Battletech: In Space No One Can Hear The Kali Yuga

”We’re still alive and we still have friends, and somewhere to stay, and its a beautiful evening and the dunes of Neume are singing to us. Those dunes aren’t just any old dunes, you know. They’re the shattered remains of provider-era megastructures, after their culture fell out of the sky. We’re being serenaded by the twinkling remains of a dead supercivilization, the relics of people who thought themselves gods, if only for a few instants of galactic time. Now-how does that make you feel?”

”Like I am living too late,’ I said.’

~Alastair Reynolds, ‘House of Suns.’

When do you realize you are living in a dark age? Contrary to a lot of recent discourse, its not something most people tend to notice until far too late. In our current era of flat-eartherism, anti-vaxxer and anti-mask activism, and postmodern-infused reality denialism, many people seem to have missed the signs of long-running rot for a sudden all too late realization. This has happened in many culture’s zeitgeist many times before. Americans finally realizing their society is in fundamental and probably terminal relative decline to its past strikes me as amusing since I have distinct memories of realizing we had crossed a point of no return back when I was a college student in 2005. That was the year the Iraq War really went south, the government response to Hurricane Katrina was laughable and led to no major structural reforms or climate change action, and the evangelical movement was attempting to teach young earth creationism in the science classroom. All of these problems could have been overcome with rigorous political action, but they were not. They were treated as aberrations and nothing was done to structurally adjust for the problems they exposed moving forward. That is when I knew I had already seen the peak of my birth nation’s civilization.

How is this gradual entropy of states and civilization portrayed in fictional stories taking place in high space? There is a different dynamic if we managed to get sustainably off planet. Though decline and fall is common to the genre it is almost always portrayed as rapid and incredibly dramatic, with star empires collapsing in a single lifetime. High space settings are by necessity somewhat positive about human chances in the future for the mere fact that for the genre to exist humanity must create sustainable settlements outside of Earth, something that requires major periods of advancement in our own future. However, many of these seemingly positive outcomes of no longer being confined to our fate on a single planet on one world are still full of cosmic horror, devastating conflicts, or any number of potential dramatic outcomes. Even Star Trek, a vision of a human positive future in space at the highest end of fictional idealism, works with a timeline where things had to get much worse on Earth before they could get better. Some visions, such as the above quoted novel House of Suns (one of my personal favorite high concept science fiction books) present an extremely impressive future that, nevertheless, still reaches a point where it tops out and stagnates. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series explored what living through the fall of the first galactic golden age was like, but from the perspective of detached outsiders trying to mitigate its effects. Other quite popular settings simply use space to revel in edginess. Some few go for a smaller scale perspective on a distant world set apart from the main drama of humanity.

Politically and philosophically I believe that the most realistic and interesting take on the darker side of humanity’s spacefaring future is that found in Battletech. A gaming series originally designed for tabletop tactical gaming which reached the peak of its fame with the rise of the Mechwarrior PC gaming series shortly after its birth, it is, at its core, a giant bipedal robot vehicle combat simulator. Most people who play it, including myself in childhood, do so because its cool. Giant stompy robot vehicles with a ton of visual variety, combat roles, and customization. This is the core of the series and why it exists. Its lore and stories, including a long running novel series of incredibly varying quality, is supplemental to the main point of driving and commanding mechs to take into battle in the 31rst Century. And yet it is this lore that ended up, possibly by accident at first, becoming one of the most interesting elements of the franchise. After all, who would think that giant tall bipedal vehicles, surely a detrimental platform and walking target in any firepower dominated battlefield, would end up giving rise to a realistic depiction of what power politics would look like in a closed system during an era of decline.

To put it incredibly simply, humanity a century or so from now invents faster than light drive and spends hundreds of years expanding into an area all around Earth. Outside of Earth’s influence, great conglomerates eventually begin to pull influence over distinct territorial patches out in space, eventually consolidating in multiple nations often led by hereditary royal families. War is rampant between these states over contested territory. Already, human expansion has simply led to a greater scope for conflict. Unused to campaigns taking up light years of range and battles being for entire planets, many human actors resort to nuclear warfare to expedite the process. We have the inverse of Star Trek in a way, the near future is good, but the long term trend is bad.

Eventually, humanity does get a golden age of sorts. For an all too brief period a resurgent Earth under an ambitious royal family of its own uses politics, diplomacy, and war to unite The Inner Sphere (the major empires closest to the core worlds) and expand territory by taking over the far flung and more renegade factions of the periphery, on the edges of human settled space. For the first time since initial colonization, technology begins to advance again. The battlemech, star of the series, is popularized and expanded in numbers and a new elite class of warrior takes the place of mass warfare, the mechwarrior. But this is still the prequel to the setting. After an all too brief period of success (which came at great cost to the periphery who were exploited to fuel it), the Star League is brought down from internal intrigue, usurpation, and civil war. The major houses divide once again, and begin a series of debilitating wars against each other to divide the spoils of the old empire between them. The old Star League loyalists either retire to Earth to run the FTL-network company Comstar as a ‘neutral’ for profit corporation, or fly out into deep space to go into self-imposed exile, founding a new civilization out beyond settled space. Meanwhile, the great houses in their combat gradually begin to lose technology. Warships become rare and then almost nonexistent, being replaced by drop pods who can only defend themselves and disgorge land forces. The over-use of nukes makes many planets worthless, and so a switch to mech (and other vehicle) based combat around specific objectives returns space warfare to the ground. Computer technology backslides and far flung regions are not even networked and rely on a literal physical postal service connected to the nearest place where FTL drive ships can disgorge information. All of this happens over the course of generations, gradually, and no one really notices it except to feel nostalgia for the Star League days, now passed into legend and heavily mythologized. The introduction to the 2018 squad based tactical Battletech game, summarizes the tragedy of humanity’s brief expansion and long drawn out decline incredibly well with only visuals and music.

That game in particular really captures the ramifications of this setting better than any other. Mercenaries, the only people free of clan or royal house fealty, live in precarious existence through salvage. Repair and upgrading of mechs is most effective through scavenging battlefields. Industries can no longer keep up with demand, especially outside of core established military channels. Some of the same companies around today (GM, Chrysler) are still in existence as defense contractors, but their output isn’t what it was. Older mechs tend to be better, the technology to make them as well as they once where is now lost or prohibitively expensive in this new dark age.

One of the funnier (and almost certainly unintentional) signs of this process of humanity just repeating its past on grander and grander scales can be found in the art of the earlier books. The ‘Tex Talks Battletech’ series on the BlackPantsLegion youtube channel does a phenomenally funny job going through the 80s era original art of the game books and postulating on how many of the people were clearly copied out of then-contemporary fashion magazines and photography. This is utterly hilarious commentary on dudes with handlebar moustaches and mullets drinking in 80s style bars in the 31rst Century…but think about it for a moment. In this setting of perpetual decline what makes more sense than every fashion aesthetic that has ever existed coming back again and again over the next thousand plus years? In this way, personal aesthetics mirror the politics of Battletech, where the successor states of the Star League all constantly jockey for position over the same territory over and over again, their alliances shifting, but their overall stability and living standards barely moving if not outright declining.

