Tacitus and the Decline of Republics

Tacitus, the Roman historian, is considered one of the great chroniclers of Rome’s descent into decadence and collapse. In a recent War on the Rocks post, Iskander Rehman likens his descriptions of the mass displays of loyalty and a capricious imperial violence to conditions under authoritarianism, with modern Russia and China as frequent points of comparison. But while some of these ring true, others do not, and Rehman’s piece elides the real likeness that is immediately apparent: the ongoing decline of the American republic as it slips ever closer to barbarism.

This is by no means an omission unique to Rehman. Even today, faced with mounting evidence of the boundless cruelty of the state and the bigoted, avaricious attitudes of its stewards, many Americans refuse to confront the creeping authoritarianism in its midst. Rehman writes, “where Tacitus truly excels is in both his harrowing portrayals of the psychological aspects of life under authoritarian rule and his detailed — and at times anguished — commentary on the quiet inner struggles and daily moral compromises of citizens caught under the deadening weight of tyranny.” But so long as “tyranny” is synonymous only with literal brownshirts and concentration camps – and nothing less – it is impossible to conceive of an America that might possibly be headed in that direction. But as for daily moral compromises? How many compatriots and fellow citizens have not been faced with those, and have to set those qualms and compassions aside lest we find ourselves utterly paralyzed? As Luke O’Neil presciently wrote, about the Trump Administration’s earlier failures to contain COVID-19:

we will come to accept thousands dead every single day as another voice in the churning ambient chorus of suffering we do our best to tune out already much like with gun violence or unnecessary deaths due to the cost of healthcare or the thousands our military kills around the world. Many of us even the “good ones” like me and you already have started to do that in a way right or else how would we manage to function on a daily basis? How do you get up and measure out the coffee and heat up the water and poke your stupid face into the fridge for a nice piece of fruit every morning without pretending if at least for a while that no one is dying outside your walls?

The utter collapse of federal capacity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the extent to which “meritocracy” has been exposed as a myth and how any pretense of capability has been erased or suppressed from national-level government. Rehman again quotes Tacitus: “In an environment governed by risk aversion and in which advancement was often more dependent upon imperial good graces than on actual merit, the overt pursuit of excellence could prove perilous. ” However, rather than make the obvious connection to our own hollowed-out bureaucracy and ongoing attempts to fully politicize executive branch agencies, he instead cites the various anti-corruption drives of Xi Jinping as “paralyzing” on low-level officials.

Such comparisons are not necessarily wrong, but Tacitus’s writing on the process of decline bears much more relation to the United States under Donald Trump than to already-authoritarian China or Russia. Superficially, as well: the vicious emperor Domitian is described by Suetonius as taking:

“a personal insult to any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his appearance,” even publishing a haircare manual in which he whined about his capillary loss. Suetonius, ever one for colorful anecdotes, recounts how, in his spare time, the disturbed ruler would while away the hours in solitude “catching flies — believe it or not — and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”

Echoes of “very nasty questions,” the ongoing saga of Trump’s own hair, and his ability to take anything personally resound, though the idea of having the dexterity necessary to catch a fly beggars belief.

The idea of total obsequiousness and complete burial of facts under a flurry of ass-kissing is relatively new within the federal government: while toadies have always abounded, so too have professionals more concerned with the truth and due process than with satisfying the whims of the president. Unfortunately, they were all run out of their posts by halfway through 2019.

Sextus Julius Frontinus, another governor of Roman Britain serving later under Vespasian, is also presented in the Agricola as a “truly great man” — but only “as far as circumstances would permit,” or only so long as his reputation did not overshadow that of the emperor.

How many administration officials have been ousted because Trump believed them to be getting “too much credit”? How has much of America been on pins and needles waiting for the same fate to befall Anthony Fauci, who has demonstrated a rare willingness to acknowledge unpopular truths, and whose stock in the White House dropped as the American public’s confidence in him grew? (Compared with, for instance, Deborah Birx.) Rehman draws the conclusion that:

Reading Tacitus, one is therefore continuously reminded of the debilitating effects that such caution-driven behavioral patterns can have on authoritarian societies, and of democracies’ ability to more fully draw on their reservoirs of human potential.

