O’Bagy and Boots: Spirit Totems of the Beltway Ghoul Class

You may not remember (or have ever heard of) Elizabeth O’Bagy. Basically, she was a fraudulent expert hired by the (neoconservative) Institute for the Study of War to serve as a Syria expert. Her expertise was largely in advocating for the ‘moderate rebels’, whose work she did on their behalf she failed to disclose, and in lying to people that she had a doctorate. See below:

In a denouement that will surprise exactly no one, she had the right opinions of cheerleading endless regime change policies to qualify for a failing upwards promotion to join the staff of Senator John McCain (of course) as a legislative assistant.

What this small potatoes lanyard has in microcosm is in fact emblematic of a greater problem with the Beltway. I have mentioned before how ideologues get signal boosted and actual scholars get sidelined, but its worth mentioning exactly why this is and what purpose such a system serves.

Amber A’Lee Frost, who as far as I know has no foreign policy experience, accurately diagnosed the problem with so many regional ‘experts’ in mainstream foreign policy commentary. To paraphrase from memory, ‘the point of regional experts is-90% of the time-to advocate for more U.S. intervention in their region of focus.’ As someone who has lived and worked in DC for a few years now, I can confirm the truth of this statement. Objective reporting and actual regional expertise for cost/benefit calculation is sidelined for new ways to make a case for various forms of intervention and increased defense spending and to dupe the middle class rubes who seek such high minded sounding justification. This is the name of the game.

While these types are common beyond belief, a certain few always rise to what passes for media influence from time to time. William Kristol, the hilariously named Power and Slaughter Axis (Samantha Power and Anne Marie Slaughter), and on the list goes. But none has quite taken the O’Bagy status of our times quite like Max Boot.

Boot’s career is far more ‘impressive’ than any of these, if we take impressive to mean consistently and often hilariously wrong. He is one of the rare military historians who has achieved fame, and the method of acquiring that fame is the one which is most detrimental to history: parroting the popular political mythologies of the ruling class of his time. Despite the fact that a thorough study of global history, and yes, military history, reveals a total lack of teleology in human affairs save for the triumph of power and cleverness over weakness and rote-thinking, Boot has churned out one book after another turning advocating for an understanding of American history that supports the largely disastrous post-Cold War trends of foreign policy-as well as increasing those failed policies in both scope and intensity. I suppose at this rate he should be loved by accelerationists who wish to see a collapse of American world power, since the acceptance of everything he wants would fatally cripple the long term sustainability of American power.

But rather than go on about his career I really wish to lament that these are the people called in for ‘expert analysis’ on much of the media. All that gives the public is self-affirmation of the policy wonk bubble-a bubble that has been clearly failing since 2003 if not before. See for yourself Max Boot in action:

And also here:

What I find fascinating about both of these clips is that Boot is up against opposition that is hardly unsurpassable. Tucker Carlson is often laughable rube on many issues that are not related to his welcome recent turn on foreign policy. Stephen Cohen is a real scholar but is certainly the most uniformly pro-Russian voice you could possibly find on American television anywhere. Yet despite being able to take any number of ins, Boot always gets flustered that other people simply don’t believe in an ‘American Exceptionalism’ where great power politics is cloaked in the language of morality and norms. On the very format of cable news where his audience is most likely going to be sympathetic he cannot even hold his own.

When the propaganda machine promotes the unworthy every time they make a terrible policy prediction that just so happens to flatter the already existing biases of a class of people it will inevitably lead to their own PR not being able to hold its own in the public arena.

Perhaps, in this way, O’Bagy and Boot are indeed performing a public service of sorts.

Douglas MacArthur’s Ghost and the Bolton Democrats

 

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Image via the BBC

Today was a big day in diplomacy over there in Singapore. Trump met Kim and their advisers met each other. America has apparently committed to ending joint military exercises with South Korea (for now) and North Korea has started demolishing its weapons testing sites, though only a few so far.

The almost nonexistent relationship between the US and the DPRK is an artifact of the Cold War. One that became obsolete from an ideological point of view in 1992 but has lingered on anyway. This is, of course, because it (much like the Cold War itself in my opinion) was not primarily ideological but rather a contest of rival power poles and alliance networks. In reality, North Korea has remained an issue because it fears the United States and encirclement from their allies but also fears that this unenviable and de facto blockaded position on the world stage would force it to become so subordinate to their giant ally China that their sovereignty might also be indirectly compromised from that direction.  If you wondered why a government is so clamped down and beholden in all factors to security concerns this is why. China wants a compliant vassal state protecting its only land border with a US rival, South Korea and the US want to keep affirming their alliance, and Japan wants to stop being used as a testing ground for North Korean weapons demonstrations. North Korea, for all its oddness, really just wants to survive and avoid any kind of regime change operation, be it conducted from their south or, perhaps more indirectly, from their north. When it comes to security actions and goals abroad, Pyongyang is one of the most rational actors around today.

So why is there so much moaning that we are even talking to them directly now?

I have no interest in predicting whether these current talks will be successful or not. Trump is far too mercurial and there will be many established interests in many different countries who will not want these talks to produce good results. I *hope* they start a running dialogue that succeeds in their purposes, but I am not going to yet come out and say they will. They should, however, be given the chance. To increase the chance of them working, much of foreign policy in both major parties in the United States should be figuring out how to bring this about.

But here rises the ghost of Korean War General Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur began his role in the Korean War with a massive amphibious flanking victory at Inchon, changing the fortunes of the war which up to that point had been largely one North Korean victory after another. His famous hubris led him to build off this victory by driving ever onward without regrouping or securing his position and in frank disregard (which he would convince an initially reluctant Truman to follow with) for China’s determination of keep America off its border. What resulted, in the Yalu Campaign, was one of the US armies’ biggest defeats, perhaps second only in scale to the loss of the Philippines in 1942-something MacArthur also played a role in. The war went from imminent US victory to grinding stalemate, with MacArthur having to be replaced by the more cautious and adaptive General Ridgeway. There would be a ceasefire in 1953, but in technical terms the conflict never would end.

MacArthur returned stateside to play the victim of Washington, the scapegoat of the President. Never mind he himself had advocated for expanding the war into China and the use of tactical nuclear weapons to facilitate this grandiose and mad counter-offensive. Never mind that he had inverted his WWII career by starting out winning and ending up losing. He blamed others and became an icon of the far right which was just then beginning to descend into the howling madness of McCarthyism.

If he were around today he would sound like John Bolton…or your average establishment Democrat. After all, the historic meeting in Singapore had barely made the press when notorious King of Corruption and Popularity, Senator Bob Menendez, said it was a ‘victory for North Korea’ that we had somehow blundered into to our loss. Meanwhile, the old guard of the Democrats (as well as the sociopathic hawk and daily birthday cake quaffing Tom Cotton and his types) have been constantly pushing America’s famously vain and media-obsessed President to take a more hawkish line on North Korea.

Do keep in mind these are the same people who constantly refer to him as a madman and unhinged. Yet they want more war like policies from him as they vote for more and more defense spending increases. Amazing.

