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.

Make Do and Mend in the Royal Navy

An interesting pair of posts popped up in my reader almost simultaneously. The first is from Naval Gazing, on the logistics workup early on in the Falklands War:

In a meeting on March 31st, two days before the invasion, the Defense Secretary, John Nott, suggested that it would take five months to muster a task force … The First Sea Lord, Admiral Henry Leach, disagreed. He not only convinced Prime Minister Thatcher that it was possible to recapture the islands, but also promised that he could have a task force ready to go within a week.

This was an incredible claim. Britain had only two carriers, the WWII-vintage HMS Hermes and the new HMS Invincible. They had recently returned from a major exercise, and Hermes was in week two of a six-week stint in the yards, while Invincible’s crew was on leave. One of the two British LPDs, HMS Intrepid, was only weeks away from decommissioning, and her crew had already been dispersed throughout the fleet. All available personnel were immediately put to work, buttoning up Hermes and loading the ships due to go south.

This was a herculean task … Everything for the campaign had to be aboard before they left – food, fuel, and the thousands of items of supplies that make a modern war machine run. … The situation was so desperate that cleanup of the the pile of discarded packing material on the wharves didn’t start for two weeks … Finally, on April 5th, Hermes and Invincible cast off. Hermes’ deck was crowded with Harriers and Sea Kings as she made her way past the cheering spectators. This was not primarily for the spectacle. There was nowhere to put them belowdecks, as the hangar was being used to sort supplies, which had been coming aboard until the gangplanks were withdrawn, and the island had been cloaked in scaffolding a bare day before.

…Perhaps the most impressive case is that of RFA Stromness. She had been placed in reserve before the crisis, and on April 2nd, she was in dock, completely destored and with only a care and maintenance crew aboard. On April 7th, she sailed for Ascension, fully stored, with 358 Marines and a month’s worth of rations for 7,500 men. Much of this work, particularly at Chatham and Gibraltar, was performed by men who had already received their redundancy notices in preparation for the closure of the yards.

In other words, from near-nothingness, the Royal Navy was able to equip and sail a sizable out-of-area naval task force 5,000 miles down the Atlantic in 1982.

The other piece was from “Humphrey” of Thin Pinstriped Line, on “The Utter Pointlessness of Reserve Fleets“:

Forcing a policy of keeping ships in reserve raises difficult questions about how they are supplied, and whether to run on contracts and stores of equipment to be held in readiness to put on them. Were you to reactivate a Type 23, then there will probably be no spare parts in the chain to fit to her. When these parts include minor systems like missile launchers and fire control radars, you quickly realise that a reactivated frigate will be practically defenceless…

For the MOD keeping a reserve force of older Type 23s raises difficult questions … As the Type 23 force reduces, finding spare parts to keep them ready for sea is going to be harder and harder. Reactivating them will require spending money the MOD hasn’t got now on the off chance that they may be needed for sea later.

The problem of material becomes even more challenging when you consider how you maintain enough stocks of munitions and IT systems for a reactivation. Modern munitions are incredibly complex pieces of machinery, designed to do a very specific role and requiring a lot of time and effort to design and support them.

In the 1970s it was significantly easier to bring a ship out of reserve into service when the main armament of many of the Standby Squadron ships was usually some form of light gun (4.5” down to 20mm) and the RN still had a substantial stores depot network filled with legacy equipment, often dating back to well before WW2. For example it was a relatively easy matter to add on additional 40mm Bofors mounts that were manufactured during WW2 to ships going to the Falklands conflict.

Today modern RN does not have stores depots full of legacy weapons. The munitions stockpile does not have vast depots filled with equipment dumped and forgotten about for decades that can be pulled out in a crisis.. There are not random crates of long forgotten dusty VLS seawolf missiles lurking in the back of a tunnel in Copenacre. Modern missiles require care and maintenance, which in turn needs a complex supply chain and support contracts to keep going

Similarly, unlike in the 1960s and 70s where ships were fundamentally very similar to their WW2 era counterparts, modern vessels are built around computer networks and combat systems. These require regular maintenance and upgrading to ensure they are credible. Any ship in reserve is going to either require a lot of work to bring them up to speed and make them compatible with the rest of the Fleet, or it will be required to sail without the essential equipment able to help it fight.

