Tag: Cold War

The New Mineshaft Gap: Killer Robots and the UN

This past week I was invited to speak as an expert at the United Nations Informal Meeting of Experts under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The CCW’s purpose is to limit or prohibit certain conventional weapons that are excessively injurious or have indiscriminate effects. The Convention has five additional protocols banning particular weapons, such as blinding lasers and cluster bombs. Last week’s meetings was focused on whether the member states ought to consider a possible sixth additional protocol on lethal autonomous weapons or “killer robots.”

My role in the meeting was to discuss the military rationale for the development and deployment of autonomous weapons. My remarks here reflect what I said to the state delegates and are my own opinions on the matter. They reflect what I think to be the central tenet of the debate about killer robots: whether states are engaging in an old debate about relative gains in power and capabilities and arms races. In 1964, the political satire Dr. Strangelove finds comedy in that even in the face of certain nuclear annihilation between the US and the former Soviet Union, the US strategic leaders were still concerned with relative disparity of power: the mineshaft gap. The US could not allow the Soviets to gain any advantage in “mineshaft space” – those deep underground spaces where the world’s inhabitants would be forced to relocate to keep the human race alive – because the Soviets would certainly continue an expansionist policy to take out the US’s capability once humanity could emerge safely from nuclear contamination.

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Stumbling Through Foreign Policy – Not History

Last week Joe Scarborough from Politico raised the question of why US foreign policy in the Middle East is in “disarray.” Citing all of the turmoil from the past 14 years, he posits that both Obama and Bush’s decisions for the region are driven by “blind ideology [rather] than sound reason.”   Scarborough wonders what historians will say about these policies in the future, but what he fails to realize is that observers of foreign policy and strategic studies need not wait for the future to explain the decisions of the past two sitting presidents.   The strategic considerations that shaped not merely US foreign policy, but also US grand strategy, reach back farther than Bush’s first term in office.

Understanding why George W. Bush (Bush 43) engaged US forces in Iraq is a complex history that many academics would say requires at least a foray into operational code analysis of his decision making (Renshon, 2008).   This position is certainly true, but it too would be insufficient to explain the current strategic setting faced by the US because it would ignore the Gulf War of 1991. What is more, understanding this war requires reaching back to the early 1980s and the US Cold War AirLand Battle strategy.   Thus for us to really answer Scarborough’s question about current US foreign policy, we must look back over 30 years to the beginnings of the Reagan administration.

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The Pivot to Asia: Some Tough Questions

thCAV0Z60KThe so-called Pivot to Asia, or “rebalance” in official parlance, has been one of the Obama Administration’s signature strategic moves on the global chessboard. But for all the serious engagement of the Pacific Rim countries, the core of the pivot has always been about China and responding to its rise as a regional and proto global power. U.S. intentions aside, China has accused the U.S. of using the pivot as a form of neo-containment of itself. The containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War ultimately proved to be a stabilizing strategic move by the U.S. and its western allies. Whether the pivot ends up bringing about a similar outcome in the Pacific Rim in essence constitutes the strategy’s ultimate test. Continue reading


Why the Dakotas?


Slate’s new history vault published a gem from the Cold War last week. This map from January 1955 shows the areas in the United States that Soviet citizens could not travel.

This map shows where Soviet citizens, who were required to have a detailed itinerary approved before obtaining a visa, could and could not go during their time in the United States. Most ports, coastlines, and weapons facilities were off-limits, as were industrial centers and several cities in the Jim Crow South.

These restrictions mirrored Soviet constraints on American travel to the USSR. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had closely controlled the movement of all foreign visitors since World War II. A 1952 law in the U.S. barred the admission of all Communists, and therefore of Soviet citizens. (An exception was made for government officials.)

The Soviets’ decision to relax their controls after Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953 left the U.S. open to charges that it, not the USSR, was operating behind an Iron Curtain. President Eisenhower and his foreign policy advisers decided to mimic Soviet policy as closely as possible: As of early 1955, citizens of either nation could enter approximately 70 percent of the other’s territory, including 70 percent of cities with populations greater than 100,000.

