Culture in the learning and teaching of defence and security

by Leornardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910, oil on canvas - Henri Rousseau is considered to be one of the so called Fathers of ModernityDespite, or because of its spread, the culture of Modernity faces conflict. This is not new. Since its inception, Modernity has struggled with enemies, and gradually won ground. Its success has made it complacent, soft, and careless of its own defences.

What is the role of culture in the learning and teaching of defence and security? To answer that, one must first define what one means by culture. I do so in an article in New Security Learning, 5: We are the children of Modernity.  There I assert that the culture whose security we seek to defend is that of Modernity. In so doing, I define culture differently from Culture Clash theory. That defines culture ethnically and geographically. I propose an historical and ideological definition. Modernity is an attitude of mind. It grows out of the Western Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, but it is not now identical with any specific political system, limited to any geographical area, or peculiar to any population, though it is better represented by some than by others.


Despite, or because of its spread, the culture of Modernity faces conflict. This is not new. Since its inception, Modernity has struggled with enemies, and gradually won ground. Its success has made it complacent, soft, and careless of its own defences. So now it is under attack by enemies, and threat from adversaries and rivals. It must be defended. To do so, we must understand the threats to Modernity. We must identify its opponents, without and within. We must also understand Modernity’s own strengths and weaknesses. This will lead us to distinguish between Liberal and Authoritarian Modernity. Armed with that understanding, we must learn how to exploit our strengths and mitigate our weaknesess, and to exploit our enemies’ weaknesses. Our chief weapon in this will be education.

Modernity is the primacy of reason, logic and knowledge over tradition, emotion and belief


To defend Modernity successfully, we must distinguish enemies, adversaries, and rivals. Enemies hate us and wish to destroy us physically, or conquer us and subject us to their way of life, because we represent Modernity. Adversaries do not necessarily have any quarrel with Modernity as such. They may or may not wish to espouse it themselves. With Adversaries, we merely compete over resources. So long as they get enough, they can be at truce, if not at peace, with us. Rivals, however, wish to enjoy the material benefits of Modernity, without adopting its notional elements. Modernity’s material benefits include the products of the Agricultural, Industrial, and Information Revolutions, leading to prosperity and power, at least for some. Its notional elements include the primacy of reason, logic and knowledge over tradition, emotion and belief. In Liberal Modernity, these lead to the rule of law, observance of human rights, tolerance of diversity, gender equality, and some form of democracy. In authoritarian Modernity, they lead to policies like those of Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, among others.

The rivals of Liberal Modernity are political systems seeking Modernity’s prosperity and power without its democracy or human rights.
I assume that my readership espouses Liberal Modernity. I do so because I presume that Liberal Modernity’s values inform this publication and the institution that publishes it. Those values include the primacy of reason, logic and knowledge over tradition, emotion and belief, freedom of assembly and speech, and civility in debate. If those are indeed our assumptions, then our rivals are those who seek, for themselves or for us, Authoritarian Modernity. If they seek it only for themselves, they are just rivals. History will tell which is more or less successful. If they seek it also for us, they are enemies. If they compete with us for resources, they may also be adversaries. The categories overlap.

In general, Modernity’s Enemies do not hate Modernity because of its material products, which they may well covet, rendering them potential adversaries as well, but because of its notional elements, whether Liberal or Authoritarian, by which they feel threatened. Rulers may feel their tenure of power, based on tradition or imposed by force, threatened by the spread of reason, logic and knowledge among their subjects. Those subjects, conditioned by tradition or propaganda, may feel their cultural identity is threatened. Threats to identity also animate individual enemies within societies espousing Modernity. Questions of identity lie at the root of the deepest and most dangerous conflicts of all.

