What is called “losing” in chess may constitute winning in another game.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a discussion of Gödel’s incompleteness proofs

I have for quite some time been intending to wade into the COIN debate (that’s “counter-insurgency,” for those among you without an absolute command of inherently ambiguous acronyms), and while this post is not going to be that post which takes COIN as the leitmotif, I will here approach COIN indirectly by taking a bit of the debate on the margins of COIN. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s well known remark about Gödel — “My task is, not to talk about (e.g.), Gödel’s proof, but to pass it by.” — I can say that, in the present context, my task is not to talk about COIN, but to pass it by.

And I will pass by COIN by way of a detour through SoT. Now we have another acronym, so I must tell you that “SoT” means “strategy of tactics.” I found this on the Ink Spots blog, in a piece by Jason Fritz titled be-SoT-ted: COIN tactics and strategy through the lens of ends, ways, means. Fritz makes several interesting assertions that I would like to review. Fritz notes that Gian Gentile originated (or popularized) the notion of “COIN is the strategy of tactics,” implying that COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.

Fritz links to several interesting pieces by Gian Gentile, who has written an excellent essay on this idea. Here are a couple of excerpts from Gentile:

Nation-building using population-centric COIN as its centerpiece should be viewed as an operation. It should not be viewed as strategy, or even policy for that matter. But what is occurring now in Afghanistan, for example, at least for the American Army, is a “strategy of tactics.” If strategy calls for nation-building as an operational method to achieve policy objectives, and it is resourced correctly, then the population-centric approach might make sense. But because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.

…the most damaging consequence to the American Army from the new zeitgeist of COIN is that it has taken the Army’s focus off of strategy. Currently, US military strategy is really nothing more than a bunch of COIN principles, massaged into catchy commander’s talking points for the media, emphasizing winning the hearts and minds and shielding civilians. The result is a strategy of tactics and principles.

GIAN P. GENTILE, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009

Of Gentile’s dismissal of COIN as a “strategy of tactics” Fritz has this to say:

My main beef with COIN as a strategy of tactics (I’m going to go ahead and call it SoT from now on) is that all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics. In the ends-ways-means calculus of strategy, a large chunk of the “ways” section is the aggregation of tactical actions based on operational concepts and/or TTPs… This is an elegant way of saying it, but all military strategies are in part SoT, in a non-pejorative sense. You can’t have strategic success without tactical successes. COIN, IW, UW, maneuver warfare are all common in this regard.


…for now I disagree that COIN is inherently a strategy of tactics any more than any category of tactics can be labeled a strategy. Those tactics may be part of a military strategy that logically connects ends, ways, and means. On the other hand, COIN tactics may be the commander’s ways in an illogical or inaccurate strategic equation and thus we may see COIN as a SoT.

While I am in complete agreement that you cannot have strategic success without tactical successes, it is important to point out that tactical objectives can be antithetical to strategic objectives, so much so that a “successful” tactical move may involve a local defeat in the interest of a global strategic victory (and here I mean “global” not as “worldwide” but simply as a contrast to “local”). If your skirmishers can flush out an ambush before that ambush can be sprung on the main body of your troops, the skirmishers may lose this engagement but in so losing they may have saved the day for the force on the whole. What is called “losing” in tactics may be called “winning” in another game, namely, the game of strategy.

Still, both Gentile and Fritz are on to something (though they seem to take distinct positions) in the analysis of a collection of tactical methods and principles that are thrown together as an ad hoc strategy without the benefit of what might be called strategic vision (for lack of a better term). Gentile is somewhat dismissive of a “strategy of tactics” cobbled together on the local level, while Fritz seems to suggest that all strategies are ultimately strategies of tactics, since, “all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics.”

The problem here (if there is a problem) can be neatly illuminated by interpolating a distinction into this discussion, so I am going to make a distinction between formal and informal strategy, or formal and material strategy (either set of terms will do). Although I am introducing my own terminology, the idea is not at all new.

Actually, I’m going to make two distinctions. Among strategies of tactics we can distinguish those that add up to more than the sum of their parts, and those that fail to add up to anything. A number of tactics thrown together in an operational context may only apparently have little or nothing to do with each other, but it emerges in time that they do in fact function coherently as a whole. This whole turns out to be a strategic whole. This is when tactics add up to more than the sum of their parts, and this is what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” and what Hegel called the “cunning of reason.” Sometimes, things get done quite without our knowing how they get done.

Fritz, in suggesting that all strategies may be strategies of tactics comes close to this idea that strategy is emergent from a coherent body of tactics. But this, as we know, is not the only possibility. A number of tactics thrown together for an operation may reveal their essential incoherence by ignominiously falling to pieces under the extraordinary stresses of combat. Tactics combined without any overarching idea of what is to be accomplished may be pursued at cross-purposes to each other and become self-defeating. This would be an instance of tactics turning out to be less than the sum of their parts (what I have elsewhere called negative organicism and submergent properties). This seems to be Gentile’s primary concern.

History provides adequate examples both of strategy emergent from tactics and strategy failing to emerge from tactics, so we can’t really say that Gentile is right or Fritz is right, because they are both right — just in different circumstances. So here’s where we come to formal strategy and material strategy.

A formal strategy is an explicitly formulated doctrine of strategic objectives distinct from the tactical objectives that may be employed to achieve the aims of the strategy. When a formal strategy is formulated, those who are formulating it know that they are formulating it, they know what they want to accomplish, and if any time lines are given for the strategy they will be able to say eventually whether that strategy was successful or a failure.

