‘The Hell of Good Intentions’, A Review

hell of good intentions

Stephen Walt was one of the most influential contemporary international relations theorists to me when I first entered the field of IR as a Master’s student over a decade ago. Of the currently active crop of IR thinkers he remains my favorite, so it should be no surprise that the coming of his newest book, ‘The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy’ was an instant acquisition for my massive nonfiction library. Though Walt and I have diverged on some issues in the past few years, our overall diagnoses of both what ails the US foreign policy mainstream as well as what to do about it remains extremely similar.

I am not going to go over the details of the book as many of its themes have been covered on this blog multiple times already. From the incestuous navel gazing of the Court Eunuchs of the Beltway ghoul class to the virtues of America’s fortuitous geography in its rise and options towards grand strategy, to the virtues of offshore balancing to those lucky enough to be able to practice it, all can be found here in various posts. If you know many of my bugbears you can guess what are Walt’s, and vice-versa.

What I will do, however, is review how good a case Walt makes for covering this topic as a single book meant for a large audience. Unsurprisingly, this book is meant for a similar audience as the very one it rightly criticizes. This means Walt takes a very different tactic than I do. Whereas I tend to go after people outside-of-the Beltway and show how the fables of liberal hegemony are directly counter to someone’s interests, Walt wants to convince those who are a bit more integrated into these elite circles. This is not a criticism of mine, as its important to be firing on all cylinders here. I am merely acknowledging that if he is the Martin Luther King Jr of foreign policy realism than I am more the Huey Newton-to use a somewhat tortured and tongue in cheek analogy. I try to convince people who are non-centrist independents, the few sane paleocons, and leftists and he goes more for the liberals and centrists.

Keeping this in mind, Walt does an excellent job. Not only does he wage a thorough and quite multi-topical demolition of both the record of our very own Late Ming court eunuch equivalents whose lanyards are the modern version of the old quill said eunuchs once used to hold in their piss (analogy once again mine), but also the long term effects of these luxury wars we have found ourselves in. For someone who is sometimes (unjustly) criticized in academic circles for ignoring domestic factors and how they shape foreign policy, it is worth pointing out that, so far, this book seems to have little in the way of big newspaper reviews. Quite possibly because it also criticizes the general neoconservative/liberal bias of major legacy papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times’ op-ed section. Had this book come out in the twilight of the cursed Bush II presidency I have no doubt it would have been given more media attention, but in a world where both parties now identify openly with unthinking hawkishness-from Trump embracing Pompeo and Bolton to the Democrats rallying around the flag of the national security state and even bizarrely ex-Bush Junior officials-there is little mainstream attention paid to this work so far despite the fact that Walt is a distinguished and well known scholar in the field.

Fascinating that. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Needless to say, this is *the* work to get your foreign policy orthodoxy questioning people to engage with series realist critiques of both the present system and what to do about it. The book even helpfully closes out a useful list of talking points and arguments that could be deployed to make the case for a more restrained offshore balancing strategy. Worth keeping around to push the needle especially as a reckoning with the establishment must be only one or two more of their failures away.

My only real critiques of the text as follows:

While Walt does mention how the Lanyard Ghoul (once again, my phraseology) class has an intrinsic reason to back mindlessly hawkish policies due to them making money and status off of such policies, he only barely mentions the privatization and for profit militarization of much of the DoD in the past few decades. This is not something that could be easily reversed without major structural reform not only of The Pentagon, but also our entire political-economic system as it presently stands. This, along with environmental issues, are some of the reasons being a realist actually made me evolve more structurally left wing positions over time. Also, when living in DC, as I currently do, one sees how this recession-proof city really functions as more and more ‘Beltway Bandits’ move in with the attached monstrous apartment complexes clearly designed for pod people in tow. In DC the policy is made, and DC itself is increasingly economically reliant on what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial complex’….except that now said complex has a profit motive above all, and thus far less reasons to uphold the national interest first. This entails not only many jobs that rely directly on the perpetuation of bad policies to exist, but also an army of lobbyists to see that their voices are disproportionately heard in government.

My second criticism is just a minor oversight but one worth mentioning. Walt rightly bemoans the lack of foreign policy focused elected leadership in office currently. While I agree with the argument overall, and also with his complaint that the cause suffers when certain people from a family with the last name of ‘Paul’ do much of the public speaking on its behalf, he is missing one very persistent and vocal figure in congress: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The entire reason she has managed to restore realist and restraint positions to the discourse is because she is charismatic and is a rare figure focused on foreign affairs. Personally, I would love to see Walt support her mission in congress as congruent to his own.

