In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:

The Gaddafi Diaspora

David and Goliath

Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny

The Survivor: Saif al-Islam Qadhafi

Trouble Brewing in the Desert

Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:

Sand and fury: Mali’s Tuareg rebels

Mali clashes displace nearly 130,000, UN warns

Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup

Mali soldiers loot presidential palace after coup

The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.

There is reasonably detailed account of events in Mali at Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), MALI: Rebellion claims a president, that gives some background to the story.

The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.

The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.

The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:

“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”

Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.

Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.

Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Today’s Financial Times published a letter signed by an impressive list of luminaries chastising the international community for not doing more about the violence in Syria and urging the UN Security Council to “revoke Assad’s license to kill.” This sounds like a strongly worded statement, but it is not quite what first appears to be.

The forty-three signatories of the letter include, but are not limited to:

Lord Ashdown, former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mr Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian former foreign minister
Mr Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Brazilian president
Jan Egeland, former UN diplomat
F.W. de Klerk, former South African president
Richard von Weizsacker, former German president
K.C. Singh, former secretary in India’s foreign ministry
Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister
Clovis Maksoud, former ambassador of the League of Arab States
Shirin Ebadi of Iran, Nobel peace laureate
Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, Nobel peace laureate
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Hans van den Broek, former Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs
Umberto Eco
Jürgen Habermas
Peter Singer
David Miliband, former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The signatories of the letter in the FT are some of the most renown statesmen and intellectuals of our time. These are obviously very intelligent people, and — I hesitate even to say it, but I must — well meaning, but it is difficult for me to believe that a group of people as familiar with diplomacy and hard-ball politics as this bunch could sign this letter with its numerous ellipses and systematic ambiguities.

The letter states that, “…crimes against humanity have been committed and that those responsible must be brought to account.” But the letter does not state who has committed crimes against humanity, leaving it open that both regime and rebel figures may be equally open to prosecution at the ICC.

The letter states that, “…we must see Russia working alongside other international partners.” But the letter does not state what concessions must be made to Russia in order to obtain Russian cooperation. Without stipulating the appropriate Russian role, other than Russian involvement, this requirement could just as well be interpreted that other nation-states should adopt the Russian position as that Russia should adopt the position of any other nation-state.

The letter calls upon the UN Security Council to pass a resolution, “Calling on the Syrian authorities to cease all unlawful attacks against its population immediately, remove abusive military and security forces from cities and inhabited areas, guarantee peaceful protests do not come under attack and release all political prisoners and those held under arbitrary arrest from the beginning of the uprising to the present day.” But it also asserts, “All other actors should also immediately cease all use of violence.” This stakes out a carefully neutral position between regime and rebel forces in Syria.

The letter most notably does not call for Syrian President Assad to step aside, or step down, or relinquish power, or in any way to cede control of the government. The letter does not even ask Assad to hold elections, free and fair or otherwise. There is only a single mention of “Assad” in the letter, and this is a reference to, “the Assad government.” Thus the signatories of the letter are acquiescing to the continuation of the Assad regime in Syria.

The letter speaks of the “paralyzing divide” in Syria, but this piece of non-state public diplomacy in fact perpetuates the paralyzing divide. The price of getting so many diverse eminent signatories was to water down the advocated measures to the point that the really crucial measures are simply missing, passed over in silence. Thus the signatories have no call whatsoever to criticize the UN Security Council, because this is precisely the same problem that faces the UN Security Council, constitutes precisely the same principles by which the UN Security Council has operated, and is precisely why the UN Security Council is ineffective.

Any settlement that leaves Assad in power, and with the regime’s security apparatus in place, would mean that every death so far as has been in vain. Nothing will have changed. The rebels know this, and, since they can smell victory, however distant, they are not going to accept anything less than the ouster of Assad, which is as symbolically important as the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and the death of Gaddafi in Libya. If the rebels acquiesce to a “peace process” with the Assad regime still in place, not only do they lose, they also lose all credibility.

The Assad regime knows that if it accepts any settlement that deprives it of the means of regime survival that any such settlement is simply a delay in the inevitable ouster of Assad — and regime survival is as symbolically important to Syrian authorities as Assad’s ouster is symbolically important to the Rebels. Moreover, given the Assad family’s close relationship with the Alawite officer corps of the army, regime survival is predicated upon this particular force structure, just as this particular force structure is predicated upon regime survival. This means that the dissolution of the Syrian regime must also mean the dissolution of the army in it present form. In other words, the force structure of the security services that guarantee regime survival is inseparable from that regime.

In this context, “peace” without a decision between the regime and the rebels is only a delay in an existential contest that must be settled by a decision. Either side will accept “peace” on its own terms; neither side will accept “peace” on the other side’s terms. These two definitions of peace are mutually exclusive, and therefore to act on either one or the other definition of “peace” — that of the regime or that of the rebels — is to insist upon the continuation of the crisis, not its resolution. There is nothing new in this; it has been the formula of war since the beginning of human history.

We cannot wish away these political realities, and all the diplomats and negotiators who signed this letter ought to be well aware of this — much more aware than the average person. Therefore they have less excuse than the average person to advocate measures that they know are likely to come to nothing because they are not willing to make the hard calls that would result in the the pacification of Syria.

The signatories of the letter have shown themselves to be no more willing to make hard choices than the members of the UN Security Council, so that their letter is little more than the pot calling the kettle black.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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If you ever had it in mind to see the pristine northern coast of Kenya, and especially Lamu island with its UNESCO world heritage site old town and the Lamu archipelago, you had better get there soon. Africa is changing. Industrialization and development is coming to East Africa on a scale heretofore unprecedented. Now the project has officially gotten underway (Lamu port project launched for South Sudan and Ethiopia) and it is likely that the way of life in the region will be changed forever.

It would be difficult to name all the ways in which the planned port and its associated infrastructure will impact East African economic development. You can see on a map of Kenya’s road network that Lamu has been off the beaten track. The main A109 road of Mombasa to Nairobi follows pretty much the same path as existing rail infrastructure. The Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) will involve road, rail, and oil pipeline connections to Lamu (as well as a port at Manda Bay, an oil refinery at Bargoni, three airports, and three resort cities). The map above shows some existing infrastructure as well as regions of Kenya slated for petroleum exploration. You can read a fairly detailed sketch of the petroleum geology of the region at the Africa Oil Corporation website. The company appears to be based in Vancouver B.C. In the map below you can see the proposed development, with the road, rail, and pipeline network passing through the area to be explored and connecting South Sudan and Ethiopia to Africa’s newest Port.