An informal or material strategy is that strategy that emerges in the absence of a formal strategy. A material strategy may be grasped intuitively or instinctively by military commanders on the ground or by politicians in their negotiations in smoke-filled rooms. It is probably the case that most US strategies are informal strategies, which is why US military forces must so often get by with strategies of tactics, because no one can explicitly formulate exactly what is going on. Even when such an explicit statement of a strategy is lacking, however, we should not sell informal strategy short, because in some cases everyone understands, from the Commander-in-Chief to the foot soldiers slogging through the mud, what it is all about. When men die for freedom and democracy without being able to define either freedom or democracy (or the tactics that are consistent with a free and democratic society) they are dying for an informal strategy.

Given this distinction, then, between formal and informal strategy, the distinction between strategy and tactics is maintained; in other words, it is not the case that all strategies are strategies of tactics, but rather that informal strategies are strategies of tactics when these tactics do turn out to be coherent and to accomplish something. When strategies of tactics fall apart and a fiasco ensues, then there was no strategy at all — not even an informal one.

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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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Geopolitics and Biopolitics

2 February 2012


Geopolitics has been a focus of this forum since its inception, but it was always my intention to supplement a purely geopolitical approach with an attempt to take account of the role of ideas in history — past, present, and future. I have even attempted a precisification of some of the concepts of geopolitics in a few posts on theoretical geopolitics. Thus while I cannot call myself an unqualified geopolitical thinker, I certainly have geopolitical sympathies. If you like, you could call me a fellow traveler of those who practice geopolitics sensu stricto.

It would be easy to find weaknesses in the geopolitical perspective, and many are the critics who have dismissed geopolitics as geographical determinism (that is, when it is not otherwise being roundly condemned as a pseudo-science). In fact, geopolitics should be understood in parallel to any form of abstract thinking: it brings a certain clarity of focus to a tightly restricted domain of concerns, but this focus and clarity is purchased at the cost of excluding certain considerations. The same is true of mathematics or logic or theoretical physics. Every abstract theory incorporates ellipses directly derivative of its abstractions; this being said, we usually get farther with our abstractions than without them. And I have argued many times that any theoretical grounding for one’s thought is probably better than no theoretical grounding at all. Geopolitics is simply one such theoretical grounding for thought.

There are many schools of geopolitics. Karl Haushofer perhaps represents the origin of explicitly thinking in geopolitical terms (there are other earlier geopolitical thinkers I will mention below), but Haushofer’s geopolitics is grounded in Germany’s terrestrial perspective as a land power of Eurasia, and Haushofer’s theories revolved around the control of the Eurasian continent. Not usually called a geopolitician, but standing in diametrical opposition to Haushofer is Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 was disproportionately influential during the period when the great powers of Europe were engaged in an arms race based on dreadnaught class battleships, which eerily foreshadowed the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. As Haushofer was the the terrestrial realm, Mahan was to the world’s oceans.

Perhaps the preeminent practitioner of geopolitics today is George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting (keep in mind that I am talking about people who are real thinkers, and not celebrity politicians such as get named to Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers). I have referenced Freidman’s work many times in this forum, so my readers should be well familiar with him. There are some echoes of Alfred Thayer Mahan that occasionally surface in Friedman’s work, but Friedman’s focus upon and dedication to the geopolitical perspective — almost to the exclusion of all else — is a remarkable exercise in coherent and consistent strategic analysis. Thomas P. M. Barnett is another geostrategic thinker whom I have referenced, but he is less tightly focused on geography than Friedman.

Alfred Thayer Mahan – 27 September 1840 to 01 December 1914

There is something else that unites these strategic thinkers other than their dedication to a geopolitical perspective. At their best, all of these strategists stand above politics. William James once called philosophy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly (my personal favorite among the many definitions of the discipline). By the same token we could call strategy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about politics, and, in the same vein, I recently wrote on Twitter that The one unforgivable sin in strategy is to allow objectivity to become compromised by ideology. Everyone who thinks in strategic terms knows this — if they have not formulated it explicitly, they know it in their gut.

However. Indeed, however. There is a kind of political unity to the geopolitical school of thought that transcends geography. It is not an ideological politics, but rather a scholarly politics, if there is such a thing. One can guess what books geopolitical strategists read, and they probably read pretty much the same books (mainstream works of political science) as they probably look at the same maps. Just as importantly, they probably also have in common the books that they do not read. One suspects that they read mainstream works of scholarship, and that if they have taken the trouble to delve into alternative viewpoints, they probably haven’t understood very well what they were reading. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Samuel P. Huntington, George Friedman, or Thomas P. M. Barnett reading Heidegger, Foucault, Delueze, or Derrida. (Few can be expected to master multiple domains of knowledge, especially when those domains involve incommensurable features.)

What do I mean by “alternative” viewpoints? There is a term of art if ever there was one. I am being a bit elliptical about this because I am trying to avoid political stereotypes, especially a distinction between left and right, since the left/right distinction is as antipathetic to geopolitical strategists as it is to their unsung alternatives. The closest we can come to identifying the distinction without falling back on political cliches is to invoke the distinction between analytical philosophy (which I sometimes call “Anglo-American analytical philosophy”) and continental philosophy. It is important to note that, while the distinction has its origins in geography, it is no longer a geographical distinction. There are analytical philosophers on the European continent, and there are continental philosophers aplenty in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Sometimes the analytical/continental distinction is treated as a mere accident of history, and that we group certain thinkers together because they went to the same schools or spoke the same language. Others treat the distinction as essential, and in making the distinction recognize an essential core of presuppositions shared on both sides of the divide. Of course, the distinction is a little of both — part accident of history, part essential to the thought. This distinction being made, then, I can say that geopolitical strategists stand in relation to their unsung alternatives as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy.

Now, when I write that the alternatives to mainstream geopolitical thought are “unsung,” I only mean this in so far as strategy extends, because some of the thinkers I will mention are very well known, though not usually thought of as intellectual rivals to the tradition of geopolitics. Chief among those who offer a counter-veiling vision to that a geopolitics is Foucault, and what Foucault offers as an alternative is biopolitics (sometimes called bio-power). Foucault originated and elaborated biopolitics, though it appears as a mode of analysis and a way of understanding, never as a political doctrine or an ideology. In this, biopolitics is parallel to geopolitics, which is understood by its practitioners to be non-ideological.

Michel Foucault

The fons et orgio of biopolitics (and perhaps, for the moment, also the locus classicus) is “Right of Death and Power over Life,” which appeared as Part Five of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Here Foucault wrote:

“…starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles-the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, Part Five, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Vintage, 1980, p. 139

It was actually a Swede, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, who coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellén is not so well known as Friedrich Ratzel, Mahan, or Haushofer, but he did first formulate some of the seminal ideas of geopolitics, so much so that we might say that Kjellén stands in relation to geopolitics as Foucault stands in relation to biopolitics. Kjellén was also instrumental in formulating the organic conception of the state, which we will consider below.

There is something fundamental about geopolitics in so far as its theses are founded on the brute facts of the geography of the world (and these brute facts are also the source of the abstractions of geopolitical thought). There is also something fundamental about biopolitics, with its theses founded on the intimately familiar facts of life itself (which, taken out of geographical and historical context also involves abstraction). Foundationalist thought (and strategy is foundationalist thought in politics) may or may not be politically radical, but it is usually theoretically radical (in the sense that I attempted to formulate in Radical Rigor), and it is in this theoretical sense that both geopolitics and biopolitics are radical.

Radicalism (like abstraction) has its limits, and the radicalism of geopolitics as well as that of biopolitics is limited by the abstractions employed in the formulation of each discipline. How so? Let me try to explain. Geopolitics is, in large part (although not in its entirety), apologetics for the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state system. I have repeatedly emphasized in many contexts that, while the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of nationalism — implying a kind of ethno-socio-cultural unity) in actual fact the nation-state is geographically defined, and more particularly it is defined in terms of the territorial principle in law, with Weber’s legal monopoly on violence holding (ideally, though not always in fact) within the territorial boundaries of a given nation-state.

Here is how George Friedman has recently characterized the nation-state:

“A nation state… rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state’s actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.”

George Friedman, Germany’s Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis, January 31, 2012

Formulations in terms of a “uniquely legitimate community” and popular sovereignty leave a lot to be desired, but Friedman is not here writing a theoretical treatise; he is only setting the stage for a geopolitical analysis in which the nation-state is central. There are shades here of the organic theory of the state, and I say this not to try to cast aspersions on Friedman’s analysis (because of the unsavory use to which the organic theory of the state has been put), but only to bring out important implicit features in the nation-state system. Geopolitics as apologetics for the nation-state system marks the limit of the radicalism of geopolitics, and its acceptance of conventional, mainstream political thought such as you would encounter in any political science curriculum.

There are few if any explicit ideological defenses of the nation-state system. The nation-state system — its value and its validity — is an assumption, almost to the point of the very inability even to think of any alternative to this central assumption (other than well-known historical examples no longer at issue today, such as the city-state or the empire). For the theoretician who thinks within the assumptions of the nation-state system, alternatives are literally unthinkable.

Biopolitics operates with a different set of assumptions. Biopolitics has assumptions, but it does not share these assumptions (at least, not all of them) with geopolitics, and for biopolitics different scenarios are literally unthinkable because different theoretical foundations render different states of affairs incoherent. Whatever biopolitics is — and we cannot yet say in any detail what it is — it is not apologetics for the nation-state system.

While we cannot say much about biopolitics, we can say something about biopolitics, and one of the most interesting things that we can say is that, like geopolitics, it has certain debts to the organic theory of the state. Because biopolitics comes out of a loosely defined tradition that is sympathetic to collectivism, it tolerates the idea of the state as a whole that is greater than its parts, and in so far as the parts are individuals citizens of the state, these parts are subordinated to the whole. (While Foucault himself was scrupulous in maintaining his distance from the communists — unlike Sartre and, to a lesser degree, Merleau-Ponty, who allowed themselves to become apologists for Stalinism — others who have taken up the idea of biopolitics and bio-power have not been so scrupulous.) It could even be argued that bio-regionalism is an organic theory of the state purged of nationalist ideology.

We cannot say that the organic theory of the state is a common “core” to both geopolitics and biopolitics, but it is something in common, although the way in which the idea of state organicism is implemented is very different in these two diverse traditions of thought. Geopolitics would tolerate (or endorse) different compromises to individual freedom of action than biopolitics would tolerate (or endorse). The point is that there is a shared tolerance for the abridgement of liberty, though where that tolerance falls is different in each case.

The formulation of biopolitics as an explicit tradition of thought and analysis is a strategic trend of the first importance. It is, in fact, an event in metaphysical history — not so far reaching as the Copernican Revolution, but easily as far reaching as the idea and implementation of the nation-state system itself. While there is as yet no clear sign that those loosely unified protesters who feel both thwarted and disenfranchised by the contemporary institutions of the nation-state (which comprises all conventional and mainstream political activity) recognize in biopolitics a theoretical articulation of views that they didn’t even know that they held (until their “consciousness raising”), this joining of idea of implementation may yet come about.

The authentic sign of a grass roots movement (and perhaps also of a mass movement) is when the practice and theory emerge independently and only later recognize each other as both emerging from some more fundamental and shared impulse, one as the intellectual justification of a practice or set of practices, and the other as the implementation of one and the same existential orientation. This has not yet occurred with biopolitics, but it could occur, and, I would argue, it is likely to occur, because the kind of person who enters into street protests is likely to be eventually introduced to the kind of scholarship that is loosely affiliated with biopolitics, and not likely to be introduced to some other, alternative tradition.

We do not yet know if biopolitics has an historical destiny commensurate with that of geopolitics — we do not yet know if this is an idea that has legs — but we do know that it is loosely related to a perennial tradition of thought. The question then becomes whether biopolitics is a passing and evanescent expression of a perennial human point of intellectual reference, or if it is, in the contrary, the next transformative event that will take this perennial attitude in a new direction, and possibly also to new heights, extending the perennial tradition in new and unexpected ways.

It is entirely possible that one of the great ideological struggles of the coming century (and perhaps also the coming centuries) will be between geopolitics and biopolitics — or, rather, between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. In this case, biopolitics would come to represent what Fukuyama called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” that differs from that of liberal democracy. It could be argued that we are already beginning to see the early signs of this struggle, as peoples increasingly find themselves in conflict with the nation-state the putatively represents their interests, and as a people they struggle against the nation-state.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The center of the Cold War was Europe, and, by extension, the North Atlantic, which latter geographical feature lent its name to NATO. The Age of Atlanticism extended from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to the end of NATO’s relevance in 1991, or almost exactly five hundred years.

The Pacific was always a Cold War backwater. After the US defeated Japanese sea power in the Pacific, there was no force to rival US dominance of the Pacific, even though the USSR had ports on the Pacific. This is related to the fact that although the East was once Red, the Cold War with China was always different from the Cold War with the USSR. In fact, in the midst of the Cold War China and the USSR fought a war, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 (like many recent wars, it was not called a war), the underlined the bitter divisions within the so-called “communist bloc.”

Now there is a power rising in the East — several of them, in fact — and as the Atlantic-centered world order of the post-WWII era passes into history, we enter into a Pacific-Centered World Order. While this Pacific-centered world order will not be as closely wedded to the Cold War as events in the Atlantic theater, but will not be utterly divorced from Cold War antecedents either.

While the Cold War with China (if there was one) was never quite the Cold War that was fought with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless serious business, as Chinese support for North Korea and North Vietnam (later to be Vietnam simpliciter) demonstrated. And while Chinese support for national liberation movements in Southeast Asia mirrored Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, the US had leverage against China: not only Japan, transformed from an enemy into an ally and soon afterward sporting the second largest economy in the world (a status since ceded to China), but most especially Taiwan.

The island of Taiwan is the fly in China’s ointment. Taiwan has been an irritant to China not unlike the way in which communist Cuba was been a near-offshore irritant to the US. Through the late Cold War, moreover, Taiwan had become wealthy, with a growing economy that set it apart from the moribund command economies largely found throughout the region, and its economic dynamism coupled with its position as a trading hub in East Asia gave Taiwan connections throughout the industrialized world.

I bring up Taiwan as one of the major unresolved points of conflict from the Cold War in the Pacific (I have elsewhere called the divided Korean peninsula an ember of the Cold War that periodically flares up) because of the recent talk about the “strategic pivot” of the US in the direction of the Asia-Pacific Region. Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in “America’s Pacific Century”:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton used the word “pivot” three times in the piece, and although she never actually used the phrase “strategic pivot,” she did use the phrase “strategic turn” three times in this piece. More interesting yet is that Clinton did not once mention Taiwan in this article. China is mentioned throughout the article, and in very moderate if not conciliatory terms. China is called an “emerging power” and a “partner” and even an “ally.”

The President, presumably the architect of these strategic turn, and who has emphasized from the beginning of his Presidency that he would orient US strategic posture toward the Pacific, gave a speech is Australia in November 2011 that underscored this emphasis.

The President’s full speech in Australia can be viewed at Changing fortunes dictate another presidential pivot and can be read in full at Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament. “China” is mentioned only three times in the President’s speech, and Taiwan, as in Clinton’s article for Foreign Policy, is not mentioned at all. Here are a few quotes from the speech:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region. From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean Peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here — so democracies could take root; so economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity. Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will not allow it — we will never allow it to be reversed.

Here, we see the future. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.

The strategic turn to Asia and the Pacific has been the topic of much comment. Obama’s Pacific Pivot by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) has been quite widely distributed. The “Strategic Pivot” to Asia Now Committed, Pentagon Can Float Allegedly Deep Cuts by Thomas P. M. Barnett is an interesting analysis that ends with the provocative line, “These are delusions stacked upon delusions.”

