September 30, 2010

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A: Michael Horowitz

Regular readers of this blog know how much I enjoyed my friend Mike Horowitz's ground-breaking new book on military innovation and diffusion, a field of inquiry in which I have a lot of interest. Mike is a professor at my alma mater and one of the brightest young American thinkers in security studies. When he visited CNAS a few weeks ago to walk the staff through his new book, I asked him if he would mind sitting down to discuss the book, political science in the United States, and the future of warfare with the blog. Since I once managed to get the two of us into the Red Sox dugout to chat with Terry Francona for an hour before a game against the Orioles, Mike, a Massachusetts native, agreed.

1. Okay, briefly, explain your adoption-capacity theory. What is it, and what does it explain?

Adoption capacity theory is the term I use to explain the way that financial and organizational constraints shape the realm of the possible for both national militaries and non-state actors, thus influencing the strategies they choose when facing a new military innovation. Drawing on research from the business world, economics, and political science, I argue that you can use the relative financial and organizational requirements for adopting new innovations to explain both the way a particular innovation is likely to spread throughout the international system and the way individual states will respond. So what’s the takeaway for the real world? New military innovations that require high levels of financial investments to adopt tend to help the rich get richer – if adoption means integrating new, expensive capital platforms, pre-existing powerful actors will do very well. In contrast, innovations requiring a large degree of organizational change can be profoundly disruptive to existing powers. The organizational routines they’ve developed to help them master previous technologies or methods of force employment can become a virtual albatross that holds them back while newer and more nimble actors take advantage. These are the types of innovations more likely to usher in dangerous power transitions or devastating military campaigns (think blitzkrieg and the Battle of France).

2. Talk us through your methodology (because we are nerds). You use a variety of methods across a number of case studies. How did you test your theory?

I used what political scientists call a “multi-method” approach. I did research on specific militaries and non-state actors, sometimes including archival work. I also used regression analysis when there were enough observations that I could look for patterns of behavior that could shed light on my argument. For example, when studying which groups adopted suicide terrorism – a military innovation for non-state actors – you have a large enough universe of terrorist groups and adopters of suicide terrorism that you can usefully employ statistical analysis (though of course you also have to do the research). On the other hand, the organizational practices associated with using aircraft carriers to project power only spread to a very small number of countries over time. Thus, for that chapter I focused on case studies and simple descriptive statistics. For me, the key is trying to ask an interesting question and then figuring out which methods or methods will work best to answer that question, rather than picking the method (quantitative, game theory, qualitative, etc.) first.

3. You argue at the end of the book that your theory explains the behavior of non-state actors as well. A few questions related to that conclusion and motivated by my own curiosity and interests:

a. Violent non-state actors are necessarily secretive. They do not publish a QDR or a budget, much less a task organization chart. So how can we describe them in terms of your theory if we cannot answer basic questions about their finances and organizational dynamics?

b. You argue that ties between violent non-state actors helps determine the spread of suicide tactics. But how do we explain groups who have contact with non-state actors which employ suicide tactics who do NOT themselves adopt suicide tactics. So a connection between Hamas and Hizballah helps explain the migration of suicide tactics to the Palestinian territories -- I understand that. But how do we explain why other groups that have had contact with Hizballah -- the PFLP, Amal, FARC, etc. -- have in large part NOT adopted suicide tactics?

c. Individuals rarely serve in multiple armies of nation-states these days. So a guy in the U.S. Army is unlikely to have served in, say, the French Army as well. But that's not the case with non-state actors. Imad Mughniyeh got his start in Fatah. Hassan Nasrallah got his start in Amal. Are the divisions between violent non-state actors in a place like southern Lebanon not less clear than the divisions between state militaries? And does that then complicate the effect of "ties" between groups?

Hey, great question(s) – and you bring up a lot of key issues I try to think about. One of the goals of my book is to take topics that are often studied in isolation – nuclear weapons, naval warfare, and suicide terrorism, and explain how some common processes actually govern the way new military innovations spread (or don’t spread) and what that means. Terrorist groups, like national militaries, face budgetary pressures and have organizational hierarchies. They have ways of doing business that invest prestige in particular members and create organizational veto points if someone wants to change things up. Thus, at a conceptual level, adoption capacity constraints influence how terrorist groups behave. Whether we can get enough evidence to actually observe that, which your first question gets at, is a different story. Some factors, such as whether a group uses suicide terrorism or how long it has been in existence (organizational age), are observable. There are also some groups, such as the PIRA, where we have a lot of information about their organizational dynamics. In other cases, it’s more difficult, and harder to make a definitive ruling about whether the theory holds. I’m ok with that, though, since my theory seems to work pretty well for the cases where we do have enough information.

