30 January, 2010

Another Round of Punditry is Right Around the Corner...

I have yet to decide if I shall actually read it. I did have plans for the weekend.

The Death of a Nation

Over the past few days I have been engaged in an interesting exchange over at The Committee of Public Safety, an excellent site on strategic thinking and history. As the topic of this exchange is both timely and thought provoking, I would like to extend this discussion to the general readership of the Stage.

The discussion began with a Committee post titled "Institution vs. Instrument". The post highlighted historian Carroll Quigley's theory of institutional decay, termed in this discussion as the "institutional imperative." According to this imperative, organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions – organizations who exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role.

Quigley's institutional imperative can apply to any organization composed of human beings. Government bureaucracies are the first that spring to mind, but the rule is not limited to them. Neither corporations, religious hierarchies and congregations, NGOs, scientific bodies, international organizations, or sovereign states are exempt from this creeping institutionalization.

Along the lines of that last category, I left this comment on the Committee's post:

I was looking over my notes of Ralph Sawyer’s translation of The Seven Military Classics when I came across this passage from the Wei Liaozi:

“The state of a [true] king enriches the people; the state of a hegemon enriches the officers. A state that merely survives enriches the high officials and a state that is about to perish enriches only its own granaries and storehouses.

(Trans. Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, p. 249.)

Does not the Wei Liaozi seem eerily similar to Quigley’s words? It certainly made me think about this rather differently — the Wei Liaozi applies the institutional imperative to the state itself. If we are to then move forward in history and apply the equation to our own state, what do we find? Does it serve the interests of the people, or does it simply stock its storehouses? Is the United States of America an instrument, or an institution?

It is an unsettling question.

"Joesph Fouche", the proprietor of the Committee, authored an extensive reply to this question. While I recommend you read the full thing, I will excerpt only the few sections that have prompted this response.

It is an unsettling question. History suggests that unsettling questions raise even more unsettling answers. An instrument that has decayed into an institution is, by its very nature, blind. The truth is not in them and, whether they like it or not, the truth will set them free. The outside world sends rain on instrument and institution alike. Instruments in robust youth or institutions in decrepit old age must bend or they will break. Smart money says that institutions will break, their tragedy only compounded by their surprise at their end.


A state at its most instrumental has the vigor to adapt to internal and external pressures. While an institution retains considerable vigor to guard against internal threats to its share of what’s in the “granaries and storehouses”, it retains less vigor to maintain itself against external threats. Even if it suppresses internal threats, those threats will fester, becoming liable to explode.

The United States was conceived as an instrument but is rapidly decaying into institutionalism. It’s political system is ineffective and gummed up. Factionalism has paralyzed the functions of the state. This faction or that faction actively seeks alliances with foreign interests. The foreigner is considered less threatening than a fellow countryman. The only thing the state does well is distribute resources to those who have won their place at the feeding trough. American elites cannot see the looming reality of the world. The only choice they offer a gelded and thoroughly domesticated populace is a choice between equally dangerous delusions.


A state is an instrument but it is only an instrument. It can be discarded if it ceases to be useful and becomes an end only for itself. Poland the state died but Poland the nation lived on. In the course of events, Poland was able to reacquire a state of its own. A nation acquired a state as its instrument. Similar to Poland, while the United States as a state apparatus may disappear, America the nation will endure. Constitutions are parchment. Laws are words on a page. Speeches are wind. Politicians are dust. Bureaucracies are passing. The empires of the past built merely on state power passed away eventually. Political communities built on surer foundations endured. Language endures. Land endures. Religion endures. History endures. Peoples endure. The American nation is a rock and upon this rock the true instrument of state will be built. If it isn’t the United States, it will be something else better adapted to our situation. Is the United States an instrument or an institution? The times we are in will tell.

While surely meant to inspire, I find Fouche's conclusion frightening. It has provided me with a framework to organize the scattered thoughts of my own mind, and what has emerged causes little within me but anguish for the state of my Republic.


St. John de Crèvecoeur's question, "What then is an American, this new man?", was asked in the recognition that "American" is an epithet of a most unusual nature. One is not an American, Crèvecoeur realized, in the same way that one is a Spaniard or Frenchman. Little has changed in the two centuries since Crèvecoeur first asked his question. Americaness, if such a term may be used, has no basis in blood or geographic localities. Americans openly celebrate this: we are a nation of immigrants, an indiscriminate conglomerate of ethnicities, races, religions, and peoples. This has been true since the Republic's founding: even in days of revolution, America's diversity was an integral part of her identity. E Pluribus Unum.

This inclusiveness is not without dangers. Not built upon the rocks of blood or belief, the American nation has as its foundation the most ephemeral of things – an ideal. What else binds us together? Ours is a nation composed of ideas. Our ties are only those found in a shared heritage, history, and devotion to the great experiment that is America.

It is thus a daunting task to maintain America's nationhood. Each generation must be taught anew what "America" means. The perpetuation of the American nation is dependent upon this process. Despite the overwhelming importance of this endeavor, I see little indication that America's elder ranks have given the matter much serious thought or effort.

