01 June, 2018

Moral Hazards and China

Image Source.

Four hundred thousand to one million people in concentration camps.

If these estimates are true,  that means that at least one—and perhaps far more—of every ten Uyghur men lives in a re-education camp right now.

Those numbers come from an article published by the Associated Press two weeks ago. [1] This week's Economist lists a similar tally. It goes on to describe in detail a few of the other things happening in the sands of old Turkestan:
Under a system called fanghuiju, teams of half a dozen—composed of policemen or local officials and always including one Uighur speaker, which almost always means a Uighur—go from house to house compiling dossiers of personal information. Fanghuiju is short for “researching people’s conditions, improving people’s lives, winning people’s hearts”. But the party refers to the work as “eradicating tumours”. The teams—over 10,000 in rural areas in 2017—report on “extremist” behaviour such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan and sporting long beards. They report back on the presence of “undesirable” items, such as Korans, or attitudes—such as an “ideological situation” that is not in wholehearted support of the party.

Since the spring of 2017, the information has been used to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. People are deemed trustworthy, average or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: 15 to 55 years old (ie, of military age); Uighur (the catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity); unemployed; have religious knowledge; pray five times a day (freedom of worship is guaranteed by China’s constitution); have a passport; have visited one of 26 countries; have ever overstayed a visa; have family members in a foreign country (there are at least 10,000 Uighurs in Turkey); and home school their children. Being labelled “untrustworthy” can lead to a camp. 
To complete the panorama of human surveillance, the government has a programme called “becoming kin” in which local families (mostly Uighur) “adopt” officials (mostly Han). The official visits his or her adoptive family regularly, lives with it for short periods, gives the children presents and teaches the household Mandarin. He also verifies information collected by fanghuiju teams. The programme appears to be immense. According to an official report in 2018, 1.1m officials have been paired with 1.6m families. That means roughly half of Uighur households have had a Han-Chinese spy/indoctrinator assigned to them. 
Such efforts map the province’s ideological territory family by family; technology maps the population’s activities street by street and phone by phone. In Hotan and Kashgar there are poles bearing perhaps eight or ten video cameras at intervals of 100-200 metres along every street; a far finer-grained surveillance net than in most Chinese cities. As well as watching pedestrians the cameras can read car number plates and correlate them with the face of the person driving. Only registered owners may drive cars; anyone else will be arrested, according to a public security official who accompanied this correspondent in Hotan. The cameras are equipped to work at night as well as by day. 
Because the government sees what it calls “web cleansing” as necessary to prevent access to terrorist information, everyone in Xinjiang is supposed to have a spywear app on their mobile phone. Failing to install the app, which can identify people called, track online activity and record social-media use, is an offence. “Wi-Fi sniffers” in public places keep an eye, or nose, on all networked devices in range. 
Next, the records associated with identity cards can contain biometric data including fingerprints, blood type and DNA information as well as the subject’s detention record and “reliability status”. The government collects a lot of this biometric material by stealth, under the guise of a public-health programme called “Physicals for All”, which requires people to give blood samples. Local officials “demanded [we] participate in the physicals,” one resident of Kashgar told Human Rights Watch, an NGO. “Not participating would have been seen as a problem…” 
A system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), first revealed by Human Rights Watch, uses machine-learning systems, information from cameras, smartphones, financial and family-planning records and even unusual electricity use to generate lists of suspects for detention. One official WeChat report said that verifying IJOP’s lists was one of the main responsibilities of the local security committee. Even without high-tech surveillance, Xinjiang’s police state is formidable. With it, it becomes terrifying. [2]
Contemplate these things. We are over-due for a moral accounting.

Over the last two years, a substantial part of my income has come through leading reading seminars with Chinese students who will go on to study in American universities. We've read history, philosophy, and literature together. Some of my students have said very nice things to me over these two years. The most flattering compliment any of my students have ever offered me was only given two weeks ago. At the completion of one of the seminars, the student told me that she had never met (nor heard of) an American who was as fair to China as I was. It was a small thing, but coming as it did from one of the seminar's shiest students (and what is more, after grades had been submitted!), it was meaningful to me.  One engages differently with different audiences, of course. I suspect that those who read this blog or my twitter feed will be surprised to hear comments like that; I make no apology for the hard line I take with the Party. But my goal has always been to understand issues as they are seen from the inside, and when the occasion demands it, to articulate them in a way that even the ardent Party faithful would agree with. In some cases this is easy. The Party line on America is actually, in many respects, a far more accurate vision of American foreign policy than many of the things we Americans—left or right—like to tell ourselves. But not all issues are so easy. Still, I try. My student's comment was a small confirmation that my efforts have not completely been in vain.

I take a similar approach to the history we study. I have studied many of the nastiest parts of modern history with my students. Slavery.  Japanese war-mongering. The Holocaust. My approach to these atrocities is simple: it is not enough to empathize with the victims. That is easy. It is also mostly useless. The real challenge is to try and feel the emotions, understand the fears, and take seriously the ideas that lead perpetrators to commit the crimes they did. One must not just sympathize with the tyrannized--one must also try and sympathize with the tyrant.

Why is this necessary? Why focus just as much on the experience and fears of the slaver as the slave? Because you are far more likely to become a slaver than you are to suffer as a slave. In his book on the 14 million people murdered by the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Eastern Europe, historian Timothy Snyder makes this point well:
It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands…Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral....It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. [3]
So one must try and sympathize with the tyrant. But one must not forget what tyranny is.

We see tyranny before us today. To put it bluntly: the Communist Party of China is an enemy to freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. With a small exception to be made (depending on how one counts) for North Korea, there is no greater. No tyranny in human history has ruled more people than the Party does now. But we must be truthful about the nature of this tyranny. Tyranny can be popular. If we are honest we will recognize that many—perhaps even most—of the Party's subjects are quite content being just that: subjects. Not all people cry for freedom.

Xinjiang is different. Here a people is crying. They have been subjected to a new and frightening form of despotism, a terrible marriage of terror and technology. To enforce this new tyranny the Party has imprisoned one out of every twelve to one out of every six adults. Each has been subjected to torture (or the threat of it), insult, betrayal (or the threat of it), and an attack on all they hold sacred.  Each has been plugged into an Orwellian system of surveillance that rates, rewards, and punishes them for everything they do or identify with. There is nothing else in our world like it.

There are moral hazards here.

The hazards have layers. The prison torturer is more culpable that the prison guard, who is more culpable than the bureaucrat next door, who in turn is more culpable than the bureaucrat in a distant province. But each is part of system that keeps the machine of torture and tyranny rolling. Each man might contribute only his mite—but 1.3 billion mites is a heavy yoke to bear.

