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.
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.