These Bolton Democrats are in effect trying to push Trump to his right on foreign policy as well as position them as the ‘true patriots’ who ‘aren’t afraid of foreign countries’ and can say ‘see we told you so’ if something goes wrong. The problem is that policy issues of this size really shouldn’t be partisan footballs. There is no ideological clique driving this policy, such as there was in Iraq, but rather probably just two leaders both seeking a win to legitimize their standing. This seemingly petty reason should not turn us away from the many opportunities that improving relations between DC and Pyongyang could represent. And it should not blind us to the fact that America holds most of the cards in this bilateral relationship, from sanctions to diplomatic relations in the region, and therefore can afford to give a little here and there. North Korea will have little to give up at the opening stages, so I don’t really view it as a failure to diplomacy to scrap the exercises early on.

Furthermore, in a grand strategy perspective, taking bold moves towards ending rivalry with the DPRK might provide proper benefits to American Grand Strategy in the future. The US is far stronger at sea than on land in Asia, and a Korean peninsula working towards reunification peacefully would almost certainly be a de facto neutral nation, allaying both Chinese and American concerns there. The task would be Herculean enough that they would most likely want to stay out of more great power rivalry, giving the Chinese some breathing room on their border and the US the ability to avoid being sucked into a repeat of 1950-3’s land war. Any conflict that might break out would be at sea, where the much more strategically vital Indonesia waits. This would most likely be to American advantage should it happen.

In the inevitable barrage of Norms Nerd commentary which is to follow, who will wring their hands and clutch their pearls about ‘normalizing a regime’, I can say only this: The Kim family and the ruling party have run North Korea for significantly over half a century. Get over it. You will find when you come to accept reality as it is and not as you wish it to be, that it can be much easier to get things done in the field of diplomacy than otherwise.

Bolton and the Blobocracy

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It is so thick, yet you can still count the hairs individually.

I have to regard the first two generations of the Mongol Empire as the best run superpower in history. From diplomacy and espionage to warfare, an incredibly small band of people could grow through assimilation of other steppe tribes while also conquering much more numerous sedentary people. In the chapter on leadership in Timothy May’s ‘Mongol Art of War’ this is summarized succinctly:

‘Whereas in the rest of the medieval world military genius, or even competence, was rare, among the Mongols it was expected from every commander. Much of this resulted from how the Mongols selected their commanders and trained them in the performance of their duties. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Mongols did not base the ability to command on lineage, although this might support one’s claim to authority. Instead, throughout his ascent to power, Chinggis Khan demonstrated an extraordinary gift for spotting talent in men, whether they were of noble birth or commoners. Merit was the key to acquiring a position of leadership in the Mongol military hierarchy , and battlefield promotions were not uncommon.’

One could also apply this summary to the Mongol use of diplomats, technicians, and the like as well. Such a system enabled one of the most rapid and successful expansions of force projection in history. Such a system, also, is the exact opposite of what the United States is currently wielding to shore up its rapidly deteriorating position as unipolar superpower. As Ibn Khaldun’s theories of history accurately predict, when a previously successful power becomes complacent it loses its bonds of solidarity and loyalty and drifts into the path of corruption for the sake of defensive and hoarding elites. The ending of social mobility in the governing elite is one of the key aspects of this decline. The lanyards of today are like the court eunuchs of many terminal Chinese dynasties of the past, albeit with a far less painful mark of their status to dangle from their person. Obama himself while president called this class ‘The Blob’, a monolithic force which, in our society, constantly advocates for interventionist war as the primary method of solving what are often minor and regional diplomatic disputes, or rivalries left over from the past which no longer have relevance to the average person. At the time this was remarked upon, that very blob proved its reality by launching numerous attempts at rebuttals, some of which are mentioned and linked to here. This is the Blobocracy, an alliance of misguided idealists, blindfolded patriots, ultra-credulous West Wing fans, foreign nations with the cash to buy lobbyists, and rapacious profit motivated defense contractors (only the last two of these factions is truly achieving its objectives).

How does this get us to the newly onboarding national security adviser John Bolton? Well, because in many ways Bolton is the ultimate creature of the establishment-even though many of them serve as his greatest detractors. He is decried by war hawks as a war hawk, but really, much like the craven Republican establishment of Paul Ryan in relation to Trump, what they really dislike is the brazen overtness and tone deafness of their own polices stated publicly by an uncouth village idiot type figure. And yet the village idiot is still spawned from the context of the village that helped to mold them.

John Bolton, who I once mentioned before in the early days of this blog-if in passing, began his illustrious career in foreign affairs by joining the National Guard to duck draft service in Vietnam. I can’t fault him for that, who would want to play Burgoyne and Cornwallis to Vo Nguyen Giap’s George Washington especially when the outcome seemed negative for the US? But it is in light of his later-life commitments to sending other young men to die in ill conceived and strategically disastrous conflicts that casts a retrospective shadow of hypocrisy on this once logical decision. Bolton proceeded to behave like many of the eager beavers DC is still host to today, rising up the partisan ranks by attaching himself to a school of thought with inside the Beltway cred. This was the neoconservative movement, a truly Guy de Lusignan-esque medley of ex-Trotskyites, defense hawks fearful of the end of the Cold War, and Lawrence of Arabia LARPers committed to the naive teleology of enlightenment progress in geopolitics and determined to do to the Middle East what had already been done to Japan and Western Europe and eager to rush out into the desert to end up with mass graves. The problem, of course, is that Japan and Western Europe had already been industrialized nation states before their reconstruction after World War II. The fact that the very nation that had failed to adequately reconstruct and reintegrate the former Confederate States of the American Civil War had really lucked out on occupations in 1945 allowed a delusional belief to fester, despite the fact that the next up to develop states were largely places that did it on their own terms. But loyalty to cause rather than ability decided (and still decides) the upper echelons of promotion in DC. It was this constant falling upwards, a common feature in the professional classes of policy wonkery, that Bolton rose to higher and higher positions.

Bolton, to his credit, did not actually believe much of the pablum about democracy promotion and ‘the end of history.’ But what he did believe, and still does believe, is the merit of constant applications of offensive force-which was the true core of underlying those other beliefs. This is an overtly realist blog and hardly one to dispute the utility of power projection, but power projection is always dangerous when it comes to military action and usually should be a last resort after much planning for contingencies. Allies, certainly, should not be alienated and wars unnecessary for the vital national interest (that should be apparent to an average citizen to be worth their support or participation) should not be pursued. The effect of Bolton’s policy positions is actually identical to, say, Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney, or Hillary Clinton, but simply with more unilateralism and less caution. The underlying effect of them, however, remains largely the same. Infamously establishment Thought Loser Shadi Hamid even recently pined that he *wished* Bolton was a neocon, largely for purely semantic and utterly virtue signalling reasons. The problem with much of this is that the cause does not matter. Looking, post-World War II at major American military interventions serving even its own narrow interest, one cannot help but see the failures far outweigh the success and even the utterly ambiguous results. The Korean War was a success measured by its original stated goals but became a disaster when hubris expanded those goals into a new war. Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster. So was Lebanon and Somalia if on a much smaller scale-and then you have everything post 9/11. This leaves the First Persian Gulf War and Kosovo as the only real wins, with the first leading to a repeat of the over-extension in hubris of Korea ( in subsequent rather than the same conflict) and the second’s benefiting any member of NATO or even the world in general extremely in doubt. American group think has a planning problem. Even if you made a case for all of these conflicts, it would be hard to say they had been planned and executed well by the Blob. And Bolton is very much the greatest cheerleader of continuing these blundering policies. Perhaps even expanding them.

