Professor Beatrice Heuser holds the Chair in International Relations at the University of Glasgow and teaches strategy at the Führungsakademie (Military Staff College) of the Bundeswehr.
Diplomats and defense attachés when posted to a country are expected to give a fresh assessment of that country’s strategic posture. The term strategic posture is used here to encompass not only the country’s military—personnel, equipment, bases, and other infrastructure—but also its political-strategic alignment (friendly? neutral? potential rival/adversary?), its overall attitude to war, and its spirit (as one used to say), or collective culture and mentality. The utility of this exercise is that, if done prudently and with an eye for nuance, it has some predictive value. Even the world’s only superpower has an interest in judging what positions other governments may take in a dispute. Beyond predictions—which can only ever be very short-term, a year or so at best—one can identify some potentialities, that is, possible future developments that may or may not come to pass. For example, in a country where governments are elected, the victory of a party or coalition with attitudes to particular conflicts and international alignments different from those of the present government may come to dominate.
Such analysis is crucial for the determination of one’s own larger overall strategy and, as a part of that, one’s approach toward this country and its government. Even in World War II, when the United States had reached the height of its military power, it had to make strategic choices. Would it prioritize victory in Europe or victory in the Far East? Influenced by its European allies and estimating that Europe was the more precious and important theater of war, America chose the former. Today, too, similarly grand strategic choices have to be made not only by America but also by second- and third-tier powers. To do so, strategic decisionmakers need to understand and, to some extent, predict the postures of other players.
Several attempts have been made by leading scholars to identify the various dimensions that need to be explored to come to a comprehensive understanding. As early as the late 19th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan had a list of factors that would determine whether a country and its population were “naval-minded”: to be a sea power, he argued, one needed to have an advantageous geographical position; “serviceable coastlines, abundant natural resources, and favorable climate”; a sizable territory and a population large enough to defend it; a naval-minded society (one with “an aptitude” for navigating the seas and for commercial enterprise); and a “government with the influence and inclination to dominate the sea.”1 Colin Gray explores 17 dimensions of strategy in his book Modern Strategy, divided into three categories: “People and Politics,” “War Preparation,” and “War Proper.” “People and Politics” covers individual leaders, society, culture, politics, and ethics. “War Preparation” includes the economy of the country concerned, logistics (implicitly also geography—logistics from where to where), the organization of the armed forces and their administration, information and intelligence, strategic theory and doctrine, and technology.2
A very insightful research project carried out by Valerie Hudson at Brigham Young University in 1998–1999 looked at foreign policy action templates. She and her teammates conducted opinion polls in the United States, Russia, and Japan to establish how respondents thought their governments would act in certain crisis scenarios—what strategic postures they would assume—and how they thought the other two governments would react. The outcome was a remarkable convergence of predictions (obviously, not confirmed by real events). Hudson applied the premise that the governments of states will approach decisionmaking in crises with “a preestablished set of . . . behavioral dispositions,” “a repertoire or palette of adaptive responses,” and “off-the shelf strategies of action.” She maintains that these are cultural responses to any given situation. The interest of her study lies in the fact that the responses may yield some element of “predictability to international interactions.”3 Her study relied on what I call the principle of corresponding vessels: namely, that in relatively open societies (and Russia was relatively open in the late 1990s), actions governments think they can take have a strong connection with what they think their electorates will support and alert observers outside government—journalists, academics, attentive readers of good news media—have a sense of what their governments are likely to do.