This neglect has not been without its consequences.

In the summer of 2008, the Bradley Project released a report on America's national identity titled "E Pluribus Unum". The report opened with an alarming statement:

To inform its work, the Bradley Project asked HarrisInteractive to conduct a study on Americans’ views on national identity. While 84 percent of the respondents still believe in a unique American identity, 63 percent believe this identity is weakening. Almost a quarter—24 percent—believe we are already so divided that a common national identity is impossible. In their minds, it is already too late. And young people—on whom our continued national identity depends— are less likely than older Americans to be proud of their country or to believe that it has a unique national identity.

If the American nation is a rock, it is a rock eroded by time and warped by unrelenting exposure to hostile elements. A "surer foundation" it is not, nor will be.

That America's ruling class has not moved to protect the American nation is unsurprising. The upper classes' isolation from their fellow citizens and identification with other members of the transnational elite play a part in this, I am sure. Yet there is a more fundamental reason for the upper classes' disengagement: perpetuating the American nation is simply not in the elite's best interest.

As discussed in this space before, those who hold the reigns of the Republic are, for the most part, members of an unaccountable rentier class whose illusions of their own beneficence and ability cause them to believe that they are entitled to an elect position in American society. Naturally, these men and women do not shy from squashing movements, attitudes, or organizations that might threaten this position. Such men and women have little use for the nation. As Tocqueville states in Democracy in America:

"Despotism, suspicious by its very nature, views the separation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence and usually does all it can to keep them in isolation. No defect of the human heart suits it better than egoism; a tyrant is relaxed enough to forgive his subjects for failing to love him, provided that they do not love one another. He does not ask them help him to govern the state; it is enough that they have no intention of managing it themselves. He calls those who claim to unite their efforts to create general prosperity "turbulent and restless spirits" and, twisting the normally accepted meaning of words, he gives the name of "good citizens" to those who retreat into themselves.

(Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. Gerald Bevan, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. p. 590)

It is not in the interest of the institutions that be to strengthen the ties between the men they govern. Nationhood is one such bond. It is not the only bond – but how have the rest of these bonds fared? Religious participation has declined steadily for decades. So too has enrollment in volunteer organizations. Engagement in local and state politics has limped into oblivion. Like it or not, Modern America is a country bereft of social capital. Exceeding the bounds of individualism, our tieless masses are a race of aliens. They breath the same air, live in the same space, but are aliens to each other nonetheless. Traditional ties stripped away, the American citizen lies naked and powerless before his government.

This is perhaps the dismal irony of the institutional imperative. As an organization corrupts, losing both its instrumental utility and its ability to respond to outside challenges, an organization's ability to guard against internal threats only gains in strength. The result is a hollowing out where the beneficiaries of an institution become utterly dependent upon it. For a nation that is as much an instrument as the state that governs it, this process has been a catastrophe. In enriching its granaries the Republic has riddled holes in its own foundation.



E Pluribus Unum: The Bradley Project on American Identity
The Bradley Project. June 2008.

An important report on America's national identity. It surveys both the American people's identity and others suggestions as how to best reinvigorate the national spirit.

The State Despotic
Mark Steyn.The Wall Street Journal. 1 July 2009.

Steyn chronicles the decline of American civic engagement and the concurrent rise of our despotic system of governance.

Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.

Rauch provides a lucid description of the institutional imperative as seen in modern democracies. He labels this affliction Democlerosis.

ADDENDUM: JF has written a reply to this post over at the Committee of Public Safety. You can read that here. I will most likely respond to his newest post in the comments thread on that site.

Question Time

Those of you new to the Stage may be unaware of this author's deep seated sense of enmity towards parliamentary institutions. While I find them in most respects intolerable, there is one aspect found in most parliamentary democracies that I have always wished to be included in America's presidential system: question time.

Thus I found tonight's Q&A session in Baltimore to be a wonderful surprise. I am often quick to condemn American political discourse as a sequence of tantrums designed to fit within the bounds of a two year old's attention span. The mix of vitriol, self righteous posturing, and split-second punditry that permeates our political discourse reflects the irresponsibility of the American elite and the trivialization of the American people. As such, I can find little but sorow in most mass gatherings of journalists and statesmen.

This event was different. Indeed, I report with happiness that it was nothing like most politically themed media extravaganzas.

To my complete surprise, the words of the President and the Representatives were both civil and intelligent. Furthermore, their discussion cannot be easily parsed into ten second sound bites. The punditry will find a way to do so, I am sure, but in the mean time it is incredibly heartening to hear rational discourse on matters of state.

Despite the success of the session (or perhaps because of it), I worry that the President's oratorical skill will dissuade the GOP from hosting such a televised event again. This move would be incredibly shortsighted on their part. On the long term, the Union is well served by providing estranged minorities with a venue for constructive criticism. More Q&A sessions also have the potential to increase public interest in national discourse as a whole; as a contest between partisans it will likely gather media attention in a way past attempts at civic engagement cannot.