Yet  it is not just Chinese who add in their mites. Every businessman, every investor, every pundit, and every well-oiled ex-politician must search themselves. Do their words, deeds, or funds help hold up the machine? We cannot say anymore "well that's just Xinjiang" or "most of the Party isn't that bad." There are one million people in concentration camps! Those kind of comments could be allowed a decade ago—but not now. Things are now far too terrible for that.

I leave Beijing shortly. I am fortunate. I will not be a part—even a small little part—of this system any longer. My plans to leave were finalized before these reports were made public, so I cannot claim any special virtue here. But I am glad that I will not need to lose any sleep over being a cog in the infernal machine. I am luckier than most: I have the opportunity to leave. Most Chinese will never be given the chance to escape the moral hazard the Party quite purposefully forces them into.

We—and by we I mean all non-Chinese reading this—do have that chance.

A moral accounting is in order. I don't ask for a witch hunt.  I stand against twitter mobs as a matter of principle. Far better for this to be a matter of private change, not public shame. But for that to happen we need this first step: the recognition that the PRC of 2018 belongs in the same moral category that we placed the USSR in during 1950s. There are those among us who would not imagine supporting the Gulags of that regime, but do not feel so strongly about the Gulags of our own day.  If you are one of these people, the time has come to ask yourself: why? 


[1] Gerry Shih, "China's Mass Indoctorination Camps Evoke Cultural Revolution" Associated Press, May 2018.

[2] "China has turned Xinjiang into a Police State Like No Other" The Economist, 31 May 2018.

[3] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2014),  400.

01 May, 2018

Book Notes — Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction

Antulio Echevarria’s Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is a short and accessible introduction to military strategy, as ‘strategy’ is thought about and debated in American national security circles today. It will be a useful read for many simply as introduction to the terminology of the modern defense intellectual. Echevarria has both the strengths and weaknesses of this class, and I found the historical references he uses to be, in their own way, illuminating. The bulk of these references were to the wars of the Roman Republic and early Empire, Napoleon’s campaigns, the American Civil War, World War II, the French and American failure to crush Vietnamese communists, Cold War deterrence strategies, the Gulf War, and numerous contemporary insurgencies. A slew of other conflicts get a side reference here or there. The only surprises in this list is the dearth of references to those two pillars of realist theory, the First World War and the Peloponnesian War. I suspect the first is omitted because Echevarria wants to dispel the stereotype that attritional warfare must look like so many Sommes; Thucydides is probably left out because Echevarria centers his work on what he labels military strategy, and Thucydides focuses so often on the level of action that Echevarria calls grand strategy. We will return to Echevarria’s distinction between military strategy and grand strategy later on in this post.

A book like this is by its nature a summary of what other thinkers have written and said. Again, Echevarria’s choices on this front are illuminating. His discussion of strategic thought is very much focused on the debates of the current moment. The difference between Echevarria and most of his fellow defense intellectuals is that Echevarria is a great deal more familiar with the origins of the terms and concepts that dominate modern defense discourse than most. He does a swell job of tracing these concepts back to their roots without drowning his readers in a sea of names, dates, and acronyms. Almost all of the foundational strategic theorists—Jomini, Clausewitz, Douhet, Galula, Schelling and so on—get a call out sooner or later. However, Echevarria rarely lets any of these men get the final word, and supplements their theories with the concepts (and occasionally, the controversies) current among American defense intellectuals over the last 40 years. Contrary to my expectations, the names Mahan and Corbett do not appear in this text. The debates that follow from their line of inquiry—is war at sea fundamentally different from war at land, the relationship between geography and strategy, the entire concept of ‘jointness’ and the ghastly pestilence of acronyms spawned because of it—are left unaddressed. Other omissions are less surprising: Sunzi and Mao make appearances, but no other Chinese theorist of war is mentioned, nor are the actual campaigns that Mao took part in (which only occasionally corresponded to his theories) highlighted. Lenin does get a mention, but none of the other 20th century Russian strategists appear. India’s long strategic tradition is unreferenced.

One cannot fit everything into a hundred pages, so these omissions will be excused. But given what is missing, it is interesting to see what Echeveria goes out of his way to include. Entire chapters of the book are devoted to cyber-warfare, “targeted killing” (e.g. drone strikes), and terrorism. While certainly topics of interest to the national security professional, I remain unconvinced that any truly lies in the domain of military strategy. Each of these rests somewhere in those grey mists that separate military operations from the realm of law enforcement or spookery. Whether political assassination is a natural extension of military or spookish operations is a hot topic, of course. An intellectual take like Echevarria’s hides the fact that there is a very real, albeit low-key, turf war being waged between JSOC and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations over just who should be running America’s bomb-‘em-from-above campaigns. Echevarria does not take side in that dispute, but the fact that this dispute exists points to why drones are a relatively prominent part of this book in the first place: cyber-warfare, counter-terrorism, and decapitation strikes are still thorny issues for the American defense intellectuals. Conceptually and institutionally, they are unsettled questions. It is hard to imagine that these questions will stay unsettled. I suspect that in future years these sections will hopelessly date the book.

Another way to make this same point goes like this: though this book is titled Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction, a more accurate title might be something like Concepts Used to Analyze Strategic Problems In Vogue with American Military Thinkers in the Early 21st Century, Along With a Few Thoughts on National Security Controversies of the Last Few Years: A Very Short Introduction. This is not meant as a criticism of the book. It is probably exactly what the vast majority of its readers want. But it does mean this book's content will be far less enduring than it could have been.

In describing Echevarria as something of the ur-American defense intellectual, I fear that I have given the impression that his ideas or his writing are run-of-the-mill. This is not true. Being able to relate complex ideas in plain language is a rare gift. Echevarria has got that gift. His thinking is also razor-sharp. He is an example of the American defense intellectual at his most excellent. But this is, as suggested above, very much a book of the moment. Whether by accident or intent, this book is a neat little summary of what problems the American defense intellectual is thinking about right now and what historical analogies and concepts he or she is using to think through them.