Perhaps this is true, but then so is the fact that the United States isn’t much of a democracy any longer. It is in the past week that the choice has become stark, thanks to the secret police tactics being used by unidentified federal agents in Portland, Oregon. Snatch-and-grabs, kidnappings, unmarked vans: these are the tools of a regime long past any pretense of legitimacy.

In an almost irredeemably corrupt political environment where fear, opportunism, and violence run rampant, the line between the oppressor and the oppressed becomes increasingly hard to discern over time as citizens weld themselves — and their bleeding conscience — to the state in a desperate bid for survival.

Police? Federal law enforcement? Military? Boogaloo boys? Three-percenters? All look alike; all blur together. Fortunately the United States has not yet reached the point of outright executions and show trials, but recent pardons of war criminals and white-collar felons alike show how the very idea of “justice” continues to grow ever more perverted under this regime.

To his credit, Rehman closes the piece by arguing that:

[T]he leaders of our troubled democracies would certainly gain from keeping a well-thumbed edition of the great Roman historian’s works within close reach — not as a guide to power but, rather, as an enduring reminder of the fickleness of human nature, of the pathologies of authoritarianism, and of the preciousness of the liberal political tradition increasingly under siege here at home.

So perhaps it’s not so much that we disagree, but rather how far along in the process we are. How far have we fallen? How long will it take to reach the bottom? And if, as it was for Tacitus, withdrawal, resignation, and/or ritual suicide are all inadequate to the challenge posed by tyranny…what then?

The Distance to Tehran

In one of my previous jobs, I was tasked with revising a severely outdated briefing on Iran, to serve as the intelligence estimate for a planners’ training course. I did a good job but found the whole exercise a bit of a waste, given that we were clearly pivoting towards Asia and Great Power conflict – or at the very least trying not to get bogged down in wars with relatively second-tier states whom we could safely engage in diplomatic or deterrent relationships.

I hate that everything I learned from updating the intel estimate is useful. I hate that I know a bunch about the government, military, and security services of a country that, frankly, ought to be a strategic partner in a generation. And I hate that now planners might actually use that knowledge not as an exemplar to be deployed against meaningful adversaries, but as the actual basis for operational planning – again, targeting a country whose status as an adversary isn’t terribly older than I am.

I think enough has been said at this point about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani (read Evan Osnos and Adam Entous’s New Yorker piece for more) that I don’t need to go into any great detail here. But there are two aspects of this that signal frustrating trends in foreign policy thinking, beyond the mere mental gymnastics and reality distortions needed simply to try and understand what Donald Trump is even saying, much less what he means. As far as that goes, Adam Elkus has written the definitive essay on the pandemonium of epistomological modernity in the age of Trump.

It is immensely frustrating that we even have to keep discussing Iran as some sort of permanent enemy or center of gravity for the United States. The animosity between the two is real but constantly stoked despite the absence of any true ideological clash between Tehran and Washington. As numerous articles have pointed out, in the months after 9/11, Iranian and US forces partnered together in Afghanistan and Iran played an important and constructive role in the Bonn Conference that established a post-Taliban government.  This isn’t to say that Iran is a benign actor, but rather that there have been opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation that we, to put it bluntly, used to be better at taking advantage of. It helps if you aren’t implacably hostile, which leads to diplomatic possibilities like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which this administration has, unsurprisingly, withdrawn (indeed, John Bolton recently listed that and the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty as his proudest accomplishments). And much of animosity on both sides is generational – the weird MEK fanboys of Bolton’s generation won’t be in power forever (inshallah) and neither will the Iran-Iraq War veterans currently populating the upper ranks of the IRGC and Artesh.

Given a generation of change, it’s likely we could see a wholly new type of relationship. As recently as 2012, a majority of Iranians had favorable opinions of Americans. Young Iranians don’t share the animosity of older policymakers in either country (at least, they didn’t before the Soleimani strike). This, to me, is the greatest tragedy of the neocon obsession with Iran. It’s obliterated any chance at reconciliation or a “normal” relationship, finding venues of cooperation where interests overlap while accepting the fundamental legitimacy of the other (not unlike the cycles of competition and cooperation that have marked the U.S.-Russian relationship). I’m not exactly a fan of the Iranian theocracy, but it also represents neither an existential threat nor a hugely valuable prize to be won: it is a country with which we could have a productive relationship if we desired. But we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Counterterrorism cooperation was at an all-time high with Tehran before David Frum wrote George W. Bush’s speech placing Iran in the “Axis of Evil” and that was that; Washington was now implacably opposed to the Islamic Republic’s very existence. The prospects of peace have never seemed dimmer.

