Perhaps the most predictable fall-out of Graeme Wood's influential cover article for The Atlantic,  "What the Islamic State Really Wants," is another round of debate over whether or not the atrocities committed by ISIS and other armed fundamentalist terrorist outfits are sanctioned by the Qur'an, Hadith, and other Islamic texts, and if not, whether these groups and the evils they inflict upon the world should be called "Islamic" at all.  Michael Lotus, author of the excellent America 3.0 and a generally sharp political observer all around, suggests that American policy makers shouldn't bother themselves with the question:

Fortunately for non-Muslims, who have neither the time nor the inclination nor the scholarly competence to get into intra-Muslim theological disputes, we do not need to figure out whether ISIS or [their theological opponents] more properly interpret these passages. We just need to know that ISIS reads the texts the way it does, believe them to be divine commands, and acts accordingly. Knowing this, we are better able to plan whatever military response is necessary to defeat them, and hopefully destroy them entirely. This is both theoretically and practically an easier task than debating them.[1]
There are two separate issues at play here that need to be clearly distinguished from each other before the United States crafts any strategy to defeat ISIS. The first is what, if anything, the United States should do over the short term to stop and then reverse ISIS's advance. The second is how the United States should approach the long term threat posed by Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and the ideology that inspires it. Inasmuch as the goal of American policy is grounding ISIS into the dust, then Michael is entirely correct. Conquerors the world over have shown that one does not need a nuanced understanding of an enemy's belief system in order to obliterate him. But ISIS is only one head of the hydra. If the goal of American policy is to permanently defeat “global extremism” or “global terror” or whatever the folks in Washington have decided to call Salafi-Jihadist barbarism this month, then this view is insufficient.

I should be clear here. I am not advocating a perpetual, open-ended war declared against some nebulous concept like "poverty," or "drugs," or "terror."  James Madison once declared that war is the "most dreadful" of "all public enemies to liberty," and I take his warning seriously.[2] We cannot continue on an indefinite war footing without permanently damaging the integrity of the America's republican institutions.

But there is more to this conflict than America's internal politics. It is worth it to step back and remind ourselves of exactly what is at stake in the global contest against Jihadist extremism.


At the turn of the twentieth century, China, Japan, and Korea saw vast changes in the shape of their society because the old Neo-Confucian world view that had upheld the old order had been discredited. In Europe both communism and fascism rose to horrific heights because the old ideology of classical liberalism that had hitherto held sway was discredited. As a global revolutionary force communism itself withered away because the events that closed the 20th century left it discredited. If Americans do not worry about communist revolutionaries anymore it is because communism was so thoroughly discredited that there is no one left in the world who is willing to pick up arms in its name. [3]

We cannot “win” this fight, in the long term, unless we can discredit the ideology that gives this fight teeth.

Luckily for us, this does not require discrediting a fourteen hundred year old religion held by one fifth of the world’s population. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideology we seek to discredit is a comparatively new one. It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” crystallized in its present form only in the 1960s, and was not exported abroad until the late 1980s. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict excepted, almost all "Islamist" terrorist attacks can be linked directly to this new Salafi-Jihadist ideology and the madrassas and proselytizing media used to spread it. It is an ideology that directly threatens the sovereign rulers of every country in the Near East, and one whose interpretations are not only opposed by the majority of Islamic theologians, but have little relation to the way Islam was practiced in most places a mere 30 years ago.

That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. Novelty also says little about a movement's future success–once upon a time Protestantism was a novel ideology. I encourage people to use this analogy. Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS's success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

I will not mince words:  humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every 'great game' of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. We must plan accordingly.

The other day a Palestinian friend of mine posted the following note on Facebook:

ISIS has zero connection to Islam. The only people who think ISIS is Islamic either know nothing about Islam, are part of ISIS or write for The Atlantic. If you doubt this, please take the time to read this letter written by some of the most prominent Islamic Scholars of our time in which they go into excruciating detail highlighting the VERY Un-Islamic nature of ISIS. It is 23 pages long and in 10 different languages.

P.S. Stop saying Muslims aren’t speaking out against ISIS.

He links to an open letter to al-Baghdadi signed by several hundred Imams and muftis across the world, debating various theological claims made by ISIS point by point. The status started a long debate–some 40 comments long last I checked–on whether or not ISIS was indeed “Islamic” or if it was something else. Had the debate been started by anyone else it would almost seem parodic. "Of course the Islamic State is Islamic!" one wants to shout. By denying the theological underpinnings of the group and its explicit religious–indeed, Islamic–goals we deny the threat it poses and the permanent impact ISIS and Salafi-Jihadist ideology may have on Islamic civilization as a whole. Lily-liberal progressives are intellectual cowards for refusing to face up to this fact.

