Image Source.

As much of the material here at The Stage narrates the history of Chinese warfare, diplomacy, and strategic thought or analyzes contemporary Chinese politics and international relations, I am occasionally asked a question that goes something like this: "Mr. Greer, if you had to recommend one book to help me understand how the United States should respond to the rise of China, what would it be?"

The question is a good one. My answer always surprises: historian Kenneth Pyle's Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose.

The choice seems odd, but only because of a flawed set of assumptions Americans bring to the table when U.S.-Sino relations are up for discussion. In the midst of her first bid for the presidency Hillary Clinton succinctly affirmed the worst of these errors. Said she:
“Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.” [1]  
In writing this Mrs. Clinton spoke for much of America's foreign policy establishment. Alas, the popularity of this idea does not prove its truth. The central problem with this declaration is that U.S.-Sino relations do not occur in a vacuum. By design Washington's political and military relationship with Beijing is filtered through an East Asian alliance system built at great cost by American soldiers and statesmen. The hub of this system is Japan. Because of this America cannot have a purely bilateral relationship with China; the road to Beijing run through Tokyo. America’s challenge in the early years of the 21st century is to manage this trilateral relationship.

Those who reflect on the history of American dealings in Asia will see the value of this approach. Sunzi’s famous dictum, “know your enemies” is sound advice [2], but the recurring lesson of the American historical experience is slightly different: know your friends. America’s allies have caused her more harm than most of her enemies ever managed. The United States did not defeat the Japanese Empire in the Second World War because American decision makers had a nuanced understanding of Japanese culture, society, and politics. In contrast, Americans' inability to grasp the real motivations of war time allies like Stalin, Mao, and Chiang Kai-Shek meant America ‘lost the peace’ in many theaters once the war was over. [3] Likewise, America’s travails in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq had much less to do with damage inflicted by America’s sworn enemies than by a failure to perceive where the interests of our friends in Baghdad, Rawalpindi, and Saigon diverged from our own. It is possible to completely obliterate an enemy without ever truly understanding him. Working effectively with allies is trickier.  Effective alliances do not rely on coercion, but coordination and communication. It is difficult—if not impossible—to act in concert with an ally if you do not first become familiar with their culture, understand the constraints domestic politics places on them, and gain a keen sense for how they perceive their own interests.

The trouble is that there are very few Americans who understand--or even care--about how the Japanese define their national interests. Dr. Pyle puts it nicely in the first pages of Japan Rising: “the Japanese have historically been poor communicators, and few U.S. leaders have had the interest, much less the background, to understand the intricacies of Japanese culture.” For Americans, Japan remains “a puzzle.” [4]  Despite the number of policy documents and official pronouncements declaring that "Japan is the keystone of the U.S. involvement in Asia,” or that America and Japan share a “a special relationship” [5], there is little evidence that American policy makers and strategists account for Japanese perceptions and interests when charting the course of Sino-American relations. To see the extent of our problem one only needs to dip into the burgeoning debate over "Offshore control," "AirSea Battle,"  and other strategic and operational concepts designed to aid the United States in a contest of arms in the west Pacific. Those debating the merits of these concepts often include nuanced discussion of how both the general public and the decision making elites of China and America might respond to the success or failure of these proposed campaigns. It is much harder to find any serious analysis of how Japanese leaders would react to the same scenarios, or what decisions their populace might compel them to make. [6]

This is despite the fact that no American initiative in Northeast Asia can succeed without Japan's full cooperation. We must remember that everything America does in its relations with China and the Koreas will have an immediate impact upon Japan’s security and its geopolitical position. If Americans do not understand (or bother to think) about how the Japanese perceive changes in U.S. strategy then there is real risk that Japanese statesmen will—unintentionally or by design—undermine American undertakings.

Thus the importance of Japan Rising. I will not give a full summary of the book here, for other reviewers have done this already and have done a fairly good job of it. For our purposes it is enough to say that Japan Rising traces the history of Japanese foreign policy from the time of the Meiji Restoration to the present day, searching for consistent patterns and themes that recur across the modern era. Pyle disagrees with the many commenters that emphasize the liberal, pacifist ethos of contemporary Japanese culture and who suggest that this will mark Japan’s approach to international crises in the future. He also argues against those that characterize Japanese society as inherently irrational and unpredictable, defined by random vacillations from one extreme to another. In Dr. Pyle's eyes the last 200 years of Japanese history have actually shown a remarkable consistency. He describes Japanese statecraft as the product of a conservative and hyper-realist political culture that puts the demands of foreign politics above domestic concerns and takes an unabashedly opportunist approach to improving Japan’s position in the international system. The statesmen who practice this art are acutely aware of which way international winds are blowing. Their actions do not stem from any deap-seated values or ideological constructs except a Machiavellian impulse to adapt to the world as it is instead of trying to forge a new world in their own image. Thus the Japanese leadership stands ready to abandon anything—ideologies, alliances, the entire political order their society is built upon, if necessary—that might stop them from adapting to a changing world and attaining a promised place in a new global order.