 

The Grand Alliance Future Predicted by Geotrickster is Here

On posts too numerous to mention (or bother going through to link directly to) on this blog I have often talked about the importance of the Eurasian landmass and the traditional fear of naval powers of grand land-power alliances locking up most of it. In contemporary terms this often means a China-Russia alliance of the sort from the early Cold War returning. I recommended to American strategists that this be avoided and that overly antagonizing Russia on all fronts would increase the likelihood of it happening. In the end great power rivalry was always more important than tiny peripheral gains (and over-expansion) at Russia’s expense.

Well, it has happened. Or more accurately, it now is definitely in the process of happening. This doesn’t mean that the numerous tensions in the relationship-especially over influence in Central Asia-won’t flare up or reverse the process, but its clearly time to start thinking about the US position of being sidelined in much of Eurasia actually is.

A true realist does not pine for the past (one the reasons I find the large presence of paleocon realists so baffling) but constantly adapts to changing circumstances. Rather than scream about how dumb American strategists are which I do enough anyway, here are some recommendations for them assuming present trends of the Moscow-Beijing bromance hold true:

  1. Neither Russia nor China could challenge America on its own yet. Together they actually do provide a challenge large enough to get America back on spending government dime on science, technology, the space race, infrastructure, and competing in green energy. The Cold War was one of the best things to ever happen to the United States, internally speaking, and its end with hindsight was one of the worst. We cut spending on so many of the things that made us great and competitive so we could pursue the phantom chimera of endless tax cuts, deregulation, voodoo economics, and yelling about social issues while both major parties gobble from the Wall Street trough.
  2. A mega-power blob of Russia and China will both attract new allies and alienate new enemies. In the re-alignment that occurs the US could in fact increase its influence in many new countries who fear a new Eurasian power bloc. I have said before that I see North America, not Eurasia, as the true ‘world-island’ in geopolitics, the ability to maintain and expand relationships with powerful nations like France, India, and the like in the long run counts more than losing much of the Middle East to Iran (which will no doubt go for Russia-China if present policies continue).
  3. Finally, a way to responsibly end Afghanistan. Being bogged down in Afghanistan is a drain on American grand strategy (if a boon for defense contractors, funny how that often happens), and can be jettisoned if Afghanistan is de facto ceded to a Eurasian bloc as a security concern. China’s close relationships with Pakistan increases the odds of more effective policies being adopted, and the inevitability of Islamabad-DC fallout and growing New Delhi-DC ties make this a natural development which should be accelerated rather than delayed.
  4. Potential access to resources, the real core of power politics, will be cut for US and allied nations, but what is lost in one place can be gained elsewhere, outside of conflict zones even, especially considering the most under-reported and extremely important news of centuries worth of rare earth materials being found in Japanese exclusive territory. This further stresses that the US-Japan Alliance is the most important in the world and should be the top priority of US diplomats.

Interstate Anarchy and the Befuddled Monotheist

Gallen-Kallela_The_defence_of_the_Sampo

When the subject of International Relations is taught in universities, it often opens up with a discussion of the concept of ‘anarchy’. In this specific subject’s domain, anarchy neither denotes the political philosophy nor one of the rightly less-talked about Batman villains, but rather the classic definition of realm without governance. This may seem a strange topic for a subject/major which is ostensibly about state to state interaction, but what it effectively means is that there is no over-arching governing structure above that of states.

Protestations that this is not the case because of the UN or ‘values and norms’ should always be met with derision. After all, big states don’t have to do anything the UN tells them too, little ones often do depending on their relations with bigger powers.

Despite being an important introductory concept, I tend to find it is one that many people, not just entry-level students, struggle with. In earlier posts I have mentioned how common place but also delusional the Anglo-American view of a progressive international realm moving in a linear direction is, but I have yet to articulate why this is often the case. I can put it simply, believing in one ultimate power is akin to committing intellectual and suicide for the person seeking to understand strategy.

Even before the world was integrated and largely aware of, well, the rest of everyone outside of a particular region’s existence, where a single dominant power form of unipolarity could often rise a la Rome at its height or the Chinese Han or Tang Dynasties, such arrangements were not assumed to be perpetual perfections of humanity. Rather, the security they provided was a fragile construct worth defending…until it wasn’t anymore because the consensus upholding it had broken down. The Han were aware of the Qin before them, the Tang would be aware of the Han, and so on. Confucianism, often a boring conservative philosophy on so many issues, rightly predicted that no order, no matter how perfect, could last forever or be immune to change. The Byzantine Empire certainly recalled its glory days by never giving up the title of Romans even if they had long since left Rome itself behind.

Such unipolar arrangements are rare. Since 1991 we have seen arguably the only one to ever span the entire planet. It will not last forever. It once was taken for granted that it would by the complacent chattering classes of liberalism and conservatism alike, but now enough reality has set in that we face something just as bad-denial giving way to impotent rage and divisive fury. Where did America go wrong? Who is to blame?