And so Iran seems to be – aside from the cascading consequences of the Iraq War – our main raison d’etre in the Middle East. The mistake is both specific and generic. Iran is  not of national interest to the United States. And Martin Indyk – an old Middle East hand – has now made the case in the Wall Street Journal that the region is one of no pressing strategic interest to the United States and that we should seek to disengage, that “the Middle East isn’t worth it anymore.” He’s right. Every deployment, every operation conducted in the region seems to just serve as self-justification. We’re there because we’re there. We’re staying because we’re there. We have to protect our forces there because that’s where they are.

But what if they weren’t? What if we could finally exricate ourselves from a decades-long quagmire and acknowledge that, to put it bluntly, the Middle East does not matter to our interests or our security, and that stoking tensions while propping up theocratic monarchies does much more harm than good, all while draining attention and valuable resources?

Iran shouldn’t matter. And the Middle East needs far less attention than its been receiving.

Chinese Tourism “Exports”

Timothy Taylor, referencing a recent IMF report on China’s account surplus, writes that China’s trade surplus has essentially vanished, in large part due to huge increases in outbound tourism:

Clearly, one big change is that China has started running a trade deficit in services (an area where the US economy runs a trade surplus). The main reason seems to be a large increase in outbound Chinese tourism, because in trade statistics, international tourists are in effect “importing” goods produced in other countries. The IMF economists write: “China’s tourism balance, mostly on account of outbound tourism, has swung from a small surplus of around 5bn USD in 2008 to a deficit of nearly 250bn USD in 2018, driven by the increasing purchasing power of the middle class and an appreciating currency. … [T]he trend is undeniable. It is also borne out by an almost fourfold increase in the number of Chinese outbound visitors – from 46mn in 2008 to 162mn in 2018.”

The IMF report goes on to explain that China’s modest account surplus “is expected to turn into a small deficit in the medium term as the structural factors…continue to drive up imports and moderate exports.”

One artificial means of slowing the rise in imports, however, might also have domestic political benefits for Zhongnanhai. Xiaochen Su highlights recent travel restrictions to Taiwan imposed on the residents of 47 Chinese cities, and suggests that this may only be the start. It would be a true win-win for the CCP: reduce exposure to “Western liberal values” abroad while also denying countries the tourist income from Chinese visitors. As Su writes:

The Chinese government, to prevent Chinese citizens from learning unwanted Western liberal values abroad, could increasingly seek to limit the scope of Chinese outbound travel in the near future. On one hand, as is the case for Taiwan, independent travel, in which travelers have more opportunities to interact freely with locals, could be banned in favor of group travel that allows licensed and “politically correct” travel agencies to closely monitor travelers. On the other hand, the government could simply make the process of acquiring a passport more stringent, with ever higher education, income, and even professional requirements that make most of its citizens unqualified and ineligible for a passport. Using such methods, the government can better ensure that only those it wants to travel abroad can travel under circumstances that do not allow them to stray from the standard Chinese political discourse they hear at home.

So will the Chinese tourist export boom fade away? Su is right to argue that Western countries should avoid kowtowing to certain demands from Beijing in order to keep the tourists coming, given that their numbers may well be limited in the near future owing solely to domestic Chinese policy. But if travel is curtailed, will it be possible to divert the yuan that would otherwise have been spent abroad to domestic consumption? Otherwise, China’s “merely extraordinary” savings glut might head upwards once again, contributing to the ongoing global slowdown.

No Need for Ideological Kinship

Further proving the point of my last post, the protests in Hong Kong are now seeing some…interesting visitors, as reported by @HongKongHermit:

As one might expect, this generated a dozen competing narratives as to why Azov would show up in the first place: was it anti-communist solidarity? Proof that the protesters really are “Western fascists?” Some kind of “false flag” operation? Beijing’s supporters were quick to seize upon their presence to discredit the protests in general. See, for instance, the explanation as offered by Sputnik:

It’s unclear why the groups, sporting the apparel of a far-right hooligan group called “Honor” or “Gonor,” have gone to Hong Kong, but the fact that both the 2014 Ukrainian coup and the present protests in Hong Kong have enjoyed extensive support from the CIA-spawned National Endowment for Democracy may give a clue.