This is not to say that all the benefits of an American question time are to be found in the Union's long-term institutional health. For the Republicans there are political gains to be had in the here and now. As Zenpundit notes, functions like these take the President out of his "rarefied bubble" and expose him to ideas not common currency in the White House. More importantly for a GOP constantly marginalized by the media, question sessions allows Republican statesmen a rare chance to send an unadulterated message straight to the American people. Taking a lesson from the British model, question sessions also could serve as a sieve by which to separate the wheat from the chaff amongst the ranks of the GOP; those who can go tooth and claw against Mr. Obama and emerge unscathed will have proven their capacity as able statesmen to both their party and their people.

Perhaps my view of this session is overly romantic. Yet in the dark pit of America's unaccountable public servants and "gotcha!" style politics, this session may be the first step towards redemption. If the citizenry allows it to fade away, I doubt America will be offered many more chances for revival.

My power as a citizen is limited. I shall write a letter of gratitude to each of the Representatives who participated in tonight's session. Included will be an admonition to make these exchanges a permanent part of American politics. Lest they wish Tacitus' lamentations to describe our Republic, my readers would be wise to do the same.

P.S. Remember to watch a recording or read a trascript of the event! Charles Lemos has both posted on his site.

28 January, 2010

An Interesting Thought

“Stop thinking about what the Middle East is producing. Start thinking about what the Middle East is consuming.”
The video is worth watching - for the first 20 minutes. Rubin is at his best when discussing short term trends directly related to energy prices; he waxes nonsensical as he begins to talk about carbon pricing. So ignore that part. But watch the beginning. Rubin is an engaging speaker, and that part contains more than a few insightful comments. Just remember to close the tab once he starts talking about carbon pricing.

26 January, 2010

Words 'bout Yemen Worth Reading

I authored a post earlier this month lamenting the lack of serious discussion concerning Yemen's deteriorating security situation. Deeming it improper to not point out articles to the contrary on the rare occasions, I draw your attention to an excellent example of how we should be discussing the conflict:

"Curzon". Coming Anarchy. 26 January 2010.

Yemen is probably the most misunderstood international story in the Western mass media since… well, Uganda in September 2009. As was the case during the Uganda uprising, I believe the problem originates in the ignorance of regionalism in Yemen, or as Professor Harm J. De Blij has written time and time again: geography matters.

There are two major yet unrelated conflicts taking place in Yemen—the Sunni and Al Qaeda-linked separatist threat in the central south of the country (a major concern of the United States) and a Shia uprising in the north (alarming to the Yemenis and Saudis, possibly supported by Iran, but of little relevance to the rest of the world). And carefully distinguishing between the two is critical to keep the US out of a real quagmire.

I recommend that my readers head over to his site and read the whole thing. Curzon colors his discussion with a set of maps that are by themselves worth linking to. 

ADDENDUM: For those of you unfamiliar with Harm de Blij, I recommend his entertaining youtube channel, "Geography Matters". I have also heard much praise for his latest book, though I will admit that I have not yet read it.

COIN, Meet Democracy (And Your Doom)

It seems that the blogosphere has gone and blown itself up again.  The catalyst this time around was a stellar (some have called it 'epochal') essay-post by the ever erudite and timely Zenpundit, Mark Sanfranski. Zen has received much praise here in the past, and his latest tour de force does not disappoint. Titled, "The Post-COIN Era is Here", Zen's post declares the death of a regime that has of late towered over the affairs United State's military: the COINdistas.

If you do not know what "COINdista" means, read Safranski's post. He sketches a short history of the counterinsurgency movement in words that are clear and understandable to those with no background in security issues. If you are looking for a quick summary of the debates that have consumed the defense community for the past decade, you will find nothing better than his article.

Yet the thrust of Zen's post is not the rise of the COINdistas, but their fall. To quote the crux of his argument:

The Post-COIN Era is Here
Mark Safranski ("Zenpundit"). Zenpundit.com. 25 January 2010.
What matters is that in all the recent elections, Democrats have been clobbered by a “Revolt of the Moderates” - socially liberal, fiscally conservative, independent voters who came out in 2008 for Obama and are now shifting radically away from him. For the next year, politicians of both parties will be competing hard for this bloc which means “deficit hawks” will soar higher than defense hawks.

America’s nine year drunken sailor spending spree is officially over.

Defense experts have long known that the post-9/11, record DoD budget expenditures were not going to be politically sustainable forever and that either a drawdown of combat operations or cancellation of very big, very complicated and supremely expensive weapons platforms or some combination of both would eventually be needed. That eventuality is here and will increase in intensity over the next five years, barring an unexpected economic boom. Spending $60 billion annually on Afghanistan, a nation with a GDP of roughly $ 20 billion, for the next 7 years, is not going to be in the cards. Not at a time of 10 % unemployment, when the Congress will be forced to cut Medicare, education, veteran’s benefits, eliminate COLA’s on Social Security or raise the retirement age and income taxes. Who is going to want to ”own” an ambitious “nation-building” program at election time?
This was an end long in coming. Counterinsurgency campaigns are messy affairs that require much in way of blood, treasure, and time. Modern democracies are peopled by impatient publics who live for easy fixes and remain unwilling to sacrifice for anything ethereal as the national interest. A collision between the two was inevitable.

