Small Wars Journal

Understanding Culture Requires a New Approach to Its Analysis

Sun, 01/21/2018 - 5:04pm

Understanding Culture Requires a New Approach to Its Analysis

Bryan Leese

 “The most difficult thing is to get into the head of somebody and try to figure out what that person’s going to decide.”

–Leon Panetta, CIA Director[1]

The need to understand North Korea’s “theory of victory”, what they believe is necessary to deter adversaries and secure their national interests, looms large for the United States. Understanding how North Korea views escalation and reacts to U.S. action should frame the approach used to compel them to conform to international norms. This is not the first time the U.S. has paused to evaluate what it understands about North Korea. On April 15, 1969, North Korea shot down an American EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft killing 31 American airmen. To this day, no one is sure why North Korea shot the plane down. What is clear is that the U.S. did not fully understand how North Korea viewed their future and what they were willing to pay to secure it. Recently released Russian documents make it clear that North Korea’s beliefs about force, deterrence, and compellence during the Cold War resulted in a “firm belief in reciprocal, automatic violence when attacked, on the grounds that failing to retaliate will cause one to suffer future attacks.”[2] For the U.S., this lesson cost them 31 lives and international prestige. Other failures in understanding an adversary’s culture have likely cost the U.S. far more over the last two decades.

Culture shapes how the future is envisioned and what people will pay to achieve it. To win our next conflict or be successful at deterring one, we need to draw the proper lessons from past mistakes and understand how the adversary thinks and what he believes. Culture analysis may be the key that wins wars, not just terminate fighting. This analysis is complex, time consuming, and often not conducted. It is harder still because the intelligence community lacks a methodology to conduct the analysis and information management tools to exploit it. Making culture analysis easier and more transparent may provide the key to synchronizing a whole of government approach achieving our national interests. At a minimum, this analysis may prevent us from undermining our chance to achieve those interests as it did with North Korea in 1969 and today. A “data at your fingertips” approach is needed that communicates cultural understanding to policy makers. This effort requires disruptive thinking that links culture analysis with modern web based relational and collaborative technology.

What if an information management system like that used in Fantasy Football[3] could be incorporated into an approach to culture analysis? Would it give us a mechanism to synchronize and create a competitive advantage in the geopolitical arena? This essay’s goal is to explore that question and propose an approach that not only improves culture analysis integration but results in a competitive advantage. That advantage may allow us to win today instead of fighting tomorrow.

The Power of Sports Statistics

In many ways managing a fantasy football team is about sifting massive amounts of data—understanding an adversary’s culture has similar requirements. Most culture analysis is conducted in the academic world and is buried in volumes of information. Fantasy Football is an example of information management and relational databases that handle large amounts of data. The attributes of this approach is already proven an effective method and has potential for managing culture information and analysis as well.

Fantasy Football attracts participants because sports enthusiasts are fascinated with statistics, whether they understand them or not. One Fantasy Football online program captures 92 data points per play, ranging from the athlete’s speed to game day weather measurements. While culture does not develop as fast as a slant-and-go passing play, it has as much data and information that can be captured and shared. History, literature, social events, arts, economy, and much more can be compiled and organized for analysis and evaluation. Many components necessary in making good Fantasy Football roster decisions such as evaluating trends, creating hypotheses, making projections, and testing and tracking those projections, are the same needed to make smart cultural decisions that could result in achieving our goals. Fantasy Football websites also manage the creation of teams, tracking of real-NFL player’s data, and allows “owners” to communicate with each other in real-time through file sharing and messaging systems.[4] The list of data and information available to these sites is near-endless and the wealth of analysis eye-watering. Why is this level of information, analysis, and most importantly access not available to the intelligence community on culture topics? The intelligence community lacks the ‘analysis at our fingertips’ approach toward culture analysis found in Fantasy Football. This prevents the intelligence community from identifying the critical cultural components and narratives from an adversary to our strategic determent.