Well, America is to blame. Just as the Cold War gave it the spending priorities and mobilization to build a space program and first class infrastructure, so too did unipolarity give it lazy navel-gazing narcissism. This is a process that happens to all powers (sorry, exceptionalists) but can either be delayed or accelerated by a variety of factors. One of them is buying into your own mythology. When your advertising brand becomes your very existential core of existence believed by the governing class itself, you have a problem.

The United States, like Britain before it and other spectacularly insecure powers, viewed itself as apart of history. A moral titan reshaping the world with the righteous energy of Christian values and liberal politics. But as is usual in politics, righteousness is really a code word for ‘strategically toxic and anti-intellectual while still being just as coercive as any other order.’ Herein lies the problem: cultures who believe (either actually or symbolically) in one absolute higher power suffer from massive handicaps to much of the population when it comes to getting the inter-state system and the ever-present anarchy that is an inevitable part of it.

The United States may be the most powerful state which has ever existed in all of human history. For all we know it might continue to be so for decades or even a century if one is being generous. It still does not rule the world. Nor could it. It merely can get away with more for less. That is what power really is in the end, the ability to shift the world’s various circumstances in one way rather than another through intention. It is why it is an invaluable, if incalculable, resource. An invisible resource created only by very real material ones.

And it matters because there is no authority. There is no God here. This is international relations- a realm of little highly specific gods whose fickle natures and epic, tragic feuds are the stuff of legend. As fortune weaves out fate their various importance in the hierarchy rise and fall accordingly. They uphold no values but that which geography and history gave to them, much like representative deities of specific regions, lifestyles, and careers. Or like packs of social and competitive animals. Much like the illusion of order is given by the United Nations, Mount Olympus is an imposing location of projected celestial unity which under closer scrutiny gives way to the back-halls of scheming and backstabbing. Comedy and tragedy abound in equal and intertwined measure.

And yet we treat the act of wishing this away for supernatural or philosophical paternalism as one of principle and heroism. It is anything but. It is in fact cowardice. The fear of the unknown, the fear of not being the good guy. But what we need is exactly people who are willing and able to see themselves as the villains in someone else’s story, and still be willing to carry one regardless. Maybe even revel in it a bit.

This is not a world of universal morality or high ideals. It never could be. It is a state of anarchy, and it is also a state of philosophical and circumstantial polytheism. This means that as far as an intellectual understanding goes, some cultures are better equipped than others to understand the fundamental principles of IR in both theory and practice. Obviously, many great strategists exist in all literate cultures, so its not a supressive effect. We do have Cardinal Richelieu after all. But in the Muslim and especially Christian worlds, those strategists were thinking against the currents of their time and often regarded as highly scandalous, whereas in non-monotheistic cultures such strategists were a utilitarian novelty. This is less an issue about strategists themselves than one of non-strategists learning about or from them. I do not find it a pure accident that the only sane person on foreign policy issues in the US congress right now is a Hindu.

In a world where the public (and often times even more the private) educational system emphasizes the inherited baggage of monotheism and its secular surrogates it risks creating a population of people with absolute opinions and no practical way to achieve them. As it is, most internet political culture in countries like America and those of Western Europe has become one where the greatest posturer is regarded as the default winner, rather than people who actually accomplish things. Specifically on foreign policy it creates a right wing addicted to war and a left wing addicted to war-like things which are not claimed to be wars but rather ‘interventions.’ This is because paying homage to some nonexistent order is regarded as more important than the more morally ambiguous and complicating of simply living the life of a hypersocial and tribal animal. ‘We have to do something’, they say, ‘it is our responsibility to uphold this order.’ They ignore that in domestic politics the state serves as the final arbiter, and their moralism can be translated into legalese and upheld. It is not so in the international realm.

I often make jokes at the expense of conservatives overfond of America/Rome analogies. The two societies are really nothing alike and its mostly a way for BHB’s to pretend to be educated about the past. But if you are going to make one, here it is: It is telling that the Roman Empire adopted Christianity most likely in an attempt to shore up a declining state by having a uniform religion. What actually happened though was that the need for uniform views itself led to internal strife unlike that ever seen in the pagan days, with theologians at each others throats and various factions only happy enough to jump right in, eventually expanding their disputes to competing foreign peoples. It was a conversion whose only real strategic effect was a massive amount of irony. Monotheism cannot even make itself true in a unipolar order. In fact, one could make the case that unipolarity increases the need for a more ‘polytheistic’ approach to strategic thought, as to acknowledge a state of nature beyond human ideals and aspirations is to be on guard against complacency.

