Will Taiwan Fight?

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It is the nightmare scenario of policy planners in Beijing and Washington alike. It is the hypothetical that keeps many an IR scholar pondering the many ramifications and dangers. It is a war over Taiwan.

To the fellow traveler interested in world history, Taiwan’s ambiguous status on the world stage is hardly a new thing. The island was one of main progenitor points of Polynesian culture and eventually would attract a Dutch trading fort due to its simultaneous remoteness to dense population but also close proximity to China proper. The Dutch would in turn be evicted by Ming Dynasty loyalists fleeing the collapse of their government and the birth of the new Manchurian Qing Dynasty. Once the pirate base for Ming loyalists was subdued the Qing recognized the need to incorporate this nearby landmass firmly into their state.

After the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 the island’s ownership was transferred to Japan and Taiwan soon became the new Japanese Empire’s first major overseas possession (that wasn’t under the assumption of one day becoming a home island). The Japanese met significant resistance from the native population (though not the Chinese already there) and would eventually go on to incorporate indigenous scouts into their Pacific forces once this initial colonial conflict was over. There is even a metal song about these units.

Taiwan was restored to China-then the Republic of China-after Japan’s total defeat in World War II. Shortly afterwards, the civil war in China would drive the Republic’s government and forces (with the state treasury in tow) to the island as their position rapidly collapsed in China Proper. Late Ming history repeating itself. Here the Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek would survive, unlike their Ming forebears, due to the protection of the American navy and the weak post-war status of naval forces now held by the People’s Republic on the mainland.

Not giving up its official title to be the legitimate government of China, the Republican forces on Taiwan would in fact hold China’s seat in the UN until the United States and Beijing came together during the Nixon administration to work out defensive arrangements against a perceived common Soviet threat. Much like democratic peace theory today or the US-France ‘Quasi War’ during the aftermath of both countries revolutions, international communist solidarity turned out to be hollow words easily undone by the brute realities of great power competition. The price for the US to gain this new inroad with Beijing was, of course, to put the PRC in the drivers seat as the internationally recognized government of China. Washington also had to agree that Taiwan was a part of China-but it retained its influence over the island and reiterated that it would defend the island from a reunion with the mainland that would be conducted with force.

So it remains up through today. In the meanwhile, there have been significant if minority calls in Taiwan to cease being the Republic of China and simply become Taiwan, a fully independent nation. Its historical experience has certainly put it on a more divergent path than the simple warlord renegade provinces of modern Chinese history before World War II. Of course, everyone knows that a blatant declaration of independence might well trigger a full blown military response from the mainland.

This all sounds quite convoluted, and as history and political baggage it certainly is. Will Taiwan come back into the fold through force? Diplomacy? Will even the PRC one day unexpectedly collapse leading to Chiang’s long delayed dream of reunification from Tapei a strange new reality? Will Taiwan become a fully sovereign and recognized state?

But one way it is not complicated is in what will happen to Taiwan’s future if that nightmare scenario of a military invasion to forcibly reunify the island breaks out. Despite what you may assume about such a complex issue, the entire fate of the island and of great power conflict will rest solely on one factor: Do the people of Taiwan resist the PRC or do they not?

It seems simple and perhaps reductive to break down the fate of this issue in a confrontation to this one factor, but I will list reasons why I believe this to be true:

-Neither China nor the United States wants to fight each other directly, especially as neither country knows the effectiveness of its naval strategy against the other. China has bet a lot on diesel submarines and shore based anti-ship missiles, the US on carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines, and air power. The Taiwan Straits could be the death zone of an invading fleet coming across American technological power projection, or it could be a perfect shooting gallery for mainland missiles restoring coastal defenses to their pre-gunpowder days of sabotaging troublesome fleets. Either power, or both of them, could be fatally weakened with global consequences in such a confrontation.

-The morale of the Chinese forces would be higher than that of the American forces, considering the historical ties to the island that one shares and the other do not. For Americans to be willing to take the casualties necessary to either defend or (more likely) re-take Taiwan the country would have to be united in the cause. The country could *only* be united in such a cause if the people of Taiwan were seen to be oppressed and victims of an unwanted annexation like that of Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990.