While many of the businesses in Lamu no doubt welcome the development, many in Lamu are concerned for their future, and rightly so. (Cf. Audio slideshow: Kenya dhow captain fears new port, Kenyan town awaits port with trepidation, and Save Lamu) It is likely that nothing will ever be the same again. Even if the governments involved in the project are good their word in attempting to retain the character of Lamu’s tourist area and in protecting the environment, economic development on this scale cannot fail to alter the way of life in the region. Construction crews will arrive, and they will need places to eat and sleep. They will also take time off, and they will have money to spend. All the familiar camp followers and profiteers will seek to relieve these construction workers of their paychecks, and in so doing they will make their own contribution to the economy of the area.

After the facilities are built and operational, different economic forces will come into play. There will be regular jobs with regular salaries, and their will be foreign experts and consultants who come. The burgeoning economies of India and China, and indeed many growing economies around the Indian Ocean, will have a growing appetite for oil, and as oil both increases in cost and begins to flow from South Sudan through Kenya and from Lamu’s port into ships that will sail the world’s oceans, the sheer volume of money involved in such transactions will influence life in the region as well. With money come bankers and financial services industries. With trade connections through the region come international relations and the need to be involved in the affairs of other nation-states.

LAPSSET is being billed as the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Africa. It is not likely to be the last. Africa’s infrastructure has lagged substantially behind that of the industrialized world. This has retarded economic development. As Saudi oil money in the later twentieth century was re-lent out for infrastructure projects through the developing world, now in the twentieth century China’s capital generated from its rapid industrialization needs to find investment opportunities. Many of these are likely to be in Africa. There has been a steady stream of stories in the financial press of Chinese money and Chinese expertise employed in large development projects in Africa. I wrote about this in Unintended Consequences in Africa, and more recently the Chinese financed and Chinese built African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa was inaugurated by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

It is easy to read sinister implications into China’s involvement in Africa, as it was easy to read sinister implications in the disposition of Saudi oil money during the 1970s (think of what the term “petrodollars” means to most people). Money, like industrial development, takes on a life of its own. Both can be controlled (to a limited extent) and regulated (with more or less success), but neither can be wished away. Africa and China are today becoming locked into a “special relationship” because of historical contingencies that cannot be changed and must find some form of expression. It is in the interest of those nation-states that are already industrialized to contribute constructively to the development of Asia and Africa, rather than to respond with fear and apprehension.

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Note added 17 March 2012: There is an interesting article in the East African Standard, Lamu port deal leaves Khartoum feeling put out, describing Khartoum’s growing sense of isolation as a result of being denied membership in the East Africa Community (EAC) and the initiation of the Lamu port project, which includes a pipeline from Juba (in South Sudan) to Lamu. The Sudanese are even pursuing a case of “economic sabotage” at the African Union. Apparently, Sudanese officials haven’t read Hume’s argument about jealously of trade, or they would know that have a thriving East African Community on their border could only be good for the Sudanese economy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Power to the people!

27 February 2012


Like the Roman god Janus, who had two faces — one looking toward the past, the other looking to the future — all technology has at least two faces, and probably more. When a technology is new one often sees the technology presented either as a threat or a promise, when it is of course both. Internet technology is like this. Both themes are to be found in the popular media: the internet is dangerous and destabilizing (and possibly corrupts the youth, since it provides us with pornography in the privacy of our homes), and the internet is the stupor mundi that will usher in the millennium.

The many faces of any technological development is an important lesson for futurism, since most futurism takes the form of extrapolating a strategic trend developing in the present beyond its present dimensions. In so far as one extrapolates only a single face of a technology, the result is an extremely lop-sided prediction that doesn’t take into account the other faces of the same technology, which often have countervailing influences. This makes for interesting fiction but poor strategy. Strategic thinking needs greater balance. One way to achieve greater balance is through greater knowledge — deeper and wider knowledge.

The internet has vast resources of information for us, but it is a step beyond this information to acquire knowledge. Nevertheless, acquiring information is the first step. Almost everyone uses the internet today; not everyone uses it to inform themselves. Most people are content to use Facebook and to download music and pornography. If, however, you want to inform yourself, you are in a better position to do so now than ever before in human history.

Recently I have been thinking (and occasionally writing) about the extent to which the internet has vastly expanded open-source intelligence to the point that an individual who is suitably motivated can be almost as well-informed as someone with proprietary access to government intelligence. I was once again encouraged to reflect on this by a website that has been brought to my attention, Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT). The detail and breadth of information here is astonishing, and I was quite pleased to see that the site links to mine.

Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT) represents open source imagery intelligence or IMINT, made available through ever more widely available and accessible satellite and imaging technology. Government with satellites, of course, have much better resolution, and the publicly available imagery intelligence will always lag behind the best government intelligence, but there comes a point where this lag time means little — and it means less and less over time as the publicly available signals intelligence improves.

Genuine signals intelligence (SIGINT) — including electronic intelligence or ELINT and intercepting communications or COMINT — may not be on the open source horizon for some time, but there is a species of signals intelligence (albeit of a tawdry kind) in the newspapers that have tapped in the cell phone calls of celebrities. With this less-than-edifying example in mind, it would not be going too far out on a limb to predict that enterprising hackers may yet provide SIGINT by tapping into the communications of government officials. The Stratfor Hack and the release on Wikileaks of the stolen e-mails represent a kind of ELINT or COMINT.

The internet also provides us with human intelligence (HUMINT). In relation to the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, I mentioned in Once More, With Feeling… that once I had read some of the diplomatic cables that I realized there are many blogs and websites that provide equally incisive insight into the life of nation-states around the globe.

The internet can also provide us with analysis. That’s what I try to do, and there are many others who are also engaged in the task of analysis, though analysis tends to be more ideologically skewed than human intelligence, and far more ideologically skewed than signals or imagery intelligence. There is a simple test that, while not infallible, can be very helpful when it comes to analysis: if the writer is absolutely certain, voices no doubts or hesitation, and never acknowledges an error, then you can be pretty sure that that writer is self-deluded and that their analysis is more akin to ideological venting than to trying to get at the truth.

It is tempting to make the distinction that free content is worth what it cost — namely, nothing — whereas paid content is worth something and that is why people are willing to pay for it. This is not always wrong, but it is also not the whole story. It is also problematic in a context in which business models are being forced to adapt rapidly to technological changes. Many established institutions are going bankrupt because they cannot make money under the changed conditions imposed by the internet.

In the past couple of days I learned the term “paywall,” which refers to the distinction between free and paid content. Paid content is behind a “paywall,” while free content is available to all without restriction. Even sites primarily organized for paid content (like, for example, Strategic Forecasting) will offer some of their content for free. Since I stopped being a Stratfor subscriber I continue to receive their weekly free emails, and for the moment, in the wake of The Stratfor Hack, the site is offering all its intelligence for free. (This will end soon; enjoy it while it lasts.)