When innovation does come back into the setting, its not for fun reasons. Those Star League exiles I mentioned before? They spent centuries going insane out in deep space and developing unhinged caste-based societies obsessed with war. Ironically, these neo-Spartas called The Clans were consumed with highly ritualized combat and were proportionally quite peaceful when it came to the scale of internal conflicts, enabling them to actually expand upon Star League tech and grow human material capabilities for the first time in centuries. But then they proceeded to squander much of this in an ill-advised invasion of the Inner Sphere. The Clan Invasion would jump start a complacent Battletech setting with new technology and tactics, but also wreak immense destruction over certain regions of the Inner Sphere. The Clans were often fanatical and bizarre, and they could only offer perpetual serfdom to those they conquered. Their initial victories were impressive and against the odds, but they didn’t have the numbers, the logistics, or, most ironically, the experience in mass conventional warfare to win in the end. To quote Tex’s video on the clan invasions, ‘The Clans had spent centuries playing at war, the Inner Sphere had practiced it.’ And within a short amount of time, many clan technologies and mech designs had been integrated into Inner Sphere militaries. Not just that, but for a brief period the clan goal of recreating the Star League did in fact occur-but not under Clan leadership as they intended but rather in a brief military unity of the feuding houses *against* the clans. Much territory was recaptured from the clans, and an entire clan, Smoke Jaguar, was successfully obliterated by the alliance before, like all things in this setting, this new coalition too would fall apart. Meanwhile, back in the sticks, the clanners faced massive unrest and rebellion as a result of their failed re-engagement with the rest of settled space. And the unity of the clans against other powers disappeared as they turned blame on each other.

Now, the clans are part of the balance of power much like the Inner Sphere and periphery nations are. Tech got a bit of a boost, but the dark age did not end. Humanity’s future of a space fairing Kali Yuga continues. Arguably, with events stemming from the rise of the Word of Blake techno-fundamentalist movement in the core worlds and the incredibly costly methods it took to defeat them, it might even be accelerating.

There is something melancholy about this universe built to have fun with stompy combat robot vehicles. But its not aggressively in your face. The processes that have unfolded in this setting have taken centuries. Many people accept them as reality. They may not even know they live in a dark age. Historians and scientists might be the only professions where everyone is fully aware what is happening, but being beholden to the interests of powerful nobles and militarists means their capacity to construct an independent voice is limited.

Where could a new black swan event lie, and thus contain the kernel of potential upending of this order? Such things may not exist in this setting. But if they do I am going to pick the region that holds my personal loyalty: the periphery. It figures that the only people who do not idolize the Star League and wallow in its nostalgia are the societies one who value some independence would most want to live in. Their living standards are lower on average then the Inner Sphere (mid 20th Century at best) but they lack the social rigidity of the those nations while also lacking the militarized edginess of the clans. I suspect that were it not for their small populations and economies that they would be outsized players in affairs. All they need is some nearby great houses to collapse in order to rush into the vacuum left behind…something that remains a very real possibility. The ruthless yet affluent and educated Taurian Concordat is probably the top contender for a future new dynamic great power, needing only for those pesky Federated Suns to take a major hit to get get going. But as in the Inner Sphere, their ambitions will go only so far before the periphery gets locked in and counter-balancing coalitions clip its wings before it gets too big. Still, in my personal opinion, a refocusing on the periphery for future events would be a great new territory for the franchise.

No matter what happens though, there could well come a time when galaxy has a new golden age (albeit unlikely to be a unified one like the last time), but certain structural cores of the setting would have to be upended. Decline can lead to revival, but in this setting it is hard to see how that is coming anytime soon. So we are left with a space fairing humanity. It hasn’t yet met any sentient aliens. It topped out its tech 500 years of so before the core of the setting today, and the thousands of inhabited and terraformed worlds only seem to have accelerated preexisting trends in human history. It is not an ideal future, but it sure as hell is a possible one for us. One we should consider being sympathetic too as a concept as so far our experience with the 21rst Century has itself been one of decline, decay, and stagnation despite (and perhaps indirectly because of) the greater expansion of the electronic era and globalization. And much like today, Battletech is a livable universe. Most places are not warzones, the average standard of living is similar to what we have. Its just…not going anywhere and has no constructive vision of alternatives which it could presently pivot towards. That could change for us, of course, but we have to make the space for new ideas and new elites to even fathom that first. One imagines many in the Inner Sphere think the same when they have the ability to reflect beyond their immediate circumstances.

Anyway, be sure to check out the excellent remixes of old Mechwarrior music on Timothy Seal’s channel while you ponder how to get by while driving your giant combat machine through the battlefield in a galaxy where the best you can do is survive this battle, this war, and the next societal breakdown long enough to build a retirement fund and cash out.

The Present Necessity of a Left-Right Foreign Policy Alliance

In a few days 9/11 turns 19. Old enough to fight in Afghanistan were it a person. Old enough to fight in a war began before its birth.

In recent years, all the traditional bipartisan norms are often assumed to be entering a state of re-alignment. This is most apparent in the field of foreign policy. There may be little difference between the republican aligned hawks and neoconservatives in the mold of George W Bush and Tom Cotton when put up besides the Samantha Powers and Michelle Flournoys of the ‘muscular liberalism’ and humanitarian interventionist crowd. There is, however, a growing disconnect between such people in both parties and the vast majority of everyone else in the American body politic. Especially in the wake of Trump’s failure to govern in ways contrary to the foreign policy positions he ran against in his primary and the Democrat’s continuous turn to shore up a Beltway Blob dominated array of bipartisan advisors. ‘Horseshoe Theory’ may be the rejected detritus of political science undergrad in love with their own rote-indoctrinated received wisdom, but the clear fear of this largely nonexistent entity by the national security state mandarins implies that were someone to even partially invoke it, it might catch the establishment off balance and make real gains before it inevitably collapses. Nixon goes to China, but for domestic lobbying. To see the effectiveness of that event all you have to do is dig into the history of Moscow’s flailing reactions to it. Seizing the initiative to do something unexpected is often a strategic principle that pays out more than the initial investment.

Stolen from this hilarious parody article.

