Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas
Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II.
The author discusses several types of wars of ideas in an effort to achieve a better understanding of what wars of ideas are. That knowledge, in turn, can help inform strategy. It is important to note, for instance, that because ideas are interpreted subjectively, it is not likely that opposing parties will “win” each other over by means of an ideational campaign alone. Hence, physical events, whether intended or incidental, typically play determining roles in the ways wars of ideas unfold, and how (or whether) they are end. Thus, while the act of communicating strategically remains a vital part of any war of ideas, we need to manage our expectations as far as what it can accomplish.
Despite widespread emphasis on the importance of winning the war of ideas in recent strategic literature, we find few analytical studies of wars of ideas as such. With that in mind, this monograph offers a brief examination of four common types of wars of ideas, and uses that as a basis for analyzing how the United States and its allies and strategic partners might proceed in the current war of ideas.
Scoping the Problem. Simply put, a war of ideas is a clash of visions, concepts, and images, and— especially—the interpretation of them. They are, indeed, genuine wars, even though the physical violence might be minimal, because they serve a political, socio-cultural, or economic purpose, and they involve hostile intentions or hostile acts. Wars of ideas can assume many forms, but they tend to fall into four general categories (though these are not necessarily exhaustive): (a) intellectual debates, (b) ideological wars, (c) wars over religious dogma, and (d) advertising campaigns. All of them are essentially about power and influence, just as with wars over territory and material resources, and their stakes, can run very high indeed.
Common Wars of Ideas.
Intellectual Debates are disputes in which opposing sides advance their arguments, support them with evidence, and endeavor to refute the reasoning and conclusions of the other. Examples include the ongoing debate between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life advocates, and the recent dispute between the theories of “intelligent design” and evolution.
Ideological Wars are a clash of broad visions usually organized around a doctrine, whether secular or nonsecular. The most popular example of an ideological conflict is the Cold War, which involved political, economic, and military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies.
Disputes over Religious Dogma are a form of intellectual debate, but they center on conflicting interpretations of sacred tenets or texts, the access to which can be, and often is, deliberately restricted or otherwise limited. Examples include the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam and Catholicism’s East-West schism.
Advertising Campaigns are contests between competing producers or vendors for “market share.” The objective of such campaigns is to persuade audiences to take desired actions, such as voting for a particular candidate, visiting a certain place, or buying a specific product. A classic example is the “Cola Wars” between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
Wars of Ideas: Some Conclusions.
Inconclusive outcomes are not unusual in wars of ideas. Opposing sides seldom change their positions based on the introduction of new evidence, or new ways of evaluating existing evidence. Thus, wars of ideas are rarely settled on the merits of the ideas themselves. Instead, they tend to drag on, unless an event occurs that causes the belligerents to focus their attention elsewhere.
When conclusive outcomes do occur, they tend to follow the physical elimination or marginalization of one side’s key proponents. In other cases, a major event, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, might occur that renders one side incapable of continuing the conflict or campaign.
Thus, physical events, whether designed or incidental, are in some respects more important to the course and outcome of a war of ideas than the ideas themselves.
“The War of Ideas.”
Diverging Approaches? Two diverging schools of thought exist on how the United States and its partners should approach the current “war of ideas” with al- Qaeda and similar groups. The first treats the conflict as a matter for public diplomacy, defined as the “conveyance of information across a broad spectrum to include cultural affairs and political action.” Accordingly, this view calls for revitalizing the U.S. Department of State, and reestablishing many of the traditional tools of statecraft.
The second advocates waging the war of ideas as a “real war,” wherein the objective is to destroy the influence and credibility of the opposing ideology, and neutralize its chief proponents. It calls for continuing the transformation of the U.S. Department of Defense so that it can better leverage information-age weapons.
Although each approach has merits, neither is informed by an understanding of wars of ideas as such. U.S. strategy for the war of ideas requires a more precise goal than just improving America’s image. Winning a popularity contest is far less important than undermining al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit. The two aims are certainly related, but eminently separable. Success in the former does not necessarily equate to success in the latter; conflating the two aims only creates confusion.
• U.S. strategy for the war of ideas must be more alert to the opportunities and pitfalls introduced by physical events. For instance, the successful stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq would have an extremely positive effect on the war of ideas, undercutting al- Qaeda’s general information campaign.
• Neither the Department of State’s approach nor that of the Department of Defense should be subordinated to the other. Rather, the United States should pursue both approaches in parallel.
• Both Departments should sponsor studies and conferences that will explore wars of ideas in more depth, thereby promoting greater understanding.
• The Joint community should revise its doctrine concerning information operations, to include psychological operations and military deception. The basic assumption underpinning current doctrine is that information operations are a subset of support to military operations. Yet, in some cases, military operations might need to support information operations.
• U.S. doctrine on information operations must also acknowledge that the “information environment” is neither neutral nor static. Disparate cultural and social influences almost always ensure that diverse audiences will interpret the same information differently.
• The U.S. Army’s new Human Terrain System, which helps enhance cultural awareness, is an important step in the right direction and should be supported.
By developing an understanding of wars of ideas as a mode of conflict, we can fight the current battle of ideas more effectively, while at the same time better prepare ourselves to wage future ones.
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