Echevarria’s most important contribution in this book is conceptual. To relate the current state of strategic theory, Echevarria decides to group all possible military strategies into ten basic categories. These categories cut across more traditional conceptions of war (insurgencies vs. wars of maneuver, naval vs. land-based campaigns, total vs. limited wars, etc.) and are not limited to any single era. These basic types are:

  • Strategies of annihilation
  • Strategies of attrition
  • Strategies of dislocation
  • Strategies of exhaustion
  • Strategies of coercion
  • Strategies of deterrence
  • Strategies of terror
  • Strategies of terrorism
  • Strategies of decapitation
  • Strategies of targeted killing

I consider the last four somewhat spurious. Echevarria describes strategies of terror as strategies that make “use of terror to coerce or intimidate” (64) or follows from the premise that “terrorizing the populace should drive [their leaders] to capitulate” (69). By way of example, he includes both the American fire-bombing of Japan and the political assignation campaigns carried out by Algerian nationalists during their war of independence as example of "strategies of terror." However, I fail to see a meaningful distinction between these type of operations and what Echevarria earlier calls “strategies of exhaustion” and “strategies of coercion” (which I will discuss with greater length below). For now it is simply enough to note that the word coerce appears in Echevarria’s own definition of terror-strategies, strongly suggesting that this type of strategy is merely a subset of “strategies of coercion” type he introduces earlier in the book. 

 Targeted killing seems to be a similar sort of category error—depending on the tempo and preciseness with which these operations are being conducted, I don’t see a good reason to classify them as anything but a tactical subset of the first four strategic types. Echevarria himself admits that terrorism may be better understood as a tactic than as a strategy (65), and he probably would have been better off treating it as such.

 I have similar reservations about decapitation strikes and kidnappings, and tend to see them as mirror images terrorist campaigns. One is used by the weak against the strong for the sake of generating publicity, fear, distrust, and discord; the other is used by the strong against the weak for the exact same purposes. As Echevarria’s many case studies using drug cartels and criminal syndicates suggests, it is not clear that either type of violent act truly rests in the province of military strategy. If the "strategy" can be used just as easily by law enforcement agencies and criminals as it can two parties at war, its use as a specifically military strategy is questionable. Al Capone ordered a decapitation strike on mobster rival Dean O’Banion in 1924. Are we ready to call that a military strategy? If so we have reduced the meaning of that word to mere “the use of organized violence to achieve certain ends.” This seems to be broader that Echevarria is willing to go. The fact that military assets are used for these operations is also not sufficient to upgrade these particular acts to military strategy. After all, military assets have also been used to police streets and run medical clinics. If this latter sort of operation does not get its own category of strategy as well, then it is difficult to justify the special attention given to targeted killings, decapitation strikes, and terrorist bombings.

In contrast, the first six categories—annihilation, dislocation, attrition, exhaustion, deterrence, and coercion—are solid. Laying out and defending these categories is the great achievement of this book. The difference between the first four of these strategies might be best explained through a diagram of my own creation:

Strategies of annihilation and strategies of attrition both attempt to force the enemy into accepting one’s will by reducing their physical capacity to resist it. Strategies of annihilation attempt to do this quickly, usually through set-piece battles. For success they rely on the physical destruction of a large percentage of the enemy leadership, army, or populace—a large enough percentage, at least, that future resistance is physically impossible. Echevarria highlights the Napoleon’s 1805 campaign—which ended with the Battle of Austerlitz—and the destruction of the Spanish fleets off of Manila and Santiago Bay in Spanish-American War as examples of this strategy successfully employed. The Battle of Cannae is given as an example of a strategy of annihilation that failed. If a failure to annihilate the enemy force does not lead directly to your own annihilation, the campaign quickly bogs down into a war of attrition.

Echevarria uses the word attrition in the normal sense. A strategy of attrition is an attempt to grind the enemy down bit by bit until they either do not have the men, the money, or the material to keep the fight going. The First World War is the paradigmatic example of this sort of warfare in most folk’s minds, but Echevarria instead chooses to focus on the Allied strategy during the Second World War. He does this, I believe, to dispel the notion that attrition warfare means mad dashes towards enemy machine gun nests. An attritional strategy need not be static. It can require movement and grand maneuver. It can be conducted between fighter planes, armor formations, or submarines. All that matters for a strategy to fall under this rubric is that it does not attempt to create one decisive point upon which the fate of nations turns, and that when the defeat of one of its parties arrives, their collapse comes less from a lack of will than from a lack of the physical capacity to send more soldiers to the front.

Strategies of dislocation and exhaustion focus on the enemy’s will. By fostering awe, surprise, confusion, and shock, a strategy of dislocation aims to disrupt the enemy’s ability to understand the situation on the ground and effectively resist your forces. The key case study here is the Nazi Blitzkrieg through France, which defeated the French while destroying only a small part of the French armed forces. The modern phrase “shock and awe” catches the gist of this sort of strategy perfectly. If strategies of dislocation are the psychological counterpart to strategies of annihilation (both seeking quick decision through overwhelming force), strategies of exhaustion shadow those of attrition. The difference between attrition and exhaustion is that a strategy of exhaustion sets its sights a bit lower: it aims not to slowly destroy the enemy’s physical ability to continue the fight, but their willingness to sacrifice anything more for victory. In some wars, such as the First World War, this is a distinction without a difference. In other wars, however, such as America’s sojourn in South Vietnam, the difference is obvious. The North Vietnamese never had the power to defeat the Americans through attrition. They did have power to exhaust their willingness to stay in the fight.

The last two strategies, that of coercion and deterrence, are mirror images of each other. What sets these strategies apart from those discussed above is their focus on threat. Deterrence seeks to deter an enemy from doing something you do not want them to do by threat of force; coercion seeks to coerce (or compel) an enemy into doing something they would not like to do by threat of force. In each case, military force is used to persuade your opponents that you have the capacity and the willingness to inflict pain upon them—and that the pain you are able and willing to inflict will exceed the pain of complying with your wishes. Because these two strategies focus just as much on the threat of force as its actual use, they are the only two that are exercised in peace-time. In many ways, actual war begins once one of these strategies fails. However, coercion and deterrence can bleed into war itself. War provides an opportunity to prove that one actually does have the capacity to wreck the sort of havoc promised earlier. It also provides the opportunity to show that one can take the wounds the other side can deliver, and thus prove that your own side will not be deterred. As wars stretch on in time, however, the distinction between coercion and exhaustion begins to blur.

These six categories are a useful heuristic, and simply classifying different campaigns into one category is a worthwhile exercise. The Imperial Japanese Navy, for example, had since the time of Tsushima a strong preference for strategies of annihilation. Realizing that complete annihilation of America’s fleets and war-making powers was not possible, they hoped instead to use a strategy of dislocation and deterrence—the hope being that the Americans would be so shocked by the destruction of their Pacific holdings and fleets, and so wary of the cost of recapturing and rebuilding what they had lost, that they would come to the bargaining table instead of risk further battle. As things happened, the Americans instead decided to wage an all-out war of attrition designed to fully dismember the Japanese empire. Once the Japanese Navy was sunk to the bottom, Japan’s only response was to fight a desperate war of exhaustion-cum-deterrence, going to extreme lengths and committing extreme sacrifices to raise the costs of Allied victory. The American decision to use the atomic bombs was a decision to put coercion ahead of attrition, and it, combined with the very real strategy of annihilation being used against the Gwandung Army by the Soviets, convinced the Japanese to capitulate.