Sensing the tides shifting against them, a coordinated effort has been made to merge the consensus of endless imperium into one cohesive bloc that can seize as many levers of power while the window of opportunity is still open. If this process is completed it will lock in another decade of endless war and regime change into the American foreign policy establishment as well as hasten our domestic decline by diverting money and effort into the Beltway’s perpetual growth industry of exporting conflict abroad. It is justified by invoking existential bugbears, training the body politic to believe that every great power rivalry is a battle for the soul of the world. But the fact is while the 1930s and 40s might be the model for our propaganda, but they were a freakish outlier. Almost all such rivalries are regional, non-ideological, and bear little consequence for the average citizen unless they turn hot. Even the Cold War, outside of those countries unfortunate enough to be caught in the proxy conflicts, cannot be viewed as an ideological struggle that it was sold was as by both sides but rather simply the largest scale bipolar power rivalry yet to occur in history. Change the governing systems of either the United States or the Soviet Union, and the most important detail still leads to a similar rivalry: two massive power poles with no other truly threatening competitors outside of each other. Already, the process is underway to begin again but this time with the Chinese. The Chinese, however, are (so far) smart enough not to couch their precautions as anything but safeguarding their national interests and autonomy of action. A ‘New Cold War’ could remain relatively lukewarm if the United States followed suit. Instead, and knowing the heyday of its focus on the Middle East may be closing, the U.S. seems to again be gearing up its Christian-dominionist-inherited (and now thoroughly liberal and bipartisan establishment) cultural complex to advocate for values-based conflict along Manichean ends. It begins again, this time against a foe likely not foolish enough to fall into the trap of competing with Washington for the ‘soul of the world.’

For American strategists with a sense of deep history (sadly, a rarity) it is obvious that the country risks over-expansion and that over-expansion risks the entire enterprise coming apart due to lack of strength in the core. The costs balloon, the deployments expand, but each commitment is less solid than the last. Presence everywhere is weakness across the globe, not strength in a specific region. The more money that gets diverted away from internal science and technology, infrastructure, logistics, and adapting to climate change, the more this world empire rots into something like 18th Century Spain or 17th century Ming China…an outwardly impressive edifice just waiting for someone to kick in the door that then takes with it the walls and roof attached to it when it falls. The right does not want this because American power will end in humiliation. The left should not want it because humiliation breeds reaction, retrenchment, and xenophobia. And this is to say nothing of the immense human costs abroad. People in neither camp should want the sudden power vacuum that will set off a succession of sequel conflicts. I do not want it for all of these reasons combined. On this issue they share a common enemy more than happy to divide them with cultural issues. It is time to see past this division and forge the necessary links to lobby for a negotiated and sustainable reduction in U.S. global commitments so that over-expansion can be halted and the danger of a major world spanning conflict or sudden power vacuum occur.

There is clearly a market for featuring anti-establishment commentary from left, right, and elsewhere which is united in its opposition to the post-Cold War consensus. Already, the Quincy Institute has made waves in discussion outsized to its newborn and comparatively small status. But to be a truly impactful force there must be a left-right anti-establishment alliance on foreign policy issues that grows to the level of significant and fearsome lobby up on Capitol Hill. The kind of coalition that can give the defense contractors and the well-paid friends of Saudi Arabia and Israel a true run for their money at shaping the discourse of war and peace. This is only the first step of course, but here we are not even having taken them yet.

In order for this to work certain agreements have to be made to overcome the differences in left- and right-wing approaches to conceptualizing foreign policy. The first thing to understand is that most meaningful differences between the two wings are on domestic policy. Domestic policy, however, operates under a much different framework than foreign policy does. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ itself is a terminology that comes from the seating arrangements of the French revolutionary government and implies an internally deliberative body. Today it barely even makes much sense as a political label on anything that is not economics or determining who is a citizen. Even if one does find the label useful, it is an appeal to a greater authority of a single community for how a state should be structured. In international relations, however, anarchy reigns above the level of sovereign states. There is no powerful entity capable of restraining the ambitions and foibles or large states. Bilateral relations and exclusionary alliances reign supreme. Universalism in intent or purpose does not exist in the inter-state system.

Whatever cultural or budgetary disagreements held by left and right can therefore be separated from foreign policy convergence against militarism, endless war, and a truly disproportionate defense budget. I know many more inclined to be on the left (including myself, if unconventionally) who think the coverage of foreign policy issues in The American Conservative is among the best around today. I know many on the right who look at issues-based alliances between Rand Paul with Tulsi Gabbard and ‘Ro Khanna on foreign affairs with a point of pride. These are pretty mainstream examples, but there is where the discussion should start in terms of accessibility. The point is to win over as much of the public as possible when you want to change policy, even if before that point all unpopular or unrepresented causes must inevitably and probably preferably begin in some level of esotericism.

In order to overcome any reticence on either side, a few points of divergence have to be overcome first when discussing foreign policy. To do this the left must concede to the idea of state sovereignty as an absolute bulwark of international affairs, and the right must concede that American Exceptionalism is nothing but a vehicle of jingoistic chauvinism. While not all actors in either camp are beholden to these ideologies, both are quite common and present the largest stumbling block towards coming together.

The importance of sovereignty as an upholder of stable diplomatic relations means both liberals and leftists must de-emphasize universal internationalism as an ideology guiding their world view. This would also be wise because most international institutions in the present era are heavily infiltrated by people who support American actions at spreading invasive and messianic economic and political interventionism to developing countries. There is no point in an internationalism that must play second fiddle to the currently declining neoliberal project in the first place. With this also comes dropping any kind of narrative of universal human progress. International relations are an exercise in crisis management and not social engineering. Besides, as I wrote recently for The Hill, there are many strategic and stabilizing benefits for the general public to adopting such a doctrine.

On the other side, the right must give up the siren song of exceptionalism and the Reagan derived ‘shining city on a hill’ vision of the United States as a uniquely virtuous actor. Nationalism cannot blind advocates of restraint from the cold realities of geopolitics, where self-interested actors exploit circumstantial advantages in a setting where no greater authority regulates state behavior. Either no countries are uniquely virtuous or all of them are virtuous in different ways-which is effectively the same thing. There are no such things as exceptionalism in international politics save more effective and less effective strategies. If individuals should not be special snowflakes, neither should states. We can even call this new stance ‘The Hadrian Doctrine’ to appeal to that common conservative love of the classics.

If these points can be agreed upon by both wings- even in a broad way-then the overall project of building a large movement ready to take on the endless war lobby can go ahead. Military force as a last rather than first option, diplomacy that benefits the citizen rather a few centrist ideologues and defense contractors, and a general commitment to avoiding further expansion of an already unsustainably large overseas empire. This needs to be something actively worked on to be grown into a ‘Restraint Lobby’ that wields coordinated power in DC. Such an attempt must be made before the consolidation of the center around a bipartisan neoconservatism (or the attempts of a desperate and incompetent president) returns to plunge us into another era of imperial calamity.

Perhaps a first small-scale test case is needed where I specific policy can be targeted. Knowing how many on both the left and right feel about Syria, I would recommend starting to make the case there. And in my own way, I already have. I hope others join me and we can grow this into something bigger and more coordinated.

Why Does the Western Left Hate Diplomacy?

‘President Nixon: When the President says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.

Chairman Mao: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.

President Nixon: And General DeGaulle.

Chairman Mao: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say the Christian Democratic Party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

President Nixon: I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.