That COIN and the dynamics of democracy were on a crash course has been visible for some time.  It was made quite clear to myself last February, when I read Lt. General David Barno's  then-newly published testimony to the SASC on operations in Afghanistan. Included in Barno's proposal was a time table for American operations in Afghanistan. It was a time table that extended all the the way until 2025.

While operationally sound, Barno's proposal (which was developed with the help of COIN whiz David Kilcullen) was a political fantasy. As I stated at the time:

Between the years 2009 and 2025 the United States will have four Presidential elections and eight different Congresses. Each of the major parties will draft four different party platforms. In the Darwinian jungle of American electioneering, hundreds of pundits and politicians (or would-be politicians) will cycle through thousands of opinions and manifestos, intent on creating grievances that they need to solve.

This environment is not conducive -- heck, it is downright toxic -- to any prolonged counterinsurgency campaign.

But the political situation back home never seemed to be a real concern for the COIN theoreticians. Fascinated by case studies, distracted by factional debates, and anxiously engaged in developing "new paradigms" and operational approaches, politics fell to the wayside. It was quite astounding to see men who were so acutely aware of the political dynamics of foreign locales so completely disregard Washington's own political constraints. Domestic politics was simply not a part of the discussion.

To take a fairly recent example, Sean McFate's call to purge the Afghanistan National Army is (to this citizen's untrained eye) operationally sound. Yet however operationally sound it may or may not be, it could happen only in policy fantasy land. The ANA is the result of eight years of sweat and toil; you cannot simply scrap it and start all over as you would flip a switch. Who shall fork money over to ISAF to perform such a restructure? Which country is going to stay in Afghanistan for another eight years while the new ANA is formed, trained, and battle hardened? Most importantly, are the citizens of those states whose soldiers compose the ISAF ready to recommit themselves and their countrymen to a reboot of the entire project?

These questions were left untouched by McFate. Like most folks discussing COIN, small budgets, restless constituents, and domestic politcking belonged to a realm worlds away. This is no longer true. The time soon approaches when all members of the defense community will be forced to deal with Washington's political realities – COINdistas included.

This new world, I think, will be the true testing ground of population centric counterinsurgency. Mark claims that COIN has proved itself "an excellent operational tool". I am not so sure. Counterinsurgency is a tool excellent only to those with steady focus and a strong stomach – two traits modern democracies do not possess. Unless COIN practitioners can work around this and learn to wage war within the constraints imposed by mass democracy, COIN will remain inimical to the workings of modern America.

25 January, 2010


"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

A post on this theme of Hayek's is in the works. Keep posted.

Notes From All Over 23/01/2010

A few older essays – long, but still containing insight:

Rafe de Crespigny. ANU Faculty of Asian Studies. Posted 7 June 2004.

Dr. de Crespigny quite literally wrote the book(s) on the later Han dynasty and the "great disunion" that followed its collapse. In this essay (part of the George Ernest Morrison Lecture Series in Ethnography) de Crespigny distills three books worth of information into a compact 15 pages. Many in this section of the blogosphere find value in studying the fall of the Roman Empire; I posit that the Han dynasty's decline into warlordism provides lessons just as valuable for modern scholars of civilization. This essay is as good an introduction to the topic as any you will find outside of 900 page tomes, and it is better than a few of those as well.

Rand Simberg. The New Atlantis. Summer 2009.

Perhaps the best piece I have ever encountered on space exploration. Simberg provides both a sweeping overview of America's engagement with the final frontier and needed guidance as to how space exploration can continue in a world where scientific progress is no longer jacked on insatiable great power politicking.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. The Breakthrough Institute. 10 December 2009.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have struck gold once again. Theirs is an essay that caters to none and leaves those from all sides of the arena bruised and battered. It is also a work of utter brilliance.

But there is no need for me to write a full promotional –  their introductions speaks for itself:
From the opening ceremony's video of a little girl running from an earthquake to the promises of emissions reductions, everything taking place in Copenhagen is contrived. The outcome of climate talks -- no treaty, no emissions reductions -- was known in advance. And yet participants pretend there is an unfolding drama. As such, Copenhagen is history's first completely postmodern global event. It's a festival of phoniness. With the ambitions of Versailles but the power of Davos, Copenhagen creates a cognitive dissonance for its creators, which results in ever-more manic displays of apocalypse anxiety and false hope. In the end, Copenhagen tells us more about ourselves -- our post-American world, our fragmented media environment, and our hyper-partisanship -- than about any attempt to slow global warming.
And that is just the essay's tag line.

ADDENDUM: A fourth essay of equal weight to those of above is worth the readership's attention:

Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.

Our Republic is sick: Rauch diagnoses our illness. The first part of his argument is in no way novel - a collection of factions and interests groups obstruct the national interest. Rauch goes a step past this, however, and concludes that this is the natural state of any liberal democracy who has not felt the iron hands of dictatorship and war. In applying economic formulas to politics, Rauch forces America to look in the mirror and see the demons within.