I go through this exercise to show that these categories—while compelling—are rougher around the edges than they seem, and a commander may adopt or forsake one approach as circumstances require. A single campaign may actually be simultaneously of different types. Was the Battle of Yorktown, for example, the culmination of a strategy of annihilation or a strategy of exhaustion? The answer depends in large part on whether you view the Yorktown campaign from the perspective of Lord Cornwallis or Lord North.

If you want to see how clarifying this sort of exercise is yourself, consider this question: which of the six types of strategies are American troops in Afghanistan following?

My biggest disappointment with Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is that it downplays the political element of military operations. This is—again—a characteristically American thing to do. I am grateful that Americans enshrine the principle of dividing the civil so strongly from the military, and this reluctance to admit politics into military strategy reflects a real reluctance on the part of military leaders and thinkers to let partisan concerns poison their professionalism. This a good thing. But it leads to some blind spots. This can be seen in the one passage where Echevarria does gesture towards this issue:

Commanders define risk as the likelihood a mission might fail: high risk means high probability of failure. They usually try to reduce risk by increasing resources in some way. In contrast, heads of state view risk as a function of the political capital they might have to invest, or have already invested. Put simply, political capital is the trust and confidence the public has in its leadership. As the commitment of resources (lives and treasure) increases, so too does the risk to political capital. Accordingly, political leaders prefer to keep the resources they commit to a military action, especially human lives, as low as possible (6).
This does a very good job of explaining some tensions in American strategic behavior over the last two decades, but it is hardly a universal rule. It doesn't even describe American military history—Abraham Lincoln was famously impatient with the reticence of his generals, and the Continental Congress was continually frustrated by Washington's slow and inglorious 'Fabian' strategy. In truth, political leaders are often more eager to commit more resources to a military action than military leaders are, and military leaders are often more concerned with explicitly political aims than Echeverria allows. For example, a great deal of Japan’s strategic behavior in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, up to and including the decision to go war with Great Britain and the United States, is most easily understood through the lens of the bureaucratic fight for influence between the Imperial Army, Imperial Navy, and the Planning Board. Simply put, certain enemies were chosen and certain strategies were pursued to ensure that the Navy remained relevant. “Risk” and “failure” in the eyes of these commanders was measured by how much power they held in Japan’s domestic politics. [1] Likewise, more than once an Allied offensive was launched during the First World War to signal commitment to other members of the alliance. [2]

We could continue with these examples for a long time. Defeating the enemy is often a secondary concern of many military operations. Military operations—be they conducted in times of peace or war—may be just as much about bureaucratic infighting, career advancement, demonstrating toughness to domestic audiences, rewarding domestic supporters, forestalling domestic rivals, fostering national unity and purpose, or signaling to allies as they are about defeating an enemy. Echevarria might claim that such concerns fall outside the realm of military strategy—and as you will see below, his definition of military strategy excludes them—but I wish he had taken some time to discuss how domestic concerns will shape the creation and implementation of military strategy. In fact, given how much weight politics is given in his earlier books, I find it mysterious that Echevarria devotes so little attention to it here.  


Echevarria’s definition of “military strategy:”
Military strategy is the practice of reducing an adversary’s physical capacity and willingness to fight, and continuing to do so until one’s aim is achieved (1).
What that means in practice:
Simply put,  that task consists in countering the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of an opponent in ways that make accomplishing one’s purpose ever more likely (ibid).
How this is different from “grand strategy:”
To throw sharper relief on the characteristics of military strategy, we can compare it to what some experts call grand strategy. Military strategy refers to the “business,” or concern, of the general… By comparison, grand strategy can be thought of as the “concern of the head of state” of which the general’s business is but one aspect (3).
Something creators of “national security strategy” documents ought to remember:

What distinguishes a strategy from a plan is the nature of the environment and the presence of an adversary or a rival (6).
Echevarria’s paragraph-length summary of a vast literature on the sources of military power:
The following nine principles appear most frequently in professional military literature:
  1. objective, defining the goal and ensuring every military action contributes toward achieving it;
  2. maneuver, gaining positional advantage;
  3. surprise, attacking one’s foe in an unexpected manner
  4.  mass, concentrating military power to achieve superiority; and its converse
  5.  economy of force, ensuring secondary efforts receive only as much force as necessary; ( 6) offensive, gaining the initiative or the temporal upper-hand;
  6. security, ensuring one’s forces are well protected;
  7.  simplicity, avoiding complicated schemes and communications; a
  8. unity of command, placing the direction of the war under a single political-military authority to avoid conflicting interests (8).
On the variety  of possible exhaustion strategies:

A strategy of exhaustion can take several forms. Among the most frequent are blockades, sieges, “ scorched earth ” policies that destroy land an attacker might use, or almost any approach, including guerrilla warfare, that typically involves trading space for time or avoiding decisive battles until one is (38)
According to Echevarria, there currently are two schools of thought on strategies of coercion. The first:
believes coercive strategies are most successful when threats need not be carried out; it is the threat of force, or pain yet to come, more than its actual use, or pain already inflicted, that is most important (59).
The second:
views coercion as a function of the threat of military failure, which typically involves the systematic destruction of an opponent’s military capabilities until it realizes it would be better off if it complied. This is known as coercion by denial because at its core is the use of destruction to deny a party the ability to accomplish its aims (59-60).
On why strategists are more important than strategies:
Finding the right commander can take time. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln fired six generals before he found one, in Ulysses S. Grant, capable of defeating the Confederacy’s armies consistently enough to bring the war to an end. British prime minister Winston Churchill went through three generals before he found one, in Bernard L. Montgomery, capable of defeating Erwin Rommel, the Wehrmacht’s famed “Desert Fox.” As historians have noted, the strategist is probably more important than the strategy because one needs wisdom to know when and how to adjust one’s strategy, and this quality is critical for success (111).


[1] Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepare For Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[2] David Stevenson, CataclysmThe First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2009), kindle locations 3450-3460. Briand's insistence that Verdun be held--against the best judgement of Joffre--is another example of political leaders calling for blood that generals are loathe to spill.