Few protest organization seem to have taken the bait, but demonstrations like the one full of Trump and MAGA gear are sure to attract the worst possible people attempting to prove their own bona fides. (The phenomenon extends to US politicians, too.)

https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/191128115207-09-hong-kong-protest-1128-restricted-exlarge-169.jpg

The most pressing question, to me, though, is how Azov was able to enter Hong Kong in the first place, given previous denials of entry in Denmark and Czechia, at least. That’s the only part of this that seems as if it might have carried the tacit blessing of the CCP, and if I were trying to quietly discredit the protests, doing so through damned associations, allowing neo-Nazis and foreigners in to show their support, would be an easy way to do so.

But on th eother hand, it could just be relatively lax border controls and the attraction of right-wing moths to a flame.

The Global Crisis of Legitimacy

The main thrust of John Robb’s thesis in Brave New War – and the focus of much of his writing at Global Guerrillas – was the globalization of terrorism and the proliferation of tactics and “best practices” across borders. The same applies to nonstate movements writ large, as Branko Milanovic writes:

Revolutions of 2019, I think, presage a new breed of globalist revolutions. They are not part of the same and easily recognizable ideological pattern. They respond to local causes, but have a global element in the ability of communicate with each other (Catalan protesters imitated blockade of public infrastructure started by the Hong Kong protesters). Perhaps more importantly, they encourage each other: if Chileans are able to stand up, why not Colombians? If there is a single ideological glue to them, it is, I think, desire to have one’s voice heard. At the time of tectonic political shifts where politicians and old ideologies have lost much of their credibility, a thing which has not lost its credibility is the desire and the right to be heard and counted.

The present global crisis is one of legitimacy, of the right to be heard and to participate in the mechanisms of governance. Much of that can be attributed to political elites, and by extension capital, wanting to surrender none of their advantages, no matter the consequences. Watching from abroad at demonstrations around the world, united not in common cause so much as a common grievance, the question remains when the fires might spread here. The United States is suffering from no less a democratic deficit than many other nations but has yet to see similar outbreaks of political protest on such a scale.

I do wonder if the lack of ideological coherence across these movements will prove counterproductive or indeed, even further contribute to the sense of a worldwide crackup. The ability to adopt effective tactics without requiring adherence to a particular cause might well make some of the smaller separatist movements and other localist phenomena more viable, enabling even minor movements to achieve some measure of success (even if just recognition). But in any event, it’s clear that across the globe, governments must pay more heed to the governed, lest the widening gyre open into an abyss.

Quick Thoughts on INF

Another treaty – this time, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) – slain by John Bolton, the unilateralest man alive. It will come as no shock that I find this move misguided, executed in bad faith, and sure to have counterproductive second- and third-order effects. Bolton’s single-minded hostility to the very notion of arms control should be cause for skepticism. It is on his watch that multiple cornerstones of the late Cold War arms control regime have been dismantled.

INF withdrawal, in particular, should be condemned on two main grounds: those of principle and those of logic. U.S. intent to leave the treaty fails on both counts.

Moral/Principle

Arms control is itself almost always a net good. It brings together party-states in dialogue and discussion (itself a confidence-building measure), and when accompanied by measures like on-site inspections and periodic review committee meetings, ensures the basis for continuing conversation and face-to-face meetings. Treaties represent the culmination of a decade or more of negotiations and hard-fought compromises and should never be dismissed lightly; e.g., for anything less than a grave and imminent threat to national security. The SSC-8 decidedly does not rise to this level.

By leaving the INF, the United States concedes the moral high ground to Russia. Regardless of whether the SSC-8’s range does or does not violate the treaty, a violation is qualitatively different from a dismantling. In the eyes of allies and the world, the United States has chosen yet again to abrogate a treaty that has dampened nuclear tensions for decades, irrespective of other details. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen have more on some of these aspects.

Furthermore, Keeping ground-launched nuclear platforms out of Europe for a generation has been a welcome development in continental affairs. The prospect of jettisoning a bulwark of allied strategic stability has surely been unwelcome (if not unexpected) in European capitals.