Dr. Kissinger: There is another point, Mr. President. Those on the left are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People’s Republic, and in fact criticize you on those grounds.’



Because the Left-of-Center collectively is all about guilt by association and purity culture rather than actual accomplishment. See, you can’t say I hid the answer after a wall of text. Now on to why I came to this conclusion and why I am speaking of it right now.

Purity culture is a term I first became acquainted with through the evangelical prominence in the early and mid oughts. It was a cultural movement that espoused cult like behavior such as teenagers wearing rings that proclaimed their virginity untill marriage and other such behavior of self-righteous dorkishness. It was continued in evangelical colleges where adult students were (and presumably still are) subjected to curfews and bans on mixed sex gatherings as if they are children in a gulf Arab monarchy.

Coming from the same strain of thought, even if neither acknowledges it, is the incredibly knee jerk puritanism of anyone on the secular side that, like their religious contemporaries, values intent and social signaling more than actual reality. After all, statistical data from places with large evangelical populations often shows greater levels of crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy, etc. So too is it with the wokescold brigade on the left-a brigade that has hijacked the discourse of centrist liberals and actual leftists alike in order to posture as the elect of politics. Though in their case it is more often dictated by the tropes of popular entertainment with its clear cut narratives or good guys and bad guys. I surely cannot have been the only person to notice the sheer amount of nerds who identify first with the entertainment products they consume that have these opinions. This is the true end result of the union of neoliberalism and puritan culture.

Regular readers of these posts know I usually make the case that in terms of systemic structure and power that liberals are more like conservatives than they are the proper left. I still hold this position. But psychologically I do think there is immense overlap with liberals and the left. And that this, along with evangelicals on the right, is based off of an immense commitment to moralism rather than the hard, messy, and morally neutral world of power politics.

Nowhere is this unfortunate cultural baggage more clear than on the rare instance that such people have opinions on foreign policy…a world even more morally gray than that of the domestic as it lacks a final arbiter (a la state) of authority which one can appeal to. And thus it is not one for the attention of those whose understanding of the world is still stuck in Hollywood-and-YA-addled childhood. Granted, proportionally speaking, the western wokes avoid foreign policy like the plague. There is little room for basing one’s identity around a gender or individual conception of anything. Much like the rightists who prioritize social issues over all else, their provincialism is implicit-if perhaps made hypocritical by their constant claims of worldiness. This is good as it means there are less of them to wade through in my field…but also bad because when they do happen to dip their toe in the water it means the takes get nuclear hot and there are few correctives to be found.

Take for interest leftists trying to make sense of Tulsi Gabbard’s foreign policy focused run. She is far too independent of any doctrine to be a comfortable match with either them or liberals. Leftists discount her views, even when they agree with their own, for being of the wrong intentions. Leaving aside the farce of an idea that anyone could run for high office in America today on a platform of interventionist internationalism that wasn’t liberal hegemony, they get hung up on her civic nationalism even though it leads to the closest approximation to many of the same ends they share. Their point isn’t to accomplish anything in terms of policy, its to signal one’s ideological purity. Of course, history is full of examples of how one should never want the pure in government-no matter what side they are on. That’s Khmer Rouge level stuff in the making there. A government, by the way, once indirectly supported by the United States and directly supported by China. Though Chinese and American patriots alike often have a hard time squaring this with their own self-regard, it makes perfectly sense when one views issues in a purely strategic lens-something moralism and wokeness inevitably prevents anyone from doing.

This is directly parroted on the milquetoast neoliberal side of things, showing that the connection is clearly puritanical wokeness itself as it is what the left and liberals share together. Kamala Harris, who has largely run a substance-free campaign based on virtue signaling and easy identitarianism (while surrounding herself with the very people who the democratic establishment likes to staff administrations with to ensure no rocking of the boat) got taken to task on her ghastly Lock-Upesque criminal justice record in last night’s debate. Aunt Ruckus’ rattled campaign’s response showed everything about how this attitude is so dangerous to foreign policy as well as the campaign’s general hollowness on critical thought.

You can’t talk or even be in the same room with objectionable governments without it being seen as some kind of violation of our present niceties. Diplomacy is only for friends and amongst friends. (Saudis and Emiraties, of course, always exempt). The world stage is for showing your virtue, not for negotiating and getting things done. That is the implicit view here. Similar iterations of this view can be found in the far left, the neocon right, and among the media bobbleheads of the extreme center. Leftbeards (the neckbeards who swapped fedoras for flat caps and/or ushankas) are the first people to call Tulsi a Hindu nationalist for…meeting with Modi…a world statesman? Well, anyone who wants relations with India has to meet with Modi and exchange meaningless niceties with him, and any (and many) other American politicians have met with Modi in the same capacities. In the Bush Era, Nancy Pelosi met with Assad herself. And they should meet with these people because relations between two such huge countries are important. Another, darker, explanation is anti-Hindu prejudice. The left having (often rightly) defended Muslim minorities means it is accustomed to that issue, but has yet to extend the same courtesy to Hindus who are being conflated with right wing policies due to a single government. Needless to say, if the things leftbeards said about Hindus were said about Muslims said leftbeards would have a conniption.

Bolsonaro is probably the single most odious and even potentially dangerous world leader around right now, but it would be foolish not to have relations with him or meet with his government.

To bring it back to the North Atlantic puritanism that lurks at the center of this view is a kind of Huntingtonesque assumption that the first factor in determining relations is shared values, not shared interests. The reason the United States does not compete with any other liberal democracy is because all other liberal democracies are subordinate to the United States, not because they are liberal democracies. One needs only look at the combatants list of the First World War (and many other conflicts to boot) to see that the domestic composition of states matter little when their core interests are at stake. The United States supported far right governments in the Cold War, but also far left movements against the Axis. Democratic Athens obliterated other democratic city states who allied with Sparta. The Roman and Carthaginian republics fought three knock down drag out wars despite, from a foreign perspective, having more politically alike with each other than almost any other state around then.

But in the teleological view of the left and liberals alike (along with religious nuts and neocons/right-liberals) diplomacy is the means to an End of History, be it world revolution or cosmopolitanism or the Book of Revelation. That means that, consciously or not, they are predisposed to see the world as marching in some predetermined direction with morality as the key to hastening this process.

But the world is a chaotic place and diplomacy can only look so far ahead. There is no ultimate arbiter be it god, Meryl Streep, or a unified global working class. There are as there always have been, tribes of humans divided by geography, interests, culture, and circumstance. The best hope you have for progress in this reality is to look home first. If you want a global coalition to fight something like climate change, you first need a variety of governments that arise within their own circumstances and who are prepared to calculate the different costs of climate change (and occasional benefits) that show up for each biome and region. You also need to reduce defense spending in as many countries as possible, which means you must set aside messianic projects of international social engineering which are likely to raise the hackles of any weaker partners.