Paul Cezanne, Pyramid of Skulls, 1898-1900, oil on canvas - Like Henri Rousseau, Paul Cezanne is a father of modernityAs noted, Rivals, Adversaries and Enemies may overlap. Some are nation states; others religions or ideologies, transcending borders. The traditional enemies of Modernity as such are mostly religions, especially, but not exclusively, their fundamentalist versions. Religions, because based on belief, emotion and tradition, reject the primacy of reason, logic and knowledge over tradition, emotion and belief. They oppose both Liberal and Authoritarian Modernity, as both admit that primacy. Liberal Modernity is best represented by, though not confined to, the élites of a geographical circumscription both sides of the North Atlantic and Pacific. The Adversaries, actual or potential, of those élites - when they are not themselves each other’s Adversaries, as in trade and currency wars - are those of other areas, Asia, Africa, or South America, who compete with them for resources, though they also trade with them. Their quarrels are not mainly over culture, but over resources. The rivals of Liberal Modernity are political systems seeking Modernity’s prosperity and power without its democracy or human rights. Examples abound, mainly in the same areas that generate its adversaries: Asia, Africa, and South America. Liberal Modernity’s most dangerous enemies are secular and religious rivals within societies espousing Liberal Modernity, seeking to render them authoritarian.

Religion is weakest in Liberal Modern societies practicing religious toleration.


Let me now focus on Modernity’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to consider how best to defend it in the conflict in which it is now engaged. Because I am assuming that my readership espouses Liberal, rather than Authoritarian Modernity, I focus mainly on defending Liberalism. But before I do so, let me first consider the strengths and weaknesses of Modernity as such, in conflict with its traditional enemy, religion.  

The primacy of reason, logic and knowledge over tradition, emotion and belief ought, on the face of it, to constitute a strength, since it presumably leads to better strategic and tactical choices in conflict with religion, which is bound by their opposites. But that supposition ignores the tenacity of belief, precisely because of its alliance with emotion and tradition. Authoritarian Modernity’s attempts to stamp out religion have failed, and have indeed provoked a rebound in its strength. Interestingly, religion is weakest in Liberal Modern societies practicing religious toleration. Moreover, traditional organised religion is not the only or main threat to the primacy of reason, logic and knowledge. Arguably an even greater threat is posed by the ‘viral’ spread of misinformation and disinformation in popular culture, facilitated by Information Technology. It remains to be seen whether Liberal or Authoritarian Modernity copes better with this threat.

Turning now to the defence of Liberal Modernity, the first point to make is that its weaknesses and strengths are often the same thing, seen from different points of view. The very things that make Liberalism so very attractive to so many people - democracy, individualism, diversity, equality, tolerance and so forth - and thus constitute its greatest strength, excite extreme enmity among those who feel threatened by those very things. They also make it difficult for Liberal societies to defend themselves in conflict. This is because there is a fundamental tension, or dialectic, at the heart of Modernity. It corresponds to the rivalry between its Liberal and Authoritarian tendencies. This may also be framed as a tension between reason of state, and individual or public values.

A related lack of understanding of other cultures leads to misdirected strategies and tactics with counterproductive results.
Liberalism, arguing from reason, logic and knowledge, promotes values such as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, both in private and public morality, considering them ‘natural’ or ‘inalienable rights’. Authoritarianism, arguing from reason, logic and knowledge, considers individuals and peoples as means to ends, and subordinates their interests to reasons of state, promoting values like efficiency and victory. Thus when a Liberal society finds itself under attack, it may be at a disadvantage in defending itself. This is because, even in the Liberal agenda, life comes before liberty and happiness. And if attack threatens life itself, Authoritarian efficiency may defend it more effectively than the exercise of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is the dilemma that we face.

It may be argued, as would the ‘Art of War’ if applied to this case, that the best strategy for victory consists in avoiding conflict altogether so as not to face such a dilemma. In the ‘best of all possible worlds,’ that would certainly be true. But we do not live in that world. Liberalism is under attack, and does face that dilemma. Therefore we must review its strengths and weaknesses, and devise a realistic strategy for its defence. Among examples of Liberalism’s strengths and weaknesses are arguably the following:  

  • Liberalism, through its observance of human rights and the rule of law, prohibits or restricts the use of certain tactics, such as terrorism, torture and genocide, which its adversaries, enemies and rivals do not hesitate to use, if they can, thus forcing its defenders into asymmetrical warfare. Yet information gained by torture is unreliable, while genocide and terrorism might reduce Liberalism’s popular attractiveness.


  • Liberalism, via the rule of law, pushes transgression of its own norms in its defence into secrecy: so-called covert operations. At the same time Liberalism, via freedom of speech and information, as exercised by a feisty media, makes secrets impossible to keep. Those media also magnify terrorism in the public consciousness, thus serving its purposes. Terrorism’s effectiveness depends precisely on that sort of media coverage. Yet freedom of speech and information provide knowledge vital to security that their opposites do not.