Practical/Logical

A subset of China hawks argue that membership in INF has placed us at a perpetual disadvantage in the Western Pacific, by virtue of constraining our own missile development while the PLA Rocket Force continues to deploy mass quantities of ballistic missiles throughout the theater.  But this argument falls flat when considered at any level deeper than “they’ve got them so we must too.”

US Territories Map

Where would such weapons be based in the region? Guam, presumably. But that faces challenges of its own. As Pranay Vaddi writes for Carnegie:

Guam is small, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Only a portion of that territory would be suitable for basing GBIRs. Given these space constraints, deploying GBIRs on Guam would lessen the survivability advantage that mobile missile systems usually provide by being dispersed across a vast geographic expanse (as demonstrated by China’s own mobile missile force). Additionally, the already significant U.S. military presence makes Guam an early target in any conflict with China.

So where else? Given recent debates over conventional forces in Okinawa, that can safely be ruled out, and so too other Japanese bases. Placing U.S. missiles in Taiwan or the South China Sea would so provocative a move as to preclude consideration. And once you get to Wake and beyond, you’re into ICBM range, so INF-noncompliant systems don’t provide a lot of additional capability.

All of this raises a larger issue: do we really have a capability shortfall in the Western Pacific? It’s unclear whether INF withdrawal advocates think we need IRBMs of our own to counter ships or to hold the Chinese mainland at risk, but in the case of the former, we lack the targeting kill chain to enable ballistic missile usage against moving targets (like, say, a Chinese CV). The Minuteman III uses a guidance system better-for fixed, albeit small, targets.

But it is also for this reason that U.S. precision weapons development traveled down alternative paths. Instead of a GLCM, we have the TLAM with a thousand-mile range that can be launched from submarines and surface combatants alike. The Strategic Capabilities Office – at least for now – continues to pursue new uses for existing platforms, like repurposing the SM-6 SAM into an antiship cruise missile. Between stealthy platforms, standoff munitions, and existing global strike capabilities, the United States can already – and easily – hold Chinese ships, units, and land targets at risk. Other than sheer numbers, what capabilities do new in-theater platforms have to offer?

Another argument, made in even worse faith, is the fact that the INF Treaty does not include China. This follows on the heels of unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a plan to constrain Iranian nuclear weapons – for not addressing Iranian missile development. Perhaps an arms control regime ought to include more than the original signatories: China has the largest missile arsenal in the world and there are obvious arms-race implications for this. But this in turn would suggest Indian participation in such a regime, and thus Pakistan’s, and so on. The difficulty in achieving such a multilateral agreement is the same reason there has be no movement on multilateralizing the nuclear disarmament movement. And it is for this reason that a painstakingly negotiated accord between two countries should not be thrown away for want of a third. U.S.-Russian INF is a building block for future expansion. A treaty addressing one subject is not defunct because it doesn’t address another.

INF is worth preserving. It is worth additional discussion between both parties to it, and more immediately, a real discussion on how best to enforce arms control arrangements (this is, perhaps, the most pressing issue for the future of INF, New START and any future progress on arms control). I found Rebecca Hersman, the CSIS PONI Director, to have one of the few decent ways forward if we must leave the treaty:

  1. We should declare that while in a post-INF world the United States can test and deploy ground base and intermediate range missile systems however, it has no need or intention to do so. We have the principle, but we do not need the capabilities.

  2. We should make clear that the U.S. stands for the principle of compliance. We also believe international agreements should be judged independently on their merits and on that basis that New START should be extended.

And even more to the point, it is Russia that has violated the INF Treaty. If the treaty is to wither and die, it should be Russia who lets it – not the United States.

China and Ecuadorean Oil

In an ongoing attempt to sketch the borders of China’s challenge to the Left, some brief thoughts/quotes on Ecuador and resource extraction.

Patrick Iber in Dissent on the “Pink Tide” in Latin America:

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clearer that the Pink Tide was made possible by a boom in the global price of commodities. That boom structured both its achievements and its limitations. Latin-American economies have long been exporters of primary products and importers of finished ones; most industrial production is destined for internal markets. In the early 2000s, rapid growth in India and China drove up the price of primary products, from oil to lithium to soybeans. This gave governments the ability to spend money on social welfare and development, satisfying—at least in part—the needs of their political bases without making fundamental structural changes to their economies or their position in the global system of trade…

Policies under Rafael Correa’s government [in Ecuador] have frequently strengthened the state while weakening organizations in civil society. Correa preferred initiatives that provided reliable support to his political project rather than ones that could advance democratic and egalitarian goals. But the organizations created by the state to compete or replace more self-organized associations have not succeeded, and they have the potential to become instruments of control and demobilization.

