Grand strategies tend to rest on judgments about social evolution — who is gaining strength, progressing faster, posing new challenges, etc. Thus, what a grand strategist thinks — or fails in thinking — about social evolution can make a decisive difference.
Yet, grand strategy and social evolution are rarely paired for their relatedness. Instead, grand strategists tend to think grandly about strategy — but only selectively and piece-meal about political, economic, military, and other aspects of progress (and regress), at home and abroad.
Examples of ideas that connect grand strategy with social evolution via one aspect or another include containment theory in the 1950s, modernization theory in the 1960s, and democratic enlargement in the 1990s. Also, in the 1990s two ideas that touch on social evolution — the “end of history” and the “clash of civilizations” — gained influence among strategists. In the 2000s, however, grand strategic thinking about the “war on terrorism” became notable for its presumptuous naiveté about imposing democratic evolution in strife-torn societies, as seen in U.S. policies in Iraq.
Today, I see more fretting about grand strategy — what it means, how to do it — than ever before (as attested by postings at Infinity Journal, Small Wars, War on the Rocks, and Zenpundit). Grand strategy appears to be up for grabs. At the same time, I never see social evolution explicitly considered in connection to grand strategy — only those selected aspects about political, economic, and social development. I suppose that’s understandable: Unlike grand strategy, social evolution is an unpopular concept. In academia, it’s been on the outs for decades, though scholarly books — e.g., Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), and Frank Fukuyama's, The Origins of Political Order (2010) — occasionally come to the fore. A few online sites — notably, Social Evolution Forum, and The P2P Foundation — discuss theories about long-range social-evolution, but they rarely take note of grand strategy.
Thus, there are few formal choices available for grand strategists to consider if they want to be explicit and comprehensive about long-range social evolution. The established practice is to draw from here and there about this and that kind of development.
TIMN’s advantages for grand strategy
My purpose with this post is to note that the nascent TIMN framework about social evolution (tribes + institutions + markets + networks) may have advantages for grand strategy, several (but not all) of which may be as follows:
— TIMN recognizes the crucial importance of the tribal form and its bright sides (e.g., family, community) for all societies and their prospects for progressive evolution. TIMN also explains the dark tribalism so rampant in many regions, and the difficulty of getting beyond it.
— TIMN recognizes the importance of strong hierarchical institutions (e.g., good government, professional militaries) that depend on meritocracy and law more than patrimonialism and corruption, which are often holdovers from the tribal form. TIMN also implies balancing state and other sectors (e.g., business, civil society), so that power and control are distributed to benefit a system and its people as a whole.
— TIMN recognizes the importance of developing strong open market systems, relatively free of government interference. TIMN also recognizes that a market system is essential for liberal democracy. But TIMN doesn't necessarily imply American-style capitalism; nor does it mean that opening up to foreign investment by major corporations will necessarily lead to a free fair market system. TIMN cautions that the latter, in a context of authoritarian rule, may result in fascism more than capitalism.
— TIMN views the rise of networked information-age civil-society NGOs and other non-state actors as harbingers of the rise of the next form of organization that promises to reshape social evolution: the +N network form. Power is migrating to actors who are organizationally and philosophically suited to this form. TIMN maintains that the rise of a new form will create a new sector, but I remain uncertain what a +N sector will be all about — only that it will exert significantly different influences from the established public (+I) and private (+M) sectors.
Overall, then, TIMN is consistent with liberal democracy being history's most advanced system to date. But it implies that, as the network form takes hold, democracy may look substantially different in the future. Moreover, TIMN allows for major variations as well as other outcomes, in accordance with local approaches to each TIMN form. The optimal outcome for one society (say, the United States) may be significantly different for another (say, Singapore), largely because of their differing local approaches to the TIMN forms, their combination and progression.
TIMN as a way to assess a society for strategic purposes
A full-fledged methodology for applying TIMN is still to be developed. But even at this nascent stage it offers a promising way to think about trends in particular societies that may interest strategists.
For example, consider Russia and China from a TIMN viewpoint: Russia remains unable to get the market (+M) form right. That’s partly because Russia is so committed to the hierarchical institutional (+I) form. To compensate, Russia is increasingly reverting to tribe-like (T) practices, while suppressing social activists who represent information-age network (+N) activities. These are not good signs that Russia will progress in TIMN terms.
In contrast, China has adopted (and adapted) the market form rather effectively, though far from fully. China also seems capable of further progress in TIMN terms, without necessarily reverting to tribe-like xenophobia, or crushing all networked civil-society actors. Unlike Russia, China is on its way to becoming a full-fledged triformist (T+I+M) society, though probably not a liberal democracy. Thus TIMN helps show that China poses different challenges from Russia, with different implications for grand strategy.