Obviously technology has come a ways since the 1980s, but this seems like more of a surrender than continued development would necessarily warrant. Perhaps the difference here lies in the degree of capability the UK might potentially seek to get out of any mothballed surface combatants – while the Type 21s and County-class destroyers of the Falklands-era Royal Navy were designed with relatively rudimentary guided munitions platforms (and digital CICs), it was only their successors that were designed around VLS tubes, ASM countermeasures, and ASMs of their own.

The older ships revived for the sake of the Falklands crisis were clearly no match for the majority of modern platforms in 2018. Nevertheless, in a high-intensity conflict against a relatively low-tech adversary, it might be worth considering whether the juice is indeed never worth the squeeze, or if, in fact, some additional degree of lower-end capability is still a net and worthwhile gain. Humphrey himself looked at the Type 22 frigates on the eve of their premature scrapping and concluded that the challenges associated in preserving any ability to restore them were overwhelming.

This is, of course, a separate issue from the Royal Navy’s struggles with adequate manning, but that is even more pressing, and I’m not sure what the solution to that – is barring any significant changes to UK defense spending and indeed, overall economic performance, not to mention global threat perceptions.

An Empire, If You Can Keep It

If the Paul Kennedy school of history is accurate (and in case it isn’t obvious, I’m currently making my way through The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers), then, essentially, economic power that could correlate to military power is one of the dominant characteristics of Great Powers through the ages. As long as it remains fungible, military potential backed by a strong economy is one of the surest markers of “Great Power” status.

But what happens when the two diverge? The United Provinces of the Netherlands come to mind as a predominantly economic power that gradually waned – for all its market innovations, there were eventual limits to its naval power (and it was, of course, perpetually vulnerable by land) – and perhaps the decline of Bourbon Spain, although its regression came both in economic and military prowess. Kennedy’s point is that the key lies not in absolute measures, but in relative ones, and so while these never became “poor” countries, per se, their neighbors and other rivals managed to grow more.

Which brings us to modern Germany: a paper tiger (or, as national emblems might have it, a paper leopard). Germany’s economy is, by all accounts, in pretty good shape, and certainly better than much of the rest of the West. And yet its military is decrepit, in worse shape than even the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. As Stars and Stripes reports:

New German capability gaps have been brought to light in recent weeks, piling up on top of old ones that Berlin has failed to fix.

Among the failures: none of Germany’s submarines is operational, only four of its 128 Eurofighter jets are combat-ready and the army is short dozens of tanks and armored vehicles needed for NATO missions.

In addition, troops are short on the basics: body armor, night vision gear and cold-weather clothing.

The situation is so dire that 19 helicopter pilots from Germany’s Bundeswehr were forced to turn in their flight licenses because of a lack of training time.

The reason: not enough helicopters for the pilots to fly.

Much like Japan’s “economic miracle,” protected solely by minimal “self-defense forces,” Germany has exchanged even the prospect of hard power for economic stability. But such a situation is likely untenable. It pains me to say it, but Ross Douthat wrote a decent piece in the Times.

The third German empire is a different animal altogether. Repudiating both militarism and racist mysticism, it has been built slowly and painstakingly across three generations, in cooperation with other powers (including its old enemies the French), using a mix of democratic and bureaucratic means. Today Germany bestrides its Continent, but German power is wielded softly, indirectly, implicitly — and when the fist is required, it takes the form of fiscal ultimatums, not military bluster or racial irredentism.

But still the system is effectively imperial in many ways, with power brokers in Berlin and Brussels wielding not-exactly-democratic authority over a polyglot, multiethnic, multireligious sprawl of semi-sovereign nation-states. And thinking about the European Union this way, as a Germanic empire as well as a liberal-cosmopolitan project, is a helpful way of understanding how it might ultimately fall.

Obviously, this oversimplifies – and exaggerates – the powers that Brussels holds. But it’s true that Germany has a…unique approach to fiscal policy, one at odds with most of the rest of the EU, and which nevertheless is one that’s been imposed on the other member-states. And ironically, that’s despite its relative military weakness, not because of it (although perhaps this dynamic is less surprising within the framework of the Atlantic alliance).