Mine is a different take, which focuses precisely on the whole list of factors that influence a state’s strategic posture, giving due attention to both hard and soft factors, the former most emphatically including geography and available means, the latter including strategic culture and collective mentality. Soft factors are very much influenced by hard factors, and yet the results are specific to different cultures. Culture will influence a society’s (and its government’s) outlook on the world, simplified according to its myths and narratives, its “mentality”; it will influence the society’s preferences when it comes to making strategic decisions, discounting or proposing options according to historical experiences and precedents that are seen as constituting analogies. Indeed, we shall see that ideas with their own roots in diverse cultures, distinct historical experiences, and equally distinct interpretations in turn influence many of the analytical dimensions identified, mixing with hard factors in ways specific to each state and its populace. To repeat, the purpose of my approach is not only to allow some very short-term predictions but also to indicate key alternatives of potential future developments. This goal can be accomplished by enquiring into both hard and soft (cultural) factors that make up a country’s strategic posture.
Geography, Resources, Economy, and Trade
The most enduring hard factors are a country’s geography, its natural resources, and, to a large extent as functions of these, its economy and what it can export and needs to import. The most enduring is geography, which, as Colin Gray puts it, “is ‘out there’ objectively as environment or ‘terrain.’”4 But even geography changes: rivers and ports silt up and may cease to be shippable; the course of rivers has been changed by human endeavor; canals have been dug to link up waterways; mountains that it would take days or weeks to climb and descend have been penetrated by tunnels; people have fought back the sea and created new land; lakes have dried up; sea levels have risen and fallen and are now rising dangerously again.
Yet geography, as Geoffrey Sloan and Colin Gray put it, is the “mother of strategy.”5 Technology can only mitigate the conditioning power of geography. An island in the Pacific does not have to worry about waves of immigration from Africa or the Middle East, but then again, until 2021, we would not have expected refugees from Syria to be attempting to cross into Poland from Belarus, thanks to air transport.
The strategic importance of a geographic location continues to be considerable. Extremely mountainous Switzerland and Nepal and Tibet, although hypothetical thoroughfares, have generally been left alone as too difficult to conquer. But it is not only a country’s internal geography but also its location in relation to other powers that makes it interesting or uninteresting to them. In turn, mere geographic proximity to a Great Power will result in its considerable influence on a smaller power, whether this be through peaceful trade (likely to come along with a spreading of trading norms from the larger to the smaller power) or less benign means. A remote, isolated island or archipelago is prima facie less attractive to expansionist neighbors than a fertile strip of adjacent land. Yet the former can still become a bone of contention. Owning a remote island can translate into commanding a naval base. And a remote island can be of considerable interest to other powers because of rare natural resources. Inhospitable or remote areas can also be of importance to other powers as thoroughfares if they are flat—thus, both the great Central Asian steppes and small Flanders were for centuries passageways for armies on their way to war and conquest.
Natural resources condition the economic productivity of any country. Are its lands large and fertile enough to feed its population? If not, does it depend on imports from another country (which gives that other country political leverage)? Are the resources available for industrialization? How far has industrialization (or a postindustrial restructuring of the economy) progressed? What indigenous industrial products are there? What is the structure of industry—does it rely on the import of raw materials, or on foreign investment or exports? Both, of course, imply an important interdependence with sources of raw materials and with markets for goods. Answers to these questions will help to ascertain interests—often unarticulated—that condition a country’s strategic posture. Can it even afford to take a position against a foreign power that has heavily invested in its economy, or on which it depends for fuel or gas imports? Amassing an army at the borders of another country is not the only way to exercise strategic leverage over it.
Economic factors overlap greatly with the demographics of a country. Is the country populous? What is the density of settlement? Is there overcrowding? What are employment rates? Do many workers seek work in other countries? Could they potentially be held hostage? And does the economy depend on workers abroad sending back their savings?
Alternatively, is there a substantial proportion of foreign workers in its economy whose principal allegiance is to their original polity or who might be vulnerable to blackmail if they have left behind family? Even without the import or export of labor, there might be tensions arising from a minority in one country (a diaspora) that is ethnically closer to the population of another and that might be willing to fight for its independence or separation from one country and integration into the other. There might be diaspora allegiances with countries farther away—we have not yet quite seen to what extremes that could lead. The country itself might contain two or several distinct ethnic groups with truly different languages and pronouncedly different traditions, obstructing nation-building and the construction of a larger national identity. Religious differences were and are still dynamite in many countries; the 18th-century wit Georg Christoph Lichtenberg commented that people seem to find it easier to kill others to promote their own religion rather than live according to its rules.
