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Asking first and second order questions

Published on 22 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Strategy, we are told, sets policy goals. Tactics is about realizing the goal – mobilizing the means. Or possibly: strategy is about values, and tactics about efficiency. Another way of putting it is to argue that strategy is about first order questions, while tactics asks second order questions. In practice, things are not so simple.

The issue of means creeps up surreptitiously whenever a choice between commensurable goals is on the table. During WWII, the Lords and Masters may have the choice of goals, but in the end the logisticians – counting the needed soldiers, airplanes, ships, and the time to put the lot in place – whittled down the options to the feasible.

When choice are incommensurable, matters become complicated. In his Long Telegram, George Kennan proposed in 1947 “containment” as a way to deal with the imperial ambitions of Joseph Stalin. This could mean propping up doddering regimes at the periphery (Greece, Turkey, and then Italy): the Marshall Plan was an expression of this approach. Should there be more, and in particular should military or diplomatic response predominate? Early in 1950, The US Government drafted NSC-68. This strategy paper i.a. called for very significant increase in peacetime military spending, in which the U.S. possessed “superior overall power” and “in dependable combination with other like-minded nations.” The stalemated discussion in Washington was resolved by Kim Il Sung’s attack on South Korea on 25 June 1950. The Cold War ensued as an unintended consequence of the intersection of opposite strategies.[1] The strategy has survived the demise of the Soviet Union and still dominates US foreign policy.

Strategic discussions suffer from planners’ lack/excess of imagination of the long term. Over-determination of possible outcomes prevents rational weighing of choices. Fleeting contingencies force closure of the debate and resolve the conundrum. What irony!


Once in place, a strategy ruthlessly suppresses competing first order options. “Should we do A or B” yield to the question of “go/no go”, and which point the “there is no choice but…” brushes aside all hesitation (enduring is not an option!). No contradiction is brooked. It all comes down to a matter of second order questions – efficiency. If a tactic does not succeed, patience is counseled. Later on, another tactic may be tried. As there is no end of tactics, there is no defining moment for going “up” the policy ladder and pose first order questions. Policy makers are prisoners of a path-dependent outcome from which even Houdini would have found escape difficult.

Having decided in 1965 military to support South Vietnam, the US went through different phases which, by the end, brought over 500’000 American troops into the country. The first order question – whether to be in the country, and why – was never seriously revisited. It was sandbagged by procedural rules (decisions are not reversed) or by appeal to emotions (losing face – at home or abroad – is not an option!). There is logic in all this: planning cannot look into two directions at the same time. Still, the arguments used to smother such discussion are the refuge of any self-respecting scoundrel. I shall soon post “Analects of received diplomatic wisdom” – a collection of spurious or fatuous arguments, platitudes and tautologies used to avoid asking first order questions. They function as fog to the critical imagination.

Learning to ask first order questions is a difficult task for any policy wonk or diplomat: looking forward and down into the details and immediate consequences is easier than looking up and backward into the assumptions. One needs to steel and train oneself. Querying assumptions can easily lead outside the “comfort zone” and threaten personal, institutional or political self-affirmation.

One may not agree with Andrew J. Bacevich politics: his book Washington rules – America’s path to permanent war is a paragon of asking first order questions about US defense policies. His wielding of the analytical Occam Razor is unflinching. His ability to encompass the forest at once, rather than getting lost among the trees, is comparable to that of my favorite historian A. J. P. Taylor. After reading Bacevich’s book, one feels able easily to outline 50 years of US foreign policies in one coherent way: the story flows easily. Useful – even if not necessarily true. One learns a lot from his line and rigor of argument.

Bacevich shows the resilience of the “Washington rules” against fundamental change; one witnesses in amazement the creeping transformation – one may call it reinvention – which allows the dominant paradigm to weather the passage of eleven Presidents unscathed. Such transformations remain hidden in plain sight because of the pervasive if unspoken agreement not to ask first order questions.

The achievement is remarkable, but it bodes ill for America’s ability to adjust to the fast changing conditions of a pluri-polar world.

[1] See e.g. Bruce CUMINGS (2010): The Korean War. A history. The Modern Library, New York.

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