As a North Dakota native, my first question was why prohibit travel to all of western North Dakota and most of South Dakota? (hint: it’s probably not what you think…) Continue reading


The Good Ol’ Cold War

In the aftermath of a long war, a new degree of suspicion ensues between two powerful countries that were nominally on the same side…one rattles its sabre, threatening small countries on its borders…the other shores up relations with the very same countries… a tit-for-tat arms race begins, waged with the advantages of recent technological advances…espionage takes the form of a new battleground as the stakes move progressively higher…for the most part the top leaders of each continue to say nice things about each other in public, but a new undertone of tension has become apparent…privately each frets about the other’s intentions, how far will they go?

If this frame fitted the spring of 1947, should we be getting concerned that increasingly we have a current goodness of fit? Mutual suspicions between the U.S. and China have risen to new heights based on the razor’s edge tension between Japan and China and the latter’s major espionage effort, probing among other things the American energy and infrastructure grid that is largely—and worryingly—in the hands of private companies whose defenses against Chinese hacking are too low. The newly installed President Xi has taken a mildly more strident tone compared to his predecessors, but this is less concerning compared to the rhetoric of the newly installed generals atop the Chinese armed forces. The rhetoric and world view of this younger and more bellicose cadre has the hair of analysts in the U.S. intelligence community beginning to stand up on the back of their necks. And although the U.S. has actually re-pivoted to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) due to Mali/Syria/Iran/Arab Spring, the pivot that has captivated elites around the world is the supposed U.S. pivot toward Asia (i.e. China). As such, the nascent Chinese leadership has become convinced the U.S. has an active policy of containment towards it.

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The Peculiar Stability of Instability

The caption for this photo is, no joke,
“All the experts posing for a group photo after the event.”
So, here’s all the experts.

Conventional wisdom from a foreign-policy expert:

It is one of the truisms of our time that because of the sensational development of communications and transportation, the globe has shrunk with distances between formerly far-away countries having been reduced to mere hours of flight time. We all pay continuous lip service to the axiom that the hallmark, today, of relations among States, even among continents, is interdependence rather than independence. But while every political writer and speaker belabors this point ad nauseum, we actually deal with the Mideast, Latin America, the Atlantic Region, Eastern Europe, NE Asia, and SE Asia as if we were still living in the WW-II era when it was realistic and feasible to speak of a European, an India-Burma-China, a Pacific “Strategic Theater” as essentially separate and autonomous. …

  • In the Middle East … moderate [pro-U.S.] Arab governments are under increasing pressure.
  • In Europe, NATO is in a state of malaise, accentuated by our shifting policies over the last 10 years. Europeans are increasingly concerned about isolationist currents within the U.S.
  • In Asia, as you saw on your trip, leaders are concerned about the future U.S. role there.

The lesson one can draw from it is not that we can fight this trend on every issue. But foreign policy depends on an accumulation of nuances, and no opponent of ours can have much reason to believe that we will stick to our position on the issues which divide us. When the Taliban compares our negotiating position on Afghanistan now with that of 18 months ago, it must conclude that it can achieve its goals simply by waiting. Beijing must reach the same conclusion. …

This then is the overall image of the US as a reluctant giant: seeking peace and reconciliation almost feverishly, withdrawing forces not in one but in many parts of the world, tired of using its physical power and firmly resolved to cut existing commitments and keep out, for a very long time to come, of any confrontation that might lead to any military involvement.

All right. Cheap trick: This is really a memorandum from “an acquaintance” of Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon in 1969. I changed a few words — “Hanoi” to “Taliban,” “Afghanistan” to “Vietnam,” and “Moscow” to “Beijing”–but the overall sense of pessimism and gloom is the same as you find in certain quarters of the foreign policy community today.

Reading over the full memorandum, what is striking is not just the impressive racism of the piece (did you know the Latin temperament is fiery? It is!) but also the continuity of concerns. Arab/Israeli conflict? Check! Rising China causing problems with U.S. allies? Check! Worries about European burden sharing (and their worrying about U.S. policy)? Double check! Other governments using U.S. policies to justify their own actions (anti-terrorism now, anti-Communism then)? Triple check! And, behind it all, the idea of the United States as a shriveled, retreating power–an idea that definitely has currency today.

