A Social Approach to National Security

by Patrick Cheetham

Ignoring social approaches to national security analysis severely degrades our understanding of adversaries’ intentions and capabilities.  The only way to understand the intentions and technological capabilities of a state or non-state actor is by using a holistic approach that analyzes social aspects, such as the creation of ideas, management, and characteristics of an organization.  These critical pieces of knowledge can be overlooked without deep knowledge of a culture, people, and region.  Some recently studied examples of these oversights cover the bioweapons program of the Soviet Union.

In the case of the Soviet’s bioweapons program, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley argues “that the success of a bioweapons program also depends on ‘intangible factors,’ such as work organization, program management, structural organization, and social environment, that affect the acquisition and efficient use of scientific knowledge.”   For example, the director of one Anthrax bioweapon facility broke Soviet rules of compartmentalization by having scientists and weaponeers collaborate and communicate openly with each other, ultimately helping lead to success of the program.  Kathleen Vogel’s recent work, Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?, describes US bioweapons threat assessments that have excluded “from analytic and policy attention (1) a serious consideration of the social dimensions of biotechnology and its associated bioweapons implications; and (2) the social practices surrounding analytic work that can introduce biases into bioweapons assessments.”  Vogel’s work depicts the “biotech revolution frame” and its ramifications for overestimating technical capability.  Both cases show a hindsight view of capabilities that were “knowable” at the time.  Thus, by including in national security assessments a better understanding of the social aspects, the US has the potential to better predict the nature of threats.

To ensure the security of the US through knowledge of intentions and capabilities, the social aspect must become an integral part of the analytical toolkit. The social approach to national security should be used more robustly, but not at the expense of other quantitative approaches.  Material, resources, and expertise impact social and technical spheres of knowledge creation just as organization, management, and ideation do.  A toolbox of approaches including ones that emphasize social dynamics of an adversary and data-driven ones should be utilized together.  Current practices in the US Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense need to take the take this approach more seriously in order to produce rigorous analytic products that accurately identify and predict our adversaries’ intentions and capabilities.


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