Note #1. Theoretical Thinking is Applied Critical Thinking

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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Winning complex competition and warfare requires both theoretical and applied thinking.

Critical Thinking

Thinking critically about assumptions, logic and evidence helps frame and anticipate threats to security. Particularly for adaptive threats that target vulnerabilities of thought such as entrenched assumptions, flawed cause-and-effect logic, and “not in my lane” job execution. 

Theoretical Opportunism

Theoretical thinking includes opportunism that discovers and anticipates vulnerabilities in how competitors think. Social media extremists attempt to radicalize disaffected groups to divide society; internet trolls strive to become opinion leaders to shape perceptions.

Self-selected information, what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” opens people up to theoretical opportunism enabling its realization as a form of exploitation. Such innovative threats can become real, but they begin as theoretical concepts with disruptive implications. Such as distributed operations coordinated by artificial intelligence via virtual networks. Sounds far-fetched until it happens.


Neutralizing creative threats also requires imaginative theorizing. How can we transform institutions to out-think proactive competitors? How can we secure new technologies that depend upon openly shared data? Winning today’s complex competition and warfare is an ongoing struggle for advantages that matter in an information-rich competition of ideas and practices.


To prepare leaders for this demanding environment, learning should include thinking about alternative possibilities. For instance, much of the theoretical literature in international security studies concerns itself with abstract questions about the nature and dynamics of the global system.

Theoretical questions typically ask why states seek to balance against a rising power or why they prefer to align with one. Theories also examine why distributions of power such as unipolar, bipolar and multipolar systems emerge, and hypothesize about the consequences of change. Those who fail to change risk becoming obsolete or prey.

Even so, practitioners often dismiss such questions of why, consumed by daily routines of how to pursue security. How should national security be defined in terms of executable goals? What are the best ways to use resources, against what threats and for which opportunities? What financial priorities and risks are appropriate for market conditions and political circumstances? These are the pragmatic problems that confront leaders and challenge strategists. So-called applied thinking. Yet, our actions are often shaped by assumptions about why things are the way they are now.


Strategists tend to use frameworks grounded in two basic approaches to international security: liberalism and realism. These theories, or world views, differ with respect to assumptions about the nature of mankind. For instance mankind is assumed to: (a) be inherently good (a liberal view) or inherently bad (a realist view); or (b) value individualism (a liberal view) or collectivism (a realist view).

Why do these distinctions matter? They matter because such fundamental assumptions, wittingly or unwittingly, get applied to well-used concepts such as balance of power.

Liberalism applied to balance of power assumes that democratic states will not wage war against one another, due to common values and interests. Values such as individual human rights are assumed to shape interests. Realism applied to balance of power theory assumes democracies are capable of waging war against each other due to different values or interests. Values and interests are assumed to shape each other. These different assumptions can influence how we attribute intent to behavior.

Attributing intent to behavior involves making assumptions amidst uncertainty, and cannot be avoided. Making decisions based on a clear understanding of different theories and their assumptions sharpens our ability to generate and evaluate competing strategies. As in red-teaming, or any attempt to “think like a competitor.” Similarly, leaders can inspire people to act based on common values or interests. Or, an exchange of different values or interests. How?


In Paper #1, I pointed to the possibility that the current shift in US policy toward North Korea may be moving from the strategy of tactics toward tactics of strategy. It’s hard to tell due in part to the personalization of ties between the two heads of state.

Common intent such as peace can create new possibilities, but we need to specify what peace looks like and imagine new ways to get there. The current US administration has a chance to convert a threat into an opportunity, with follow-through.

In theory, leaders can hypothesize “unrealistic” ways out of a problematic situation. Applying such theoretical thinking involves fundamentals Of strategy, the subject of Note #2.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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