If you want to take on the rapacious policies of the right and the center alike, you need a realist, not an idealist, left. And if you want an alternative to endless war to help bring this about you need diplomacy. The very definition of diplomacy is to talk to people no matter what their values or domestic policy structures are. There are so many people in this world today that would benefit from a re-engagement with the Treaty of Westphalia, how much good it did, and how it ended one of Europe’s most destructive wars in an age of religious fanaticism by recognizing the rights of princes to determine their own domestic structures. It takes an adult to recognize that it’s the very opposite of purity culture that gets things done on the international stage.

Before the rise of numerous absolutist ideologies, religious and secular, it was taken as normal that different states had different structures and values. Hence why there were different states in the first place. It is the most natural view to have, and the most practical. The reason it is not common in liberal democracies anymore (though it remains common everywhere else among left, right and center, tellingly) has more to do with immense levels of propaganda and cultural baggage on this very issue-an issue that no matter what direction of the ideological spectrum it comes from-is all about creating a world where the reality of calculating balance of power is denied for the comforting fable of a world where crisis management is a means to some greater glory, rather than just the day by day necessities of getting by in a chaotic world. This, in turn, sabotages our ability as good strategists to do crisis management at all.

Considering that this view of a homogenized and moralistic world cannot be achieved, it actively thwarts real work in practical diplomacy. When a country decides not to have relations with another, or to impose sanctions, over something out of the control of the bilateral relationship, it merely increases the likelihood of something bad to happen for the psychological comfort of the governing and media class of the sanctioning country. This is why the one unquestionably good thing Trump is doing, negotiating with North Korea, is so vehemently despised by so many in the Democratic Party who supported the Iran Deal, while it is also upheld by many who opposed the Iran Deal on the other side. Purely partisan lines of attack know that Anglo-moralism can always be alluded to as a criticism when one is out of power. The fringes, especially the left-fringes, also seem to have adopted that lesson.

It is time to force people to re-learn it. For the sake of diplomacy, realists must take the initiative and not let such puritan rhetoric stand.



Geotrickster is all in for Tulsi Gabbard

Geotrickster is all in for Tulsi Gabbard.

tulsi gabbard pic

First, a reminder that Geotrickster was ahead of the curve of Tulsi Gabbard, who announced her interest in seeking the presidency in 2020 today.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been on my radar since 2013. She was the first non-Rand Paul voice criticizing the Obama Administration’s foreign policy towards the Middle East which was clearly starting to go off the rails around the time of the 2012 election. She has been a consistent advocate against the Bipartisan Perpetual War Party that has driven America and much of the world it claims to ‘police’ into the gutter so far in the 21rst Century. And she did this without being the opposite extreme of being an isolationist or far right crank.

Tulsi Gabbard has demonstrated, time and time again, that not only is American foreign policy off the rails and hijacked by special interests awash in their own self-congratulatory ideology, but that restraint is not only the less costly policy in terms of lives and money but also the superior way to combat extremism and avoid the alienation of allies. Having myself worked for the State Department in countering violent extremism in the past, I can assure you that this position of hers is correct. Regime change wars fuel Islamic extremism and sectarian division, diplomatic engagement can help diffuse them and build partnerships abroad. And with far less danger of direct blowback. While Trump alienates allies and the mainstream Democrats stoke hawkishness in a blind knee jerk reaction to his few better instincts, some few people, with Tulsi in the lead, represent a proper realist alternative that understands the need for cost/benefit analysis over ideological devotion. Besides, being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is no good for us.

But despite the foreign policy focus on this blog, this is not the only reason I want to express my happiness at the declaration of Tulsi Gabbard. Congresswoman Gabbard is among that rare clique of Democrats who are reform minded away from the destructive, self-consuming, and ultimately right wing-neoliberal policies of the Clinton Consensus that has dominated the party since 1992. She does this without being a starry-eyed idealist or beholden to some teleological world view about the end of history. And considering her strong endorsement of indigenous rights and environmental action, she can be taken seriously on the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. It is for many of these reasons that she has Democratic, Republican, and Independent admirers alike. If there is anything the 2016 election shows, it is that having appeal outside the closed world of partisan hacks is necessary for national elections. Both casual voters and nuanced non-partisan voters are desperately seeking a candidate that represents an alternative to the ossified nature of center-left and far-right.

It is important to acknowledge that Tulsi Gabbard, especially as a relatively anti-establishment candidate running within a party notorious for self-selecting right-to-centrist-wing candidates for the sake of the donor money and ‘expert’ strategist hires it is so fond of, is going to come into a large amount of criticism in the time ahead. The Democratic establishment as much if not more will attack her than the Republicans do. We will be subjected to the intense irony of people who support the mass bombing of the Middle East calling her Islamophobic for preferring diplomacy to endless war. We will see her former record on gay rights be called into question. She will be called an isolationist. Many of these critiques will not just be from rote liberals but also proper leftists.

My response to them is as follows. I know I am not alone in finding the level of leeway Islamic ideologies are given by people who are supposedly so secular at home. This represents the dangerous infiltration of postmodernism into the issue and ignores that many secularist individuals and movements also exist in Muslim majority societies. Weaponized Islamism is a danger in some parts of the world much like far-right evangelism is in North America. It is wise, not foolish, to remain devoted to security issues around this topic. It is, however, a problem for police and culture, not for militarized intervention. Gabbard recognizes that Islamist ideology is dangerous and requires a firm hand, but that war is usually not the answer. One can-and should-hold both of these positions.

Gabbard is also not an isolationist. She has endorsed a smart, rather than bullying, position for overall US policy. Such a powerful country cannot realistically retreat from the planet without leaving a dangerous vacuum-and few actual people endorse isolationism anymore. The problem is that the neoconservative-dominated foreign policy establishment will use the phrase ‘isolationism’ against anyone who is not ready to constantly and reflexively support their dangerous and wasteful militarism. But it is America behaving like a rogue state since 2003 that has left it more isolated than at any point after the 1930s. Just look at how America is viewed abroad.

As for gay rights, a lot of people, including the entire country itself, has changed its mind on these issues with relative rapidity in recent times. A change in position could be opportunistic, as it was with Obama and especially Hillary Clinton, whose virulent homophobia in the 90s seems to have been utterly excised by much of her more recent wokescold fan base. But Gabbard’s story on social issue evolution came before the country at large, which disavows it being beholden to polls. Furthermore, this evolution was the result of changing views based off life experience, i.e. seeing the disadvantages of social conservatism while being deployed in Iraq. This cannot imply an opportunistic John Kerry style flip-flopping at the drop of a hat or poll numbers, but the genuine changes of belief that happen. Her constant advocacy for minority rights since assuming national level office is proof of this. And in an era of rank racism and climate change denial from one party and complacency from most of the rest of the other she represents a true viable alternative who could connect with significant alienated parts of the present electorate.

After all, I used to be a libertarian and no one could accuse me of holding those views now. I learned through experience and am better for the process.

