War of Ideas
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War of Ideas

A war of ideas is a clash or disagreement of opposing ideals, ideologies, or concepts through which nations or groups use strategic influence to promote their interests abroad. The "battle space" of this conflict is the target population's "hearts and minds", while the "weapons" can include, among other sources, think tanks, TV programs, newspaper articles, the internet, blogs, official government policy papers, traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy and/or radio broadcasts.

Antulio J. Echevarria, the director of research at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College defined the "war of ideas" in his book Wars of Ideas and The War of Ideas as:

. . . 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...Four general categories [include]...(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.[1]

History of the concept

On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées. One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.

-- Conclusion, ch. X. Trans. T.H. Joyce and Arthur Locker, in Victor Marie Hugo (1802 - 1885), Histoire d'un Crime (The History of a Crime), written 1852, published 1877

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

Richard M. Weaver published Ideas Have Consequences in 1948 by the University of Chicago Press. The book is largely a treatise on the harmful effects of nominalism on Western civilization since that doctrine gained prominence in the High Middle Ages, followed by a prescription of a course of action through which Weaver believes the West might be rescued from its decline. Weaver attributes the beginning of the Western decline to the adoption of nominalism (or the rejection of the notion of absolute truth) in the late Scholastic period.

In 1993, Heritage Foundation analyst James A. Phillips used the term "war of ideas" in describing the pivotal role played by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the ideological battle for the protection of democracy. Phillips defended the NED as "an important weapon in the war of ideas,"[2] against communist dictatorships in control of China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam. In a Cato Institute Foreign Policy brief, it was argued that there was no longer a need for the NED because "the democratic West has won the war of ideas against its communist adversaries."[2][3] Gingrich declared,[4]

The Heritage Foundation is without question the most far-reaching conservative organization in the country in the war of ideas, and one that has had a tremendous impact not just in Washington, but literally across the planet.

-- Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, November 15, 1994

"By the 1990s the term "war of ideas" was used to polarize debates on economic systems with socialism and central planning on one end of the spectrum and free enterprise and private property on the other."[5]

In 2008, Antulio J. Echevarria,[6] in his monograph entitled Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas, "offers a brief examination of four common types of wars of ideas, and analyzes how the US, its allies and strategic partners might proceed in the war of ideas."[7] While he feels that a better understanding of these differences between wars of ideas can inform strategy, Echevarria "concludes that 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."[8][7]

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.

-- Antulio Joseph Echevarria, 2008

In a New York Times Magazine series[9] commemorating the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a round table was held bringing together Paul Berman, Scott Malcomson, James Traub, David Rieff, Ian Burama and Michael Ignatieff. Malcomson observed,

The American reaction to being attacked on September 11 was in many ways an intellectual one. President George W. Bush tended to frame it that way: the attack was on our "values," and the "war against terror" was a war of ideas meant to advance the idea of freedom

-- Scott Malcomson. A Decade of War. 2011-09-11:38).[9]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the administration's epistemologist, worrying over the question of knowability; Bernard Lewis was its historian, Paul Wolfowitz its moralist in arms. That America's actions (as opposed to precautions) after 9/11 almost all took place far from home, with a professional army, strengthened this sense of abstraction. The possibility of anything like victory over our enemies was discounted early on (by Rumsfeld). Little wonder that, unlike in earlier wars, we have talked so much about what this conflict means, rather than simply working to end it as soon as possible

-- Scott Malcomson, September 7, 2011, New York Times Magazine

Intellectual debates as wars of ideas

Intellectual debates spiral into wars of ideas when academic concepts of neutrality and objectivity are abandoned and issues devolve into embittered and divisive disputes. Echevarria argued (2008) that in the United States topics such as abortion, "intelligent design" and evolution are wars of ideas.[1] When an intellectual debate devolves into a war of ideas

... [o]pposing 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 (Echevarria).

-- Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College (SSI)

Echevarria uses[1] Kuhn's controversial incommensurability thesis[10] as a claim to relativism and therefore a defense of engagement in the war of ideas. Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922-1996) who is one of the most influential twentieth century philosophers of science published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) one of the most cited publications, in which he developed the thesis of incommensurability thesis, where he argued that "theories from differing periods suffer from certain deep kinds of failure of comparability" In[10] The central idea is that the development of science is driven by adherence to paradigms. If a particular paradigm cannot solve an anomaly, a crisis in science may result. An existing paradigm may be superseded by a rival paradigm. There may be no common measure for assessing the competing scientific theories. They are 'incommensurable'.[11]

A common misinterpretation of paradigms is the belief that the discovery of paradigm shifts and the dynamic nature of science (with its many opportunities for subjective judgments by scientists) are a case for relativism:[12] the view that all kinds of belief systems are equal. Kuhn vehemently denies this interpretation and states that when a scientific paradigm is replaced by a new one, albeit through a complex social process, the new one is always better, not just different.

These claims of relativism are, however, tied to another claim that Kuhn does at least somewhat endorse: that the language and theories of different paradigms cannot be translated into one another or rationally evaluated against one another — that they are incommensurable. This gave rise to much talk of different peoples and cultures having radically different worldviews or conceptual schemes — so different that whether or not one was better, they could not be understood by one another. However, the philosopher Donald Davidson published a highly regarded essay in 1974, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47, (1973-1974), pp. 5-20) arguing that the notion that any languages or theories could be incommensurable with one another was itself incoherent. If this is correct, Kuhn's claims must be taken in a weaker sense than they often are. Furthermore, the hold of the Kuhnian analysis on social science has long been tenuous with the wide application of multi-paradigmatic approaches in order to understand complex human behaviour (see for example John Hassard, Sociology and Organization Theory: Positivism, Paradigm and Postmodernity. Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 0521350344.)

In U.S. politics

According to political scientist Andrew Rich, author of Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise [13] The "war of ideas" is "fundamentally a battle between liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians, over the appropriate role for government."[14]

Thomas E. Mann and Norm Ornstein claim that the dysfunctionality of American politics is worse than it has ever been. "The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix."[15]

The extreme and asymmetric partisan polarization that has evolved over several decades, initially reflecting increasing ideological differences but then extending well beyond issues that ordinarily divide the parties to advance strategic electoral interests, fits uneasily with a set of governing institutions that puts up substantial barriers to majority rule. To improve that fit--either by producing less polarized combatants or by making political institutions and practices more responsive to parliamentary-like parties--we as a people need to think about ambitious reforms of electoral rules and governing arrangements. The former can include, for example, focusing more on the demand side of campaign finance than on the supply side.

-- Thomas E. Mann and Norm Ornstein (2012)

Bruce Thornton of the Hoover Institute argues that polarization is good for democracy and that "bipartisan compromise is deeply over-rated."[16]

Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution claims that we are living in "parallel political universes seemingly unable to comprehend or deal with each other."[17]"Compromise has become a dirty word among many news reporters, voters, and advocacy organizations, and this limits leaders' capacity to address important policy problems." This makes it difficult for leaders to "lead and govern effectively". Those outside of government, such as "individuals, advocacy groups, businesses, and the news media" must recognize how "their own behaviors hinder leadership and make it difficult for elected and administrative officials to bargain and negotiate." Policy-making today is "plagued by extreme partisan polarization". News coverage does not inform civic discussions. There is a lack of political civility. Political practices discourage compromise, bargaining, and negotiation.[18]

In Canadian politics

Tom Flanagan observed that Calgary School political science professors, Barry Cooper, Ted Morton,[notes 1] Rainer Knopff[19] and history professor David Bercuson and their students Stephen Harper, Ezra Levant played an 'honourable part" in helping conservatives win "the war of ideas" in Canada.[20]