While grand strategy normally focuses on what’s going on abroad, the strategist always takes into account what’s going on at home. Conditions here in America should not be omitted from a strategist’s calculus. TIMN indicates that America is starting to evolve beyond its triformist (T+I+M) system, in order to become a quadriformist (T+I+M+N) society. If so, +N forces will ultimately lead to a vast reshaping and rebalancing of the entire American system. Meanwhile, this evolutionary shift explains some of the turbulence America has been experiencing at home and abroad. Indeed, our society is thoroughly out-of-balance in TIMN terms: Venomous political tribalisms keep growing. Our government institutions are fraught. And our market system is increasingly distorted. Moreover, +N forces in civil society are still feeling their way, with difficulty. And there’d be many more points to make if I were trying to do a full TIMN profile.
My TIMN view — yours may differ — is that America’s strength is more limited and fragile than we know. Strategists should be concerned about TIMN conditions and trends at home as they ponder options abroad.
TIMN and U.S. options for grand strategy
TIMN does not imply any single grand strategy. But it may help assess why some options are inadvisable, and suggest some options that have not surfaced much.
I’ve not given this section much prior thought — indeed, this post is rather impromptu — but it seems to me that two kinds of strategies are inadvisable for the United States from a TIMN standpoint in the current environment. One is energetic pro-democracy activism, the other is tight-border isolationism:
• TIMN cautions against the exportability of U.S. models to make others “more like us” — especially if it is accompanied by a preachy meddlesome evangelism. Promoting democracy is a worthy endeavor, but it should be kept within pragmatic limits, for it’s likely to violate one TIMN principle or another if it is made the driving impulse of U.S. strategy. After all, a belief in American exceptionalism (which TIMN accepts) should make a strategist wary of trying to remodel others’ societies along American lines.
• TIMN also seems to mean that tight-bordered isolationism is inadvisable, especially for a triform society in the throes of change into a quadriform society. For one thing, isolationism tends to foster reactionary tribalisms (and vice-versa). For another, the further a society proceeds along the TIMN progression, the more its actors need and seek external connections — long the case with +M actors, and potentially more so for emerging +N actors who can be assets for U.S. strategy. Isolationism would retard and distort America’s prospects for continued evolution along TIMN lines.A grand-strategy option that looks potentially compatible with TIMN is “forward partnering” — Frank Hoffman’s idea synthesizing other options (here and here). It’s mainly about military (especially naval) strategy, but it’s proposed with a keen awareness of new limitations on U.S. power at home and abroad, and it’s directed at achieving a circumspect partnering with allies:
“In sum, a strategy of forward partnering reassures allies and builds up partners, with limited footprint and maximum freedom of maneuver. … To the degree practicable, U.S. involvement will be devoted to collective efforts of prevention and the maintenance of the international system via an array of formal and informal partnerships.” (source)Even though his proposal barely touches on aspects of social evolution apart from China’s rise, I sense they could be added in without much effort.
As for TIMN’s own implications for grand strategy, so far I have come up with only one idea to suggest: accommodational positioning — an awkward name, but the best I can do for now. The key is giving a TIMN-related meaning to accommodation: Here it does not simply mean accommodation between U.S. actors and whoever else is involved; it means accommodation by all actors to a higher set of organizational principles that have philosophical principles embedded within them — namely, TIMN. (Thus, meta-accommodational or meta-positioning might be more accurate, but also more awkward.)
TIMN is not sufficiently developed to serve as a blueprint for grand strategy, but it still offers some tentative guidelines that seem worth considering. I limit my remarks to sketching what the above concept — accommodational positioning — might mean in dealing with partners and rivals who are amenable to relations.
— First of all, TIMN points immediately to the importance of recognizing all expressions of the tribal form: e.g., conditions at family and community levels (including health, education, and welfare), trends in ethnic and national identities (including nationalism and patriotism), along with the influential roles that patrimonialism (including nepotism and cronyism) may play in local institutions and markets. There are many instances of U.S strategy neglecting the roles of the tribal form; using TIMN can help correct that shortcoming.
— Accommodational positioning may mean caution about promoting democracy as a priority, depending on circumstances. In general, the more democracy can be properly promoted, the better. But hammering for a society to open its party system and hold free elections as a condition for U.S. attention may also prove inadvisable, especially if a society is not well along the TIMN progression to having professional government institutions and a well-functioning market system. If a society is sorely lacking in such preconditions, a push to democratize may have counter-productive dysfunctional effects. If it is important for U.S. strategy to promote reforms, it may be wiser to focus on helping to improve the performance of local institutions (e.g., civil service) and markets (e.g., for credit) than pressing for democracy immediately.
— Accommodative positioning would seek to engage a range of civil-society actors, especially those that are organized into influential information-age networks and thus seem to represent the rise of the +N form. This may prove particularly important, but also difficult, if a target society is lacking or resistant in this regard.The points above proceed form by form. A few points that span all four TIMN forms should also be noted: Accommodative positioning would mean working across all forms to improve organizational readiness in ways that have philosophical import. It would mean creating plans, programs, and other measures that engage all sectors of a society, not just government. It would create complex coordination issues that will make some actors uneasy about assuring central control, but it must be made clear that creating conditions for progress à la TIMN depends as much, if not more, on decontrol, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.