10 April, 2018

Losing Games We Don't Know Are Being Played

The Sydney Herald Morning Post has this on their front page today:

China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications
China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific in a globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep. 
Fairfax Media can reveal there have been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation. 
While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu's government, senior security officials believe Beijing’s plans could culminate in a full military base. The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington. [1]
This news is causing alarm in geopolitical circles. You do not need to be an expert in naval combat to understand why Chinese naval bases in the South Pacific are proper cause for alarm. But here is the thing: the alarm has been sounding for a long while now. From atoll to archipelago it has wrung; its tones have echoed from one side of Oceania to the other. We have ignored it at every sounding. One must be careful with such statements: not everything done on this Earth is the consequence of American action (or lack thereof). But in the South Pacific we have acted amiss. We toot our way across its waters with a ludicrous level of complacency. My hope is that this news will shake some of us out that. But it may well be too late. The Chinese have delivered the lesson we deserve.

A few caveats. The language employed by the Sydney Morning Herald is interesting. China "eyes" a Vanuatu naval base, we are told. "Eyes" is not "announces." The deal has not been made. We have no independent verification that it is even on the table. If it is, the Herald's source certainly isn't Chinese and probably isn't Vanuatuan. The most plausible source is an Australian agency opposed to the Party's expansion into the South Pacific.  The leak is intended to shame and pressure the Party out of making a deal with Vanuatu. Nothing has been decided. Possibly nothing ever will be decided.

Those of you who follow my twitter feed—or a bit rarer, those of you who I have had the privilege of discussing Chinese foreign policy with in person—know how frustrated this issue makes me. I have been writing about it since 2015.  Pay attention, I have pleaded, to what is happening in these islands. Look at what is happening inside Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands (and to a lesser extent, FSM, Samoa, and America's own territories in the Western Pacific). No one has cared. Now we see why they should have.

Today's headlines are the inevitable end of the changes sweeping through Oceania. The writing has long been on the wall. Aspects of my biography have given me a strong incentive to peer at this writing—a stronger incentive, at least, than most China-hands have. But this is not about me. I bring up my past moments playing Cassandra only because it is an example of how difficult it is to get Americans to care about what is happening to their pathway to Asia. I write up tweet storms on the Chinese student experience in America, or Chinese influence operations in Australia, and what I write goes viral. I do the same in response to events in Tonga or Kiribati.... and get maybe a retweet. Our priorities are screwy. We view the region with unconscionable complacency.  We act as if the South Pacific has fallen out of history. We pretend we do not need to know what the people there do and think, who they owe money and favors to, or how they feel about America writ large. Too late we start to see the costs of our smugness and stupidity.

This is not the post to detail all that China has been doing in the region. Rehearsing the flood of Chinese migrants and tourists, the new deep-water ports and roads, the Chinese built government offices and bureau buildings, the towering debt, the scholarships and language programs, the pleasure trips to China gifted to bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians is a task for another day. Rehearsing all of the things America has not done in the region, or has stopped doing, is also another something that must be left for a longer article where the topic can be given full treatment. But to end this post with something substantial to ponder over, I ask you to consider this image:

Image Source: "实拍中国驻世界各国使领馆(组图)" Sohu Travel (January 2010)
This is the PRC embassy in Nuku'alofa—the capital of Tonga. Here is another one:

Source: Bob Markin, "China Opens New Embassy in Port Vila," Vanuatu Digest (27 July 2017). 

This one is less fancy. This is the PRC embassy in Vanuatu. It was constructed (along with the Prime Minister's office, a new wharf, the foreign affairs building, and a college) by Chinese contractors over the last two years. It opened for business last summer. 

Now let me show you a picture of the American embassies in Vanuatu and Tonga:


That is right. There are no pictures of the American embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. It turns out, the United States of America does not have an embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. 

We are losing a game that we do not realize is being played. 


[1] David Wroe, "China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications," Sydney Morning Herald (9 April 2018).

23 March, 2018

My Grand Theory of Jordan Peterson

I have a short essay out in the Weekly Standard this week arguing that most of the commentariat have a deeply flawed understanding of pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. To quote:
The spectacular rise of Jordan Peterson has caught much of the world flat-footed. caught much of the world flat-footed. Discussions of the psychology professor from the University of Toronto tend to focus on the enormous popular movement his lectures have spawned, rather than the actual ideas presented in the lectures themselves. As a result, no one seems to know who the “real” Jordan Peterson is. 
In a way, this is understandable. Peterson is a man of several personae. One Peterson is the inventor of an innovative and compelling neuropsychological model of human behavior. This is the Peterson presented in a dozen research articles reviewed and published by his academic peers.

Another Peterson dispenses pieces of practical advice and dispels progressive dogmas with a quiet, fatherly charisma. This is the Peterson made famous in podcasts, television interviews, and his best selling self-help book
But there is a third Peterson, the Peterson of his debut book, Maps of Meaning and the annual 40-hour long lecture series that shares this book’s name. This Peterson is the bridge between the other two, the key to understanding both his agitations as a culture warrior and his work as an academic psychologist. This is also the Peterson that inspires a religious sense of devotion among his followers. They are devoted not just to the man, but to his project.

And this project is grand. It is nothing less than the revitalization of Western civilization itself. 
Read the rest of the essay for my summary of the basic ideas behind Peterson's project and a few thoughts in response to some of those who have tried to condemn it.

In between the time I submitted that essay for review and its publication yesterday, two new large profile attacks on Peterson were published, one by Pankaj Mishra for the New York Review of Books, the other by Nathan Robinson for Current Affairs Mishra's piece is the more popular of the two, and the easier to dismiss. Attempts to tie Peterson back to the Nazis with proclamations like "the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda" just don't deserve to be taken seriously.  I earnestly await the follow up essay explaining why Percy Jackson is the real cause for Trump's election and the connection between the works of Neil Gaiman and Heinrich Himmler. 

Mishra does have a good sense for the real weak spot in Peterson's project, however. As I note in Weekly Standard essay,  Peterson’s “careful comparative analysis” of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. There are a few other writers thrown in, but those two get the lion's share of his citations.  This is entirely inadequate. If you are hoping to build a universal moral system through analysis of the great faith traditions and surviving myths of ancient civilization, you need to delve deeper than two idiosyncratic mid-20th century scholars. Peterson's direct engagement with mythological and religious primary source material is limited to the Near East: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and the Abrahamic offshoots. His discussion of Greek, Norse, Indian and Far Eastern religion (with quotations from an outdated Dao De Jing  translation excepted) are all mediated through Eliade. His take on Christianity relies too much on Nietzche, and even his discussion of the Mesopotamia mostly derives from scholarship and translations from the 1960s. I have seen no evidence that Peterson has patched up these blind spots in the days since he first published Maps of Meaning in the 1990s. 