Bolton maintains, to this day, that Iraq was a success. He supported the Libyan intervention and the (thankfully failed) attempt to regime change Syria. He constantly advocates for war upon Iran and North Korea. We can, of course, hope that his appointment is a canny move by Trump to create a fearsome persona making his upcoming negotiations with foreign foes easier, but such moves require a strategic thinker like Theodore Roosevelt or Richard Nixon-something that Trump so far has shown he is not. But one thing that cannot be stated is that Bolton is some crazy outlier, coming into a sensible system ready to play wrecking crew. He is in fact merely the strongest fundamentalist proponent of that very system. If the Bipartisan Consensus is a Southern Baptist convention advocating for young earth creationism on the Middle East than Bolton is merely the Westborough Baptist Church picketing across the street cutting straight to the fire and brimstone. He is exceptionally dangerous, but he is hardly an abnormality to the Blobocracy.

Confederation in Anarchy: The International Relations of Redwall

Well, I promised a lighter post more like my earlier entries, did I not? So let’s talk about  80s/90s children’s book series Redwall.

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Redwall Fanart by the extremely talented chichapie, who also did many of the illustrations for the great possibly somewhat Redwall-inspired game ‘Armello’)

Redwall came into my life around third age 7 and remained (tied with Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’) the top tier reading material for me until I found Lovecraft at age 15. Even after its demotion I still kept up with the series until I went to college, making Taggerung the last entry I ever read. Still, as part of the inoculation in my childhood making me immune to the culture homogenizing adverb abusing virus that was ‘Harry Potter’it will always remain a part of my life. The best entry in the series, ‘Mossflower’, I even re-read only a few years ago to see if I still got the same kick out of it. I did.

Seemingly unrelated, in recent months I have also gotten into the Chapo Trap House podcast. Because being the opposition to all mess makers who got us where we are now requires not tone policing and pedantry but a crass sense of humor and disdain for the pundit class that positively drips. Clearly, fellow travelers to Geotrickster. Anyway, episode 82 was an interview with an American volunteer fighting with the YPG in Rojava in Syria, who corrected some inaccuracies in his more well known coverage in a Rolling Stone article. Most notably, he mentioned how what often is internationally defined as anarchism is really a functioning pseudo-state in Rojava, with portraits of its imprisoned founder everywhere and a fair amount of group discipline along with the egalitarianism.

You know what that reminds me of? Redwall Abbey. But since I talk about Syria and Iraq enough on this blog, while that may have been the spark that led to this post initially, it is not the real world comparison I am going to end up using. But first, a series primer.

Redwall, the name of the first (published, not chronological) book in series and also the name of the Abbey where most of the stories take place in, was the creation of the now deceased Brian Jacques. They consist of stories of woodland creatures, the majority of which are endemic to his native Britain. The woodlands (mice, moles, hares, badgers, otters, squirrels, etc), who try to live lives of peace and equality in a chaotic and unstable low fantasy world which seems to be around the technology level of the early Dark Ages. Their frequent enemies, roving bands of vermin (rats, stoats, foxes, weasels, etc), are also sentient and bipedal but their lives are governed by near constant conflict and territorial pissing matches. Some vermin command from daunting fortresses while others rove as nomadic bands, looking for loot or a fixed place of their own to take (usually Redwall).

Martin the Warrior, an escaped slave who liberated an entire pirate plantation and crushed the slavers drifted from far away into Mossflower Country after the tragic death of his love and his many friends in their war for freedom. To make a long series of stories short, he ended up falling with a guerrilla resistance who fought some local tyrants in the region, and after gaining allies and a new meteorite forged sword helped the locals drive out the occupiers and claim their former stronghold. Most books after this event take place in Redwall Abbey, the woodlander’s own structure built atop the site of their former enemies castle. After Martin’s death, he would go down as the patron protector and symbol of the egalitarian and consensus driven society he helped make possible by defeating the militaristic occupation of the Wildcats and their henchmen. Redwall and the surrounding woods filled with other woodlander factions seems like a type of anarchist expression. But it is not the political theory of anarchy with which they most traffic with, but rather the International Relations (IR) definition of a world with no overall governing structure, which we also call anarchy, with each political unit an autonomous entity onto itself. Besides, the closer one looks at Redwall Abbey, the more apparent it becomes that this is indeed, a cohesive political entity with the territorial demarcations, division of labor, and iconography of a state.

Despite being called an ‘Abbey’, there is no apparent religion in this crew but their own civic model of local forest and farming communally acting as a guiding virtue. An abbot or abbess really comes across as a chief mediator or town mayor who can be from almost any animal type, with the various species representing different functions such as engineering for the moles, scouting for the squirrels, farming for the mice, etc. There is no ethnic hierarchy, despite the seemingly strict workplace divisions on ‘ethnicity’, and all share resources equally and are liable, if adults, to serve as militia in times of defense. Redwall has local alliances with otters and shrews, some of whom also live within the abbey, and when it needs to it, it can project its militias offensively or an behalf of its allies on expedition. Many critics, my teenage self included, tend to see the good/bad species split as a kind of creepy fantastic racism, but I actually now view the animals as different personality and professional types. When you realize Redwall and many (but not all) of the warlord villain groups seem to not really have any type of stable or absolute species hierarchy, it becomes obvious that this not really a racial divide we are seeing here but rather a professional and cultural one.

Importantly, perhaps critically for this society to exist, it is not alone. Neither next door nor too far away is the highly militarized society of Salamandastron, a hollow extinct volcano lorded over by hereditary badger lords served by a highly trained caste of warrior hares. Redwall and Salamandastron, who Martin once brought together before the building of the Abbey itself, stand together as allies, one a power, the other a resource based enterprise. You could say Redwall is Canada to Salamandastron’s America, but perhaps more critically in the same continent, that they are strongly allied tribes who are domestically autonomous in a politically uncertain and dangerous world, but utterly unified towards any exterior threat. In this way, the real way to explain the IR of the Redwall series with a real life example is to look at the native confederacies of the Great Lakes regions. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Wyandot (Huron), and the Anishinaabeg (Three Fires) confederacies were groupings of tribes who came together for mutual defense. The first two formed as common Iroquoian fronts against surrounding Algonquian peoples, the Three Fires, in turn, coalesced more westerly Algonquians due to the expanding power of the Iroquois after they became the hegemonic power in the eastern North American interior in the late 17th Century following their defeat of the Huron.

