After the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, the most formidable instrument of force projection to emerge in Western Europe was that of Viking Civilization. The naval force projection capabilities of the Vikings were unique in the historical period, and this achievement counts alongside the great instruments of force projection in human history. The next great instrument of force projection to emerge in human history — the Mongol horse archer — was neither naval nor Western European. (I wrote about the Mongol instrument of force projection in The Power of Mobile Fire.) The next capable naval instrument of force projection in Western Europe did not emerge for another five hundred years, as Western Europe fell into the lassitude of an inland and almost purely agricultural civilization.

As with the Mongols, whose power projection abilities grew directly out of a way of life of nomadic pastoralism that involved horsemanship from an early age, the Norse power projection ability also grew directly out of a way of life, that of a people dependent upon shipping. Life in Scandinavia is difficult. If you can imagine the difficulty of life in early medieval Europe, and then multiply this difficulty by colder temperatures, shorter growing seasons, and more difficult overland transportation, you get an idea of the difficulty of life in early medieval Scandinavia. The coastline of what is today Norway in rocky, bleak and cold, and it faces the inhospitable North Sea, but it is deeply indented by fjords. What is a fjord? A fjord is a sunken mountain range whose valleys are filled with frigid waters and whose peaks tower above the narrow waterways. What little farming there is in Norway takes place on a very narrow strip of alluvial deposits between the water’s edge and the steeps sides of the walls of the fjords.

This is a hard land in which to make a living, and people here would have been unimaginably poor were it not for waterborne commerce — raiding and trading by ship gave the medieval Norse peoples what little wealth they possessed. Without shipping, the peoples of Scandinavia would be limited to what little produce can be coaxed from their northern soils. With shipping, the Vikings made themselves a power to be reckoned with, whose influence stretched from the British Isles to Constantinople, where Swedish Vikings became the Varangian guard who were the special detail of the Emperor of Byzantium.

The geography of the fjords was the key to Viking power projection in the same way that the grasslands of Central Asia, capable of pasturing horses but not suitable for settled agriculturalism, were the key to Mongol power projection. The fjords open directly onto the North Sea, but they are not mere harbors. The waterways of the fjords penetrate deep into the interior of the Scandinavian landmass, and these waterways are lined with trees that cover the sides of the fjords. Since a fjord is a sunken mountain range, the tops of the mountains (at least at the coast) do not rise above the timberline. (It is quite beautiful to see Norway in the fall since the autumn colors reach to the top of the walls of the fjords.) Deep waterways plus lots of timber plus quiet inland spots long the fjord far from the storms of the North Sea mean that you can build a boat virtually anywhere along the edge of the fjord.

Shipbuilding technology, while sophisticated, is a skill that one man can acquire from participating in a few projects, after which the experienced shipwright can set himself up at the quiet end of a fjord. His family homestead can supply him with enough to eat while he builds a ship, and once the ship is built the neighbors can all jump on board, leaving their wives at home to care for the farm. Since there were no raiding parties coming from elsewhere in Europe, probing the coast of Scandinavia for unguarded farmsteads, these farms would be safe for the weeks or months that a raiding party was away. Also, there was little wealth here for any foreign raiders to steal. Like the Vikings, they would be attracted to soft targets that had something worth taking and little ability to defend it — like monasteries.

At this point in European history, there was little competition for raiding and trading. The Vikings mostly had the sea lanes to themselves; their free hand on the water meant many opportunities, and the many opportunities lured the ambitious and the adventurous to improve their lot, in the course of which they improved their knowledge of seamanship and the communities upon which they preyed. Communities were isolated. Communications were poor. There was no strong central authority that could be mobilized to systematically counter the Viking threat. Little changed. A soft target might well remain a soft target for generations.