Win Today by Avoiding Fighting Tomorrow

“The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself”


The future may be zero-sum, for one actor to achieve their ideal future, another actor most likely not achieve theirs. This is not to say that two actors can’t have similar views of the ideal future. Similar views of the future may be tied to similarities in cultures. When view of the future differs between opponents it is critical to shape an adversary’s view toward the one desired for him as early as possible. The U.S. focuses on an indirect approach to shaping an adversary’s future and attempts to prevent war through building consensus and using partners to influence adversaries. The U.S. desires to set conditions to win future wars. China wants to win future wars now by changing an adversary’s culture.[6] Focusing on taking action to defeat an enemy prior to war, China uses trade deals, aid, loans, and military assistance to great effect. The U.S. uses the same tools as China, but mutes their culture changing effects by placing too many conditions on the states receiving it. Early intervention may result in intervening little and still winning. China acts early to intervene subtly at the culture level, changing an adversary's will and manipulating them into positions of disadvantage by using money without strings.[7] Linking aid to humanitarian issues and governmental restructuring, the U.S. often targets the wrong parts of an adversary’s culture in an effort to make changes that fit the U.S. values not the adversary’s, likely causing rejection instead of acceptance of the influence. The unconditionality of China’s offerings makes them more appealing and effective in reshaping the culture by only influencing what best achieves China’s interests.

The difference in the U.S.’s approach from China’s is their peacetime operations do not target an adversary's will through efforts to change their culture. This may be because the United States believes a battle of wills only occurs during armed conflict and fails to recognize the value of direct peacetime operations that bend an adversary's will.[8] The U.S. may also view influence through a moral lens that place the good of many over the good of one, seeking to gain a form of utopian existence likely unachievable. Targeting an adversary's will through change to his culture is not an attempt to sell him an alternative culture but modify his own so that only you and your allies benefit, not necessarily the entire world. This type of targeting requires a deep understanding of an adversary's culture, the environment, and the friction between his view of the ideal future.[9]

“Winning is no different if your goal is positive or negative” and in peacetime operations, using culture targeting to “win” may be more about not sabotaging your achievement of the ideal future.[10] True culture targeting focuses the elements of national power not to impose our will, but to cause the adversary to lose his.[11] Unfortunately, information operations can be too blunt a tool that requires every element of government to wield it effectively. Creating a whole-of-government approach that can stay on message for years is almost impossible in the U.S. In the end, it may be more about using culture analysis and targeting to identify things the U.S. should not target versus those they should.

Culture Analysis

Jiyul Kim of the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute identifies several key cultural factors that influence strategic decision making:

  • identity, or how people see themselves and their interests;
  • political culture and its organization;
  • and resilience, a society’s resistance to change.[12]

The three factors are not equal. Identity defines purpose, values, and interests of a culture and is the key component of the collective social agreement that binds the society. Identity plays a critical role in how a political culture–system, traditions, institutions, and decision making are formed. Furthermore, strong cultural identity is directly related to resilience. The stronger the identity, the more difficult it is for outside influences to change the culture.[13] Culture creates some predictability in the moral component and “everything man does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable…but once learned, these behavior patterns, these habitual responses…sink below the surface . . . “.[14] Therefore once established, the elements of identity, political culture, and resilience create a culture that is difficult to change.[15] North Korea’s culture may be one of the best examples in the strength found in identity.

The U.S. Army’s War College Analytic Cultural Framework for Strategy and Policy (ACFSP), based on Kim's culture dimensions, is a useful way to organize and express values and interests of an adversary. Dimensions of culture and values create a ‘world view’ or ‘frame of reference’ through which people see the world and shape their interests. The framework emphasizes identity and beliefs, norms, behaviors, and history as critical influences.[16] These categories provide a skeleton that a relational database should be based upon. The information contained in the relational database allows the understanding needed to assess an adversary’s narrative and the interests it represents.

