Security studies versus strategic studies: a history – part 2

This is the second part of this post on security studies and strategic studies. Be sure to read that post first.


Rise of strategic studies

As discussed in the last post, security studies began in the 1930s with a group of Ivy League scholars in the United States. These scholars were concerned about the threat to liberal political order posed by totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This emerging field came to overlap with the discipline of international relations (IR), which had developed in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere after World War One.

By the end of World War Two, the relatively new concept of national security became a driving concern for the US government, which passed the National Secuirty Act in 1947 as it prepared to confront the Soviet Union in what became the Cold War. The government, particularly the military, invested heavily in the social sciences as the country mobilised to face a new and powerful enemy. This investment helped the field of security studies to rapidly expand.

Within security studies, a stream developed that focused on military strategy, particularly on nuclear weapons. They were led by scholars concerned about how America could face a world where the next global conflict could be apocalyptic. Over time this would became a distinct field known as strategic studies.

Strategic studies never fitted neatly into any one discipline, as it included political scientists and international relations specialists, but also mathematicians, physicists, economists, and many historians. Nor was it a purely academic field. Some of its key figures were based in universities, but others were based in institutions such as the Rand Corporation (a think-tank created to conduct research for the military) and there was considerable crossover with government. The career of Thomas Schelling, an economist who worked for the US government from 1948 to 1953 on initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and went on to write influential books on arms control and game theory, exemplifies the eclectic nature of the field. More infamous, but less representative, strategic studies scholars included Herman Khan, a theorist of nuclear warfare who inspired the eponymous character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

The field  focused on nuclear deterrence, making use of game theory and formal modelling. Their major concern was how to reduce the risk of nuclear war and control the arms race. At the same time, they were concerned with maintaining America’s military dominance. Whether there were tensions between these positions depends on one’s political stance. To these scholars, America’s military superiority and dominant global position reduced the prospect of global war, by discouraging Soviet and Chinese adventurism and reassuring allies, and therefore helped maintain international security. To their critics, America’s military dominance led to reckless actions and encouraged the global arms race, thereby undermining international security.

While nuclear deterrence was the field’s main focus, it was not the only one. When nuclear tensions began to ease after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a few strategists turned to another dimension of Cold War confrontation: insurgency and counter-insurgency. Thriving insurgencies in Algeria and Vietnam, or failed insurgencies in Greece, the Philippines and Malaya, became the focus of study for this segment (a focus that would be temporarily revived in the mid-2000s). However, the failing counter-insurgency in Vietnam prompted a crisis in academic-military relations that would make strategic studies fall out of favour.


Turmoil in academia

Social change in the 1960s and 1970s ruptured the relationship between academia and state agencies such as the military.

The global context had changed since the 1930s and 1940s. The United States had become the most powerful country in the world. It had military bases across the globe. It provided military support to Western-aligned governments in most continents. It overthrew several governments (including democratically elected ones) that tried to move outside the Western orbit. By the late 1960s, it was deploying extraordinary levels of military force in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The idea of America as an embattled defender of freedom had a weaker hold on public, and particularly scholarly, opinion.

(students protesting outside the Pentagon in 1967)

As opposition to the war (and broader disquiet about America’s role in the world) grew, military involvement with higher education became controversial. Many academics felt that cooperation with the military and foreign policy arms of the state had corrupted the role of universities. One of the most prominent critics was MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. His first book, American Power and the New Mandarins, focused heavily on academia. Social scientists were foremost among the “mandarins” referred to in the title. Those whose research was intended to assist the war effort in Vietnam were accused of having “the mentality of the colonial civil servant, persuaded of the benevolence of the mother country and the correctness of its vision of world order, and convinced that he understands the true interests of the backward peoples whose welfare he is to administer”.

Chomsky, as an anarchist, was among the most radical of the critics. But as Adam Elkus points out, you don’t need to share Chomsky’s politics to have had ethical problems with some of the academic-state collaboration that was happening. One social scientist, Samuel Huntingdon, was apparently involved in the Strategic Hamlets program which drove hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese peasants out of their homes. Another example is Henry Kissinger, who used his academic position to promote false claims of Soviet nuclear advantage (and that’s without getting into his future government career).

So it’s not surprising that opposition to research intended to assist military policy became widespread. Senator J. William Fulbright, an anti-war figure who came from a conservative tradition, similarly denounced the “military-industrial-academic complex”. Opposition grew, and had lasting effects:

The American university today would not accept what Chomsky took for granted in the 1960s. Anthropologists tend to be wary of working with the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sociologists are more inclined to identify with critics of American foreign policy than with its architects. MIT is more likely to teach courses in sustainable development than political development. There are precious few old mandarins left in the discipline of political science, let alone emerging new ones. One half of the evil axis identified by Chomsky is gone: work for any government agency, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, and your chances of getting tenure will diminish with more than deliberate speed.


Fall of strategic studies

Strategic studies was one casualty of this rupture, and it gradually became a marginal field.

However, the political backlash was only one reason for its decline, and potentially an overstated one. The social sciences did not become dominated by “tenured radicals”, but they did experience a broadly leftward shift, resulting in discomfort with a field so closely identified with US military policy.

Another reason was that the easing of Cold War tensions with détente in the 1970s reduced the perceived need for the field, and there was also much disillusionment from the government end. Many government and military officials felt academia had provided useless input, if not interference, in matters that should be left to military professionals.

A further reason was strategic studies’ lack of a clear disciplinary home:

The main problem is not the pacifist or radical fringes of the academic world, despite the distaste they evince for a field they associate with support for U.S. policy. Neither groups has as much clout in political science as elsewhere in academia. The problem is that many in the liberal mainstream concede that strategic studies is legitimate, but when major war appears to recede as a prospect in the real world – as it did in the 1970s and again after the Cold War – they resist ranking the subject highly when their own fields’ priorities are at stake. Seen as legitimate in principle, strategic studies faces marginalization in practice when departments see it as a second-rate claim on their discipline.

That paragraph was written in the 1990s, but the field of strategic studies has not recovered since. Meanwhile, security studies went in a different direction.


Transformation of security studies

While strategic studies went through this drama, the broader field of security studies persisted and became even more closely integrated into the discipline of international relations. This was at first possible because the dominant IR paradigm (in the 1950s) of realism meshed closely with concerns of both security studies and strategic studies (which were not two clearly separate fields at the time).

That said, it was not always an easy fit. Edward Mead Earle had a strong distaste for the realism of E. H. Carr (mentioned in the first post), which contrasted with Earle’s idealised view of America. In addition, several realists opposed America’s Cold War posture and the Vietnam War. The most prominant was Hans Morgenthau, who drew parallels between the Vietnam War and Thucydides’s critique of the “Sicilian expedition” in 400s BC, an act of overreach that weakened the Athenian empire. This was consistent with his earlier realist critique of the Truman Doctrine. His objection was based on its universalistic nature; it committed the United States to fight any perceived communist threat, to anybody, in any part of the world, at any cost. Several other realists also critiqued America’s expansive ambitions and the Vietnam War, leading some of their hawkish critics to dismiss realism as a European import unsuited to an idealistic America. Nonetheless, both strategic studies and security studies were broadly compatible with realism.

Because security studies had a lot of crossover with international relations, the former gradually became closely integrated into the latter. Bazzy Buzan and Len Hanson have shown, in great detail, how security studies went through a process of institutionalisation so that by the 1970s it had become a major sub-field within IR. As this occurred, security studies increasingly focused on international security (long an IR concern) and less on national security (which tended to be left to strategic studies, as the divide between the two fields gradually grew).

Then, the discipline of international relations changed substantially from the 1970s onwards. The realist paradigm came under challenge, not only from its historical competitor, liberalism, but also constructivism and other schools of thought such as Marxism, feminism and critical theory. The 2014 version of the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Faculty Survey Report, which received responses from 4,903 IR scholars in 32 countries, confirms this. Asked to describe the “paradigms or schools of thought” their work fell under, less than a fifth (18.7%) of respondents chose realism. Instead 23.13% chose constructivism and 26.73% selected “I do not use paradigmatic analysis”. Realist dominance died long ago.

As a result, the field of security studies transformed too, and adopted a greater focus on non-military aspects of security. This included issues such as economic interdependence, poverty, environmental degradation and oil dependence (particularly after the 1973 OPEC embargo), along with enduring debates on what issues did and did not belong within security studies. The field now covers issues such as human security, environmental security, and securitisation.


The remaining divide

So security studies has now become an integral part of international relations (and by extension political science), with a relatively secure position within academia. Unlike its first decades, the field now rarely focuses on national security or military strategy, to the point that the field is often just called “international security studies”.

In contrast, strategic studies focuses heavily on national security and the conduct of war, rather than the issues currently favoured by security studies. Compared to the “golden age” of strategic studies in the 1950s and 1960s, it is a marginal field today. This is partly because of its interdisciplinary nature and partly because the academy is less hospitable to military interests than it once was (traditional military history has been another casualty of this). The field experienced a temporary and mild resurgence during the 1980s, but has been on the back-foot since.

The clearest way to see the differences between the two fields is to look at the contents pages of two key textbooks.

The online table of contents for Oxford University Press’s major textbook on security studies looks similar to an international relations textbook, with chapters devoted to schools of thought such as realism, liberalism, constructivism and critical theory. It also has chapters focused on many types of security other than military security.

The online table of contents for Oxford University Press’s major textbook on strategic studies focuses instead on military strategy and national security. Some of its chapter titles, “Strategic Studies and its Critics” and “The Future of Strategic Studies”, allude to the field’s precarious position.

Hence the divide discussed by Rovner and Elkus. In the early Cold War years, security studies and strategic studies were not two clearly distinct fields, and were not spoken of that way. But a divide developed, and grew, particularly from the 1960s onwards. They are now two separate fields, with different focuses, approaches, and worldviews. They have also had very different fortunes.

One thought on “Security studies versus strategic studies: a history – part 2

  1. Pingback: Security studies versus strategic studies: a history – part 1 | The Murphy Raid

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