The farms along the fjords were a base and a supply depot; the inhospitable terrain functioned like a natural citadel in which these bases of operations remained safe for generations; the same terrain necessitated shipping as a way of life, and the knowledge of shipping meant a people intimately familiar with life on the water. Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia. The success of raiding and trading was a strong incentive for others to iterate the successful model, drawing upon the same knowledge rooted in the same way of life. Moreover, the mythology of the Norse peoples before Christianization was remarkably similarly to the Homeric ethos celebrating the life of the warrior, in which battle is honorable and honor more important than life, and this mythology was the source of a vigorous tradition of poetry that was equally part of the lifeway of the people. One suspects that famous lines of Skaldic poetry were repeated under the breath of Vikings as they approached their targets and prepared themselves to loot and pillage, or perhaps, in the spirit of the genre, lines were improvised as the men went about their brutal work.

Power projection before the industrial revolution was always about a way of life. Some ways of life lent themselves more effectively to power projection than others. Many peoples led peaceful histories in so far as their neighbors would allow them to live in peace without taking up arms, but in an age that respected strength and the right of conquest, the narrative of armed conflict was socially necessary and leaves the impression that all peoples were equally warlike.

The calculus of power projection has not necessarily changed with the advent of industrialization. Still, some things have changed. Earlier, in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement, I identified a technological threshold, marked by the Industrial Revolution, that is crucial to the development of power projection:

Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.

While I still agree with this, I would point out now that, although ambition and effort could tip the balance in a contest between peoples, as a matter of historical fact the great instruments of power projection have been rooted in the lifeways of a people. This is less about imperial ambition than about the ordinary business of life. The difference for power projection, then, between before and after the Industrial Revolution, is that before the Industrial Revolution an Ozymandian figure could cajole his people to imperial conquest through sheer feats of will, whereas now this is probably no longer possible.

Perhaps it could be said that the essence of power projection has not changed, but certainly its appearance has changed. And here is the sense in which the essence of power projection has not changed, despite the technological threshold: those peoples most adept at the lifeways of industrial-technological civilization are those that can most effectively wage industrialized warfare, and which will then be most effective in industrial age power projection.

It sounds odd to speak of the “lifeways of industrialized peoples,” but it is necessary to begin to think in such terms if one is going to be able to make sense of contemporary history in the same spirit that one brings to the understanding of earlier history. The lifeways of industrialized people do not at all appear similar to the lifeways of pre- and unindustrialized peoples, but the relation of these lifeways to effective power projection remain essentially unchanged.

The first great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was that of the British Navy, in service to the worldwide British Empire, and with its coaling stations around the globe. Ships crewed by hundreds or thousands of men required coal, fresh water, and food; an entire global infrastructure was necessary to support such a navy. Thus the Royal British Navy both made the British Empire possible as well as the infrastructure created by this Empire made the global reach of the Royal Navy possible.

The second great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the success of German land forces during the First and Second World Wars (and the Luftwaffe as well, in so far as it participated in combined arms operations by providing air support For the Wehrmacht’s armored advance). The German mastery of industrial-technological lifeways was apparent in the excellence of German military hardware (both in terms of design and construction), the care and expertise with which German soldiers employed this hardware (British soldiers in North Africa reported that the Germans always made an effort to recover as many of their tanks as they could after dark), and the ability of the German economy to continue to supply its war machine despite the pressures of fighting a two-front war.

The third great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the nearly seamless US replacement of the British Navy after the end of the Second World War. The world’s oceans, once patrolled by the Royal British Navy, are now patrolled by the US. The totality of US global control of the sea lanes is nearly unprecedented in history; it continues to this day, though it is under threat (cf. U.S. Confronts an Anti-Access World), and it has played no small role in the growth of global commerce. The Pax Americana has held on the world’s oceans if it can be said to have held anywhere.