-Therefore the decision falls into Taipei’s ball court rather than Washington or Beijing. Taipei and the common people of Taiwan in general. The island is riddled with underground defenses and weapons caches to fight and delay any invasion until a bailout from America can occur. Much of its terrain is extremely mountainous. It also has a large amount of jungle. Taiwan could indeed put up quite the fight-if it were willing to. Conventionally it might be plastered (unless the PRC really screws up the initial operations) but a popular war waged by the army and militia and common civilian resistance could flounder an invasion. More importantly, such resistance is the single factor that could bring in open ended American commitment for a fight until the issue is settled with a fully independent Taiwan. (Or, if American was being extra clever, a unified China that had to legalize the KMT throughout the entirety of the mainland and open the system up to competitive elections).

And this is the question, is Taiwan willing to do this? Literally everything in a conflict over the island boils down to this single factor. Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t think most people in Taiwan even really know with certainty. But I do know that this is the factor on which US-China rivalry will hinge on in any confrontation. Without something that at least looks like a genuine people’s war, America might roll over and acquiesce as easily as a compliant Taiwan would. After all, it barely effects the core of American Pacific strength and provides a rallying cry to get more nations on Washington’s bandwagon. But if the Taiwanese are clearly fighting as allies expecting a delivery then this flies out the window. If Taiwan were to fight all sides would have to see it through for the sake of their preexisting commitments and the very legitimacy of their governments.

So to get the heart of the mater, will Taiwan fight or not?

 

 

Navigating the Beringian Age of Geopolitics

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I have written numerous Eurasia geopolitics articles, North America articles, and a South American article on here so far. It was my plan to do Africa next, but instead it seems first comes one which is both Eurasia and North America together. Go figure.

Eurasia is what is often referred to as ‘The World Island’ in classical geopolitics. The closest thing our present geological era has to a supercontinent. For much of history land power was easier and cheaper to wield than sea power-though obviously this has changed since-and Eurasia, being directly connected to humanity’s birthplace of Africa and the birthplace of both agriculture and animal domestication was the location of the strongest and most technologically advanced states. Up until the rise of the United States this was almost always true, with a one off in Carthage, a possible economic Malian interlude in the Middle Ages, and Egypt really being the only periodic exception (and even then just barely as it straddled two continents). Having the majority of Earth’s population and societies, Eurasia was the natural laboratory of state formation and warfare innovation, especially connected as it was with other parts of its own massive expanse due to a plethora of natural harbors an an ‘inland sea’ of sorts in the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe that stretch from Hungary to Manchuria.

The first geopolitical thinkers to really get into this World-Island thesis were people like Halford Mackinder, who came of prominence in a time when the British were still top dogs but knew their time was running out due to the rapid rise of German, Russian, and American power. He was the first to postulate that the rapid industrialization of these powers and the expansion of their railroad networks would return the logistical and military initiative to land powers for the first time since the decline of the steppe nomads who had once been the qualitatively dominant military force in world history. It would become a British obsession, soon to be inherited also by the Americans, French, and Japanese as well, to hinder any one power from exerting this level of dominance over Eurasia, the continent-of-continents. The French would use alliances and dominance of Africa to attempt to be a secondary player in this game, the Japanese would attempt to carve out their own exclusive sphere, and the Americans would use their fortunate geography to sit around, sabotage everyone else from a distance, and then come roaring in with economic power and naval power. Russia, the second place player, had become the Eurasian colossus always feared in the form of the Soviet Union. But a rising China and a hostile Western Europe and Japan kept it safely in check and America secure. Eurasia was still too big and too diverse to become someone’s private world-island. Even in the face of the power and prestige of the largest an most mobile army the world had yet to see.

But this very falling of the dice called into question the Eurasian presumption. It was a North America, dominated by one power which also in turn dominated South America, that became the first truly global maritime power. As I wrote about on here previously, this leads to many factors to reconsider the concept of the ‘world island’: be it the very concept itself or which continent it might be. I argued that North America makes a better case if the concept is to be used.

What is clear, however, is that great power rivalry in the near future will more heavily involve North America and Eurasia as the central poles of alliance networks. This does not mean that major conflicts and powers will not arise elsewhere, but for the time being the changes that will matter most will happen on these two land masses. Their past interactions have already had a massive import on the world we live in causing spillovers across the planet, even pre-dating modern humanity when a more Eurasia-connected North America wreaked disproportionate devastation on South America.

