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.


Lorenzo said...

Brilliant, thank you.

CK MacLeod said...

We cannot defend the cause of freedom without the support of the people. To try and do this is to risk terrible disaster.

When have "the people" ever risen to defend the cause of freedom other than in the face of disaster?

There is also a contradiction in terms here: To commit to any project at all, and especially to great military or defense project, is to accept constraint, in some senses or for some even radical constraint, on freedom. This philosophical problem will undermine all projects seeking American strategic coherence. The American idea simply does not permit the latter. They are mutually exclusive.

T. Greer said...

CK MacLeod--

The Cold War. Broad bipartisan consensus on national aims and widespread popular understanding and support for the bigger vision, if not the details of implementation, for its duration.

The mobilization for and entry into WWI is another example. It was not prompted by disaster. Neither was either Gulf War. We forget how popular the Iraq war was before it was revealed that the reason we went in was groundless and realized salvaging a "better peace" from the affair was impossible. But going in required no disaster.

CK MacLeod said...

T Greer--

I wouldn't want to get caught up in a simplistic literalism, but the disaster sufficient to justify or force American popular-political readiness for a war strategy for World War I is conventionally taken to be the sinking of the Lusitania, as connected to German attacks on US shipping. (World War I itself was a gross concatenation of disasters, and the attacks on American shipping can be taken as crystallizing or catalytic events, rather than as true causes of war.)

The disaster that achieved the same effect in relation to the Iraq operation was, of course, 9/11. The unifying disaster upon which the Cold War was predicated, again in relation to popular readiness to accept constraints on freedom in relation to a strategic concept, was probably the detonation of the atomic bomb, unless it was the Holocaust, unless it was the entire cataclysm of World War II, unless it was the spread of Communism.

In each case a kind of mirror image positive justification for the strategic regime or orientation also existed, and can be thought to have re-assured the American citizenry. For a citizenry convinced by events that a type of involvement in the world (for preservation and expansion of political-economic freedom as Americans have defined it) was incredibly profitable, necessary, and good, the threatened de-stabilization of that same involvement would represent impending disaster.

The view may be difficult to accept when reduced to this particular set of terms, and may even be wrong, but that doesn't make it unreasonable. Even at this peculiar moment in history, we are more within than beyond the historical epoch defined by the rise of American global power, and have not really had the popular commitment to it tested. After all, American popular opinion had demonstrably reverted to an isolationist tendency up to the very eve of American assumption of leadership of an international military alliance and program of global governance.

We may be approaching such a test, one we can be said to have helped produce for ourselves. It might take just such a disaster as you imagine happening in Korea to unify us around a true departure.

Jim from BC said...

The people with better foreign policy knowledge than me will probably tear this to pieces but this sounds to me like almost exactly what Obama tried to do with his foreign policy- Reach a negotiated detente with Iran and de-escalate with Russia while withdrawing from the Middle East as much as possible and focusing as much of the US's policy and military resources as possible on confronting China and building the East Asian alliance system that would be necessary to support that effort.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Obama's policy was that the American elite was not committed to it.
When they saw opportunities to undermine Iran and Russia, they took advantage of them.
The result was that the Obama administration could not focus on China/East Asia for most of the time.

Andrew Craft said...

I will agree with the general theme of others that the population doesn't see any great threats to be mobilized against. There hasn't been a repeat of September 11th and our energy supplies aren't threatened. China may gain more power, but that is not an existential issue to Americans. Like environmental issues, the activists and analysts may care, and the population may say they care, but it is not a priority to the population.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me like we're on the following progression vis-a-vis China.

2010-2018 - select few people start to notice that Xi is not committed to reform or upholding the existing world order, and start to seriously worry about the potential for US-China conflict. Most of these people are seen as alarmist, but various groups start to sense that something is amiss, whether it's Confucius Institutes, the many cases of American multinationals being targeted on social media for "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people", or some specific industry practice.

2018-Year X - president for life. Most elite groups finally realize that the trajectory is firmly in the direction of conflict. They're still invested in China-growth, but they start to have second thoughts about alternatives. Various media outlets will start to promote the idea of China = bad, enemy.

Year X - some trigger incident occurs whereupon the American people suddenly put China in the role of national enemy number one. A Chinese pilot accidentally downs a US fighter jet over the South China Sea in an overenthusiastic "buzz", or something of that sort.

When is Year X? Will it be too late?