Not everyone will be convinced by Pyle's arguments. I am not convinced by all of them. But they are the kinds of arguments every American concerned with the United States future relations with China or the Koreas needs to think deeply about. Reading Japan Rising will force them to do so.  This is why I surprise friends hoping I will point them to another book on China. Figuring out whether Pyle's vision of Japanese statecraft is correct or whether the other paradigms described above come closer to the truth should be a central priority of American diplomats, statesmen, and citizens. American policy cannot succeed if the United States and Japan are working at cross purposes. If the United States wants to get its China policy “right” it must get its Japan policy right first.

I suspect that some of my readers will find this argument disconcerting. Much of what I write attempts to make Chinese history, society, and politics understandable to those without any experience in the East Asia.  Many readers attracted to this site are themselves "China hands" who have made this task a professional pursuit. Such efforts are noteworthy and laudable. As a China hand myself, it is not surprising that I agree with the common  lament that there are not enough Americans with a nuanced understanding of Chinese culture and that those who have this understanding should be taken more seriously by the powers that be. The problem is real. But it is not dire. Given how parochial the American people are (and ever shall be) we have actually not done too bad on this count. These days even rural American grade schools offer classes in Chinese, while new, fancy initiatives to help the next generation of leaders become familiar with China (like the Schwarzman Scholars) are set up every month.  Efforts like these will only increase in size and number as we move into the future. We live in an age where ambitious make their way to Beijing.

 Far fewer make their way to Tokyo. Herein lies my concern. If the China hands are under-appreciated, the Japan hands are unknown. Few are the programs that teach Japanese or to send young American businessmen and scholars to Japan. No one talks about how critical the U.S.-Japanese relationship is to the 21st century, nor how it will be the key to preserving global peace and stability. There is no recognition that Americans need a deep understanding of how their closest allies in East Asia think. But we do need this understanding, the decisions made in Tokyo will decide the future of peace and stability in East Asia, and for the moment there is no country more critical to the success of American strategy than Japan. The lack of attention Americans pay to Japanese affairs is troublesome. In the long run it may prove disastrous. 

See also: T. Greer, "It is Time to Talk Honestly About the U.S.-Japanese Alliance," The Scholar's Stage (10 August 2014).


[1] Hilary Rodham Clinton, “Security and Opportunity in the 21st Century,” Foreign Affairs (September 2007).

[2] Sunzi Bingfa, ch. 3

[3] S.C.M. Paine admirably describes both how Americans were able to defeat the Japanese despite their ignorance of Japanese culture (or even Japanese war aims) and how a failure to understand the interests and intent of her Russian and Chinese allies doomed the United State's efforts to establish a peaceful post war order in East Asa in The Wars For Asia: 1911-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). I've said it before, I will say it again: everybody should read this book.

[4] Kenneth Pyle, Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose (Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs Books, 2007), 15, 1.

[5] ibid., 350

[6] The literature on this question is voluminous. I will only provide here a few select examples of pieces I thought were particularly insightful--but which nonetheless downplayed Japan's role as an independent decision maker. See Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jim Thomas, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, May 2010); Douglas Pfeiffer, “China, the German Analogy, and the AirSea Operational Concept,” Orbis (Winter 2011); T.X. Hammes, Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict (National Defense University Strategic Forum, June 2012); Elbridge Colby, "Don't Sweat AirSea Battle," National Interest (31 July 2013); Sean Mirksi, "Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct, and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China," Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 3 (2013); Evan Montgomery, "Reconsidering a Naval Blockade of China: A Response to Mirski," Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 4 (2013); Amitai Etzioni, "AirSea Battle: A Dangerous Way To Deal With China," The Diplomat (3 September 2013); Bill Dries, "How to Have a Big Disastrous War With China" National Interest (27 June 2014); Robert Klein, "Keeping a Large War Small: Offshore Control Vs. Airsea Battle? The Case For Area Denial," Small Wars Journal (5 November 2015); Mark Morris, "Air-Sea Battle Vs. Offshore Control: Which Offers a Better Theory of Victory?War on the Rocks (26 November 2014); Robert Haddock, "The Struggle for a Strategy," Proceedings 141, no. 1 (January 2015). 