For the sake of simplicity, let us focus on the Iroquois. Also, they were the subject of my capstone thesis paper for my undergraduate degree in history. Briefly, the Iroquois were an alliance of squabbling tribes in upstate New York who were brought together by the teaching of Hiawatha, himself inspired by the prophet Denangawida, who traveled the 5 tribes, eventually with many allies, winning over an alliance of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Oneida. Each tribe had an assigned task, such as the Mohawk being the guardians of the eastern door, or the Onandaga being the keepers of the council hire, or seat of governance. The tribes were basically governed as semi-autonomous pseudo-matriarchies by the elders in times of peace, but the league appointed temporary military leaders and diplomats in times of negotiation and peace. With their strong bedrock of support at home and their fighting skills, they grew, and outlasted several conflicts with Algonquian and various European enemies until different tribes of the alliance split over who to support in the American Revolution and the system collapsed. But for centuries, the league stood, navigating the tempestuous waters of Native and European politics alike on a continent upended into chaos by mass spreading of Eurasian disease and economic reorientation.

One wonders if in the ancient history of the Redwall world something happened to introduce mass depopulation and migration. Given the plethora of ruins found in the stories, the many roving and rapacious bands, and the somewhat stagnant technology level of a book series taking place over many, many generations, one cannot help but wonder from what prehistory the scribes of Redwall Abbey’s ancestors descend from. ‘Martin the Warrior’, chronologically second, implies all or most woodlanders were either enslaved or quite primitive to how they would be later. The recovery is clearly taking place though, as in later books it seems that Redwall and Salamandastron also have much stronger advantages against vermin than before when they were very clearly the underdogs. With the epic and bloody battle (for all sides) that closed out ‘Salamandastron’ (the book) as the first big unified fight with the two in one place, it seems that since then the allies have forged a better world for their, dare I say, socialist vision? Like the Iroquois, this is a confederation of pseudostates into a state-like alliance. A necessary coming together in the face of constant anarchic adversity, invasion, and danger whose longevity turns the alliance into a de facto national entity of its own with time. Ironically, the policies that make these societies sucessfull and brotherly are the very same ones that make them such a tempting target for the many vermin hordes, who seek their riches and security of place. Perhaps it is for the best then after all, without the common vermin threat someone more cynical than the target kid audience might assume that these two lights of the woodlands would then, like the Iroquois and Huron, or the late term tribes of the Iroquois themselves, inevitably turn on each other.

In times of great upheaval and rapaciousness we should remember the woodlanders of Redwall, who could carve out their own little place in the sun despite all the uncertainty around them with group solidarity and geographic awareness.

International Flexibility Theory: A Proposal

Academia, government, the corporate world. They all like to have neat little theories with neat little acronyms averaging out to around three letters. Sometimes these are helpful classifications and sometimes not. Often, they seek to bring order to a chaotic world by creating an archetype for specialization.

When it comes to international affairs, we certainly have our own list of such categories. As with the other fields, some are actually useful and simplify things, and others fail in this regard. Not enough, however, accurately reflect the level of division and divergence which really are some of the biggest features of the international landscape.

I would like to introduce what I think (and hope) is an original contribution to the field: International Flexibility Theory-henceforth for simplicity’s sake to be referred to as ‘IFT’. IFT is not to be considered as an entire comprehensive theory of international relations, nor is it necessarily attached to any previously established school of thought. It is, rather, a kind of strategic observation which could be added to a variety of topics. Its very nature, however, probably jives with some topics and backgrounds better than others.

The key point of IFT is a very simple one: (1.) The ability of a state to rapidly change for pragmatic purposes, and thus re-mold its core values, the better the international performance of that state. Building off of that idea, we can follow up with (2.) the more flexibility a country has in its internal structure, the more flexibility it will have in its foreign relations. To put the negative side of it simply, if the core value of a state is survival, be it of the governing class (regime) or of the geographic entity, the sweet seductions of retrenchment or ideological uniformity are a false siren song luring the ship of state to be dashed upon the rocks. This means that the governing class cannot be allowed to grow complacent, be it with their own civic ideology or that of one being internationally faddish. (3.) Since the contexts of different states, (historical, geographic, political, etc) are obviously dissimilar, the lack of uniformity and divergence as different states compete against each other by following different paths is actually internationally useful for the political scientist, as it means that observation of this creation of new models may contribute new ideas of governance or diplomacy to those who otherwise would not experience them. Since the context of each countries’ or alliance network’s existence cannot be replicated, it goes without saying that any new ideas which one might want to adopt must be re-tooled to a new context-but to accept that there is no universal political model still opens the door for more creativity for the theorist and practitioner alike as well as the innovator learning from the experiences of others.

None of these points may seem particularly insightful or new, and in fact they are not on their own. But in an era of the contested breakdown of the grand alliance of global capitalism, liberalism, and humanism-after they themselves outlived international socialism, and both had replaced Victorian colonialism and made significant inroads at the expense of divine right monarchies, it seems important to remind scholars and policy makers alike of the deficiencies of a universalist approach to international political theory.

It has become common place enough to seem trite to cite the utter failure of ‘The End of History’ type theories. The fact is, outside of triangulating centrists and the New York Time’s op-ed page, no one really believes in these things anymore. But among certain influential chattering classes, some scaled down (and often militarized) version of this neoliberal fantasy is still validated. Furthermore, once we acknowledge that it is precisely this order (or its remnants) which has held strategists back from really engaging in civic flexibility (as stipulated in IFT) it becomes relevant to observe that whatever one makes of the recent upswing in nativism (I am, personally, not a fan) it holds the advantage of being more beholden to local circumstances, and more willing to diverge rather than being a movement with global pretentions. The common insult ‘globalist’ used by people of today’s right actually speaks a grain of truth, if sloppily applied.

To build off of that example, the liberal order itself came to defeat the socialist alternative not based off of ideological or economic superiority, but rather, according to IFT, because it was more flexible to adaptation than its primary competition. The political and economic systems of what was called the Free World were actually extremely divergent from one other, their common interest largely being either geopolitical opposition to the expansion of the USSR’s power or local opposition to the spread of communism in the near abroad. It really was an alliance of convenience, and only when things were clearly swinging in the direction of the United States did it start to become a proper ideological and international project. Compared to the explicitly international objectives of the socialist bloc, this gave a flexibility advantage to the goals of the alliance. Meanwhile, in the socialist bloc, the attempt to hold it together (under Moscow’s thumb) as a cohesive and more uniform alliance exacerbated the Sino-Soviet Split and the alienation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia itself, most famous today for its messy breakup (I would add as an aside, inevitable since 1919 and hardly reflective of Tito’s government or even the Cold War) then went its own unorthodox way and succeeded, despite its many handicaps and being one of the most devastated states of World War 2, to make impressive gains in development and diplomacy. Cuba also, more isolated by geography than anything else, entered a path that kept its model sustainable long after the end of the Cold War.