What I have in mind for accommodative meta-positioning, then, is a world and a strategy that is still suited to hard-power realpolitik, but is also increasingly subject to soft-power noopolitik (nöospolitik), particularly where success depends on non-governmental and governmental actors working together. In light of such complexity, perhaps what Paul Van Riper describes as the “systemic approach to operational design” could be helpful (source).
One further concern: TIMN implies a need for new kinds of expertise. Implementing a grand strategy often requires the creation of an array of supportive political, economic, military, and other plans and programs, led by experts from established political, economic, military and other such disciplines. However, if TIMN were developed as a basis for strategy, the expertise would need to be about the dynamics of tribes, institutions, markets, and networks. That’s a rather different set of categories for defining expertise; such specializations don’t quite match the established disciplines. This could lead to difficult lengthy learning experiences.
Postscript about yesterday's shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba
As I was finishing this post, news broke yesterday about the U.S. policy changes toward Cuba. A quick mention seems appropriate for the following reasons: The U.S. government, and presumably an array of business and civil-society actors, have just embarked on a process that might be suited to a strategy of accommodative positioning, even though Cuba’s leadership doesn’t want to countenance evolving a +M society at present. Meanwhile, this new rapprochement may serve to keep other powers (Russia? China?) from trying to use Cuba for their version of Hoffman’s forward partnering.
There’s little reason to be optimistic that Cuba’s fidelistas and raulistas can be convinced of the benefits of decontrol to create a market system. Here’s why, according to what I wrote five years ago in a TIMN analysis of Castro’s Cuba:
“In sum, Fidel Castro remains committed to a theory of social evolution that is fundamentally erroneous. He is not entirely wrong to rail against the evils of capitalism — it can have detrimental effects, and what’s happening in the United States today provides new evidence. But by failing to see that the market system is essential for continued social evolution, and by not figuring out how to make it apply in a balanced, positive way in Cuba — even so that it deserves a name other than capitalism — he keeps Cuba’s potential arrested in an evolutionary cul-de-sac of his own fabrication.
“Eventually a breakout will occur. Odds are, a multitude of U.S. actors will then rush ahead with their usual patterns about promoting democracy and freedom, including free enterprise. But if the objective is to see Cuba turn into a balanced T+I+M system, new kinds of advice and assistance may be needed. The United States has policies and strategies for promoting capitalism — basically saying, open your markets, and we will come. But do we really have adequate policies and strategies for building a properly free, fair market system? I gather not, for that’s never been as major a goal as promoting capitalism. It’s time to rethink. Otherwise, assuming that the post-Fidel regime endures, the model it prefers next may be a mild kind of fascism rather than a potential liberal democracy.” (source)This does not mean I am opposed to the shift in U.S. policy. It may well work to our benefit, but for it to do so, we will need a wary strategy akin to accommodational positioning à la TIMN. Onward we go.
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Addendum: “A sound theory of social evolution would be handy to have.”
The text above offers some recent thoughts about grand strategy. Here’s an earlier statement — an except from In Search Of How Societies Work: Tribes—The First and Forever Form (2006) — that raises some similar points. Though this statement is directed at U.S. policies and programs rather than grand strategy per se.
“There is never a bad time — and now seems a fine time — to inquire anew into how societies evolve. The world is in awful flux, and debates keep sharpening across national, cultural, and other divides regarding what progress means. There is continual talk that the information age will remake the world and propel societies up the ladder of progress; yet the gaps between the most-developed and least-developed societies are larger than ever. Many people want better lives; but while some aim to advance in a secular, liberal, Western sense, others would rather back up, cleanse, and restart their societies, with a religion as their guide. Meanwhile, much of the world remains mired in ancient tribal dynamics; only a part of the world has succeeded in developing modern, complex societies — or so it seems.
“A sound theory of social evolution would be handy to have. Although there are philosophers and social scientists who question whether evolution has brought real progress to humanity, U.S. policymakers and strategists operate on assumptions that societies based on political democracy, market economies, and independent civil societies are better — more advanced, civilized, peaceful, stable, productive, equitable, and responsible — than other societies. And, indeed, many foreign policy problems facing Washington concern one aspect or another of social evolution — such as how to keep former communist countries on democratic paths, how to sustain economic liberalization in Asian and Latin American nations where elites may prefer cronyism to capitalism, how to motivate tribal systems in Africa and the Middle East to modernize, and how to deal with ethnic conflicts in places that lack professional states and may be under the sway of criminal clans. In addition, assumptions about social evolution lie behind both international and U.S. assistance programs, which are supposed to lift people out of poverty, diminish the lures of crime and terrorism, create middle classes, and put all on paths to freedom and prosperity.
“But are such assumptions valid? What are the keys to social evolution?” (p.7)
Endnote: First-time readers unfamiliar with TIMN are advised to look at a briefing-style video, two blog posts, my original RAND paper, and a follow-up paper. Here are the URLs: