“The Wrong Strategy” as Passive Voice

If you are a student of mine and I have directed you here, this is an explanation of why the grammatical construction known as the passive voice is a bad thing to use in academic work and policy analysis. That is not to say that the passive voice is wrong in all places, but on the whole it is best to avoid it, or at least be very aware when you are using it in your work.

“The current strategy is wrong/ineffective” is the foreign policy analysis equivalent of passive voice. The passive voice is excellent when you are writing fiction, don’t need to assign agency to a process, or you want to smuggle untested propositions into an argument unnoticed. Fictional asides in foreign policy analysis are usually awful, forms of agency are usually important elements of foreign policy analysis, and proposition smugglers should generally be run out of town, regardless of field.

The problem with “The wrong strategy” is that it performs a number of operations at the same time. First, it characterises a class of activities/actions as strategy, without the author necessarily doing the leg work to prove that a given problem area is a strategic one. Secondly, it presupposes that there is such thing as a right strategy. There may be better, or worse, ways of approaching and engaging with strategic dilemmas, but there isn’t usually a right or wrong one. In parallel, “the strategy is ineffective” smuggles in the idea that effectiveness or ineffectiveness can be directly attributed to a given strategy, or strategic approach, usually without the author accounting for a hundred-odd independent variables that might have led to the current state of play, or affect the outcome. Thirdly, “the wrong strategy” implies that the author’s ideas are strategic, since they are a response to (supposedly) strategic ideas. This has the effect of elevating the author’s suggestions, whatever they may be, to the level of strategic discussion, when they might only be policy ideas, plans, organising principles, and so on. This leads to importance escalation, where the list of things that count as strategic grow like kudzu, which in turn leads to poor quality analysis.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, however much a statement like “The UK government’s current strategy for defeating ISIS is wrong” may be guilty of the above, it at least assigns agency to an entity. Anyone who writes “The current strategy for defeating ISIS is wrong” without defining whose strategy they’re referring to commits the further crimes of smuggling in the idea that many agents can/do share the same strategy, or that a single “strategy” might be a universal solution to a given problem.

Lecturer at the Dept of War Studies, King's College London. Views entirely my own. I dig books, brazilian jiu jitsu and Bladerunner

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