There is nothing mystical or obscure about this. These are the continents with the largest East-West widths which enable an easier and more rapid spread of flora and fauna within climate zones, something that quite possibly helps the spread of human technology and infrastructure as well. Both have long productive coastlines, vast stretches hospitable to life but also diverse in biome, and connecting interior highways of grasslands and big navigable rivers. Due to the movement of plate tectonics and shifting sea depths due to ice ages, both continents would periodically compete and exchange life forms in evolution in more recent history than many other continental collisions. For most of history Eurasia was clearly the place to be for humans maximizing their power. The horse, a North American creature originally, would die out there before being reintroduced by the Spanish but thrive in Eurasia. Eurasia was bigger, most diverse, more connected with other places. It had the good fortune to have a larger span of dray-maritime real estate for agriculture and the most animals situated for domestication. North America lacked this critical large pack beast advantage. It was also, of course, settled by humanity significantly later than Eurasia was due to simple reason of location and distance from Africa.

The human version of the Great American Interchange would begin in 1492, though the uneven nature of it would not be apparent until the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish decades later. Spanish iron, gunpowder, pack animals, and sea power would be decisive despite the fact that North America had on average even larger cities than Europe in Mesoamerica and just as-if not more diverse-agricultural crops and practices. Despite their late comparative peopling and isolation, Mesoamerica (and the Andes) had numerous inventions and highly advanced urban planning, irrigation systems, and in the Aztec and Mayan worlds specifically, written bureaucracies.

The technological disparity forged in the furnace of Eurasian state formation was an obvious advantage to the invaders, but it was not the most important one. Technology can be adopted and copied. The Spanish were few and far from home. It was the pathogens they brought from their long contact with pack animals that were truly decisive. The labor saving animals may have jump-started resource collection and travel, but for the point of the Columbian Exchange, the most important part was the diseases the Eurasians had partial immunity to that the Native Americans did not. On reading in this topic I have seen estimates of death rates due to disease anywhere from 80%-95%. It remains an open issue, but this was a far deadlier outbreak of pestilence for the western hemisphere than the Bubonic Plague ever had been in Eurasia. It also led to ridiculous myths about Native Americans being backward as many of their societies had been fatally weakened if not outright destroyed before they had ever even been seen by the newcomers. The western hemisphere had become a post-apocalyptic tableau of societal collapse. Spain had the keys to be the pre-eminent world power, the only country in that era that realistically could have equaled or surpassed Ming China.

And yet the technology was still too young. Spain squandered its gains by using pillaged gold in galleon convoys to basically drive up inflation. Its infrastructure would remain largely feudal at home and in the colonies. Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas of these easy Spanish pickings by British, French, and Dutch privateers would in fact end up benefiting those countries more at Spain’s expense. The cauldron of Eurasian competition was offshore to the oceans and outside of Europe, relocating to the Americas. By having to hack out self-sustaining colonies out of the blue these more northerly powers would end up getting more of the benefit from the new world with tobacco, cotton, furs, and timber. Native Americans north of Mesoamerica were less ‘advanced’ and lesser in numbers than those further south, but this in fact made them far more difficult to conquer. They were mobile, more open to adaptation in war, and could not be simply overrun by a specific region or city. Plus, they now had competeing powers to play off each other for weapons, horses, and supplies. For about a century, from the mid 17th to mid 18th Century, the Natives of North America would in fact be equal partners in the great power rivalry that dominated the continent. Either way, the Spanish unipolar moment in the hemisphere (and thus the potential of bringing that power home as well) was over. Even without the arrival of the new European powers, the Pueblo Indians and the Comanche had already rolled back the Spanish frontier in the north, and the Mapuche had stopped it in the southern cone of South America.

In many ways the European nations could only thrive in North America if the natives were fighting each other. But many of the natives gained when European fought as well. The Iroquois would destroy their long tong rivals, the Huron, and then go on to roll back Quebec’s frontier with their musket-armed forces. Hudson’s bay firearms-for-fur trading would empower the Blackfoot to heights previously unheard of for them, and the previously mentioned Comanche basically ran their own horseback empire in the southwest for a century at Spanish expense. This was a multipolar world. Then British naval power took Quebec and expelled the French from the continent. A defensive Spain could only play catch up as British goods and settlers flooded the continent. Unipolar domination of the Western Hemisphere, an explicit goal of William Pitt the Elder, then Prime Minister, once again looked in sight with London-rather than Madrid-its true heir. Demographics had now tipped in favor of the settlers. Europeans outnumbered Native Americans in their own continent. Despite the partial rolling back of the frontier in Pontiac’s War, Native solidarity could not survive the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest War where the US army was born after its largest ever battlefield defeat at the hands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape-but critically from the geopolitical (if not cultural) perspective, neither did Britain’s North American empire. The first independent country of the colonial era had arisen in the Americas, it would soon be followed by many others. Events in Europe were about to give the Americas a big break.

