1 May 2012
After having written, just a few days ago, about declensionism as the possibly now-dominant narrative in the US (in From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), it seems a bit odd to take up the topic of whether happy days are here again, but I have been noticing subtle rhetorical shifts in the media that suggest that, no matter the pessimism and cynicism of the moment, Americans are always willing (if not eager) to believe in a better tomorrow. Reinvention — personal, institutional, civic, national — is one of the central themes of the American narrative, and this includes the continual reinvention of a brighter tomorrow.
There is a certain elusive nostalgia in the predictions of plentiful natural gas from shale (has anyone yet called it “power too cheap to meter?”), the revitalization of Rust Belt-era cities, and the return of manufacturing jobs to the US. The fact that these strategic trends are all based in fact does not mean that they will come together to form a coherent future, but it is (or would be) easy to put these trends together and draw conclusions from them — it is (mostly) a pleasant scenario. However, for starters, these strategic trends — all of which, I will admit without hesitation, have a clear basis in contemporary events — are mutually incompatible.
Thomas P.M. Barnett of Wikistrat has been particular assiduous on reporting both the potential for shale gas and the return of manufacturing to US shores, and in fact combining the two by considering the industrial development that will follow from the large scale commercial exploitation of fracking to extract natural gas from shale. Dr. Barnett has posted a stream of loosely related items on this, such as The coming American industrial renaissance, States and localities fighting over hydrofracturing drilling
, The displacement effect of all that new US natural gas, and North American energy boom attracting Chinese investment, inter alia.
Dr. Barnett has not been alone in predicting a revitalization of American prospects based on a conventional outlook on economic prosperity. I recently listened to the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, and while parts of this book read like “peak oil” apocalypticism, as the subtitle indicates, the author believes much good will come out of increasing unaffordable fossil fuels. He predicts the revitalization of failing metropolitan areas like Detroit, as well as the return of manufacturing jobs to the US because of the expense of transported manufactured goods when transportation costs rise sharply.
One of the most difficult things about prediction and futurism (and futurism must here be understood as a coherent group of predictions definitive of a particular way of life) is that the world is complex and interconnected, while the human mind has difficulty keeping three or four things in its focus at the same time. Both because of the practical realities of thinking and writing, which are processes that take place in time and therefore are “strung out,” as it were, rather than found together simultaneously, our narratives of necessity give a sequential account of things. This comes through very clearly in $20 Per Gallon, which exemplifies this diachronic imperative in contrast to the synchronic reality of parallel and simultaneous development. The author treats in sequence consequences of high fuel prices that will happen across the board, simultaneously, and as these consequences occur simultaneously, then will influence each other, with the result being quite beyond our powers of prediction. Complex adaptive systems are continually adapting to each other, and, in the process of adapting, changing themselves and changing the context in which all other complex adaptive systems adapt.
As I attempted to show in Futurism Without Predictions, the approach to futurism that is likely to tell us what the future is going to be like, rather than picking and choosing particular items and there, but getting the whole completely wrong, is identifying the master strategic trend, and the master strategic trend is that which not only becomes the dominant strategic trend but also that strategic trend that is intrinsically capable of subordinating the greatest number of coherent and mutually compatible (i.e., in Leibnizean terms, compossible) strategic trends.
Traditional futurists have often defended their predictions (and the predictions of past futurists, thereby to shore up the credentials of the discipline generally speaking) by pointing to individual items that were predicted and which where eventually built — submarines, helicopters, the videophone, and so forth. The problem with this strategy of rationalizing predictions (a problem that we often feel but do not always know how to express) is that particular instances of technology predicted and then built do not add up to the feeling that futurists have given of the future. It is not only that we aren’t wearing unisex leotards, going to work in flying cars, and getting all our nutrition from a single pill we take in the morning, it is that our world does not look like and does not feel like the world of the Jetsons.
To get a proper feeling for what the world is like, and what it may be like in the future, we need to stop thinking in terms of individual predictions and start thinking in terms of dominant strategic trends that shape the overall character of life in a particular historical era. In other words, we need to look at the big picture. And in the big picture, some of the obvious trends of today will be in conflict, and will not come together (cannot come together) into any kind of synthesis that will define the future.
It is pretty obvious that at least some manufacturing jobs will return to the US. As poorer countries become wealthier, it will no longer be cheaper to make things overseas and ship them back to the US. That’s pretty simple; it’s not rocket science. But the danger of thinking in terms of a US manufacturing economy is the perverse fetishism of industry that one often finds in popular writings on economics. Manufacturing is no more an answer to the economic conundra of the present than is the idea that everyone will become a hedge fund manager and work in financial services. Any real and vital economy has many sectors, and the interaction of these sectors in the marketplace is what makes an economy thrive. So don’t expect to get a job at 18 making widgets at the local factory, planning to retire in 30 years on a full pension. Those days are over. Longevity killed that dream. Ironically, we have to work longer and harder because we are healthier and live longer. This is an example of unpredictable consequences of simultaneous developments.
It is also pretty obvious that new fracking techniques are going to allow for the extraction of natural gas from shale at a level that was not previously possible. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it certainly burns cleaner than coal, if the world economy expands dramatically by cranking up natural gas, we will be digging ourselves deeper into a problem that may have truly radical unpredictable consequences — like having to abandon the world’s major coastal cities because they are all under water due to rising sea levels.
Furthermore, the rentention of an economy based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels will mean that the kind of forced urbanization imagined in Christopher Steiner’s book will not occur. It is a relatively simple matter to convert cars, trains, and planes to run on one fossil fuel or another, and LNG is only marginally less convenient that oil. If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, LNG will be cheap and plentiful, and travel by private car and by airline will continue to be routine. And if the problem of hypersonic engines can be practically tamed, the world may become more internationally knit together, not less.
Make no mistake, increasing urbanization is one of the central strategic trends of our time, and we can expect it to continue. But it is likely to continue along the model of what Joel Garreau called “edge cities,” as well as sprawling, car-enabled suburbs that many people claim to disdain but which continue to grow in population.
Whether or not the trend is your friend, it is certainly your future. And the tone and feeling of the future will be set by that strategic trend that drives, shapes, and influences all the other strategic trends — either by magnifying them or by rendering them irrelevant.
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2 February 2012
Geopolitics has been a focus of this forum since its inception, but it was always my intention to supplement a purely geopolitical approach with an attempt to take account of the role of ideas in history — past, present, and future. I have even attempted a precisification of some of the concepts of geopolitics in a few posts on theoretical geopolitics. Thus while I cannot call myself an unqualified geopolitical thinker, I certainly have geopolitical sympathies. If you like, you could call me a fellow traveler of those who practice geopolitics sensu stricto.
It would be easy to find weaknesses in the geopolitical perspective, and many are the critics who have dismissed geopolitics as geographical determinism (that is, when it is not otherwise being roundly condemned as a pseudo-science). In fact, geopolitics should be understood in parallel to any form of abstract thinking: it brings a certain clarity of focus to a tightly restricted domain of concerns, but this focus and clarity is purchased at the cost of excluding certain considerations. The same is true of mathematics or logic or theoretical physics. Every abstract theory incorporates ellipses directly derivative of its abstractions; this being said, we usually get farther with our abstractions than without them. And I have argued many times that any theoretical grounding for one’s thought is probably better than no theoretical grounding at all. Geopolitics is simply one such theoretical grounding for thought.
There are many schools of geopolitics. Karl Haushofer perhaps represents the origin of explicitly thinking in geopolitical terms (there are other earlier geopolitical thinkers I will mention below), but Haushofer’s geopolitics is grounded in Germany’s terrestrial perspective as a land power of Eurasia, and Haushofer’s theories revolved around the control of the Eurasian continent. Not usually called a geopolitician, but standing in diametrical opposition to Haushofer is Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 was disproportionately influential during the period when the great powers of Europe were engaged in an arms race based on dreadnaught class battleships, which eerily foreshadowed the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. As Haushofer was the the terrestrial realm, Mahan was to the world’s oceans.
Perhaps the preeminent practitioner of geopolitics today is George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting (keep in mind that I am talking about people who are real thinkers, and not celebrity politicians such as get named to Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers). I have referenced Freidman’s work many times in this forum, so my readers should be well familiar with him. There are some echoes of Alfred Thayer Mahan that occasionally surface in Friedman’s work, but Friedman’s focus upon and dedication to the geopolitical perspective — almost to the exclusion of all else — is a remarkable exercise in coherent and consistent strategic analysis. Thomas P. M. Barnett is another geostrategic thinker whom I have referenced, but he is less tightly focused on geography than Friedman.
There is something else that unites these strategic thinkers other than their dedication to a geopolitical perspective. At their best, all of these strategists stand above politics. William James once called philosophy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly (my personal favorite among the many definitions of the discipline). By the same token we could call strategy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about politics, and, in the same vein, I recently wrote on Twitter that The one unforgivable sin in strategy is to allow objectivity to become compromised by ideology. Everyone who thinks in strategic terms knows this — if they have not formulated it explicitly, they know it in their gut.
However. Indeed, however. There is a kind of political unity to the geopolitical school of thought that transcends geography. It is not an ideological politics, but rather a scholarly politics, if there is such a thing. One can guess what books geopolitical strategists read, and they probably read pretty much the same books (mainstream works of political science) as they probably look at the same maps. Just as importantly, they probably also have in common the books that they do not read. One suspects that they read mainstream works of scholarship, and that if they have taken the trouble to delve into alternative viewpoints, they probably haven’t understood very well what they were reading. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Samuel P. Huntington, George Friedman, or Thomas P. M. Barnett reading Heidegger, Foucault, Delueze, or Derrida. (Few can be expected to master multiple domains of knowledge, especially when those domains involve incommensurable features.)
What do I mean by “alternative” viewpoints? There is a term of art if ever there was one. I am being a bit elliptical about this because I am trying to avoid political stereotypes, especially a distinction between left and right, since the left/right distinction is as antipathetic to geopolitical strategists as it is to their unsung alternatives. The closest we can come to identifying the distinction without falling back on political cliches is to invoke the distinction between analytical philosophy (which I sometimes call “Anglo-American analytical philosophy”) and continental philosophy. It is important to note that, while the distinction has its origins in geography, it is no longer a geographical distinction. There are analytical philosophers on the European continent, and there are continental philosophers aplenty in the US, Canada, and the UK.
Sometimes the analytical/continental distinction is treated as a mere accident of history, and that we group certain thinkers together because they went to the same schools or spoke the same language. Others treat the distinction as essential, and in making the distinction recognize an essential core of presuppositions shared on both sides of the divide. Of course, the distinction is a little of both — part accident of history, part essential to the thought. This distinction being made, then, I can say that geopolitical strategists stand in relation to their unsung alternatives as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy.
Now, when I write that the alternatives to mainstream geopolitical thought are “unsung,” I only mean this in so far as strategy extends, because some of the thinkers I will mention are very well known, though not usually thought of as intellectual rivals to the tradition of geopolitics. Chief among those who offer a counter-veiling vision to that a geopolitics is Foucault, and what Foucault offers as an alternative is biopolitics (sometimes called bio-power). Foucault originated and elaborated biopolitics, though it appears as a mode of analysis and a way of understanding, never as a political doctrine or an ideology. In this, biopolitics is parallel to geopolitics, which is understood by its practitioners to be non-ideological.
The fons et orgio of biopolitics (and perhaps, for the moment, also the locus classicus) is “Right of Death and Power over Life,” which appeared as Part Five of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Here Foucault wrote:
“…starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles-the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, Part Five, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Vintage, 1980, p. 139
It was actually a Swede, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, who coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellén is not so well known as Friedrich Ratzel, Mahan, or Haushofer, but he did first formulate some of the seminal ideas of geopolitics, so much so that we might say that Kjellén stands in relation to geopolitics as Foucault stands in relation to biopolitics. Kjellén was also instrumental in formulating the organic conception of the state, which we will consider below.
There is something fundamental about geopolitics in so far as its theses are founded on the brute facts of the geography of the world (and these brute facts are also the source of the abstractions of geopolitical thought). There is also something fundamental about biopolitics, with its theses founded on the intimately familiar facts of life itself (which, taken out of geographical and historical context also involves abstraction). Foundationalist thought (and strategy is foundationalist thought in politics) may or may not be politically radical, but it is usually theoretically radical (in the sense that I attempted to formulate in Radical Rigor), and it is in this theoretical sense that both geopolitics and biopolitics are radical.
Radicalism (like abstraction) has its limits, and the radicalism of geopolitics as well as that of biopolitics is limited by the abstractions employed in the formulation of each discipline. How so? Let me try to explain. Geopolitics is, in large part (although not in its entirety), apologetics for the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state system. I have repeatedly emphasized in many contexts that, while the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of nationalism — implying a kind of ethno-socio-cultural unity) in actual fact the nation-state is geographically defined, and more particularly it is defined in terms of the territorial principle in law, with Weber’s legal monopoly on violence holding (ideally, though not always in fact) within the territorial boundaries of a given nation-state.
Here is how George Friedman has recently characterized the nation-state:
“A nation state… rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state’s actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.”
George Friedman, Germany’s Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis, January 31, 2012
Formulations in terms of a “uniquely legitimate community” and popular sovereignty leave a lot to be desired, but Friedman is not here writing a theoretical treatise; he is only setting the stage for a geopolitical analysis in which the nation-state is central. There are shades here of the organic theory of the state, and I say this not to try to cast aspersions on Friedman’s analysis (because of the unsavory use to which the organic theory of the state has been put), but only to bring out important implicit features in the nation-state system. Geopolitics as apologetics for the nation-state system marks the limit of the radicalism of geopolitics, and its acceptance of conventional, mainstream political thought such as you would encounter in any political science curriculum.
There are few if any explicit ideological defenses of the nation-state system. The nation-state system — its value and its validity — is an assumption, almost to the point of the very inability even to think of any alternative to this central assumption (other than well-known historical examples no longer at issue today, such as the city-state or the empire). For the theoretician who thinks within the assumptions of the nation-state system, alternatives are literally unthinkable.
Biopolitics operates with a different set of assumptions. Biopolitics has assumptions, but it does not share these assumptions (at least, not all of them) with geopolitics, and for biopolitics different scenarios are literally unthinkable because different theoretical foundations render different states of affairs incoherent. Whatever biopolitics is — and we cannot yet say in any detail what it is — it is not apologetics for the nation-state system.
While we cannot say much about biopolitics, we can say something about biopolitics, and one of the most interesting things that we can say is that, like geopolitics, it has certain debts to the organic theory of the state. Because biopolitics comes out of a loosely defined tradition that is sympathetic to collectivism, it tolerates the idea of the state as a whole that is greater than its parts, and in so far as the parts are individuals citizens of the state, these parts are subordinated to the whole. (While Foucault himself was scrupulous in maintaining his distance from the communists — unlike Sartre and, to a lesser degree, Merleau-Ponty, who allowed themselves to become apologists for Stalinism — others who have taken up the idea of biopolitics and bio-power have not been so scrupulous.) It could even be argued that bio-regionalism is an organic theory of the state purged of nationalist ideology.
We cannot say that the organic theory of the state is a common “core” to both geopolitics and biopolitics, but it is something in common, although the way in which the idea of state organicism is implemented is very different in these two diverse traditions of thought. Geopolitics would tolerate (or endorse) different compromises to individual freedom of action than biopolitics would tolerate (or endorse). The point is that there is a shared tolerance for the abridgement of liberty, though where that tolerance falls is different in each case.
The formulation of biopolitics as an explicit tradition of thought and analysis is a strategic trend of the first importance. It is, in fact, an event in metaphysical history — not so far reaching as the Copernican Revolution, but easily as far reaching as the idea and implementation of the nation-state system itself. While there is as yet no clear sign that those loosely unified protesters who feel both thwarted and disenfranchised by the contemporary institutions of the nation-state (which comprises all conventional and mainstream political activity) recognize in biopolitics a theoretical articulation of views that they didn’t even know that they held (until their “consciousness raising”), this joining of idea of implementation may yet come about.
The authentic sign of a grass roots movement (and perhaps also of a mass movement) is when the practice and theory emerge independently and only later recognize each other as both emerging from some more fundamental and shared impulse, one as the intellectual justification of a practice or set of practices, and the other as the implementation of one and the same existential orientation. This has not yet occurred with biopolitics, but it could occur, and, I would argue, it is likely to occur, because the kind of person who enters into street protests is likely to be eventually introduced to the kind of scholarship that is loosely affiliated with biopolitics, and not likely to be introduced to some other, alternative tradition.
We do not yet know if biopolitics has an historical destiny commensurate with that of geopolitics — we do not yet know if this is an idea that has legs — but we do know that it is loosely related to a perennial tradition of thought. The question then becomes whether biopolitics is a passing and evanescent expression of a perennial human point of intellectual reference, or if it is, in the contrary, the next transformative event that will take this perennial attitude in a new direction, and possibly also to new heights, extending the perennial tradition in new and unexpected ways.
It is entirely possible that one of the great ideological struggles of the coming century (and perhaps also the coming centuries) will be between geopolitics and biopolitics — or, rather, between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. In this case, biopolitics would come to represent what Fukuyama called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” that differs from that of liberal democracy. It could be argued that we are already beginning to see the early signs of this struggle, as peoples increasingly find themselves in conflict with the nation-state the putatively represents their interests, and as a people they struggle against the nation-state.
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The center of the Cold War was Europe, and, by extension, the North Atlantic, which latter geographical feature lent its name to NATO. The Age of Atlanticism extended from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to the end of NATO’s relevance in 1991, or almost exactly five hundred years.
The Pacific was always a Cold War backwater. After the US defeated Japanese sea power in the Pacific, there was no force to rival US dominance of the Pacific, even though the USSR had ports on the Pacific. This is related to the fact that although the East was once Red, the Cold War with China was always different from the Cold War with the USSR. In fact, in the midst of the Cold War China and the USSR fought a war, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 (like many recent wars, it was not called a war), the underlined the bitter divisions within the so-called “communist bloc.”
Now there is a power rising in the East — several of them, in fact — and as the Atlantic-centered world order of the post-WWII era passes into history, we enter into a Pacific-Centered World Order. While this Pacific-centered world order will not be as closely wedded to the Cold War as events in the Atlantic theater, but will not be utterly divorced from Cold War antecedents either.
While the Cold War with China (if there was one) was never quite the Cold War that was fought with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless serious business, as Chinese support for North Korea and North Vietnam (later to be Vietnam simpliciter) demonstrated. And while Chinese support for national liberation movements in Southeast Asia mirrored Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, the US had leverage against China: not only Japan, transformed from an enemy into an ally and soon afterward sporting the second largest economy in the world (a status since ceded to China), but most especially Taiwan.
The island of Taiwan is the fly in China’s ointment. Taiwan has been an irritant to China not unlike the way in which communist Cuba was been a near-offshore irritant to the US. Through the late Cold War, moreover, Taiwan had become wealthy, with a growing economy that set it apart from the moribund command economies largely found throughout the region, and its economic dynamism coupled with its position as a trading hub in East Asia gave Taiwan connections throughout the industrialized world.
I bring up Taiwan as one of the major unresolved points of conflict from the Cold War in the Pacific (I have elsewhere called the divided Korean peninsula an ember of the Cold War that periodically flares up) because of the recent talk about the “strategic pivot” of the US in the direction of the Asia-Pacific Region. Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in “America’s Pacific Century”:
As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinton used the word “pivot” three times in the piece, and although she never actually used the phrase “strategic pivot,” she did use the phrase “strategic turn” three times in this piece. More interesting yet is that Clinton did not once mention Taiwan in this article. China is mentioned throughout the article, and in very moderate if not conciliatory terms. China is called an “emerging power” and a “partner” and even an “ally.”
The President, presumably the architect of these strategic turn, and who has emphasized from the beginning of his Presidency that he would orient US strategic posture toward the Pacific, gave a speech is Australia in November 2011 that underscored this emphasis.
The President’s full speech in Australia can be viewed at Changing fortunes dictate another presidential pivot and can be read in full at Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament. “China” is mentioned only three times in the President’s speech, and Taiwan, as in Clinton’s article for Foreign Policy, is not mentioned at all. Here are a few quotes from the speech:
Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region. From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean Peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here — so democracies could take root; so economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity. Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will not allow it — we will never allow it to be reversed.