Posted by T. Greer in ,

I ask my readers to excuse me for the relative dearth of posts over the last month or two. The back log of posts is reaching intolerable levels, but it cannot be helped. In two weeks I will be moving away from the Hawaiian islands. Preparation for this move has swallowed up most of the free time I would normally devote to posting here--or engaging with the questions commentators have posed in recent threads. Things will be more settled at the end of April, at which point posting should continue at a more regular pace.

 I shall be leaving Oahu on April 15th and will spend the rest of that week (to the 20th) in Chicago. For at least a month afterwards I shall be living in Northern Utah. If there are any readers who  live in the Chicago metro or along the Wasatch Front and would like to meet up, feel free to send me a message via the Scholar's Stage e-mail on the right. 

P.S. Other readers are welcome to consider this an "open thread" where they are free to discuss anything they would like (or anything they would like to bring to my attention). Suggestions on how I could improve the quality of this site are always welcome. Once things are settled down my goal is to post at least twice a week. I am also considering posting more short posts of this sort--that is, interesting excerpts from the books and articles I read that do not need detailed commentary on my part to be worth sharing.

Health ≠ Wealth  

Posted by T. Greer in , , , ,

Jun Fujita, "National Guardsmen Questioning African American, 1919,"
 1919, Photograph, Chicago Historical Society Archives. Chicago. 
 Image Source.
A week or so ago I came across  a short Pacific Standard column by Jim Russel on Twitter. The article highlights a new paper by economists Dan Black, Seth Sanders, Evan Taylor, and Lowell Taylor on the early twentieth century "Great Migration" of African Americans away from Dixie to new homes in northern urban centers. Over the last few decades the ins and outs of this migration have been studied by a host of historians, sociologists, demographers, and economists. The general consensus among these researchers is that the African American population that migrated north was both more wealthy and more educated than the population left behind, and that their wealth increased even more (vis a vis those who stayed) after they resettled. Dr. Black et. al. do not challenge this general picture; indeed, they present quite a bit of independent evidence confirming it. However, their paper adds one wrinkle to the story: the black Americans who traveled in the Great Migration did not only die wealthier--they died sooner.

The paper's University of Chicago press release described Black et. al's results in the following terms:
UChicago scholars were part of a study that found if an African American man lived to age 65, his chances of reaching age 70 were 82.5 percent, if he remained in the South. But if he migrated, those chances shrank to 75 percent. For an African American woman who lived to age 65, the likelihood that she would live to 70 in the South were 90 percent but dropped to 85 percent if she migrated.

“Migrants were a self-selected group: Many of them had been preparing all their lives to make the move, and everything suggested they’d be healthier than their counterparts in the South,” said Dan Black, deputy dean and professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies, who co-authored the study. “But it was shocking to learn that, in terms of longevity, the migrants weren’t better off at all.”
Medical records indicate that migrants died at much higher rates from cirrhosis and pulmonary illnesses, which are closely linked to smoking and drinking—bad habits common among city dwellers at the time.
Black said there were other factors as well: chemicals and pollution from factories, higher population density (and, therefore, more contagious diseases), the shock of cold weather, and the stress from discriminatory housing markets and uneven employment prospects. [1]

The entire paper is worth skimming through. [2] Dr. Black and his team discuss the problem of self-selection quite thoroughly and prove to my satisfaction that the lower life expectancy in the north cannot be attributed to self-selection effects. They also demonstrate to my satisfaction that the black migrants who went north were better educated and more wealthy than the population from which they came. This makes the life expectancy numbers even more surprising--usually we think of all three variables as part of a single package.

It will take a bit of leg work to figure out exactly what caused African Americans living in the north to die sooner. Black et. al's suggestion that smoking and alcohol were the root cause is plausible, though more evidence backing this claim up is needed before we call the case closed. I'll let the biological anthropologists and public health specialists sort that out. I bring up the study here because it neatly illustrates a principle germane to the macro-historical debates we regularly have here at the Stage. Namely, "living standards" and wealth are not the same thing.

