Conference Report: 2018 Vienna Conference on Strategy


A few new concepts have come to dominate the more recent Western discourses on security and defence, both in the academic and practitioners’ sectors; these concepts include ‘hybrid war’, ‘cyber war’, ‘narratives’ and ‘resilience’.[i] They are invoked to help us understand, explain and react to threats that Europe and the United States are currently facing. Hence, think tanks, academics, politicians and military institutions have invested a great deal of resources, and produced a vast amount of papers trying to better understand these threats. But for the sceptic, questions remain.

What is the value these new concepts add to existing ones in helping us understand current threats? Are these concepts and the threats they refer to quite as novel as they appear? Or are they simply old concepts branded with a new label? And what if they are, in fact, not new – what are we to infer about the actors using them? Might the allusion of power that is attributed to those threats be a diversion from the fact that Europe has not invested enough in its defence capabilities in the last decades?

As the title Re-thinking Strategy: ‘Narratives’, ‘Cyber’, ‘Hybridity’, ‘Resilience’ – New Phenomena, Old Wine in New Skins or Simply a ‘mobile army of metaphors’? suggests, the 2018 Vienna Conference on Strategy aimed to challenge the mainstream security discourse by critically reflecting on the content and use of currently dominant concepts. Organized by the Austrian Military Journal (OeMZ), led by its editor BrigGen Dr Wolfgang Peischel, and the European Military Press Association (EMPA), the conference was held at the Austrian National Defence Academy.

It was not a purely academic conference: while a considerable number of civilian scholars participated, most of the approximately 100 speakers had a military professional background, many of them with years of experience on the ground, which was a real asset to the Conference. The focus of talks was, thus, more on practice than on theory. In terms of diversity, this composition of speakers meant that women and younger generations were underrepresented; I was one of the very few to represent both groups. Speakers came mainly from German-speaking countries (Austria, Germany, Switzerland), as the idea of the conference is to provide a forum specifically for this region; however, enriching perspectives were also contributed by speakers from around the globe, including the UK, the United States, Norway, Hungary, Sweden and Israel.

The 2018 Conference was the third of its kind. The first conference took place in 2016 and aimed at uncovering core principles of strategic thinking to make them applicable beyond the military; later conferences are, thus, not based on a strictly military understanding of strategy, but on a whole-of-state approach – grand strategy as others might call it. The 2017 event centred on the question whether strategic thinking can be taught, and if so, what such a subject would entail. This year’s Conference explored a more specific question, evaluating the motives underlying the use of the quadriga of concepts that is currently fashionable in coining and countering recent threats. Lecturers and panellists discussed this issue from various angles, including geopolitics, strategic communication, technology, philosophy, history, medicine and religion. (Recordings of all conferences can be accessed here.)

One main consensus to emerge throughout the week was that the above-mentioned concepts do not reflect specifically new characteristics of armed conflict. ‘Hybrid wars’ have existed throughout history; indeed, one must wonder what a ‘non-hybrid war’ might look like. The use of narratives, too, has a long history. Only the cyber domain is a rather recent addition; its potential to change the character, or even the nature of war, however, remains to be seen. It should be noted that while the cyber realm does add new possibilities and vulnerabilities, the degree to which technological progress would impact the nature of future conflict has been overestimated time and again. As was argued at the conference, despite a continuous change in strategic context and capabilities, there are principles of military action that have remained unchanged.

What is more, is that, to a certain extent, these concepts tend to be somewhat a-strategic. The long-diagnosed overstretch of the term ‘strategy’ has made people forget that strategy is inherently interactive; hence, increasing resilience, disseminating favourable narratives or increasing one’s cyber capabilities can never be an end in itself.

As many panellists have, thus, questioned the added value of these concepts, the question remains: Why are these concepts currently so popular among scholars and practitioners? Panellists and attendees offered a myriad of reasons, including the search for order after the Cold War, dynamics within academic research – especially the pressures to be innovative, to publish and to secure funding –, and previous neglect of issues of security and defence in Europe.

What participants also agreed on, however, was that, new or not, these concepts point to challenges that Europe and the United States will have to come to terms with; hence the need to meaningfully engage with them on theoretical and practical levels. Discussion of these challenges took place in a delicate political context: U.S. President Donald Trump’s looming threat to pull out from NATO has given urgency to the debates and proposals regarding common European defence initiatives and an increased commitment to defence in individual EU member states. The conference, too, raised critical questions regarding the future of European defence, bemoaning the current unwillingness of many European states to invest in their defence. Especially in Austria and Germany, due to the absence of perceived threats and the continuing influence of historical stigmata, war and defence have not been a subject of discussion in political and academic circles. It is thus a refreshing change to see scholars and practitioners come together to revive that debate.

Echoing a two-day pre-conference on Cognitive Science and Strategic Thought that both preceded and supplemented the Vienna Conference on Strategy, yet another recurrent theme were the ways in which insights from cognitive science and research on decision-making can improve strategic thinking. In times where potential of armed conflict can be detected at multiple edges, knowledge and awareness about how we make decisions and how we might make better, i.e. more reflective, decisions in the face of the unexpected seems necessary to help avoid escalation. Such awareness includes a close look at the language we are using.

In sum, the Vienna Conference on Strategy offers a much-needed forum on strategic thinking for the German-speaking region. In light of ongoing discussions about increasing European defence capabilities, such a forum can play an important role in exchanging ideas and coordinating efforts; more importantly, it can provide the platform for debates that go beyond the superficial discussions on defence and conscription that currently fill the silly season in Austria and Germany. The next Conference will take place in June 2019; hopefully with a larger share of younger and female speakers.

Image: Bildergalerie der Wiener Strategiekonferenz 2018, via Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift

[i] The term ‘Western’ refers to Europe and the United States; much of what is said here may well be relevant or true for other countries as well, but as the Conference focused on discourses and actions of the West, so will this report.

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