What Can Isaiah Berlin Teach Us About Defense Analysis?


In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin quotes the Greek poet Archilochus, who cryptically had jotted down the following axiom in antiquity: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing.”

Out of this saying, Berlin extrapolates a larger meaning that outlines a fundamental epistemological difference dividing all thinkers and writers.

“[T]there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organizing, principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause related to no moral or aesthetic principle.”

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Berlin notes that the first kind of people belong to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes. The philosopher does note that this is naturally an oversimplification and somewhat “artificial.” However, his distinction is quite useable to highlight two different types of defense pundits: the ideological defense policy expert versus the fact-driven security analyst. Applying Berlin’s definition, it immediately becomes clear that defense policy scholars and analysts always ought to be foxes, rather than hedgehogs.

For Berlin notes that the thoughts of foxes are often “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves.”  Hedgehogs on the other hand, consciously or unconsciously, seek to fit their analyses into an “all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical unitary inner vision.”

In short, the unitary vision of hedgehogs makes them (consciously or subconsciously) unreliable analysts and advisors, since they have to discard or distort facts to fit their theories or Weltanschauung — they may, however, make great politicians (e.g., Churchill, Lincoln etc.). In addition, the majority of hedgehog defense analysts suffer from one particular kind of unitary vision, what I would call “The Gathering Storm Syndrome,” named after the first volume of Winston Churchill’s magnificent history of the Second World War.

In the first volume, Churchill neatly summarizes the secret gospel, the unitary vision, which latently has been underpinning all analyses of Gathering Storm Syndrome-suffering hedgehogs since the end of the Second World War:  “We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.”

In short, the unitary vision of hedgehog analysts suffering from the “Gathering Storm Syndrome” is the following: Restraint in international affairs is always a mistake, and the danger of appeasement is omnipresent. As a consequence, a nation is in mortal danger at any sign of weakness or indecision.

Consequently, hedgehog analysts are usually the first to condemn compromise and strategic patience, since for them — true to their “Gathering Storm Syndrome” skewed vision — any international confrontation, whether against Iran, China, or Russia, is in reality a fight against a camouflaged form of Nazism, and any false compromise will only delay the inevitable clash of arms.

It then follows that as an alternative hedgehog analysts usually suggest a “do something” approach to avoid looking indecisive and weak. Or in the words of Matt Welch: “The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail” — the only important thing is to act, preferably with military force.

The main problem with this approach, however, is that it relativizes threats akin to continuously shouting fire in a crowded theater. At some point people become fatigued — most likely, if one believes in the premises of Murphy’s law, when a real fire (i.e. a genuine threat to the country’s national security) is breaking out and decisive action is required for real.

In the United States, it is easy to detect such hedgehog defense policy analysts and commentators. Just watch out for a few key words and phrases in their texts such as “Munich 1938,” “appeasement,” and “credibility gap,” or, among the more academically-oriented hedgehogs, “competitive strategies,” particularly when discussing the rise of China. Favorite historical analogies used by the hedgehogs include the Battle of Britain and “Blitz” of 1940, the Anglo-German naval arms race prior to World War I, Pearl Harbor 1941, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance. However, this vigilance should not be confused with fear-mongering sold as objective policy analysis to the public. For one of the benefits of freedom is to ask the simple question: Why? And this is something citizens should never forget.

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