This is important for three reasons:

  • If you’re not familiar with Cold War history, the notion of U.S. relative decline during the Cold War may be unfamiliar to you. But we have been here before, and the debates about declinism are proceeding along familiar paths. (Robert Lieber’s new book about declinism is useful for its able recapping of previous generations’ declinism debates even if you’re skeptical about the book’s central hypothesis.)
  • Although the Cold War is almost uncritically presented in most intro IR courses as a period of bipolarity, the similarity of today’s declinism debates (during a period usually described as unipolar) to those that took place more than forty years ago should raise questions about whether we’ve misclassified one, or both, of those periods.
  • Viewed from our perspective, the central point of the memorandum is wrong: the United States has unequivocally retreated from the commitments it made during the height of the Cold War (just ask Nguyen Van Thieu and the Shah) but troop drawdowns, the suspension of the draft, retrenchments of commitments to allies, and so forth didn’t lead to a breakdown of global order; quite the opposite. Were we lucky? Was After Hegemony right? Do we have a particularly persuasive explanation to make to the author of this essay about why, forty years later, a relatively less wealthy United States (as a share of global GDP) nonetheless commands a relatively greater share of the world’s military potential?

Film review: Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.”

Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie … Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to “The Big Sleep,” a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake’s Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 — very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd.
Westlake’s Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard’s soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film’s colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a “film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart–therefore a political film.” A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

…while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

…There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.

The Times does not devote much attention to the film’s explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer — the former lover of the film’s protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a “vast right-wing conspiracy” almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title “Made in U.S.A.” almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard’s homage to “The Big Sleep” says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well — one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in “The Big Sleep,” the murderer’s identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler’s original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally “made in America.” Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ’s “Great Society” produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a “pink lady” harboring “communist sympathies.”

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war’s end failed to kill the national security state.

Cross-posted from my personal blog on this Nerd Friday because I have not been adding anything here this summer. Sorry about that.


Blegging: Did no one complain about the Soviet Use of landmines in Afghanistan from 1979-1989?

I am trying to find examples of humanitarian organizations that spoke out against the use of landmines by the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

Landmines were big as one of the weapons issues put up for debate in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UN General Assembly. The first specific legislation against them was Additional Protocol II to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. (A regulatory treaty as opposed to a banning treaty.)

Even if the original APII was pretty weak (it was amended in 1996 which greatly strengthened it) there is no question that the Soviet Union, who ratified the CCW in 1982, was violating the crap out of it. In particular the “butterfly landmines” it used were particularly horrendous.

However, until the series of reports by the UN Human Rights Committee from 1985-1990, I cannot find any evidence that humanitarian organization spoke out about the landmine issue until the 1990s. I have a couple of guesses as to why this would be the case (one being the fact that the ICRC was kicked out of Afghanistan in 1980, allowed to resume limited operations in 1987 but then kicked out again until the end of the war. This would obviously make it hard to monitor the situation.)

Yet, while speaking out about the sue of these weapons, the Human Rights Committee report does not invoke the 1980 CCW?  Did no one else speak up about the treaty (or landlines, or incendiary weapons, etc)?

Edit: There seems to be a certain amount of news coverage of the weapons issue in Afghanistan, but the NGO response still seems underwhelming. MSF held a press conference in 1982, but it isn’t until around 1988 that we start to see NGOs (like the ICRC) really highlighting the problem in the press.) Additionally, it seems that in 1986 a UN official actually tried to cut out some of the criticism in the Human Rights Committee report – allegations of the use of chemical weapons, for example – that made the Soviets look really bad.


Space Cadets

SEK calls some conservative commentators out:

Anybody else notice the problem with Schweizer and Nolte’s defense? Of course you do. But in case either of them read this, I’ll spell it out: Palin woefully misunderstands the President’s argument, as is evident by the fact that in the terms of the analogy, she mistakes the United States for the Soviet Union. The President said that the United States now should be like the United States in 1959, not that it should be like the Soviet Union in 1959. To claim that the President wants the United States now to be like the Soviet Union in 1959 is to make an error worthy of the mockery it has received. Instead of recognizing Palin’s inability to comprehend a simple analogy, Nolte and Schweizer claim that the mockery is unfounded because bureaucratic excess eventually brought down the Soviet Union.

That’s all well and good, but Palin’s claim that its space program destroyed the USSR remains deeply, profoundly ignorant of twentieth-century history.

That being said, at least her defenders are willing to embrace a structural argument for the USSR’s collapse. One usually finds posters at Big Hollywood claiming that Reagan’s insistence on boondoggle defense programs and his willingness to call the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” brought Moscow to its knees.