This topic has been on my mind since I finished Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World last month. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not nearly as bad as its most severe critics make it out to be. Unfortunately for Dr. Pomeranz,  that is a low bar to clear. I agree wholeheartedly with the critics who charge The Great Divergence with serious conceptual and methodological flaws. [3] I was a bit surprised, however, to find a conceptual flaw that none of the big name critics have--to my knowledge--already covered. The problem is found in the book's second section, where Pomeranz marshals a fascinating catalog of statistics to compare  the living standards of Western Europeans and the Chinese of the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas on the eve of the industrial revolution. The data points he list range from infant fatality rates to protein intake to luxury good consumption. For almost every variable the story is the same: the Europeans were no better off (and sometimes worse off) than their Chinese contemporaries. Therefore, Pomeranz implies, during the 18th century the average European could not have been much wealthier than the average Chinese. [4]

This section of the book is built upon the false premise that wealth and the things usually included in standard of living indexes are functional equivalents that more or less move in tandem. [5] The trouble is that this is often not true. Research done since The Great Divergence was published proves the point. Folks like Bozhong Li, economic historian at Hong Kong University of Science and technology, and Jan Luiten van Zanden, historian at Utrech University, have put in the hard work needed to create a more exact measure of proto-Industrial household wealth in Western Europe and China, and have found that families in the Netherlands and Southern England were more than twice as wealthy as those in the Yangtze river delta. [6] As was the case with America's great migration, wealth and living standards simply did not match up.

It is not too difficult to find similar examples across human history. Perhaps the most compelling measurement of living standards are biometric measures of health like height. To simplify matters somewhat, the healthier a population is, the taller it becomes. Historians and anthropologists can thus track the health and physical well being of any community by tracking how heights have changed over time--say by examining skeleton remains or poring through conscription records. It is through this type of research we know that for the last century humankind has been growing taller. In this case wealth and health have followed each other quite closely. But we have also discovered lots of examples were this clearly was not so: paleolithic hunter-gathers were taller than wealthier neolithic farmers [6], Western Europeans jumped several inches after the Roman Empire fell (its wealth fell with it) [7], and most famously of all, heights in England and America fell after the Industrial Revolution began! [8].

Average English soldier heights (in cm), 1730-1850 AD.

Figure 2 in John Komlos, "Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution". Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1988), 781.

There is a temptation to look at these figures and declare that if a word like "wealth" does not include things like health, literacy, or  high quality of life then it is not a meaningful concept at all. I have some sympathy with this view, but I think it mistakes what the physical basis for wealth really is: energy use. I have made this case before and so will not pursue the theme with great detail here except to note that over the grand course of human history energy consumption and economic growth have always been linked and (barring some epochal transition in the mode of production) they always shall be. This is because sustained economic growth occurs when people are able to make more stuff and do more things with less effort--in other words, with less energy. Better diets, disease incidence, or literacy rates are often downstream effects of rising productivity but there is nothing about productivity growth itself that must lead to any of these things.


[1] Wen Huang, "African Americans who fled the South during Great Migration led shorter lives, study finds," UChicago News (26 February 2015).

[2] Dan Black, Seth Sanders, Evan Taylor, and Lowell Taylor, "The Impact of the Great Migration on Mortality of African Americans: Evidence from the Deep South," American Economic Review vol 105, iss. 2 (2015).

[3] An able review of this burgeoning debate is Martin Hewson, “Multi-Cultural vs. Post-Multicultural World History,Cliodynamics: A Journal of Mathematical and Theoretical History, 3, iss. 2 (2012), 1-19.My favorite critique is Peer Vries, "The California School and Beyond: How to Study the Great Divergence?", History Compass, 8 (2010), 739-745.

[4] Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 30-42.

[5] The matter is complicated by the fact that most measures of standard of living--such as the HDI--include GDP per capita as one of its components. The fact that such an index was deemed necessary, however, ia itself evidence that wealth and "development" cannot be used interchangeably!

[6] Bozhong Li and Jan Luiten van Zanden, "Before the Great Divergence? Comparing the Yangzi Delta and the Netherlands at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History 72, iss 04 (2012), 956-989.

[7] Amanda Mummert, Emily Esche, Joshua Robinson, George J. Armelagos, "Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: Evidence from the bioarchaeological record," Economics and Human Biology 9 (2011), 284–301.

[8] Koepke, Nikola and Joerg Baten. “The Biological Standard of Living in Europe During the Last Two Millennia,” European Review of Economic History 9 (2005), 25. Incidentally, Roman heights were taller earlier in the empire's history. See Geoffrey Kron, "Anthropometry, Physical Anthropology, and the Reconstruction of Ancient Health, Nutrition, and Living Standards" , Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, vol 58, iss 1 (2005), pp. 68-83.

[9] John Komlos, "Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution". Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1988): 779-802

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, co-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 Narcisism," 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.

Edit (20 April 2015): The title of this post was changed to make it more appealing on social media. 


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)