The narrative is important because humans are storytelling creatures who comprehend life through a series of stories.[17] Today, the term narrative is usually associated with persuasive campaigns. In reality, everyone uses narratives to impart values both individually and as a community. The narrative is adaptive, incorporating new story lines and shaping the view of the changing world. The adaptive narrative may not change quickly and is rooted in identity. Each individual has a personal narrative that is an interpretation of the broader collective culture narrative.[18] Tracking this narrative through a people’s history has a time horizon of decades, not just years. Experts who take the literature, document social interactions, and other documentation and turn it into understanding for the intelligence community and the policymakers are needed.

Piecemeal Attempts

Several organizations within the intelligence community collect and analyze culture related data, the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research or the Central Intelligence Agency are good examples. Unfortunately, the DoD’s understanding of an adversary’s culture remains a heuristic process. The level of study needed to create culture understanding is likely found mostly within the academic community. Culture analysis needs a methodology, a way to approach using the framework that creates synthesis of academic and government research and shares it. The critical element making this successful and sustainable is a cadre of experts that populate the framework with social science information. Information sharing, dialogue with intelligence professionals and policy makers, and timely updates must occur within a digital network enterprise accessible to a broad body of experts. It is here that the Fantasy Football model has the most promise for culture analysis. The online relational database design creates a shared vision of the operating environment for strategic decision makers as well as operational commanders. It will give analysts and policy makers access to the same information and expert assessments of adversary’s interests and will.

For this to be successful, we need to create the three elements proposed: a methodology and culture analysis framework, an information structure to store data similar to Fantasy Football websites, and social and cultural analysis experts to populate the information structure. The experts may be most useful if located at the Geographic Combatant Command level in the Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) and focused on coordinating with academic experts and integrating with operations and plans. Coupling the collaboration database with a secure, unclassified system, like the All Partners Access Network (APAN) used in military coalition environments, may mean that the experts can be anywhere.[19] Transparency with operations (J3) and support for planning (J5) is created if expanded to include the ability for a classified version of the collaboration site to reach down, one-way, into the unclassified site for data and analysis with the J3 and J5 Share Point portals. U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) used a similar structure to incorporate cultural analysis into its planning process to good effect in 2010-2015.[20] It allowed AFRICOM’s leadership to understand the unique view tribe-based African states had on the world and how U.S. military aid could best be used. Had a similar structure been used in 1969, it may have revealed North Korea’s view on reciprocal and automatic violence and prevented the flying of airborne reconnaissance without armed escorts. As the U.S. attempts to compel North Korea today, it reinforces that we failed to draw the proper conclusions from 1969. The way we attempted to influence North Korea, to change their view of the future to one we wished for them, over the last 47 years was clearly unsuccessful. Maybe it is time we look at a new approach, one that starts with a penetrating understanding of our adversary’s culture. 


“Information dominance" produced a lopsided victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The wars in Afghanistan, later in Iraq, and the current tension with North Korea prove that the revolution in military affairs focused on technology alone cannot overcome culture and produce victory. The world has changed and so must the mechanisms we use to understand it; but the nature of war remain the same. As Thucydides’ noted, “fear, honor, and self-interest” are still the strongest motives for conflict.[21] Understanding what an adversary is playing for, and if he is willing to die for it, may be more critical in today’s globalized environment than ever before. A culture analysis methodology that leverages the attributes of Fantasy Football’s relational data basing and collaboration websites will create a shared understanding of the operating environment that allows the U.S. a competitive advantage. More importantly, it may ensure we win the clash of wills decisively before the actual conflict by understanding when and how to act, or more importantly, how not to act during peacetime operations.

The idea of a relational database as flexible and responsible as those used commercially in Fantasy Football was first heard by the author in 2010 while having a discussion with CAPT Mark Elliot, USN, N2 at Commander, Second Fleet.

Special thanks to CDR Sean Sullivan and Elizabeth Leese for editing this paper.

End Notes

[1] Josh Gerstein and Burgess Everett, "Ukraine: Why Didn’t the U.S. Know Sooner?" Politico, March 5, 2014, (accessed January 6, 2015). The quote by Panetta is from testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence February 15, 2014.

