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Wars of Ideas and the War of Ideas

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | June 2008

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Despite widespread emphasis on the importance of winning the war of ideas in recent strategic literature, we find few analytical studies of wars of ideas as such. With that in mind, this monograph offers a brief examination of four common types of wars of ideas, and uses that as a basis for analyzing how the United States and its allies and strategic partners might proceed in the current war of ideas.

Scoping the Problem. Simply put, a war of ideas is 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. Wars of ideas can assume many forms, but they tend to fall into four general categories (though these are not necessarily exhaustive): (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.

Common Wars of Ideas.

Intellectual Debates are disputes in which opposing sides advance their arguments, support them with evidence, and endeavor to refute the reasoning and conclusions of the other. Examples include the ongoing debate between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life advocates, and the recent dispute between the theories of "intelligent design" and evolution.

Ideological Wars are a clash of broad visions usually organized around a doctrine, whether secular or nonsecular. The most popular example of an ideological conflict is the Cold War, which involved political, economic, and military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies.

Disputes over Religious Dogma are a form of intel- lectual debate, but they center on conflicting interpretations of sacred tenets or texts, the access to which can be, and often is, deliberately restricted or otherwise limited. Examples include the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam and Catholicism's East-West schism.

Advertising Campaigns are contests between competing producers or vendors for "market share." The objective of such campaigns is to persuade audiences to take desired actions, such as voting for a particular candidate, visiting a certain place, or buying a specific product. A classic example is the "Cola Wars" between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.

Wars of Ideas: Some Conclusions.

Inconclusive outcomes are not unusual in wars of ideas. Opposing 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.

When conclusive outcomes do occur, they tend to follow the physical elimination or marginalization of one side's key proponents. In other cases, a major event, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, might occur that renders one side incapable of continuing the conflict or campaign.

Thus, 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.

"The War of Ideas."

Diverging Approaches? Two diverging schools of thought exist on how the United States and its partners should approach the current "war of ideas" with al- Qaeda and similar groups. The first treats the conflict as a matter for 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 the U.S. Department of State, and reestablishing many of the traditional tools of statecraft.

The second advocates waging the war of ideas as a "real war," wherein the objective is to destroy the influence and credibility of the opposing ideology, and neutralize its chief proponents. It calls for continuing the transformation of the U.S. Department of Defense so that it can better leverage information-age weapons.

Although each approach has merits, neither is informed by an understanding of wars of ideas as such. U.S. strategy for the war of ideas requires a more precise goal than just improving America's image. Winning a popularity contest is far less important than undermining al-Qaeda's ability to recruit. The two aims are certainly related, but eminently separable. Success in the former does not necessarily equate to success in the latter; conflating the two aims only creates confusion.


  • U.S. strategy for the war of ideas must be more alert to the opportunities and pitfalls introduced by physical events. For instance, the successful stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq would have an extremely positive effect on the war of ideas, undercutting al-Qaeda's general information campaign.
  • Neither the Department of State's approach nor that of the Department of Defense should be subordinated to the other. Rather, the United States should pursue both approaches in parallel.
  • Both Departments should sponsor studies and conferences that will explore wars of ideas in more depth, thereby promoting greater understanding.
  • The Joint community should revise its doctrine concerning information operations, to include psychological operations and military deception. The basic assumption underpinning current doctrine is that information operations are a subset of support to military operations. Yet, in some cases, military operations might need to support information operations.
  • U.S. doctrine on information operations must also acknowledge that the "information environment" is neither neutral nor static. Disparate cultural and social influences almost always ensure that diverse audiences will interpret the same information differently.
  • The U.S. Army's new Human Terrain System, which helps enhance cultural awareness, is an important step in the right direction and should be supported.

By developing an understanding of wars of ideas as a mode of conflict, we can fight the current battle of ideas more effectively, while at the same time better prepare ourselves to wage future ones.


