Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Strategic Traditions for the Asia-Pacific Region

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Strategic Traditions for the Asia-Pacific Region

Article excerpt

What are strategic traditions? Why should we be concerned with them when we think about American strategic behavior in the Asia-Pacific region? Why should we not concentrate on the material factors, the "hard" data that will determine what nations will do?

Traditions are usually thought of as past patterns of behavior that affect, in some way, current and future behavior. Traditions may be familiar and comfortable, and for a social and political conservative, they are to be observed because they embody the collective experience and wisdom of a society. But in the field of military studies, tradition has both positive and negative implications. Tradition may reflect the habits of the last war, vividly imprinted on the minds of the men who waged it-valuable lessons learned, lessons paid for with blood. Tradition may also be habits of the last war that make it difficult to see and react to change.

A strategic tradition can also be thought of as a variation of "strategic culture," the cognitive lens through which we view the world, the lens that focuses our attention on the policy options that are worth taking seriously, and away from the frivolous options, the "nonstarters." Strategic culture also tells us what we should expect in terms of the reactions of other players, and what the most important forms of interaction are. Because it is often difficult to get good information on these issues in a timely way, strategic culture helps us make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Academics may recommend that under conditions of uncertainty one ought to wait until the necessary information has been collected, but policy makers often do not have that luxury, and at such times strategic culture or tradition is an invaluable decision aid.

Why do people have the strategic cultures or traditions that they do? Their cultures emerge from the intense emotional experiences through which they have passed, experiences that created vivid and enduring memories that readily spring to mind. Munich, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, and the war in Vietnam were such experiences. When future, or even present, conditions are difficult to discern, people make decisions based on what they see, and what they see is influenced by their memories of what has happened in the past. Sometimes these are personal memories; sometimes they are organizational or national memories. For example, when confronted with Ho Chi Minh, about whose ultimate intentions there was some doubt, Americans tended to observe that he was an ideological dictator.

He was, but memory then added statements about what ideological dictators were likely to do and what this nation needed to do in anticipation: "We know what ideological dictators are like, because we faced them in the past, and we know that we need to stop them with military power." That was not objective reality, but it was the way Americans decided what reality meant in terms of what they had to do. These sets of interpreted memories can be thought of as part of our culture, our tradition.

When a nation is confronted with complex, ambiguous situations that are difficult to understand, its cultural perspective may affect how it reacts. Peter Schwartz is an expert in helping business executives realize, by means of discussions and interviews, what their assumptions are about how the world works and what factors drive developments in the marketplace. It is important for executives to understand how they look at the world, because they may not fully realize what is driving their decisions and what factors they may be paying too little attention to.

lain Johnston analyzes the same kind of issues with regard to the Chinese national security elite, not by means of direct discussions and interviews but by reading the texts that members of the elite study and discuss. This is a useful technique-though not without problems, since what people read and study does not always reflect the ideas inside their heads. …

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