Despite website paywalls, a truly prodigious volume of open source intelligence is available. In order to access this information you must have an internet connection and you must either live in the country that does not restrict internet access or learn how to use a virtual private network (VPN). These are essentially economic qualifications. In most industrialized and semi-industrialized nation-states today (as well as urban area in non-industrialized regions) a computer and an internet connection is within reach of most working class individuals. A VPN would cost a little extra, and so would raise the economic bar a little, but not disastrously so.

After you have access to the information, you have to filter, sort, and judge that information. This is really the difficult part — the clincher of the whole thing. In a post I wrote some time ago I characterized objectivity as a talent. This is an unusual assertion, and although I still believe this to be the case, I should add the important qualification that, while objectivity is a talent, even those who do not possess much in the way of intuitive objectivity can cultivate objectivity through effort and application. The reader should be aware that I am fully aware that my focus on objectivity is not in fashion at the moment — there are many philosophers today who deny the very possibility of objectivity. I am unconcerned by this.

Of course, objectivity is only one of a range of intellectual virtues that one must cultivate in order to tease a coherent picture of the world from the vast amount of information available. Knowledge of the world is not a gift; you have to work for it. And the harder you work to inform yourself, the better informed you will be. Unless, of course, you take a dead end.

This is one problem (among many) with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are dead ends with vast amounts of information associated, so if you can’t recognize a conspiracy theory you can waste a lot of time over it. This is where having the right instincts and intuitions is crucial. If you have a natural feeling for what is bogus and what is valid, you can save yourself a lot of time and only focus on the material that is worth your time. If you can’t recognize a waste of time for what it is, this comes with an opportunity cost: the time wasted could have been better spent on valid intelligence.

I have written about conspiracy theories previously (cf. A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories), but it is always important to point out the dangers of unwarranted speculation. If you follow a dead end, you not only waste your time, and possibly also the time of others, you also reduce and perhaps nullify the efficacy of all your actions, and in so doing you remove yourself from any possibility of effecting change or making a difference. The loonier your theory, the more the world ignores you, and rightly so. People want to accomplish practical ends, and they can only do so by practical means. Among these means are the ideas and theories used to make sense of the world. If the theories themselves don’t make sense, then they will never make sense of the world.

The batshit crazy conspiracy theories are easy to identify (if someone is talking about Illuminati or reptilians, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re batshit crazy); the more subtle conspiracy theories are less easy to identify, but they still have characteristics that can be recognized. I have recently come to realize that one of the distinctive things about conspiracy theories is really the lack of a theory. It is a typical technique of the conspiracy theory to selectively present a number of facts or events that prima facie seem to suggest a certain conclusion. The conspiracy theorist then leaves it to you to draw the conclusion. The implication here is that the facts speak for themselves. They do not. I have emphasized in several posts that the facts do not speak for themselves. Facts only can be attributed meaning and value in context, and the more context you have, the more meaning and value you can attribute to them.

Even the more subtle forms of conspiracy theories can be more than a little kooky. Recently a reader comment on my post Spooks and Skullduggery suggested that the mysterious cargo of the Thor Liberty might touch off the next global conflict:

I’m the host of Toronto’s Conspiracy Cafe program. I have been tracking Thor Liberty since it left Finland. It fell off the radar after a rendezvous with a ship called Global Star. Global Star was on the way to India to be scrapped. It has a Russian crew. It made a rendezvous last night with Gibraltar based Fehn Sky in the Mediterranean. Fehn Star sailed from El Ferrol Spain. That’s Spain’s main naval base. They have a contract to dismantle Russian nuclear subs. Global Star is heading for the Suez Canal and perhaps the start of WWIII.

While I am always happy to receive comments, I’m not at all sure how the author got from the various doings of the Thor Liberty after leaving Finland to WWIII. This is what logicians call a non sequiter, though it is at least introduced with a “perhaps.” Perhaps, and perhaps not. Most likely the latter.

Here’s an even kookier example, though in a specifically philosophical context. Below is a reader review from the website for Karl Jaspers The Origin of Goal of History:

This is one of the most significant works of the twentieth century yet it is not even in print. Deep sixed from the word go. Remarkable! Even books detailing the intellectual biography of Jaspers omit mention of it. The various efforts to subject the issues to scholarly study distort the original observations. What’s going on? The reason is not hard to find. It contains the first crystallization of something current science and religion don’t want to face, the phenomenon of synchronous parallel evolution, global in scale, and operating in a fashion that flagrantly contradicts received dogmas of religious, scientific and economic history. Check out the reviewer’s World History and the Eonic Effect for a discussion of this text. Meanwhile it should be reissued and the public deserves to know the existence of this line of historical evidence going back to the nineteenth century. It makes mincemeat of Darwinian thinking. Aha! Now we know why they deep sixed the book.

There are many important scholarly works from the twentieth century that aren’t in print. Fortunately, Jaspers’ work is well known and frequently cited despite its being out of print. Even dyed-in-the-wool Darwinians like me cite the book. I happened across this review on Amazon because I was linking to the book for a post I wrote, since I not infrequently cite Jaspers (Jaspers, like Leibniz, becomes more important to me the older I get). Also, the idea of an “Axial Age” is one of the few ideas of twentieth century philosophy to be widely known outside strictly philosophical circles (like Kuhn’s “paradigm shift”).

The lesson here is simple: don’t be a kook. That should be simple enough, but I’ve gone on at some length about conspiracy theories because I have found that it is apparently rather difficult not to be kook. It seems that the self-educated are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and this has brought discredit onto many autodidacts. One of the valuable functions served by formal education is that an experienced and knowledgeable individual who has been through the process of education guides those who are less experienced and less knowledgeable through difficult epistemic waters where they might otherwise become lost.

I have discussed my views on autodidacticism elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that the opportunities for self-education in open source intelligence present all the promise and all the dangers of any other branch of scholarship, though with the difficulty of widespread dishonesty superadded. One must read Machiavelli as a primer to all this in order to understand that it is equally important to know the difference between what men say and what men do, and important again to know why these are different and must be kept separate.

With the increasing emergence and accessibility of sophisticated open source intelligence, we are only at the beginning of a curve which may take us in unprecedented directions. In the future we might well see the construction of an entire parallel open source intelligence network, stateless, existing on the internet, and open to all who can gain access. This “parallel” intelligence network is to be understood as dissidents behind the Iron Curtain understood their efforts toward the creation of a “parallel polis”, abandoning corrupt institutions beyond hope of reform and creating parallel institutions to which the disillusioned can turn when they, too, realize that established institutions lack sufficient credibility to bring about needed social change.