Nuclear transparency

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration has fully disclosed decades worth of data about the size of America’s nuclear arsenal:

America’s official nuclear silence ended Monday when the Obama administration not only disclosed the number of U.S. nuclear weapons available for use in wartime — 5,113 as of Sept. 30 — but surprised many by also publishing weapons totals for each year dating to 1962. (Data from before 1962 were released in 1993.)

Apparently, administration officials believe that this might put pressure on Russia to likewise disclose information about its arsenal. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told Reuters on May 12 that his country may well follow suit:

“After the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was signed by the Russian and U.S. presidents in Prague on April 8, comes into force, we will likewise be able to consider disclosing the total number of Russia’s deployed strategic delivery vehicles and the warheads they can carry,” he said.

If these disclosures had happened 25 years ago, they would have been truly remarkable:

“This figure is one of the crown jewels of the Cold War when it comes to state secrets,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in New York.

In 1967, the U.S. had over 31,000 nuclear weapons. The 85% reduction in the size of the U.S. arsenal reflects the remarkable changes that have occurred in the past twenty years. The latest disclosures likewise reflect ongoing efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations.

That said, however, the stockpile numbers are not at all a surprise as Robert S. (Stan) Norris and various colleagues have been publishing very detailed estimates about nuclear stockpiles since the mid-1980s. In defense policy circles, even the cold war numbers were closer to “known knowns” than “known unknowns.”

Incidentally, I still have an early copy of Norris’s Nuclear Weapons Databook on my shelf. I met Norris as a grad student intern at Center for Defense Information in summer 1985; Norris left CDI for NRDC just the year before and sometimes stopped by the old stomping grounds. In summer 2008, loyal readers may recall, I noted that the Obama and Clinton campaigns included several prominent CDI alums — and hoped that their presence might have a desirable affect on U.S. security policy. Maybe Stan called in some debts!

Apparently, the Obama administration is disclosing this data now in hopes that it will promote its “global zero” efforts. In the interim, the goal is to sell that latest arms control deal in the Senate.


Threat inflation!

Rob Farley suggests that the Patterson school can deter Fletcher and the School of Foreign Service by acquiring some new Russian blow-up sex toys “S-300 SAMs, along with a couple of inflatable Su-27s and maybe a Hind or two.”

Unfortunately for Rob, Georgetown no longer has an active “Team B”, and so we are unlikely to respond by invading the University of Kentucky, dismantling its basketball team, and supporting its College of Agriculture‘s aspiration for independence.

But I will say that these new systems bring back fond of memories of undermanned divisions and other Soviet Russian whatever threats from the 1970s and 1980s.


Back to the Future IV

Do you have secret longings for the cold war? Vladimir Putin apparently does. Here’s the AP lede from 2 days ago:

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is calling for Russia to regain its influential position in former Cold War ally Cuba, Russian news reports said Monday.

The statement comes amid persistent speculation about whether Russia is seeking a military presence in a country just 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the United States in response to U.S. plans to place missile-defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic.

“We should restore our position in Cuba and other countries,” Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

A former Russian defense advisor is quoted in the same story:

“It is not a secret that the West is creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Russia, involving countries in central Europe, the Caucasus, the Baltic states and Ukraine,” the agency quoted Leonid Ivashov, the head of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, as saying. “In response, we may expand our military presence abroad, including in Cuba.”

To be fair, United States policy toward Cuba is basically the same as it was for decades during the cold war.

Back in February, I noted that Barack Obama says that his presidency would reverse some US cold war era policies towards Cuba.

In May, Obama spoke to Cuban Americans in Florida and basically affirmed his previously announced polices — though he framed them somewhat differently. John McCain attacked him for being soft on Cuba.

Just what has been achieved during 5 decades of hard-line policies towards Cuba?


Why the Pentagon Can’t win the Long War

David Brooks, in his Sunday NYT column (requires Times Select to read), gives out awards for great magazine articles of the year. He recognizes two outstanding articles on how the Pentagon is fighting in Iraq and terrorism. In his article, Brooks makes a fundamental and vital insight that needs to become part of the emerging Grand Strategy Debate.*Brooks writes:

There was also a sense that we were losing ground in Iraq. One of the best magazine writers on that story, George Packer of The New Yorker, tended to profile American dissidents who were trying to change the way we fight that war.

