisites of political civility and order. Their ultimate political beliefs govern their styles of strategic thinking, and these styles influence, if not govern, their strategic appraisals.
According to Henry Kissinger (in “Editor’s Conclusion” in Problems of National Strategy), “national security policy is not primarily a technical problem, but a challenge to political understanding, and ultimately, to philosophical insight.” Political theorists and philosophers differ over the ways in which it is profitable to think about ourselves and to investigate our environment. And so, too, do our strategic philosophers. They all have styles, each one of which is powerful and illuminating, and perhaps also constricting. Need we choose among them? I think not. For strategic thinking is the meeting point of political and economic theory, and strategic principles must partake of both. But principles do not apply themselves; application is an operation of judgment, and this requires an understanding of the environment in which they are to be applied. We need not choose among styles of thought; rather we should be aware that there are various dimensions to strategic thinking, no one of which may with impunity be neglected.
Kahn’s way of thinking is grounded in the political principle that men require security in order to be rational. No enduring security may be had other than through politically organized society. Hence Kahn seeks to impress upon us the inherent limitations of strategic thinking. Instability will not finally be banished until mutual suspicion and fear are removed; and to banish these, law and sovereignty on a world basis are essential. Schelling seems more concerned with the destabilizing effects of the uncertainties involved in bargaining, and he builds his thinking on the foundations of economic and psychological theory.
The pragmatic Bernard Brodie would fix our attention upon the actual situation that we confront. Theories generate principles, and situations have structures. Both sorts of consideration are fundamental, but in different ways. Without principles, we lack direction; without a map, directions lose their meaning. “Strategic principles” there are, but they can be misleading without a grasp of the “strategic environment,”
Brodie’s environmentalistic way of thinking seems particularly relevant to
gauging our present relations with the
Major John William Chapman, USAFR
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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