The forth great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was and remains overwhelming US air superiority, with its global infrastructure of airbases (analogous as they are to coaling stations). An air force must have fuel, spare parts, mechanics, and must meet the needs of aircrews. It takes the largest economy in the world to support this infrastructure. And, as with the symbiosis of the Royal Navy and the British Empire, US global influence makes worldwide airbases possible, while the worldwide airbases make US global air superiority possible, and thereby secure continuing US global influence. Continued economic productivity is necessary to support the upkeep and operations of such a force. Should the US economy seriously falter, the US would prove itself unable to remain a competitor in industrial-technological power projection. The fact that the US has managed to maintain and expand its global network over a period of almost seventy years, through good economic times and bad, and has at present no peer force to challenge it globally (though it can be challenged locally), demonstrates the US ability so far to maintain its dominance. Neither more nor less. We cannot extrapolate this dominance into anything beyond the immediate future because there are too many unknown parameters.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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North Korea and Areté

18 December 2011


Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle said that excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle is famous for saying, among other things, that excellence is not an act, but a habit. The Greek word for excellence — areté, ἀρετή — is also translated as “virtue,” so the same Aristotelian quote is sometimes rendered virtue is not an act but a habit. These variant translations are justified, as they point to the close interrelationship between excellence and virtue in Aristotle.

Kim Jong-il impoverished his people and left the world a worse place than he found it.

Aristotle was a common sense philosopher before there was any such thing as common sense philosophy, and his moral psychology is equally commonsensical. Aristotle maintained that people enjoy doing the things that they are good at doing, and so people make an effort at getting good at doing certain things so that they can enjoy these activities all the more. I think that this is largely correct.

The elder Kim looking frail a few months before dying; the younger Kim Jong-un, heir apparent, looking scared.

It would not be overstating the case to say that many individuals actively seek out opportunities for cultivating excellence. These opportunities can vary dramatically from place to place and time to time. Certain socio-economic systems will be richer in opportunities for certain kinds of excellence, so we find excellence unevenly distributed across history and geography.

The blackout of North Korea is both literal and metaphorical. If it was not the Hermit Kingdom in the past, under its communist autocrats it certainly has become a Hermit Kingdom today.

If Aristotle’s moral psychology is more or less correct, it would then stand to reason that we will find excellence-seeking individuals at all times and places, so that these efforts toward excellence are likely to be directed into whatever channels happen to be available.

They know how to goosestep in the DPRK.

Today the news has brought word that Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot, has died. I have written repeatedly about Kim Jong-il and North Korea, as these provide a radical example of state failure. Even while North Korea is the paradigm case of a failed state, there is a sense in which its rulers have chosen to rule over just such a failed state, though we usually think of failure as an accident. This is failure by design. But what then is the design? In a word: the military.

While the Kim family has been the despotic focus of attention in North Korea, the country is really ruled by the military. And while it is often reported that North Korea maintains an enormous military of a million men under arms, it is rarely reported how the North Korean military is not merely large, but is also an innovative, aggressive, and essentially meritocratic institution (assuming you also know to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing).

Sometimes dictators will create a bloated military of conscripts for bragging rights, but this does not accurately describe the North Korean military. People who study such things say that the North Korean military is an impressive institution in terms of its discipline, organization, and training. While they cannot count on having the most advanced technology and the most sophisticated weapons systems, they can train relentlessly and by all reports they do.

Knowing this to be the case, I would guess that one of the few opportunities to pursue excellence in North Korea would be by way of entering the military. Another opportunity would be to be a gymnast, dancer, or other performer in the enormous spectacles that were staged for the “Dear Leader.” Those are narrow options, but in the nation-state in which saying the wrong thing can mean a life sentence to the gulag for you and your family, it is best not to even try to pursue excellence in literature, art, entertainment, or anything else that might “send a message” and therefore be considered dangerous or subversive. Sports are relatively safe, and we all recall how the Eastern Bloc Warsaw Pact nation-states cultivated extensive sports training programs during the Cold War.

If the only (safe) outlets for a people’s pursuit of excellence is the military or sports, this is going to profoundly affect the cultural life of a country. It is also going to channel a lot of very clever and innovative people into the military who would not, under other circumstances, choose a career in the military. The talents of these intelligent men and women, indirectly conscripted through the suppression of other activities by which they might have pursued other forms of excellence, are in North Korea at the service of the military and therefore at the service of the state. These are the people who rule North Korea.