In US foreign policy

There are two principal schools of thought on how to approach the war of ideas. The first approach advocates treating the conflict as a matter best addressed through 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 or transforming the U.S. Department of State and many of the traditional tools of statecraft.[21] This school of thought contends that American public diplomacy declined after the Cold War, as evidenced by the demise of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, and the reduction or elimination of strategic communications programs such as "Voice of America," and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The remedy, then, according to this view, is to re-engage the world, especially the Arab-Muslim world, by revitalizing both the form and content of U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communications, and by reinforcing those communications with concrete programs that invest in people, create opportunities for positive exchanges, and help build friendships. In fact, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and its Iraqi component, Radio Free Iraq, and Al-Hurra TV are now actively participating in U.S. strategic communication efforts, though with debatable effectiveness; all this has occurred, in part, by taking resources from Voice of America.[22]

In direct contrast, the second school of thought advocates treating the war of ideas as a "real war," wherein the objective is to destroy the influence and credibility of the opposing ideology, to include neutralizing its chief proponents. This approach sees public diplomacy as an essential, but insufficient tool because it requires too much time to achieve desired results, and does little to aid the immediate efforts of combat forces in the field. For this school of thought, the principal focus of the war of ideas ought to be how to use the ways and means of information warfare to eliminate terrorist groups.[23]

Use during the Cold War

Book burnings in Chile following the 1973 coup that installed the Pinochet regime. Note the painting with a Che Guevara portrait being burned.

According to Dr. John Lenczowski, former Director of European and Soviet Affairs for the National Security Council during the Reagan administration, 'The Cold War took many forms, including proxy wars, the arms race, nuclear blackmail, economic warfare, subversion, covert operations and the battle for men's minds. While many of these forms had the trappings of traditional conflicts of national interests, there was a dimension to the Cold War that made it unique among wars: it centered around a war of ideas--a war between two alternative political philosophies.[24]

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western powers developed a robust infrastructure for waging a war of ideas against the communist ideology being promulgated by the Soviet Union and its allies. During the administrations of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the so-called golden age of U.S. propaganda, counterpropaganda, and public diplomacy operations, the U.S. government carried out a sophisticated program of overt and covert activities designed to shape public opinion behind the Iron Curtain, within European intellectual and cultural circles, and across the developing world.[25] The United States was able to reach as much as 50-70% of the populations behind the Iron Curtain during the 1950s through their international broadcasting.[26] High-level interest in such operations waned during the 1970s, but received renewed emphasis under President Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a firm advocate of the informational component of America's Cold War strategy.[27]

However, with the end of the Cold War official interest once again plummeted. During the 1990s, Congress and the executive branch disparaged informational activities as costly Cold War anachronisms. The budget for State Department informational programs was slashed, and USIA, a quasi-independent body that reported to the secretary of state, was disestablished, and its responsibilities were transferred to a new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.[25]

Use in the War on Terror

Terrorism is a form of political and psychological warfare; it is protracted, high-intensity propaganda, aimed more at the hearts of the public and the minds of decision makers, and not at the physical victims.[28] There is growing recognition among U.S. government officials, journalists, and analysts of terrorism that defeating al-Qaida-- arguably the preeminent challenge to U.S. security--will require far more than neutralizing leaders, disrupting cells, and dismantling networks.[29] The 9/11 Commission concluded in its final report, eliminating al-Qaida as a formidable danger ultimately requires prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism."[30]

As Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim scholar who holds the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, explains: Properly understood, this is a war of ideas within Islam--some of them faithful to authentic Islam, but some of them clearly un-Islamic and even blasphemous toward the peaceful and compassionate Allah of the Qur'an.[31]

Americans, in general, are fundamentally opposed waging what seems as a blatantly ideological struggle seems quite unnatural to Americans and other Westerners, who tend to downplay intangible factors such as ideas, history, and culture as political motivators, preferring instead to stress relatively more concrete driving forces such as personal security and physical well-being.[32]

The United States military has recently begun incorporating a strategic communication into their overall battle operations in the War on Terror, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to the military's traditional role of using force they are beginning to use political as well as ideological warfare against the enemy as a method of influencing the local populations into opposing say the Taliban or al Qa'ida. The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said that to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.[33] The War of Ideas attempts to "break the enemy's resistance."