Here, we see the future. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.
As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.
The strategic turn to Asia and the Pacific has been the topic of much comment. Obama’s Pacific Pivot by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) has been quite widely distributed. The “Strategic Pivot” to Asia Now Committed, Pentagon Can Float Allegedly Deep Cuts by Thomas P. M. Barnett is an interesting analysis that ends with the provocative line, “These are delusions stacked upon delusions.”
I find myself rather surprised that Taiwan has been nearly ignored in this discussion. The administration has had nothing to say about Taiwan in the process of executing this strategic turn. A year ago, the U.S. – China Joint Statement (released 19 January 2011) includes a short but explicit passage about Taiwan:
6. Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.
Since then, I haven’t been able to find anything. One must say that the strategic turn to the Pacific, where Taiwan was once a central issue, is deeply if not systematically ambiguous when it comes to Taiwan. The ambiguity is further driven home by on-again, off-again arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to upgrade and update its fighters, as well as its attempt to acquire diesel-electric submarines from the US. More recently, however, it has been announced that Taiwan will purchase AH-64D Apache helicopters with Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), becoming the first political entity outside the US with this particular hardware. This is what we call “mixed signals.” In other words, ambiguity.
In an interesting blog with a Taiwan defense focus, The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, the author, J. Michael Cole, concludes his excellent essay, “Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power: What Can and What Can’t Be Done,” with this advice:
Rather than waste their time exploring the idea of waging a doomed guerrilla campaign against the PLA, thinkers should instead focus their energy on the means by which war in the Taiwan Strait can be rendered unthinkable. Unable to compete dollar-for-dollar with China, Taiwan has one option left: An asymmetrical deterrent backed by a modern Air Force.
This is a sober and sensible conclusion. The ambivalent of the US toward Taiwan in its strategic turn to the Pacific underlines the need for Taiwan to attend to its own interests, since those interests do not seem to figure prominently in US plans for Asia and the Pacific.
In its relative isolation and its need to pursue asymmetrical and nonconventional deterrence in the face of a powerful adversary, Taiwan’s strategic situation resembles the strategic situation of Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Recently in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I once again looked at a number of innovative and distinctive weapons systems that Iran has pursued in quest of backing up its threat of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) in the Strait of Hormuz. Many of these possibilities would be open to Taiwan itself, even while A2/AD strategies are more commonly associated with China itself in the Taiwan Strait.
The obvious track for Taiwanese security would be to go nuclear, and given Taiwan’s relative wealth, advanced technology, and robust industrial plant this would be possible, but it would then lose whatever remaining goodwill it has with its sponsors at present. Ideally this would be done is utter secrecy until the deterrent was fully operational, at which time Taiwan could afford to alienate its sponsors, but the resulting damage to relations with the US would be so great that it is difficult to predict what the US would do in this circumstance. The more we consider the scenario, the more it looks like the above quote about a “doomed guerrilla campaign.”
The remaining strategy for Taiwan, then, is A2/AD in the Taiwan Strait. What happens when two A2/AD strategies collide? The answer to this question may determine the future of Taiwan.
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29 July 2011
A Discourse on Center and Periphery
In a posthumously published remark Wittgenstein mentioned “the main current of European and American civilization.” (I previously quoted this in my post American Civilization.) The remark is made is passing, in the context of highlighting Wittgenstein’s own feelings of alienation from this tradition, which he employs as a caution at the beginning of one of his posthumously published works, lest the unwary denizen of this main current of European or American civilization should crack its covers and find himself challenged by a fundamentally different perspective.
This passage from Wittgenstein is interesting in several respects. It assumes that there is a main current of European and American civilization, and a main current implies that there is also a periphery to civilization that it not the main current — perhaps even distant sources of the main stream, tributaries, bayous, and other topographical features of the river of time (to continue with the implied metaphor of a “current” of civilization). I find this metaphor to be highly suggestive and even fruitful. Civilization is an historico-temporal phenomenon, so that any detailed articulation we can being to our historico-temporal understanding will likely result in a more fine-grained understanding of civilization. (We could, alternatively, say that civilization consists of temporal structures.)
The “river of time” is an ancient metaphor, and like all metaphors it has its uses and abuses. One of the signal sea changes in twentieth century philosophy on which I have remarked elsewhere but receives scant attention in the literature, is the nearly complete turn-around from philosophical rejection of the reality of time to a philosophical acceptance if not embrace of the reality of time. There were, however, holdouts, even in the analytical community, and some of these holdouts went so far as to deny that there is any such thing as the “flow” of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the metaphor of the river of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the temporal reality of historico-temporal phenomenon such as civilization. (Pretty much, but not exactly.)
I will here take the reality of time and of temporal phenomena as given, thus betraying both my naturalism and my acceptance of the contemporary philosophical consensus that time is real. I won’t bother to argue for this. While some metaphors may be more apt than others, and some metaphors more intuitively perspicuous than others, I don’t see that the “river of time” metaphor does any harm, and in so far as the metaphor can be extrapolated as suggested above, it may expand our conception of temporal phenomena such as civilization.
There is a sense in which a Wittgensteinian approach to civilization is both obvious and interesting. In his The Faith of a Heretic, Walter Kaufmann writes of the application of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances to words with complex meanings like “religion” and “civilization.” Subsequent philosophers have come to call such words “open textured,” and this applies to a great many common nouns. When we casually employ language in conversation such open-textured concepts cause little trouble, and especially so when there is a desire for mutual understanding. But when we attempt to make the open-textured concepts of ordinary language rigorous and precise we almost always run into trouble, and the contexts in which we attempt to precisify our concepts we usually cannot count on a desire to collaboratively converge upon meanings. (For this reason, among others, certain kinds of communication are possible among friends and family that are not possible with others — assuming that friends and family are sympathetic to us, which for some is a vertiginous leap.)
In any case, “civilization” would seem to be a paradigm case of an open-textured concept such that the instances that are taken to exemplify the meaning of the term display a family resemblance rather than all possessing a particular property by which all are definitively identified as being civilization. (That is to say, the legitimacy of an open-textured concept implies the rejection of essentialism for the concept in question.) Also, and as importantly, an open textured concept is open to revision. It can accommodate new permutations of meaning while abandoning old meanings. One way to revise the concept of civilization is to arrive at a more comprehensive conception by extrapolating Wittgenstein’s metaphor, and one way to do this is to leave the literalness of the metaphor aside, and instead of speaking of a mainstream of civilization and its implied branches off the main stream, to speak of the center and the periphery of civilization.
Civilization, to date, has meant those human undertakings on the surface of the earth that have included building cities, engaging in large-scale communal projects (such as agriculture and religious ceremonies), systematic application of intelligence to technology in order to solve problems, the maintenance and extension of social structures, and many other things. Because civilization is open-textured, we cannot exhaust its meanings, so we must be content with an incomplete list that simply gives a sense of what is involved in the enterprise.