In so many multiethnic empires and society, the institution bridging ethnic, racial, and religious divides tends to be the military. It’s often when those forces collapse or disintegrate that so too do the borders of a Yugoslavia or an Austria-Hungary. Perhaps, if Germany continues to subtly insist on a continental economic mastery, it would do well to rebuild its own military institutions. And as long as it continues to lead the EU, turning the Eurocorps into something resembling, well, a corps might restart the long-stalled process of integration in more than a purely fiscal sense.

Germany can and will remain European, but if Berlin wants everyone else to identify as such, too, it will have to build more multilateral institutions than merely that of financial austerity.

Individual Limits

Nils Gilman has a great review essay in the LA Review of Books on Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, and it’s definitely worth your time.

In short, Moyn’s book traces the parallel development – at least from a rhetorical perspective – of “human rights” coupled with the language of “individual freedoms” associated with neoliberalism as a political project. Or, in Gilman’s words:

The book takes the form of an intervention into two huge historical debates, the first about the history of neoliberalism and the second about the history of human rights, a field whose current contours Moyn helped to define with his 2010 book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. The puzzle he seeks to explain is: How is it that the era of neoliberalism, commonly said to have begun in the mid-to-late 1970s, coincides almost perfectly with the triumphant rise of a discourse of human rights? In other words, how can it be that an era whose ethical self-conception was rooted in a transnational movement to prevent abuses such as torture, disenfranchisement, and political imprisonment has also been an era in which national and global economies were remade in ways that have allowed wealthy capital owners to capture the large majority of economic productivity gains, creating in-country inequalities not seen since the late 19th century?

Like many books of this nature, however, where it comes up a little short is in the realm of recommendations. Which isn’t to say every accurate diagnosis requires a treatment as well – in many (if not most) cases, the remedies are obvious and what’s lacking is political will – but the proliferation of this particular vocabulary throughout the establishment is pernicious, and lends itself to certain mindsets that would likely be difficult to shift.

If individual freedoms – and mostly freedoms to, rather than freedoms from – are the essential building blocks of modernity, how then to advance a project predicated on finally meeting more than just basic needs as a matter of due course, of restoring egalitarianism to the world stage on a massive scale? As Gilman explains it, even just conceiving of a way to address this will require a tremendous shift in the realm of the imaginable:

…In a globally integrated economy, only a global-scale regulatory entity has a serious chance to tame the power of global capital. In short, if the re-autarkization of national economies, as proposed by some nationalists and populists, is to be avoided, we may wish to revisit another largely forgotten intellectual episode from the protean postwar moment of the 1940s — namely, the idea of a world government.

To propose the idea of a planetary-scale state, in a time of backlashes against globalization and surging populist nationalisms, may seem less a utopian delusion than a form of political madness. To date, as Moyn himself notes, “there has been no serious erosion of the assumption that states are on their own to fulfill the economic and social rights of their citizens. […] [I]n the neoliberal age, international law furnished no redistributive tools among states, and few activists or governments tried to build them.” But we live in a time of collapsing political limits, and many things that seemed impossible or inconceivable just a few years ago have been achieved or surpassed. Who is to say that the future may not belong to a world state? Indeed, as hard as it is to imagine how such a state might come into existence, it may be even harder to imagine how the world’s immense demographic, environmental, and political challenges can possibly be addressed without one.

The hardest part, and the one that involves the deepest uprooting of American sentiments, is getting away from the cult of individuality and rediscovering the power of collective demands. An individual right is, in many ways, no right at all; it is the right to imagine a better future without securing one; the prohibition on Anatole France’s rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges; the right to express as loudly as you like how unjust the world is – but not to actually see any remedy.

I’ll have more to say on this later, but given the radical challenges facing us (and the utter failures of incrementalism on display in the past few years), it is telling that a clear-eyed assessment of the situation leads almost inexorably to solutions that, until only the past few years, were inconceivable. The current state of international political economy requires profound change if we are all to survive.

Anyways, read Gilman’s essay (and Moyn’s book)!

The Numerous and Escalating Bulgarian Laws of Robotics

RO 1, the battery-operated Bulgarian toy robot. Made in Silistra c. 1970s-1980.

Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are fairly well-known at this point. But, as Victor Petrov explains in his delightful overview of the Bulgarian Cold War-era technology industry and accompanying science fiction movement, they were far from the final three. Lyuben Dilov, a “towering” figure in Bulgarian sci-fi, wrote The Road of Icarus about an asteroid-derived generation ship, and the ethical quandaries of creating an artificial intelligence in such circumstances: “what is it to be a man when there are so many machines? Thus, Dilov invents a Fourth Law of Robotics, to supplement Asimov’s famous three, which states that ‘the robot must, in all circumstances, legitimate itself as a robot’.”

Others piled on. Nikola Kesarovski, whose short story collection was actually titled The Fifth Law of Robotics, coined the titular law in his story of the same name: “a robot must know it is a robot.” One wonders whether Ronald B. Moore and the other creators behind the Battlestar Galactica reboot were familiar with Kesarovski. Finally, Lyubomir Nikolov rounds out the canon:

In his story ‘The Hundred and First Law of Robotics’ (1989), a writer is found dead while working on his eponymous story, which states that a robot should never fall from a roof. He himself is killed by a robot who just didn’t want to learn any more laws, resulting in the final one: ‘Anyone who tries to teach a simple-minded robot a new law, must immediately be punished by being beaten on the head with the complete works of Asimov (200 volumes)’.

Hopefully, by the time we get to Law 101, we’ll have figured out how to have rendered the techno-nightmares of AI run amok nothing but – dreams.

And all of this is happening against the equally dreamlike, near-fantastical backdrop of Bulgarian modernization and informatization, as Petrov writes:

The Balkan state was, by the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc’s ‘Silicon Valley’, home to cutting-edge factories producing processors, hard discs, floppy drives and industrial robots. It was called ‘the Japan of the Balkans’, producing nearly half of all computing devices and peripherals in the Eastern Bloc…

The Bulgarians surged ahead of their socialist allies through close contacts with Japanese firms and a massive industrial espionage effort. While Bulgarian engineers signed contracts with Fujitsu, state security agents criss-crossed the United States and Europe in search of the latest embargoed electronics to buy, copy or steal. In 1977, a whole IBM factory for magnetic discs based in Portugal was bought by a cover firm and shipped off to Bulgaria; elsewhere, secrets were passed on to Bulgarians by their foreign colleagues through the simple exchange of catalogues and information at conferences and fairs. Scientists back in Bulgaria reverse-engineered, improved, tinkered; soon towns that once processed tobacco were supplying hundreds of millions of customers with computers.

Looming over all of this is the parallel Soviet effort at a socialist internet, the data juggernaut just over the horizon, out of sight. Bulgarian science fiction writes itself; phantom AI purchasers spiriting away entire factories, the detritus of post-industrialization; shadowy deals cut between equity firms, brand consultants, and the organs of state ownership; eldritch information inscribed in the pages of Oriental Trading and on AOL CDs…

Making the Left Case for NATO (or Alliances, At Least)


In an excellent recent piece on a Left foreign policy, Aziz Rana describes the post Cold War potential of the structure extant in NATO:

For Havel and Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were outdated Cold War holdovers. The hope was to create new and inclusive multilateral regional and international institutions, premised on mutual disarmament and shared decision-making. But given their commitment to American hegemony, this was not the path that Republican and Democratic officials pursued. And as the US instead promoted privatization and the starving of state institutions in Europe and elsewhere, policies like NATO expansion funneled money yet again back into defense.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Rana asks, “can NATO in some revised form be repurposed to serve Havel’s and Gorbachev’s old hope, or does the US need new multilateral and regional arrangements?”

The question is a vital one, and finding an answer will help to determine the future of international security in a broad sense. The obvious answer is that security must be as multilateral a construct as possible. But more specifically, is NATO – or some altered version of it – the vehicle through which that can be achieved?

Many veterans of the anti-imperialist, anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 80s maintain a healthy skepticism of NATO and other institutions of its ilk, and often the reasons for that skepticism are very much justified. On the whole, building multilateral structures and institutions is a worthy project. Part of the problem, though, is that institutions are frequently more beholden to contemporary ruling regimes and ideologies, rather than a consistent worldview. Even when one swims against the current, such as the IMF’s recent (long overdue) critique of neoliberalism, that often isn’t enough to undo its own previous decisions. In other words, is NATO too much NATO to ever be reformed?