Going back to even further, the vast material supremacy of the Allies over the Axis was in part due to their more sprawling societies. Sure, someone like myself can say that the root of this is in geopolitical security, but geopolitical security can still make a state stable enough to handle dynamic pressures others cannot. The highly centralized ethnocentrism of the Axis, coupled with a single minded desire to upend the power of competitive states, made a brought coalition against them inevitable, not to mention fascism’s predilection for romantic ideals and smug sense of superiority for certain ethnic groups could be argued to have negatively affected strategic decision making from Barbarossa to Pearl Harbor. Such appeals to nativism and supremacy themselves become a rigid doctrine where people are too proud to admit error or a fate to be surpassed by another state. Pride and self-flattery are always the enemies of IFT. So too is triumphalism, as it exacerbates the dismissal of change and learning from the experience of others.

This is not a new idea. More of an experimental approach I want to throw out there and see where it goes as it evolves. In the future I would like to do a vigorous historical study covering many more eras and locations and see if a general trend emerges as theorized here. From what I know of history, I can already think of countless examples where the flexible power or group of powers had an innate advantage specifically because they were more open to change than their competition, and more willing to accept divergence from whatever their idea of the ‘norm’ was. From the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in the 17th Century to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th, it is societies willing and able to question their own status quos who have held the adaptable advantage over those who do not when competing in the anarchic inter-state system.

Reclaim Military History!

timurid-dueling-period-peice

Expect the unexpected. Prepare for collateral damage. Prioritize outcome over ideals. Fear the costs of war and so avoid it whenever possible, but when it is not avoidable prosecute it with the utter ruthlessness of one who knows victory wipes away all prior qualms. These are lessons that seem obvious to anyone with at least a passing engagement in military history. What is increasingly obvious to me, however, is that these are still things found baffling by most of the populations of nations in North America and Western Europe. By failing to take into account of the most important aspects of history, large segments of the populations who can afford such ignorance are often baffled by sudden and shocking current events. When they are told of a plan that fits with their preconceived ideological notions they assume this plan will work. When told of one they disagree with they assume it will never work. People who know the fragility of military plans in history might not be so easily taken in.

So why, if understanding military history has such obvious contemporary value, is it one of the more lost and relegated arts under the humanities umbrella? Why are we now living in a world where vast swathes of the population who fancy themselves ‘informed’ largely get blindsided by events, clutch their pearls, and scream what the year currently is in response?

Well, it’s the same reason when I was an undergrad so many people I was sharing a History major with did topics like ‘Peasant Festivals and Identity.’ It is also, interestingly enough, from the same origin as the present plague of right wing identity politics. More on that last example later, but needless to say, it comes from the hyper-individualistic and romantically affirming hegemonic influence of postmodernism in academia. In the post-Vietnam era studying war became something akin to being a slack-jawed neanderthal, studying ways to ignore it in favor of supposedly lost approaches to human behavior that prioritize emotional response and ‘identity’ took its place. Because of that, I would argue, political science and critical thinking lost a valuable asset in the tools it had to analyze the world around us.

It may not surprise anyone who reads this blog that Victor Davis Hansen and I basically come from nearly opposite perspectives on everything political. He is a hard core neoconservative who often interprets history along a Fukuyama-Hegelianesque path of societies fighting ‘for freedom’ against those who fail to imbibe the Freedumb Fries and also persists in one of my biggest pet peeves, the assumption that there is something inherently special about the ‘western’ world that can be seen throughout history. He often presents us with stuff written for low-information suburban dads who also read Tom Clancy novels style of military history, despite his obvious talents as a nonfiction writer. But one of his books I did really like, ‘The Father of Us All’, in which he argues that military history is engaging, informative, and under siege. It is by far his strongest work and one I enjoyed despite the inevitability of quibbles given the author. He talks at length of the class divide in appreciating military history, with working class students trending much more strongly in favor of it in class to their more economically sheltered peers. It resonated with those who had struggled in life and realized the lack of individual choices in real life and who fate sweeps us along via events much bigger than ourselves. He wrote also about history professors who looked down their noses at people with a war specialty as if they were some kind of ghoulish cabal of necrophiles just flicking through the pages of the past for a rush.

Granted, that is how I got into it myself in a manner of speaking. When I first became interested in history it was to experience a whole new wonderful world of weaponry, armor, and battles that could not be found in the present day world. What can I say? I always liked action and horror movies. I wasn’t silly enough to think it was fun or glorious, far from it, it only confirmed my desire to never experience war directly. But interesting? You bet! I was also in my early teens, so this was in some sense the inevitable bridge to get me into nonfiction events. But even then it taught me valuable lessons like that things never go according to plan, a lot of strange borders make sense if you know the history behind them, geography and ecology are the ultimate determining factor in human affairs, and just how potent human hubris can be. None of these are lessons your average news junkie reblogger of today seems to have learned, but they are all lessons they need. As it was, I ended up diversifying my interests into cultural and diplomatic history just as much as military in adulthood, and my core interest in the militaries of present and past has not stopped me from being a constant agitator against unnecessary conflict, the neoconservative foreign policy status quo, and making a world better fit for a reduction in defense spending to focus on environmental and infrastructure issues as priority whenever possible.

Most tellingly, this kind of military history education could be used to allay some of the pearl clutching over the ongoing fall of Aleppo. Taking two seconds to think before commencing in pearl clutching would make people realize several things:

  1. An orgy of violence is most often better than a long drawn out perpetual stalemate and siege.
  2. In an era of urbanization war is more likely to come down to city sieges. That is more likely to affect civilians. It is an outcome of demographic and technological shifts and not a constant and intentional policy by everyone with explosives who uses them.
  3. Targeting civilians can indeed meet strategic ends. If it does so and shortens the conflict in the process (think Sherman’s March here) it is actually justifiable on ethical grounds.

I could probably list more, but that does for now. I also like to remind fans of hashtag slacktivism that ‘never again’ was always a silly slogan. ‘We’ did nothing in Rwanda, a huge scandal to humanitarian warriors of the 90s and probably a big reason ‘we’ took such a hawkish line on Kosovo later. The problem is that in Rwanda, remarkable leadership, which began on the battlefield by local actors, caused the persecuted side to recapture the country, defeat their enemies, and set an an infinitely superior and more stable government in its place. In Kosovo, where intervention was touted as a success and a way forward (before the various calamities of the 21rst century would rightly tarnish its image) we have a mafia run pseudostate which gave to its Serb minority as bad as once was given by them, and which furnishes no insignificant amount of recruits to jihadist groups in the Middle East. So…the ‘we must do something’ mantra *must* be questioned given the uneven results it gives. Ironically, this is a position most likely to caution against military action-and one it seems only adhered to by those who have some knowledge of the military past. After all, the most effective intervention against a horror show regime in modern history was almost certainly Vietnam deposing the Khmer Rouge, but since it is not a liberal democracy initiating the action it gets ignored. It was also an operation launched with clear geostrategic objectives in mind on the part of Hanoi. Often times, to see a conflict you need to question the dominant narrative. That becomes easier to do when you study the long-forgotten conflicts of history, where one’s present temporal location makes them less partisan. You start to seek not who is right and wrong, but why some won and others lost. Those are lesson that apply to all times and all fights. They are lesson which are easy to overlook when one is only a partisan of the present. ‘(It’s the [current year]!!!!!’ comes from this lack of depth in perspective.

