American National Style and Strategic Culture

  • William Kincade


A nation’s strategy usually reflects its geo-strategic situation, resources, history and military experience and political beliefs.1 These factors influence how a country perceives, protects and promotes its interests and values and, in time, shape its strategic culture. Portrayal of a strategic culture as highly homogeneous or consistent, though, may neglect important influences and thus prove unsuitable for understanding action or policy. Even disparities between national ideals and actual behaviour can be distinctive traits.2 The study of US national style or strategic culture, in particular, is enriched by recognition of its political pluralism and of the various dualisms and dilemmas (and of the compromises by which they are at times resolved) that result from differing interpretations of American values, experience, and strategic challenges. The focus of this essay is thus the US process of strategy-making, its evolution, and inputs to it more than the output of the American approach to strategy.3


Foreign Policy Nuclear Weapon Military Spending General Staff Modern Strategy 
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  1. 1.
    For a definition of strategic culture, see the Commentary by Ken Booth at the end of Part I. Numerous observers have written of strategic culture (Jack Snyder, The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations, Santa Monica, CA, Rand, R-2154-AF, September 1977Google Scholar
  2. Ken Booth, Strategy and Ethnocentrism, New York, Holmes and Meier, 1979Google Scholar
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  5. B. H. Liddell Hart, The British Way in Warfare, London, Faber 1932Google Scholar
  6. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War, New York, Macmillan, 1973)Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    For a treatment that stresses outputs, and produces rather different conclusions, see Ken Booth, ‘American Strategy: The Myths Revisited’, in Ken Booth and Moorhead Wright (eds) American Thinking about Peace and War: New Essays on American Thought, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1978.Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    For an excellent comparison of the American pluralist approach and the Soviet authoritarian approach to national security decisions, as applied to weapons development, see Matthew Evangelista, Innovation and the Arms Race: How the United States and the Soviet Union Develop New Military Technologies, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1988.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    For the contemporary impact of this cyclical approach to military budgets, see Jacques S. Gansler, The Defense Industry, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1980.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Among other sources on the period, see Ernest R. May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961Google Scholar
  11. George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy. 1900–1950, New York, New American Library edn, 1951.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
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  13. 10.
    On the nineteenth-century development of military thought and civil-military relations, including views on standing armies and general staffs, in the USA, see Russell F. Weigley’s, The American Way of War and ‘American Strategy from its Beginnings through the First World War’ in Peter Paret (ed.) Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, 1986Google Scholar
  14. Philip A. Crowl, ‘Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian’. On the managerial revolution, see Walter Millis, Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press reprint, 1981Google Scholar
  15. John Keegan, The Mask of Command, New York, Viking, 1987.Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    On the derivation of deterrence and air power theory see George Quester, Deterrence before Hiroshima: The Airpower Back-ground of Modern Strategy, New York, Wiley, 1966Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    See the essays by Weigley and Crowl in Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy, on coastal fortification and naval programmes. The present interpretation, emphasizing the inconsistency of American strategic response to external threats, may be at odds with that of James Chace, who, in America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars, New York, Summit Books, 1988Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    On the opposition, see Robert L. Beisner, Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1968.Google Scholar
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    It was also persuasively argued by intellectual émigrés from Middle Europe, of whom the most influential was Hans Morgenthau, the ‘pope of realism’, whose Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York, Knopf, 1949Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    The analysis herein of security policy orientations and the distinctions between élite and popular attitudes derives from William Schneider’s model of conservative and liberal internationalists; see his ‘Conservatism, Not Interventionism: Trends in Foreign Policy Opinion, 1974–1982’, in Kenneth A. Oye, Robert J. Lieber and Donald Rothchild, Eagle Defiant: United States Foreign Policy in the 1980s, Boston, M.A., Little, Brown, 1983.Google Scholar
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    Deterrence attempts to restrain an action, while compellence seeks to reverse it and thus requires a stronger threat, since the opponent has already committed itself to a course. Philip Bobbitt’s excellent study, Democracy and Deterrence: The History and Future of Nuclear Strategy, London, Macmillan Press, 1988CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 35.
    On the relationship of arms control to deterrence, see the author’s ‘Arms Control or Arms Coercion’, Foreign Policy, no. 62 (Spring 1986). The relevant work in development theory is W. W. Rostow’s The States of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1960.Google Scholar
  24. 37.
    On the theories and their adoption, see Bernard Brodie, ‘The American Scientific Strategists’, Santa Monica, CA, Rand Corp., October 1964, mimeo, P-2979Google Scholar
  25. Fred Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983.Google Scholar
  26. 38.
    For two treatments of the impact of service preferences on US forces and strategy, see Frederic A. Bergerson, The Army Gets an Air Force, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980Google Scholar
  27. Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.Google Scholar
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    On American theories of limited war, see Robert E. Osgood’s Limited War Revisited Boulder, CO, Westview, 1979.Google Scholar
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    See Samuel P. Huntington, The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics, New York, Columbia University Press, 1961, pp. 25–29Google Scholar
  30. 44.
    Among prominent social science critics are: Alexander L. George, David K. Hall and William E. Simons, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, Boston, MA, Little, Brown, 1971Google Scholar
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  33. 43.
    For examples of various types of resistance to military-technological innovation see the following: I. B. Holley, Jr, Ideas and Weapons, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1953Google Scholar
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  36. 46.
    These phenomena are discussed by former Department of Defense official and defense industry executive Norman R. Augustine in Augustine’s Laws, New York, Viking, 1983, ch. 16Google Scholar
  37. 47.
    On Soviet and American negotiating styles, see Robert J. Einhorn, Negotiating from Strength: Leverage in US-Soviet Arms Control Negotiations, New York, Praeger, 1985Google Scholar
  38. Leon Sloss and M. Scott Davis (eds) A Game for High Stakes’. Lessons Learned in Negotiating with the Soviet Union, Cambridge, MA, Bellinger, 1986.Google Scholar
  39. 50.
    On these developments, see Richard N. Cooper and Ann L. Hollick, ‘International Relations in a Technologically Advanced Future’, In Anne G. Keatley (ed.), Technological Frontiers and Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1985.Google Scholar

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© Carl G. Jacobsen 1990

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  • William Kincade

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