Her biggest negative is some casual sympathies to Modi’s government in India. While I myself am not a fan of this on the personal level, good relations with India are inevitable for a future America one way or the other. And while I have my strong reservations about the BJP, they are the government of India in the present time and diplomatic use could be made of such connections. India is not Nicaragua or El Salvador. The opinions of US politicians will matter little for its domestic policies. It is large, powerful, and established. Compare this dynamic to the bipartisan establishments many connections to Saudi Arabia and Israel which are not only beyond casual, but positively financial influence peddling many in DC as well.

First the Democratic Party and then hopefully the nation at large will have a choice in the near future: continue the failed Manicheism of two mutually hostile and increasingly aged political parties, or field a barrier breaking candidate running on actual issues rather than media signifiers, the status quo that has failed so many, and fear of criticism. Having learned the lesson of Obama, that charisma without a specifically attached set of policies will ultimately produce little, it is time to support the first candidate for high office who has an issue-driven career and platform and the sense and thoughtfulness to use it pragmatically.

I have seen myself how people across the board tire of endless deregulation and warfare. And I have seen that one of the few people elected in congress today that is well looked on by all of these people, who are largely unrepresented by officer holders,

It is time for Tulsi Gabbard. She is the best candidate I have ever seen to announce a run for the presidency in my entire life so far.




It is important to remember, in the media hysteria relating to the (correct) position to withdrawal from Syria and the resignation of General Mattis, largely due to his own disapproval of any policy that reigns in an over-extended American empire, that Tulsi Gabbard was one of the few public figures who had a record of grilling his pas ‘sage advice.’

And lets not forget the time she endorsed Bernie publicly at Hillary’s coronation:

‘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.


Can a Realist be a Capitalist in the Anthropocene?


Rising Seas by Isaac Cordell

Short Answer: No.

Long answer:

There is a common stereotype in American academia that foreign policy realists are conservatives. In a purely philosophical sense this is true. Conservatives are supposed to disavow schemes to artificially socially engineer society to create a utopia. Of course, it could also be said that by this philosophical definition American conservatism hardly applies, being a radical project tied up inextricably with religious and theoretical economic faith and little in the way of accepting reality as it truly is. That and clearly psychological projecting one’s desire for a stern father figure to lay down the rules.

One thing I found in my graduate studies abroad was that this stereotype of realist-as-conservative, which applied to me little in the past and even less now, basically did not exist. At least among other realists. If anything, a realist in the UK academia was far more likely to be significantly left of the mainstream. Conservatives, much as in the US, were the ones more likely to gravitate towards liberalism and even constructivism, as the first prioritizes the interests of the present ruling class’ mythology of individualism and the second centers culture above all else. I got along best with Marxists, who, if for different reasons, had a similar material understanding of power relationships and the brutal truths of reality. If one separates foreign and domestic policy into distinct spheres, one could certainly be both a Realist and a Marxist at once. Plenty of historical figures actually meet this criteria. If one does not, however, there are certainly issues that prevent a full convergence. Since I personally do share the historically verifiable view of human civilization as cyclic, non-universal, and non-teleological, with all gains being temporary and all ‘golden ages’ occurring at different times and places for different societies, I myself cannot be a Marxist. But I certainly can take a view critical of capitalism as well as the historical position that we should not judge Marxist governments on base with more or less of a critical eye than we judge our own…something most in the west are conditioned to do early on by a selective reading of history.

Personally, I don’t believe a universal economic system should ever exist, as different societies find themselves in different places at varying times, with attendant issues such as divergent population density, ecologies, and the like. What communism stated it could do-create a universal system-it never did nor really could ever have done. But this is what neoliberalism has done. While a few countries hold out, it is the neoliberal order which has come the closest to global domination.

While I heavily suspect that we would be living in the Anthropocene no matter what the present economic system was, the fact remains that the more powerful and entrenched the system, the harder it is to change. And it has to change. So long as it pays to pollute by cutting corners on the profit motive or to manufacture far out of proportion to what is needed, our home planet, the only one we have, will continue to become a worse place on which to live. Speaking a realist language specifically, this is both the power and the threat that we must balance against. With greens, with leftists, with the communities most effected, and with enemies of the present economic order that will not change itself so long as the chimera of eternal economic growth and profits remains its driving purpose. Fight for the Earth now no matter the odds or live under the occupation of an aristocracy out of touch with the consequences of their own actions.

A vibrant discourse of varying strategies could be proposed, some at odds with each other, and that is fine. But to begin the common threat needs to be addressed directly-there will be more mass extinctions, more loss of biodiversity, more unpredictable weather and natural calamity, more refugees, and a greater divergence between the rich and poor as a form of capitalist-neofeudalism begins to emerge under various (and often unhinged) billionaire personalities who are all that is left since they continued to defund the state and civil society. And then, when that created a less functional society, used this breakdown as an excuse to defund it even more. This is already a measurable problem as gigantic private companies as well as the upper classes disproportionately contribute to the problems of pollution and climate change. For the first time since World War II, a genuine global threat exists. And this one is not to be fought by fighting merely a few states, but rather as a fight both internal and external in almost all of them.

We, as realists of history, diplomacy, policy, and war, cannot promise a golden ideal of a bright new future. Its neither in our nature nor in the issues we deal with when we engage public policy to do so. We are not purists and can put our skills in the service of many different from ourselves for the love of strategy and the calculation of what hay can be made from a new or old balance of power. We cannot and do not pretend to predict specifics of the future outside of general trends. But this isn’t about any of that. This is about taking steps right here and right now to make the future less terrible. To understand that a systemic approach to reforming or replacing our present drive towards growth and production at all costs is necessary to prevent an enormous downgrade in the quality of life for most people and resulting conflicts and disease outbreaks that will ensue. It is therefore contingent upon political realists of all stripes to join with those who looking at systemic structural reform in economics and ecology and contribute what we can. Analyzing strategy is our forte, so why not apply it here and now on the very issues of combating a Sixth Mass Extinction and the rising seas?

There surely can be no strategic problem more worthy. And there won’t be enough court monkey positions in the scattered few palaces of Vampire Billionaire fiefdoms for the vast majority of us. And those will likely only take those whose main talent is flattery rather than critical thought.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the Ultimate International Relations Saga

Previously, I weighed in on just how terrible I find most explicitly International Relations focused film media (P.S. as predicted ‘Good Kill’ seems to be making chump change and being seen by perhaps a few hundred people). This leads to being asked, ‘well what is a good IR movie?’ The obvious answers to this question is ‘Team America: World Police’ ‘Nixon’ and ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.’ But that is just film. In actuality I think the best visual medium treatment of IR comes from a television show-that of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.