Officials and analysts alike continue to underscore the importance of the "war of ideas" as an integral part of the larger war on terror.1 The U.S. National Security Strategy (March 2006) declares that "From the beginning," the war on terror "has been both a battle of arms and a battle of ideas — a fight against the terrorists and their murderous ideology."2 Likewise, the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (September 2006) states that "In the long run, winning the War on Terror means winning the battle of ideas."3 Similarly, the newly released U.S. National Strategy for Homeland Security (October 2007) affirms that "the War on Terror is a dif ferent kind of war—not only a battle of arms but also a battle of ideas."4 In addition, Stephen Hadley, President Bush's National Security Advisor, recently explained:

. . . what we need to do as a nation is come together and put in place the tools we need both to wage the operational war and also to wage the war of ideas. . . . We need to fight this enemy operationally, we need to fight it ideologically, in terms of our values and principles and alternative vision.5

Although the importance of the war of ideas is broadly recognized, many analysts warn that the United States is losing that war.6 As we shall see, these concerns are partly the result of conflating the war of ideas with the popularity (or, more accurately, the unpopularity) of some U.S. policies, and of America's image abroad. Interestingly, the United States does not appear to be losing the war of ideas on the home front.

Polls taken by the Pew Research Center show that the "overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject terrorism and religious extremism," and hold "a positive view of American society," despite the fact that "more than half say it is more difficult to be Muslim" since September 11, 2001 (9/11).7 The tendency to roll general attitudes of anti-Americanism under the rubric of the war of ideas is justified only to a limited extent, and only because our adversaries will try to exploit those attitudes.8 It is not helpful to link general negative opinions about the United States to a failure in the war of ideas. The stated policy aim in this battle of ideas is, after all, to "prevent the emergence of vio lent Islamic radicalization in order to deny terrorists future recruits and [to] defeat homegrown extremism."9 Dissatisfaction with certain U.S. policies does not necessarily equate to support for a global jihad. Some anti-American sentiments existed well before, and quite independently, of the war on terror; and many of them will undoubtedly persist for some time in the future, regardless of how the conflict ends.

Despite this widespread emphasis on winning the war of ideas, we find almost no analyses of such wars in today's voluminous strategic literature. At present, we have a wealth of studies addressing all forms of conventional and unconventional wars, particularly insurgencies. Yet, we find precious few addressing wars of ideas. This dearth is particularly unfortunate given that more than 6 years have elapsed since 9/11.10 Indeed, various battles of ideas are taking place at any given time.

Hence, an analytical study of wars of ideas, to the extent they are wars, would enhance our understanding of such conflicts and how we might approach them. With that in mind, this monograph, which is necessarily

limited in scope, does two things. First, it offers a brief examination of what appear to be the four basic types of wars of ideas found in history. Second, it uses that examination as a start point for analyzing the principal approaches in the current war of ideas. Just as we would do well to understand the nature of any armed conflict we intend to fight before embarking upon it, so, too, we ought to appreciate the nature of any war of ideas we might attempt to wage.11

Scoping the Problem.

Simply put, a war of ideas is a clash of visions, concepts, and images, and—especially—the interpretation of them; for the images themselves matter much less than the way they are perceived. They are, indeed, genuine wars because they serve a purpose, usually political, social, or economic in nature, and they involve hostile intentions or hostile acts, though they are not always physically violent.12 History suggests wars of ideas fall into four general categories: (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 quite high. In fact, many wars of ideas occur as part of larger physical conflicts. One of the principal motives for a war of ideas is fear that others will gain access to, or control of, some form of physical power or material wealth. In some cases, ideas are the most effective weapons for countering such threats.