I find myself rather surprised that Taiwan has been nearly ignored in this discussion. The administration has had nothing to say about Taiwan in the process of executing this strategic turn. A year ago, the U.S. – China Joint Statement (released 19 January 2011) includes a short but explicit passage about Taiwan:

6. Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

Since then, I haven’t been able to find anything. One must say that the strategic turn to the Pacific, where Taiwan was once a central issue, is deeply if not systematically ambiguous when it comes to Taiwan. The ambiguity is further driven home by on-again, off-again arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to upgrade and update its fighters, as well as its attempt to acquire diesel-electric submarines from the US. More recently, however, it has been announced that Taiwan will purchase AH-64D Apache helicopters with Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), becoming the first political entity outside the US with this particular hardware. This is what we call “mixed signals.” In other words, ambiguity.

In an interesting blog with a Taiwan defense focus, The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, the author, J. Michael Cole, concludes his excellent essay, “Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power: What Can and What Can’t Be Done,” with this advice:

Rather than waste their time exploring the idea of waging a doomed guerrilla campaign against the PLA, thinkers should instead focus their energy on the means by which war in the Taiwan Strait can be rendered unthinkable. Unable to compete dollar-for-dollar with China, Taiwan has one option left: An asymmetrical deterrent backed by a modern Air Force.

This is a sober and sensible conclusion. The ambivalent of the US toward Taiwan in its strategic turn to the Pacific underlines the need for Taiwan to attend to its own interests, since those interests do not seem to figure prominently in US plans for Asia and the Pacific.

In its relative isolation and its need to pursue asymmetrical and nonconventional deterrence in the face of a powerful adversary, Taiwan’s strategic situation resembles the strategic situation of Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Recently in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I once again looked at a number of innovative and distinctive weapons systems that Iran has pursued in quest of backing up its threat of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) in the Strait of Hormuz. Many of these possibilities would be open to Taiwan itself, even while A2/AD strategies are more commonly associated with China itself in the Taiwan Strait.

The obvious track for Taiwanese security would be to go nuclear, and given Taiwan’s relative wealth, advanced technology, and robust industrial plant this would be possible, but it would then lose whatever remaining goodwill it has with its sponsors at present. Ideally this would be done is utter secrecy until the deterrent was fully operational, at which time Taiwan could afford to alienate its sponsors, but the resulting damage to relations with the US would be so great that it is difficult to predict what the US would do in this circumstance. The more we consider the scenario, the more it looks like the above quote about a “doomed guerrilla campaign.”

The remaining strategy for Taiwan, then, is A2/AD in the Taiwan Strait. What happens when two A2/AD strategies collide? The answer to this question may determine the future of Taiwan.

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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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Yesterday in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I mentioned the current foreign policy debate over the idea of a preventative war against Iran and recounted some of Iran’s known capabilities.

Reflecting the these attempts to make a case for or against preventative war with Iran, I was led back in my thoughts to a post I wrote last summer about what I called The Possible War. In this post I tried to emphasize that ex post facto criticisms of conduct in war — like criticisms of the Allies’ strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War — presume a parity of capability and opportunity that almost never obtains in fact. Military powers do not engage in ideal wars that meet certain standards; they fight the war that they are able to fight, and this is the possible war.

Moving beyond a description of the possible war, the idea can be formulated as a principle, the principle of possible wars, and the principle is this: in any given conflict, each party to the conflict will fight the war that it is possible for that party to fight. In other words, no party to a conflict is going to fight a war that it is impossible for it to fight. In other words again, no party to a conflict is going to fight a losing war on the basis of peer-to-peer engagement if there is a non-peer strategy that will win the war. This sort of thing makes good poetry, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade, but in so far as it ensures failure in a campaign, it exerts a strong negative selection over military powers that pursue such policies.

The military resources of a given political entity (whether state or non-state entity) will always seek to maximize its advantage by employing its most effective means available against its adversary’s most vulnerable target available. This is what makes war brutal and ugly, this is why it has been said since ancient times that inter arma enim silent leges.

There is a sense in which this principle of possible wars is simply an extension of the classic twin principles of mass and economy of forces. Each party to a conflict concentrates as much force as it can at a point it believes the adversary to be most vulnerable, and the enemy is simultaneously trying to do the same thing. If we think of concentration as concentration of effort, rather than mere numbers of battalions, and we think of vulnerability as any way in which an enemy can be defeated, and not merely a point on the line that is insufficiently defended, then we have the principle of possible war.

War is not always and inevitably brutal and ugly, and the principle of possible wars helps us to understand why this is the case. Previously in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I discussed how in particular historical circumstances warfare can become highly ritualized and stylized. There I cited the non-Western examples of Samurai sword fighting, retained in Japan long after the rest of the world was fighting with guns, and the Aztec Flower Battle, which combined religious rituals of sacrifice with the honor and prestige requirements of combat. However, there are Western precedents for ritualized combat as well, as when, in the ancient world, each party to a conflict would choose an individual champion and the issue was decided by single combat.

Another example of semi-ritualized forms of combat in Western history might include early modern Condottieri wars in the Italian peninsula. Before the large scale armies of the French and the Spanish crossed the Alps to pillage and plunder Italy, the peninsula was dominated by wealth city-states who hired mercenary armies under Condottieri captains to wage war against each other. With two mercenary armies facing each other on the battlefield, there was a strong incentive to minimize casualties, and there are some remarkable stories from the era of nearly bloodless battles.

Another example would be the maneuver warfare of small, professional European armies during the Enlightenment, who sometimes managed to fight limited wars with a minimal impact on non-combatants. This may well have been a cultural response to the horrific slaughter of the Thirty Years War.