And yes, I know about Niebuhr. And yes, I am unimpressed. Because you are still just kicking the can down the road ineffectually if your argument is ‘humanity is just so rotten we can’t see the glorious unity of order and can’t take part in it until we die.’ Because there is nothing rotten about any of this. It is just how it is. People may call my views cynical, but the fact is I accept humanity as it is and don’t pretend it can or even should be something else, here or postmortem. It is what it is, get used to it. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with a multi-polar world, and there is everything right with one when it comes to debate, discussion, and diversity of ideas. But, the unipolar world only works when it acknowledges itself as a freak occurrence or a product of circumstance, not as a harbinger of world order and morality (also somehow conflated with economics by 20th century powers to ridiculous degrees). The more unipolar the world, the greater the necessity for a more diversified understanding of values and politics. It is worth remembering that at the end of the Finnish epic ‘The Kalevala’, Vainamoinen is being banished from the world by the arrival of magical baby (the Christian religion), yet he swears one day his people will need him and he will return.

After all, the trickster, the theme element of this blog, could not exist in a world of black and white and universal order. It would be an irrelevant concept. And yet the people who stand the test of time as thinkers were often those who stood against their own era’s received wisdom. But look around you in both folk legend and real life and you will see tricksters everywhere. Probably having a pretty good time too. And if not, making some over serious person have a bad time, which is just as good. There is a reason the myths and legends from cultures with many gods are always more fun to read anyway, it speaks to our actual multi-faceted experience in the real world.

 

Multipolarity or Unipolarity for Eurasia’s Future?

russia-china-bears

Answer: I don’t know. Let’s dig deeper! Here is a good article from The New Statesman. I have a few additional points I would like to add to it.

Moscow is only going to take expanding Chinese influence in the region for so long without some sort of give and take, especially as they have potentially more to offer. Its hard to see the ultranationalist and increasingly xenophobic Russian state asserting itself towards the west and giving up in the east. Of course, that might also be the idea. Secretly Moscow might see such a bend as inevitable and thus the immense pride and low risk force projection towards geriatric Europe and world-hated ISIS is the cover for a massive but calculated preparation to take junior status to China in all but name on the world stage.

Either way, the United States and its allies are doing everything they possibly can to shoot themselves in the foot right now as a big part of what draws these powers together is the scheming of Atlantic nations who have little strategic gain in the region but at least superficially and sometimes directly support opposition movements anyway. It is fascinating to watch American grand strategy drive two natural rivals closer together based on nothing but overconfidence and overreach. We don’t just have a military-industrial complex, we have a liberal-humanitarian NGO complex too. Both influence strategic decision making in often unwise directions.

I would be willing to bet that the Sino-Russian relationship would have already started breaking down by now if not for the complacent imperial overreach and narcissistic Wilsonianism of the US and its allies. And if they keep pushing they risk making this otherwise temporary arrangement of convenience a permanent one, locking them out of the region entirely for sure.

But no matter what happens in this arrangement Russia might still be the loser. A rivalry with the US is much less dangerous than a rivalry with China for them, whereas a rivalry with Russia is significantly less dangerous for China. Expanding influence into Central Asia seems a much less risky move than the South Pacific on the part of Beijing. Any such action could be more exploited by the US to divide the powers. Of course, if these countries do hold onto a Eurasian lock together against the odds long term they really would have made the first large scale and successful multi-regional check on US ambitions…well, possibly ever.

It is a fascinating time for grand strategy, that is for sure. There is nothing else (contemporary, anyway) I would rather study.

The Coming Multipolarity, or, ‘Damn it Feels Good to be a Horder’

Yes, I meant ‘Horder’ as in Horde and not ‘Hoarder’.

So in my last post I mentioned in passing how freakish unipolarity actually is as a part of talking about how the people in American foreign policy circles who advocate constant interventions, lest they confront a decline, are actually the ones causing said decline. The once and future restoration of multipolarity, whether it comes in a decade or a century-I know not the time scale- is actually a subject that interests me even more than what I wrote about last time. To talk about it, I am going to do something a bit dangerous in IR-if only because there is a sad lack of historical knowledge in many quarters of the discipline-I am going to make a historical analogy to what I think approximates the future of return to multipolarity and great power behavior. I am going to talk about the Golden Horde.

Mongol warrior rearing

If anyone knows the artist please let me know so I can give credit and find more of their work! It is just such a cool image.

Now studying this topic is kind of my bread and butter, I did write a book on the influence of nomadic people in Eurasian geopolitics after all. It is, however, a niche topic and after dealing with it explicitly in graduate school and in book adaptation form you are only going to get the summary here. But I have to say that I think the strategies enacted by nomadic people are an interesting pre-modern analogy to what we might see in the future, albeit in an obviously different form.