And from Jacobin’s Pink Tide retrospective in 2017:

In Ecuador during the boom years, this model provided crucial revenues for social spending. But in the context of an economy like Ecuador’s, which is still dominated by oligopolistic markets, these revenues were mostly transformed into private-sector profits.

They provided people with spending money, but they spent it in private-sector controlled markets. It was the private sector that truly reaped the benefits of that increased social spending.

The continuing reliance on oil revenues seems to have left it both a first and last resort to continued government financing. The main benefactor of this has been China:

Last November, Marco Calvopiña, the general manager of Ecuador’s state oil company PetroEcuador, was dispatched to China to help secure $2 billion in financing for his government. Negotiations, which included committing to sell millions of barrels of Ecuador’s oil to Chinese state-run firms through 2020, dragged on for days. Calvopiña grew anxious and threatened to leave…

Shunned by most lenders since a $3.2 billion debt default in 2008, Ecuador now relies heavily on Chinese funds, which are expected to cover 61 percent of the government’s $6.2 billion in financing needs this year. In return, China can claim as much as 90 percent of Ecuador’s oil shipments in coming years, a rare feat in today’s diversified oil market.

“This is a huge and dramatic shift,” said Rene Ortiz, a former Ecuadorean energy minister and secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Never before has Ecuador committed its oil to a lender.”

This is the nexus of several trends at once: fossil fuel dependence, a non-diversified resource extraction-intensive economy, a lack of internal markets sufficient to generate revenues to support a good and robust social safety net (and as the Jacobin piece makes clear, the failure to create a more vigorous political project). China is there to take advantage of it. So why is that sub-optimal?

  1. It surrenders control of its own production to China, by ensuring the diversion of its oil to them for a period of years
  2. It constrains budgets by diverting government funds to repayment for loans
  3. It further enriches speculators and enlarges the oil market as the province of traders rather than simply producers and consumers (with all the commodity disruption that portends)

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access cites Ecuadorean oil as one example of an “unfair” economic deal that offers some benefits but “also carr[ies] costs to host country sovereignty.” In the case of Ecuador, that might well mean constraining the ambitious welfare and social justice programs begun under Rafael Correa. It’s further proof that social programs will have to be accompanied by decarbonization, and soon.

Sanctions and Financial Warfare in the 21st Century

In July of this year, China’s first regiment of S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems was delivered by Russia and accepted into PLA service. The following month, Russia confirmed that the last 10 Su-35s of an order for 24 would arrive by the end of 2018. The deals were originally signed, respectively, in 2015 and 2014, with S-400 negotiations having started as far back as 2011.

Now, some months later, the United States has decided that sanctions are the appropriate tool to “punish” China for violating other sanctions against Russian entities including Rosboronexport, under the 2017 “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA). The Chinese CMC’s Equipment Development Department and its chief will be barred from conducting financial transactions in the United States.

Beijing, naturally, has no intention of putting an end to its weapons purchases from Moscow.

But leaving aside the inexplicable timing (and apparent ex post facto application) of such a decision, it would seem foolish on its face. Not only is the interstate arms trade something that the United States – given its position as the world’s largest arms dealer – would seem to want to leave relatively unregulated, but to try and interfere in a commerce arrangement between two Great Powers has historically not ended well for the interloper. Imposing CAATSA-related sanctions also ignores the existing Western arms embargo against China, dating back to the Tiananmen Square massacre, and which Beijing has managed to circumvent for years through various financial mechanisms and yuan-denominated transactions. Sanctions must be a limited tool in order to have effect, and applying them in this way further weakens their utility.

The possible Chinese and/or Russian countermoves are numerous: sanctions of their own against big US (and multinational) defense contractors; pricing their own arms as “loss leaders” to displace US primacy in various markets, particularly Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe; economic punishment of US client regimes (e.g., the UAE, South Korea, Egypt), etc. In fact, the latter can already be seen with China’s immediate critical reaction to the US sale of F-16 fighter equipment to Taiwan. The sale is hardly news—and consists mostly of sustainment material for existing platforms that were previously themselves protested—but the Chinese response represents the first step in an emerging economic counteroffensive; a second front in the ongoing trade wars.