Now before we get to into this subject I want to make a disclaimer. I am not a person who has encyclopedic knowledge of Trek canon, especially regarding the two series I gave up on early in their runs (Voyager and Enterprise) or any non-show or film lore. Before my 11th birthday I probably could have competed with the biggest of nerds on this topic but I fell out of caring about Trek for a decade and only came back to it in college-and even then only came back to the things I knew I liked (some TOS, TNG, and much more recently DS9 thanks to Netflix, plus the handful of good movies like II, VI, and maybe First Contact). When it comes to science fiction franchises, Star Wars and Battletech defeated Star Trek in my latter childhood and then Alien/Aliens and eventually the rebooted Battlestar Galactica defeated that in turn in my early teens and my late teens respectively. I am probably not the most qualified person to write this in the world-but thanks to a few months recently completed of gorging on DS9 I feel this is something I can indeed talk about.

Star Trek’s strength was always its diplomatic episodes, in my opinion anyway, but the utopian and Wilsonian nature of the setting never accounted for how something like the Federation could thrive in a somewhat hostile environment and a lot of brilliant ideas were half-formed. As we will see, the crisis of the events of DS9 cause the mask the slip-illustrating a valuable lesson in how nations see themselves, and what they really are.

God-tier IR scholar Barry Buzan has written more than one article on the IR of Star Trek, but like many pan-franchise overviews it shafts the grungy sedentary base by the wormhole for the flashy ships of the series, at least proportionally speaking. This is a major problem, because it is DS9 which deals explicitly with the IR-themed oversights of the other more euphoric series. In particular, I wish to make the argument that, probably unintentionally, DS9 is a gateway to view IR through the framework of this blog’s favorite theory: Neoclassical Realism. To put it succinctly, Neoclassical realism, like other forms of realism, recognizes the centrality of states and power politics, but adds to it the dynamic domestic factors and internal cohesion of varying states to explain why some countries follow the policies they do. But at its most blunt, its about regime survival, and how different concepts of regime survival come to arise based on diverged geographic and historical factors which together create the political culture.

The Messy Frontier:

The concept of the show is to move more in a direction of serialization in a sedentary location where the visitors move but the protagonists usually do not. There is no escaping the consequences of the crew’s actions. The storm will be weathered here rather than escaped. In this way, the station itself is a microcosm of the bigger forces which are usually more abstract in other series-the state actors. Having defined territorial boundaries and political cultures, the United Federation of Planets and the other Alpha Quadrant powers do not have quite the episodic flexibility that some of their individual ships might have-and DS9 is in a similar position.

To emphasize this point the static location on international trade and diplomacy which is the station in question is located on what at first seems to be the most peripheral of frontiers. A former slave mining station and HQ of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, the station is a joint Federation-Bajoran operation in a place only recently vacated by a hostile power. As it is, it represents a guarantee of security by a major power to a tiny and only recently liberated nation and a long term investment in the hopes that the Bajorans will one day join the Federation.

Everything changes with the near immediate discovery of the nearby wormhole. Inhabitants of powerful non-corporeal aliens who communicate with Commander Sisko and who once apparently inspired the Bajoran religion allow transit into a whole new quadrant of the galaxy which would be beyond reach of the Alpha Quadrant powers otherwise. Now, a postwar backwater has become the single most strategic location in the galaxy. This, however, does not change the remoteness of the posting. In fact, the rapid influx of intrigue from other powers mean this is one Star Trek series where the crew seeks to navigate the muddy waters of compromise and balance rather than principle or self-discovery to a previously unheard of degree. Sisko must guide these waters with minimal oversight and little prospect of immediate backup due to his location. Furthermore the nearest ally in the still unstable and completely weak Bajor. Both sides running the joint administration of the station would be familiar to the description in the introduction to Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro’s edited work ‘Neoclassical Realism and Foreign Policy’:

‘Limitations on executive autonomy in different national contexts, however, may undermine their ability to respond as necessary to shifts in the balance of power. Neoclassical realists consequently view policy responses as a product of state-society coordination and, at time, struggle. Less autonomous actors must frequently build coalitions and make compromises to mobilize social and political actors in order to enact policy […] Most states must also frequently bargain with societal actors in order to secure the provision of national security goods to implement policy. […] Finally, neoclassical realism recognizes that many states or regimes do not necessarily function as ‘unitary’  actors. Elite consensus  or disagreement about the nature and extent of international threats, persistent internal divisions within the leadership, social cohesion, and the regime’s vulnerability to violent overthrow all inhibit the state’s ability to respond to systemic pressures.’

It is this kind of diplomatic grunt work that Sisko and his crew must deal with. Everyone can only be placated so far before it rubs up against someone else. All decisions must ensure the survival of the station and of Bajor’s new independence. And the setting further marks a break with what is usually seen in Star Trek by further adding the variable that humans as a species are not the star of this story. Human characters predominate, sure, but humanity is a background species. The real species whose culture is shown in nuance, detail, and variance in this show are the Bajorans, the Cardassians and their difficult and historically tragic relationship with each other. This has been written about before, and quite excellently too, so we I won’t dwell on it here, but it is part of what makes the show so great and also in some sense, very real. This is not a show about one culture interacting with others, but of many cultures continually interacting over a sustained period, and in turn influencing each other’s decision making process.

But I want to fast forward to the story arc the dominates the latter sections of the show: the Dominion. The Dominion is the monster that lurks on the other side of the wormhole whose existence is only found out about once lots of exploration begins on the far side of that cosmic aperture. A type of almost anti-Federation, it is a state which exists as effectively a web of protection for a species of shapeshifters (the Founders) who uphold their hegemony of the quadrant with an intricate web of multiple genetically modified species to carry out their will. The details of how they govern are never fully explored, but one thing becomes immediately clear-because of their history as persecuted by ‘solids’ they will do whatever it takes to become hegemonic over other humanoid life.  Their brazen expansionism and plots to use their unique abilities to destabilize potential threats from the inside are actually for a psychologically defensive purpose, or so they claim. Most likely, they even believe their claim-as ridiculous as it clearly is to outsiders.

The Dominion is possibly a match for the entire Alpha Quadrant, but not being ones to take risks set on on an indirect campaign to destabilize that region before they launch their official invasion. Shapeshifters lure Romulan and Cardassian intelligence agencies and fleets into a devastating trap (and in so doing validating tragic literature as a concept in a sub-plot way far better than most story arcs I have seen), and then proceeding to use their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate other powers from within, possibly causing a Klingon-Cardassian war and almost causing a major rift in even the utopian Federation where for the first time in centuries troops are deployed on the streets of the future crime and prejudice free Earth. All the while, the Alpha Quadrant remains as divided as ever. Alliances that should be formed are not, even in the face of knowing quite clearly what the intentions of this new and dangerous foe clearly are:

Cardassia, smarting from its instability and loss of standing decides to throw its weight in with the new power under Dukat’s new government-the kind of vindictive re-alignment in diplomacy which is guaranteed to upset the status quo. This is something on the scale of Sino-American rapprochement in the 70s or Japan joining the Axis Powers. It gives the enemy a foothold for free in the Alpha Quadrant and a large supply of allied ships. When the war finally does break out over Sisko’s mining of the wormhole to prevent further reinforcements to the Dominion, everything changes.