  • Liberalism, both in observing its own standards and in transgressing them, acts as a recruiting tool for enemies. On the one hand, the spectacle of democracy, women’s and gay rights, freedom of religion, and so forth, infuriates those who regard them as evil, foreign, and threatening to their own cultures. On the other hand, examples of hypocrisy, injustice, failure to live up to its own standards, and the like, make those wavering between Liberal Modernity and its alternatives more likely to go for the alternatives.

Liberalism, through its permissiveness towards choice of lifestyle, and its tolerance of ethnic diversity, opens itself up to subversion from within. The open society, freedom of speech, information, movement, immigration, multiculturalism, and the like may lead to the presence of an enemy ‘fifth column’ inside societies currently espousing Liberalism. If this happens in the context of a falling demography in the host society, itself arguably a consequence of Modernity, and of a rising demography among the aliens, that society risks being transformed into something, more closely resembling its enemies. Yet those same freedoms and diversity may enlarge the pool and enhance the skills of its defenders.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889, oil on canvas - Like Henri Rousseau and Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh is a Father of ModernityThe naïve assumption that all cultures are or should be Liberal leads to misunderstanding enemy intentions. Many Liberals cannot believe that anyone wants to exterminate them or subject them by force to authoritarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. Such naïveté plays into the hands of adversaries and enemies, for whom such Liberals are ‘useful idiots’. Yet their optimism embodies an ideal that attracts sympathy and allies. A related lack of understanding of other cultures leads to misdirected strategies and tactics with counterproductive results. The fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples. A lack of local knowledge, and refusal to listen to those who have it, leads to such results.

Democracy, as practiced in many societies officially embracing Modernity, by misleading and often disappointing the electorate, leads to cynicism and abstention, and so to the rise of ignorant populist leaders. A democracy is only as good as its demos. An uneducated, uninformed, uninvolved demos elects bad leaders who make bad decisions. At least with democracy they can be thrown out and replaced by others, often no better.

Education is the answer to all this, and to most of the problems of Modernity. Societies espousing Modernity should strive to raise their median IQ and their level of general education, as well as that of their élites, by whatever means their own form of Modernity allows. The terms of definition of Liberal Modernity are themselves essentially intellectual: freedom of opinion and expression, civility in dialectical engagement, observance of and submission to the rule of reason and logic in argument, reference, in discussion, to knowledge, rather than belief, and to informed opinion rather than emotion.

These qualities, where present, constitute the core strength of Liberal Modernity. Because they lead to its political and social corollaries: human rights, democracy, tolerance, and diversity, they are what make Modernity both attractive and resilient. Authoritarian forms of Modernity have all been relatively short lived: Napoleon 16, Nazism 12, Fascismo 22, the Soviet Union 69 years. How long will the current Chinese system last? Liberal democracies, though messy, inefficient, and full of contradictions, somehow soldier on for centuries: Switzerland over seven. Britain nearly three, the USA over two, France, with interruptions, over one. The record so far suggests that Liberalism wins in the end. Of course in the end we’re all dead, so any victory is merely temporary.

Our strategy, therefore, in defence of Liberal Modernity, if that is indeed our brief, must be to: (1) exploit the effects of our own strengths; (2) mitigate the effects of our own weaknesses; (3) identify enemy weaknesses, and exploit them to the full.

How, exactly, in detail, to do this, and what tactics to adopt, are questions which I now put to my readers. They can be framed as follows:

  • Are we indeed committed to defending Modernity, or something else, or nothing at all?
  • Would  we prefer to live under Modernity, or something else?
  • If under Modernity, under its Authoritarian or Liberal form?
  • Which is more effective in defence of Modernity, Liberalism or Authoritarianism?
  • Should Liberalism be prepared to adopt Authoritarianism in its own defence?
  • How can we best mitigate the weaknesses of Liberalism?
  • How can we best exploit its strengths?
  • Who are the Enemies, Adversaries, and Rivals of Modernity, in either of its forms?
  • How much of a threat are they?
  • How can we best exploit their weaknesses?
  • Is attack the best form of defence? Is appeasement?
  • Is it possible to avoid conflict altogether?

Photograph front page: Henri Rousseau, Jungle Sunset, 1910, oil on canvas




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