Previously on this blog I have talked on multiple occasions about my affinity for Neoclassical Realism and regime survival theory. According to scholars such as Beckwith the primary political arrangement of the Eurasian steppes was a type of enlightened despotism with high levels of mutuality and dependency of the ruler with his in-group elite. Depending on the example, this in-group could be anything from family members, military leaders, adopted foreign administrators, and in some cases all of the above. The Mongol Empire was one of those ‘all of the aboves’. More importantly to the theme we will be examining here though, is how it viewed self/other relations on the international stage. In other words, their approach to International Relations. Now, the Empire was large and diverse, and after a couple of generations it split into several increasingly different kingdoms. Though all of these states shared many attributes we will be looking over, it is ideal for brevity to pick the best successor state for looking at the messy world of multipolar relations. This is the Golden Horde, also known as the Kipchak Khanate and the Ulus of Jochi.

When the Mongols invaded Russia to stay they broke all that Basic History Bro received wisdom of never attacking Russia in winter. In a large land filled with poor-to-nonexistent roads which was often forested or swampy in much of the year and where cities lied almost exclusively upon rivers, this made sense. The cold-adapted Mongols used the frozen rivers as highways to hit city after city, which fell to their rapid mobile horseback armies backed by the new acquisitions of Chinese siege techniques and the new (to Russia) technology of gunpowder explosive. It was a remarkable campaign which further added to the laurels of the general Subotai Bahadur’s already amazing reputation, and ensured that Batu, son of Jochi, would have an impressive inheritance.

But Batu Khan was not just some spoiled scion of the Mongol royal family riding the coattails of their greatest general, but rather a keen politician. This was good, for his domain of the empire began with unique challenges and required more autonomy than was yet normal due to its distance and remoteness to Mongol power bases. A small number of nomads now had to control a territory that did not always favor them as well as greatly larger numbers of subject people. Their advantages were in speed and intelligence, not numbers, and their distance from the Mongolian core (and integration already of many other Turkic people into their system as they moved west) meant their position was different.

Batu, like other Mongols, believed in the efficiency of indirect rule. But he would take it further then the rest of them yet had. He allowed all Russian princes who surrendered to keep their lands, and those who never fought against him in the first place could get elevated positions in his hierarchy. Rather than stretch his forces out or occupy places, he relied on the threat of his rapidly moving horsemen to serve as the stick to the carrot that was being integrated into the booming Mongolian trade network. To top it all off the Mongol Empire gave freedom of religion and tax exempted clergy as well as administered a postal service. It offered an attractive package especially when the alternative was punishment expeditions which could result in enslavement or utter destruction.

The Horde constructed a wall of these buffers, many of them willing, to bolster its frontier with the large and then very powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Reaping the taxes of its subjects without the costs of occupation and even being able to ‘offshore’ some of the fighting was a good deal. An empire made by sudden conquest essentially turned to become a remarkably defensive player. Attacks served only to weaken foes or secure pasturage. To put it in World Systems Theory terms, the core exploited the periphery due to their unique military and trade managing advantages. Only in this case the core were the smaller amounts of ‘less advanced’ (by settled societies’ standards) nomadic people and the periphery were the cities and farmers.

Batu and his descendants spend most of their time on the steppe, they even built what became two of the wealthiest cities in the world for that era off of the Volga. Cities of which little remains due to the later campaigns of Timur, though which many records of travelers speak of their immense multicultural settings and wealth.

So why is this relevant to the future of multi-polarity? Well, for one thing since at least the Second World War if not the rise of steam powered naval vessels, speed and rapid deployment of multi-functional forces has returned to world political and military calculations in ways not seen since the impressive medieval armies of Inner Eurasia. Indeed, it now far surpasses them. Another factor is the rise of transnational trade and resource extraction networks, which pillage on a scale Chinggis Khan could never have dreamed of, but remain vulnerable to geopolitical breakup just as his did. If Mongolian trade networks suffered with the collapse of the empire, then they must have been partly a product of unipolarity. So too are the shipping lanes and grand trade deals of the United States no- doubt temporary artifacts of its own power. Like the Mongols, the United States uses a smallish elite military capable of immense speed of deployment to keep such a system open. Like anyone, past present or future, this system cannot last forever.

In a non-unipolar world all powers must tread lightly with each other but also have the luxury of being quite brutal with smaller powers in their respective zones of influence. Repeated failures and some extremely expensive successes with things like peacekeeping and anti-guerrilla warfare was made most leery of directly occupying places. And yet in a world with several competing power-poles there will be no one else to do the dirty work of securing economic hegemony for powers towards their own periphery. They will have their own markets, their own needs, and wildly divergent internal structures. Rather than seek to impose these structures on each other or even their ‘vassals’ they will simply seek to support their own regimes however they can at home while getting what they can abroad. When two power-poles enter conflict it might be over proxies or even entirely *through* proxies. Either way, the wonders of modern technology enable plausibly deniable warfare to be fought abroad without necessarily increasing war fatigue at home.