But my friend is not a lily-liberal progressive. He is a practicing Muslim, forwarding a message written by other Muslims meant to be read first and foremost by Muslims. What those in the comment thread upset at my friend’s refusal to “own up” on the Islamic nature of ISIS could not see is that the boundaries of a religion and its attendant ideology are not set by old texts or theological debate, but by the perceptions and actions of the devout themselves. What the average American Protestant–and even more so the average American Catholic!–does to worship Christ is only tenuously connected to anything found in a Biblical text, and the lifestyle of today's Christians would be alien and scandalous to Christians of both the 4th and the 15th centuries. One age’s heretics are another age’s fellow saints. What is or what is not “Christian” is entirely determined by the perceptions, mores, and opinions of those who call themselves Christian. If the great majority concur that something is or is not Christian then, for all intents of purposes, thus it will be. As with Christianity, so with Islam. The Islamic State will be ‘un-Islamic’ once there is no one left who believes its actions are grounded in the Islamic faith.

It is a hard nut for Westerners to crack. President Obama and Bush show some awareness of the problem when they declare that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, terrorism, or whatever "is not Islamic." In the end, however, these statements are self defeating. Those most tempted to join the Jihadist cause are those who will respond least well to a Christian emperor telling them how to express their faith. The crux of the problem is that we have picked a side in an ideological civil war, but the clearer it becomes that we Americans have chosen this side the more difficult it becomes for our chosen side to win.

That is when we do recognize the crisis of Islamic civilization for what it is. We often do not. With depressing regularity we fall into the trap of expressed best in all of this "clash of civilizations" talk. The problem posed by Islamic terrorism is not the ultimate consequence of a clash between civilizations, but a violent expression of a clash within a civilization. More Muslims die every year at the hands of Salafi-inspired terrorism than non-Muslims do, and even those attacks carried out against non-Muslims are overwhelmingly about forging a more perfect Ummah. What we are witnessing is a global contest for the soul of Islam. Unfortunately, so caught up are we in our own culture wars that we have completely lost sight of what is happening around us. In the American mind the Islamic terrorist is first and foremost a weapon to be used against her domestic opponents.  Tribe Red sees every attack and atrocity as another talking point against Tribe Blue's multi-cultural program; Tribe Blue, in turn spends more time worrying  how Tribe Red will spin these atrocities than what their actual impact will be on the broader contest over the souls of the Ummah. As Gary Brecher put it in a recent War Nerd column, we are blinded by sort of "American narcissism"  where "a man burned alive in the Syrian desert becomes nothing but an excuse for a sermon on American History X, because only America matters, only America’s sins [or in Tribe Red's case, triumphs] are real." [4]

The flight of Christians away from the Near East, 1920-2006. 

Source: Stephan Farrel and Rana Sabbagh Gargour,
 "All the staff at the Church have been killed--they disappeared,"  
The Times (23 Dec 2014).
As Americans bicker as the old Islamic order burns. We are only in the beginning stages of this collapse and already the shape of the Arab world has irrevocably changed. 120,000 Christian refugees fled for safer lands as ISIS advanced across Iraq last year, effectively ending Christianity's 2000 year long presence there. This same sort of pressure is being placed on ancient Christian communities across the Near East. That is worth reflecting over. The arguments we have about trigger warnings and American Sniper are froth upon the wave. They will not be remembered in thirty years time. The same cannot be said for the kind of demographic and cultural changes Islamic extremists are trying to bring to  the Mahgeb and the Middle East. What is happening today in mosques and madrassas across the world may shape human society for centuries.

I have painted a picture in broad strokes, speaking of civilizations and centuries. That is what is at stake here. Given this knowledge I think it is appropriate to bring the discussion back down to where we started: what, if anything, can American statesmen and policy-makers do to discredit Salafi-Jihadist ideology?

Recognizing both the scale and the nature of the threat helps us. We need to realize that the daily lives of billions of people around the world are being decided right now, and that a virulent ideology, not an individual terrorist group or force, is the prime enemy in this fight. This ideology will not be stopped by rational discussion or theological debate. No political or religious ideology ever has been. Victory can only come through discrediting it. However, if we transparently lend our support those within the Muslim world who argue the position we like then we discredit them.

The implications of all this in my mind are:

1) We should not try to take part in the theological, intellectual, and cultural conflicts that are driving this ideology forward. American politicians making takfir are at best embarrassing and at worst destructive to out cause. Government officials should only give active support to prominent Muslims who oppose Salafi-Jihadist ideology when we can do so secretly or when our intentions for doing so can be obscured.

2) However, we should become very fluent in the details of these beliefs and these debates, even though we do not participate in them directly. It is possible to discredit an ideology without understanding it--there are few things naked force can't accomplish if applied in large enough doses. But the human costs of such a campaign would be horrific and could not be done without severely damaging the character of American democracy.  Better to be smart than to descend into barbarism.

