Contributor: Introduction to Strategic Analysis

Contributor: Introduction to Strategic Analysis

Ryan Nye is back with another great article on Strategic Analysis. Today he tackles the how and where to begin in the process.

A quick recap: Ryan is a Green Beret officer who is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Political Science. He has several overseas deployments, has been an ODA Team Leader, an ODG Team Leader, and a Company Commander. Ryan is an all around good dude and a next level thinker that I am very excited to have contributing here.

Welcome back. The last essay was a brief introduction into the concept of Great Power Competition. In it we went over some of the basic terms, definitions, the origin of Great Power Competition as a strategic concept, and laid out a rough framework for future articles. If this is your first time, you can check out that introductory article here

In today’s piece, I want to explain how one assesses the strategic interests of a State. This will obviously be an abridged version of that process (people can devote their entire life’s work to mere sub-components of strategic analysis) but should provide the reader with a basic understanding. The real point I wish to convey is that if one can manage to understand the nature of a State, and truly see the world through the lens of that State, then it’s strategic goals, and preferred methods for reaching those goals, become rather obvious. States, after all, are just emergent clumps of people and the forces which drive a State are not altogether much different than those that drive a person.

Easy to say; much harder to do. So, how does one begin to understand the immense complexity that is a State? Is there some sort of format or mental model to guide the way? Luckily enough, there is. Now, this model has no more “authority” than the fact that it makes sense to me, but hopefully it will make sense to you.

Broadly, one needs to consider three things: geography, history, and culture. 

Think of geography as determining the rules of the game. The natural world shapes a person and people by determining not only the foundational elements of survival but also the best strategies for acquiring the resources necessary to survive. This is true not only of an individual but also for groups of people. Scarce resources lead to competition, competition leads to organization, and organization leads to civilization.

It helps to see the long term impacts if one thinks about it in terms of sports. Australia boasts three different kinds of rugby: Union, League, and Footie. While each is technically rugby, the three have slightly different rules. Some have “downs” like in American Football, some keep the clock going like in soccer, etc. In the early days, an athlete could easily transition through the various styles of play and find success; raw athleticism was enough. But then a scarce resource was introduced: championships. That meant money, fame, and social acclaim for the winners and frustrated off-seasons for the losers. As a result, competition grew much more serious. Teams sought to optimize their techniques, strategies, and players. The hunt for talent started younger and younger. The result? After several decades, the body types of the players have changed to such a point that the fan knows which version of the game is on TV just by looking at the team’s physical makeup. Union players are built like offensive linemen, League players look like running backs, and Footie players are as tall and thin as wide receivers.

Obvious enough to those who watch sports. Now take that same intuitive notion and apply it to the natural world. The pressures of the desert, the mountains, the jungle, or the steppe mold human societies into fairly predictable templates, templates which are jam-packed with lessons as to how the world works and how one ought to behave. These lessons, while seemingly remote, are so foundational to the structures of our modern society that they are essentially baked into the psyche of each person. While these lessons, and their subsequent behaviors, are not inalterable or unavoidable, they are often the unrealized starting point upon which most of our decision making is built. In other words, whether you realize it or not, your great-to-the-nth-power-grandfather’s solution to a thorny social problem undoubtedly influenced how you responded to a problem set today.

An example may be in order. If you’re reading this, odds are you are a product of Western society. If you’re a Westerner, odds are you grew up speaking an Indo-European language. If you grew up speaking an Indo-European language, odds are your culture stems from the migrations of the early Indo-European tribes. These tribes were the first pastoralists. That means they were among the first humans to domesticate horses, keep livestock for meat and dairy products, and use wagons to move goods. 

Now, imagine you are an aspiring tribal leader who lives on the great grassy steppe of southern Russia circa 2000 BCE. You’ve got a few close family members, a large herd, and hundreds of cousins who, like you, are mounted warriors. Life is pretty nice, but you want more. What are your options? You could raid other Indo-European pastoralists. But that is hard work. They are also warriors and all you’d get in return is some more cattle, maybe some slaves, and the headache of having to protect your own herd from reprisal attacks.

