Requiem for the Strategy Sphere

I typed “online communities” into Google images and this was the best thing it gave me. 

I began blogging in December, 2007. I chose to name this blog The Scholar’s Stage mostly because I thought the alliteration was neat. The title was not without irony. When I began blogging I completely lacked the formal credentials that might justify the website’s pretentious title. Thus from its beginning The Scholar’s Stage was an attempt to prove that a well read citizen could match the analysis of the well paid pundit. In its earliest days the Scholar’s Stage was poor evidence for the proof. The first two years of my blogging were terrible. Most of what I wrote then had no more than ten or twenty hits a post–and I am glad of it! I am sorely tempted to delete everything I wrote in those days lest a reader stumble across some ancient post and judge my work on its merits. Things are far better now. Over time my writing improved and my readership grew. Every once in a while I am quoted and cited in international magazines and newspapers, something unimaginable before (though I remain as credential-less as I began).

There have been some less obvious shifts in my writing during this time. The Scholar’s Stage began as a blog mostly about politics and international affairs. It has become a blog mostly about history. There is some wisdom in this–given how many big names ply the current affairs scene there is a certain comparative advantage found in staying far away from it. But when I honestly examine when and why this shift began it becomes clear that it has very little to do with the popularity of what I have written on either topic. My most popular writings are still the odd pieces I publish on strategic theory and international politics. If am generally less enthused about these topics it cannot be because they are unpopular with my readers. The big difference, I think, is with the ecosystem of fellow writers and bloggers that surrounds this blog has changed. In the early days of the Scholar’s Stage, there was a vibrant community of men and women researching, writing, and arguing over strategy and military affairs. This community was a lively one, full of vigorous back and forth. This community no longer exists. The number of people writing about strategy is much larger, yes—but the discussion is also less colorful, more diffuse, and far more stilted than it was in the early days.

The place to begin is with Abu Muqawama. For two or so years Abu Muqawama was the best place on the internet. It was the first blog I seriously followed, and it was in hopes of Abu Muqawama level excellence I decided to create the The Scholar’s Stage. This blog would not exist without it. Now we know that the pseudonymous “Abu Muqawama” was the nom de plume of Andrew Exum, but in the blog’s early days very few people knew just who the blog’s creator was. The identity of his co-authors were also veiled: “Kip,” “Charlie,” “Londonstani,” “Dr. iRack”—all in all a brilliant little suite of pseudonymous writers whose insights on the Middle East, Afghanistan, the U.S. Army, and counterinsurgency theory surpassed anything available in any mainstream media outlets. The comment threads, at least in their early days, were of similar quality.

Abu Muqawama‘s strong commentator base was shared with most of the other websites in the strategy blogosphere. The largest hub in this ecosystem was Small Wars Journal. The journal was a place for junior officers and defense minded intellectuals to publish formal essays and research papers on the practice and theory of counterinsurgency. But the heart of the website was not the articles, but the comment threads and user forums where the articles were discussed. Many a blog post or series was started because of a discussion had in a Small Wars comment thread. Prominent posts and debates would bounce around the Strategy blogosphere, linking smaller hubs like Inkspots, Registan, Global Guerrillas, Wings over Iraq, Democracy Arsenal, The Coming Anarchy, and Zenpundit to the discussion. There were more forums and blogs involved than this, of course, and some well placed individuals like Thomas Barnett and Spencer Ackerman managed to make big splashes in the community despite hopping around from one online space to another. But the numbers were relatively small. As Adam Elkus recently reminisced, in those days “you could probably fit all of [the strategy writers on the internet] in the wall bar and still have some extra room for a hipster indie rock band.” [1] 

It is interesting how many of the participants of these discussions used pseudonyms. In the context of the times (c. 2005-2009) this made sense. Most of the people involved fell into one of two groups: servicemen—especially junior officers—who had recently returned from the Near East or were about to be deployed there, and the citizens who were so intellectually engaged with the topics involved that they couldn’t help but join the discussion. (I obviously belong to this second “strategy nerd” category). Neither of these groups hoped to leverage their writings for professional gain. The common wisdom was that outspoken junior officers put their future careers in jeopardy by writing too sharply of standing practice. The nerds, for their part, lived far away from Washington and often found it easiest to gain a fair hearing when focus could be directed away from their identity and towards their arguments. Even the academics unafraid to flaunt their credentials had little to gain professionally from participating in the debates. Blogging was a less prestigious art back then, and comments in a Small Wars thread contributed nothing to a CV.

It is easy to forget how new the entire project was in those days. Blogging had not been around too long, and no one knew if “new media” had the power to make a difference. The entire discussion was a grand experiment. But it was an experiment with incredibly high stakes. This was all happening at a time when the situation in Iraq was going from bad to worse. Things like “the surge” and “population centric” counterinsurgency were debated with a fierce sense of urgency. There was this belief that if we could research, discuss, and debate as vigorously as possible over here then we would find the one fact, theory, or method that might save lives and countries over there. These were men and women out to save the world—or at least, that section of the world American soldiers had been sent to die in. But they really believed these debates could make a difference. The whole thing was fresh, exciting, and at times a bit crazy. And for a while it seemed like anybody who was smart and perceptive enough could be an important part of the discussion.

That world is no more. Abu Muqawama has been wiped off of the internet. Most of the other blogs I mentioned still exist, but are long defunct. A few still soldier along, but none with the same tempo or commentator base they once had. Small Wars Journal is still publishing research articles, but I cannot remember the last time anyone referenced a Small Wars comment thread.

Discussion did not die with these outlets. A host of online journals and platforms have been created to publish strategic commentary, and more people are writing about strategy, military affairs, and international politics than ever before. Yet the community of old is gone. Lots of new material is written, but the excitement, urgency, and sense of pluck that dominated the discussions of yesteryear is not found within it.

What happened? This is an interesting question, and I suspect that the answer to it may interest readers who care nothing for the state of strategy blogging, but are interested in how healthy online communities work. The slow death of the old strategy-sphere has lessons for those who seek to keep their communities resilient.

Part of the story are the secular changes in the larger media landscape. I was reading Abu Muqawama before I had a Facebook profile. Many of the 200 word hot takes that would have ended up on a blog or forum in the days of yesteryear now happen on social media sites. Likewise, most commentary that would have ended up in a comments thread is now tweeted and retweeted on Twitter. The role that many blogs played as aggregators of interesting content has also been largely eclipsed by social media and RSS reader feeds.

But this is not the whole story. There are many blogging communities—such as the policy economics bloggers, who occupy a similar middle ground between policy relevance, historical commentary, and theoretical musings as the strategy-sphere does—that have survived the transition to a social media friendly internet without a hiccup. The cause of the strategy-sphere’s slow collapse must be found elsewhere.

Much can be explained by looking at the present positions of the old guard bloggers. Quite simply, they have moved up in the world. Some have been elevated to high positions in the U.S. bureaucracy, others have been absorbed into think tanks or given some other fancy title and positions. What began as a movement to change the establishment has become the establishment. That is a good thing—that was in many ways the original goal, after all. But it makes it quite hard to keep the intrepid spirit of the original community alive. People in Official Positions do not write with pluck.

A related point is that the debates that animated the original blogs and journals have largely been resolved. America has withdrawn from Iraq, and is well on her way out of Afghanistan. Population-centric counterinsurgency was tried. It failed. The entire experience in Iraq and Afghanistan left many feeling cynical and embittered. America still has plenty of strategic problems—but none pressing enough to create the fierce urgency and sense of mission that once possessed those participating in the old debates. I wonder sometimes if it will take another Iraq-scale disaster to bring this level of urgency and earnestness back to our foreign policy discussions.

As old voices left the scene new ones entered it. Yet the demographics of the two groups are very different. No longer is the conversation dominated by people writing under pseudonyms and blogger tags. To write on strategy and international politics today is to trumpet credentials at the beginning and end of every essay and post. This is partly a reaction to the sheer amount of content now published; the more material published every day the greater need there is for heuristics that filter out the wheat from the chaff. “Read only those with proven expertise” is a simple one that fits the job. But its effectiveness is questionable. The problem is that the basic incentive structure behind internet publishing has changed. Somewhere in the late aughts, writing online became a respectable thing to do. Professors are advised to publicize their findings through blog posts and online editorials; think tank fellows have learned to condense their policy recommendations into internet sized articles. Writing a few policy op-eds for online platforms like War on the Rocks has become a rite of passage for ambitious M.A students in security and area studies. The old strategy blogosphere that was dominated by outsiders to Washington has been replaced by one dominated by writers from inside the beltway.

Much of their material is very, very good. [2] But not all of it is. It is easy to see the reason why. A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. It is very hard for authors to cultivate a distinctive voice when writing for professional platforms, and it is these platforms that are at the center of the strategy-sphere today.

However, the most important shift has not been one of quality, but of quantity. The flood of professors and think tank fellows (and professor and think tank aspirants) writing about strategy has increased the size of the strategy-sphere dramatically. The community has become so large and dispersed that it is really not a community at all. Some people talk about “blogging’s law of large numbers”—in essence, the idea that the more readers a blog or community attracts, the worse its comment threads become. This is mostly true, but it is not always so. For example, the rationalist blog Slate Star Codex and the progressive finance group blog Naked Capitalism have each maintained quality commentator base for years despite their impossibly large readerships. How is this possible?

What sets the commentators of these blogs apart is their strong sense of belonging. They know that they are part of a cohesive community. Many of them would say it is part of their identity. This is what sustains quality blogging. A man crying in the wilderness does not a good blogger make. There must be interaction, post and riposte. But when you lose that constant interaction between community members—usually if the community gets too large or there is no longer a driving sense of mission to hold them together—then it all falls apart. The man lost in a chattering crowd is heard no better than his friend in the wilds.

This is, in brief, the story of the old strategy-sphere. Its current incarnation is inferior to what came before. But the 2010s are not all tales of gloom and doom. I would highlight the efforts of the editors over at the Strategy Bridge and the founders of the Military Writers Guild in particular as bright spots in the current media landscape. They understand that good writing on strategy will come only if there is a strong community to provide feedback and host debate for its strategists, and they have quite consciously tried to develop this sense of community. I can only hope that their project blooms.