Here is why that matters: inevitably we will be graced with a devastating invective of some left-leaning historian of religion or folklore who will not only be eager to demolish Peterson, but will know more about comparative religion than he does. When that day comes, the thinness of Peterson’s bibliography will come to haunt him. I can only hope that this reckoning does not destroy the Peterson project entirely. 

Robinson's attack on Peterson is much more damaging, precisely because it attacks Peterson's ideas directly instead of diverting itself with Peterson's character or the excesses of his devotees. His critique takes advantage of another one of Peterson's weaknesses: a tendency to write in convoluted and baroque academic prose. This weakness is hardly unique to Peterson, but it makes it easy for Robinson to pick out page-long paragraphs full of the sort of fluff that other writers would dispatch in half a sentence or so. To claim that this sort of academic fluff is all there is to Peterson's work is not fair. There is substance behind Peterson's writing; Peterson simply has no experience laying it out concisely. When concision is compelled out of Peterson, the strength of his underlying ideas is far more apparent. The best presentation I have seen of these ideas is a 13 page precis Peterson wrote for The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. The encyclopedia's editor deserves great praise: he was able to squeeze unusual lucidity from Peterson in a very small number of pages. I do not think an honest observer can read them and then conclude he is pedaling mere fluff.

Peterson can withstand the scrutiny his ideas are now being given, if he is careful about how he responds to critique. However, even if his attempt at building a new moral universe falls in on itself, I am glad to see the attempt made. He is asking the right question. Conservatives and classical liberals would do well to consider the question he poses: if the we have lost faith in religion, in liberalism, and in our national myths, then what will we find faith in? I fear that many conservatives are now so focused on protecting their communities from the tides of modernity that they have lost all interest in influencing the course those tides will take. 

03 March, 2018

You Do Not Have the People

The essence of the army and the state: investigate the minds of the people.
The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong (2nd century BC)
 If the people and the nobility are not devoted, then even a Sage King could not guarantee victory. The man who is skilled at obtaining the support of the people is the man who is skilled in using military force. Skillfully gaining the support of the people is essence of military undertaking-that is all.
Xunzi 15.10-20 (3rd century BC).
This post is a clarion call. I address it to the national security professionals of my nation. I am alarmed. I think you should be alarmed. There is a growing gap between the way members of the broader defense community—be they think tankers, military officers, bureaucrats, academics, or journalists—talk and think about America's foreign policy challenges, and the way the median voter is perceiving them. The American people are not with the program. Not your program, at least. If you cannot convince them to get on board, your endeavors will fail.  You are responsible for the defense of the free world. Your failure has consequences. A failure to defend the outposts of democracy is the best case scenario before us. The worst case is that you fail in that, and irreparably rupture America's social fabric in the failing.

Back when the old strategy blogosphere was at its height, an obscure but brilliant blogger wrote up a post that greatly shaped how I think about the process of strategy and policy making. On its face the post was an assessment of the successes and failures of containment, a concept coined by George Kennan only to be later disavowed by him when he saw how his grand idea was put into practice. Upon deeper reflection, it was also a commentary on the many COINish suggestions then being advanced to salvage the America's flagging war effort in the Near East. The essay begins with this caustic opening:
Pity the American nerd. He suffers from a contradiction: he can see the narrow slices of reality that he specializes in exquisite and even excruciating detail. Unfortunately, he sees the world outside as a mixture of his tiny area of expertise writ large and a land populated by large bright shiny ideals that he can see in all of its fine shades. Based on this perception, he can formulate responses perfectly calibrated to exploit his unique domain knowledge to remake the world in the image of his vision. However, the nerd’s intentions suffer from a major defect: they are usually fatally out of sync with the means available to achieve that vision. 
The American nerd is forced to turn to his natural enemy to achieve his vision: the average American. However the average American is usually not susceptible to the aesthetic beauty of the nerd’s grand vision. His interests are more basic and centered in this world, not the ideal world of the nerd. The average American is a creature of inertia: give him normalcy and he will be happy. The nerd disapproves; he feels the call to higher things than plasma screen TVs and cheeseburgers. [1]
If you have never read this essay before, I encourage you to read the rest of it (it's short). Both blog and blogger have disappeared from the internet in the years since it was published, but the message of this short essay is still relevant today—perhaps even more relevant than when it was written. Threats to the liberty and safety of America and her allies loom now in a way they did not a decade ago. There is a general agreement in the NatSec space that the machinery of the the federal government must be mobilized to face these threats. But there is the snag! The machinery of the American government is tied up to the opinions, fears, and desires of the American people. Their perceptions matter.  As the essay concludes: "operating in a free state means, inevitably, that you can only execute strategy with the citizenry you have, not the citizenry you want." [2]

It is easy to forget this. Apt as we are to focus on weapon platforms and island chains, it is fabulously easy to forget where the real source of American power lies. A country is only as dangerous as its denizens. Deterrence rests on the limits of public suffering; diplomacy, on the limits of public opinion. This is true for all nations to one extent or another, but in democratic regimes it is a driving truth—the sort of truth forgotten only at great personal risk. After all, a nation of democrats retains the power to throw the rascals out. Few people employed in the broader NatSec sphere conceive of themselves as rascals, of course. But self conception only matters so much here. It is what the great mass outside the Beltway is thinking that matters, and it is to these opinions I call your attention to today. While the wonk is wont to focus on policy, and in the name of proper civil-military relations our officers must satisfy themselves with the creation of strategy, neither is the real game.  Behind policy lies politics. In America these politics are popular. To craft policy—especially policy that treads the narrow space between war and peace—without reference to the people and their politics is perilous. We are close to forcing things down their throats that we have not steeled them for. This is perilous. Before we deploy, strike, negotiate, budget, or appropriate, we must first ask: "do we have the people with us on this one?"

Well, let's find out.

Image source: November 2017 NBC/GenForward poll, Q10A.

These numbers are taken from a November NBC News/Gen Forward poll, a survey that questions 18-35 year olds across the nation on the political issues of the day. Respondents are asked to list what they believe are the three most important issues facing America. [3]  There are a lot of interesting things one can say about this data, but for our purposes here I would focus your attention on the two rows labeled "foreign policy" and "military strength." There is one big thing you will notice about these two figures: they are miniscule. Respondents are largely satisfied with America's place in the world. In their minds, police brutality, education, crime, taxes, racism, the economy, immigration, climate change, health care, gun control and the national budget are all more critical problems than anything involving foreign affairs.