Related are questions about the demographic structure of the society. Are workers poorly, moderately, or highly skilled? Is there an unemployed youth bulge (often associated with bellicosity6), or are there more old people (making the society tendentially pacific) dependent on government pensions and medical resources, including perhaps care workers from abroad? Regardless of their actual allegiances, a foreign labor force may encounter xenophobia. Is such xenophobia being exploited by demagogues? Are there other frustrations in the population that lend themselves to such political exploitation?
Constitution and Powers
The political constitution of a country is the product of historical developments; it generates a formal structure, behind which there may lurk an informal one. A country’s formal constitution includes governmental structures; the processes by which governments come to power, are held accountable, and are replaced; the processes by which they operate; and the way and degree to which they are enshrined in formal rules. Is the country formally and de facto a democracy with multiple political parties and free elections? In the Cold War, Communist East Germany notionally had opposition parties, which ritually scored around 10 percent of the vote each, but equally ritually in parliament supported the largest party—the Socialist Unity Party—and the Trade Unions Party.
If a country is a democracy, is it a relatively mature, robust democracy? Even such states are vulnerable to demagoguery, as recent years have shown. Are there a free press and free public debate? Are there organized citizens groups, and are there rules according to which they can lobby parliament or the government for a particular cause? How independent and free from corruption is the legal system? Alternatively, is this some form of authoritarian system? Is the government above the law—are legal obligations to which the state has signed up at one point disregarded at another?
Is there a smoothly working legal system? Does the average citizen have faith in the police and judiciary? Or is there a parallel, Mafia-style system that not only is a protection racket but also fills gaps in social welfare for its own that the state does not address?
Behind the constitutional distribution of powers, do economic powers exercise strong political influence? In the past, these would have been large landowners; now such forces are more likely key industries and investors. Are these international actors, or do they perhaps use their influence on behalf of other states? Other elites that might exercise power informally might include criminal individuals and organizations, indigenous or foreign or a mix.
The political system of a country also determines the structures and recruitment processes of its armed forces. The size of these forces depends on not only the population base but also many other factors. Both threat perception and political ideas germane to a country determine whether it has a purely professional army or a mix of professional cadres and conscript forces; the collective mentality of the nation in question—its inherited ideas on the subject—plays a great part. Does a pacifist tendency prevail that is strong enough to argue against all military service? Is there a tradition of neutrality? Such a tradition may go along with a determined commitment to self-defense. Is a high respect for the country’s own professional forces coupled with the conviction that a free society cannot tolerate compulsory military service? Many other permutations are possible.
For a host of reasons, ranging from alliance treaties to historical legacies, there may be foreign forces stationed in a country, or the country may station some of its own forces abroad (in its colonies or dependencies, in friendly countries, or as part of a postwar occupation), temporarily or more long term. Are these forces and their bases potential or intended launch pads for strategic operations far from home (expeditionary war, opérations extérieures)? Again, these are important factors conditioning a country’s strategic posture.
A military’s equipment of course depends on its means, but the issue also has alliance dimensions. Have larger allies supplied it with secondhand or with state-of-the-art equipment? Is it able to service and maintain its weapons systems without outside help? Has the equipment a high degree of compatibility with that of other countries? These countries might today not even be allied to the country that originally supplied their arms: ex–Warsaw Pact countries long had to work with equipment inherited from the Soviet Union. In the Gulf War, Iraq’s air force included aircraft previously bought from France, creating something of a handicap for France’s operations in the coalition.