In these latter two examples, limited wars were the possible war because a sufficient number of social conventions and normative presuppositions were shared by all parties to the conflict, who were willing to abide by the results of the contest even when a more ruthless approach might have secured a Pyrrhic victory. Under these socio-political conditions, limited wars were possible wars because all parties recognized that it was in their enlightened self-interest not to escalate wars beyond a certain threshold. Such social conventions touching even upon the conduct of war can only be effective in a suitably homogenous cultural region.

After the escalating total wars leading up to the middle of the twentieth century, limited wars emerged again out of fear of crossing the nuclear threshold. Parties to the conflicts were willing to abide by the issue of these limited wars because the alternative was mutually assured destruction. Also, all parties to proxy wars knew they would have another chance at achieving their goals in another theater when the proxy war would shift to another region of the world. Thus limited wars because possible wars because the alternative was unthinkable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Second in a Series

In The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I began to sketch a theoretical geopolitics. There I identified the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as being that human agency is constrained by geography.

Today I move beyond the fundamental theorem, which I attempted to justify in narrative terms in my previous post, to what I will call the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought:

The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

If the reader has had the opportunity to look at my Agent-Centered Metaphysics post, as well as a great many other posts in a similar vein, that reader will understand the centrality of agency in my thought. Such a reader might also be not be surprised that I would like to formulate a conception of agency based on what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, since that has become (of late) a consistent touchstone for me.

For a quick review, I have adopted and adapted Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model formulated within the social sciences, taking it over for my own purposes and modifying it as I please. To that end, I take the first four stages of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model — the micro-system, meso-system, exo-system, and macro-system — while separating Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem apart, setting it to one side, and supplementing these initial four degrees of ecology with a fifth stage, which I call metaphysical ecology. Then I extrapolate the chronosystem eo ipso, according to the principles of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, by which I arrive at micro-temporality, meso-temporality, exo-temporality, macro-temporality, and metaphysical temporality (or, if you will, metaphysical history — which is sort of where I began, except that I used to call it integral history). Finally, I noted that metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality are each alternative formulations of the other, one (ecological) in terms of a synchronic perspective, and the other (temporal) in terms of a diachronic perspective. Clear enough? Very good.

Human agency, then, is to be understood as ecological agency, which we can formulate either in terms of metaphysical ecology (if we are thinking in primarily spatial or systematic terms) or in terms of ecological temporality (if we are thinking primarily in terms of time, history, and eternity).

Thus the reader familiar with my thinking on these matters can obviously formulate the next step, which is the delineation of ecological agency in terms of:

● micro-agency

● meso-agency

● exo-agency

● macro-agency

● metaphyscial agency

The micro-agency of the individual is circumscribed by the individual’s immediate location and the other objects in the immediate vicinity with which the individual can interact. Considered in temporal terms, the micro-agency of the individual is that individual’s temporal now (the punctiform present) by which the individual is continuously circumscribed. This is the most restrictive and narrow sense of human agency, and according to the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, this narrow sense of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human micro-agency holds little or no sway.

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

This reflection immediately leads us to the obvious consequence that there are distinct centers based upon metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, as follows:

● the micro-center beyond which lies the meso-ecological periphery and more.

● the meso-center beyond which lies the exo-ecological periphery and more.

● the exo-center beyond which lies the macro-ecological and metaphysical periphery,

● the macro-center beyond which lies the metaphysical periphery, and…

● the metaphyscial center beyond which lies nothing, because this is the most comprehensive category, short of the whole structure of metaphysical ecology itself, which includes all levels and their interaction with every other level.

Are you still with me? Good. There’s more. The periphery is always the complement of the center, i.e., it is the remainder of metaphysical ecology once we take away the center. That means the periphery is always larger and more comprehensive than the center. Therein lies the paradoxical key to much geopolitics: the center is privileged, because it is the locus of some level of human agency, but is still relatively narrow and relatively small. The bulk of life lies outside the center. One obvious aspect of this geopolitical deduction relates to what I have recently written about political elites in Limits to Social Mobility: the bulk of the life of the nation lies outside the narrow class of political elites who possess the institutional agency that allows them to act as meso-agents, exo-agents, macro-agents, and (even occasionally) as metaphysical agents.

I wrote above in the delineation of the metaphysical center that this is the most comprehensive ecological category and therefore excludes nothing. However — and this is an important however, also noted above — the metaphysical level of ecology is distinct from the whole structure of metaphysical ecology taken together with its ecological structures linking it to all other levels, so that the metaphysical center alone, or the metaphysical agent who acts metaphysically and therefore initiates metaphysical change, is also, in a sense, narrow, constrained, and limited.

Generally speaking (though with an important exception noted next, as well as in the next paragraph), individual agency is micro-agency, and can affect little beyond the micro-center. In a Hobbesian Leviathan, in which the members of a commonwealth utterly surrender their rights to a sovereign in order to enjoy his protection, the sovereign comes into possession of meso-agency, exo-agency, and sometimes even macro-agency (say, in the case of some Roman or Chinese emperors). The individual who thus possesses the office of sovereign, wields power far beyond the individual’s micro-agency. However, it is interesting to note that these midrange levels of agency can be quite powerless at lower levels: a government can pass a law, but individuals reserve the right to violate that law within the scope of their micro-agency. Unless there is an agent of the sovereign present (say, a soldier or a police officer), meso- and exo-agency are powerless to affect the outcome (as meso- and exo-agency). Moreover, it is only at the level of the micro-agency of the soldier or the police officer that the micro-agent’s defiance of the law can be effectively addressed.