The main stream of civilization to which Wittgenstein referred can be taken as the earliest, largest, core, and central efforts of this type. This is the center of civilization. The list of civilizations that Toynbee gives in his A Study of History — Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern (Japan), Orthodox Christian (main body), Far Eastern (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic — constitutes a temporal-historical list of examples; the list of civilizations given by Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations — Western, Latin, Japanese, Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, African — constitutes a spatio-structural list of examples. Both of these attempts at giving a comprehensive catalog of actual civilizations are imperfect and inadequate, but the intersection of both might give as a rough spatio-temporal catalog of the centers of civilization.
The idea of the center of civilization is at once both vague and intuitive, making it difficult to precisify, but the rewards of precisification are all the greater given the potential of the concept. But we must honestly concede that the idea of civilization itself is none-too-clear, and even thinkers who worked on the idea for their entire careers, such as Toynbee and Huntington mentioned above, have done little more than point to examples — what philosophers call an “ostensive definition” — since a logical or formal characterization of civilization seems to be beyond the present conceptual infrastructure of the social sciences. But difficult as the task of formulating and formalizing the concept of a center of a civilization may be, we can gain a little bit of analytical clarity by contrasting the center of civilization with the periphery of civilization, and such an analysis has already been suggested.
I have previously criticized the terminology of Thomas P. M. Barnett that employs the locution “credentializing.” While Mr. Barnett took the trouble to explain himself after my criticism (which clarification I have posted in Credentializing Clarified), I still find this term in particular (viz. credentializing) to lack intuitive perspicuity. However, Barnett’s influential text The Pentagon’s New Map, with its distinction between core states and gap states, is highly intuitively perspicuous, and it moreover is an exposition of the world in terms of center and periphery. (Huntington, cited above, divided the clashes between civilizations into fault line conflicts and core state conflicts, which also is a form of center/periphery distinction. I don’t know enough about Barnett’s position to know whether he was influenced in this respect by Huntington.)
The strategic logic of center and periphery is more fundamental than, and therefore underlies, the culture, social milieu, or civilizational context, and so we find in it a cross-cultural mode of analysis that is found in works antithetical not only to the “Washington Consensus” but even to western civilization. For example, we find this exposition of center and periphery in Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass:
“The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests.”
The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, translation supported by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University
And again a few pages later, in comparing relative Russian and American proximity to Afghanistan and adjacent lands:
“The matter is different with regard to America — the remoteness of the primary center from the peripheries should help the Americans understand the difficulty of our continued submission to them, their control over us, and their pillaging of our resources if we decide to refuse; but only if we refuse and enflame opposition to its materialization.”
Part of Naji’s argument is that the nature of power, and the nature of power projection, on the periphery is distinct from the nature of power and power projection close to the center. I find Naji’s position close to my own in terms of his analysis, and if we change the specific terms of Naji’s analysis it can be seen as an alternative formulation of Barnett’s gaps (as mentioned above) and George Friedman’s borderlands (as mentioned immediately below).
Another use of the strategic logic of center and periphery is to be found in George Friedman’s discussion of borderlands. I have previously visited this in Moral Borderlands where I quoted Friedman’s The Next 100 Years as follows:
“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”
If we expand and extrapolate this that Friedman attributes to countries to also include multi-state entities, ethnicities, social systems, cultures, and civilizations, then his borderlands are approximately similar to Barnett’s unstable gaps between core regions.
There is a tendency today to minimize the distinction between center and periphery because of instantaneous global communications and nearly instantaneous global travel. (I considered the social changes wrought by ease of global travel in The Space Age and Addendum to “The Space Age”.) Indeed, there is a sense in which expanding globalization is the neutralization (if not the negation) of the center/periphery dialectic that runs like a thread through human affairs from the earliest empires of west Asia to the great confrontation of the two superpowers that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, with the stability at the center and its proxy wars at the periphery.
If (and I stress if) globalization is conceived as the elimination of dialectic of center and periphery, as the closing of Barnett’s gaps and the consolidation of the functioning core, or the elimination of Friedman’s borderlands, while these developments may be approximated, they will never be fully consolidated. In this sense, and I mean in this sense narrowly conceived, globalization will either falter in some phase of its unfolding, or the same dialectic of center and periphery will be extrapolated as human civilization extends beyond the surface of the earth and the periphery is to be found in marginal communities established far from the center on a new scale of distance that outstrips that possible upon the surface of the earth, and therefore exhibits the dialectic in an even more stark form (which I have called extraterrestrialization).
Civilizational centers migrate over time, albeit slowly, almost too incrementally to notice. During classical antiquity, Western civilization was centered on the Mediterranean; during the medieval period, Western civilization was centered in Western Europe; with the discoveries of the Americas there is a sense in which Western civilization has been centered on the Atlantic. Islamic civilization has similarly shifted gradually during its history. During the medieval period Islamic Spain became sufficiently wealthy and influential that Cordoba virtually represented a second center of Islamic civilization, so that the tradition seemed to bud another iteration of itself in a very different land than that of its birth.
In Human Nature and the Human Condition I argued that the apparent fixity of human nature was due to human nature being shaped by the human condition, and the human condition changes, albeit very slowly. Civilizational change, along with the migration of the center of a civilization and the redefinition of a barbarous periphery, is part of this incremental shifting of center and periphery. Thus the main stream of Western civilization to which Wittgenstein referred in the quote that opens this post, is, like any great river, an ancient stream that has changed its bed many times as both the geology underlying the river has shifted and the inhabitants who have lived along its banks have changed their habits and domiciles over time.
While the periphery may be barbarous and not fully civilized, as well as being far from the center of things by definition, that does not mean that the periphery is not important. In many cases, the fate of the center of a civilization is determined by what occurs in and at the periphery of civilization. Certainly this was the case with the later Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire grew the periphery was forced farther and farther outward in the grand strategic ambition to secure the center from incursion and instability, as well as to keep tribute and booty flowing inward from the periphery to the center. Eventually the fate of the Empire was sealed as barbarians on the periphery, attracted by the wealth, luxury, and comfort of Mediterranean civilization, pushed inward toward the center and eventually themselves took control of the center.
When the barbarians took control of the center of Western civilization and thereby in one fell swoop (a swoop that took centuries to consolidate) brought the periphery into the center, the center was then no longer the center and the whole of Western civilization was topsy-turvy for a few hundred years. This was formerly called the “Dark Ages,” but historians no longer use this term as it implies a valuation that seems out of place in objective historiography, though the term is often justly applied. (I previously wrote about civilizational dark ages in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited.) It took hundreds of years for Western civilization to turn itself inside-out and in the process transition its center roughly from Rome to Paris, making the Mediterranean, once the center of civilization, into the periphery.