In an April essay, “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” Packer followed Col. H. R. McMaster, who argued that the Iraq war was as much a psychological and anthropological problem as a military and political one. Then, in December, his “Knowing the Enemy” appeared, about freethinkers in the Pentagon and elsewhere who were studying how Hezbollah and the Iraqi insurgents create narratives that demoralize their enemies, energize believers and create a sense of historical momentum.

One gets the feeling from his articles that America’s enemies are playing a different game. They’re waging an open-source campaign for cultural symbols, while we’re oblivious to anything we can’t drive over or kill.

Spot on, David Brooks. This is, perhaps, the single biggest reason that “more troops” cannot and will not “fix” Iraq. Its why Hezbollah is gaining power in Lebanon even after a major military defeat. Its why the US military can win each and every tactical encounter with Iraqi Insurgents and yet still lose the war. Its why the war in Afghanistan is no longer “won.” “Knowing the Enemy” is particularly insightful on this account, spending lots of time talking about why the Pentagon needs more Anthropologists.

It also suggests why Patrick’s point about Drezner’s point is rather insightful. All of these grand strategies are motivated by underlying theories of International Politics. They, however, must now encounter a world where the threats they purport to address also have grand strategies, Constructivist Strategies. For example, Lynch reveals Al Queda’s constructivist turn. Drezner suggests Iran’s constructivist gambit. These actors, and others are and will continue to create discourses that make sense of US power and military actions in ways rather detrimental to achieving the intended outcome of those actions. For any of these US grand strategies to “work” they must contain a component that creates a narrative of how US grand strategy works, successfully, and tell that story as the US goes about its foreign policy. That was the Cold War. See Patrick’s book for the full story.

This also suggests a significant and perhaps vital “policy relevance” for an entire vein of constructivist and post-structural scholarship emerging in International Relations, and reveals the potential seeds of failure of realist and liberal-institutionalist policy advice.

*One aside, the Cold War was often conceived as a war of ideas– Capitalism vs. Communism– and as a result, the US invested heavily in cultural exchanges, funding scholarship, and USIA and lots of other things to produce the discursive space in which the grand strategy of containment made sense. Compare with how the Bush Administration is fighting the GWOT–homeland security, intelligence, military. The war of ideas element is given a lot of lip service, but generally ignored. When was the last time you saw Karen Hughes do anything at all, let alone anything interesting?

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Picking nits

With your indulgence I would like to spend a few minutes engaging in a favorite academic pastime. [No, not “blogging when I have grading to do,” although I am also doing that.] The pastime in question is “nit-picking,” in which one academic takes an argument by another academic — an argument the broad outlines of which one basically agrees with — and focuses on some relatively minor point of differentiation. Hopefully, the point is not altogether banal; in my case it’s usually because I like some author’s conclusion but not all of the stages of the case that they’ve built to support it, and usually the stage I don’t like is something theoretical, which allows me to make a broader conceptual point by picking at that particular nit.

[“Nit-picking” is also to be distinguished from “bullshit detecting,” or “blasting the living crap out of an argument that, despite its utter logical absurdity, has unaccountably gotten into the public sphere, at least as measured by its presence in the Outlook section of the Washington Post.” That’s something I plan to do tomorrow with this piece of trash that almost made me spit out my orange juice this morning while reading it over breakfast. Haiti is poor because its citizens practice voodoo? Please. But that’s a rant for another post.]

I want to pick a nit with Dan Drezner, who had an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s Outlook section entitled “The Grandest Strategy of Them All.” While I largely agree with Drezner on the basic points he’s making — US foreign policy is currently without an overall grand strategic direction, the front-runner is probably Lieven and Hulsman’s “ethical realism” (an evaluation which, in my case at least, is undoubtedly affected by the fact that I would prefer to see their Niebuhr-inspired sense of the tragic in politics come back into vogue — it would be a nice corrective to the shiny happy muscular liberal idealism that we presently have on display in USFP), and in any event a putative grand strategy often only looks like a grand strategy when viewed retrospectively with the benefit of hindsight — I want to critique one point in particular that he makes in the course of the argument.

Early in his piece, Drezner approvingly cites Jeffrey Legro’s claim about great power strategies: “Mere dissatisfaction with today’s foreign policy doesn’t guarantee that a new vision will take its place . . . A new strategy must be more than visionary; it must provide attractive and practical solutions to current challenges.” The example referenced is George Kennan’s “containment” policy, which Drezner (and Legro) claims was “a big idea that was both influential and correct.”