3) As we cannot discredit Salafi-Jihadist ideology through debate, we should focus our efforts on figuring out what events in the real world will discredit it and then do everything in our power to make these events happen. In his Atlantic article Graeme Wood provides one good example of this sort: if you can dislodge a Caliphate from its territory, he notes, it can no longer claim to be a Caliphate. If we properly understand the ideology that drives these men and their supporters we can find other weak points that can be exploited.

 (Another example, again in the context of ISIS--I would suggest that our campaigns against ISIS would have far greater power if they were perceived to be led, planned, directed, and fought by Sunni Muslims. America’s role should be muted. This will be hard to pull of given realities of current U.S. domestic politics though).

4) We should do all we can to stop the dissemination of Salafi-Jihadist ideology. On the short term that means taking down Jihadist web-sites and forums; on the medium term that means confiscating the funds and barring travel visas of the rich Saudi and emirate sheiks who fund the madrassas, presses, preachers, and websites that produce the Jihadist filth; on the long term it means recognizing that Saudi Arabia poses a greater threat to the interests of the United States specifically and of humanity generally than any other state, and do what we can to terminate our relationship with the house of Saud as soon as possible. [5]

5) Related to that last point, we need to fundamentally rethink the structure of our alliance system in the Middle East. There are no good options in the Near East, and no good allies. We must settle for least worst. That is almost certainly the Iranians. It is too much to ask for an alliance with Iran, but truly, of all the important  regional players they are the least dangerous. Tehran is not exporting an ideology that inspires terrorists around the world. (Indeed, outside of the Middle East itself you won’t find a Shi'i terrorist). The Persians have a stronger interest in combating Salafi-Jihadist extremism than any other power in the region.   Growing Shiite power also means that more of the energy currently spent on attacking the West will be spent attacking Iran, while we can safely support Iranian ambitions without discrediting them, as would happen with many a “moderate” Sunni.

This last point is radical but it may be the most important. Lately there has been a growing discussion in foreign policy circles over whether or not true U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is possible, or if the Iranians will take advantage of U.S. overtures to act against American interests with impunity. I am skeptical that the current generation of leadership in Tehran will ever be anything less than hostile towards the United States. But in the long term this does not matter.  Even if the Iranians resolutely oppose every American initiative in the region the damage they might do–both to America, but really more importantly, to Islamic civilization, and by extension, to humanity as a whole--will be far, far less than out havoc our “allies” now wreck.


T. Greer, "Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, Part I," and "Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context Part II,"  The Scholar's Stage (9 and 10 October 2013).

Seth Jones, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa'ida and Other Salafi Jihadists (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 2014). PDF file.

 Brookings Institution Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, "Ancient Religions, Modern Politics:  Comparative Discussion of Islamic Tradition and Revivalism," Panel discussion at Brookings (20 May 2014). Transcript and audio. See also the book that inspired the discussion.

"Lorenzo," Review of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, Post I and Post II, Thinking Out Loud (19 and 20 February 2015).

Abdul Ghella, "Tackling the New Wahabi Extremism: Africa's Menace for the Coming Years," Pambazuka News, iss. 605 (11 August 2012).


[1]  Lexington Green, Comment #1 (26 February 2015) on Charles Cameron, "Definitely my 'Best Book' of 2014," Zenpundit (23 February 2015).

[2] The phrase comes from his 1795 political pamphlet, "Political Observations."  I have written extensively about this quote and the historical context for it in "James Madison of War and Liberty," The Scholar's Stage (8 Oct 2010).

[3] This is of course not absolutely true--India's most serious insurgency, the Naxalites, are nominally communist. But the very fact that they are now called Naxalites instead of their official name, CPI-Maoist, is a pretty telling indication of how large a role Marxist or Maoist ideology plays in their operations. 

[4] Gary Brecher, "The War Nerd: The Islamic State and American Narcissm," Pando Daily (12 February 2015). His most recent column about Boko Haram strikes a similar note: "Boko Haram and the Demon Consensus," Pando Daily (28 January 2015).

[5] This is also true, though to a lesser extent, of both the Emerati states (like Qatar) and Pakistan. The Pakistanis are a particularly dangerous lot, because they have the power to export this ideology to India, China, and Central Asia and are actively doing so.

Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din's Gami' at-tawarih. Tabriz (?), 1st quarter of 14th century. 
Source: Wikimedia.
"One day after the suppression of the Sambyeolcho rebellion, the two comrades in arms, Koryo general Kim Pang-kyong and Mongol general Hsintu enjoyed a moment together in Kaeyong. Presently, Hsintu caught a young sparrow and, after playing with it awhile, he clubbed it to death. Then he asked Kim Pang Kyong what he thought of the performance. General Kim said: Hsintu's act would have been for the assuagement of farmer's distress caused by these birds that pecked at the grain. Nay, the Mongol said: the Koreans, like the Chinese, could read and believed in Buddha. They contemptuously looked down at the Mongols as barbarians who made a profession of killing, thinking that heaven would loathe them. But, he continued, the very Heaven bestowed it upon the Mongols, therefore they simply accepted it, and Heaven would not regard killing as a sin. That was the reason why Koreans were now made to serve Mongols."