All of this means that special forces and elite columns will matter more than mass armies-at least as long as the conflict remains peripheral and doesn’t break out in total war (always a possibility in any multi-state system). But even a big breakdown bringing back conventional war using today’s (or the future’s) technology would be one prioritizing speed and firepower over numbers, as things currently stand anyway. A Subotaiian force deployment, if I can coin an awkward new phrase, adds on to this levels of utilizing organized crime backchannels and cyber warfare and you have yourself a 21st Century recipe for whatever the new equivalent is of ‘Golden Hordeing’ by living large on the steppe with occasional shows of force abroad.

If this does come to pass, and it already seems to be manifesting in the early stages in regards to Russian policy towards Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan, you might see more of the continuation or exploitation of frozen conflicts so that larger powers can project their influence without directly invading anyone. Although increasingly a specialty of the Kremlin, this is hardly unique to Russia these days. From South Pacific islands and Taiwan between the US and China to France in many parts of western Africa and increasingly other powers there as well, it seems the best way of building a protection network is for technologically or logistically advanced nations to insert themselves as arbiters in perpetual conflict zones. Now imagine that without a stabilizing power. So, the princely states between Lithuania and the Golden Horde in the 13th Century seem suddenly relevant.

I do not know if this arrangement, should it come to pass, will be an overall improvement or a downgrade. I can see certain issues and peoples losing out and others gaining. As typical in the humanities it would most likely be a mixed bag with people’s reactions coming from where they are geographically and in terms of economic station. The good news is that there won’t be a drive to impose a uniform socio-economic vision on everyone else (always a quixotic and ultimately disastrous cause which the Mongols were astute enough to avoid except in rhetoric). But, the bad news is of course that there could be more conflict, and that with looming ecological disaster waiting in the wings such division might finally occur right when we need collective policies the most. Of course, one look at human history shows that when the chips are down people turn against each other when resources are on the line most of the time. So one could always hold out hope that the divergence of geopolitical blocs beyond what we have now might create new creative policy dynamism to confront ecological degradation, leading ultimately to a type of ‘survival of the greenest’ which in the end might help in dealing with the problem.

But if history has any lesson-a statement one should always be dubious to make-it is that history has no linear path like the hard sciences. Politics and philosophy is basically the response to conditions which arise from resources, conflicts and deals struck about them and the physical world we live in. It is adaptation, and like natural selection while all branches might die in the end, some will fair better than others in particular moments of crisis. Whatever those adaptations may be, any breakdown in multipolarity is going to go through a phase which is at least Golden Horde-like for the more powerful countries which may exist at that time.

And even in the unlikely event of one unipolarity giving way directly to another through unexpected catastrophic collapse concurrent with canny rise (say USA to China) this has just delayed the inevitable. Unipolarity, as I said, is a freakish occurrence. And much like a supercontinent, it is a temporary arrangement between cycles of greater division. One day great powers (whoever they may be) will find themselves hoarding smaller countries to create their own little NATOs all over the world. Some arrangements may be nice to their clients, others cruel, most a mix of the two, but in a world so used to only one or two true superpowers it is good to occasionally remind people that you can look at Imperial Rome all you want as a glorified example of past and present analogy, but its the various Hordes who people might be studying in the transitional future. It sounds apocalyptic, but for all we know it might be awesome. Or both, whatever. The tides of history know no morality either way. And I just want to examine as many strategically relevant things in the past and present as possible. And listen to Tengger Cavalry of course.

For further reading on these specific topics I recommend Dilip Hiro’s ‘After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World’ and Charles J Halperin’s ‘Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History.’

Nation Building Sucks and the United States is Particularly Bad At It.

afghan kunduz

In Max Hasting’s massive book ‘Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-5’ he makes numerous observations comparing the Allied armies in the later stages of the war with each other. The hard lessons learned by the post-purge USSR in combating the German army are contrasted with the bungling and occasionally disastrous performance of the British anywhere outside of North Africa and the overly cautious hyper casualty-conscious strategies of the Americans. Though he hardly judges it as it makes sound strategic sense when one has the luxury of a much larger and more ruthless ally to do much of the heavy lifting, it is a worthwhile point you will not hear much of in the triumphalist Atlantic oriented popular history of the Second World War.