As for me, I analyze international politics and write about strategic theory far less than I used to. I differ from some in the strategy world in that I have many writing interests outside it. The study of history (I include here methods from the social sciences that enrich this study) has always been an abiding interest of mine, as has the contours of modern Chinese politics and culture. Most of my posts fall into one of these three broad categories. While some of the most popular pieces I have ever written were comments on Chinese affairs or notes on strategic theory, I find that more and more I gravitate towards writing about history, especially macro-historical problems like “how did geography affect China’s imperial history” or “why have American social norms changed over the last century?” These posts often get less hits that their counterparts, but the responses I get from readers like Sean Manning (tag: “Books and Sword”), “Pseudoerasmus,” “Lorenzo,” Razib Khan, Al West, Xavier Marquez, Mark Koyama, Martin Hewson, Peter Turchin, and Anton Howes in the comments thread here, on their own blogs, or on twitter are valuable to me. Intellectually this sort of back and forth is far more rewarding than the high hit counts I see on more popular topics.


[1] Adam Elkus, “Of Strategic Hipsters and Strategy Blogging,” Rethinking Security (2 April 2015).

[2] I should be clear here that I love War on the Rocks. It is one of my few daily reads. I contributed to their most recent fundraiser. I write posts in response to the better editorials published there. The world needs War on the Rocks. But it also needs more than what War on the Rocks can provide alone. 

Leave a Comment


It was an interesting and exciting time. ChicagoBoyz's roundtable discussions were part of that era, I will not so humbly add, and we got pretty good responses. Tom Barnett's blog comment threads were often very good discussions. The contributions of "Joseph Fouche" in various fora including his own blog were outstanding. FaceBook has occupied some of that space, but it is not nearly as good. Also, at that time a lot of discussion was about what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, where now the consensus is that both wars were botched and we are getting out, which does not leave a lot of scope for discussion and argument. Good times, man.

The Boyd and Clausewitz roundtable discussions were at that time. And they are a very good example of what the old community could do.

I have been writing back and forth on this topic with Adam Elkus for the last few weeks–it was a conversation with him that prompted this post–and a question we keep returning to is if it is possible for a strategy blogging to have a true renaissance absent an Iraq level crisis to kick it into high gear. Perhaps a roundtable might be a good starting point.

This is an unknown recent history for me, so thanks for thoughtfully presenting your experiences and considerations. (And thanks for the plug.)

I don't think that, barring another Iraq like event, it can come back. But maybe over time it can be enjoyable again in at least some of the way it used to be.

Another roundtable could be good. What might we discuss if we did?
(And I am presumptuous to say "we"? Maybe I am not distinguished enough to be invited!)
We did Boyd, Clausewitz, Afghanistan 2050, and Xenophon's Anabasis.
All were good, though Clausewitz was amazing and Afghanistan 2050 had a lot of very creative thinking.
The Afghanistan one took a weird turn. It was announced on Zenpundit. Then one of Charles Cameron's friends who was a former intelligence official from Australia apparently mentioned it somewhere. Apparently she was engaged in an online debate with the propaganda minster for the Taliban. He, apparently, floated the idea of participating in the Chicago Boyz roundtable! How insane is that? It never went anywhere. I was inclined to let him, though I would have informed the US Government, probably the FBI about it. Maybe he would have let something slip that would have helped the USA put a Hellfire missile on his ass.

Heh, Lex, if you are not distinguished enough to be a part of a new roundtable then there is no way I am.

I will give some thought to what the locus of a new round-table could be. I will send you an e-mail.

I have noticed the same decline in thoughtful communities on the open web since about 2008 and especially since 2012. Its not just blogs and groups of blogs but also forums. I don't know whether its because of the appearance of other distractions like Tumblr and Twitter and walled gardens like Facebook, or a deeper cultural shift. The surviving English-language blogs which still have large communities of commentators seem to be more and more desperate to chose clickbait titles and topics meant to appeal to a large community's prejudices or offend their values (I don't read enough blogs in other langauges).

Maybe I will have another look at Slate Star Codex.

SSC isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it is a good example of a blog that has only existed for a few years (after the blogosphere's "death") and is full of commentators who are unfailingly polite, well ordered, and sometimes quite insightful.

I don't believe Mustafa Hamid was ever the "propaganda minster for the Taliban" though he was certainly an influential voice, as a historian and the person who delivered OBL's oath of bay'ah to Mullah Omar — and FWIW the debate you describe between him and Leah Farrall, the Australian academic and one time senior CT analyst with the Australian Federal Police, finally resulted in the publicatiuon of their joint book, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan

of which Barnett Rubin writes:

Leah Farrell and Mustafa Hamid's creative dialogue provides a unique synthesis between an insider's knowledge and a critical expert's analysis of the origins of global jihadism. Each helps the other, and both help us, see this multi-faceted movement in new and sometimes contradictory ways.

It's a remarkable work.