The industrialized nation-state system has been as predicated upon a distinction between an elite minority and a disenfranchised majority as any feudal, aristocratic, tyrannical, or despotic government of the past — though today that disenfranchisement is a de facto disenfranchisement. One historical difference between the elite minority and the disenfranchised majority has been the possession of proprietary knowledge by the elite minority. Historical conditions may shift to the point where imperfect knowledge in disequilibrium converges on de facto equality, so that the advantage the elite minority has had through its access to proprietary knowledge is taken out of the equation. Things are still far from equal between between the two social classes, even with intelligence no longer being a decisive inequality, but they will be less unequal than before. This could have profound social consequences.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What is strategic trust?

16 February 2012


We have all heard the slogans of contemporary diplomacy — “peaceful rise,” “responsible stakeholder,” and the rest — and now it seems that we have a new diplomatic euphemism: strategic trust. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave a speech shortly after his arrival in the US for an official visit in which he prominently employed the phrase. I have not been able to find a reliable full text of the speech online, but here are some excerpts:

“For us, strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation.”


“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges…”


“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgment, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.”

And this from Chinese VP calls for deeper strategic mutual trust with U.S.:

“The development of cooperative partnership could be guaranteed only when the two sides view each other’s strategic intention and development path in a correct and objective way, respect each other’s core interests and accommodate each other’s major concerns, avoid making troubles for each other and do not cross over each other’s bottom lines…”

It might be unwise to read too much into these statements, since this was, after all, a highly publicized political speech. There was an interesting sketch of Xi Linping at Foreign Policy, Empty Suit: Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack by Yu Jie, that gives some context, and some weeks earlier, also on Foreign Policy, there was this highly entertaining piece, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars by Isaac Stone Fish, in which the author quotes this from Hu Jintao:

“Only if we resolutely follow the guidance of Marxism, and let the advanced culture of socialism guide the way, will we be able to lay the foundation for the cultural development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

And then notes:

“Every year Chinese press wonders why their country can’t seem to win a Nobel Prize in literature or peace; ironically, in most cases banned from mentioning dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, or Liu Xiaobo, who won last year.”

We have, of course, seen this before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc countries placed a great deal of emphasis upon winning medals at the Olympics, since this is politically non-controversial, even while the greatest writers and artists were harrassed, jailed, and sent to gulags. Every authoritarian state that seeks to control expression runs into this same difficulty.

Nevertheless, the idea of strategic trust is interesting on its own merits, whatever Xi Linping may have meant by it. Vice President Linping gave a fairly detailed sketch of how he would go about cultivating strategic trust, and I will certainly agree that maintaining both broad and deep communication over the long term will likely achieve something like this — although one may well wonder how broad and deep communication can be maintained with the Great Firewall of China intervening between the two countries, and with a vigorous Chinese censorship regime empowered to unilaterally delete content (sort of like Twitter has now empowered itself to act).

Some time ago, in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, I examined a conception of grand strategy has a certain amount of currency, and then went on to suggest that one of the functions of grand strategy is to make certain policies and practices thinkable or unthinkable:

Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).

With this sense of grand strategy in mind, we could characterize two distinct nation-states (or, more generally, political entities, whether state or non-state) as sharing a grand strategic vision if they share common conceptions of what is thinkable and that is unthinkable. Another way to put this would be to say that political entities share a grand strategic vision if they share political presuppositions.

Now, it is true that Xi Linping spoke in terms of strategy rather than grand strategy, so we need to take a step own in generality toward greater specificity to do justice to his remarks. I don’t think very many people would suppose that China and the US, representing profoundly different traditions of civilization, would ever substantially share a grand strategic vision on the level of common political presuppositions. Indeed, this is precisely what divides China and the US, and makes communication difficult — not impossible, but difficult, which means that an effort must be made, and even when an effort is made, misunderstanding will persist and can only be address by further communicative efforts.

It is, however, entirely possible (and, moreover, possible by the concrete means that Linping suggests) that China and the US could share substantial presuppositions on a strategic level short of grand strategy: mutual economic growth, rule of law, global political stability, avoidance of catastrophic military conflicts, the restriction of conflict to localized proxy wars conducted below the nuclear threshold, and so forth. All of these same elements were present during detente with the Soviet Union.

Such an arrangement is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. Strategic trust, then, would be a trust of each nation-state in the other that the other recognizes the mutually beneficial condition of shared strategic presuppositions, and will seek to perpetuate this arrangement.

What are the challenges to maintaining such strategic trust? Under the above-named conditions, there will always be a tension between strategy and grand strategy. Part of strategic trust would be trust in your strategic partner to remain focused on strategy and to allow grand strategy to take a distant second place. This is all about maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo, and maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo would be all about de-emphasizing, and perhaps even suppressing, revolutionary movements and macro-scopic social change that could upset the strategic apple cart.

Under these conditions, the US would continue to talk about Tibet and Taiwan, but would take no action beyond its existing commitments to Taiwan, while China would be careful not to use its growing economic influence to push the US out of its established positions of power. Like detente with the Soviet Union, all of this is doable, and perhaps it even represents the most likely short- and medium-term future, but it leaves open certain difficult questions like, for example, the Pacific theater

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the northern hemisphere we are beginning to see the first signs of spring. A week ago I saw snowdrops in bloom, and I suspect that primroses are blooming in quite a few places, although I haven’t seen any yet. That is my experience of early spring in the wet, temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. Elsewhere in the world, the Second Annual Arab Spring is getting underway. The remarkable events of 2011 have now receded far enough in history that one year anniversaries are being celebrated (or suppressed), and in some cases these one year anniversaries are the occasion for new protests (as in the case of Bahrain: Bahrain restricts protests on uprising anniversary), and possibly the gathering of renewed momentum for change in regions long without substantive political change.

On at least a couple of occasions I have been scolded by a reader for the amount of commentary I have devoted to Libya and Syria while neglecting the situation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Obviously, I feel that Libya and Syria are important and worthy of attention. Of course, the events in Bahrain and the non-events in Saudi Arabia are also important, but I haven’t had much to say about the Kingdom of Saud, and I don’t think that I’ve written anything about Bahrain. Partly this is a function of the difficulty for a Westerner of obtaining anything like candid reports of life within these nation-states. They are largely quiescent on the surface, but it is to be expected the subterranean forces are moving below the surface, and these forces could probably only be discerned by an expert in these societies.

It is often implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, that Arab nation-states that remained largely quiescent throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, like Saudi Arabia, and those that decisively put down their protests, like Bahrain, are able to remain quiet or engage in successful repression due to their close relationship with the US. Here is an example of an explicit statement of this thesis:

“If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans, the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt, and if you succeed despite US efforts, the US will sponsor the counter-revolution against you directly and indirectly through its local allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, but now also Qatar. This of course applies to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and in Saudi Arabia itself. If you happen to live in a country whose dictator, though friendly to the West, maintains an independent line on foreign policy or at least a line that cannot always be guaranteed to serve Western interests — and this applies to Syria and Iran (and lest we forget their services to the West, both countries helped actively the US effort to unseat Saddam, and the Syrian regime helped with US efforts in supporting rightwing forces in Lebanon against the Lebanese left and the PLO in the 1970s) and less so Libya, then the US will help sponsor your revolt against your dictator to bring about a more pliant dictator to serve its interests without equivocation, and it will do so in the name of supporting democracy.”