There is a close parallel between the frontier, as conceived in Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and the periphery, or borderlands (or gaps). We could, in fact, speak in terms of the significance of the periphery in American history, and as soon as we do so we realize that, while the center is the focus of civilization, the periphery can be crucial to the development of a civilization. In this case, the Turner Thesis becomes the thesis that the periphery was of central importance in the development of American civilization, which latter Wittgenstein had called the “main stream” of civilization.
There are things that are possible at the center that are not possible on the periphery, and there are things that are possible on the periphery that are not possible at the center. This complementary facilitation is parallel to complementary obstacles: there are particular conditions for accomplishing anything at the center, and different conditions for accomplishing anything one the periphery. For example, at the center you need to the cooperation of the wealthy, the well-connected, the influential, the powerful, and the like. Without them, you accomplish nothing. On the periphery, on the other hand, you have a much freer hand in terms of those with whom you work, but the resources to which you have access will be correspondingly slight. At the periphery, infrastructure is thin on the ground or non-existent. If you want to try something controversial, this is the place to try your proof of concept.
Because of the complementary possibilities and obstacles of center and periphery, a large civilizational undertaking may require the agents of that civilization to pass back and forth between center and periphery in order to secure the resources necessary from the center and remove them to the periphery to accomplish in relative autonomy and seclusion that which cannot be easily accomplished in the center. The Manhattan Project drew the best minds from the centers of academic world, but it placed them in the isolation of the New Mexican desert. And while the focus of the Manhattan Project has been the design and testing center in New Mexico, the fissionable materials were created in the isolation of eastern Washington state at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
On a larger scale, it could be argued that the vitality of American civilization has been at least in part a consequence of the ongoing dialectic between center and periphery made possible by the unification, in one nation-state, of a industrially developed center along the eastern seaboard and the wilderness of the frontier in the interior of the North American continent. For the most part, these conditions were lacking in South America. The closest approximation was Argentina in the nineteenth century, which at that time was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Brazil, which is today rapidly improving its fortunes as its people exploit the possibilities created by the vast Amazonian interior and the enormous and wealthy cities on the coast.
Similar considerations — a dialectic of wealthy cities connected to the outside world and vast, nearly empty interior wildernesses — hold for China and Russia, except that Russia has no major ocean coastline, though it does have St. Petersburg on the Baltic. In China, the balance is tilted toward the center (the large and wealthy coastal cities), while in Russia the balance is tilted toward the periphery (the vast spaces of the Russian interior and Siberia, lacking the counterweight of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Qingdao).
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PS: This post has been in gestation longer than anything else I have made available here, since I began it just over two years ago. Thus these are perennial issues that I have had in mind for some time. Though I have been thinking about these ideas for some time, my thoughts still lack focus, but I wanted to at least sketch the idea in order to have the material available for further development.
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5 February 2011
Yesterday in “A credentialized role?” I asked if anyone could help me out to understand what Thomas P. M. Barnett meant in a statement included as a video on Wikistrat. Not only did I receive clarification, but got it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak: Dr. Barnett himself was gracious enough to comment on my post, as follows:
“Credentializing here means that the military’s performance in the hopefully smooth transition marks them as a contributing force for democracy rather than its hindrance, something we would term ‘delegitimizing’.”
“The military, as we note, is large and powerful and popular in Egypt. That’s an asset for long-term stability worth protecting, because young democracies tend to be the most warlike — more than mature democracies and more than authoritarian states. If the military serves the right function here (Mubarak gone, but not willy-nilly leaving a vacuum, and the elections happen freely and with little violence), then it becomes seen as the righteous guardian of the republic and not its menace. That is credentializing, because it says the army isn’t just a plaything of the government or protector of any one ruler, but an institution that serves the long-term interests of the nation. Immature democracies are plenty scary in history, and if they’re coupled with a radicalized military, you’ve got trouble. So if the military’s fine standing can be preserved in this transition, they’re credentialized for what comes next, which will be tricky no matter who emerges.”
Dr. Barnett also quoted himself in a blog post — Egypt Crisis Simulation (Addendum) — reviewing an earlier exposition by way of clarifying the concept of credentializing, with the same text as quoted above. I appreciate the clarification.
My searches failed to turn up a single use of “credentialized.” I thought it might be a slip of the tongue, but I had heard correctly. (It is easy to hear something incorrectly — think of all the examples of transcribed song lyrics that get the sense terribly wrong.) Thus for the military to have “a credentialized role” is a technical term from Dr. Barnett’s strategic thought. Some time ago I was reading Dr. Barnett’s blog (at that time hosted at a different domain) and I found a very interesting post in which he analyzed a geopolitical problem in the technical terminology of one of his books, and then turned around and re-formulated the same analysis in ordinary language.
I understand this, as I have a tendency to do it myself. In my book Political Economy of Globalization I coined a number of neologisms in order to express the conceptual infrastructure that I independently formulated in that book. Once one takes the trouble to think one’s way through a problem for oneself, it becomes second nature to refer to those concepts that one came to formulate in coming to an understanding of the subject matter in question. Dr. Barnett has also created technical terminology for the conceptual infrastructure he employs, and naturally passes between technical terminology and ordinary language.
I have long held that the true test of a philosopher’s mettle — and strategists are philosophers of power — is the ability to intuitively and even forcefully express abstract ideas in an immediately accessible fashion. (I say “forcefully” because one must be able to get others to understand one’s point on a visceral level — if it isn’t felt, it isn’t fully understood.) But one must remember to speak in ordinary language, even though the semi-formal language that philosophers formulate to think about things and to speak to each other in a verbal shorthand, is more accurate.
In any case, what Dr. Barnett suggests in the above quote is a kind of “self-credentializing” of the Egyptian military — or, by extension, any military that finds itself caught in a crisis of governance — such that if it behaves well, it has proved its “street cred” and has this “street cred” on its side in the future. Now, “street cred” is quite the antithesis of technical terminology, but social scientists would express this in terms of “social capital,” which is a technical term. According to Barnett, but not in his language, the Egyptian military has social capital, and if it does not squander this social capital during the transition, the Egyptian military can retain its institutional prestige and status, serving as a stabilizing force in a future Egypt, even though, ideally, in a future Egypt the military will be subject to civilian control.
I do not disagree with any of this, and from what I have been reading it does seem to be the case that the Egyptian military does possess substantial resources of social capital. However, I would add to this the unpopular observation that one of the few other institutions in Egyptian society that possess social capital is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the West ignores this social capital of Islamist factions at its peril. It is bad enough to ignore institutions with social capital; it is spectacularly counter-productive to try to suppress them in favor of institutions bereft of social capital, as has happened with Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian Territories. (And, by extension, I might mention that Hamas militias could play a credentializing role in the Palestinian Territories.)
This latter observation places the discussion in a large context. To go in the other direction and retain focus on the Egyptian military and their role in the transition from Mubarak and what he represents to whatever follows Mubarak, brings me to the realization of the connection of a “credentialized role” for the military with the classic Weberian definition of the state as the legalized monopoly on violence.