Here’s the nit: to say that Kennan’s containment policy was “correct,” and especially to say that Kennan’s containment policy was adopted because it was “correct,” makes little sense to me. I don’t know what it even means to say that containment was a “correct” policy; it seems to me that any such evaluation would be a political rather than an analytical statement, since it would build in all sorts of assumptions about what a policy was supposed to do, whether the results generated were desirable ones, and — most importantly — an assumption that the speaker can somehow produce an analysis of the situation into which the policy was articulated that is somehow not affected by that policy itself. The speaker claims to know what the “real issues” were, and can then use that knowledge to adjudicate questions about the policy — questions that were political questions at the time and, I’d posit, remain political questions up until the time that the speaker is speaking.

Let me try to say this more plainly: it is not possible to determine whether or not Kennan was “correct” in developing and recommending the containment policy, because we (and all speakers with whom we might be having a conversation) inhabit a world that was made, in part, by the containment policy. To evaluate “correctness,” we’d have to first reconstruct the world as it was in 1946-1947, and then consider all of the alternatives and their likely consequences — and this would only work if we could somehow reconstruct 1946-1947 without knowing how the story turned out, lest we rig the game from the outset. This is a lot easier said than done, and as far as I know precisely no historian has ever accomplished this feat; lots of them claim to do so, but if they’re honest, they admit that history is always written from a particular vantage-point, and stop making silly claims about having gotten down to the One True Way That Things Actually Were — which is a place you’d actually have to get in order to make a claim like “the containment policy was right” and have it mean anything scientifically.

Of course, one can make that claim politically without such epistemological strictures, and most historians of the early Cold War can’t resist trying to intervene in such political debates, at least in the conclusion sections of their monographs. This impulse always seemed kind of bizarre to me, since when I went to look at debates in the early Cold War I wasn’t interested in participating in them fifty years after they came to a contingent resolution; I was interested in explaining how they came to the contingent resolutions that they came to. But I digress.

The reason this is important to Drezner’s argument is that it allows him to claim, albeit implicitly, both that we need a “correct” grand strategy and that the “correctness” of a potential grand strategy has something to do with its eventual victory. (Legro calls this, somewhat more ambiguously, the “fit” between a policy and the world.) But his own analysis in the remainder of the piece works against this claim, since he (correctly, in my view) cites domestic-political reasons why particular grand-strategic ideas might or might not catch on: Mandelbaum’s The Case for Goliath won’t catch on because “This approach too closely resembles the Bush administration’s current strategy, and people are looking for change.” Also: “The grand strategy that wins out in the end may be the one that — regardless of specific positions on Iraq or terrorism — convinces Americans that it is possible to have free and fair trade at the same time.” So the emphasis here, once we get past generalizations about “correctness,” seems to be on how well a potential grand strategy and its advocates can knit together a socially sustainable coalition of ideas, principles, rhetorical tropes, and other cultural resources. Not a word about “correctness.”

Indeed, in a widely unread article that Dan Nexon and I wrote in response to Legro’s initial posing of the “fit” mechanism for how policy ideas win out, we argued that

Theories of structural change are specifications of the conditions under which potential shocks will be absorbed by socio-cultural networks, or will aggregate to produce lasting alterations in modes of relating. Legro’s theory covers the most straightforward of such conditions: when the challenge to role expectations is so severe and widespread that a critical mass of actors in the network experience dissonance. When this happens, actors innovate by drawing upon preexisting heterodoxies or combining available roles to produce novel configurations of beliefs and identities. Since the shock is widespread, there exists a good probability that some new orthodoxy will emerge.

Which means: whether some policy “fits” or not is a function of how actors deploy extant cultural resources in their local political and social contexts so as to produce “fit,” and not a function of whether the policy in question really corresponds to some externally existing set of conditions. This is even more obviously the case in 1946-1947, in which the “situation” was ambiguous enough to support a number of more or less valid readings and predictions of likely futures; the adoption of the “containment” policy didn’t so much reflect reality as it shaped reality.

If your institution has an online subscription to Cambridge Journals Online, you can download our article (and Legro’s response) here.