The struggle for Syria by Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York

I am not going to attempt to parse this piece in detail, as that would take me rather far afield. Most of what Professor Massad writes in this Al-Jazeera opinion piece is utter garbage. (The above quote, which is at least coherent, is not necessarily representative of the whole piece.) It more than strains credulity to identify the Arab League as an instrument of US policy, as the professor explicitly does. I have no doubt however, whatever my opinion of Professor Massad’s conspiratorial ramblings, that he speaks for many, and that his analysis of the Arab region as being divided between US clients who will receive support suppressing rebellion and non-US clients who will be allowed to fail and fall would be endorsed by many. Indeed, this part of the analysis is not entirely wrong, though it is set in a context that casts everything else he writes into question.

The real question is not whether the US presence in the region influences events — it would be impossible for the most powerful nation-state in the world not to influence events wherever it is present — but whether this is the central and determining influence upon regional dynamics. It is not. The regional dynamics are regional. The US presence is felt, even disproportionately, but it is an influence that is exercised upon a regional dynamic that is defined by the peoples and nation-states of the region. And the distinction between peoples and nation-states is crucial, because almost all nation-states in the region are divided to some extent along sectarian lines: two or more peoples in one state structure.

Bahrain is a very small country, only three and half times the size of Washington, DC according to the CIA Factbook (760 sq. km.). Even as a very small nation-state, it still hosts a divided population. The population of 1,214,705 is split between approximately 70 percent Shia and 30 percent Sunni. As in several states in the region, the majority population is Shia, while the ruling class is Sunni. This is widely perceived as a highly problematic demographic, since Iran is presumed to represent the vanguard of Shia Islam in the region, with the implication being that the essentially disenfranchised Shia majority looks to Iran for leadership.

Given these demographic realities, it would be no surprise that the ruling elites of Bahrain would come down very hard on a Shia uprising whether or not the US was present in the country. (They did, and while they have recently expressed some misgivings over the repression — Bahrain admits using ‘excessive force’ during protests — the renewed repression of anniversary protests suggests that there was no deep soul-searching among Bahrain’s elite political class.) In a nation-state in which the majority population is political disenfranchised, a popular revolt is indistinguishable from an ethno-sectarian insurrection.

Although the Saudis have a more homogenous population (The Shia constitute 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s population) but the more profound division in Saudi Arabia is between those who are satisfied with the status quo and those who want radical change, and most especially those who want to violently end the rule of the House of Saud and deliver over the holy places of Islam to rule by a transnational Caliphate. The Saudis have engaged in a predictable two-prong campaign of spreading around a lot of money while seeking to quell dissent. They have been remarkably successful in keeping the country superficially quiet, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that things are simmering under the surface in the Kingdom.

Saudi failures are occasionally highlighted by an interesting story that surfaces, as in Saudi dissidents turn to YouTube to air their frustrations. Like young dissidents elsewhere in the world, some Saudis have turned to social media outlets. Governments can attempt to shut this sort of thing down, but it is a cat-and-mouse game. Everyone knows that sensitive material is likely to be removed, so as soon as it is posted, someone else usually copies it and re-posts it later. In China, despite the Great Firewall, social media has become so pervasive that micro-blogs overwhelm the efforts of censors when there is a big story. This was the case with the high speed train wreck that killed many people. However, just as dissidents are not shut down by a single action, so censors do not cease their efforts when a single story breaks free and a crack appears in the official media facade.

Youtube videos have a particular immediacy, not only because it allows the viewer both to see and to hear the story, but also because interesting stories usually have long, involved, and detailed comments sections in which people bluntly debate the merits of the video being presented. It is the very bluntness — often vulgar, and often profane — that makes people aware that they are seeing something real, unlike the slickly produced “news” stories of official media.

The Youtube videos mentioned in the above McClatchy story particularly highlighted ongoing poverty in Saudi Arabia despite the oil wealth and despite the efforts to spread money around, so we clearly get the sense that, however successful the House of Saud may be in silencing dissent, its attempts to buy off its people with luxuries are not entirely successful. One can easily guess, in a kingdom ruled by an obscenely wealthy extended family, benefits are not distributed among the people on an egalitarian basis, but are much more likely to flow through client-patron networks. If you don’t have a well-connected patron, you probably get little or nothing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kurt Gödel 1906-1978

Kurt Gödel was possibly the greatest logician of the twentieth century, and certainly among the handful of greatest logicians of all time. Tarski called himself the “greatest living sane logician,” implicitly conceding Gödel first place if the qualifier “sane” is removed. Gödel’s greatest contributions were his incompleteness theorems, which have subsequently been extrapolated to an entire class of limitative theorems that formally demonstrate that which formal systems cannot prove. I just mentioned in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization that Gödel’s results were widely interpreted as the death-knell of Hilbert’s program to provide a finite axiomatization for all mathematics.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, however, were not his only contribution. Over the past few years his correspondence and unpublished papers have been published, giving a better idea of the full scope of Gödel’s thought, which ranged widely across logic, mathematics, cosmology, and even theology. Hao Wang in his Reflections on Kurt Gödel called Gödel’s, “A life of fundamental theoretical work,” and this is an apt characterization.

It strikes me as fitting and appropriate, then, to apply Gödel’s fundamental theoretical work whenever and wherever it might be applicable, and I will suggest that Gödel’s work has implications for theoretical geopolitics (and even, if there were such a discipline, for theoretical biopolitics).

Now, allow me to back up for a moment and mention Francis Fukuyama again, since I have mentioned him and the “end of history” thesis in several recent posts: Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics to name a few. Should the reader think that I am beating a dead horse, I would submit to you that Fukuyama himself is still thinking through the consequences of his thesis. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the idea of a “struggle for recognition” plays an important role, and Fukuyama has mentioned this again quite recently in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity. And this is the way it should be: our impatient society may frown upon spending ten or twenty years thinking through an idea, but this is what philosophers do.

In the aforementioned The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama poses this question, related to his “end of history” thesis:

“Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us to once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?”

Fukuyama answers “yes” to this question, giving economics and the “struggle for recognition” as his reasons for so arguing. Although Fukuyama seems to avoid the tendentious formulation he employed earlier, yes, history is, after all, coming to an end. But wait. There is more. In his later book Our Posthuman Future and in some occasional articles, Fukuyama has argued that history can’t quite come to and end yet because science hasn’t come to an end. Moreover, the biotechnology revolution holds out either the promise or the threat of altering human nature itself, and if human nature is altered, the possibilities for our future history are more or less wide open.

