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.

Learning to Live With Pyongyang’s Bomb

I have a new article out in The Diplomat, on the strategic advantages of coming to terms with North Korean nuclear weapons:

As the North Korean “crisis” continues to unfold, any negotiations, including the possible (albeit unlikely) Trump-Kim summit, represent a significant strategic opportunity for coming decades — even if today’s official policy goals are never achieved.

Pyongyang and Washington must come to terms with two realities: North Korea will not surrender its nuclear arsenal; the United States will not withdraw its support for South Korea. But once the U.S. policymaking apparatus accepts this, the aperture of the possible widens. By tacitly acquiescing to North Korea’s nuclear status — and in the process, securing concessions on advance warning and notifications, among other subjects — the United States could partially supplant China as a patron (in a limited sense), simultaneously shoring up peninsular stability and presenting China with a new security challenge on its own border, requiring the diversion of forces and materiel.

A North Korea no longer beholden to Beijing would dilute Chinese strategic attention, with the Yalu River joining the Western Pacific Ocean, Indo-Chinese flashpoints, Belt and Road, and mounting internal unrest as key security foci for the Central Military Commission. None of this requires in any way weakening the U.S. commitment to South Korea. Continued joint exercises and a military presence are key both for the United States’ overall Indo-Pacific posture as well as its readiness to defend Seoul if North Korea should renege or a more revanchist leader emerge. Nor does it mean abandoning U.S. nonproliferation obligations. This is the geopolitical jujitsu of nuclear recognition: rather than allow China to use North Korea as a wedge between Washington and Seoul, by dislodging North Korea from its current firmament it would be positioned as a potential threat to China as well, tying up forces and resources in the Northern Theater Command that might otherwise be deployed elsewhere. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo would have the freedom to turn their attention to the larger looming strategic issue: China itself.

Rethinking National Security (or, What the People Want)

T. Greer has published an absolute corker of an essay on Scholar’s Stage. Intended as a call to action against the complacency and stagnation of the modern foreign policy and national security community, he points to the continued disinterest most people from across the American political spectrum hold for foreign affairs, and submits that we will never be able to meet the challenge posed by a rising China without obtaining the consent – and desire – of the public writ large.

The piece is commendable, not least for Greer’s clearheaded thinking on what it means to have a strategy in the first place:

Responding to the rise of the People’s Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

Even if you don’t believe that it’s China, specifically, which poses a looming threat to the United States and the West writ large, the idea that tradeoffs are necessary is one sorely lacking from today’s modern defense discussions. So too is language that reflects what analysts truly believe. Those debates we do have are petty and trivial while ignoring core, fundamental questions: what is the national interest? What actually constitutes a threat? What can we safely table and deemphasize because we cannot emphasize everything? Phil Walter has talked about “majoring in the minors,” and that’s an apt phrase for what American foreign and security policy has been for the past 20 years: a focus on penny ante terrorism and third-rate regional countries (I hesitate to call them “powers”) at the expense of anything resembling big-picture thinking.

Dismantling the careerism and shibboleths of the defense establishment will be vital in charting a new course for the future. What we’re doing now, to the extent it can be characterized as a coherent strategy or even a singular set of goals, clearly isn’t working. We are long overdue for a major reassessment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of my generation’s lifetime so far, and the people who advocated it should forever be unwelcome in The Discourse (and certainly never listened to if hawking an even more devastating overseas intervention). North Korea can be managed and contained without requiring military action or bellicose language.

Our endless obsession with the Middle East is equally ripe for rethinking. If we are to continue championing the appeal and righteousness of liberal democracy around the world, alliances with fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchies would seem anachronistic at best. Which vision of Islam best aligns with our own self-conceptions? And in terms of “fighting over there to avoid it here,” the threat posed by terrorism is vanishing at most. For the vast majority of the American people, requires but a reassessment of the slight personal risk before accepting it into their everyday lives, on par with the remote possibility of nuclear annihilation or a lightning strike from a vengeful god. The ISIS convert with a panel truck doesn’t worry me, but what does is the exhausted delivery driver from Queens who mistakes the gas pedal for the brakes; not the jihadi with a Kalashnikov but the disgruntled man with an Armalite.

Merely questioning the continued relevance of NATO is enough to send gasps through the national security community. And yet, it is worth considering at the very least what a European security architecture might look like if designed from scratch today. What threats might it counter? To what larger political project and integration might it contribute? What would be the geographical limits of its membership? Its operations? In short, we must evaluate what we need rather than what we have, and then try to make up the difference. This, too, is an area where the foreign policy establishment seems to be blind to alternatives and focused solely on preserving some version of the status quo. To question the existing way of things is not a radical act; it is in fact a best practice to periodically evaluate changes in the environment and adjust accordingly.

In the grand realm of national strategy, there frankly is not much from without that can pose a threat to the United States and the “American way of life,” whatever that might now consist of. Truly “existential” threats, to sidestep a semantic debate, exist solely in form of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, and in terms of broader geopolitical security, China looms as a true challenger in the medium term. Little else is important. And our other “adversaries” are security problems to be managed (and waited out), not solved.

Even with this handful of real challenges, what “the people” demand are peace abroad and reconstruction at home; in the NBC polling that Greer cites, far more millennials are concerned with health care and education in the United States than nebulous threats from abroad. To win them over for those issues we do deem worthy of concerted national effort, it will be necessary to prove that this country is something worth fighting for; that it is part of an international system worth preserving. That this hasn’t been self-evident in recent years is an indictment not of my generation but of the system that has failed us, a system that will have given us worse living standards than our parents. Nobody’s moving, physically or socially. Infastructure is crumbling. Even those few places worth moving to, with decent jobs and transit (though that, too, is crumbling) don’t have enough housing for those fortunate enough to be able to relocate. Segregation and institutionalized racism manifest themselves more prominently than any other point in our lifetimes. And yet we’re tasked with preserving this system?