Why am I picking this nit? Because I’d posit that a) what was true of 1946-1947 is equally true of 2006, and that therefore b) which grand strategy (if any) will win out in the present debate about the US role in the world will be determined by its “correctness,” but by how socially plausible it becomes. Although his framing seems to disagree with me, Drezner’s actual analysis of strategic options seems to reinforce my point. The “one strategy to rule them all” (love the LotR reference; kind of surprised that the Post’s editors let him leave it in) will not emerge because of its intrinsic powers of dominion, but because of its cultural location in a web of resources that provides potentials for action, but not inevitable outcomes.

If I had more time, the fact that Drezner mis-characterizes Kofi Annan’s Truman library speech as “idealist” when it’s pretty clearly liberal-institutionalist — a direction in which Truman himself often leaned — would be another nit to pick. If I were to do that I’d also expand on the subtle differences between liberal universalism of the sort that Annan is promoting, and Cold War liberalism of the Truman-Acheson variety (which is more about securing certain centers of power and influence to shore up a liberal order that is only supposed to exist in certain regions of the planet — the “Western” region, actually), and then include yet another gratuitous plug for my book — which, in fairness, actually is about this issue.

But alas, there’s still grading to be done. I’ll have to whip those hobbits harder.

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Film class — week 11

Film #11 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Lee Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders” National Press Club, February 2, 1998.

Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

“Dr. Strangelove” is one of my all-time favorite films and its powerful 40-year old critique of American nuclear deterrence strategy continues to resonate today — even though the cold war is over and contemporary nuclear delivery technologies are much more accurate and deadly.

In the 1998 speech noted above, retired Air Force General Lee Butler — who served as commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command — argues that the comical and absurd premises of “Dr. Strangelove” were all too real throughout the cold war:

I was present at the creation of many of these systems, directly responsible for prescribing and justifying the requirements and technology that made them possible. I saw the arms race from the inside, watched as intercontinental ballistic missiles ushered in mutual assured destruction and multiple warhead missiles introduced genuine fear of a nuclear first strike. I participated in the elaboration of basing schemes that bordered on the comical and force levels that in retrospect defied reason. I was responsible for war plans with over 12,000 targets, many struck with repeated nuclear blows, some to the point of complete absurdity.

Butler adds that American nuclear retaliation against post-cold war threats is “inconceivable;” deterrence itself “serves the ends of evil.”

Given the “stakes of miscalculation” or “of crisis spun out of control,” some of which are emphasized in the film classic, Butler arrived at “a set of deeply unsettling judgements” about nuclear deterrence:

That from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it. That the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists, but the fate of mankind. That the likely consequences of nuclear war have no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification. And therefore, that the threat to use nuclear weapons is indefensible.

Butler’s call for a “reasoned path toward abolition” of nuclear weapons was affirmed by 60 retired generals and admirals, as well as more than 100 current and former heads of state and other senior civilian leaders. See the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons for a report in defense of this conclusion.

Lieber and Press make an argument about nuclear strategy that has been discussed previously here at the Duck of Minerva. Essentially, these scholars warn that the American force posture has nearly achieved nuclear primacy against both Russia and China, which is political science jargon that means a viable first-strike capability.

In the film, of course, General Buck Turgidson makes an argument for launching an “all out and coordinated” nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the midst of the crisis featured in the film. He considers 20 million dead Americans, killed in response to this action, “modest and acceptable civilian casualties.”

Lieber and Press note that the original US nuclear primacy ended about the time “Dr. Strangelove” was made. But because of American techological advancements as well as deterioration in Russian capability, the US may now be able to “think the unthinkable” again.

In “Dr. Strangelove” and in Butler’s account of the cold war, the risk of any nuclear war is doomsday. Lieber and Press worry that American nuclear primacy might invite “crisis instability,” which means that Russian and Chinese leaders might be forced to use their limited nuclear arsenals in any crisis situation. It would be a case of “use ’em or lose ’em,” as was often discussed during the cold war.

A relatively small nuclear strike launched by Russia or China might not invite the doomsday scenario of mutual suicide feared (and perversely, revered) during the cold war, but it would trigger an unprecedented catastrophe.

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Film class — week 7

Film #7 “Red Dawn” (1984). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Hashim. Ahmed S., “Iraq: From Insurgency to Civil War?” 104 Current History, Jan 2005. pp. 10-18. Link requires subscription.

Kaplan, Fred, “How Do We Win in Iraq?” Slate, September 9, 2005.