Bronze age Pastoralists of Central Asia, Image obtained from:

There is another option: attack the sedentary people who live to the south. They are farmers, they are weak and they are tied to the land. They have neither horses nor weapons. You could take their whole harvest, all of their tools, and half the population as slaves and then return to the steppe, confident you’d never be followed.

Only one problem: how do you convince people to join you on this venture? As a tribal leader you could try and simply order others to act. That method works in settled societies. In those lands, if your social inferior disobeys you then you just burn down their house, kill their family, and let their fate serve as a warning to others. They are trapped by their possessions and so must either obey you or suffer the consequences.

But this doesn’t work in a pastoral society such as yours. You have no real coercive power over others. There are no jails, no police, no taxes, no social security numbers. Sure, you are a “leader”, since you have the largest herd, and sure, no one could prevent you from killing someone, but your inferiors aren’t geographically rooted as settled peoples are. They are pastoralists. That means they live on the infinite sea of grass. If they don’t like you, they can just take their horses, herds, and homes and leave. Good luck catching them if they do. Remember, there are only tens of millions of humans on the planet at this point, so there is plenty of room to roam. 

You, however, are undaunted. You want what those farmers have and you’re willing to do what it takes to get it. So you call a meeting. You, as the man with the largest herd, have the prerogative to call meetings. Pastoralists near and far come to hear what you, the rich guy, has to say. You tell them about the farmers; you tell them about their harvest; you tell them about the low risk and high reward. Your guests like your proposal but are wary. They don’t mind risking their lives to steal from the weak, but they want assurances that they will get their fair share. After all, they don’t work for you. You can’t order them. You may be wealthier but they still have their dignity. So instead you ask them. You propose a fair arrangement. You will all be partners in a business venture, sharing risk and reward. Naturally, yours will be the largest share, but that is only natural. The plan is your idea and you are the social superior. Your guests accept the notion of partnership, and the conversation turns to practical matters. A raid is essentially military in nature and military operations are only successful if there is a clear chain-of-command, a concept which independent minded pastoralists generally abhor. Understandably, you propose yourself as a military leader. This does not go over well. The military leader has the power to punish disobedience and determine who gets the riskiest jobs. No one wants to give you that power; you’re powerful enough already and no one trusts you not to abuse your authority. After much debate, a compromise is reached: you will be the tactical military leader but five other men will serve as an advisory council, determine punishments, and discuss strategy. What’s more, another man, the most trusted man in the room, will have full power to divide up the spoils. All present agree, swear an oath, and go home to gather their men for the coming raid.

Much would come from simple compromises such as these. In order to be a successful pastoral leader, one had to make accommodations, sooth wounded pride, and gain power through the consent of others. These practical solutions would gradually take on the weight of ethical truths. Those who most closely followed these truths became the most successful, gained the most followers, imparted the truths to the most people, etc. The correctness of dividing power, electing a “first among equals” for specific durations, and viewing government as the domain of all dignified (i.e. wealthy) men, gradually became unquestioned norms. You can find them at the forefront of much of Western history and even given homage during the West’s most despotic periods. They are so universal to the Western worldview, that Westerners are flabbergasted when presented with societies with no similar traditions and inevitably determine that those societies remain at a lower developmental stage.

But there is an obvious wrinkle in all of this. People aren’t static. Humans didn’t evolve and appear simultaneously in every corner of the globe. They move, they fight, they copulate. In fact, the Indo-Europeans left the steppe and spread over half the world. If geography determines so much, then what happens when people change their geography? That is where history comes in.

For the purposes of understanding a State, it is useful to think of history as a never-ending series of tests on the validity of a people’s survival strategy. History is why modern government, although clearly descendant from the tent made compromises of our ancestors, is so much more complex.

Let’s say you are the head coach of a team in the NFL. You have very specific ideas about what sort of offensive and defense you want to run. You learned the system from your father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his father. They told you the system always had worked, works now, and always will work. The entire identity of your family is wrapped up in the commitment to this system.