[2] Van Jackson, “The EC-121 Shoot Down and North Korea’s Coercive Theory of Victory,” The Wilson Center, April 13, 2017, .

[3] Fantasy football is a fantasy sports game where players become “owners” of mythical teams populated with current National Football League (NFL) players. Points are scored based on the actual performance of the current NFL player’s statistical on-the-field performances during actual NFL football games. The databases allows for the management of significant amounts of data, produce display products analysis, and even allow “owners” to communicate in real-time through file sharing and messaging systems.

[4] Andrew Baerg, “Just a Fantasy? Exploring Fantasy Sports,” The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication, Communication Institute for Online scholarship, Inc., Volume 19 Numbers 3 & 4, 2009, (accessed may 11, 2015).

[5] Thomas Sheperd, “Navigating the Linkage Between Culture and Strategy: a Guide to Understanding the Analytical Cultural Framework for Strategy and Policy,” U.S. Army War College Guide to national Security Issues, Volume II: national Security Policy and Strategy 2012, Strategic Studies Institute Book, 278.

[6] Scott McDonald, Brock Jones, and Jason Frazee, "PHASE ZERO: How China Exploits It, Why the United States Does Not," Naval War College Review, Summer 2012, Vol. 65, No. 3,,-Why-the-United- (accessed May 3, 2015) 123-124.

[7] Ibid., 133.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Amy Zegart, “Stop Drinking the Weak Sauce: Washington’s paranoia over weak and failing states is distracting it from the real national security threats looming on the horizon,” Foreign Policy, February 23, 2015, (accessed may 11, 2015.

[10] J. Boone Bartholomees, “Theory of Victory,” Parameters, Sumer 2008, (accessed May 11, 2015) 36 and 29.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid., 297-298.

[13] Ibid., 297-298.

[14] John Boyd, edited by Edited Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney, The Strategic Game of ? And ?, Briefing June 2006 (accessed December 31, 2014) slide 22.

[15] Frank Jones, “Strategic Thinking and Culture: a Framework for Analysis,” 288.

[16] Thomas Sheperd, “Navigating the Linkage Between Culture and Strategy: a Guide to Understanding the Analytical Cultural Framework for Strategy and Policy,” U.S. Army War College Guide to national Security Issues, Volume II: national Security Policy and Strategy 2012, Strategic Studies Institute Book, 278.

[17] Adam Knowlton, Darfur is Dying: a Narrative Analysis (University of Nebraska; Omaha, NE, August 2009) (accessed November 14, 2014) 16.

[18] Daniel Bernardi, Pauline Cheong, Chris Lundry, and Scott Ruston, Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence (Rutgers University Press: Piscataway, NJ 2012) 34.

[19] APAN was used during the 2010 Haiti recovery operation, Operation Unified Response. The author was assigned to the U.S. southern Command’s J25 Intelligence Plans section and an APAN site was established to support the joint, interagency, international, and multi-governmental agencies supporting Haitian recovery.

[20] Daniel Kolva, “Socio-Cultural Analysis at the Combatant Command,” Peace & Stability Operations Journal Online, Volume 3, Issue 3, April 2013, (accessed December 18, 2014) 15. A result from the 2013 Edward Snowden disclosure was the German government limiting the number of U.S. contractors allowed to serve at U.S. European Command and U.S Africa Command headquarters. This reduction forced the U.S. Africa Command to abandon the SSRB concept and distribute full-time government, socio-cultural analysts across the intelligence (J2) organization, effectively ending the benefits of the program.

[21] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (432 B.C.) (The Latin Library) 76, (accessed February 4, 2015).


Categories: culture analysis - culture

About the Author(s)

CDR Bryan Leese is the Carrier Strike Group TWO N2. A graduate and instructor at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA. He has served as an analysis branch chief in USAFRICOM's J2-Molesworth, UK. Other tours include BATAAN ESG, N2 and other operational and shore tours.