Square Pegs and Round Holes: Syria and Strategic Culture

Nicholas Iaquinto

Nicholas Iaquinto was previously the Communications Coordinator / Web Developer at AICGS.

In what seems like a miracle of casual diplomacy, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to turn over chemical weapons to the international community. Still, we can hardly call this a win for the transatlantic security community. Discourse on Syria has centered on the miscommunication of core strategic culture—both domestically and internationally. To succeed going forward, we must first recognize mutual differences.

Syria invited pundits and scholars to argue over the flavor and volume of intervention. Yet, the result failed to first define the goals of these operations. Did we want to contain the violence and prevent regional destabilization; uphold the fragile norm against the use of chemical weapons; prevent non-combatant suffering; or a mix of these objectives?

Strategic culture is any given society’s consensus on the appropriate means, ends, cooperation preferences, and authorization requirements of military force.1 Each approach has strengths and weaknesses, but it is meaningless to argue that the international community should pursue x or y strategy without defining the objectives of the game.

Meanwhile, public opinion is still mixed at best. No polls have come out post-agreement, but Americans have been split over the prospect of a limited strike. Germans are largely against intervention, but support alternatives. There is no clear answer, no game to play. Moreover, the evidence is similarly uncertain. German intelligence suggests that the attacks were not sanctioned by President Assad. Alongside the question of Jihadist elements in the Free Syrian Army, that means we are not even sure who we are playing against.

By definition, we have missed the opportunity to intervene; that is prevent human suffering, chemical weapons use, and regional entanglement. Over 100,000 have died, some by chemical weapons, and Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jihadist actors are deeply entangled. Yet, further inaction is still action.

My fear for the coming weeks is that we miss yet another opportunity: the chance to prevent war in the greater Middle East, ensure follow through on the ban on chemical weapons, and mitigate further human suffering locally, especially among non-combatants.

That means we need to get our act together and define a more actionable consensus on domestic and international strategic culture. In Germany, that means settling the now age-old debate between normalizing and hesitant forces. Meanwhile, America must decide if emboldened libertarian Republicans will permanently join dovish Democrats or fade back into irrelevance. Inaction is an actionable consensus, but only if it is consciously agreed upon.

In both cases, it is productive to consider the long-term trend of strategic culture, as a consensus without foresight will quickly be replaced. Political leaders must reach down deep and decide if they want to divert from these legacies. At least in foreign policy, it seems that neither Chancellor Merkel, nor President Obama fit this maverick description.

If it is correct that the leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are for the respective status quos, we can turn to rectifying the transatlantic security compact. As Pentagon bean-counters have repeatedly expressed, the United States underwrites almost three-quarters of the NATO budget.

Yet, when one thinks about it, this distribution is not entirely unfair. Why should Europeans pay for a tool they do not want to use aggressively in the first place? Similarly, why should the United States remain within the bounds of international institutions when it has the capabilities and political will to accomplish mutually desirable ends?

It seems that we have simply failed to recognize the consensus that exists already. American leaders need to accept that they cannot guilt Europe into being militaristic. Likewise, member states and European politicians must come to terms with America’s tendency for foreign deployments.

Some may argue that this is not a vision of cooperation; however, completing the different tasks to separate ends does not mean these ends are exclusive. Quite the opposite: diversity of means and ends could have seen European actors place diplomatic and economic pressure on the Assad regime, while the United States punishes transgressions and prevents escalation. The carrot and stick method—or some other more imaginative division of labor.

Next to this vision of diverse cooperation, a world of square pegs in round holes is far worse. In this sense, Syria is a story of spoilers. On the domestic level, groups attempting to redefine strategic culture are hijacking the decision-making process. On the transatlantic level, miscommunication is transforming cooperation into competition by blinding decision-makers to asynchronous, but cooperative, strategies. Transatlantic leaders must learn to accept mutual differences and leverage them as strengths.

1. For more information on this definition and implementation of strategic culture, see originally Iain A., Johnston. “Thinking about Strategic Culture.” International Security 19 (1995): 32 – 64; but also Meyer, Christopher. “Convergence towards a European strategic culture? A constructivist framework for explaining changing norms.” The European Journal of International Relations 11 (2005): 523 – 549; Wilke, Tobias. German Strategic Culture Revisited: Linking the past to contemporary German strategic choice. Berlin: Lit-Verlag, 2007; and Mirow, Wilhelm. Strategic Culture Matters: A comparison of German and British military interventions since 1990. Berlin: Lit-Verlag, 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.