Napoleon upsetting Europe’s apple cart turned out to be the most important thing. Haiti would be the next country to fight for and gain independence. With Spain reeling from French occupation, its colonies in Central and South America would soon follow. Kicked out of North America south of Canada (aside from Caribbean Isles and Guyanas of course) and much more into India these days anyway, the British would pull a 180 degree turn after the stalemate of the War of 1812 and thoroughly support the independence of Spain’s former colonies in order to keep them out too and open the markets of these new countries to British goods. It was in this world that North America’s first diplomatic counter-blow to the dominance of Eurasian-based states would come: The Monroe Doctrine.

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At the time of its formulation in the early Victorian era the United States most certainly did not have the power to enforce the claim of the doctrine, which was to oppose European re-colonization or re-establishment of spheres of influence over their former territories. Britain or France could have swept the American navy aside had they so chosen. But now Britain was the secret enforcer behind the American declaration. They weren’t going to take Latin America directly for themselves, so they would make damn sure no one else did, either. After the US-Mexico War it was obvious the U.S. was growing in power to one day enforce it on its own, however.

The doctrine had only one failure, the American Civil War. With the one great power of the western hemisphere divided against itself in a death struggle, and the secondary power of the region (Brazil) involved in a surprisingly costly war with a delusionally expansionistic Paraguay and without much of a navy, France moved in to establish a proxy-state in a weakened Mexico. Though the Mexicans would hold their own under Benito Juarez, the French would not be evicted fully until the American Civil War was over and the US army was redeployed on the border to threaten them and ship weapons directly to the Mexican forces.

The Civil War made a federation of squabbling pseudo republics into a proper nation. This nation was the empire of the west in all but name. With growing modern naval power and a final bookend of sweeping Spain from its remnants in 1898, the last vestiges of the old order had been relegated to a few isolated enclaves and Canada, itself already beginning the process of unofficially turning south. The worlds biggest economy and industrial producer now lay there, after all. Available resources and land along the wide continent were fueling a growth in power rapid beyond any previous one in recent history.

In this light of viewing the poles of conflict as geographic, it was now time for the power or North America to come to benefit from the misfortune of Eurasia. This time it would be neither disease nor technology but Eurasia’s multitude of great powers that would spell the reversal of the location of the world-island. From a large and removed scale much as multiple conflicts could be viewed as different phases in one grand struggle for mastery in America (Piracy and the Beaver Wars in the late 17th Century through the Mexican-US War), so too would the rise of new and fall of old powers in Eurasia set up a struggle for master in Eurasia which would last from 1902-1945 (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, The Second World War). Britain sought to sure up its declining position by breaking its ‘splendid isolation’ and joining with Japan. Japan put the brakes on Russian expansion in southern Manchuria and its eventual dream target, Korea, eventually taking these things for itself and starting its own growth as a new power. This made Germany more a threat to the maritime alliance than Russia and made Russia more bellicose in its European objectives towards German allies. France, already in danger of being eclipsed, linked with with Russia and Britain to stave off this threat. The dying old empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans would hitch a ride on German power in order to reverse their decline and ensure survival. They would end up the biggest losers of all in eventual Allied victory.

The United States played an important, but not decisive role in the First World War, but it was clearly now one of the big players at the global level. Though on the surface it seemed France and Britain had gained much from the conflict, the gains were of little long term value and their overall global position had actually been weakened. The British solider and poet Siegfried Sassoon ruminated that the only nations to gain from the war he fought in was the United States and Japan. Indeed, there were now three established naval powers by treaty, Britain, the USA, and Japan. Britain was part of a triumvirate that couldn’t get along. So much for ruling the waves. Not only that, but the Russians and Turks both, whose empires had utterly collapsed in the war, successfully fought to expel Allied backed foreign intervention in their lands leading to near immediate revisions of the postwar settlements made at their expense. Turkey would become an independent republic and the Soviet Union would reclaim most of the Tsar’s collapsed domains. Both would make rapid gains in development and education that would outstrip their less fortunate semi-colonized neighbors. More importantly, until WWII, they would be tacitly allied with each for precisely this end. The first tremors of independence movements started to rock India and Ireland. The colonial powers were living on borrowed time. Japan, having yet to experience a reverse outside of the Siberian Intervention, largely continued forward with that previous era’s policies of expansion, however, putting on a collision course with the United States.