-Wanne J. Joe, Traditional Korea: A Cultural History, rev. ed. (Seoul: Hollym Corp, 1997), 207.


T. Greer, The Scholar's Stage (6 November 2013)

T. Greer, The Scholar's Stage (18 December 2014)

In the December issue of International Studies Quarterly Paul Avey and Michael Desch published one of the more interesting articles to come from an academic international relations journal in a long while. For the last few years there has been a rather voracious debate within social science generally and political science specifically about whether or not the scholars who study these things have been producing scholarship that can be used by the men and women charged with crafting policy. Dr. Avery and Desch jump into his debate with a rather innovative approach: mass interviews and questionnaires asking policy makers what they actually think of social scientists and how they use the research social scientists produce. A full list of the people surveyed is included on pages 6-7 of their paper; it is focused on foreign policy makers, including everyone from the Secretary of State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of the CIA down to the undersecretaries of the various State and Defense Department regional offices.

As may be expected, most of the commentary on this study has been written by political science professors and grad students about how the results of these surveys can be used to perfect their own teaching programs. More interesting to me is the picture the survey paints of America's policy-making elite. These are the folks who decide or implement American foreign policy. Who are they and how do they learn about their world?

The study begins with a basic demographic breakdown of the group:

 These officials surveyed had all served in the Bush or Clinton administrations. Commenting on the demographic profile of the group, Avey and Desch note:
The youngest respondent was 32 while the average age was 59. The vast majority were also white (90%) and male (85%). Fully 85% had some form of post-graduate training. We weighted the survey pool toward high-level officials and those with direct policy-making responsibilities. The respondent demographics reflected this fact; 59% reported their primary job responsibility as policy -making / policy advice and a plurality (44%) described their highest rank in the U.S. government as Senate confirmable policy or department/agency leader. The average length of government service was 24years. The greatest diversity came from the respondent’s primary disciplinary background, though nearly a third of respondents (30%) received their primary training in international affairs. [1]
 A majority of these officials would have been born in the late 1950s, graduated with their undergrad diploma some time in the late '70s and finished their post-graduate training in the '80s. I'll come back to this fact later in our discussion of the survey's results. But first I'd like to discuss what I thought were the study's two most interesting figures:

 Here is what Avey and Desch have to say about this data::
Figures 16 and 17 show that the most important sources of information for policymakers are classified information and newspapers. This makes sense in terms of the unique resources inside government and also the limited time policymakers have to read outside materials. It is striking, however, that policymakers find newspapers as useful as classified information, lending more credence to the widely recognized--if seldom acknowledged --fact that most policy is made based upon open sources. Conversely, and also not surprisingly, books (both scholarly and trade) and television and radio do not rank as highly as sources of we discuss this group's relationship. [2]
Dr. Avey and Dr. Desch are interested in how decision makers assess different information sources because they are searching for ways that academics can get their results onto the desks of decision makers (their conclusion is academics who want the powers that be to listen to them need to be writing more op-eds for major newspapers). I am interested in the topic because understanding how American strategists know what they know about the world is critical to understanding why the American government does what it does in the world. [3]

The one thing that sticks out to me from these results is that American policy makers do not read books.

Some books are surely read, of course, but the harsh truth of the matter is that between their professional responsibilities and the reading burden posed by simply keeping up with current affairs most people charged with crafting American strategy do not have the time to read very many real books. The knowledge they gain from what they read during their policy-making years will be broad, but it is probably not deep.

For some areas this is to be expected--ISIS has hardly been around long enough for many monographs to be written about it. But books upon books about counter-insurgency and terrorism, Islamic millenarian ideology, contemporary Near Eastern society, and the region's history have been written.  Many of these books, especially those with a historical bent, cannot be reduced to a power-point slide briefing or a New York Times op-ed. And if readers of The Stage have learned anything from reading this blog, it should be that the historical and cultural context of our adventures abroad matter. We lose wars when our strategists do not know realize this, and much more besides.

One cannot take this condemnation too far. There is a real limit to what you can expect policy-makers to master. No man can be an expert in all domains and it is too much to expect the Secretary of State to read three or four histories of a troublesome country every time a new crisis begins. Back when John Quincy Adams was America's premiere grand strategist and it took several weeks for letters to cross the Atlantic it was feasible for statesmen to pull off a reading spree before the trouble was over. This is too much to expect of senior policy makers in this era, who are not only expected to make time in their schedules for fancy photo ops and jet trips across the world, but often must react to crises minutes and seconds after they occur. It is a wonder these men read anything at all.