Hat tip to Joseph Fouche of the Committee of Public Safety for this one.

19 January, 2010

Strategic Blinders

A question:

Why is it that when one of India's more influential English-language  policy journals devotes an entire issue towards "stepping up in Afghanistan", nobody in the rest of the English speaking world notices?

 India's role in the region means something, right?

Now, the Indian Army quickly shot the idea down, but I find it worrisome that none of the COINdistas which inhabitant the media and blogosphere ever said a word about Pragati's proposals. Can such omissions be justified? Many important trends go unobserved by Americans because they are written in Arabic, Chinese, or another language impossible to decipher. This was written in English. It was written in English and placed on a website free and accessible to all with an internet connection.

Americans live in a bubble, oblivious to the events and ideas that exist outside of it. Ours is a society whose strategic vision is impaired by self imposed blinders.

For those interested in Indian affairs, I recommend two blogs hosted by Pragati's parent institution: The Acorn and Pragmatic Euphony. There are also a multitude of Indian newspapers that are published in English.

18 January, 2010

Forming a Region-Centric State Department –– From the Bottom Up

Matt Armstrong has written an impressive memo for the Progressive Policy Institute on the innovations needed to transform the Department of State into a competitive arm of the United State's foreign policy machinery. The report is only five pages in length, and I recommend it without reservation to all of my readers. In the memo Armstrong proposes sweeping institutional reform of the State Department's reigning hierarchy, the core of which transfers power away from individual embassies and towards the Department's regional undersecretaries, who would act as State's equivalent to the Department of Defense's combatant commanders. In addition, the jurisdictions of State's Area Bureaus and Defense's Commands would be synchronized (currently they are not: see the image above), and the organizational structure of the State Department's upper echelons would be significantly streamlined. The sum result of these changes would be a Department-wide shift in emphasis towards regional cooperation and collaboration.

I enthusiastically endorse the creation of a region-centric State Department. Too often are American diplomatic initiatives irregular in intent and disjointed in application. Synthesizing the United States' foreign policy apparatus will go a long ways towards reducing the inconsistency that has defined the last two decades of American statecraft.

If I have one criticism of Armstrong's piece, it is this: his proposals reform only the upper reaches of the Department. If State is to become truly regional-centric, its restructure must be holistic.  Reforms must come from the bottom-up as well as the top-down.

The workhorse of the State Department is the Foreign Service Officer, otherwise known as the Foreign Service Generalist. As Generalists, FSOs are capable of serving in any position within their chosen functional cone anywhere within the world. To take one of profiles provided by the State Department's career website as an example, Tony, who is in the economic cone, has been stationed in Nigeria, Russia, Canada, and Turkey. While the website says no more than this, one can sketch a plausible career path for Tony. It is likely that he first worked as an entry level Consular officer adjudicating visas in Lagos or Abuja, was moved across the globe to file reports on the petrochemical or fishing sector of the Russian economy, was sent back to Washington to work for a Desk Officer for some other country – say, Brazil, and then was dragged across a few more continents, working on larger and larger country-specific portfolios until he became the Economic Counselor in Ankara.

Although this sketch is a fiction, it is a fancy that mirrors reality and thus serves well for critiquing one of the Department's central problems. The State Department creates Generalists. What it needs are Regionalists.

It does the nation little good if its exemplar diplomats are being punted continent to continent. The diplomat who is sent first from Warsaw to Bangkok and then from Uganda to Buenos Aires suffers from a disadvantage no amount of on-the-spot training can recoup: unfamiliarity. Such a man has to immediately familiarize himself with what will be a vastly different culture, tradition, and history from that with which he is familiar (to say nothing of mastering a tongue from an entirely new language family!). More significantly, every such move will be a loss of the assets and credibility the Officer has carefully acquired during his time in a region. There are few things as valuable to an FSO as the relationships she is able to cultivate with her counterparts; there is little incentive for these counterparts to put much into a relationship they know will be useless in two year's time. Likewise, FSOs who are hauled from one region to another have trouble capitalizing on their past gains – The Public Diplomacy Officer who has worked with Al Jazeera Arabic in Basra will have an easier time working with the same organization in Cairo than she will working with Agencia Estado in Brasilia.

Ryan Crocker, one of the most successful American diplomats of the last two decades and one of the Americans most instrumental in bringing to pass the stabilization of Iraq, illustrates this point well. Over the span of his career, Crocker served in Khorramshahr, Iran; Doha, Qatar; Tunis, Tunisia; Baghdad, Iraq (a place who would later return to as Ambassador); Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Islamabad, Pakistan. As he said himself, "I knew the world from which those 19 hijackers came almost better than I knew my own country."

It is my humble suggestion that this knowledge be extended to all members of the Foreign Service. Rather than fielding a class of globe trotting Generalists who must remake themselves every three years, the State Department should cultivate a corps of Regionlists who are experts without parallel within the region in which they reside. To create a region-centric Department of State without creating the Regionlists with which to man it is only to handicap our Republic.