Terrorists' use of mass media

Users of terror tactics' strategic communications goals are aimed at legitimizing, propagating, and intimidating their audience. Their skillful use of the mass media and the internet has enabled them to keep generating new generations of followers.[34]

Al-Qaida's message, disseminated widely and effectively through all forms of mass media, including the Internet, has a powerful appeal in much of the Muslim world.[35] In 2007, an al-Qaeda spokesman described Osama bin Laden's strategic influence of mass media in the Arab world:

Sheikh Usama knows that the media war is not less important than the military war against America. That's why al-Qaeda has many media wars. The Sheikh has made al-Qaeda's media strategy something that all TV stations look for. There are certain criteria for the stations to be able to air our videos, foremost of which is that it has not taken a previous stand against the mujahedeen. That maybe explains why we prefer Al-Jazeera to the rest.[36]

Media and the internet enable terrorists to thrive in a cancerous manner in the freedom that democracies provide. The intensive, sometimes obsessive coverage in the media about a terrorist act generates the desired psychological effect. Terrorist actions are planned and organized in a manner that causes a strategically maximum communicative effect, while requiring minimal resources. The symbiotic relationship between terror events and the media is apparent: the perpetrators would have far less impact without media publicity and the media can hardly be expected to resist reporting.[37] Satellite TV and the internet offers terrorists expanded possibilities of influencing and manipulating audiences.


For instance in the West's battle against jihadist terrorists:

Ensuring one's own credibility while undermining the jihadists' credibility is one of the key elements to winning this battle. It is possible to counteract the three primary terroristic communication goals, the propagation and enlargement of their movement, the legitimization of their movement and the coercion and intimidation of their enemies. Next to eliminating root causes and alleviating the underlying conditions, motivators and enablers of terrorism, such as terrorists' physical bases, developing an effective counter strategic communication plan, which exploits weaknesses and contradictions in the jihadists' use of strategic communication techniques, is vital in winning the asymmetrical conflict with jihadist terrorists.[38]


  1. ^ F. L. (Ted) Morton applies neoconservative views to the Canadian legal system, especially the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CSIS 1998:10) He was elected to the Alberta legislature, ran for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. Danielle Smith, a student of the Calgary School influenced then Premier of Alberta, Ed Stelmach's, appointment of Ted Morton as Alberta's Minister of Finance (Flanagan 2010).