If the American strategist of 2015 has a deep base of historical, cultural, and scientific knowledge to draw on to guide the decisions he makes this is because he acquired this knowledge base before he was a senior policy maker. You can actually see hints of this in the survey data--Avey and Desch asked policy makers to list the living international relations scholars they thought had the greatest influence on actual policy making. Along with scholars-turned-officials (e.g. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anne-Marie Slaughter) and public intellectuals (e.g. Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria) were a list of men whose scholarly apogee was twenty to thirty years ago, back when our policy makers were undergrads! (Funnily enough many of these men--Samuel Huntington, Albert Wohlstetter, Hans Morgenthau--are not only past their scholarly prime, but are no longer alive!)  Those who rose to prominence after 1995 barely register. [3]

One of the lessons we can draw from this is that the books and material we expect American students to read and master in the early stages of their life will have an outsized influence on the knowledge they will possess in their old age. Today's strategists survive off of what they learned when they were in school forty years ago. [4] Absent dramatic changes in the life style of government officials or unforeseen technological developments, the policy-makers crafting strategy in 2040 will be working off of the knowledge base they are building from the books they are reading right now


[1] Michael Desch and Paul Avey,  "What Do Policy Makers Want From Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former Senior National Security Decision Makers," International Studies Quarterly, 54, no. 4 (2014), 8

[2] ibid., 27

[3] One could argue that this is because academic fashion has been moving away from theories or approaches that can be used "practically." There is something to this, but I do not think it can explain everything here. James Fearon, for example, is the author of the most elegant and cogent formal model of political behavior I have yet encountered--long term readers know I am usually quite hostile to such models--and its relevance to contemporary discussion of war and peace is immediately apparent to all who read it.

[4] Of course, actual experience is a school of its own sort, and its lessons are perhaps more valuable than anything that might be found in a book, especially when policy makers are asked to resolve momentary crises on a dime. I expect that the type of background knowledge gained from the serious study of books would be most useful when planning for longer time lines--in essence, when decisions must be made at the strategic level. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, where we see the greatest deficiencies today.


Posted by T. Greer in , ,

"Examination hall with 7500 cells," Guangdong (1873).
Image Source.

"Gifted as you are and coming from an illustrious family,” said Ma Zhunshang, “you should have passed the examinations long ago. How is it that you are still in retirement?” “Since my father died early I was brought up by my grandfather and occupied with family business: I had no time to study for the civil service.”

“That was a mistake. Right from ancient times all the best men have gone in for the civil service. Confucius, for instance, lived during the Spring and Autumn Period when men were selected as officials on the strength of their activities and sayings. That is why Confucius said: 'Make few false statements and do little you may regret, then all will be well.' That was the civil service of Confucius' time.

“By the time of the Warring States, the art of rhetoric had become the road to officialdom: that is why Mencius traveled through Qi and Liang delivering orations to the princes. That was the civil service of Mencius' time.

“By the Han Dynasty, the examination system was designed to select men for their ability, goodness and justice; and thus men like Gongsun Hong and Dong Zhongshu were appointed to office. That was the civil service of the Han Dynasty.

“By the Tang Dynasty, scholars were chosen for their ability to write poetry. Even if a man could talk like Confucius or Mencius, that would not get him a post; so all the Tang scholars learned to write poems. That was the civil service of the Tang Dynasty.

“By the Song Dynasty, it was even better: all the officials had to be philosophers. That was why the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi propagated neo-Confucianism. That was the civil service of the Song Dynasty.

“Nowadays, however, we use essays to select scholars, and this is the best criterion of all. Even Confucius, if he were alive today, would be studying essays and preparing for the examinations instead of saying, 'Make few false statements and do little you may regret.' Why? Because that kind of talk would get him nowhere: nobody would give him an official position. No, the old sage would find it impossible to realize his ideal.”

--Wu Jingzi, The Scholars (儒林外史), chapter XIII, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2005),173-4.
See also:

"“Meritocracy” is not what you think: don’t forget about the “ocracy”"
Andrew Gelman. The Monkey Cage (13 July 2014).

"Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (1 July 2013)

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


"The State of Consumer Technology at the End of 2014"
Ben Thompson, Stratechery (16 December 2014).

One of the defining characteristics of the three major epochs of consumer computing – PC, Internet, and mobile – is that they have been largely complementary: we didn’t so much replace one form of computing for another insomuch as we added forms on top of each other.1 That is why, as I argued in Peak Google, many of the major tech companies of the last thirty years haven’t so much been disrupted as they have been eclipsed by new companies built during new epochs. All of the attention and relevance in tech especially is focused on emerging and growing companies, even as mature giants reap massive profits.
Every epoch has had four distinct arenas of competition that emerge in order:
  • The core technology
  • The operating system (i.e. the means by which the core technology is harnessed)
  • The killer use case for:
    • Work/Productivity
    • Communication
Certainly computers can be used for more than work/productivity or communication, but those two use cases are universal and lead to the biggest winners and most important companies....
Ben Thompson's "Stratechery" is such a magnificent blog I am surprised I had never heard of it before. I discovered it last week and have been binge-reading through the archives since. Thompson's topic of choice is business strategy in the consumer tech market. I suspect his posts will appeal to two types of readers here at the Stage: those interested in futuristics and the way technological change has and will yet change the structure of the global economy, and those interested in strategic thought and theory. 

