Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mahan, Bean-Counting and Ideas


Excerpts:

Strange to say, but the idea that ideas count is a contested one in the groves of academe. Many international-relations scholars voice discomfort at differences between states and societies. One of the deans of the realist school likens nation-states to billiard balls. His sports metaphor implies that nation-states are basically the same size and shape, have the same dimensions, and bounce off one another in regular, predictable ways. Right … that’s why IR scholars routinely and faultlessly foretell international interactions.

The mania for quantitative analysis that grips our field also helps explain scholars’ allergy to intangibles like strategic thought and human motives. How do you measure an idea? What units of measurement do you assign when forecasting the doings of governments or institutions? Better to measure what we can measure.

I concur with this conclusion that we need to take a holistic approach to strategy (e..g, balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means) and we discount it at our peril.  

So by all means, let’s keep track of the material dimension. No one disputes its importance. But let’s also bear in mind that bean-counting comprises only part of the strategic picture. A wise U.S. Air Force officer once proclaimed that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—are the determinants of martial encounters between societies. Just so. Concentrating purely on one factor, to the exclusion of the others, begets myopia.

V/R
Dave
By James R. Holmes

January 14, 2013

Zounds! It seems ideas really do matter in international politics and strategy. TheSouth China Morning Post carried a long article last week confirming the influence Alfred Thayer Mahan now exercises in China. Someone should run with that topicforthwith! Not that Chinese scholars or practitioners of a nautical bent are bashful about advertising their enthusiasm for Mahanian theory. America’s sea-power prophet has been a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses about the sea for at least a decade.

Indeed, The Economist’s pseudonymous Asia correspondent, Banyan, reports that a Mahanite leaps out these days whenever you poke a military man hailing from India or China. Mahan, it seems, proffers the trident to any nation that bears some resemblance to the America of his day—the natural hegemon on the rise that’s endowed with certain building blocks of sea power and covets a dominant say over events in its nautical near abroad. His influence is nothing new. Great powers on the make, including Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan, seized on Mahan’s writings during his lifetime, using them as a guide to constructing fleets and making strategy.

Strange to say, but the idea that ideas count is a contested one in the groves of academe. Many international-relations scholars voice discomfort at differences between states and societies. One of the deans of the realist school likens nation-states to billiard balls. His sports metaphor implies that nation-states are basically the same size and shape, have the same dimensions, and bounce off one another in regular, predictable ways. Right … that’s why IR scholars routinely and faultlessly foretell international interactions.
(Continued at the link below)


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