Three questions to Adam Elkus

Nous continuons notre rencontre des auteurs faisant le débat stratégique anglo-saxon. Adam Elkus, auteur du blog Rethinking Security, est l’un des jeunes stratégistes les plus en vue aux Etats-Unis. Il a gentiment accepté de répondre à nos questions.


You are part of a generation of young « strategists-bloggers » who have been very active in commenting on the challenges facing the United States. What was your goal when you first entered the debate? Influencing policy-makers? Raising public’s awareness? Having an interesting discussion with interesting people?

My blogging goals have surprisingly remained fairly consistent since I began blogging. In 2006-2007 I was a international relations student watching some of the darkest moments of the Iraq War. Having grown up in a time in which US military superiority was taken for granted (Vietnam, in this narrative, was a hiccup), I found myself shocked by the Iraq debacle. I put IR theory on hold and threw myself into learning military science, strategic theory and history, and security studies. Though I would later come back to IR and comparative politics, my interest in strategy is still strong.
I was inspired to blog by reading Mark Safranski, Andrew Exum, and Shlok Vaidya’s writings. I blog now for the same reasons I did then: the community of people writing on it online is far more interesting than the op-ed page/network TV pundit sphere and I feel immensely privileged to be a part of it. Even if we all (frequently) gripe about its imperfections.

You are currently enrolled in a doctoral programme in computational social science. How could computational methods (which imply very sophisticated programming, mathematical and analytical skills) be applied to strategic studies?

I’m still pretty early in my doctorate, so caveat emptor…

There are both theoretical and practical dimensions of computational methodologies that come into play. There’s an obvious practical role in modeling, simulation, analytics, and data-mining in counterterrorism and wargaming. There is a topical role for many discrete mathematics tools as well as topics in computational complexity in thinking about things like the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers, cyberpower, and the future of military command and control systems. And this is to say nothing of artificial intelligence and computer science’s role in the expanding drones and robotics debate!

There is also the historical matter of historical understanding of some of the greatest strategic problems of the modern era, which revolve in large part around formal analysis, computer science, and game theory. The more I have learned, the less comfortable I am with common wisdom on things like McNamara’s failures in Vietnam, the nuclear strategy debates of the Cold War, or US conduct of the latter half of the Iraq War.

But in terms of pure academic contribution, I see myself as picking up some tools and ideas originally used by some big inspirations in strategic theory. Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn were both strategic thinkers who made heavy use of formal models and the technology of their day, and much of my reading right now in mathematical and « hard » scientific subjects were actually were things John Boyd referenced in his « Patterns of Conflict » slides. The ability to encapsulate complex ideas in formal language or abstract them into objects that serve as maps is an important skill that I think is undervalued in strategic analysis. I am particularly drawn to set theory, mathematical logic, graph theory, and other topics in discrete mathematics.

I also appreciate (or question) much of my reading in strategic history/theory and comparative politics/IR in a way I haven’t before, or think about ways to improve them. One of my inspirations is the ecologist Peter Turchin, who has combined many Tillyean threads in comparative politics and sociology with the modeling practices in population ecology.

The strategic debate in the United States has been very intense (although not always productive) during the past decade, due to the terrorist threat as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think that the debate will be tamed now that the strategic pivot towards Asia is more or less unanimously acknowledged and approved? In other words: what could be the front lines in the US strategic debate in the next five years?

I agreed with Colin S. Gray when he wrote that the COIN debate ignored relevant strategic theory. The question is why? Some of it could indeed fit Gray’s charitable (and this is not a criticism—analytical charity was in poor supply during the COIN debates) interpretation of a knowledge gap. Strategy is not taught well within the US and even military teaching of crucial concepts like Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity has a fair degree of holes. But to put our social science hats on, we also should recognize that much of the strategic debates in the US are tied to a set of battles over domestic ideological, budgetary, political, and even personal stakes that have an at most indirect connection to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pacific Asia. If anything, those battles are intensifying due to what an oldline Marxist might call the « heightening of contradictions » within domestic American political economy.

I’m hesitant to consult a crystal ball, but the following threads are fairly important issues to consider:

  • The traditionally American difficulty of reconciling an expansive political vision of a « Liberal Leviathan » with the demands on military and logistical infrastructure needed to make it an reality. It is not as much an issue of the « rise of the rest » (an myth W.K. Winecoff dispenses with here) as much as the fact that analysts today view an inability to control and/or shape complex foreign domestic political struggles as a threat to a US-led world order. In the past, such fears (Who Lost China, etc) could at least be justified by Cold War paranoia and uncertainty. Today, with much less structural obstacles to US national security and freedom of action it is far more difficult to make an argument that failing to punish Edward Snowden has catastrophic implications for US power in the world. The paradox is that more intervention can also generate more crises that threaten Beltway perceptions of American power.
    And an expansive geopolitical vision also makes force planning difficult because one man’s dinosaur (the main battle tank or carrier) may be another’s tried and true vehicle of power projection depending on the strategic aim/adversary or (more likely) institutional interest. The more intangible the strategic requirements, the greater the potential for acrimony over basic choices.
  • Problems with the technological backbone of US power are also significant. This is cast in terms of cyber-oriented weaknesses, the rise of state and non-state forces with powerful standoff weaponry, or gold-plated weapons systems. What this misses is the larger structural problems–as the National War College’s Bernard Finel once noted—with competitive strategies that aim to maintain a costly generational technological advantage over potential adversaries. We have to secure these systems against adversaries that eat our computer security for lunch, accept that many of these systems will be processed by defense acquisitions that falter when faced with structural complexity, and also recognize that these systems will still face issues of distance, vulnerability and numerical superiority in high and even medium-end conflicts.
    When it comes to « small » wars the technological challenge also lies in how we make, to borrow James C. Scott’s term, social and political systems we want to exert power over « legible. » That’s why an relatively minor (in the annals of US defense tech) issue of whether Palantir or the Distributed Common Ground System-A does link analysis better has become such a headache for the military and intelligence worlds.
  • Dealing with larger ideological ideas about war and politics that are increasingly becoming points of tension domestically. We have a set of strongly held myths about the role of intelligence domestically, what makes something war and not-war, the separation of domestic and international realms when it comes to security, and what constitutes proper civil-military relations. It would take too much time to go into a great deal of detail about them, but the important thing is that we live in a world that does not care one bit about what Americans may or may not have been taught in 5th grade civics classes. We will continue to see events test these myths, and many of these tests will be quite difficult for NATO allies to watch from afar.
    One variable of importance to watch particularly when it comes to counterterrorism and cybersecurity issues is the way the local-federal interface continues to evolve between law enforcement, intelligence, and the military. Federalism is the dominant issues that have shaped American strategic debates since Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist #8.
  • The power of sudden crises to shift perceptions of security throughout American history. John Lewis Gaddis has written an interesting book about this very problem. This is also why it makes predicting the form of future strategic debates difficult. We deal with path dependence and actor choice. It did take 9/11 for us to decide to invade Iraq, even if there was bipartisan support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein since the 1990s and international support for dual containment was beginning to wear thin. 

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