In your first season you perfect the system. It needed some tweaks, but not much. The theory was sound, even if some adjustments had to be made in application. In your second season you crush the competition. No one can stop you; you’ve mastered the game in a way few ever have. Your third and fourth season go well too, but you lose a couple games. Come season five, you’re getting crushed. The league has figured you out. Teams have reversed engineered your system and built their own versions, designed to fit the needs of their players and coaching staff. Your family should be proud, but each year every team alters the system again. Soon, there are dozens of versions of your family’s system, some which have evolved completely beyond recognition. Now you are left with a choice: keep your traditional system, which is the same as deciding to lose to maintain the family honor, and eventually get fired, or build a new system and play to win.

This, in essence, is a choice which every State, society, culture, and peoples face at some point. It is an easy concept to grasp for a coach, since the effects can be seen over the course of a season and the stakes are only as high as future employment. In the competition between peoples, the seasons can last decades, even centuries, and the stakes are as high as the survival of an entire way of life.

History is littered with groups of people who decided that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change their ways in order to stay in the game. The list of cultures, languages, peoples, and States which don’t exist today is many orders of magnitude larger than the list that those who do.

That is how you need to think of today’s States and their relationship with history. Yes, geography laid the foundation for behavior and culture norms, but the story of today’s States is of those who did change. Their mere existence today is evidence of their historical willingness to drop tradition and plagiarize from others in order to keep playing. Of course this doesn’t mean that these societies dropped all of their traditions and started fresh each time they were confronted with a new challenge. Quite to the contrary. Eliminating tradition while maintaining cohesion is exceptionally challenging under any circumstances, much less when it is a matter of national survival. The States of today are those who managed to change what they had to, keep what they could, and, most importantly, were very lucky.

From this vantage point, history is shifted from the mind-numbing memorizing of dates and events, to the harrowing biography of a survivor. It is far more engaging, and elucidating, to imagine a whole people as an adventurous protagonist under constant threat of death. Their history is the story of that protagonist out-fighting, out-foxing, and out-adapting all of its competitors. And also like your favorite fictional hero, who is likely to carry scars and hard-won lessons forward to the next adventure, so too for a people. Traumatic events are indelibly printed on the collective consciousness and take generations to heal. Oftentimes, it is impossible to understand the events of today without first understanding an event which took place hundreds of years ago.

All of which is vague enough that it is time for another example.

We will stick with the Indo-European tribes. With their superior mobility and stronger warriors (from their diet of meat and milk), the tribes soon spread out and conquered everywhere they could reach, from Portugal to India, which had land was hospitable to horses and not already occupied by an organized State. Among their many descendants, three are of particular importance to Western history. Those are the Greeks, the Romans (Italians), and the Germans. The story of each of these groups is the story of pastoralist Indo-Europeans responding to new geographies, new neighbors, and new challenges. Over time each grew into something independent and unique, yet still obviously related to its cultural cousins. 

In the mountains and islands of Greece, the pastoralists became farmers and fishermen, yet the geography allowed them to maintain their independent streak. Instead of individual tribal leaders holding sway over ever changing bits of grass, the Greeks divided themselves into City-States. Each little “polis” had its own rules and traditions, but the basic tenets of limited power, limited periods of authority, and the right of political participation to the wealthy remained. Naturally there were exceptions, as City-States experimented with various forms of government, indigenous and imported. But there is no question that the first articulate expressions of democratic ideas arose in Greek. 

In the more open lands of Italy, the Romans had to borrow much from their non-Indo-European neighbors, the Etruscans, if they wanted to survive. Once they gained enough power, they threw off the Etruscan monarchy and instituted what we would now call a Republican form of government. This represented an improvement on the Greek model of City-State democratic governance. A Republic was modular and could grow beyond the bounds of one town. It could also readily adapt to challenges. In times of crisis Romans would appoint a Dictator, who could exercise monarchical authority for a short time, before returning power to the consensus driven Senate. Even during the most despotic periods of the Roman Empire, the institution of a Senate, as an example of collective governance, was maintained and ostensibly honored.

In northern Europe, the Indo-Europeans mixed with more ancient peoples and brought much of the steppe to the forests. Although now only on the periphery of the infinite grass sea, the Germans were no less pastoral or nomadic. Tribal alliances coalesced and collapsed, massive tribal migrations were a regular occurrence, and German dignity, or the refusal to submit to a King without consent, was well documented by ancient historians. This trait was so pronounced well into the modern period, when other European States were fully invested in the Divine Right of Kings, Germans still elected a non-hereditary Holy Roman Emperor, whose power was curtailed by law.

In all three of these examples, one can see the initial system of Indo-European pastoral leadership developing under external pressures to survive. And in each, one can find examples of successful plagiarisms, failed adaptations, and moments where tradition refuses to be banished. And, if one were so inclined to look, one could find all three of these traditions represented in the current American system of governance.

That brings us to our final component: culture. After the broad scope offered by geography and history, it may not seem like there is much left to cover. However, the last defining characteristic of a people is cleverly hidden and can oftentimes be unpleasant to examine. So unpleasant, in fact, that it is the norm, rather than the exception, to either completely ignore it or reduce it to cartoonish levels of simplicity. 

When I say culture, that is more for simplicity of expression than accuracy. What I really mean is: collectively agreed upon nonsense. I don’t mean that to sound critical. As far as I can tell, it is impossible to create a cohesive group of people without those people maintaining some sort of shared delusion. There is no “in” group without an “out” group, and the lines between are rarely, if ever, based in logic. That isn’t a criticism; it is an observation. 

What do I mean by this and how does it work? Well, it’s somewhat complicated but here is the bare-bones version. Reality is a complex place, far more complex than the human mind can handle. There is far more stimulus going on around us than we can take in and we only mentally process a fraction of that stimulus. Humans rely upon mental shortcuts, or heuristics, as a matter of survival. In other words, whenever we can simplify reality through assumptions, we will. 

One of the greatest sources of cognitive stress is dealing with other humans. Humans, as apes, are social creatures. We are finely attuned to social dynamics and the relative security or danger that they represent. Unless you’re a hermit, much of existence consists of assessing interactions with other humans and the potential future consequences of those interactions. This is tiring enough among those you know; it is exhausting with strangers. For the vast majority of human history, strangers were equivalent to danger and assessing danger is a significant drain on energy. Energy which is much better spent on gathering resources for survival.

What one really needs is a system of knowing who is trustworthy and who isn’t. A sort of mental shortcut for determining who is “us” and who is “them”. Not a foolproof system; just something to take the edge off human interaction. Luckily, there is a trick. What you do is maintain a belief that is so absurd, so irrational, so bizarre, that anyone else who would be crazy enough to believe it must be on your team.

While this may initially seem like madness, there is method in it. By publicly and earnestly maintaining the absurd, one offers a powerful social proof. This social proof offers the immediate benefits of social acceptance but also becomes self enforcing. Once a community grows around a particular irrational belief, interaction with outsiders becomes even more mentally taxing. If you and yours have spent generations unquestionably agreeing that the sky is green, how can you possibly trust someone who is mad enough to say that it is red?

A cynic is no doubt tempted to cast a mocking gaze on religion, but they should be careful not to feel any sense of superiority. Yes, medieval Arabs were unified by the belief that a local businessman spoke god’s word. But so too were Bolsheviks united by a belief in the destiny of the working class. Mid-20th Century Germans were equally unified by the belief that theirs was the superior race. Browns fans are unified by a belief in miracles. Secular faiths, be they about genetics, gun control, abortion, language, or gang colors, are capable of carrying just as much psychological and social power as holy text. In other words, although all religion is built on belief, not all beliefs are tied to religion.

I say “beliefs” rather than “facts” intentionally. No one is united by the fact of electricity or the fact of wheels. People only become united when they oppose facts. If you’re still struggling with the concept then think of Flat-Earthers. That community is defined by its opposition to verifiable reality. Unintuitively, the ease with which one can disprove their position actually increases the strength of the group’s cohesion. This is because in-groups and out-groups are about social needs, not purely logical ones. If one maintains the belief that the Earth is flat, they may find themselves rejected by normal society, but are likely to find even greater societal acceptance among fellow believers.

Flat Earth, Image obtained from:

Without fully realizing it, converts, be they to a new faith, football team, or hobby, are making the choice based on social returns rather than logical reasoning. Once accepted, they find both new opportunities and new limitations. To be in an in-group requires following certain behavioral codes. This likely means more freedom in some categories and less in others. In other words, beliefs chosen for social benefits can impose unrelated tangible limitations.

States, which are just conceptual groupings of people, face the same trade offs. Leaders and the population alike want security through unity. Historically the ways of achieving this were pretty straightforward. A leader would survey the surrounding political landscape and define his own people in opposition. This would hopefully strengthen social cohesion, reduce defections, and allow for easier demonization of the opposition. For most of human history that meant everyone in a society swearing allegiance to the same leader, the same god, tell the same stories, speak the same language, etc. Generally speaking, successful empires past and present have managed to take a conceptual step back and simply mandate that everyone in the society must maintain the irrational belief that everyone else’s irrational belief is equally valid. The ancient Persians, Romans, Mongols, and the liberal democracies of today discovered and used this method to varying degrees. It is a neat trick and works remarkably well under good leadership. Those empires usually fall apart once leaders begin calling for purity in irrational belief, usually about the superiority of some certain class, language, god, etc.

Once a State has inherited, invented, or otherwise co-opted a certain irrational belief to maintain on behalf of its people, it finds its strategic goals and methods limited. For example, a liberal democracy institutionally maintains the irrational belief that all are created equal. This is a fairly robust and flexible position to maintain and gives the State social acceptance from other liberal democracies. However, it does mean that genocide is off the table as a foreign policy. It also means you can’t torture suspects, enslave populations, or overtly steal resources. Doing so would make the State look hypocritical to its people and foreigners. Every time a liberal democracy ignores these belief-based restrictions, it pays a long-term political price. 

Conversely, a populist strongman will maintain the irrational belief that his people are the pure race, god’s  chosen people, etc. This gives the strongman much domestic cohesion and allows him to do all the nasty things denied to liberal democracies. But there are limitations. For example, beliefs of purity makes it nearly impossible for the modern strongman to conquer and integrate a new population. If race-x is the master race, why would race-y ever agree to become a willing partner in the society? Additionally, the purity beliefs place the strongman in the “out” category from the perspective of liberal democracies. This makes beating up strongmen one a liberal democracy’s best methods for wiping the slate clean of past mistakes. Strongmen must constantly be on the lookout for liberal democratic States trying to gain social status.

In practical terms, this means that if you can identify the irrational belief binding a particular State, then you are half-way to understanding the realistic strategic goals and methods of that State. Think of these irrational beliefs as different types of vehicles. Think of the typical irrational beliefs of a liberal democracy creating a State analogous to a crossover and those of a populist strongman as being analogous to a pickup truck. Knowing the genre of vehicle gives the analyst an immediate understanding of what tasks a vehicle can and cannot easily do. Coversly, there is very little analytical value to be gained in obsessing over the outward trappings of States or vehicles.  The color, hubcaps, or interior trimmings are fun to examine, but they don’t immediately tell you what the vehicle is realistically capable of.

In summation, understanding what a State wants and how a State can get it is a complicated and laborious process. To help you on this journey, you can break down what you know about that State into three broad categories: geography, history, and culture. Understanding these facets, and how they interact, will tell you everything you need to know about any State.

In the next article, I am going to take this format and apply it to Russia. I will provide a debrief on Russia and show how understanding Russian geography, history, and culture makes their strategic goals and methods abundantly clear.

19 thoughts on “Contributor: Introduction to Strategic Analysis

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    Just wanted to say thank you to Ryan for another great article. I never really though about the why behind power competition until I began studying for my Master’s degree. Even then I didn’t really consider it until I read Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography. I cannot more highly recommend that book in understanding geography, history and culture and I look forward to Ryan’s future article that tackle this.

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