Millennials do not stand in for all of America. Older generations care more for foreign policy than the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts do, though other polls suggest that their priorities also lie in the domestic sphere. But I focus in on this group for a reason: the opinions of this generation will have an outsized influence on our defense policies. In the case of war, these are the people who will actually be called to sacrifice their time and lives for the sake of American interests. Their willingness to suffer for the sake of the public interest sets the upper bounds for what is militarily possible in a time of conflict. Their attitude in peace will be even more important. Armament programs are decade long affairs. Proper sized navies are generation-length projects. Great power rivalries take decades to unfold. Who will be responsible for maintaining this effort? These guys. The millennial generation is already the largest cohort in this republic's history (given current fertility rates there will likely be none larger). Were they not so politically desensitized, they would also already possess the power to decide most elections in the country. When the last of the boomers die out, by sheer power of numbers alone, these men and women will rule the roost. Their perception of America's role in the world, and the threats she faces, will determine America's future.

The take-away: more important than developing new weapon systems, devising new treaties, or crafting new strategies will be convincing the American people that they can and should bear the costs of doing any of that. Nothing is more important than winning the public opinion war. If we lose there, nothing else really matters.

At this point it is worth asking ourselves just how important we think this NatSec stuff really is. Few of us hesitate to trot out the right words when it comes time to testify on the Hill or write up an introduction to a new policy report:

The world is more dangerous now than it is has been since the days of the Cold War, we say.

Revisionist powers want to up-end the global rules-based order, we say.

America has a solemn responsibility to uphold rules and freedoms, we say.

 But do we, when all is said and done, truly think these things? Are these the real stakes in play? Do we sincerely believe that the failure to get the Navy its ships or our allies their arms will mean the difference between millions dead and millions breathing, millions free or millions bound?  Or are they all mere shibboleths, stock phrases passed around as the calling cards of Serious Defense Professionals?  If they are not shibboleths, if we do believe them, it is incumbent on us to convince the rest of the country to believe as we do. We should be desperate to persuade the people, to help them see what we see. The NatSec world should be seized with terrible urgency. Humanity deserves nothing less.

Yet urgency is not a word one associates with the NatSec scene. If anything, the defense professional get-together tends towards baffling complacency. Eliot Cohen's depiction of a recent gathering is devastating:
At events like the Munich Conference, it is no coincidence that the word “networking” has largely replaced the word “debate” among global elites. Most of the faces in attendance you could see at other, similar gatherings, like the World Economic Forum in Davos. You could sense the same frenetic socializing among those more eager to be seen than to make a point, more likely to ponderously recite conventional wisdom than to doggedly defend a point of view. When the Polish prime minister declared that Jews were also perpetrators of the Holocaust, there were mere tut-tuts in response. It is a far cry from the Wehrkunde founded by Kleist. His successor is a bland former German diplomat who greets everyone—free citizen or dictator’s henchman—as a long-time friend of the conference, to be cherished for that reason alone, rather than for what he or she says or believes. 
What has happened here is the same phenomenon that explains so many of the ills of the last couple of decades: the algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance. A younger John McCain would not have been unique for his qualities of wisdom and character at the earlier iterations of this conference. He would have been met by acute thinkers like Thérèse Delpech of France, staunch public servants like Manfred Wörner, a German defense minister and secretary general of NATO in the 1980s, or politicians like Dennis Healey of Britain. Their successors are cautious functionaries, pallid experts, and colorless politicians who think carefully about domestic audiences before speaking up abroad. [4]
Cohen's portrait of the 2018 Munich conference captures the infuriating frivolity of so much NatSec. It simply isn't serious. If the participants of these conferences realize that the future of human freedom rests on their shoulders, that there is a world of smoke and shells and sweat outside their conference halls, they do not show it. Why?

My answer to this question differs from Cohen's. His portrait of pallid expertise is painted well, but he errs when explaining where this pallidness comes from. The problem is not that conference goers are too aware of domestic audiences. The problem is that they do not take these audiences seriously enough.  In his column Cohen contrasts the staid meetings of 2018 unfavorably with the 2002 Munich Conference, when German foreign minister Joscka Fischer confronted Donald Rumsfeld in front of the entire conference. But the most important thing about that confrontation between Rumsfeld and Fischer was not that it was a debate, but that it was a public debate. No man changes his mind because of a public attack on his position. Fischer was not stupid enough to believe his pleas might change Rumsfeld's mind. Rumsfeld was not his audience. His audience lay outside the conference hall. In fact, the pressing need for defense professionals to justify their positions and their policies to the voting public was at the center of his rebuke:
You have to make the case. To make the case in a democracy you have to be convinced yourself, and excuse me I am not convinced. This is my problem and I cannot go to the public and say, 'well let's go to war because there are reasons and so on,' and I don't believe in that." [5]
You have to make the case. It is advice we would do well to heed now. Public engagement must take precedence over network building. Foreign policy has always been something of an elite game, of course. To an extent it always will be. But the level of insularity that grips this community is not excusable. In an earlier age, when public trust in national institutions waxed stronger than it does now, this exclusivity was sustainable. It is no longer. The people do not trust their leaders. There is no popular consensus on national aims. We are three failed wars into the 21st century. We are near the limits of what the American people will accept on auto-pilot. The swamp does not wants to pause its plod to consider these things. It desires nothing more than to continue on with its wonkery. But policy follows politics. The longer popular politics is ignored, the more fierce the eventual reckoning with it will be.

But I will take this argument one step further. The wonks' attempt to postpone this reckoning doesn't just damage some future NatSec community. It is inhibiting out ability to create coherent policy and strategy now.

The modern defense professional (and even more surprising, the defense commentariat who observes him or her) is allergic to controversy. The fear that our reputations and programs might become matters of public controversy lead us to shield policy dilemmas from the public. America faces a series of hard choices in the years ahead. Trade-offs must be made. The refusal to acknowledge these trade offs and make them the center of public debate should be understood for what it really is: a decision to value cordiality within the NatSec community over accountability to the people at large.

Let me go through a few examples so you can a sense for what I mean. There is currently something of a demand in Navalist circles for a 355 ship Navy. Now fleets are not cheap. Hulls are not quick constructions. This places real limitations on America's capacity to make real the Navalist dream. While you can find plenty of op-eds arguing we ought to hit 355 ships, or think tank reports outlining how they might be built, nowhere in these clamors for Naval growth is an honest confrontation with the real obstacles standing in the Navy's way. To choose a 355 ship Navy means not choosing something else. Until we can articulate what we must sacrifice to get those ships, they will not be built.