It is one of the supreme ironies of ecological structures — systems, time, agents, centers, and so forth — that it is most often the individual agent, acting only on the recognizance of his own micro-agency, who effects metaphysical change and there is therefore transformed into a metaphysical agent (and thereby exemplifying the heroic conception of civilization, I might add). This metaphysical agency of the individual will, in la longue durée, percolate down through the levels of metaphysical ecology, ultimately changing the very terms on which meso-, exo-, and macro-agency is exercised.

Continuing this line of thought, our ecological conceptions need to be supplemented by temporal conceptions, and so we could also define temporal centers and peripheries corresponding to each ecological level. I will leave a further exposition of this idea to a later date, or the reader can work it out as an exercise. Intuitively I can see that there is something here that requires some serious thinking to sort out, and that is why I will not attempt to elaborate this at present.

Previously I gave an exposition of centers and peripheries in The Farther Reaches of Civilization, but when I wrote that I had not yet formulated the above ideas of the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought or ecological agency or ecological centers and peripheries. Now that I posses this more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure, in the fullness of time I can return to the themes of centers and peripheries in a more systematic and rigorous fashion, perhaps even incorporating an adequate doctrine of temporal centers and peripheries, as suggested above.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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I am going to return to an implied definition of grand strategy found in Dr. Patrick Porter’s The Offshore Balancer in his post Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy. Here is a quote from that post, which I also quoted previously:

In a meeting with General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, presidential candidate Obama said

‘My job, if I have the honour of being commander in chief, is going to be to look at the whole picture. I expect you, as the commander of our forces in Iraq, to ask for everything you need and more to ensure your success. That’s what you owe the troops who are under your command. My job is… I’ve got to choose. Because I don’t have infinite resources.’

That’s it right there, and with that we can probably knock it on the head for an early lunch. But I probably should run out the clock with some details.

I previously wrote about this in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, where I focused on the role a strategic vision has not only in terms of eliminating or passing over certain alternatives, but also in formulating or settling upon certain alternatives. Like a system of ethics, that not only enjoins us to desist from certain activities but also requires us to perform certain activities, grand strategy is not purely negative; it too, like ethics, does render some alternatives unthinkable, but at the same time it renders other alternatives “thinkable” that might be unthinkable for others. For example, the Final Solution was part of Nazi grand strategy, and while for us The Holocaust is a paradigm of the unthinkable, in the context of Nazi ideology it was not only thinkable but practicable, and so the Nazis bequeathed to history genocide’s proof of concept.

Today I want to address a different aspect of the above implied (though not explicit) definition of grand strategy. Specifically, I want to discuss the strategic role of finite resources, which is central to the above quote. Previously I focused on choices, because I wanted to show that our strategic choices (both positive and negative) are conditioned by our strategic vision, and, even more broadly, by the conception of history that furnishes our Weltanschauung (what Foucault called an epistêmê and Kuhn called a paradigm). Although strategic choices are central, no less central is resource allocation. In the implicit definition above, we are forced to make choices because our resources are finite. This implies that, if only our resources were not finite, we might not have to make these choices. Thus resource allocation is more fundamental than the choices it seems to force upon us, because the finitude of resources is the reason for the choice, and not vice versa.

During the First World War, this conception of resource allocation — the limitations forced upon us by finitude — was central to the thinking of battlefield commanders. It was also ruinous. This was not only the First World War but was also the First Industrialized War. There were intimations of industrialized carnage earlier in the Russo-Japanese War, in which machine guns were extensively employed, but contemporary commanders learned little from the war, and so it had little strategic influence. I have also pointed out that the First World War was a war of Mass Man, and this was expressed strategically by the central role that mobilization played in all the great powers’ war plans prior to the war. (See Unintended Consequences of Enlightenment Universalism)

Trench warfare during the First World War.

During the First World War (and certainly not only during the First World War), commanders pervasively framed their plans to civilian leaders as being contingent upon more men and more shells. The central idea was if only a commander could get a sufficient number of men and HE shells, they would have sufficient mass (in the sense that “mass” is used in the principles of war, in contradistinction to economy of forces) for a breakthrough. (Falkenhayn even referred to this as a “mass breakthrough,” thus emphasizing the mass character of mass warfare — see the Falkenhayn quote below. NB: here we are not using “mass” in the sense of the principles of war.)

Fortifications at Verdun

Another expression of this line of thought was Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was conceived by Falkenhayn with the objective of “bleeding France white.” As Falkenhayn put it to Kaiser Wilhelm II:

“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

That is to say, Falkenhayn knew that France’s manpower was limited, and that if it could be exhausted by being bled white, Germany could win. Falkenhayn was, in a sense, successful, perhaps too successful, because the same calculus of finitude that applied to France also applied to Germany, and The Battle of Verdun proved to be an equal opportunity slaughterhouse, consuming French and Germans alike, and almost at the same rate.

Some of the first intimations of maneuver warfare in its contemporary form emerged from straitened circumstances that forced commanders to work with limited resources. The well-known Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front was effective because Brusilov knew that his shells were limited, so instead of a barrage that lasted for days, there was a short, sharp barrage (kept short to minimize the use of shells) followed by an infantry advance. The advance was more successful than most infantry advances during the First World War because the element of surprise had been retained. Brusilov’s Order of Battle was also governed by similar considerations of finite resources. Once Brusilov’s successes got the attention of Moscow, Brusilov was given more men and more shells, and he returned to the same errors of other commanders during the war. No longer forced to be creative, and expecting a never-ending supply of men and shells, he planned as though resources were unlimited, and then he began to fail.

Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov (Russian: Алексе́й Алексе́евич Бруси́лов) 19 August (Old Style 31 August) 1853 – 17 March 1926

To act as though one had unlimited resources at one’s command suggests certain approaches to warfighting, but a careful examination of the historical record shows that the assumptions upon which the unlimited approach is predicated are not always borne out in fact. There are many situations, both tactical and strategic, when unlimited resources would not change the outcome of an engagement. These are typically referred to as “choke points” or “bottlenecks.”

The most famous example of a choke point in military history is the Battle of Thermopylae, when a Greek force of about 7,000 held off a Persian army that may have had as many as a million men. The Greeks eventually lost the battle, which culminated in the last stand of King Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans (the subject of a recent film), but the ability of the Greeks to hold back a far larger force for a week was due to the pass of Thermopylae being a geographical choke point, where only a few men could fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Even if the Persians had had two or three million soldiers available, or an unlimited number of soldiers available, they would not have taken the pass any quicker than they did.

An armored spearhead from East Germany through the Fulda Gap into West Germany.

Another geographical choke point is the Fulda Gap in Germany, which was central to NATO planning during the Cold War. The Fulda Gap is one of the few places that the Warsaw Pact could have employed its superior number of tanks in an invasion of Western Europe. More recently, the Pankisi Gorge has been a focus of strategic thinking in the Caucasus, being a potential transshipment opportunity between Russia and the Middle East. As a pass within a mountainous region, it is the choke point of the Caucasus.

Perhaps more familiar than geographical choke points are naval choke points. Wikipedia gives a list of these as follows: Hormuz Strait between Oman and Iran at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia, Bab-el-Mandeb passage from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea, Panama Canal and the Panama Pipeline connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline connecting the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea, The Turkish Straits/Bosporus linking the Black Sea (and oil coming from the Caspian Sea region) to the Mediterranean, The Strait of Gibraltar, Cape Horn, and The Cape of Good Hope. This list could easily be expanded. For example, the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War took place in the Tsushima Strait, which is a regional naval choke point.

No less significant than geographical or naval choke points are temporal or historical choke points. While the term “choke point” implies obstruction rather than facilitation, the temporal equivalent of a choke point we know as a “window of opportunity,” and this implies facilitation rather than obstruction. But facilitation and obstruction are two sides of the same coin, like the above mentioned distinction between choices facilitated (rendered thinkable) by a given strategic vision and choices obstructed (rendered unthinkable) by a given strategic vision. In both cases we have alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

The Strait of Hormuz: both a military and economic choke point for 40 percent of the world's oil transported by tanker ships.

Spatial and temporal choke points usually work together. A battle has a certain duration; even a war has a certain duration, thought it may last a hundred years. The point here is that resources brought to bear after the crucial moment — that is to say, outside the window of opportunity — cannot be used. Thus a tactical delay, as at the Battle of Thermopylae, can be strategically decisive even if the delaying action is a lost battle. Against all odds, the Greeks ultimately kept the numerically superior Persian forces out of Greece, and they did so through a brilliant series of engagements that strategically deployed the far smaller Greek forces at choke points in what was, in some senses, a war of attrition that the Persians chose not to pursue because it was too costly.

I hope that it is not lost on the reader that this is precisely what the Viet Cong did in Viet Nam, and what the Mujaheddin did in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Guerrilla wars have always (even if not explicitly) sought out the strategic choke points of numerically larger, technologically superior forces, and concentrated their action where that action could inflict proportionately heavy casualties, making the conflict a protracted and costly war of attrition. If a guerrilla force can maintain this attrition on a larger force long enough to break the political will of the civilian leaders directing the war, they can win even if guerrilla losses are disproportionately large. Sometimes this calculation is a close-run thing, and sometimes the guerrillas are extirpated before the fight becomes unsustainable and impossible for conventional forces, but there is always the possibility of oblique victory by way of the withdrawal of the conventional opponent.

As long as tactical and strategic thought is allowed to run in the lazy channels of if only we had more resources — be those resources soldiers, guns, money, time, etc. — the commanders thinking in such terms will be humiliated by more innovative strategic and tactical thinking that looks for the choke points where resources are far less significant than the will to fight. At a choke point, even a small, poorly equipped force can precipitate a decisive moment and turn the tide for their comrades in arms, though they may have to die at the choke point in order to achieve this end.

There are, of course, cases in which infinite resources would make a difference. However, this is not the only possibility, because there are cases — battles being a paradigm instances of such cases — when infinite resources would not make a difference (or do not necessarily make a difference). The true strategic thinker seeks these resource-neutralizing nodes and seizes upon them as the opportunity to project power at the least cost to himself and the greatest cost to his adversary. The failed strategic thinker chooses a point at which to concentrate his resources, believing that if he can pour enough resources into a strong point, he can ultimately win despite the losses he will take — like the French at Dien Bien Phu. As I noted above, this calculation can be a close run thing. The Western powers might have failed spectacularly with the Berlin Airlift (arguably an early battle of the Cold War), but they ultimately proved that they could pour sufficient resources into this engagement that it was the Russians who capitulated in this case.

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