World War II would settle Eurasia’s issue. Despite the ‘Great Game’ beginning due to fears of Russian domination, that would be exactly the outcome of all of this. Russian and American domination, that is. For all the death, destruction and misery The Second World War would cause a majority of the planet and especially the eastern and western edges of Eurasia itself, The Axis Revolt, as it could be termed, served much like the American Civil War only to delay the inevitable at great cost. In fact, it aided what was coming. The Soviets broke Germany, the Americans broke the Japanese, and each fought the other Axis powers at some time or another victoriously. But before this outcome it is relevant to note that the Germans had also now broken the French, and the Japanese had broken the British. There were only two powers. The Soviet Eurasian Heartland and the United States Western Hemisphere Dominion. The world was getting smaller due to technology, but the powers only got larger. When Britain and France tried to re-insert themselves as decisive actors in the great power game with the Suez Crisis, they found only embarrassment as the Russians threatened them and the Americans scolded them and offered no support.

But despite the one sided history in Eurasia’s favor, the Cold War would show that North America finally had the leg up. Naval power did still rule over land power despite Mackinder’s fears. Eurasia was too multi-polar and divided and it was harder for the USSR to export power when their Chinese proteges (now having replaced Japan to regain their traditional place as East Asia’s most strategically relevant country) could turn to their own interests once they were strong enough to stand up to a domineering partner. There was not, yet, an equivalent of this in the America’s to complicate the United States’ position-though if there one day were it would most likely be Brazil.

It was with deftness and skill that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger saw that world that was coming out of a simple binary. The Cold War was a power struggle, in my opinion, and the ideology that marked so much of it on both sides was largely intellectual cover for competition in the ripe proxy combat ground of the third world and newly independent former colonies. Both feared the world hegemonic goals of the other. Mix and match any number of socio-economic models with globe-spanning powers that big and strong and you would have a rivalry no matter what. So it was that two pre-eminent wingnut cold warriors of their respected countries created the conditions for bringing China in as a third pole to the rivalry, one that would send the Soviets into a conniption and, in the end, fatal death spiral of defense spending. It was this, in my opinion, that decided the Cold War more than any of Reagan’s policies, which largely took effect when the terminal decline was already taking place in Moscow. But it is worth noting that in the 60s and 70s the growth of the Soviet economy and tech sectors made many people, Kissinger included, convinced that the future was theirs more than the USA’s. China sold the new alliance to its people with much the same thinking as rhetoric. ‘The Americans will decline, the Russians are more the threat.’ In geopolitics the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cold Warriors of the smarter varieties could see that their societies were no different from others with interests like when the Catholic French supported the Protestants in the 30 Years War against their fellow Catholics in Hapsburg Austria. Its the traditional cost benefit calculation of Cardinal Richelieu.

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With the breakup of the USSR this proved to be the opposite. Or, more accurately, the USSR declined *first*. The United States did not gain in power in the post-Cold War era so much as have all checks on its preexisting power removed. Now Washington would call the shots directly in Eurasia in places never before imagined. China had ways to go at that point to replace Russia as the bipolar competitor, but by now its safe to say it may well reach that point in my life time. But much like how the USSR could alienate China, so too could China alienate India, or one day even Russia.

This brings us to the present, and many topics I have and will go over again and have before in other entries. So, to go full circle, the fate of geopolitics in the foreseeable future relies on events in North America and Eurasia and their interaction with each other. Right now, North America still holds an advantage, though having foolishly driven Russia into China’s arms by its own hubris, (thus counteracting Brzezinski’s grand strategic advice) its an advantage rapidly being squandered. Meanwhile, China’s One Belt One Road initiative resembles another attempt to create the internal ‘world island’ where a dominant power in Eurasia is safe from the sea-power of its foes. Having learned many lessons from Soviet and, increasingly, American failure, a concerted buildup of this inland international interior could end up being a challenge the USSR never was. Or not. Eurasia’s multipolar and divided nature still counts against it and India seems to be solidly orienting towards the oceanic world for obvious geographic reasons. Still, there is nothing so complacent as assuming the present state of sovereign nations is in any way permanent. That never has been true in the past.

