7 May 2018

A Note on the Politics of “Design” in Professional Military Education (PME)

by :

By Tarak Barkawi, London School of Economics


A Note on the Politics of “Design” in Professional Military Education (PME)

Prior to the IMDC, I had little idea that “design” was an insurgent paradigm in PME circles. Clearly it has led to innovative and creative thinking, particularly in terms of educational strategies, doctrine development, and new modes of cross-fertilization between civilian and military worlds. There is little to be critical of here, and much to encourage.

“Design” serves also as a symbol or flag to rally creative innovators of all stripes. It stands for everything traditional military education and hierarchies do not: Heraclitus to Postmodernism to management fads like “play.” The innocuous nature of the term is particularly useful for innovators in militaries and departments of defence. It doesn’t engender immediate recognition and opposition from those who have not heard of it. Its association with business and management schools helps it go down more easily in bureaucracies of state.

It is worth reflecting on what is not included in “design” or in the discussions I observed at IMDC. Here, what particularly struck me was the absence of politics and the political context of contemporary strategy and operations. Of course, the absence of politics may in part be “strategic” (in the organizational or management sense); too much free political thinking and superiors will get nervous.

What is the damage done to our thinking by this absence?

PME has to prepare officers to operate in the political and social context of our times. Militaries cannot normally decide politics and policy. But they must be profoundly cognizant of them, in order to shape and influence, as domestic institutional actors and on active operations.

More fundamentally, the political character of war demands we recognize the political character of victory and defeat. Armed forces must learn from the latter if they are to be successful.

Few choose to face directly the scale of the defeats the West has suffered since 9/11. Through overreaction, we have proved our own worst enemies. We have lost two wars at great cost while unleashing toxic populist and nationalist politics abroad and in our own democracies. The West lies sundered by financial austerity, Brexit, Trumpism, and an anti-immigrant politics of white aggrievement. While we expended ourselves against 17-year-old jihadis on mopeds, China and Russia became multi-faceted, first rank challengers (and did so despite their critical vulnerabilities as great powers).

Perhaps most threatening to the rules based international order we so painstakingly built after 1945 are our own domestic politics. We can no longer sustain the foreign policies that won the Cold War and brought us relative peace and prosperity.

What has “design” to say to this situation?

The real problem, it seems to me, is that of even posing these kinds of questions within the frameworks offered at the IMDC, and hence of preparing officers to deal effectively with them.

Consider Ofra Graicer’s use of “Judea and Samaria” which went unremarked at the conference (in Canada of all places!). Here was an eruption into the smooth, clean space of “design” of biblical names for the territories of an occupied people. These are the kind of politics of racial exclusion taking apart the liberal world order before our eyes.

Yet, in the context of the IMDC, we were to read this as edgy, innovative “dark side” (indeed) thinking, a Ted Talk on the West Bank. Does “design” and its Silicon Valley glow obscure more than it illuminates in such situations?

For the militaries of democratic states, these new times have undone the civil-military consensus of the Cold War. In the era of Trumpism, the apolitical professionalism championed by Samuel Huntington will no longer suffice, even as a useful fiction. Scared citizens, even the most liberal ones, look to the armed forces to champion enlightenment values. The US Armed Forces remain the most successful multiracial and multicultural institution the world has ever seen.

To prepare officers for the unknown future we face, and to defend what we value, PME as “design” needs to find a political voice.


Dr. Tarak Barkawi is Reader in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He specializes in armed conflict and military relations between the West and the non-European world in historical and contemporary perspective. Tarak earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He has held fellowships at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University; the Department of War Studies, King’s College London (as a MacArthur Fellow); the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; and the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University. Tarak has been involved in professional military education and consulting. He has lectured at staff colleges and military academies, supervised the research of military MPhil Students at Cambridge for ten years, and conducted short courses for officers and NCOs in universities and in pre-deployment training.

You may also like

7 May 2018

Key Terms and Concepts Associated with Design Thinking

Read More
7 May 2018

Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) 6: “Quantum Warfare: Definitions, Overview and Challenges (Michal Krelina)

Read More
7 May 2018

Design Facilitations 101 for Online/Distance Education: The ‘Crowded Cabin’ Challenge

Read More