From these two lines of argument I conclude that Fukuyama still thinks today that the ideological evolution of humanity has come to an end in so far as humanity is what it is today, but that this could all change if we alter ourselves. In other words, our ideological life supervenes upon our physical structure and the mode of life dictated by that physical structure. We only have a new ideological future if we change what human beings are on an essential level. Now, this is a very interesting position, and there is much to say about it, but here I am only going to say a single reason why I disagree with it.

Human moral evolution has not come to an end, and although it would probably be given a spur to further and faster growth by biotechnological interventions in human life (and most especially by human-induced human speciation, which would certainly be a major event in the history of our species), human moral evolution, and the ideological changes that supervene upon human moral evolution, will continue with or without biotechnological intervention in human life.

To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.

The denial of future conceptual innovation is interesting in its own right, and constitutes a particular tradition of thought that one runs into from time to time. This is the position made famous by Ecclesiastes who said that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Politicians, geopoliticians, geostrategists, and strategists simpliciter have been as vulnerable to “group think” (i.e., intellectual conformity) as any other group of people, and they tend to think that if every idea has been pretty much discussed and exhausted among their circle of friends, that ideas in general have been pretty much exhausted. The idea that there are no new ideological ideas forthcoming represents group think at the nation-state level, and in part accounts for the increasing ossification of the nation-state system as it exists today. I have mentioned elsewhere the need for nothing less than a revolution to conduct a political experiment. It is no wonder, then, that new ideas don’t get much of a hearing.

To the position of Ecclesiastes we can oppose the position of Gödel, who saw clearly that some have argued and will argue for the end of the evolution of the human mind and its moral life. In a brief but characteristically pregnant lecture Gödel made the following argument:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Since we are, today, living in the Age of Turing (as I write this, the entire current year of 2012 has been declared The Alan Turing Year), ushered in by the pervasive prevalence of computers in contemporary life, it is to be expected that those who follow Turing in his conception of the mind are at or near the flood-tide of their influence, and this conception might well be as pervasively prevalent as the computers that Turing made possible by his own fundamental theoretical work. And in fact, in contemporary philosophers of mind, we find a great many expressions of the essentially mechanical nature of the mind, sometimes called the computational model of the mind. It has become a commonplace to see the mind as the “software” installed in the body’s “hardware,” despite the fact that most of the advocates of a computational theory of mind also argue strongly against Cartesian dualism.

Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.

I have recently argued that biopolitics potentially represents a fundamentally novel moral and political idea. An entire future history of humanity might be derived from what is implicit in biopolitics, and this future history would be distinct from the future history of humanity based on the idea of liberal democracy and its geopolitical theoreticians. I wrote about biopolitics because I could cite several examples and go into the idea in some level of detail (although much more detail is required — I mean a level of detail relative to the context), but there are many ideas that are similarly distinct from the conventions of contemporary statesmen and which might well be elaborated in a future that would come as a surprise to us all.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In yesterday’s Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism I made a distinction between political ideas (with which, to use Sartre’s formulation, essence precedes existence) and historical ideas (with which existence precedes essence). Political ideas are formulated as ideas and are packaged and promoted as ideologies to be politically implemented. Historical ideas are driving forces of historical change that are only recognized and explicitly formulated as ideas ex post facto. At least, that was my general idea, though I recognize that a more subtle and sophisticated account is necessary that will take account of shadings of each into the other, and acknowledging all manner of exceptions. But I start out (being the theoretician of history that I am) in the abstract, with the idea of the distinction to be further elaborated in the light of evidence and experience.

Also in yesterday’s post I suggested that this distinction between political and historical ideas can be applied to communism, extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and neo-agriculturalism. Thinking about this further as I was drifting off to sleep last night (actually, this morning as I was drifting off to sleep after staying awake all night, as is my habit) I realized that this distinction can shed some light on the diverse ways that the term “globalization” is used. In short, globalization can be a political idea or an historical idea.

I have primarily used “globalization” as an historical idea. I have argued from many different perspectives and in regard to different sets of facts and details, that globalization is nothing other than the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution in those parts of the world where the Industrial Revolution had not yet transformed the life of the people, many of whom until recently, and many of whom still today, live in an essentially agricultural civilization and according to the institutions of agricultural civilization. While is the true that industrialization is sometimes consciously pursued as a political policy (though the earliest appearances of industrialization was completely innocent of any design), politicized industrialization is almost always a failure. Or, the least we can say is that politicized industrialization usually results in unintended consequences outrunning intended consequences. Industrialization happens when it happens when a people is historically prepared to make the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. This is not a policy that has been implemented, but a response both to internal social pressures and external influences.

In this sense of globalization as the industrialization of the global economies and all the peoples of the world, globalization is not and cannot be planned, is not the result of a policy, and in fact almost any attempt to implement globalization is likely to be counter-productive and result in the antithesis of the intended result (with the same dreary inevitability that utopian dreams issue in dystopian nightmares).

However, this is not the only sense in which “globalization” is used, and in fact I suspect that “globalization” is invoked more often in the popular media as a name for a political idea, not an historical idea. Globalization as a political idea is globalization consciously and intentionally pursued as a matter of policy. It is this sense of globalization that is protested in the streets, found wanting in a thousand newspaper editorials, and occasionally touted by think tanks.

Considering the distinction between political ideas and historical ideas in relation to globalization, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months back in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2:

If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.

A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.

What I have observed here in relation to futurist prediction holds also in the case of commentary on current events: if one supposes that everything, or almost everything, happens according to a grand design, then it follows that someone or some institution is responsible for current events. Therefore there is someone to blame.

Of course, the world is more complicated and subtle than this, but we only need acknowledge one exception to an unrealistically picayune political conception of history in order to provide a counter-example that demonstrates not all things happen according to a grand design. Any sophisticated political conception of history will recognize that some things happen according to plan, other things just happen and are not part of any plan, while the vast majority of human action is an attempt, only partly successful, to steer the things that happen into courses preferred by conscious agents. If, then, this is the sophisticated political conception of history, what I just called the “unrealistically picayune political conception of history” may be understood as the vulgar political conception of history (analogous to “vulgar Marxism.” Vulgar politicism is political determinism.

This analysis in turn suggests a distinction between vulgar catastrophism, which maintains dogmatically that everything “merely happens,” that chance and accident rules the world without exception, and that there is no rhyme or reason, no planning or design whatsoever, in the world. From this it follows that human agency is illusory. A sophisticated catastrophism would recognize that things largely happen out of our control, but that we do possess authentic agency and are sometimes able to affect historical outcomes — sometimes, but not always or dependably or inevitably.