Comparisons between military science and business strategy rub some folks the wrong way. I am not one of them. In an oligopolic market business strategy is much more than branding; economists model the strategic interaction between oligopolic firms with many of the same game theory models security professionals use to describe international relations. When  tech giants are involved it quickly becomes a zero-sums competition much crueler than most of today's politics. The topic is worth your attention.

I found the following Stratechery posts to be particularly thought provoking: :"Why Uber Fights," "Peak Google," "Xiaomi's Ambition" "How Technology is Changing the World (P&G Edition)," and "Newspapers are Dead: Long Live Journalism."

"The Quiet German: The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel"
George Packer, New York Review of Books (1 December 2014).


"Horrifying Civil Liberties Predictions for 2015"
Radley Balko, Washington Post (30 December 2014).

 I'll ruin the surprise ending: everything on this list happened in 2014. It is a damning list.

"The Great Civil Military Freakout"
Adam Elkus, Rethinking Security (31 December 2014)

"The Scariest Explanation for America's Vast Prison Population: We Want it That Way"
Jakub Wrzesniewski, Pacific Standard (6 January 2015).


"Criticizing the “Low-Key” Approach: Chinese Responses to the DPRK Soldier-Murderer in Yanbian"
Adam Cathcart,  SinoNK (6 January 2014)

Mr. Cathcart's analysis here is really top notch; he also translates a Global Times editorial on the murders. This should be read by everyone following Sino-North Korean relations, of course, but also anybody who has ever used or plans to use the Global Times as a source for their own analysis.

"Regulating the Fourth Estate With China"
Kaiser Kuo with Daniela Stockmann, Sincica Podcast (December 2014).

Strongly recommend listening to this one. Westerners tend to throw about a great deal of nonsense when it comes to describing the relationship between Chinese public opinion, the Party, and the media. This should help dispel a lot of the confusion. Dr. Stockmann's book also looks like it is worth reading.

"Chinese Special Ops: Not Like Back at Bragg"
Dennis Blasko, War on the Rocks (1 January 2015)

"Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory"
Brook Lamer, New York Times (31 December 2014).

"A Family Divided: The CPC's Ethnic Work Conference"
James Lebold, The China Brief, vol 14, iss 12 (November 2014)

"Chinese Media Compiles Top Internet Memes For 2014"
"Joe," ChinaSMACK (16 December 2014).


"'State Capacity' and Sino-Japanese Divergence"
"Pseudoerasmus", Pseudoerasmus (8 December 2014).
Why China did not industrialise before Western Europe may be a tantalising and irresistible subject, but frankly it’s a parlour game. What remains underexplored, however, is the more tractable issue of why Japan managed, but China failed, to initiate an early transition to modern growth and convergence with the West....
This piece is worth reading for the graphics included alone.

And since we are on the topic of excellent graphics created and used by Pseudoerasmus, might as well throw out this tweet as well:

"Samurai, Bushido, and Death, pt. I" and "Samurai, Bushido, and Death, pt. 2" 
Samurai Archives Podcast, Bonus Ep. #6 (5 & 20 November 2014).

They also have what looks like a promising episode out on the economics of the Edo Period, but I have not listened to it yet.


"Populations, Not Nations, Dictate Development"
Dietz Vollrath, The Growth Economics Blog (2 January 2014).

"Why Cultural Evolution is Real (and What it Is)"
"BirgusLatro," Carcinization (22 November 2014).

"Why Do They Leave?"
John Gee, Forn Poll Fira (29 December 2014).

Why do millennials leave the faith of their childhood? The post is written with a focus on the LDS (Mormon) experience, but the data analyzed is not Mormon specific.


"Explaining Pakistan's Confidence"
Myra McDonald, War on the Rocks (10 December 2014).
It is worth considering another possibility. What if the United States is wrong in its assumption that Pakistan’s reliance on Islamist militant proxies is primarily a reflection of its insecurity about India? Since 2001, U.S. policies have been driven by the idea that Pakistan nurtured Islamist militants in response to the insecurity it felt after its defeat by India in the 1971 war, which turned then East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Washington’s objective, therefore, has been to convince Pakistan to turn its back on Islamist militants while fretting about Pakistani domestic stability were it to force Islamabad/Rawalpindi to go after them too abruptly. In other words, it has focused on Pakistan’s insecurity. Thus as early as November 2001, just two months after the September 11 attacks, the United States allowed Pakistan to fly out an unknown number of Taliban fighters, along with Pakistani officers and intelligence operatives, from the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in order to bolster the position of then military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Later, it assumed that Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban was at least partly in response to rising Indian influence in Afghanistan. Thus in his 2008 election campaign, then candidate Barack Obama suggested the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute in order to let Pakistan focus on tackling militants; thereby helping to end the Afghan war. Those hopes – which had aggravated India which resents outside interference in Kashmir – disappeared with the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

What if it were the other way around – that the Islamist project came first and insecurity about India either provided the excuse and/or was the result?