I argue that two factors primarily explain who adopted and who failed to adopt suicide terrorism. First, those groups that lacked established operational profiles prior to the beginning of the suicide terror era found adopting suicide terror much easier than more experienced groups. “Younger” groups did not have pre-set critical tasks and organizational veto points that would have made adoption more organizationally challenging. Second, those groups that were plugged into what amounted to a religiously-motivated network of terrorist groups were also significantly more likely to adopt suicide terror. Clearly, other factors matter as well, which is why some of the groups exposed to Hezbollah did not adopt suicide bombings (though even Amal did at one point). In my case studies and statistical analysis, I try to control for some of the other ideological, geographic, and contextual factors that explain why some groups decided to use suicide bombings but others did not. Essentially, being plugged into groups like Hezbollah that have adopted suicide terror makes a group significantly more likely to adopt, but that doesn’t mean it’s determinative. By the way, the FARC is fascinating in this regard. Kalyvas, who you have been known to reference, and Sánchez-Cuenca argue that the FARC did, in fact, use suicide terror once. Others are not so sure.

You make a great point about the possibility for individuals to serve in several different violent non-state groups. Tracking individuals like that is one way to evaluate ties between groups – or evidence of splintering within a group. That raises the bar for doing research on links between terrorist groups. There is a lot of uncertainty out there, so the best you can do is be honest when describing the limitations of your work and places where others can build on it to do a better job.

4. What does your research say, if anything, about the future of war? It's going to be all counterinsurgency, all the time, isn't it?

Absolutely. Nothing to see here. All COIN all the time. Right up until the time when an adversary UCAV shoots an F-22 out of the sky. Adoption capacity theory actually suggests that the United States military may face some serious challenges over the next generation. If innovations come about that undermine the importance of capital intense platforms such as carriers, fighters, and bombers, the United States will have its work cut out for it. The organizational expertise the US built up over time to fight based on those platforms could make it harder to shift towards, for example, UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), war in the cyber realm, or other new areas. The trick is maintaining a high level of organizational capital, through acts such as funding basic research & development and encouraging experimentation, so that the US military is able to adapt rapidly when necessary. Fundamentally, I’m optimistic about the ability of the United States to do what is necessary to maintain its conventional military edge; I just think we can’t take it for granted.

5. You're one of the leading young lights in the field of security studies. How do you feel about the way in which your academic field is interacting with the policy community? Is your relevance increasing or decreasing in terms of policy?

Aww, shucks. In all seriousness, many people worry a lot about the irrelevance of political science to the policy community. I tend to be reasonably bullish about it in the medium-term, actually. I think there is a great deal of interest among the rising generation of scholars in doing methodologically sound social science on international security topics with policy relevance. The more that occurs—and I think it will occur in greater numbers over time—the more “relevant” international relations scholarship will become. On the other side, there is the question of the willingness of the policy community to listen when scholars do more policy relevant work, but I’ll leave that one to you.

6. Born on the gritty streets of Lexington, Massachusetts, you now live in my second American hometown of Philadelphia. What are the five best bars in Center City and in West Philadelphia?

I’m a proud son of the birthplace of American liberty, but Philadelphia is a pretty awesome place to live. There are so many good bars and restaurants that it is hard to choose, but my personal favorite is run by some bartenders who got sick of taking orders and decided to hang out their own shingle. It’s called Jose Pistolas and it’s on 15th between Locust and Spruce. It has solid food, a great micro-brew beer selection, and terrific bartenders—ask for Casey. My favorite bar for cocktails is Southwark, down at 4th and Bainbridge. It’s the best place I’ve found for classic cocktails in Philly (think Aviation or Old Fashioned, not Appletini). Smith’s, which is on 19th between Market and Chestnut, has to be on the list. It’s one of the only places in Philly where degenerate New England Patriots fans like myself can get together on Sunday’s to cheer on the Pats. The Resurrection Ale House, in my new neighborhood (Graduate Hospital), offers a great beer selection and tremendous fried chicken (don’t believe me, ask Bon Appétit). I’ll wrap up the list with Monk’s, a Philly institution at 16th and Spruce featuring an enormous selection of Belgian beers. And now I’m hungry.

Thanks for all of the questions and the opportunity to get the word out about my book!

Thank you, Mike. DC readers can see Mike talk about his new book on Monday at the CSIS. Details can be found via Mike's website or by following the hyperlinks. And you can buy the book itself here in paperback and here on Kindle.