See also


  1. ^ a b c Antulio Joseph Echevarria (June 2008). Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas (PDF). SSI Monographs. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-58487-359-4.
  2. ^ a b James A. Phillips (July 8, 1993). The National Endowment for Democracy: An Important Weapon in the War of Ideas (Report). Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum. Heritage Foundation.
  3. ^ Barbara Conry. Loose Cannon: The National Endowment for Democracy (Report). Cato Foreign Policy Briefing. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute. Retrieved 2013.
  4. ^ The Heritage Foundation 1994 Annual Report (Report). Washington, DC.: The Heritage Foundation. 1995. p. 5.
  5. ^ Lawrence W. Reed (July 1, 1994). "Ideas and Consequences: Businessmen and the War of Ideas". Missing or empty |url= (help)
  6. ^ Global Strategic Review Archive. Geneva: The International Institute For Strategic Studies. 2007.
  7. ^ a b "Abstract of Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas". International Relations and Security Network.
  8. ^ Antulio Joseph Echevarria (June 2008). "Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas" (PDF). SSI Monographs. Carlisle, United States: Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College (SSI). p. 63. ISBN 978-1-58487-359-4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-26. Retrieved .
  9. ^ a b Paul Berman; Scott Malcomson; James Traub; David Rieff; Ian Burama; Michael Ignatieff (September 7, 2011). "A Free-for-All on a Decade of War: a post-9/11 debate on what has been learned and where our conclusions might take us". New York Times Magazine. pp. 38-41.
  10. ^ a b The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962.
  11. ^ Alexander Bird (2011). Thomas Kuhn. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  12. ^ Sankey, Howard (1997) "Kuhn's ontological relativism," in Issues and Images in the Philosophy of Science: Scientific and Philosophical Essays in Honour of Azarya Polikarov, edited by Dimitri Ginev and Robert S. Cohen. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1997. Boston studies in the philosophy of science, vol. 192, pp. 305-320. ISBN 0792344448
  13. ^ Andrew Rich (2004). Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ Andrew Rich (Spring 2005). "War of Ideas: Why mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks they support are losing in the war of ideas in American politics". Civil Society.
  15. ^ Thomas E. Mann; Norm Ornstein (June 13, 2012). "Five Delusions About Our Broken Politics". The American Interest.
  16. ^ Bruce Thornton (August 9, 2012). "In Praise of Polarization".
  17. ^ Tom Cohen. "In polarized Washington, two worlds apart". CNN.
  18. ^ Governance Studies Management and Leadership Initiative: Improving National Political Leadership: Framing Narrative (PDF) (Report). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. 2012.
  19. ^ Rainer Knopff applies neoconservative views to the Canadian legal system, especially the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CSIS 1998:10)
  20. ^ Tom Flanagan (2010). "Advice to progressives from the Calgary School: Response to Sylvia Bashevkin". The Literary Review of Canada : Canadian Books on Culture, Politics and Society. Toronto, CA: Literary Review of Canada. ISSN 1188-7494.
  21. ^ Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria, WARS OF IDEAS AND THE WAR OF IDEAS, p.26
  22. ^ Lisa Curtis, "Efforts to Deal with America's Image Abroad: Are They Working?" Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, April 26, 2007, p. 6.[1]
  23. ^ Walid Phares, "The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy,"(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Waller, "Fighting the War of Ideas"; Zeyno Baran, "Fighting the War of Ideas," Foreign Affairs,Vol. 84, No. 6, November/December 2005, pp. 68-78.
  24. ^ Dr. John Lenczowski,Emboldening Domestic Resistance to Communism: Presidential Rhetoric and the War of Information and Ideas Against the Soviet Union Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ a b William Rosenau,The RAND Corporation, "Waging the "war of Ideas,"(The McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Handbook, Chapter 72, pp. 1131-1148, 2006)
  26. ^ Susan L. Gough,''The Evolution of Strategic Influence,'' USAWC [U.S. Army War College] Strategy Research Project, Carlisle Barracks, Pa. (April 7, 2004), p. 16
  27. ^ Susan L. Gough,''The Evolution of Strategic Influence,''PP.20-24
  28. ^ J. Michael Waller, Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (The Institute of World Politics Press,2007), p.20-21.
  29. ^ William Rosenau,The RAND Corporation, "Waging the "war of Ideas," (The McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Handbook, Chapter 72, pp. 1131-1148, 2006)
  30. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States,The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), p. 363.
  31. ^ J. Michael Waller, Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War, Washington, DC: The Institute of World Politics Press, 2007, p. 68. [2]
  32. ^ Carnes Lord, The Psychological Dimension in National Strategy, in Frank R. Barnett and Carnes Lord (eds.), Political Warfare and Psychological Operations(Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1989): 22.
  33. ^ Sun Tzu, Art of War, http://suntzusaid.com/book/3
  34. ^ Dr. Carsten Bockstette, "Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques" http://www.marshallcenter.org/mcpublicweb/MCDocs/files/College/F_Publications/occPapers/occ-paper_20-en.pdf
  35. ^ Anonymous [Michael Scheuer], Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Washington: Brassey's, 2004), pp. 209-12.
  36. ^ Angela Gendron,Trends in Terrorism Series: Al-Qaeda: Propaganda and Media Strategy(2007) ITAC Presents Vol. 2007-2.
  37. ^ Katz, Elihu & Liebes, Tamar, "'No More Peace!' How Disaster, Terror and War have Upstaged Media Events." International Journal of Communication (2007), 157-166.http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/44/23
  38. ^ Carsten Bockstette. "Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques" (PDF). p. 5.

Further reading

External links

  1. ^ "Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas". Mepc.org. Archived from the original on October 6, 2009. Retrieved 2010.

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