The other issue with NATO, in particular, seems to be representation – by virtue of its origins, NATO’s membership is geographically limited, and this inherently limits its broader appeal. Phenomena like NATO-African Union cooperation are a step in the right direction, but a more inclusive structure would be better – it’s hard, at this stage, to envision how this might come about without devolving into the same sort of paralysis that plagues UN peacekeeping operations and contributions, but this is a necessary prerequisite.

But in addition to addressing NATO itself, it is perhaps worth examining the utility and moral quality of alliances more generally. It seems as if the main objection to a permanent standing alliance structure – as opposed to the ad hoc, shifting alliances of pre-1815 Europe – is that having a “squad at your back” might drive unnecessary interventionism. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, but as recent history has shown, when a country is truly committed to embarking on some foolish misadventure, the choice of partners won’t dissuade it. For every Franco-German-led NATO “Je refuse,” there’s a Coalition of the Willing.

On the other hand, it might be possible to use an alliance as a constraint, if it’s structured in such a way as to only operate on an integrated basis. The 2010 Lisbon Capabilities Commitments, for instance, committed certain countries and sub-groupings of alliance members to developing particular capabilities, but if these were made almost mutually exclusive they might have a deterrent effect against adventurism. If they really specialize, so instead of say, Germany focusing on heavy lift aircraft, only Germany does heavy lift and nobody else has that capability, it becomes even more difficult to operate outside the framework of the alliance.

The broader question, of course, is the purpose of an alliance. Is it meant to counter a specific threat? To reinforce a particular set of prevalent norms? In the European example, for much of history all alliances were those of convenience, made in an attempt to enforce balance in central Europe, or to forestall the rise of a potentially dominant power, or even just to bolster one’s territorial integrity by presenting a mutually defensive front. Only in the postwar era (and some would say only since 1991) has the concept of an alliance with not just interests but ideals been an enduring one. Returning to the earlier instrumental model would require us to define not only what counts as a “threat,” but to determine whether there are enough security challenges in the world to justify some alignment against them. This is the real struggle for the left. There are threats but few of them are as realistic or dangerous as all the damage the west has done to itself and the degree to which modern neoliberal-inflected western governance has ignored anything resembling public goods or regulation.

It will be a challenge to expand the concept of collective defense and mutual idealism without falling into a McCain-esque “league of democracies” or other inherently elitist project. But determining where these lines might be drawn will be critical if it is to succeed and if its success is meant to be of universal benefit. While mutual membership an defensive umbrella is no guarantee against internecine conflict (see: Greece and Turkey), it is at the very least an important normative argument against it (see: the rest of NATO).

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, but at the end of the day, a genuinely cooperative mutual defense project, structured around an alliance, strikes me as a useful tool for dampening conflict and restraining military adventurism. How it might come about, however, and whether NATO is a vehicle for doing so, is a topic worthy of much more in-depth study.

Divided Cities: A Review

Really quite excellent, Divided Cities covers a tremendous amount of ground in a relatively small number of pages. Exploring five cities divided by conflict – Belfast, in the wake of the Troubles; Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War; Jerusalem between 1947 and and the Six-Day War (and again after 2003, in an epilogue); Mostar in Bosnia, caught between Serbs and Croats; and Nicosia, Cyprus. The divisions and partitions take many different forms: the “Green Lines” that split Jerusalem and Beirut in two and which continue to separate Turkish and Greek halves of Cyprus, the no-man’s-land of the Boulevard of National Revolution in Mostar, and the “interface barriers” erected as needed to separate quarrelsome and violent factions in Belfast.

Each city is given a chapter covering both the history of the tensions and fighting leading to its partition (and subsequent reunion, in some cases), including some much-needed and illustrative maps. I’ll confess my own prior ignorance of much of the details around these specific conflicts, and for filling in those gaps alone, the book was worth it (e.g. the 1990s Balkan wars, the Lebanese Civil War, Israel between the end of World War II and the Six-Day War, the Cypriot independence struggle). But you also begin to get a sense of these cities caught in the middle of something larger, the innocent civilian populations who are made to suffer for another’s cause, the neighbors and friends who turn on each other in the midst of civil wars and sectarian uprisings.