Part of the problem here might just be that many in the NatSec world grew up in a different age and have not quite synced in with the realities of our era. A reminder on where we stand in 2018:  One of the central pillars of our President's election campaign was the need to reduce America's international commitments. Congress just added a trillion dollars to the deficit. Americans' obsession with the culture wars leaves little room for pondering foreign wars. The generation that will be responsible for bringing armament programs to completion believes that the military is an ineffective instrument for preserving prosperity and peace. These realities cannot be ignored. At this point in our history, America simply does not have the financial or political wherewithal to be everything to everyone. She must choose. To choose a proper Navy is to not choose something else. So what will we choose to lose?

Perhaps the money will come from reducing social services. But there is another, more obvious source of funds, and it is shocking how little it is mentioned. The Department of Defense has the money for a 355 ships. Currently that money is being distributed to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. Despite this fact, you will search in vain for a single op-ed penned by retired Navy personnel (or even those anonymous wink-wink quotes dispensed to journalists when officers want to make their point on the sly) arguing that the budget needs to be tilted towards the Navy at the expense of the other services. We demand a Navy but do not justify or acknowledge the public sacrifices it would take to create it.

This is profoundly unserious.

Just as jolly inter-service relations are secured at the expense of long term planning and public accountability, a strange mix of elite complacency and cordiality has stopped us from putting other hard choices before the public. We talk about how America faces dangers from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Salafi-Jihadist terrorism as if we have the capacity to respond to all of them at once. We don't. We simply do not have the political will or financial means to do this. We have to make some hard trade-offs.  Consider these numbers:

Image Source:  Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017), 39.

 China already has greater industrial and economic capacity vis a vis the United States than the Soviet Union did at any point in the Cold War. Just in terms of military spending, responding to the rise of the People's Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. [6] We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. This decision cannot be put off any longer. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

 If we do choose rivalry with the Communist Party of China, we must recognize that military spending will be just one part of the trial. To secure its hold on power, the Party does not fear leveraging any point it can grasp. What we might call a "whole of government" approach to strategic rivalry is not their style. Theirs is a "whole of society" approach. Keeping Asia free from Party domination will require nothing less than a whole of society response on our part. The difference between us and them is that we cannot use coercion to do so. Mobilizing civil society, government, and business to take on this challenge is fundamentally about changing public opinion. The great responsibility facing those who advocate rivalry with China is taking this case to the public and convincing them that the sacrifices we must make to preserve outposts of freedom like Taiwan will be worth the cost. As things stand now, few Americans, even at relatively elite levels, understand the nature of the Chinese regime or the scale of the challenge it poses. Even fewer are willing to sacrifice anything to oppose it. As Fischer would say: you need to make the case. 

The most disturbing failure to take the public seriously involves North Korea. We are well on the path towards a military strike against that loathsome regime. The warnings are sounding. Those who pay close attention to these things—presumably the type of people who are reading this post—understand just how close we are to war. The vast majority of Americans, however, do not pay attention to these things. Even the political types spend more time tweeting about the President's marital problems than they do thinking about his war plans. They have no inkling how far we list towards the tipping point.

Inasmuch as this increases the President's bargaining space with the North Koreans, the public's ignorance of their own country's bellicosity may be useful. But the costs of failure will be dire. I don't mean that in the "millions of people will die in Korea" sense, or even in the "we will end up being sucked into another decade long counter-insurgency project among a radicalized populace that lives in a mountainous region next to a hostile power" sense, though both are likely true.  My focus here is on America itself and what will happen to this country if the public believes Washington started the fight.

Let me be frank. The President is not popular. He is hated. He is feared. A significant portion of the American people believes that he is one crisis away from fascist dictatorship. Whether you believe that yourself does not really matter that much. What matters is what these people will do if they fault him for starting a war whose casualties will dwarf anything seen since the last time U.S. forces waged a hot war in Korea. It took a relatively small number of casualties to turn the American people against the war in Vietnam; it took a truly tiny number to turn the public against the war in Iraq. Those wars were launched by popular Presidents at times of relative social cohesion. This does not describe the America we live in. American society is fraying at its edges. Its leaders are hated and distrusted. Its people are tired of war. They are tired of anything that smells of foreign problems. They are not psychologically prepared for the kind of war we threaten to bring to the peninsula. Let us not fool ourselves: if we start this war, there will be no rallying around the flag. There will be no unity government. There will only be radicalism and discontent on a scale that will make the unrest of the Vietnam era seem like a pleasant dream. If we fight this war, it will tear America apart.

It is perhaps not fair to lay the blame for this one on the "NatSec community" as whole, as the greater part of it seems to be against any escalation on the peninsula. What worries me, however, is that the faction who does cry that we "must do something" violent to keep the North Koreans down has done so little to bring the public onto their side. The Bush administration, for all its faults, was quite savvy here. They coupled their threats abroad with a sophisticated campaign to build support for military action at home. President Bush, his deputies, and their proxies in the media argued again and again for the necessity of military action. When military operations began, the American people were ready for it. Compare this with our current situation. The President and his subordinates have delivered dire threats to the North Koreans. They have taken military preparations to back up these threats with steel. But they have done almost nothing to ready the American people to fight the war they threaten. This is feckless.

If we lived in an age when public trust in elites and the institutions they manned was stronger, many of the worries I voice could be dispensed with. That is simply not where we are at. Unfortunately, the Trump administration's disregard for public opinion on the Korea issue is but an extreme expression of a tendency that blights the entire field. We are uncomfortable with democratic accountability, unwilling to subject ourselves to public debate, and uninterested in the constraints public opinion and popular politics place on the policies we craft. This complacency is not excusable. It is not sustainable. We cannot defend the cause of freedom without the support of the people. To try and do this is to risk terrible disaster.


[1] "Joseph Fouche," "The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd," Committee of Public Safety, published 6 June 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] NBC News/GenForward, "November 2017 Toplines," accessed 20 February 2018. A more recent poll that asks slightly different questions can be found here

[4] Eliot Cohen, "Witnessing the Collapse of the Global Elite," The Atlantic (19 February 2018).

[5] AP Archive, "German FM Makes Impassioned Plea For Peace," Youtube video, 1:31 (remarks at 1:02),  uploaded 21 July 2015.

[6] This point is made lucidly in Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017). Krepinevich makes the controversial case that the United States should sacrifice our military posture in Europe in order to maintain parity with China and in the Near East. The fact that this publication has sparked no debate in the defense community is an excellent example of just how unserious we are.