16 January, 2010

America's Greatest Challenge -- and Danger

The greatest threat to the safety and liberty of the American people is recognized by very few. Though formidable in their own right, this hazard is not posed by any state among the new class of rising great powers. Nor is the great danger to be found among transnational terror networks, violence caused by religious extremism, or the anarchy of ethnic upheaval. Nuclear proliferation, ecological crisis and the rise of biological weaponry, though all proper cause for consternation, pose a challenge dwarfed in many ways by the task set before us.

This is because these dangers and perils are but a subset of a much larger problem – the outgrowths of a crisis that threatens to engulf the entirety of America's strategic decision making machinery. If the United States has any hope of maintaining its elect position over the course of the following century, this crisis must be recognized and resolved.

And it is a crisis that lies within ourselves.

It is time for serious analysts of American civilization and concerned citizens of the United States to recognize two uncomfortable truths about the republic in which they dwell. These truths, disturbing to accept, are entwined evils which underlay the Republic's current and coming decay.

The American Republic is no longer governed by the people. The rule of the people has been replaced by an oligarchy of well meaning elites. Not limited by professional divides, these men occupy the vaulted halls of business, media, politics, and academia; they are united in only their unshakable faith in their own beneficence. Entirely sure of their ability to cast a society better than that which already exists, these elites are uncomfortable with democratic accountability or financial liability, and constantly seek opportunities to free themselves from both. This desire to be free from the censure of their countrymen easily translates into a bunker mentality that views individual empowerment, decentralization, and meritocracy as assaults on their power and influence. Unabated social stratification, the erection of barriers to political and economic participation, and the implementation of incomprehensible, unreasonable, and ultimately self-serving regulations are the consequences of this paternalistic culture.

Living lives that are isolated from their fellow citizens, the identity of the elite is formed along lines of privilege and class, not ties of community and country. Unsurprisingly, the oligarchy of good intentions has difficulty demarcating the divide between special and national interests. Nor can they be expected to construct sustainable solutions to the problems faced by the nation; a ruling class who has made a lifestyle of shifting blame is not an instrument suited to complete such tasks.

The people have no desire to govern America's Republic. The oligarchy of good intentions maintains its dominance over society by claiming that its members are the sole possessors of the knowledge needed to hold the reigns of enterprise and state. This claim is for the most part true. Across the board, Americans are woefully ill informed in the fields of science, civics, and history. The worldview of the average citizen is provincial, the media he consumes even more so. There is little indication this will change any time in the near future. To the contrary, the population of the United States is marked by a multi-generational decline in political participation matched only by the nation's falling levels of civic engagement. With pure passivity the public gazed on as its access to the conduits of power were cut off one by one; without raising a voice in protest the people have have seen their liberties stripped away. Those few items that can capture the interest of the citizenry are petty – popular public discourse is but a competition to see who can fit the most theatrics into a seven second sound bite, politics but a never-ending game of governmental “Gotcha!” Such is needed to keep the attention of a population obsessed with the flashy and trivial; the affairs of the country one has no affection for pale in comparison to the allures of the circus. Bread also has a part to play: in an age where voluntary associations have collapsed and economic disparity is growing, every trial and tribulation has become a problem best solved by someon else.

This was a role the oligarchs were all too happy to fill. When they did, American society underwent an incredible cultural transformation. Her people are no longer citizens – they are subjects. The United States is a nation of sheep being led to the slaughter. The few who recognize this are paralyzed, unable to proceed in an environment where protests are useless, the people's will is ignored, and the sheer scope of the corrupted institutions make anything short of revolution a half measure.

The hazards found in this system of oligarchy are not difficult to see. Plato's philosopher-kings these men are not. Mired in factional infighting and entrapped by special interests, the elite are unable to form a clear image of reality. The citizenry, in turn, are too ill-informed to hold the elite accountable for their failure. In this lies the source of the last quarter century’s strategic malaise; her ability to observe and orient destroyed, America has become a blind Goliath, stumbling from one international crisis into another. This sorry state will remain her fate as long as society's ship is captained by a class of oligarchs who remain hostile to the innovations necessary for success in an age defined by networks, rising powers, and instantaneous exchange. Of these things the ruling class does not care – they are too busy skimming the project's profits to bother with steering us away from the rocks and shoals of the future.

A well deserved tip of the hat must be delivered to Zenpundit. His words served as a springboard for this post, and I draw liberally from his ideas. However, Zen writes only of the first tragedy listed here; I find the second one to be just as, if not more, important.

10 January, 2010

When Speculation Becomes Reality

Several months ago I wrote a post speculating on possible policy responses for the United States if Al Qaeda lodged itself into Yemen's insurgency. In an attempt to instigate discussion on the matter (a goal that appears to have failed), the post included the following questions:

If a terror network were to establish itself in a developing country that lacked the resources to destroy the terrorists, what policy options would American statesmen have at their disposal? Would we be able to perform counterterrorism operations with thousand of American troops still engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan?
It seems that my queries are now a bit outdated. From CBS News:

U.S. Leading Assaults on al Qaeda in Yemen
Kimberly Dozier. CBS News. 2 January 2009.