"Rainsy Celebrates 1 Million Followers on Facebook"
Ouch Sony and Alex Willemyns, Cambodia Daily (17 December 2014).

To put that into proper context: Cambodia only has 15 million people. About 1 in 15 Cambodians follow Sam Rainsy's facebook page.

I am fascinated with how central Facebook is to Cambodia's political culture. The readers of Facebook feeds like "I Love Cambodia Hot News" simply dwarf the circulation of the country's largest daily, Rasmei Kampuchea (to say nothing of its English papers, Phonm Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily). Rallies and protests are all organized through Facebook; folks like 18 year old Thy Sovantha (200,000+ followers) use the medium to become over-night political stars.

People talk about how countries in the developing world have "leap-frogged" fixed-line infrastructure of the 20th century (like telephone lines) and jumped straight to the technology of the 21st century (like cell phones).  I think something very similar is happening in Cambodia with social media.

 There is a great long-form story here for any reporter ambitious enough to track the details down 

"Survey of Global Perceptions of International Leaders and World Powers"
Tony Saich, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation (December 2014).

 Xi Dada is the most popular leader in the world.

"Abenomics 2.0: Just What Are They Trying to Achieve?"
Edward Hughs, Fistful of Euros (7 November 2014).


"Simulating the Senate: Classics Course Immerses Students in Roman History and Government"
Abby McBride, Bowdoin in the News (3 May 2013).

This is brilliant--quite possibly the best designed undergraduate level history class I have ever seen. Full syllabus here. There must be a way to do the same thing with imperial China.

"Seismicity and Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin"
Michael Burley, East By Southeast (23 December 2014).

For Geology nerds.


Victor Mair's translation of the Sunzi Bingfa.

Image Source.
When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi's Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames' translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group's translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair's translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer's translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came--the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzi from the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi's historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi's vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical.

My thoughts on this topic  have been prompted by an excellent essay by Andrew Seth Meyer. Dr. Myer is a specialist in ancient Chinese thought and classical Chinese philology. He spent most of the last decade engaged in a multi-author translation of the Huainanzi; the essay in question is Meyer's introduction to the Huainanzi chapter  "An Overview of the Military." The Huainanzi was written several centuries after the Sunzi, compiled under the direction of Liu An, uncle to the young Han emperor Han Wudi. The book was intended to be an encyclopedic handbook on governance, containing chapters on every topic Liu An and his team of writers thought Han Wudi might possibly need to master in order to govern the realm. The entire book is fascinating and for anyone interested in the history of the Former Han Dynasty, Chinese political philosophy, or Daoism it is necessary reading. For those daunted by its thousand page length an abridged version of the translation was published two years ago, and several of its chapters have been published as independent books, including its chapter on military methods, "An Overview of the Military."

Meyer's essay is the introduction of this last book, which is published under the title The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War. To understand what the Huainanzi has to say about war, Meyer suggests, you must first understand the works it was hoping to synthesize and supplant. That means taking a hard look at the Sunzi.

The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical--at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China's old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi's assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:
The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]
To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China's oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:
The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]
Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:
[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing (兵), does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]
The Sunzi's insistence that military methods were more important to the state's survival than sacrifice was not merely radical--it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King's return to his clan's ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:
King Wu had pursued and campaigned in the four directions. In all, there were 99 recalcitrant countries, 177,779 ears taken registered, and 310,230 captured men…King Wu then sacrificed in the Zhou temple the ears taken of the many countries declaring, “Reverently I, the young son, slaughter six oxen and slaughter two sheep. The many states are at an end." He reported in Zhou temple, saying, “Of old I have heard that my glorious ancestors emulated the standards of the men of Shang, with the dismembered body of Zhou, I report to Heaven and to Ji. [7]
Meyer comments on the significance of this account in regards to Sunzi:
From this perspective warfare was not merely a ritual but the sacred template on which all other forms of ritual were in some sense based..... In Bronze age, victory began and ended in ancestor temples; “the victory was to be reported to the ancestors and the fruits of the battlefield offered up to them in a culminating round of sacrifices. War was, form beginning to end, a sacred devotional act, one to which bloodshed (as evidenced by the offering of severed ears) was indispensable….

From this early aristocratic perspective, the maxim for which the Sunzi is perhaps most famous, “to achieve one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not supreme excellence, to reject battle and yet force the submission of the enemy troops is is the supreme excellence" is worse than nonsensical, it is offensive. To take up arms without shedding blood was sacrilege in the world of Bronze Age aristocrat. The Sunzi’s standard of excellence (like so much else in the text) plays havoc with the normative categories of the aristocratic ethos.