Then there is a clear overlap with geographic factors, too. Does the country have coastlines, so that it can be a naval power? Does it have mountains and forests and, therefore, inhabitants inclined to specializations like those of the Canadian Mounties, or the chasseurs alpins, Gebirgsjäger, or alpinists of Europe? What makes up the culture, traditions, ethos, and morale of the military, and to what extent does the military have experience with actual live operations?
The question about the experience of war also concerns the population as a whole, and it leads straight to the enormous role played by a large swath of historical experiences in a collectivity’s mentality, or strategic culture in its wider definition.7 These can fall into several categories, including direct experience of external wars within living memory (war experienced in one’s own lifetime or in the lifetime of older generations that one has overlapped with). Such a war or wars may or may not have affected the homeland itself (and this makes a huge difference, of course). Again, within living memory, any direct experience of internal/civil wars will have a great deal in common with experience of an external war on one’s soil.
A distinction between external war and civil war cannot always be made. Often enough, parties to a civil war or insurgency (civil war might be defined as a generally more symmetric form of insurgency) have support from external powers, whereas many conflicts that started as inter-state conflicts have been “internalized.”8
Every individual survivor of war will have his or her own story, an experience of suffering or being spared, but wars will to a greater or lesser degree involve whole collectives, and this degree matters. Especially, the experience of occupation will have affected entire populations. The experience can be benign, such as the German experience of the American, British, and French military presence since 1945, which turned from resented occupation to welcome allied stationing, or it can be extremely brutal, such as the Soviet experience of the Wehrmacht’s occupation in 1941–1944. Conversely, a country’s experience of having occupied another may also mark it; for example, many Britons have a deep nostalgia for India, whether or not they themselves have ever visited it. Americans seem to have come away from some occupation experiences abroad benignly inclined toward the locals, whereas others left them deeply scarred.
Historical or traditional enemy images passed along over several generations may have some power, especially if used adroitly by political forces. Thus, although people living today in Eastern Europe have no personal experience of occupation by the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, which came to an end in 1922, the aversion of Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to taking in large numbers of Muslim immigrants during the crisis of 2015–2016 can be explained in good part by centuries of fear of the Islamic conquerors. Similar observations can be made about how a culture views war and peace (including neutrality). Until 2022, Sweden was, and Switzerland still is, exceptionally good examples of this proposition; their direct experiences of war and defeat date back a good 200 years and yet wedded them to the creed that neutrality alone is good for them.
Some cultures are prone to see war as a transposition to Earth of a cosmic fight of good against evil, one in which the enemy is evil (and with evil there can be no reconciliation), rather than a political quarrel that has gotten out of hand (as was so often the case in wars of dynastic succession) and that can be settled amicably in a peace treaty. With some enemies, such as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, there can be no compromise. Traditions might blind a culture to the possibility that with others, there can.
Culture, Values, and Worldviews
The legacy of great leaders (real or mythical) and their worldviews can also play a role in fashioning societal views—which brings us to other sources of culture, values, and worldviews. Such leaders may be prophets, religious leaders, or mythical heroes such as Rama or King Arthur. Religions themselves are of course of very considerable importance. But there again, any inquiry must keep in mind the contradictory strands within religions. Many religions seem to have a more pacific and a more bellicose strand. Think of Christianity: although Jesus himself said nothing at all about war, his love of metaphors left a legacy that can be interpreted either way, “turn . . . the other cheek” versus “He who is not with Me is against Me.”9 Accordingly, the pacifically minded among his followers and the more bellicose created competing traditions. The same is true of Judaism and Islam.