Now, you might ask, might this not just be cutting off the nose to spite the face? After all, if China financially punishes Saudi Arabia or Turkey for buying American weapons, they make it so much less likely that those nations would consider turning to Chinese or Russian imports in the future. But arms sales themselves are more than purely transactional; they are potential tools of statecraft. Look at India’s attempt to “balance” between the United States and Russia: a few P-8Is and F-16s here, a few batteries of S-400s there (the latter, however, requiring a CAATSA waiver, which has so far been promised by the Pentagon but has yet to appear). Rarely does capability alone factor into a major international arms deal; see the long list of US arms deals facilitated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency for an idea of their importance to Washington. When capabilities are the overriding reason to obtain a system, it can have geopolitical implications of its own – see Turkey’s ongoing acquisition of the S-400 for an example of exceeding the unwritten rules of acquisition.

Not only has a CAATSA waiver failed to materialize for India’s S-400s, but so too is there nothing resembling an exception to reimposed US sanctions on Iran, following the abandonment of JCPOA. This has had the potential of threatening Indian access to and “special privileges” at the Iranian port at Chah Bahar should India seek to replace its imports of Iranian oil (Chah Bahar itself a reaction to China’s development of the Pakistani Port of Gwadar). All is related; nothing in isolation.

But while it might seem, at least to the grinning faces in the Cabinet Room, that CAATSA represents a trump card (so to speak), it is in reality an unimaginative approach without any sort of backup plan. Should sanctions fail, then what? Unfortunately, the US overreliance on sanctions – as well as an insistence on mirroring rather than proportionality – has begun to generate a global financial regime wholly independent of the United States.

Nothing says that sanctions beget sanctions, or that tariffs must be exchanged tit for tat. One needn’t respond with identical measures so long as the response is proportional, unless escalation is the goal. Consider the “side-principle” rule articulated in Unrestricted Warfare:

Other means…supplement, enrich, or even replace military means, so as to achieve objectives which cannot be achieved by military force alone. This has been the most important episode of the side element’s modifying the principal element in relation to war on the basis of a conception of war … The side-principal rule is opposed to all forms of parallel placement, balance, symmetry, being all-encompassing, and smoothness, but, instead, advocates using the sword to cut the side. Only by avoiding frontal collisions, will it be possible for your sword to cut apart things without being damaged. This is the most basic grammar of victory for the ancient article of war [emphasis mine].

For instance, in reference to the ongoing trade war, Dean Baker has done an ample job illustrating that China could do far worse than simply retaliate with their own tariffs: US corporations stand to lose tens if not hundreds billions of dollars of intellectual property if the CCP were to opt out of enforcing copyright law. (Indeed, some version of this has already begun, albeit incidentally, as a thriving Chinese market in imitation/”homage” goods goes unchecked.)

Focusing on the trade war as a binary loses sight of the global picture, and as in so many other realms, the United States is no longer “indispensable” when it comes to international finance, either.

Indeed, on 25 September, the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Germany, France, and the UK (the latter three representing the EU) issued a joint statement committing them to continued adherence to JCPOA, and more importantly, to establishing a “special purpose vehicle,” a separate payments system to allow them to process transactions without touching US financial institutions. The SPV, according to Federica Mogherini, would “allow European companies to trade with Iran in accordance with EU law and could be open to other partners in the world.” Essentially, the SPV is a new means of subverting US sanctions on a multilateral basis, and should it prove successful in allowing the EU (and possibly India) to continue supporting the JCPOA and doing business with Iranian companies, could portend a future of decreasingly effective unilateral sanctions.

The rise of economic sanctions has been well-traced, and in the era of imperial presidencies, have been an easy way for Congress to reinsert itself at least somewhat into foreign policy-making. But the ensuing American way of war – airpower, special operations forces, and sanctions – has not been a productive one. Overreliance on sanctions leading to the development of a US-less financial system would be an own goal, indeed. Coupled with the rise of other shadow economies, like cryptocurrencies, dark pool trading, and alternative international settlement mechanisms (not to mention the already-challenging problem of nested shell corporations and beneficial owners), unilateral sanctions will continue to lose their effectiveness as targets increasingly find ways around them.