In so far as globalization is global industrialization, it is and has been happening to the world and began as a completely unplanned development. Since the advent of industrialization, its global extrapolation has mostly followed from the same principles as its unplanned beginnings, but has occasionally been pursued as a matter of policy. On the whole, the industrialization of the world’s economy today is a development that proceeds apace, and which we can sometimes (although not always) influence in small and subtle ways even while the main contours are beyond direct control. Thus globalization begins as a purely historical idea, and as it develops gradually takes on some features of a political idea. This pattern of development, too, is probably repeated in regard to other historical phenomena.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Areté and Selection

12 January 2012


Aristotle as depicted in a medieval woodcut. Aristotle was a central influence shaping the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, the direct ancestor to our own civilization.

In several posts I have written about the Aristotelian conception of excellence, i.e., Areté (ἀρετή in the original Greek, and sometimes translated as “virtue,” just like Machiavelli’s Virtù). Throughout Aristotle’s ethics there is a clear implication that human beings take pleasure in achieving excellence, and in so doing experience a proper sense of pride in their accomplishment. Here is Aristotle’s take on this:

“…the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them…”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Rackham translation of I.7.1098a

Excellence is not only a virtue, and the good for man, but is also desirable:

“…the activities of the part of the soul that is by nature superior must be preferable for those persons who are capable of attaining either all the soul’s activities or two out of the three; since that thing is always most desirable for each person which is the highest to which it is possible for him to attain.”

In regard to the “two out of three” reference in the above, the Aristotle text at Perseus Digital Library has this footnote:

i.e. the two lower ones, the three being the activities of the theoretic reason, of the practical reason, and of the passions that although irrational are amenable to reason.

Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, 1333a

This has been called Aristotle’s principle of perfection by Fred Miller, who cites a different translation of this same passage. Fred Miller in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aristotle’s Political Theory, includes a list of Presuppositions of Aristotle’s Politics, which names the Principle of teleology as the first of Aristotle’s presuppositions:

Principle of teleology Aristotle begins the Politics by invoking the concept of nature (see Political Naturalism). In the Physics Aristotle identifies the nature of a thing above all with its end or final cause (Physics II.2.194a28–9, 8.199b15–18). The end of a thing is also its function (Eudemian Ethics II.1.1219a8), which is its defining principle (Meteorology IV.12.390a10–11). On Aristotle’s view plants and animals are paradigm cases of natural existents, because they have a nature in the sense of an internal causal principle which explains how it comes into being and behaves (Phys. II.1.192b32–3). For example, an acorn has an inherent tendency to grow into an oak tree, so that the tree exists by nature rather than by craft or by chance. The thesis that human beings have a natural function has a fundamental place in the Eudemian Ethics II.1, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, and Politics I.2. The Politics further argues that it is part of the nature of human beings that they are political or adapted for life in the city-state. Thus teleology is crucial for the political naturalism which is at the foundation of Aristotle’s political philosophy. (For discussion of teleology see the entry on Aristotle’s biology.)

Now, there is no question that Aristotle was as Greek as any other Greek, and was very much a man of his time, even while being one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. I make this obvious statement only because I must follow it with the observation that Aristotle’s very Greek philosophy was eventually appropriated by medieval European philosophers, and there it took on a second life, providing the theoretical framework for Scholasticism.

When we consider the role of Aristotle in medieval scholastic theology, and the ongoing role of medieval civilization in the constitution of our own industrial-technological civilization, we can see how hard it has been for us to overcome teleological thinking. Medieval civilization is the direct ancestor to our civilization; there was no catastrophic break between the Middle Ages and Modernity, but rather a smooth and continuous tradition that left many aspects of medievalism intact well into modern times.

Because of Aristotle’s pervasive teleology, he formulated his ethics and his politics teleologically, and transmitted them into this form to posterity, and it was in this form that medieval philosophers received them. In a Greek context I don’t think that Aristotle’s teleology had quite the meaning that it came to have, and indeed scholastic philosopher’s developed Aristotle’s distinction between potency and act into an entire metaphysics in its own right. In the context of a civilization almost entirely constructed upon an eschatological basis, Aristotle’s teleology and his conception of potential take on a meaning that they did not have for Ancient Greeks.

Medieval philosophers more or less ran wild with Aristotle, and I think it is this potent admixture of Aristotelian teleology and medieval eschatology that gives us that Arthur Lovejoy famously called the Great Chain of Being — the metaphysical idea of an exhaustive hierarchy in which there is a place for everything, and everything is to be found in its proper place. Linnaeus eventually naturalized the great chain of being as a system of taxonomy, and the Linnaean system continues to be used today, with evolutionary phylogeny only gradually forcing revisions to cladistic systematics.

There was no need for Aristotle to look for any alternative formulation for this ethical and political views, and his metaphysics were adequate to the scientific knowledge of his time. But since Aristotle’s time we have learned a lot, and one of the most important things we have learned is how to explain the natural world, and our place within it, without recourse to teleology. Now, I really believe that if Aristotle himself could see the naturalistic account of the world produced by contemporary science he would be enthusiastic beyond words. But the Aristotle read through Scholastic spectacles might well be horrified. There is nothing in Aristotle that suggests to me that he was committed to any anti-naturatlistic mode of thought, but Aristotelian doctrines do become anti-naturalistic in the hands of the Schoolmen.

Thus it is no surprise that Aristotle did not recognize that his conception of Areté has strongly selective connotations. If human beings find it desirable to engage in activities that are, “the highest to which it is possible for him to attain,” I think you will find that people truly enjoy doing these things. You will also find that people generally don’t much enjoy doing things that they are not at all good at doing (acknowledging important recreational exceptions — I enjoy swimming but am in no sense good at it). On the whole, then, individuals will be attracted to activities at which they excel, while they will be indifferent to, or perhaps even distance themselves from, activities at which they do not excel.

Moreover, when you become highly competent in some activity, you want to engage in this activity with others who are also highly competent. For example, if you are really good at tennis, you will want to find other really good tennis players in order to play a really satisfying game. You would not be able to have a really good game with someone who knew nothing about tennis. And so there is an elaborate system of rating tennis players that can be used to pair players of a similar skill level. I once read a quote from an institutionalized philosopher (I think it was Richard Cartwright, but I’m not certain; I’ll look up the quote later) saying that he did not like to discuss philosophy with those who had not studied the subject. Same idea as the tennis ratings. An institutionalized philosopher is a like a seeded tennis player.

