Stephen Biddle and the Policy-Academic Hybrid

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and world-renowned expert on conventional warfare, is a perennial guest lecturer at SWAMOS–although many attendees would say that he is actually the main event here. Both the academic and defense policy worlds listen to what he has to say, and both worlds respect his ideas. This is a rare thing, and many junior academics (particularly in fields like security studies) want to find their own route to policy relevance. We want to be hybrids too.

The Original Hybrid.

I think I’m coming to understand how Biddle’s arrived at this point after listening to him lecture for three days. He’s very clearly an academic first. He has a strong command of social science methods and international relations theories, as well as the pedagogical bent of an experienced professor. And yet Biddle is also comfortable among military personnel and civilian defense policy people because he is able to, a) explain many different processes that they need to understand, b) using their own specialized language.

The military folks here throw him jargon- and acronym-laden curveballs, as they are wont to do among civvies, often without even thinking about it, and he smashes them out of the park. Seemingly obscure weapons systems and operational concepts don’t slow him down at all. Not only is he not intimidated, he doesn’t even appear to notice. You get the impression that the guy could go out to the field and plan a full scale military campaign from the ground up, and that he’d probably win it.

That’s the level of general mastery you need to be able to really engage non-academic decision makers at anything other than a narrowly specified level, and most academic types can’t do it because they’re overspecialized (the newer ones, at least). We read a lot of books about things we tend to forget, and then write a few of them about other things we come to know very well. But if you ask us about stuff that’s not in our immediate wheelhouse, and you’re likely to get a long, technically-worded equivalent of “uhhhhhh…” for an answer.

It makes sense, because our chief customers are mostly other academics who have the same issue and know not to push us too far beyond our comfort zone. Biddle’s been jumping back and forth between policy and academia from the beginning. This experience is reflected in his breadth of knowledge, which is something you simply can’t fake when you’re in front of people who need to make rather urgent decisions–such as which of several possible air defense systems to procure, or whether to hit the Taliban in the cities or let them camp out in the mountains.

Normally such vacillation is not the route to a successful academic career. Our advisors help us carve out our own niches, and from there we spend our careers furthering one or several specific research programs. Experience in the policy world can be interpreted as a signal of unwillingness to stick to our specific area and make a contribution there.

On the other hand, there are a handful of people like Biddle who go to the policy world and are essentially able to soak up data to further their academic work. Then they come back to the academy and write books that both camps can read and appreciate, albeit in very different ways.

Note that this is not a treatise against specialization, per se. Academic specialization is a wonderful thing because it allows individual scholars to devote the time and energy they need to make progress towards understanding tremendously complex phenomena. The problem, I think, is that it is all too easy for that precious information to end up in a place where it is not socially useful.


SWAMOS 2011 Ho!

I’m attending Columbia’s Summer Workshop On Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS 2011) at Cornell University. Summers in upstate NY are notoriously hot, and Ithaca is certainly living up to its billing. It’s 90 degrees outside and pretty close to full humidity, which is a huge change from Santa Monica.

Luckily we will be spending much of the next two weeks indoors in an air-conditioned conference center, receiving a full-scale info dump on the latest and greatest in the political science sub-subfield known as Strategic Studies.

I tell most people that I concentrate in International Relations and Comparative Politics, which fits in nicely with the Poli Sci Department’s schema at UCLA, but I consider myself a Security Studies person at heart. Classically, Security Studies as a field has dealt with diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) interactions between Great Powers; its chief tenets and theories are derived from the Cold War, the global game of chess between two glowering superpowers.

That is the 20th century conception. I love learning about Great Power politics, the era of modern industrialized warfare, the grand ideological crusades of the past century. These topics are the foundation of my education. In fact, my most recent paper discusses the rationality of Japanese strategy and operations leading up to World War 2. Now that  is old school!

However, while there is still much to examine in the diplomatic record that is of great scholarly worth, I have personally become more interested in the new era of warfare and political violence. To really earn analytical traction on what our future is going to look like, we need to sort areas of continuity from areas of change.

This is where Strategic Studies comes in to the picture. It is the subsection of the study of political violence that discusses the use of military force at various levels of resolution–the political, grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical levels, in descending order of complexity.

It provides us with the “microfoundational” analytical tools we need to understand how military engagements are won, in the greatest possible detail. I’ve done about a thousand pages of advance reading to prepare for the workshop, starting with the illustrious Clausewitz (one of the most lucid and efficient political theorists I’ve ever had the pleasure to read… perhaps not surprising given his Prussian military background!)

The syllabus has proceeded through Stephen Biddle’s magisterial Military Power, and then burrowed into tactical recreations of famous battles from the World Wars, command training manuals from the U.S. military, and even touched on military modeling and operations research.

It is exactly the kind of stuff that the vast majority of work in International Relations and Security Studies glosses over and/or stuffs into footnotes. And it is hugely important and interesting.

Part of my interest stems from my background in game design; I have had some ideas about creating new simulation methods through interactive games, and this reading has driven home the point that similar techniques are already a very big deal in military and government circles.

Another part of my interest derives from the fact that our theories about what is likely to happen in our political and military future need to be informed by actual military mechanisms. Political scientists may have a good understanding of the political side of the equation, in the abstract, but such understanding isn’t much good without a corresponding knowledge of the limits imposed by technological, operational, tactical, physical, and command factors.

Obviously nothing beats actual military experience for learning this stuff. But without major efforts to make up for this shortfall in experience, we will quite literally have no idea what we are talking about.