ADAM ELKUS, APRIL 18, 2016
Here at War on the Rocks, Joshua Rovner has written an insightful and provocative essay about the origin and nature of what seems to be a permanent rift between those who study security and those who study strategy. Many of the differences between security and strategy scholars that Rovner outlines are real; others are more illusory. The path to detente begins when both sides are capable of setting aside false binaries (politics vs. history, qualitative vs. quantitative) and bluntly addressing the real problem: a fundamental difference of worldview about war and peace. Those interested in security want to prevent, control, and regulate war. Those interested in strategy generally see their task as preparing to fight and win wars should they occur. Can there be any middle ground?
Both sides will need to make a stronger effort to see outside of their respective fields’ overarching worldviews and biases. As idealistic as this sounds, we should also be pragmatic about our expectations. The minimum that both sides should do is simply entertain the slight possibility that Joe Security or Jane Strategy might have a point here and there. Neither field has the full answer to the problem of war.
Rovner opens his essay by contrasting Eliot Cohen and Barry Posen’s differing takes on the balance of forces in late Cold War Europe, casting the story as one of a history-minded scholar clashing with a rationalistic mathematical modeler. Cohen argued that the conventional balance forces in 1980s Europe favored the Soviet Union. Researchers had failed to sound the alarm because they relied too much on abstract formal and statistical models. Posen, not one to neglect the importance of coercion and compellence in international affairs, responded with a second strike missile salvo against Cohen’s alleged misunderstanding of both the methodology of military modeling and the purpose of security studies scholarship.
It’s an old story: historically and qualitatively minded strategic thinker vs. abstract and Spock-like political science security specialist, and Rovner suggests that it is indicative of deeper divides between the strategy and security studies fields. And at first glance, why not? Cohen is rare among American researchers in his combination of policy engagement and strategic acumen. Posen, while no slouch in his knowledge of matters military, is more of a traditional American political scientist.
The fact that this scholarly dispute took place within the pages of International Security, one of the few academic journals that both of Rovner’s tribes can publish in, makes the example particularly powerful. But there is something quite odd about this example: Cohen and Posen — both qualitatively inclined political scientists whose careers were shaped by the Cold War-era security topics studied by the academy — are perhaps not really opposites after all.