The preference of the individual for activities at which the individual excels, further escalated by the preference of groups of individuals for others who have attained a similar level of excellence, produces a strong selective effect in human communities. This is one source — one source among many — of what has been called “the great sort.” People sort themselves into communities by temperament and inclination. Individual temperament and inclination tend to lead a person toward a particular community. One of the characteristics of a community is that it tends to be good at something, like Switzerland is good at clock and watch making. Something as large as a nation-state will contain considerable diversity, so there are probably many Swiss who have never assembled a watch in their life, but something as small as an academic or sports clique can be aggressively exclusive to a particular interest or talent.

There is something essentially anti-democratic — or, at least, non-egalitarian — about cliques, and, by extension, Aristotelian Areté. In its best exemplification it produces most of what is valuable in human civilization; in its worst exemplification it is insufferably aristocratic in the worst sense: ossified and unimaginative. Thus it has become one of the great problems of the age of popular sovereignty to understand and to cultivate excellence for its own sake. Popular culture is littered with failed examples of the cultivation of excellence in democratic societies. There are pathetic attempts to identify the talented when they are young, but this is almost always distorted by family connections and prejudice. And there are the monetary rewards that have created the contemporary “culture industry” and its “commodity music” (as well as “commodity painting” and commodity arts of all kinds), which is without any true cultural value. And there is the population culture fascination with fame. The potent mixture of fame of money has meant that people become involved in cinema because wnat to be rich and famous, and not because they can make great movies.

This is a problem, and it is an admittedly unresolved problem. Egalitarianism subordinates excellence to the lowest common denominator, and leaves us with the civilization not worthy of the name; aristocracy at times manages to advance excellence, but much more often it declines into mere inherited privilege, as bereft of cultural value as civilization today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Day before yesterday in Philosophies of the Secret Garden I discussed a passage in Nietzsche where he compared his philosophical efforts to tending a secret garden, and I suggested that there are “secret gardens” in both science and philosophy that fall between Kuhnian normal science (or philosophy) and revolutionary science (or philosophy). Some of what I said applies to military doctrine, though the intrinsic properties of an essentially social experience make it a slightly different case that the essentially solitary activity of philosophy. This makes the example of science particularly interesting, since it occupies a position between philosophy and doctrine.

A philosopher and a mathematician can work in near isolation. Most, as a contingent matter of fact do not work in complete isolation, but prefer the stimulus afforded by interaction with like-minded thinkers, but some do in fact isolate themselves, and often this is purposeful. Descartes reputedly moved his residence repeatedly in order to avoid unannounced callers. Even today there are some well known thinkers who work in near isolation. Perhaps the most famous example in the present age is Grigori Perelman, the mathematician who proved the Poincaré conjecture.

Some creative undertakings demand the contributions of many persons and many talents. One cannot produce a show on Broadway or a film in Hollywood without the collective efforts of a great many people. One can write a screenplay in isolation, but it will never be produced as a film without the participation of others. Similarly, a visionary architect can design a building in isolation, but without the efforts and cooperation of a great many others, his buildings will never get built. The isolated novelist or philosopher or mathematician can hope that their work will survive and resonate with future ages, even if it falls flat in their own time, but the more that a creative expression is communal, like film or architecture, the less likely this will happen, or, if it does happen, that it will resemble the vision of the isolated visionary.

Military doctrine — whether strategic, operational, or tactical — is a social art, like film or architecture. As a social art, military doctrine is less open to the work of an isolated genius. There certainly is normal doctrine and revolutionary doctrine, parallel to normal science and revolutionary science, but there is far less latitude for a secret garden of strategy. Furthermore, doctrine is not only a social art, it is also an overwhelmingly contingent art that has little to do with necessary, a priori truths. Doctrine is learned from particular, empirical states of affairs. This knowledge can, of course, be acquired in isolation, like a knowledge of philosophy of literature, but the most recent developments are not likely to be widely available, and in fact most of the relevant details may be classified, or, if not classified, certainly difficult of access.

Having made the case for doctrine as a social art, and acknowledged the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of doctrine in isolation, not to mention the near impossibility of attracting any interest in such an effort, it remains to point out that, while difficult and rare, it still remains possible for there to be a secret garden of strategy, and the very possibility of this, as slim as it is, presents the possibility of a game-changing confrontation with established doctrine. No one can afford to neglect the possibility, since it presents the aspect of a strategic shock that could upset accepted calculations.

As I noted above, individual pursuits like literature present no great difficulties to the individual enthusiast. Science was once like this, and science was once primarily the pursuit of gentlemen amateurs. Some of these gentlemen amateurs made great contributions, and the greatest of them — Charles Darwin — not only made contributions, but probably changed the way that science is done and effected a conceptual revolution as profound as that of Copernicus. Elsewhere I have called this the heroic conception of science — an individual, working alone, on a project that would transform the world, knowing that if the project is made public precipitously, it will certainly invite ridicule rather than foment revolution. Darwin knew well, as Nietzsche counseled, how to keep silent long enough.

Today science is mostly Big Science, but it isn’t all Big Science. There remains the possibility of the heroic individual scientist going against the establishment, which pursues the iterative conception of science with an army of scientists, organized in a top-down hierarchical structure that resembles military organization more than it resembles the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.

One could say that the more institutionalized science becomes, the more resources it will have at its command, and therefore the more difficult it would be for any individual to make a meaningful contribution to science outside this structure. But at the same time as institutionalized Big Science has many resources and an army of contributors jointly pursuing the same end, the spirit of individual initiative is weakened and the institution becomes vulnerable to group think that simply dismisses anything outside its purview as irrelevant and uninteresting. Institutionalized power carries with it the ability to pursue and attain ends that lie far beyond the ability of the individual, but it also carries with it the risk of stifling innovation.

To return to my distinction above between social arts and solitary arts, what could be more of a social art that politics? And is not politics the very soul of institutionalized power, being institutionalized power in its purest form, unencumbered by any desire other than power? As a nearly perfect exemplification of a social art, it ought to be the case that only those with extensive knowledge and experience within the social milieu that defines the art of politics would possess the particular epistemic background that it would make it possible for such an individual to make innovations within the field. But what we find in fact is that politics is the most uncreative arts, in fact, nearly hostile to innovation, and those who have been in it the longest are the most impervious to new ideas. Thus in the case of the social art of politics, institutionalized ossification so dominates political discourse that trying something new has become a near impossibility — indeed, as I have observed elsewhere, it literally takes a revolution to effect political change.

Just as the intensely social milieu of political thought takes a revolution even to implement small changes, so too the intensely social milieu of military thought requires the military equivalent of a revolution in order to effect changes. However, while in politics social conflicts are primarily resolved within a single social system, military conflicts primarily resolved in a contest between different social systems, except in the case of civil wars. This is an important distinction. The political life of a political entity may become so institutionalized that change becomes unthinkable, but the military life of a political entity can be decided from without, but those who have no stake whatsoever in the welfare of that political entity, and may even seek the dissolution of that political entity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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