I also want to mention that other side to the hippy horror show descended from the postmodern hegemony: the neofacist right. The natural people who would attach themselves to identity politics were of course the perpetually (supposedly) victimized white identity types. It is often these types of people who fantasize about a world of strong virtuous men and their manly deeds. No homo. Often, you see these kinds of people latch on to superficial elements of military history in addition to their bad Roman Empire analogies. With these type of people now clearly in the cultural ascendant, we must not let the utility of military history be claimed by those incapable of using it intelligently. Plus, in most nearly equal fights far right governments overall tend to have pretty terrible military records. There is a difference between knowing how to draw an analogy from many periods of history of many different cultures and how context-centering that can be, and some goon who can cite multiple youtube videos and Cracked articles. Don’t cede this ground to such unworthies.

A new group of young people entering the worlds of civic service with a strong and global understanding of military history, coupled with other forms of history and political science, would be a fearsome and potentially wondrous thing to behold. In an age of complacent breakdown leading to a time of fear and retrenchment it is now, more than ever, that we must reclaim military history!

And on that note, a fair goodnight with a song to perturb the pacifist:

Speculative Materialism and International Relations

eagle transformation mask

Eagle transforming into Sisuitl mask (by Richard Hunt)

‘[You humans] are not as free as you think you are; your cleverness and pride bind you to the truth. Don’t you see what you are doing to us and yourselves?’ ~’The Animal’s Lawsuit Against Humanity’, 10th Century Iraqi Fable.

Over the course of the past year I have discovered and immersed myself in a relatively new philosophical school called variously ‘Speculative Materialism’, ‘Speculative Realism’, and ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy.’ While not an overtly political form of philosophy, being much more in the realm of metaphysics and the like, it nonetheless has political implications, as all schools of thoughts do when you look hard enough whether they mean to or not. Since international relations theory is a part of what is covered on this blog, I would like to make a brief case for how Speculative Materialism could impact the study of that subject in the future.

I will confess that I am somewhat new to this school of thought and have not yet read all of the works I mean to someday. I have, however, read the text that probably started it all: Quentin Meillasoux’s ‘After Finitude’ as well as Steven Shaviro’s ‘The Universe of Things’ and the essay collection by multiple authors of ‘The Non-Human Turn.’ This is not a field of my expertise by any means and I have more reading to do, with ‘The Fragility of Things’ at the top of the list. So as of yet I cannot speak with the confidence I could on say historical or geopolitical manners. That aside, having delved into this field on the side in the past year has me with a few observations.

First, what is speculative materialism? To put it in the simplest terms it is the simultaneous rejection of platonic idealism and postmodernism relativism. It should be obvious to regular readers of this blog that I already do both (and indeed, have for most of my adult life), but this is a framework for viewing material issues (as material issues are what matters) in a way that divorces them from simply being objects under human observation and interaction to independent (but non-idealized) objects in their own right. Rather than embrace Platonic desires of therefore setting these objects up as pristine and independent, speculative materialism focuses as much on the interrelations between said objects as just as important a part of their existence as themselves. But the key here is to de-anthropocentrize the relationship factor. A rock with a stream or a fox in the stream standing on the rock all create relationships in real physical space that have nothing to do with ideals or even feelings about them, and thus the relevance of human consciousnesses as a central force is called into question, or at least its uniqueness is. In a materialist world view (i.e. the only world view that is not entirely based on faith) the consciousness is affected by the objects if at all, but not so much vice-versa. Being trapped between the utopian idealism of the left or the golden age worshiping revanchism of the right has no place in this view, and the fatuousness of consciousness-worshiping postmodern identity politics has even less. What has long been a period of affluence based ideology for middle class people to feel educated and make a pretense at being impartial observers has been dated for a long time, but postmodernists still thought themselves as fashionable and forward thinking. They never were, but now there is a new kid on the block as a philosophical school to finally show the sportscar driving midlife crisis having ageing group of people that no, they are no longer even  young nor particular culturally relevant…so maybe its time they stop hovering outside of college campuses trying to pick up prospects. If I may quote once again from ‘The Animal’s Lawsuit Against Humanity’: ‘If this is how you humans glorify yourselves , then your ignorance speaks against you. And as for what you have argued-why, it is vanity, hot air, lies and fabrications!’

That is a very stripped down version of speculative materialism, but it will do for now. What I want to mention is how much ammunition this gives the anti-idealists among us to recognize the coming crisis of world affairs is going to be in large part ecological and thus the political affairs that will arise from such ecological issues will be decidedly material.  It also helps explain in more philosophical terms the issues I have with economic globalization. While no one would deny it brings benefits, I view it as an experiment running long past its usefulness as state actors are still the most powerful actors on the world stage and must make laws and policies to reflect the differences of where they are in space and time. Therefore, global economic projects (unless they become about ensuring the installation of more sustainable energy sources or joint national parks) more often impede the policies needed to be enacted by societies. Much necessary divisions of strategies to tackle issues (Florida and Iceland will experience global warming very differently, after all) reflect that the relationships we have with the material world are not equal but based in the physical and political geography of where we spend most of our time. This in turn dovetails into geopolitics which recognizes that the use of space is the key determining factor in diplomacy, conflict, and alliance building–and sometimes even capacity for development.

The relationships we have with the non-human world around us matters as much as that with the human. But this is not some absolutist hippie creed, anything but. We are a predatory species, and like other predatory species we do what we must to survive. But in this ruthless and inevitable struggle we can at least acknowledge the context of us as reactors as much (if not more so) than actors. Much as we view the rest of nature. And this will not be some simple exercise in hubris reduction, but a way to mold our political and social strategies to give the best return for less effort. Something about it all makes me suspect speculative materialism might just be a good corollary for defense realism as a foreign policy theory. Our species base material needs are the real driving both of domestic and international affairs, and attempts to pretend otherwise often lead to error if not outright ruin.

Since the trickster is the theme of this blog it might perhaps be best to sum up my feelings with a quote from Dan Flores’ excellent book study of the coyote ‘Coyote Nation’ which shows why I find the myths of polytheism so much more enlightening to how the world really is than that of monotheism. After all it is under aninism and shamanism that the inter-contentedness of humanity as part of the animal world is constantly reinforced:

‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’

 

The World’s Biggest Feint

SilkRoadMap

‘All warfare is based on deception…Offer the enemy bait to lure him.’

~Sunzi

So you have probably heard of the recent ruling in the South China Sea. Considering the internalization of maritime and other disputes that Beijing enjoys deploying as nation-affirming red meat for the people, I would certainly not want to say this issue will be solved anytime soon. However, I would like to posit one even more interesting interpretation-that whether or not domestic pressures force a dangerous showdown in the Southwestern Pacific or not, this ecologically destructive race of island building and extending maritime claims  was originally and possibly still is nothing but a geopolitical feint of truly massive scope.

Think about it. China is a nation with an ancient history of grand strategy. Many of the best strategists in history come from there and nearly two centuries of a national dark age has knocked the former complacency of several thousand years of relative cultural success out of stasis. Surely, considering these factors, a rapidly rising world power is not yet on track to risk everything in a mad-dash naval rivalry with the United States and its allies? After all, the example of the last country to do that is China’s favorite punching bag: Japan. Only once, in the early Ming Dynasty, did it seriously see itself as a naval power rather than a land power with naval interests on the side.

While it is worth considering that shore based anti-ship missiles might have restored the advantage to the defender in naval war for the first time since before cannons on ships, we simply do not know how effectively they will actually be yet. So while retaining the caveat that China might have pushed its maritime claims into its domestic sphere so far that it might be forced to be foolishly belligerent, let me advance the potential for a wiser and probably more likely scenario.

The Chinese government wants US forces on the ready in the Pacific. Combined with America’s hubristic and unnecessary proclivity to deploy many forces to the Middle East, this leaves less for Washington to have immediately ready to act in the Indian Ocean. More importantly, the US, having abandoned Central Asia to Russia (and rightly so, as it was an unnecessary extension for a naval power) can now no longer pursue more military and political influence in said region.

During the War of Spanish Succession, the Duke of Marlborough on multiple occasions fought against the most powerful army of his day by launching multiple feints, forcing the foe to weaken critical spots in their line by redeploying forces elsewhere to meet his well broadcast attacks. This inactive backwater of the front or battlefield would then become the main focus of his attacks, overwhelming the overburdened position of the enemy. If one views what is often called as ‘The Eurasian Chessboard’ in a similar way one sees an opening for China in the west, which leads to a potential opening south.

Even if the Beijing-Islamabad axis never gets any stronger, and India remains strong enough to contain the Indian Ocean, there is plenty to be gained from inland Eurasia. And not a damn thing the U.S.-whose regional role is now to be isolated and bogged down in Afghanistan and nothing else-can do about it. In fact, Beijing benefits from Washington keeping the Taliban busy while it pursues its own objectives elsewhere in the neighborhood.

In order to shore up this economic and resource expansion on the continent, it is necessary for Beijing to keep good relations with Moscow. Russia holds this new arrangement together, keeping the northern flank intact and providing the cooperation needed to work well with local elites in the region. But Russia, with its insecurities about the Siberian frontier, remains cautious. The historically inclined inside the PRC are probably salivating at the potential for analogies for when the Han Dynasty divided the Xiongnu Empire and turned some of them into perpetual warrior proxies on their behalf.

Therefore, one suspects as Chinese interests grow in Central and possibly South Asia that tacit yet unofficial backing of Russian bellicosity in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe will in fact increase. They would never admit it openly of course, but to drive the wedge further between Russia and western Europe and the US is to keep Russia from contesting losing some relative influence in Central Asia to China. Not to mention that if very successful, this policy could also reduce the long-running de facto military hardware export dealing between Moscow and Delhi, which would further strengthen China’s position towards its giant southern rival.

Assuming this comes to pass, I actually see it as a potential positive in world affairs. A confirmed sea power and a confirmed land power with minimal ability to directly interfere in each other’s interior business and with only a few places where proxy conflict could break out. A type of Cold War lite with the appeals to ideology mercifully slim. Of course, in order to keep Moscow and Brussels sufficiently separate even in this best-case scenario major upsets will occur.

And of course it requires two very important and totally not guaranteed variables: Sober realism in both Beijing and Washington.

 

A Future of Nagorno-Falklandbakhs

falklands pic

This past month marked two very interesting events the bilateral relations of four different countries. Fighting once again broke out in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the UK made a very strong statement about their ability to obliterate an Argentine attack on the Falklands in a short amount of time should another conflict ever occur.

Much has been made of Russian foreign policy in regards to exploiting frozen conflicts in order to retain a post-Soviet periphery, be it in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Tajikistan. But this is hardly a behavior unique to Russia. It is only the scale and multiplicity of Russian interests that mark it out as most noteworthy. But frozen conflicts play a large role in the foreign policies of many smaller nations. In fact, a single seemingly minor dispute can be an all-consuming issue in a smaller nation’s outlook on international affairs. Sometimes, these disputes are useful rallying cries for fragile nations, but they can also be quagmires which reasonable policymakers know are useless but are forced to continue on with thanks to domestic pressures. It can also be both of these things at once.

When Argentina invaded the Falklands and South Georgia Island in 1982 it was after the failure of decades of diplomacy. The risk was high but Britain was obviously in steep decline compared to its great power days and would have a massive logistical problem to overcome to re-take the islands, located near the Antarctic Circle. Even with this accomplished, they would still be in range of South American based fighter attack and far away from the nearest British base on Ascension Island. Considering the internal instability and economic fragility of the Argentine junta, this was seen as a risk worth taking to rally the people to their cause.

But while the Argentine air force performed well, crippling several British ships in succession, their navy chickened after the General Belgrano was sunk by a submarine and their mostly conscript army rapidly folded once the professional British forces landed and began to make their way across the wind-swept islands. Britain seemed to reverse its former historical record by performing impressively on land and awkwardly at sea, but considering the timidity of the Argentinian Navy this ended up working out.

In the end the total count of killed and wounded on both sides would slightly outnumber the population of the islands in that era.

The dispute, which technically began in the 18th century between Spain and Britain, is still ongoing, with the UN currently contemplating that the islands are in Argentine waters. Having turned the conflict into a post-WWII rallying cray, Britain is unlikely to voluntarily hand over the territory without some kind of joint-administration agreement, if at all.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War is another hold over, of a more recent but more deadly nature. It was a region where both Armenians and Azeris lived in Soviet times, though rising nationalism throughout the Caucasus in the latter-Soviet era was present. Before even the unraveling of the USSR it was apparent that Armenia and Azerbaijan were fast moving into independence and conflict with each other over the demarcation of their borders. It became ethnic and both sides committed mass deportations against the ethnic populations of the other. This eventually spiraled into full blown conventional conflict with newly unemployed Russian officers and tank units even selling their services to both sides as mercenaries.

The Armenians, despite the initial odds, wiped the floor with the Azeris. And yet, much like in the Falklands, a dispute was not actually ended by a strong showing on one side. It became politically toxic for the losing side to give up the ghost, so they simply did not. Perhaps in the hope, not unreasonable, that if one is patient but dedicated one can get with negotiation what they failed to retain by fighting.

But the main point here is that these are not isolates. If anything, I would expect to see more of these big military and diplomatic blow ups over remote and disputed territories. It can be both a legitimate way of asserting sovereignty and a useful distraction at home. From the present military build up in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, the USA, and Japan over various disputed and sometimes even artificial islands to various tiny islands between Greece and Turkey to the potentially rekindled fires of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Falklands, the future of conventional warfare could very well be tied up with these kind of disputes. Average civilians in the core regions of countries are probably under little threat, but those on the frontier and in the armed forces might just have to be aware that these kinds of frozen conflicts are highways to the danger zone.

For a real life example of *Danger Zone* check out these low level Argentinian bombing raids on British ships in 1982:

 

 

The Washington Treaty of 1871 and Sovereignty Today

kearsarge vs alabama

USS Kearsarge sinks CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France in 1864

There is the temptation among American Civil War buffs to view that conflict as a purely American affair. Brother fought brother and everyone was American, etc. But this assumption is just as wrong as if you to assume that the Syrian or Congolese Civil Wars have little outside involvement.

From the beginning, the governments of Britain and France pulled heavily for the Confederacy. They saw the emerging industrial and commercial might of the United States as a grave threat to their Atlantic supremacy and the order they had barely established after the Crimean War with Russia. With the US distracted by what would become the bloodiest conflict in all of its history, France seized the opportunity to install a puppet regime in Mexico. After the Trent Affair in 1861 (when British ships were boarded and Confederate agents on them arrested in international waters) Britain upped the ante, sending threatening noises of war and violating neutrality by building blockade runners stocked with weapons shipments which would slip into Gulf ports such as Mobile Bay and New Orleans. This in turn would shape the Union naval strategy for the rest of the war, with David Farragut’s famous battles being the actions to close those ports.

Despite Gladstone’s and Queen Victoria’s southern sympathies, once the Emancipation Proclamation was declared after the Union victory at Antietam in 1862, general British public opinion turned against the south. But the rich business of economically and logistically aiding the Confederacy continued among the entrepreneurs of the Liverpool dockyards. Confederate agents remained extremely active in Canada, and even planned (though did not execute) a biological warfare attack by infecting New York City army hospitals with Yellow Fever.

In light of this dangerous situation, only one power expressed open support for the Union cause. The navy of the Russian Empire sent squadrons of warships to dock in both east and west coast ports of the United States should Britain or France get any ideas about attacking the strung out Union blockade. Sealed orders on board the Russian flagship contained instructions that should any outside power attack the United States during the war against secession, the Russian fleet was to sail and engage said power’s naval forces. Tsar Alexander II was not about to let Anglo-French meddling deprive him of potential allies all around the world.

After Gettysburg and Vicksburg the attractiveness of supporting the Confederate cause abroad dried up. And yet those British built commerce raiders with their British cannons continued to wreak havoc on the US whaling and trading ships. The CSS Alabama-the most effective commerce raider in all of history to this day-was a particular sensation in the press. It was finally sunk, as pictured above, by the sloop of war USS Kearsarge after an intensive hunt throughout Europe.

But the end of the war in 1865 did not bring an end to the international repercussions of that conflict. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was ready for another war against Britain on the charges of the immense damage its ships and weapons had done-even if in Confederate hands. He considered the war to have been effectively over more than a year before it finished-and its prolongation a direct result of British interference. Britain, therefore, should pay the costs of the Union for late 1864 and 1865.

Meanwhile, in the now occupied south, US forces under General Sheridan began their own weapon smuggling operation to the forces of Benito Juarez who were fighting the French backed Hapsburg pretender in charge of the occupation of Mexico. The tide had already turned in Mexico’s favor, but the new weapons surely sped things up. Rather than overtly violating neutrality, US forces tended to simply leave weapons stockpiles at certain places on the border and then disappear, expecting that in the night Mexican agents would come, cross the border, and take them without anyone ‘knowing’ otherwise. Two could play at the cloaked interference game.

The French were eventually driven from Mexico. But the economic reparations demanded by the United States on Britain remained, poisoning relations between the two countries, who had remained steady rivals since 1775, with little to no respite even further.

But then came the Franco-Prussian War, the rise of an immensely powerful German state, a major economic and industrial boom in Russia, and several naval arms races between Britain and France. Britain could no longer blithely sit on the top of the world, uncaring as to its relations with other major powers. As the furthest away power, the US represented the safest option to begin a re-orientation of British policy. With the Americans agreeing to drop their more outlandish claims and also paying reparations for events like the Trent Affair, Britain agreed to pay damages and acknowledge guilt related to the neutrality violations of British built commerce raiders. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed quite amicable relations by and large, with the notable exception of a major breakdown in the 20s and early 30s in the aftermath of the failure of Wilsonian idealism.

So, what does the Washington Treaty of 1871 have to do with us today? Well, functionally, quite little. But I would like to float the idea that in the case of the Syrian Civil War the issues of outside backing of internal rebel movements is once again a major issue in great power diplomacy. Russia plays a much more direct role supporting the government, but remains committed to stopping its allies from being overwhelmed by foreign-supported forces. Meanwhile, in the United States and other countries, a backlash is growing in the general public to a policy which is increasingly clear should never interfered in the first place, and failing that, is backing the wrong side. Like the Union, the Syrian government is a flawed but multicultural organization, like the Confederacy the rebellion in Syria belongs overwhelmingly to a much narrower demographic. While the rebellion in Syria is much more justifiable than the southern rebellion was, it has come with time to be if anything even more scary and destabilizing for its region. Meanwhile, the US now plays the role of 19th Century Britain, its people increasingly coming to look with horror over who they are backing while the policy elites blithely continue on an expensive course of confirmed failure. Motivated as much by personal sympathies as strategic concerns, if not more so, as the recently declassified Hillary Clinton emails strongly imply.

In our extremely globalized world, upholding national sovereignty, particularly of small and weak states, seems almost an antiquated idea. But perhaps it is time to realize that quite often it can serve big power interests. I am not so naive to believe that strong countries will not interfere with the internal politics of smaller ones. There are in fact many instances where this serves vital strategic interests. But I do think it is time to make it something people think upon as a dangerous action one should only pursue in extremity-and this means there should be repercussions. Russia is doing to the Ukraine what America, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do to Syria. It doesn’t like the government so it plays brinksmanship with rebel forces as its allies. Rwanda has decades of experience with similar actions in the Congo. These turn into frozen conflicts that simply drag out suffering on the ground, as per Secretary of War Stanton’s presumption of British actions in the 1860s.

My favorite aspect of Cold War history to study when it comes to diplomacy is the Non-Aligned League. I do wonder if there could be such a small-state-in-hotspot alliance in the future. A league of nations who might share little in the way of domestic structure or big power friends but remain committed to domestic sovereignty against outside interference. The fact remains that nations like Syria and Ukraine could make quite good cases for reparations from other nations for neutrality violations in internal conflicts. Even though the great powers could never be forced to pay, the mere PR of such a move might grant small states a bit of a reprieve in today’s world as journalists picked up on the story. It would certainly make them more sympathetic.

Plus, rather than pay it itself the United States could always split the difference between Saudi Arabia and the Clinton Foundation to get the money for its reparations to Syria.

Anyway, have a musical number. Maybe one day they will write one that replaces Georgia with Donetsk or Raqqa.