With even the ostensibly pacifist Starfleet forced to launch a pre-emptive strike you know things are going to a bit more hard core in this show. And to its credit, DS9 shows us the evolution of a country used to long periods of peace of security and how it changes over prolonged total warfare.

The loss of DS9 itself, and the awkward political situation which the Bajoran crewmen are put in (not to mention the planet itself) of knowing they will be destroyed if they resist, but also that they will be occupied if the war they are forced to declare neutrality in is lost speaks volumes to the struggles of small states in times of chaos. Major Kira struggles with her past as a freedom fighter and now worries about being a collaborator when a dramatic event makes her disavow her government’s stated neutrality-if not overtly.

The war has many back and forth shifts, as one would, and eventually with the re-taking of the station after some Not Your Father’s Star Trek battles settles into a kind of exhausting stalemate. It is here that the show really develops its spine of steel at looking at the anarchic world of foreign policy head on, and to an extend science fiction perhaps did not do before in this particular medium.

To understand the transformation that Starfleet is undergoing, I actually find the career trajectory of the character Nog the best way to see it in microcosm. He starts off exuberant to be the first Ferengi in Starfleet, becomes a prodigy in training, and then fights in the war with the crew and even falls in with some new cadets who the war has shaped into fanatics far removed from the ideals of the service they most likely joined for very different reasons.

Eventually, Nog is terribly wounded in a ground battle of dubious necessity and has a subsequent entire episode devoted to his recovery from PTSD by temporarily living in the fantasy world of a holodeck. He eventually overcomes the worst of it and when asked if he will is better responds with a frank, ‘No, but I will be.’ Here we see the terrible cost of the war, the tragedy that ensues when diplomacy breaks down or the paranoia of an enemy prevent negotiation. But yet in the end this tragedy must be burdened as the alternative is infinitely worse-enslavement for the entire Alpha Quandrant is something worth any sacrifice to stop. Through the microcosm of Nog’s experience we see what Starfleet itself goes through, a torturous realization that their civic mythology is not enough in a time of extreme danger. A crisis of conscious, self-doubt, but ultimately when faced with the reality, adaptation for survival. If some values must be sacrificed in the defense of others it still preferable to the sacrifice of all of them. The Federation must grapple with how to marshal its options and function in the trauma of wartime crisis situation. As M.R. Brawley states:

‘Neoclassical realists look to the state as the manager of the nation’s resources for competition in the anarchic international environment. The state’s position as mediator between the two realms of politics-domestic and international-gives it a unique role. It must coordinate diplomacy and domestic policies, harnessing economic capacity to generate military power in the defense of interests.’

First diplomacy failed, then military only options  could only go so far. Now we reach a point in the final two seasons where only special operations of the most delicate kind can turn the balance. This is, of course, the famous moment as well as the best episode of the series-when Sisko and Garak conspire to bring the so-far neutral Romulans into the war by an act so illegal, so dangerous, and so unethical it could cause war with the Romulans if ever found out. The sham is found out by its Romulan target (‘It’s a FAAAAAAAAKE!!!!’), but before he can relay this news Garak assassinates him in a way that covers up the false data and brings the Romulan Empire into the war against the Dominion. This is, to me, the star episode of the series and the peak of the show’s IR themes. Shadows of the Zimmerman Telegram coupled with who knows how many forged intelligence coups in history  tie this firmly into reality and strategy. In the ethics of Starfleet this is the most heinous thing imaginable, and so it took someone without a country and with a strong understanding of the inter-state system to do it for them. And of course, they can live with it:

Furthermore down the dark path of grand strategy, up until this point much has been made of the Cardassian and Romulan intelligence services, but what we find out, and which shatters the myth of Federation success  as values based as a sole explanation for their thriving for the past few centuries, is that Starfleet has an intelligence service so good no one even knows of it. Not only that, it has already used Odo as conduit for which to infect the entire Founder race with a deadly bioweapon before the war even began. This is Section 31, what I imagine to be the most controversial aspect of the show. An organization accountable to no one, filled with dangerous individuals whose very existence compromises the stated goals and intents of the Federation itself. It is precisely this which has enabled Starfleet to be so principled. Aside from that first point, this is Sun Tzu’s fantasy right here.

The main figures have after all never had to get their hands dirty, someone else did it for them-and possibly did so without anyone finding out. Who knows how many events Section 31 pulled off in the past which have never been exposed? A friend of mine postulated the theory that the relatively organized and potent Klingon of the original series seemed to give way to the brittle warrior feuding culture of later renditions precisely because of some kind of Section 31 operation that indirectly backed the most right wing and chauvinistic elements of a country in order to make it easy to manipulate and destabilize much like the United States with organizations like the Gray Wolves in Turkey or military regimes in Latin America in the Cold War. After all, near the end of the series the Federation basically has Worf kill Gowron to get a better strategist in the cockpit of the Klingon Empire-and that little change wasn’t even hidden from public view.

But here is the kicker, love it or hate it the most subversive part of DS9 is not just showing the Federation being a great power out of necessity when the chips are down-just like the others it does what is necessary and hence must forfeit the mantle of moral superiority-that is only part one of the real message. The real message is this: politics is lesser evils. the Federation was worth defending against the Dominion. All those events that showed it at its worse and most fanboy purist upsetting-these are the things that enabled its survival. Naturally with the war over, Section 31 becomes more a danger than a benefit, and the galaxy at the end of the war is left in an ambiguous position with quite possibly the Romulans in the driver’s seat of regional affairs. Political problems will never end, and allies and enemies always change, but in a crisis one doesn’t have the luxury of playing with all considerations in mind, only the most immediate ones. After all, who would have predicted Kira as the leader of the Cardassian resistance? That the ‘bad guy’ races advocating a pre-emptive attack on the Dominion who were portrayed as warmongers would be more than justified as events ensued? That the drive for regime legitimacy in the eyes of its own people would be enough to drive Cardassia entirely into ruin? Well, a world history major perhaps, but few others.

Given all the messy compromises of politics, something that only gets worse as the scales increase, one is never going to get a happy ending in IR, or even an ending barring sentient extinction. But ultimately the prevention of things getting worse must stand as the positive outcome. A rough lesson DS9 and human history alike tell in abundance. Whereas before DS9 Star Trek clearly dealt with power politics without *really* dealing with them, in DS9 we see the darker reality that makes even something like the Federation possible. Just as in real life Wilsonism or other ideals driven foreign policy views can be shown to be a superficial guise for what often really lurks beneath. DS9 brought the realism to Star Trek in more ways than one.

The only thing I felt the series was lacking, as a Jeffrey Combs fan, was a scene where Dr. Herbert West re-animates a Weyoun clone.

I would also like to nominate Garak to be one of the spirit animals of this blog.

Well the next few posts will probably be back to normal after that, but at some point in the future I would like to do something similar-ish for the Battletech Universe, we will see.

The book cited twice in this post can be found here.