How will the military rule North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il? Will they allow his inexperienced son, Kim Jong-un, to assume his place as a figurehead, and continue to rule the country to the greater glory of the DPRK military at the expense of all else? Some self-perpetuating institutions do exactly this; they have an overriding incentive to maintain the system that has put them in control and which disproportionately benefits them at the expense of their countrymen.

There are problems, however. A military establishment of more than a million soldiers is a sufficiently large organization for factions to emerge, and for those factions to be quite large. If, say, each son of Kim Jong-il could command the loyalty of a third of the army, each would still have military forces far larger than those of most nation-states. Internal power struggles have almost certainly already begun, and the issue of these struggles is not likely to be decided for months, if not years. Kim Jong-un is still quite young, and much could happen before he has any opportunity to exercise control (or for others to exercise control in his name).

Internal power struggles in the DPRK could be an opportunity for outside powers to intervene, or to use whatever levers they have available to influence the outcome in North Korea. But China and South Korea, the geographical neighbors, will be most concerned about stability and avoiding a flood of refugees should a crisis emerge. Furthermore, China will not want to take any action that might be interpreted as condoning either interference in internal affairs or questioning the legitimacy of a one-party state, since either action could be turned around and used against China in turn.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Epistemic Hubris

21 November 2010


The peacock is not a bird to hide its light under a bushel.

In More Evidence for the Copernican Principle I finished with this observation:

Now we know, and can demonstrate, that planetary systems are not unique to the Milky Way. From this stronger inductive position, we can with greater confidence extrapolate our existing knowledge to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Copernican Principle tutors us in metaphysical modesty, but the growing evidence for the Copernican Principle, and the paucity of counter-examples, inspires us to metaphysical ambition. Scientific knowledge is the expression of this metaphysical ambition as much or more than it is an expression of metaphysical modesty.

As soon as I wrote this I realized that this is an idea that deserves its own independent exposition, as there is much that can be said on this head. I will touch on some of these issues here, though a full treatment would require a treatise, so I may need to return to this fascinating topic at a later date in order to refine and extrapolate my formulations as presented below.

I linked the above quoted idea to my post on Metaphysical Modesty, in which I discussed Jeffrey L. Kasser’s lectures on the philosophy of science published by The Teaching Company, and his exposition of the role of humility in scientific knowledge. There I wrote, “The Professor characterizes metaphysical modesty as, ‘The way the world is does not depend on what we think about it’.” And I added, “Now, this is simply an alternative formulation of realism, but Kasser has chosen to express realism as a moral virtue, and particularly as the moral virtue of metaphysical modesty.”

In recognizing the role of humility in scientific knowledge, and formulating it in moral terms, Kasser was not putting himself out on a limb, but on the contrary was staking out a classic position in the philosophy of science. Despite the contempt for philosophical ethics found in much early twentieth century positivist thought (and the formulation of doctrines like the emotivist theory of ethics), many of these scientifically-minded philosophers gave expositions of scientific knowledge saturated in moral significance.

While Bertrand Russell was never a positivist per se, nor simpliciter, he provides a wonderful example, perhaps even the locus classicus, of moralized scientific epistemology. Russell writes of the notion of good and evil being “extruded” from scientific philosophy. After an extensive explanation of how ethical preoccupations have compromised philosophical and scientific inquiry (in the last paragraphs of section I of “On Scientific Method in Philosophy”), Russell begins section II as follows:

“If the notion of the universe and the notion of good and evil are extruded from scientific philosophy, it may be asked what specific problems remain for the philosopher as opposed to the man of science?”

“On Scientific Method in Philosophy,” section II, collected in Mysticism and Logic

Russell’s criticism of the moral preoccupations of earlier philosophers is in the same paper:

“The ethical element which has been prominent in many of the most famous systems of philosophy is, in my opinion, one of the most serious obstacles to the victory of scientific method in the investigation of philosophical questions.”