The first priority of the national security community must be to acknowledge this. To continue blithely on as before, pretending we have still enjoy the highest living standards in the world for everyone and that this will and must be defended at all costs, is ignorant of reality and will achieve nothing.  Acknowledging that this political economy is unsustainable, and that it will require investment, sacrifice, and change of its own on the part of this entire national security community and other certain privileged sectors will be one of our greatest challenges in the years to come.

Ghost Fleet: A Review

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I was a bit late in getting to it, but I was pleasantly surprised by P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. It took a bit of effort to get into it, but the temporal leap the novel takes into years after a second Pearl Harbor attack allows for some very interesting worldbuilding. The United States has been taken down a peg and enjoys little to none of its previous dominance. What does the post-hegemonic era look like for America? How, in the fabled era of “degraded ISR,” can American armed forces operate and conduct operations? While we’re living through that transition now, Singer and Cole explore what that future might actually resemble.

Riddled throughout with trenchant criticisms of the current political-military-industrial complex (such as a “Big Two” defense contractors, numerous references to the failings of the F-35, and the Air Force’s institutional resistance to unmanned air-to-air platforms), the vision fleshed out in Ghost Fleet is not a flattering one to our current state of affairs. At times the references are a bit on the nose, but the degree of underlying wit makes up for it.

If nothing else, the opening sequence helps explain even to the layman the importance of sensor platforms and space-based assets, the US military’s dependence on them, and their exquisite vulnerability. Finite quantities of ship-launched missiles and other material become apparent in a way that can be challenging to discern in real-life operations. Our reliance on Chinese-produced microchips and other advanced technology becomes a easily-exploitable Achilles’ Heel, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries.

A new techno-thriller is, of course, cause for comparison to Tom Clancy, and where this far outshines him is in its willingness to critique technology and current trends in military procurement rather than lauding it unreservedly, while crafting somewhat multi-dimensional characters (some of whom are even not white!). And as I’ve written before, even if wrong in the details, fiction like this helps broaden the aperture a bit and convey the potentialities of future conflict. If not China, then Russia; if not the F-35, then perhaps the long-range strike bomber: things will go wrong, technologies will fail, and the United States may well be caught unawares. Hopefully, with novels such as Ghost Fleet illustrating the cost of unpreparedness, it will be possible to forestall the future it envisions.

Today’s* Unsurprising News

This should come as a shock…to just about no one:

A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive armed forces.

[…]

Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff, told the newspaper that the carrier would not enter other nations’ territories, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.

“All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers – they are symbols of a great nation,” he was quoted as saying.

Of course, the Chinese carrier will primarily be used for “training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship.” If the sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov is any indication, the former Varyag will not be a particularly reliable platform for power projection abroad – Kuznetsov has been at sea for approximately 12 months in total since the year 2000. Along a similar tack as the Chinese, Kuznetsov has remained operational primarily “to preserve its school of deck aircraft pilots.”

Still, any kind of operational Chinese naval aviation platform is an interesting development, even if it has been a long time coming. But for real blue-water capabilities, the world will almost certainly have to wait for China to produce its first domestic carrier.

*It has come to my attention that the Defense News article is actually dated June 8, so not exactly today, per se. Blame Google Reader, I suppose.

A “Historic Moment of Choice”

Chinese Minster of Defense General Chen Bingde delivers remarks at the National Defense University, May 18, 2011.

The most difficult part about watching an official speech – be it on policy or otherwise – is to separate the platitudes from the substance, assuming there is any of the latter. The meat of public remarks can often be found in soundbite form, or on a single slide of a powerpoint presentation. It is also equally possible to sit through an entire thirty minute speech and to hear absolutely nothing that hasn’t been said before.

Fortunately, that was not the case when Chen Bingde spoke at the National Defense University last week. While granted, much of the talk consisted of appeals to American sensibilities and national interests, there were some moments of real substance in it.

General Chen opened by declaring this to be an “official goodwill visit,” and that the Chinese sought mutual respect and benefits for both parties in Sino-American relations. He reminded us that the Chinese name for the United States translated to ‘beautiful country’. Continue reading

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

More Island Chains

Courtesy of The Globe and Mail (and via Information Dissemination) comes this infographic of the range of Chinese naval operations:

Now, if both this map and the “Island Chain Theory” of Chinese strategy are accepted as true, then perhaps China is not as far along as recently thought. China has uncontested control of neither the South China Sea nor the Luzon-Okinawa-Kiyakyushu chain. But is that slow progress the result of capabilities or intent?

The PLAN has grown more than was previously thought, but much of that growth has come from additional submarines – not the most effective offensive weapon to claim and hold territory. Still, it would not be especially difficult for China to assert themselves more unilaterally in the South China Sea especially – the other ASEAN nations have virtually no navies and little recourse to international fora to decry Chinese expansionism.

And still, while Chinese leadership seems to disdain international standards and mores, there is some respect for general global sentiment towards the country. Isolated instances of repression, jailing dissidents, and other such common phenomena in the People’s Republic barely make it to the A section of major newspapers, and usually just as a sidebar item. Most people would hardly notice unless they were looking for it.

But if a major operation were launched – like one to take and secure the Paracels and the Spratlys, and to start building on them – you can be sure the international outrage would be deafening. And that seems to be what CCP leadership hates the most. Not necessarily being lectured or talked to about human rights, but being yelled at. Regardless, the Chinese position vis-a-vis the first island chain should be seen as soft. It may look underdefended and contested, but the PLAN could easily seize key points along it in a heartbeat. For the moment, at least, there is just no need to do so.

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.