...Where [this] aristocratic ethos located many of the benefits of warfare in a transcendent, spiritual dimension, the Sunzi insists that all assessments of military outcomes be made in purely material terms. “Move only in accord with profit and stop if no profit is to be had.” The character translated here as “profit.” Li (利) was unambiguous in it semantic implications. It represents a stalk of grain being cut by a knife and thus it could be confused with any of the more intangible goods exalted in the spirit cult. Where King Wu could not be imagine refusing his ancestors the ears of the fallen, the Sunzi would much rather have both the ears and the living soldiers attached to them pressed into the service of the commander and his sovereign.(emphasis added). [8]

Dr. Meyer carries on this way for some time, comparing passages in the Sunzi to statements found in the Analects, Mengzi, Zuo Zhuan, Book of Documents and other texts of  great antiquity (regrettably, the complete discussion is too long to copy in total here). His point is demonstrated throughout: the Sunzi was not just sign-post or a byproduct of the transition between the social order of the Spring and Autumn Period and the age of the Warring States -- it was a revolutionary attack on the old social order itself. Many of the Sunzi's concerns and preoccupations are difficult to understand (or see!) without knowledge of  the ideas and attitudes it was attempting to displace.

Mortimer Adler is famous for describing the famous books of Western civilization as a "great conversation." [9] This post should give readers a sense of how the "great conversation" of ancient Chinese thought began. The material compiled by the makers of the Sunzi was but one voice in this conversation--though it was a voice so compelling that it would totally displace the ritualized and aristocratic views of war that preceded it. However, it would not be the final voice of the Chinese strategic tradition. In the age of Warring States no philosopher or political theorist could avoid discoursing on war and political survival. Many of these thinkers--legalists like Shang Yang and Han Feizi, realist Confucians like Xunzi and Jia Yi, or the Huang-Lao Daoists who compiled the Huainanzi--developed cogent and often sweeping critiques of the Sunzi's stratagems. Arguably it was by disregarding the Sunzi's maxims entirely in favor of the theories of the Sunzi's critics that the statesmen of Qin were able to end the era of Warring States and unite all of China.

The popularity and influence of these various schools and perspectives would rise and fall over the course of Chinese history. This notion of a "great conversation" is helpful for understanding these intellectual transitions. Too much scholarly effort has been devoted to searching for a single Chinese or Asian "way of warfare" that can be found throughout Chinese history when the messy reality is that the Chinese strategic tradition is made up of many divergent voices. From this cacophony Chinese statesmen and generals are free to pull out the strands that best fit their needs and inclinations. Make no mistake: though no longer the radical voice in this conversation the Sunzi is still a powerful one. Yet it is still one voice among many. Our understanding of the Sunzi and the strategic tradition it has come to embody is often best served by paying closer attention to these other voices. 


[1] The original version is even more sparse--with normal 12 point font and single-space breaks, I can fit the entire text onto a nine page Microsoft Word document.

Roger T. Ames, The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China) (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 101-172; Ralph Sawyer, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 157-187; Denma Translation Group, The Art of War: Translation, Essays, and Commentary (Boston: Shambhala, 2009), 1-66; Victor H. Mair, The Art of War: Sunzi's Military Methods.

Before anyone asks--yes these are the only four Sunzi translations worth buying. The rest are not worth their cost. I am completely convinced the old Lionel Giles version ought to be burnt on sight.  

[2] I am hardly the first to express this idea. I am surprised, however, at how much resistance I have encountered when I express it. After all, who in their right mind discusses Plato or The Federalist Papers or even Clausewitz without also discussing the historical context and intellectual milieu in which these authors wrote? I suspect that the only reason so many acknowledge that one should understand the Athenian polis, enlightenment advances, etc. to truly understand these thinkers but are unwilling to recognize the same thing about the Sunzi is that they know very little about ancient Chinese thought or history and are not comfortable admitting it.

[3] This is the approach I took in the post "From Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?" The Scholar's Stage (9 April 2014). Most scholarly attempts to do the same inevitable come back to Mark Edward Lewis' Sanctioned Violence in Ancient China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 97-104, who did it best. His book also contains the best description of the social and political changes that swept the Chinese kingdoms during the warring states generally.

[4]  Andrew Seth Meyer, "Introduction," in The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War, trans. Andrew Seth Meyer and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 8.

[5] ibid. Those looking for the original Zuo Zhuan passage should see B8.13.2/209/19 – year 13 Duk Cheng Lu (573bc).

[6] ibid., 8-9 

[7] Translated in Edward Shaughnessy, " "New" Evidence of the Zhou Conquests," Early China, vol 6 (1981–82), 66–67.

[8] Meyer, Dao of the Military, 11, 13.

[9] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1