Eisenhower quite correctly saw how adverse to mass casualties the United States was in the immediate post-isolationism era. But catering to this need would not have been a remote possibility had the USSR either not been a participant in the war or had been knocked out of it by the time the USA was in full force. While it is undeniable that the United States played the most decisive role in supply, logistics, and defeating Japan in a largely naval and limited amphibian war(those tend to have smaller amounts of overall casualties than big pitched land battles even if they are economically more challenging to sustain in many cases) the amount of sacrifice it would have taken to have gotten unconditional surrender from Germany (or to conventionally invade Japan) would have necessitated a negotiated peace or the mass deployment of nuclear weapons again and again on most of the cities of both countries.

Debacle in Vietnam reinforced this trend right when it was starting to expire. Multiple wars of choice since the 90s were conducted in such a way as to minimize American casualties as the first priority and securing objectives a second. This is a problem, and not because these luxury wars of choice need to be fought better-but rather because they are totally unnecessary.

With the renewed and potentially perpetual US commitment to Afghanistan coming at the same time NATO countries are doing everything in their power to unseat the Assad regime while seemingly either oblivious or indifferent that such actions may create a new safe haven for radicals perhaps it is time to re-examine America’s greatest weakness as a tool which could be its greatest strength: adversity to sanguinary military operations. If one thing is going to re-align a fundamentally moribund foreign policy strategy it could be this.

There was only once as a fully independent and established nation that the United States both mobilized for total war and was willing to accept truly enormous open ended sacrifices with seemingly no limit to bring a war to a decisive end and that was the Civil War. The partially botched nature of Reconstruction and the truly appreciable percentage of the nation’s populace killed or wounded produced a souring which meant that a single year in the trenches of WWI reinforced quite the fear of mass casualties…and the further from home they were the more suspicious they could be. One could imagine that in an alternative Second World War where the United States gets involved reluctantly to shore up the Allies against the Axis without a Pearl Harbor to inspire a desire for revenge as one of being careful and fearful to deploy forces in the decisive quantity. Though as a naval power in two oceans, it would retain great defensive bonuses and initiative.

But despite constant fearmongering over China’s rise, there is no power which on its own or even in a league with another power could challenge the current status of the United States unless it gets perpetually overextended and bogged down. Its offensive actions in the Second World War and its simply holding out and assisting the collapse of the USSR indirectly ensured the closest approximation to a unipolar world order since the Mongol Empire-and a much more global one that even that was.

Even the most paranoid of security fiends should realize, looking beyond instinctual and trained reactions of pride and ‘sending messages’, that there is no need for the United States to take the offensive. Indeed, doing so overburdens its resources and will and risks an isolationist backlash. Using naval power to secure and control trade routes and economic power to guarantee central airline links as well as supplying a defensive reserve to allies is all that is really needed. And no, it is not ‘defeatist’ but merely a good cost/benefit ratio. After all, history is full of examples of people who declined not because they ceased by somehow ‘vital’ (as is commonly supposed by bitter old men and Basic History Bros alike) but rather due to overextention. As it is, the United States is an overindulgent ally, and in its mad quest to re-make the world in its own image, often a full blooded ally to some when mere friendliness would suffice. Coupled with the lack of understanding to other contexts this means not only are nation building efforts done with money and air power over real on the ground results, but more importantly, the nations in question are not being built to be their best as they are, but their best as America wishes them to be.

If steps are not taken to change strategic course some spirally over-indulgent intervention somewhere will make the people demand it. No one but the neocons is going to be able to tolerate the bumbling id-cop routine much longer. Lest we be subjected to a fate where the United States literally becomes the nation-state variant of ‘Mitchell.’

The fundamental problem is that the United States sees itself as the sole unique nation. The one who can remake history to suit its own domestic mythology. This has never been true of any nation and it is not true now.

There will one day come a world which is again multipolar. It will come sooner if the United States is too ambitious and too over-active in non-critical regions to its interests, not later. And the nature of that multipolar future will have no room for world-changing universalist creeds. In fact, in my next post I will discuss the closest historical analog to what I think great power politics will be like. So stay tuned.

The Strategic Tricksterism of Herman Kahn

‘Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best to have no way at all but instead the wit constantly to make one’s way anew from the materials at hand.’

~Lewis Hyde, ‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art’

‘I am against fashionable thinking.’

~Herman Kahn

herman kahn

As someone who is deeply interested in the think tank world (and eventually perhaps finding employment there) I have long been fascinated by Herman Kahn. This is a field which attracts already-made celebrities, bur rarely creates them first. But with Kahn, it did. Or to put it closer to the truth, he was one of the rare disruptive personalities to make a name for himself there.