Extinct religions can have a lasting effect on a polity. Medieval West European Christendom, for example, was strongly influenced by the Germanic warrior cults—which explains the great respect paid to the martial upper classes. Epics, myths, and other forms of literature passed on from former generations are of considerable importance; the bloodthirsty heroes of Germany’s Song of the Nibelungs, England’s Beowulf, and indeed the much older stories of the Trojan War (or the records of the conquests of Alexander the Great) competed with efforts by the medieval church to limit war. Myths can include views of the world and how it works: is it seen as an anarchy, a world in which homo homini lupus est—man is the wild wolf out to eat another man—or as a trading place where all sides can win from peaceful intercourse? Myths include subjective self-perceptions that may greatly skew historical facts, cast a nation as an eternal victim when it has historically repeatedly been the aggressor, or cast a country that has for millennia been inextricably involved in the economy, migrations, and cultural and political developments of its adjacent area as “separate.”10 Another nation that is still remembered by neighbors for its aggressiveness in centuries past can think of itself as firmly and pacifically neutral, even if its government has secretly worked closely with others in matters of defense.11
All these dimensions will be results of the collective mentality of a population (or its collective culture, as others would phrase it). The great French historian of international relations Jean-Baptiste Duroselle defined collective mentality as the relatively stable attitudes of mind, or mindsets, images, and stereotypes shared by a group, which contain their own value judgments or echo the value judgments of others. Although doctrines (what is taught by an authoritative institution such as a church) and coherent philosophies, ideologies, or religions might leave their imprint on such a mentality, it tends to be a cluster of beliefs that is not logically coherent.12
All such factors also condition the ways international relations are viewed overall. Does a culture view peace or conflict as the norm? Is peace even seen as desirable? Even looking just at Europe, we find both traditions going back a long way: there is the intrinsically pacifist one, but there is also one that sees peace as furthering decadence, softness, and selfishness, and war as good, as bringing out a civic spirit of self-sacrifice and solidarity.13
Adversaries and Their Strategic Ambitions
Now add to this mix not just perceptions of (actual or potential) adversaries but also their strategic ambitions. The actions of a neighbor or nearby power will affect any government’s strategic posture. Even the most defensive military buildup tends to be seen as potentially threatening by neighbors, as the famous “security dilemma” paradigm explains. There will be knock-on effects if any one state in a region begins to build up its forces, acquires new weapons and platforms, or reconfigures its fighting power without coordination through a military alliance. A bully throwing its weight about in a region, or even directly threatening or coercing a third power into behavior it sought to resist, will unnerve other powers, and they will reconsider their strategic postures.
Even nonmilitary measures can play a considerable part. A power coercing another into a trade agreement or into opening or closing its market to certain goods, or expelling foreign workers or enticing them into its workforce in what might amount to a brain drain—all these actions will have strategic repercussions in one form or another—will be feared, resented, or more influential, as dependence is created or increased.
Alliances and Obligations
In the context of such developments, a government is likely to look around for partners or allies—“like-minded” countries. This brings us to the country’s attitude to alliances, contractual obligations, and membership in international organizations. Such membership formally conditions many interactions with other polities’ militaries and will result in a degree of (often mutual) acculturation, at least among the military and other professionals through joint exercises and joint work in various units. How allies are perceived is a thing of infinite complexity, however, and multiple factors play a role.14 In the Cold War, the propaganda effort and sheer pressure from above needed to turn the alliance between three traditional enemies—Russia, Poland, and Prussia/East Germany—into a “brotherhood in arms” (thus the name of Warsaw Pact joint military exercises) must have been considerable. Other paradoxes persisted: the enormous admiration of Western European cultures—especially among the young—for the United States could bring forth the American-jeans-wearing anti-American protesters who troubled European capitals of 1968–1972, inspired by the anti-Vietnam demonstrations on American university campuses. It is also notable how older perceptions can survive decades of closest cooperation as allies: the Franco-British entente cordiale can still be rocked by fishermen’s disputes that give rise to media references to centuries of sibling rivalry, and British reactions to the German unification in the early 1990s revived memories of competition and war, 1870 to 1945.