As Peter Harrell and Elizabeth Rosenberg argued in Foreign Policy earlier this year, “the reckless use of U.S. sanctions could speed the migration of China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries away from U.S. markets and currency. The Trump administration needs a major new effort to understand and adapt to potential risks that threaten to reduce the power of U.S. sanctions.” No such effort was undertaken. And the migration has indeed sped up.

US grand strategy in the twenty-first century has been almost entirely counterproductive. Adversaries like Russia and China were likely to pursue alternatives to the US-dominated financial system at some point, but by multilateralizing opposition to that system (and ensuring that even our allies want an alternative) we have made our position more tenuous even sooner. The seeds the foreign policy establishment has planted over the past few decades are starting to fruit, and we will find the taste not at all to our liking.

To What End?

In the New York Times, C.J. Chivers has published an excerpt from his upcoming The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, an absolutely blistering condemnation of our present forever war in southwest Asia, told through the story of a young Army enlistee sent to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2008. Disillusionment – with fruitless rebuilding, a recalcitrant populace, and an Afghan Army just trying to survive – quickly follows.

While the story is framed by Robert Soto’s enlistment, tours in Afghanistan (and Haiti, and Iraq), and eventual honorable discharge, it’s essentially a meaningless microcosm of a much larger strategic debacle. Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake, indeed?

Chivers’s pinpoint analysis of the utter insanity associated with our continued Afghan presence leapt out. This is going to be a long pull-quote, but it’s necessary in order to capture the extent of our folly and the limitless horizon it seems to occupy:

In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.

More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

We’re still there. We’re still there. It takes a monumental piece like this on occasion to jolt us out of our complacency and to remind us that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, we continue to commit blood and treasure to an astrategic backwater. We don’t do empire on the cheap; we do absentee empire. Somehow, America in Afghanistan has become the imperturbable state of being, a foundational story of how we organize and employ force.

As long as we remain at war without reason or end, it is hard to take any “natsec” debate seriously. What is the point of threatening Iran or saber-rattling at North Korea (much less doubling down on tactical nuclear weapons) when we can’t even conduct an orderly withdrawal from a war that exists due solely to institutional inertia? Why argue over Pacific force postures or basing regimes in Europe or deterrence and “credibility” when the only strategy on display has been one that compels us to repeatedly bang our collective head against the adamantine wall of the Hindu Kush?

There is no compelling purpose, no strategic excuse, no reasonable explanation for our continued presence in Afghanistan. It is a mistake compounded by error exacerbated by political cowardice, and countless innocents abroad (as well as 7,000 Americans) have suffered for it. We’ve squandered the first fifth of the 21st century on deranged bloodletting and Sisyphean idiocy. Only by admitting that can we begin to stop, and to breathe, and to consolidate at home.

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: A Review

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is one of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job and takes a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation). The macroeconomic state of a nation – its accounts payable, its gross national product, its collective receipts – are, to Kennedy, inextricably linked to its place on the world stage. The correlation is obvious, but is the causation there?

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the “East” fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It’s not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz’s alternate history essay in Unmaking the West , “Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China.” (One of Pomeranz’s points is that in the United Kingdom, coal deposits were mined in relatively close proximity to waterways and also the metropole; in China, much of the coal is to be found far in the northwest hinterlands, far away from a means of transportation and major population centers.) In Kennedy’s telling, it is the governance failures of China and the Mughals – and in the case of the latter, an increasingly rapacious program of taxation, offering nothing by way of return to the tax base – coupled with a lack of industrialization that can explain their relative early fall.

Kennedy has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national “incomes” in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate (part of the reason Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was so celebrated was its painstaking collection and analysis of detailed financial records dating back centuries – one of the first times it had been done). And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here, on the doorstep of the present, that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems … Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia’s military-political leadership – without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to ‘survive’ for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy’s prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it…is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier … In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called ‘imperial overstretch’.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. “The most decisive” international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, “was the split between the USSR and Communist China,” which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth – this towards the tail end of Deng’s rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had “roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger.” All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American “statecraft” in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means – with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: “an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash.” We’ve almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn’t single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more ‘natural’ share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: “the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore…is a need to ‘manage’ affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.” This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century – a superpower in decline – than so far we have surely failed to meet it.