Recent combined air and ground assaults against al Qaeda in Yemen last month were American-led, according to a U.S. special operations expert who trains Yemeni forces.

"It was cruise missile strikes in combination with military units on the ground,” Sebastian Gorka, an instructor at the U.S. Special Operation’s Command’s Joint Special Operations University, told CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier."It was a very distinct signal from the Obama administration that they are serious in assisting Yemen to remove these al Qaeda facilities from its soil.

U.S. officials had kept fairly quiet about the extent of American involvement in the recent Yemeni strikes. But with so many Americans asking what their government is doing to keep them safe after the Christmas Day bombing attempt, many more officials seem eager to describe how they're striking back.
I wrote my original post to begin a discussion about America's role in potential terrorist havens such as Yemen. It was a discussion no one seemed to be having, despite its clear importance. This was back when commentary on U.S. operations in Yemen was a matter of speculation; now it is a matter of fact. The level of commentary, however, has barely changed. It is most curious really. Discussion of America's role in Yemen's internal affairs is still nonexistent as far as the broader public is concerned.

But perhaps I should not assume Americans give a whit about where or how their fellow countrymen are dying anymore.

H/T to War News Updates for the item quoted above.

Military History Carnival

A general note to my readers –

The Edge of the American West (in conjunction with H-War) is hosting the annual Military History Carnival on January 17th, 2010.

Do not hesitate to submit any posts if you have quality material. Otherwise, join in on the fun on the 17th with the rest of the blogosphere's history and strategy nerds.

Copenhagen: a Failure of American Statecraft

After a few weeks hiatus, I am now able to devote some time to blogging. The world has not held still in my absence; over the course of the last month the Lisbon Treaty was ratified, Washington decided to send 30,000 men to Afghanistan, Andhra Pradesh fragmented into two parts, MEND rebels drove Shell out of the Niger delta, Venezuela and Columbia came within a hairsbreadth of war, and President Obama delivered one of the more stirring justifications of just war doctrine I have had the privilege to hear.

While interesting and worth comment, none of these events were as intriguing as the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The summit provided a unique chance to observe the intersection of many of the topics covered here at The Stage; public diplomacy, great power competition, and environmental politics were all present in spades. Understandably, I have spent the last few days catching up on what happened at the summit. Having mowed through several dozen articles and blog posts in this effort, I have come to a disheartening conclusion.

What happened at Copenhagen was a complete and utter failure of American statecraft.

Do not misunderstand me. While not a climate skeptic, I am quite skeptical of international carbon regulation regimes. There is little guarantee that such programs do anything but hinder global growth and provide yet another market for Wall Street's crony capitalists to corner. In addition, I find it quite hard to justify the violations of freedom distinctive to any such regime.  Given the inherit difficulty in enforcing a legitimate treaty and the dubious moral foundation any regulatory structure would possess, I am, in a sense, glad that the summit failed.

But I do hate to see Uncle Sam take a sucker-punch straight to the face.

See, I would like to believe that America retains the power and foresight to meet its own strategic objectives. I would like to think that if the President of the United States decides to personally invest his time and energy in an enterprise, the enterprise will be successful. I would like to have confidence in Washington's ability to understand and assess other actors on the international scene.  In short, I would like to believe that my country possesses the capacity to serve as a global hegemon.

What I would like to believe are all fancies, myths that Copenhagen has wholly disabused me of.

It is not as if America did not know what she was getting into. Months before the conference the Indian government made clear their position on the matter by publishing a report that projected India's per capita green house gas (GHG) emissions in the year 2030 to be somewhere around four tonnes of carbon (or equivalent) per person. Noting that the projected per capita GHG emissions for India were less than the global per capita average in 2005, India could now claim that it was working hard to reduce emissions.

The problem was that the Indian government did not actually commit to anything. The decrease in carbon intensity projected by the report shall happen regardless of government intervention. New Delhi simply hijacked existing market trends (which reflect improvements in energy efficiency contingent on technological progress and infrastructure advancement) and used them to give the Indian government the appearance of tackling emissions head on while simultaneously tripling emissions.

Within a few weeks Beijing matched the Indians with its own commitments to lower GHG emissions per capita over the next two decades. As with the government in New Delhi, Bejing championed the projections as a step towards a carbon free future. Also like New Delhi, Beijing's claims were complete and utter hogwash.

As spurious as these claims may have been, their message was clear: officials in Beijing and New Delhi do not see climate change as a serious problem, and neither group is willing to sacrifice cheap fossil fuels for its sake.

From this point forward Washington's actions were painful to witness. Many of the Obama administration's climate hands first broke their teeth attacking President Bush and company for the very claims now being made by China, yet nary a peep was heard from any of them in the weeks preceding the conference. Missing was a public relations campaign that might have displayed Indian and Chinese duplicity for all the world to see. Missing was much needed push-back against the developing narrative of an evil America attempting to escape accountability for her crimes by forcing the world's poorest to pay for her ecological sins. Public diplomacy assets went utterly unused. By ignoring international opinion American officials ceded the moral high ground, and by extension,  the chance to set the parameters by which the battles in Copenhagen would be waged.