All of Which Interact
All these factors will also color the ways individual cultures perceive a larger political situation, but finer insights are required to understand which way a polity will turn, given often counterbalancing or contradictory influences. For example, despite its now 200-year-old tradition of neutrality and widespread pacifism, Sweden, alone among Russia’s European neighbors, has reintroduced national military service in response to a perceived revived Russian threat. Because of their perceptions of the role of the military in society, and in accordance with their country’s neutrality, a majority of Austrians voted to retain national military service—in this case nothing to do with Russia. Despite its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but because of its widespread pacifism, Germany, the last European Union member state to abolish conscription (in 2011), has not since seriously debated its reintroduction.
These few examples serve to illustrate the way multiple factors come together, some balancing each other out, others reinforcing each other, to influence big decisions about strategic postures—aided, no doubt, in good measure by the inertia congenital to all bureaucracies. Nevertheless, this list of factors may serve as useful guidance for exploring different and interactive dimensions of a state’s political and social makeup, its resources and economic means, its armed forces and their hardware, its culture or cultures, its allies and foes and feelings about them, its views on war and peace. The diplomatic and intelligence communities require such assessments. Their results will allow more informed and educated guesses about the range and limits of policies and strategies that governments of individual states can and probably will pursue, and about the themes likely to surface or be passed over in silence in big public debates about questions of war and peace.
To conclude and repeat: a country’s strategic posture is a function of multiple factors, many of them interdependent—whose effects on one another can be linear or nonlinear, positively strengthening or counterbalancing. Any country’s strategic posture depends much on context and will be successful or unsuccessful depending on context. Belgium’s neutrality did not protect it from aggression either in 1914 or in 1940, positioned as it was between two large combatant parties. By contrast, whether Singapore and Malaysia, with their geographic positions crucial to international navigation, can retain their nonaligned status in the coming decades depends on the evolution of their unsteady region. And yet, notwithstanding the utility of a particular stance, the culture and historical experiences of a country may well move its government to favor a posture that does not work to its objective advantage. It may discount options and narrow its choices. Thus, both hard factors—geography, means, resources—and soft factors need to be included in any analysis.
What is outlined above is designed to facilitate the practitioner’s analysis of a government’s or a country’s strategic posture. Some of the factors for analysis are immutable, especially geography, although climate change affects even this hard factor. Others are in constant flux. And yet taken together, all these dimensions can offer some useful estimates crucial to one’s own strategic decisions. This is the job of diplomats and defense attachés, who will, it is hoped, find this little article useful for their purposes. JFQ
1 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890), 25–89.
2 Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20–24.
3 Valerie M. Hudson, “Cultural Expectations of One’s Own and Other Nations’ Foreign Policy Action Templates,” Political Psychology 20, no. 4 (December 1999), 767–768, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3792194?seq=10.
4 Colin S. Gray, “Inescapable Geography,” in Geopolitics, Geography, and Strategy, ed. Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2014), 163.
5 Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan, “Introduction,” in Gray and Sloan, Geopolitics, Geography, and Strategy, 3.
6 Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence,” International Studies Quarterly 50, no. 3 (September 2006), 607–629.
7 Beatrice Heuser, “Historical ‘Lessons’ and Discourse on Defence in France, Germany, 1945–1990,” Rethinking History 3 (July 1998), 199–237.
8 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Armed Conflict Survey 2021 (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2021), fig. 1 (Global Conflict Trends).
9 Matt. 5:38–42, 12:30.
10 Antonio Varsori, “The Myth of British Separateness,” in Haunted by History: Myths in International Relations, ed. Cyril Buffet and Beatrice Heuser (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998), 134–156.
11 Ann-Sofie Dahl, “The Myth of Swedish Neutrality,” in Buffet and Heuser, Haunted by History, 28–40.
12 Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, “Opinion, attitude, mentalité, mythe, idéologie: Essai de clarification,” Relations internationales, no. 2 (1974), 3–23.
13 Beatrice Heuser, War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 67–80.
14 See Beatrice Heuser, Nuclear Mentalities? Strategies and Beliefs in Britain, France, and the FRG (London: Macmillan, 1998).