Krepinevich, Andrew, “The War In Iraq: The Nature of Insurgency Warfare,” Backgrounder, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, June 2, 2004.

Those who have seen it know that “Red Dawn” is not an especially good movie. So why did I select it? Well, I wanted a film that highlights the great difficulty of counterinsurgency warfare — and I wanted a movie that would make students sympathize with the insurgents. Obviously, “The Battle of Algiers” is a better movie with similar themes and plotlines.

In recent weeks, the class has been viewing films about liberal idealism and humanitarian intervention, all from the point-of-view of the great power(s) or their proxies involved in the situations. Though the protagonists in “Red Dawn” are American, they are the victims. The Soviet Union and its Cuban allies have attacked and a small Colorado hometown is under occuption (as part of a larger war). The film focuses on the nationalist impulses that motivate the high school student insurgency.

The readings, obviously, are about Iraq and they are all a bit dated. Of course, the publication year really does not matter much for the Krepinevich piece. It provides an excellent summary of the basic dilemma faced by the US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. While the US needs to win both the hearts and minds of the Iraqi civilian population, the insurgency really only needs to win their minds. If the general population becomes convinced that it must live in fear, because the US military and the Iraqi national government cannot provide even basic security, then the insurgency has won their minds.

Machiavelli famously asked in The Prince “whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” He continued:

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Sure, this is a simplification, but it seems apt.

Does the US have any hope in Iraq? Kaplan works through several suggested plans for winning, but none seem particularly promising now.

Hashim addresses the broader problem if the US fails to defeat the insurgency — what happens if the insurgency spills over to civil war? Should US forces remain in Iraq to help one side or another fight a civil war?

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Film class — week 4

Film #4 “The Quiet American” (2002). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Wilson, Woodrow, “Fourteen Points Speech,” 1918.

Kagan, Robert, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, June/July 2002, pp. 3-28.

After several films about World War II and discussion about political realism, it was time to move on to a film about a post-war conflict and liberal idealism. Wilson’s address, of course, is a classic statement of American liberalism. This is his conclusion:

An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle; and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess.

Realists like John Mearsheimer think this is essentially “cheap talk,” providing marketable cover for naked pursuit of interests and power.

In this film, the American Alden Pyle works somewhat covertly to create a “third force” in Vietnam independent of both the communists and the French colonialists. He talks often in the film about “liberty” and the “freedom to choose,” though he is obviously also interested in containing the communists. At one critical moment, Pyle declares, “It’s not that easy to remain uninvolved.” He emphasizes that his goal is to save Vietnam.

When Graham Greene wrote the The Quiet American, European states were losing their colonies and America was in a pre-eminent position of world power. The parallel to 2002 — when this film and Kagan’s article were released — is not perfect, but it is interesting. Kagan basically says that Europeans emphasize multilateralism and law over military force because they are weak. Americans and Europeans share essentially the same broad ideals. They are divided about power.

The film’s central conflict, concerning the fate of Vietnam and America’s role there, is not unlike the US-European divide over the fate of Iraq, and America’s role there.

In this film, at least at the beginning, the British reporter Thomas Fowler is made out to be a cynical European:

I offer no point of view. I take no action. I don’t get involved.

Of course, the French colonialists are involved in Vietnam and England still has a colonial empire. Given the action Fowler takes late in the movie to secure his own personal interests, viewers might be tempted to think of him as a realist critic of Pyle. On the other hand, after witnessing a horrific bombing in a public square, which he blames on Pyle, Fowler seems genuinely moved to principled action.

The bombing makes Pyle seem like a brute — perhaps even a terrorist. He seems to embrace illiberal means to achieve his supposed democratic goals.

Perhaps Fowler is the genuine idealist — and Pyle the realist? Maybe Fowler simply embraces order over ideals?

A personal conflict between the men mirrors (and complicates) the political tension. Pyle and Fowler compete for the affections of a beautiful young Vietnamese woman named Phuong. Their battle is framed in terms that directly coincide with the political struggles:

Let’s just look at Phuong. There’s beauty. There’s daughter of a professor.

Taxi dancer. Mistress of an older European man.

That pretty well describes the whole country.

Phuong is Fowler’s lover at the beginning of the movie, but is drawn to Pyle when Fowler’s personal deceits are revealed.

Which man wins in the end? Does either earn her love?

It’s a provocative and well-done film, but you’ll have to watch it to seek the answers to those questions.

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