I recently finished Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s excellent part-biography part-Cold War think tank survey ‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War’ and was immediately struck by the kindred spirit painted so adeptly on her pages. I had known about Kahn before of course, but only related to his book ‘On Thermonuclear War’ and the effect it had on the popular consciousness at the time of its publication in 1961 (most obviously as the declared inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the film of the same name). Seeing a personal portrait of the comical, self-deprecating man who fired off jokes about mothers learning to love their two headed babies twice as much in the event of a nuclear war, all while giving presentations to the media, the Air Force, and peace activists alike really helped flesh out Kahn’s larger than life persona better than even his controversial and potentially horrifying book on strategy.

Kahn was an early prodigy who breezed into Air Force logistics and support during World War II before devoting himself to wargaming, systems analysis, and work at the RAND Corporation. Within the organization he made a name for himself as an affable eccentric who loved to argue and play the contrarian. In some of the most establishment settings imaginable he upset norms and provided outsider insight.

All this was just prelude though. ‘On Thermonuclear War’ was coming, and popular culture was about to take note. Kahn wrote a book which somehow managed to offend everyone. Nuclear War was removed from a pedestal of ‘the final option’ to something real and almost mundane. Like a battlefield everyone lost but some lost much more than others, meaning of course that there were still winners and losers. Intercontinental exchanges of ICBMs became part numbers game and part tactical risk. It was doable, it was a real possibility, and there would still be a world left when it was all over.

Everyone lost it. The right threw a conniption because Kahn simply viewed the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as nation-state rivals and gave no significant credence to any ideological element of the Cold War in his strategies (he had remarked in his personal life that he hated right wingers and refused to even eat dinner with them). The left by and large had a meltdown, seeing  the doomsday scenario treated in such a detached and occasionally flippant manner as the ultimate in diseased military-industrial complex thinking. The defense establishment itself worried about bad PR but had a more sedate reaction, even if Kahn personally rubbed them the wrong way with his jokes and gross inserts (he had once blurted out to officers that the military command were unthinking brutes about grand strategy and only capable of having ‘wargasms’-a term he coined and which would appear intermittently in nerd culture-most importantly to child-me in the late 90s action/strategy hybrid game ‘Wargasm.‘)

But Kahn wasn’t some mad technocrat simply crunching the numbers of people’s lives like the human resources department from hell. He was someone who saw quite simply that if at least two nations on Earth were willing to build and stockpile massive amounts of nuclear weapons than there was the obvious chance they might be used. This did not mean the world would immediately come to an end or that strategy had become obsolete. In fact, the idea that nuclear weapons could only lead to an immediate end of all things meant that they were less likely to be taken seriously as a threat both at home and abroad. Kahn took nuclear warfare seriously and many, if not most, of the establishment did not. So to get their attention he talked about a very real possibility of nuclear war in a manner deemed ‘unprofessional’. Crude jokes making light of the most dire subject matter ironically got people to take the unthinkable seriously, and thus start thinking about it. It was reported that once translations had been made, the Soviet leadership was all over the book just as much as the Pentagon was.

Since there never was a massive nuclear exchange, we may never know how good Kahn’s strategies were. But this is far less relevant compared to the discussion he started. He became target number one of the peace and anti-nuclear movements, who he was willing to meet in person. They often left discussions with him in a glow, feeling the man was both affable and respectable. No one, save one particularly vindictive book reviewer, viewed him as a threat. In the end some peace movements would even embrace his arguments, seeing them as the stark truth of the necessity of their cause laid bare in a neutral tone.

On the other side, many of his own employers were not exactly enthused with the kind of attention they were now getting. Feeling stifled by RAND after the release of his book, Kahn would go on to found The Hudson Institute, which seems to have somewhat different overall priorities today but at the time was his own personal project with some friends. It is the hallmark of the trickster, as they go along they travel constantly and upset the status quo, turning enemies into friends and friends into enemies but always leaving the world changed.

Could another international relations trickster exist (aside from this blog of course) and have such an impact from within the insider world of strategic analysis? Of course. But would they be able to get as far into the popular mind before being given the boot? One doubts it as things are now. The influx of raw talent from outside the calcified circles of the elite in past eras was caused by the mass mobilization of World War II. The perpetual defense mechanisms in place since have had no such upheavals however, and the reinforcement of tropes in thinking seems extremely strong.

But these things do tend to come in cycles. One day the tropes will fail, the complacency will shake, and outsider advice will need to be sought again. Nothing can stay the same forever.

The question is will I, this blog, and it’s mission of reinvigorating strategy from without, live to see it? And if so, where? As Kahn himself said about professional tones and overly serious working culture:

‘One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to change, to tamper, to criticize…sometimes a colorful approach is to be preferred.’

Anyway, using the phrase ‘systems analysis’ seriously makes me think immediately of vaporwave, so have some on the house: