Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Edgar on Strategy (III): A good strategy rests atop solid philosophical foundations

Political philosophy provides a foundation from which we can imagine and discuss strategy productively.



By Second Lieutenant John C. Stanley, U.S. Air Force
Best Defense guest contributor

Good strategy corresponds to the way people work and the way the world works. That’s the fundamental Machiavellian proposition, right? Do what works. Don’t do what sounds nice, but doesn’t work.

This article reintroduces a field that attempts to answer the first half of that proposition: How do people work? In the national security sector, it is not a question we often address. But political philosophy does address it. Since strategists are usually movers and shakers, the term may conjure undesirable images of a sedentary, contemplative life. And perhaps togas.

Nonetheless, political philosophy provides a foundation from which we can imagine and discuss strategy productively. Without at least a layman’s awareness of political philosophy, it is difficult to develop coherent strategy. Philosophical agreement amongst strategy makers is not essential. For even if we disagree on philosophical propositions, active awareness of them exposes baseline shared interests. America’s Founding Fathers disagreed over philosophical premises and conclusions. But because they were well versed in political philosophy, they could find sufficient agreement in a few things. And from there, they could begin the difficult process of compromising. Consequently, for all of its flaws, they established a wildly successful national strategy.

Political philosophy plays a fundamental role in strategy making even when we don’t recognize or acknowledge it. The way we interact with the world and the way we expect the world to interact with us reflects our operative political philosophy.  Take for example this revealing excerpt from an apology issued by Airbnb last year:

At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.

That’s a good example of political philosophy driving business strategy. But how did Airbnb get here? What are the competing philosophical options? What if people are not fundamentally good? What if any person really can’t belong to any community? If Airbnb is wrong about one or both points, their strategy is corrupt. The success of their endeavor is already in doubt.

Political philosophy actively recognizes and deals with these challenges: How should people interact with one another? How do they actually interact with one another? How do we account for the difference? Because political philosophy seeks to describe community from the ground up, it deals with liberty, law, rights, ethics, and morality. It informs our conceptions of what justice is, and it thereby helps us create a vision for what we think a just future in a given community, such as the global one, should or could look like.

As I mentioned above, these are not questions we address thoroughly or frequently beyond stereotypical statements. Take, for example, this one from former Undersecretary of the Army Patrick Murphy: “Most Iraqis want what we do: peace, security, good-paying jobs so they can feed their family, and they like to play sports, too, like soccer, just like we do.” There are a dozen unexamined political assumptions in that statement. But arguably, our whole strategy in Iraq has been predicated upon those kinds of assumptions. In what ways are they true? In what ways are they not? And what are the implications for our efforts there?

Interrogating our political philosophies, and expanding the set we can draw from, may help us better evaluate our expectations of ourselves, our allies, and our enemies. Thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Donald Kagan have proposed philosophies of human nature and political behavior that often explain our post 9/11 struggles better than we do. Kagan explains a lot by appealing to Thucydides’ honor, fear, and interest. Responding to Marxism’s claim that class was the source of all problems, a perspective still (or again) popular in the West, Niebuhr appealed to original sin. Even if we think Niebuhr’s view of the world is antiquated, he made a huge point: Equity of power and wealth does not make terrible political problems go away. They keep on coming. But of those several options, we only hear two of them used regularly to explain human political behavior: interest and class.

The 4th century Roman biographer and political philosopher Plutarch wrote, “The life of a contemplative philosopher and that of an active statesman are, I presume, are not the same thing.” He is more-or-less right. Statesmen, busy public servants that contribute to developing national and military strategy, don’t have to be philosophers. Neither do service members. But in order to be more effective, they need at least a working knowledge of political philosophy. If we never take the time to think deeply and seriously on such topics, the foundations of our strategy may be skewed or altogether false. Skewed strategies may then lead us to places inconsistent with the core values of our nation. And our strategies will miss the purposes for which they were created in the first place.

Periodically revisiting political philosophy is a powerful practice for the strategist. It helps us keep in touch with the long national and global game, not merely the long war. Revisiting and refining political philosophy helps us do what works because it helps us identify and describe the various ways that people work.

John C. Stanley is an active duty Air Force cyber operations officer. He is currently assigned to the University of Texas at Austin where he is completing a Master’s Degree in Political Theory. Before attending the United States Air Force Academy and receiving his commission, he was an enlisted Cyber Systems Operations Airman. This series was conceived and edited by Paul Edgar, hence its name.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1