In Weber’s formulation, the emphasis falls upon the state taking control of a security regime within a geographical territory and enforcing its mandate by granting itself the monopoly on the legal use of force. But the state as a legal monopoly on violence can run in both directions. We can just as well reverse the emphasis and think of Weber’s definition of the state in terms of the instrumentalities of violence placing themselves at the sole command of the state, which seems (to me) to be at least part of what Dr. Barnett is getting at in his conception of a “credentialized role” for the Egyptian military. I may quibble with the terminology, which I still think could be improved, but I get the idea.
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4 February 2011
Can someone help me out here, please? I was watching a video of Thomas P. M. Barnett at WikiStrat, which is his most recent platform. In Barnett’s discussion of possible scenarios for Egypt he made the following comment:
“…in that pacted transition, where everyone gets sort of a slice of the pie, and you get the freest possible election down the road, and we would think that would be the best possible path in many ways for Egypt, if it was legitimizing, in terms of the public… if you got a strong, stable, credentialized role for the military throughout, because they are large and very powerful and that would be very reassuring to neighbors, especially to Israel, perhaps also to Saudi Arabia, definitely the United States, and you get the kind of most legitimizing, potentially opening up kind of outcome down the road.”
What exactly is “a credentialized role” for the military? I Googled the term “credentialized” right away and came up with nothing. It would be easy to speculate on what he meant, but it would be much more interesting to know exactly what he meant.
It could just be a slip of the tongue, and he simply meant to say “credentialed” role, and while “credentialed role” is not a whole lot clearer than “credentialized role,” it is a little clearer. Presumably he means a role for the military that possesses the credentials of some kind of constitutional regime with the authority that follows from popular sovereignty. But that is my speculation, and it is not at all clear that this is was Barnett meant.
It is, admittedly, a little spooky to me that a well-known strategist would choose to formulate his thoughts in this way, as though he not only accepted the presuppositions of credentialism in contemporary advanced industrialized society, but wanted to go further with credentialism: it isn’t enough that the military should fight wars and have their traditional ranks and chain of command, but now they are to be credentialed (or, rather, credentialized).
Maybe someone could start a university somewhere — it wouldn’t really matter where, just as long as the fees were high enough to prove a sufficient barrier to entry to keep out the riffraff — the appropriate institution could thereafter grant the appropriate credential to aspiring military brass, and, appropriately credentialed, that military establishment could begin their careerist ascent in full knowledge that those who don’t possess these sterling credentials will be prevented from being a distraction.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at Barnett’s credentialism taken to a higher order of magnitude. The “pacted transition” that he mentioned is one of the most conservative scenarios for Egypt at present, which means keeping Mubarak in place until his term is finished, in the meantime bringing in people — presumably the “right” people with the “right” credentials — who can make the transition in the government of Egypt as smooth and as painless for as many people as possible. What this misses is that Mubarak himself has become a symbol, and a symbol that the protesters want removed. Mubarak tried to fudge on fundamental change by keeping himself and dismissing his government; the people would have accepted a perfect reversal of this, if Mubarak’s government had stayed and he had left.
Mubarak has actually been publicly quoted in the press as saying that he is sick of the situation and wants out, but is only staying for the good of Egypt. This sounds spectacularly disingenuous, but he may be sincere — sincerely deluded. Mubarak may be so captive to his own perception of the situation in Egypt that he really believes that, without him, there will be chaos. He cannot see that he has now become the source of chaos.
There was a fascinating news story in June 2010 about the response to another popular protest. Here’s what I wrote about it in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen:
There was an interesting story on the BBC, Tiananmen leader’s ‘diary’ revealed, describing the publication of Li Peng’s diary kept during the events of 1989. According to the BBC story, Li Peng wrote, ‘I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.’ If this is true, it gives us a fascinating window into the thinking of the CPC’s elite leaders. The fear was not of democracy per se, but of the potential chaos that might come from a root-and-branch reform of China’s political system. This could be mere ex post facto justification by Li Peng, but it might also be an authentic sentiment. The dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are little understood in the West, like the scale of violence during the partition of India, the other great civilization of Asia. This revelation of Li Peng in itself could be the topic of a long post, if not of a book.
The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was so great that those who lived through it could not accept that anything like it would happen again. I have no doubt that Li Peng was sincere. Similarly, I suspect that Mubarak is at least partly sincere, but he is sincerely wrong. Thomas P. M. Barnett is also sincerely wrong in thinking that credentials or a “pacted transition” is in the interests of Egypt or the region. In the video above Barnett also speaks of the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “nightmare scenario,” which shows how far members of the strategic establishment have to go in accepting the truth on the ground — and how deeply they are in denial.
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20 April 2010
Earlier in Speedboat Diplomacy and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I discussed the possibility of asymmetrical attacks against a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and especially the possibility of a swarming attack by small boats. That carriers are vulnerable due to their size and in spite of their elaborate defenses I take to be proved by the ability of both Japanese and American forces being able to disable carriers in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.
Having thought about this, I think I can formulate my point more concisely: if one rejects the proof of concept of the vulnerability of a carrier, one must show that there have been revolutionary, game-changing developments since WWII and the sinking of the Sheffield. It could be argued that automated and computerized “smart” weapons constitute a revolutionary development. The next question is this: If automation technology constitutes a revolutionary development in weaponry, does it favor the attack or the defense? Does it favor conventional forces or unconventional forces? Does it favor symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare? The machine gun and barbed wire favored the defense; tanks favored the attack. The answer is different for different developments. However, I’m not going to go further into these intrinsically interesting questions at the present moment.
In previous posts I’ve cited Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog and Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog, both of which have covered the topic. More recently I noticed a short piece on Thomas Barnett’s blog, The long and the short of the U.S.-Iran naval showdown. Barnett writes:
“…anybody who sends a US carrier to the bottom has a bigger problem than the resulting bragging rights…”
“…if we admit, there’s [sic] plenty of realistic ways, for somebody who’s really committed, to sink a US carrier. But again, that ain’t the problem. The problem is what America would do next.”
“ANYBODY can sucker punch us at any time. It’s what comes next that matters.”
A comment by Joe K. on Mike Burleson’s Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2 made a similar point:
“There’s so much focus on the attack and not enough on the context… We have boots on the ground East and West of them, a naval force in and near the Persian Gulf, significant airpower, and several allies in the region (some of which we have been arming, i.e. Saudi Arabia) with aircraft that can fly transcontinental. Not to mention the local populace is not so keen on their own government.”
As these observations highlight, we must situate the sinking of a carrier, or the disruption of a CSG, in military and political context. What is the relevant political context of an asymmetrical strike against US naval forces? This depends upon the theater of operations, and the moment of the attack, of course. It also depends on the character of the asymmetrical attack. If we define an asymmetrical threat as anything other than a conventional engagement between conventional forces, like battles between carrier task forces in the Pacific theater of WWII, then anything that happens is going to be asymmetrical because there are no symmetrical matches to US naval power in the world today. Thus “asymmetrical” describes a spectrum of threats, each of which might be significantly different in weapons and tactics than any other. Nevertheless, some general observations can be made.