Something that I could see if things changed more drastically is a Beringian World. In a Beringian World, the geopolitical alliances that matter most are a dominant power or alliance network in one continent being opposed in its own hemisphere by a defensive coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent, which in turn is opposed by its own local coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent. What this might look like with the present international states would be a China-backed Brazil or even Mexico (though that is less likely I think) or collection of South American states under Chinese partnership which in turn is reciprocated by a US-backed India or even eventually Russia. If China and Russia somehow stay friends permanently, this will be manifest in bringing Japan, Indonesia, and India closer together, a project which, arguably, is already underway in those countries.

Should China experience a decline or a shocking sudden state failure, however, this may reverse. If Japan and India are close together they might take up the mantle of Latin America’s revisionist states and the US will have to find no friends to balance against them. This is, of course, all very long term and hypothetical.

The point is, once Eurasian countries divided up North (and South) America for their spoils. Then North America rode a wave of Eurasia dividing itself up to become the center of political power. But now the technological disparities have largely gone from between them and the world continues to shrink bringing both new allies and new enemies. In a future Beringian World the geopolitical center of gravity might be split between both continents, which will, strategically speaking, come together as part of the same world in a way not seen since the seas were low and the Bering Strait open, when wild canines left the Americas to colonize and independently evolve all over the world.

Of course, some new exclusive resource revolutionizing technology could always finally through the ball to another region. You never know.

In the more near future don’t be surprised if you see another Nixon-goes-to-China moment except more likely with another power being the recipient of the visit and no one as smart as Nixon to do the visiting. If you see it, I encourage you to follow it as it flies away, it will be relevant if it fails or succeeds.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iranproachment

The news and the internet is awash with op-eds and coverage of a potential major step in US-Iran relations. I am not going to spend time going into detail about something you can find practically everywhere this week except to state the following as briefly as possible.

No matter what you think of the deal itself, this is in the best interest of both parties. Especially in the hopes of greater coordination against Daesh. If there is going to be an improvement on the situation in Iraq and Syria it can only happen with Iran and the US working together on some issues.

This also adds flexibility to American grand strategy. The United States can loosen the binds that hold it into deep integration with some extremely dubious allies-and this means in the long term that forces and effort can be redeployed to more critical regions-especially East and South Asia and the Pacific Littoral.

In Iran’s case it increases the flexibility towards other Gulf states. Already there are hints that the new primary foe is Saudi Arabia.

So while you obviously cannot expect too much-largely this deal is a win/win. The only losers so far are reactionary nutcases in Tehran and the somehow still lingering neoconservative establishment in the United States.

I don’t know about you, but I drink the bitter tears of neocons like a fine wine.

There’s One Thing I Haven’t Heard Yet About the U.S.-Iran Deal….

US-Iran deal

You can hear the discussions and the debates already: ‘A Major Middle-Eastern Re-Alignment’, ‘The Dawn of a New Era’, ‘From Foes to Friends?’ and on the litany of predictable headlines goes. And it is true, no matter what the future holds this was a big moment in the relations between two countries who have oscillated from low-intensity Cold War to outright hostility and back and back again numerous times since 1979. But now both sides realize the commonalities of interest outweigh the still substantial disagreements and there will at least be an attempt to deal with it. Whether or not it will be successful only time will tell. But hopefully it will be. Both nations share an enemy in combating Sunni extremism, which has much more global appeal and violent credit to its name than any corresponding Shi’a movement. In fact, last month U.S. airstrikes supported Iranian backed Shi’a militia offensives against Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq. Nothing like an even scarier foe to bring to former enemies together.

The question will be if this rapprochement is temporary or long term. Iran also wants more diplomatic options, an end to sanctions, and greater levels of flexibility than to be forced into becoming a junior partner with Russia. The U.S. on the other hand no longer has the will to bluster about constant large scale conventional intervention and also needs more options in the region-particularly if it is going to downplay its presence in order to focus on the far more important (to Washington) Asia-Pacific and possibly even European spheres of interest. It may also be desirable to remind the Saudis and Israelis who is boss in the relationship with Washington, but good luck getting anyone to acknowledge that in any official capacity. Both sides have a lot to gain and even more to lose. Nothing is settled yet but the gamble just might be worth it. After all, look at Yemen. A Saudi led coalition as well as (allegedly by some but unproven so far) an uninvited Israeli guest are stepping up bombing runs on Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who are making gains at the expense of the government. Now this is a wild card for both parties as it introduces independent action from their allies separate of their own negotiations. It is so convoluted that it actually has captured a fair amount of media attention relating to the talks-as it should.