Nearly every war has an ideational component, but in some conflicts that component plays secondary role. As history shows, propaganda and patriotic rhetoric often escalate into a war of words and images, a battle of ideas of sorts. Such battles help boost morale and generate material contributions and other support for the physical fighting. Yet, it is not necessary to win such battles to win a physical clash of arms. In the Second World War, for instance, the rhetoric used by the Allies and the Axis powers portrayed the conflict as an all-out struggle between "good and evil."13 However, the ideational struggle was settled on the battlefield, with the physical defeat of Axis forces in Europe and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. This physical success helped discredit Nazism and Japanese imperialism, except of course in the eyes of fanatics. The physical presence of military forces during reconstruction enabled the Allies to control people and places, and thereby remove, rehabilitate, or reeducate subject populations.14

It is important to note the difference between wars in which ideas are used mainly to support a physical clash of arms, and others where ideas are either the casus belli or the principal weapons. Both types of conflicts are, strictly speaking, wars of ideas. In the former, however, military power initially plays a leading role by defeating an opponent's armed might, then shifts to a secondary, yet still important role by providing security during reconstruction. In the latter, military power may play only a limited role or perhaps none at all. As noted earlier, U.S. officials see the current war on terror as a combined effort, involving both physical and ideational elements, with the latter more important, if not decisive, than the former. This emphasis suggests that the United States sees itself as engaged in the second type of wars of ideas, where physical force plays a supporting role. However, that is not to say that the use of military force is not important in this conflict, or that there is not a relationship between it and success and failure in the war of ideas. On the contrary, as the following survey reveals, physical events, to include those brought about by the use of (kinetic) force, often play a critical role in resolving wars of ideas or marginalizing the opposition.


1. Tom Regan, "Experts: US Must Win 'War of Ideas'," Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2006, www.csmonitor/2006/0616/ dailyupdate.html; see "Terrorism Index," Foreign Policy Review, July/August 2006,web1.foreignpolicy.com/issue_julyaug_2006/TI index/index.html.

2.The White House, United States National Security Strategy, Washington, DC, March 2006, p. 9.

3. The White House, United States National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, Washington, DC, September 2006, p. 7.

4. The White House, United States National Strategy for Homeland Security, Washington, DC, October 5, 2007, p. 15.

5.National Public Radio, "Interview of the National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley," July 13, 2007; www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/20070713-6.html.

6. See Daniel L. Davis, "The Battle of Ideas: U.S. Losing in Recent Years," Washington Times, January 1, 2008; William Matthews, "Rumsfeld: U.S. Needs Online Strategic-Communications Agency," DefenseNews.com,January 23, 2008; and anonymous, "Rumsfeld: U.S. Losing War of Ideas," which captures former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's statement in March 2006: "If I were grading I would say we probably deserve a 'D' or a 'D-plus' as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's taking place in the world today." See www.cbsnews. com/stories/2006/03/27/terror/main1442811.shtml.

7. Haya El Nasser, "American Muslims Reject Extremes: Survey Notes Contrasts on Iraq War, Role of Faith," USA Today, May 23, 2007, p. 1; Alexandra Marks, "Radical Islam Finds US Sterile Ground," Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2006, reports similar findings from a 2004 Zogby survey.

8.Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States, April 2006," lists "pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as one of four underlying factors the so-called jihadists exploit; yet, the same document states that the "ultra-conservative interpretation of shari'a-basedgovernance" is unpopular with the "vast majority of Muslims." Thus, it is possible to harbor anti-American sentiments without wanting to become a jihadist.

9.National Strategy for Homeland Security, p. 15.

10. In fact, numerous wars of ideas have been underway. George Packer, ed., The Fight is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World, New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 14.

11. Histories have their problems, but they offer a place to start; see Antulio J. Echevarria II, "The Trouble with History," Parameters, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer 2005, pp. 78-90.

12.I have borrowed here from Clausewitz's construct which describes the nature of war in terms of three dynamic tendencies: hostility, chance, and purpose.

13.Peter Paret, Beth Irwin Lewis, and Paul Paret, Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, explores the use of propaganda posters in Russia, Central and Western Europe, and the United States from the turn of the century to the aftermath of World War II; the posters form a bridge between the claims of ideology and the state on the one hand and the support or submission of millions of men and women on the other.

14. This military presence undoubtedly helped prevent hardcore believers from regaining political influence. In Germany, for instance, committed Nazis continued to resist well into 1946. Stephen G. Fritz, Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.