To discuss the military, political, and diplomatic context of a strike against US forces is essentially to discuss rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation. US forces on patrol will be under particular rules of engagement that will govern immediate response to an attack. The 1999 Marine Corps Close Combat Manual defines ROE as a “Continuum of Force” which is broken down into five (5) levels from “compliant” to “assaultive.” The nature of the individual mission will determine specific ROE, and this will be based on certain expectations. Ultimately, given that the US chain of command ends at a civilian Commander-in-Chief, the ROE will reflect diplomatic and political concerns as much as military concerns. The very fact that US forces are on patrol already points to the fact that political leaders have determined that a US show of force in the region in question might achieve certain political ends. As we know from the famous Clausewitz aphorism, the military and the political cannot be separated: each is an extension of the other.
Thus I take it that the military-political continuum of interests that governs ROE is a further and concrete extension of the idea of escalation, so ultimately we must focus on escalation in a political and diplomatic context. This is a large task, and a complete treatment of it would need to be based on a review of history and a consideration of game theory. I won’t attempt any of that here. I will simply focus on the obvious responses to Thomas Barnett’s question: “What will America do next?”
The spectrum of ROE and the spectrum of military-political-diplomatic continua mirror the possible spectrum of asymmetrical attacks. Any attackers would have many options, and the US would have many options of retaliation and escalation. When Al Qaeda, sheltered by Afghanistan, sponsored the September 11 attacks, the US simply eliminated the government of Afghanistan. This is a robust response, but also a problematic one because eliminating one regime means installing another in its place, and this means a political commitment that might have to be measured in decades. The stakes must be high in order to mount such a first step on the escalation ladder when other options are available.
The response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.
Since we’ve already discussed the possibility of Iranian swarm attacks by small boats in the Persian Gulf, let’s continue this theme with a quote from Worst Enemy, by John Arquilla (a book brought to my attention by Mike Burleson’s New Wars):
“The Iranians, who have clearly concentrated on building a substantial body of light coastal forces, appear to have rejected tele-operated vessels in favor of creating a swarm of manned craft, whose one- or two-person crews would simply sacrifice themselves in kamikaze attacks.” (p. 79)
Some of the comments on the New Wars blog also returned to the idea of a suicide swarm scenario, but a swarm need not be a suicide swarm. In fact, this is the ground of a distinction between suicide swarms and non-suicide swarms. We cannot assume that a swarm will focus on suicide attacks, though we must reckon with the possibility. Similarly, the goal need not be sinking a carrier. In some cases, simply harassing a CSG so that it is somewhat tied down and unable to devote its resources to other matters might be sufficient to the military-political ends of those ordering such a swarming diversion. In a diversion, there would be less motivation for suicide attacks, and one would suppose the that attacker would wish to preserve the lives of his trained and talented forces.
With this in mind, imagine a scenario like this: a CSG is attacked by a swarming mass of small boats under cover of radar-confusing chaff. Their mobility and maneuverability, in addition to the cover from CIWS, would limit their losses. Such a swarm could come and go, harassing a CSG at will. A mothership or motherships at a relatively safe distance could increase the range of the power projection of such a swarm.
How might a nation-state such as Iran employ such a swarm, and how might the Navy and the US respond to it? Would a harassing swarm attack rise to the threat level that would justify substantial escalation? I think not. Certainly during an engagement US forces would do as much damage as they could to the swarm, but they would be as unlikely to eliminate it as an individual is unlikely to eliminate a swarm of mosquitoes by slapping those that land on one’s skin and insert their proboscis. Such a weapon might be used repeatedly. Its repeated use would allow swarming crews to gain valuable experience, and would allow military thinkers to formulate an effective doctrine for their employment.
Would the US want to send in a second or third CSG if one has been attacked or harassed by a swarm? Would this show of force intimidate the enemy, or would the world media spin in so that more and more US forces were being “tied down” by a few small boats? As I noted before, this can become a David and Goliath moment. There might also be the perception that one CSG couldn’t defend itself and needed help. This could be potentially damaging to prestige.
Such a weapons system need not exclusively target other military forces. One of the concerns with Iran is that it might close down the Strait of Hormuz. But thinking in terms of closing the Strait of Hormuz is like thinking in terms of sinking a carrier. We need not take the enemy’s flag in order to change the enemy’s behavior, or even to win the battle of popular opinion in the media. A swarming weapons system with an appropriately formulated doctrine could temporarily halt transit of the Strait of Hormuz, or slow down transit of the Strait for extended periods of time. It would take very little restriction or slow down in order to dramatically affect oil prices and worldwide economic performance in the short term. Such actions could plausibly trigger a recession, and a recession could trigger a political change. I am sure that no one has forgotten the lesson of March 11 in Spain and the consequent fall of the Aznar government.
Escalation can be like the proverbial frog in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil: the transition is so gradual that the frog doesn’t jump out. Escalation is a political calculation, and political calculations can be successful, or they can go terribly wrong. At present, “going terribly wrong” could mean losing a carrier or losing one’s swarm. In the longer term, “terribly wrong” could mean something much worse.
Since the initial use of nuclear weapons against Japan, the actual use, especially the tactical use, of nuclear devices became unthinkable, and nuclear weapons have been thought of exclusively as strategic weapons. A clear distinction was made between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare, and, moreover, every effort was made to avoid any crisis escalating to a nuclear exchange due to mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the long term, it is inevitable that the rungs on the ladder of escalation will be more gradual and the black-and-white distinction between conventional and nuclear war will become gray through both the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially small devices, and the continuing improvement of conventional weapons. I have already mentioned the Russian so-called “Father of all bombs,” a thermobaric conventional device based on nano-technology that can have a yield equivalent to small nuclear devices. Such weaponry is not yet widespread, but our calculation of escalation in the future will have to take account of such developments.
I suggested previously that a thermobaric warhead on a supersonic torpedo or missile would make a good weapon for disabling a carrier. Suppose this technology develops to the point that a relatively small package or delivery system (something that could be mounted on a speedboat, for instance) could deliver the equivalent of a kiloton on target (keep in mind that the original Moskit P-270 was configured for a nuclear warhead, so we see once again a smooth gradation from the conventional to the nuclear). There is much yet to be expected from nano-technology, and I don’t think this is an over-optimistic suggestion. In fact, it is possible today, though not widely available. The sight of a mushroom cloud rising over a carrier would almost certainly galvanize the US public for a robust, regime-changing response. But the gradual transition to such a catastrophic scenario will be much more subtle and problematic. A range of responses will be required for a range of threats and actions.
The lesson to remember at all times is that there are options available to both attack and defense, and for this reason one cannot become overly-wedded to a single scenario. The enemy gets a vote, and each side is the enemy of the other.
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