For Russell, ethics is regulative of scientific thought, rather than constitutive of scientific thought, but that moral concerns are still present is unquestionable, as we see in his discussions of scientific humility:

“A truly scientific philosophy will be more humble, more piecemeal, more arduous, offering less glitter of outward mirage to flatter fallacious hopes, but more indifferent to fate, and more capable of accepting the world without the tyrannous imposition of our human and temporary demands.”

the last sentence of his “Mysticism and Logic” paper

And again:

“The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards which a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy, which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XXX, “John Dewey,” p. 828

And again:

“By the practice of methodological doubt, if it is genuine and prolonged, a certain humility as to our knowledge is induced: we become glad to know anything in philosophy, however seemingly trivial. Philosophy has suffered from the lack of this kind of modesty.”

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, third from the last paragraph of the last chapter.

Would it be too much to say that scientific humility was a preoccupation of Russell’s? As I noted above, Russell is the locus classicus here, and Kasser was on firm ground following his lead.

Russell makes a persuasive case for the role of humility in science, but as I realized as I was writing about the further evidence we now have for the Copernican Principle, the role of ambition in science is no less central, and perhaps more interesting. As our patient methods of induction increase our level of certainty about an hypothesis, we rightly become more comfortable with its further generalization and extrapolation.

To make a sweeping generalization about a law of nature, as when Newton posited universal gravitation, is an act of epistemic hubris. That the mind can capture, in an act of thought, a truth that is as true immediately beneath our feet as it is on the other side of the universe, is nothing short of astonishing. Nevertheless, it can be expressed with cool detachment, as with Newton’s law of gravitation:

“Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”

Newton here invokes “Every particle of matter in the universe” without qualification. It is this simplicity that gives general laws of nature such great power of prediction and theoretical unity, but it also must be recognized as a triumph of epistemic ambition, if not epistemic hubris. As it often commented in regard to Newton, he said that “I feign no hyptheses” (“Hypotheses non fingo”) even while formulating an unconditional and universal law of gravitation. If this isn’t an hypothesis, I don’t know what is.

To contemplate the possibility of metaphysical ambition co-equal with metaphysical modesty as one of the springs of science brings us to the locus classicus of ambition, MacBeth’s speech as he contemplates politically-motivated murder:

I haue no Spurre
To pricke the sides of my intent, but onely
Vaulting Ambition, which ore-leapes it selfe,
And falles on th’ other.

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Macbeth (1623 First Folio Edition)

Shakespeare’s use of “Vaulting Ambition” in this speech has often been quoted. I cite it here because of what it implies: a leaping-over of all that intervenes into order to get directly to the object without recourse to the painstakingly slow method of creeping along the ground. This way of formulating Vaulting Ambition reveals it as a non-constructive strategy, and this makes it interesting.

If you have not studied philosophy, logic, or mathematics you are not likely to be consciously aware of the formal distinction between constructive and non-constructive methods, or, formulated metaphysically, between idealism and realism. Nevertheless, the distinction is fundamental, and even those who cannot distinguish a constructive proof from a non-constructive proof will be immediately familiar with the intuitive instantiations of these divergent attitudes, as in “seeing is believing” (a constructivist idea) or “there is more to the world than we can see” (a Platonic, and therefore a realist, non-constructive idea).

Vaulting ambition in science, as revealed in breathtaking leaps of deduction to striking and unexpected conclusions, is usually a non-constructive enterprise. Non-constructive proofs are fascinating, and show us things we would probably not otherwise even guess, but they have their weaknesses. Some non-constructive proofs prove things but do not show us how to find them, construct them, or otherwise submit them to immediate observation, inquiry, or further analysis. For example, we may “feel in our bones” that there is more to the world than meets the eye, but not be able to say exactly what it is that the world consists of but which cannot be seen.

By way of contrast, the humility in science, of the sort recommended by Bertrand Russell and Kasser (though formulated in the language of metaphysical realism), is usually a constructive enterprise, whereby we reach our conclusions by the most slow and painstaking methods, so that when we arrive at our conclusion we know exactly how we got there, what we found, and we can point to the result of our research so that others can inspect it for themselves.

Both humility and hubris are to be found in scientific thought, with now one, now the other, taking precedence in the way we understand the world, but even when one is in the ascendancy, the other is never absent.

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