More opportunities were lost as the conference began. Once again the signs were clear: China was quick to attach itself to the Group of 77, the largest bloc of developing countries at the conference, and attain the status of de facto spokesman of the G77+1. (The official chair of the group was a representative from the government of Sudan – a regime which is no way in China's pocket.) From this perch the Chinese aggressively pressured Western diplomats to avoid any talk of legally binding targets for the developing world. The Chinese, Sudanese, and Indians led the charge against the Danish text  (again citing fears of specific emissions targets), and began to work furiously with other developing heavyweights to develop a separate agreement disavowing any responsibility developing countries might have for the world's climate. Relations between  developing countries and the West soured from this point on; a week after the conference had started negotiations had ground to standstill with delegates from all corners of the world threatening to jump ship.

This was the setting of President Obama's arrival in in Copenhagen. Secretary of State Clinton's announcement that the United States would provide $100 billion dollars of aid annually for adaptation projects across the world mollified things a bit, but the conference remained a tinderbox. The Americans were locked at an impasse with the Indians and Chinese, and everybody knew it.

This is not to say that the American position was hopeless. Mr. Obama could have outplayed the Chinese by placing technology sharing on the table as a gift instead of haggling endlessly over it. The President could have upped the aid ante by several hundred billion, unilaterally shaming Europe, Japan, and other developed countries into following suit.  He could have broken the already stressed Group of 77+1 into separate factions, offering military and economic compensation to individual nations in return for cooperation at the conference.

The President did none of these things, however. Other than offending Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao  (giving the Premier a convent excuse for avoiding the final sessions of the conference) Mr. Obama did precious little at all. He remained a passive actor on a stage his star power was unable to control.

Mark Lynas, who was present for the executive session of the conference, provides an excellent description of Copenhagen's closing moments:

Mark Lynas. The Guardian. 23 December 2009.

Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point... China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen.

With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

And with that the Chinese and Indians can declare victory. But why did the Sino-Indian strategy succeed? The answer is simple: they knew the nature of their opponenet. Few in Washington have bothered to follow the going-ons of Beijing or New Delhi; the reverse cannot be claimed about the Chinese or  the Indians. To the contrary, they have watched the American seen with rapt attention. And what they saw was President Obama set unreasonable deadlines for accomplishing incredible goals time after time, only to see him snatch at whatever slapdash solution was available to save his administration from the collapse of the towering expectations built by his own rhetoric. The Chinese and Indians banked on this happening again. Happen it did.

The delegates from Beijing and New Delhi were also acutley aware of the international media's inner workings; they knew they would be able to obstruct a meaningful deal without suffering any diplomatic consquences or public backlash. Poor third world delegates destroying an environmental revolution simply does not fit the traditional narrative. As Beijing and New Delhi knew they would, the media placed the blame for Copenhagen's failure on Mr. Obama's door step, and the Americans have yet to lift a finger in protest. As before, America's public diplomats have remained silent.

(Significantly, the English language accounts blaming the Chinese for the conference's failure have been published in Great Britain. And even they haven't the will to break PC conventions and place any responsibility for the conference's outcome on their former colony, India.)

In sum, I offer three observations drawn from the American experience in Copenhagen.

First, the machinery of the United State's public diplomacy  is broken. American statesmen and diplomats consistently failed to influence international discourse or shape the narrative of events before or after the conference. The American viewpoint remains a story yet to be told.

Second, the Obama administration truly screwed up on long term strategic planning. They knew the expectations concerning Copenhagen long in advance but decided early on to prioritize health care reform over of a domestic cap and trade regime. This robbed the American delegation of any legitimacy it might have had at the negotiation table.

Finally, Washington's foreign policymaking apparatus is unable to assess the interests and intentions of other actors on the international scene. When the American delegation walked into Copenhagen they had not the slightest notion of how to win their challengers over. I doubt they had a firm understanding of their challengers at all. The United States was functionally blind before and during the conference's duration.

As said before, it was nothing but a complete and utter failure of American statecraft.


What exactly happened at Copenhagen?
Yu Zhou. China Beat. 4 January 2010.

Yu Zhou offers the best defense of the Chinese actions that I have yet seen. She rightly targets Lynas for exaggerating China's antagonistic attitude towards climate deals, and scores a few points by questioning the validity of unsanctioned and exclusive meetings such as the one Lynas attended.

Comment 9- Copenhagen: Things Fell Apart
Lewis Claverdon. Yale Environment 360. 23 December 2009.

Scroll down to the 9th comment to read Claverdon's comment. Claverdon makes a convincing (but not convincing enough) case for China being "brazenly provoked into rejecting the whole deal" by the United States.

COP15: (No) Hopenhagen?
Richard Black. BBC Earth Watch. 19 December 2009.

Black spreads the blame equally between the United States and China. His is a good analysis, but like many, completely ignores India's contribution to the conference's failure.

What Happened in Copenhagen.
Stephen Walt. Foreign Policy. 21 December 2009.

A few astute thoughts on the lessons to be learned from Copenhagen. My comments on Obama's leadership style are almost directly ripped from this post.