But one thing I am so far not seeing mentioned, except in passing, concerns less about new-found chumminess in Iraq against a common foe or even the dangers of the situation in Yemen, but rather the still ongoing and far more deadly than either of those examples Syrian Civil War.

When the war began there was no question as to whose side Iran would stand on. Syria under the Assad family was a die-hard Iranian ally, all the more important for really being the only one. Naturally, this meant that the United States and its allies jumped on the rebels bandwagon (this was of course those dark and far off days of 2011). Syria also of course had close ties to Russia (The Tartus Naval Base in Syria being Russia’s only external military installation not in a part of the former U.S.S.R.) and a quite obvious minefield of ethnic and sectarian divides. All of this made direct intervention a la Libya not an option. But short of invasion or no-fly zone, the U.S. and Iran went to work on a proxy conflict as the once sealed Syrian state splintered apart.

The problem of course was that so did Saudi Arabia. In fact, nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar were much more gung-ho about such an intervention than even the U.S. seemed to be (neoconservative fantasies of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aside). The extreme form of Islam often championed by elements within these states, coupled with the fact that the Assad regime had long since made alliances against the majority Sunni population of their nation with many of the various other minorities basically guaranteed a particularly nasty division of society. Something that the Iraq War should have given the U.S. foreign policy establishment much more pause when contemplating entering the fray.

Once it became apparent that the Syrian government would not fall quickly-or perhaps at all-radicalization within the rebel movement was pretty much a guarantee. Gradually, the Islamist elements became a larger and larger part of the Syrian opposition, to the point where any hopes of a moderate-only victory became about as likely as a Green Party candidate winning the American presidency.

I remember watching the early stages of the Syria conflict unfold as a doctoral student familiar with Syria’s general demographic makeup. My first thought was ‘if the government doesn’t crumble in a month or two this is going to be nasty on all fronts-how I hope the U.S. doesn’t interfere!’ But so it happened. How much of an effect this had on the war is debatable, but once the war was guaranteed to be long it very much served U.S. interests to hope the regime-yes the Assad one-would be the faction which emerged triumphant. Rebel victory increasingly looked like a scenario where the price of getting rid of one family and their nepotistic gang would demand a terrible price for ethnic and sectarian minorities alike, not to mention the empowerment of religious fanatics who respected no borders. And yet, the American foreign policy establishment still hedged its bets with the rebels who at best could deliver only the most questionable gains in the form of Iran having to spend money and arms on aid to Damascus.

Perhaps the United States realizes its errors on this issue. Perhaps not. But this brings us back to the recent Iran-US talks. Iran and Russia are the only state level external actors that pull weight with the Syrian regime. It would be wise-if the U.S. wishes to take back its Syrian mistakes-to be using those secret talks in order to negotiate something on Syria, namely to agree to stop any indirect support for the rebels in order for something else.

Considering the way things can go in such negotiations, it would hardly surprise me if that ‘something else’ was acknowledging Iranian influence in Syria and maybe even assisting them against Daesh there (where they are even more entrenched in than in Iraq) in exchange for Iran agreeing to make its Shi’a militias in Iraq loyal to the Iraqi government at least once the current conflict is over. Or it could be for Iran to have its proxies hold off from hostility with the Kurds. This is of course speculation, but its the kind of deal I would strike. If it is not that, one suspects Syria still comes up, and that the U.S. could very well be looking for a face-saving way to distance itself from that country or for further collaboration between all parties opposed to Daesh-something Iran could very likely provide.

Simply because this is the one issue being sidelined by the media covering the US-Iran talks makes it by far the most interesting one to me. If indeed this is being actively discussed the ramifications of it could be as big as any nuclear program or shift in alliance networks.

Anyway, have a pretty jumpin’ propaganda song.

 

Edit: 4/13 to clarify that the claims of Israeli involvement in Yemen are so far unsubstantiated.