Maps of the five cities covered in Divided Cities.

The last few chapters attempt to discern patterns and commonalities across these disparate cases, at times leading to counterintuitive findings. In Belfast, for instance, individual barriers are still erected by request in areas where Catholic and Protestant enclaves meet. Rather than see the design and construction of them as somehow legitimizing the sentiments that lead to them, urban planners and managers ought to recognize that these really are desired by residents for a sense of security, and that this is one of the most fundamental casualties of conflict. The need for a wall is not something to argue with, but rather to engage with and shape and turn into something more than yet another dead zone on the periphery (Divided Cities is accompanied throughout by haunting photos of the empty border zones between enclaves and the deserted, formerly thriving central mixing areas where they once met).

This tension is explored in depth. Planners fear their work becoming “politicized,” but as can be seen even in the peacetime west, that’s almost an inevitability regardless of specifics or location. As one planner in Mostar said, “planning is always a compromise between a profession and the politics – 50 percent approximately…however, today’s politics outweigh the profession. Its share in deciding today is 95 percent and above.” The key for the planner in a divided city is to get one’s hands dirty; to not refrain from participating in the design of the built environment, however far from ideal it might be.

Other findings seem to apply almost as equally to the subject cities as to today’s increasingly stratified, bifurcated urban polities: “Observable results [of urban partitions] include increased mutual avoidance, apathy, a growing conviction that a rival group uis responsible for assorted social ills, and a lack of interest concerning the activities of residents on the other side of the partition [emphasis mine].”

Many of the cities featured in this survey were divided as a result of British imperial withdrawal. Britain’s colonial preference of favoring a chosen ethnicity or other particular group – at the expense of the others – is well-documented in Jerusalem and, of course, Belfast, and London’s dithering over the Cypriot crisis coupled with an inability to broker a compromise led to the island’s inhabitants taking measures into their own hands. Britain’s persistence in devising constitutions and legislatures predicated on ethnic quotas and representations led to an emphasis on in-group/out-group identity that did not exist in the same way prior to their rule. The legacies of empire continue to last and to linger over these divided lands.

Other similarities emerge, at times verging on the repetitive, but the point is an important one: partition leads to, among other things, a senseless duplication of infrastructure and services, to second fire and police and school and transport and sanitation systems that further drain the already-reduced resources of a city in recovery.

But there is also grounds for hope. Nicosia’s sewage system is impossible to duplicate for a separate northern and southern system, and so a single unified treatment plant and sewers are run jointly by Turkish and Greek engineers. Finding room to cooperate where possible – particularly on a local level, where politicians and leaders are less beholden to national sentiments and resentments – is key to overcoming hatreds and unnecessary redundancy. But this doesn’t come naturally to a divided city.

The lessons of Divided Cities are as relevant as ever. The book was written during the occupation of Baghdad, when US forces erected their own barricades and insisted on religious quotas for the Council of Representatives, ascribing much of the violence in the country to a Sunni-Shia divided (rather than other local causes). With cities frequently cited as the next major battlefield for the militaries of the world, finding a new approach without unnecessary partition will be key to avoiding new sectarian violence. But thanks to this book, we can begin to chart a path forward.

Cross-posted [mostly] from Goodreads.

The Madness of Contingency

The other night, while watching Deutschland ’83, I found myself wondering what a 1990s-era Soviet Union – and Eastern Bloc, in general – might have looked like. What a world of possibility! To what extent would the same commercial energies in the west have been poured into monetizing the internet? What would growing digital interconnectivity in the world have looked like with half of it still cut off (and would that still have been the case)?

A Cold War contnuing into the 90s has ominous portents – in what new and exciting ways would have been coupling ever-advanced nuclear warheads (say, the never-built B90) with precision-enabling technologies? What shape would US infrastructure and the built environment have been in without the “Peace Dividend?” Would Martin Marietta still be around? Would a liberalized Soviet Union have helped drag the welfare state into the twenty-first century? Could it possibly have persisted as a nation, or were there insurmountable internal contradictions?

Still from the 2014 Russian TV-3 show “Chernobyl: Zone of Exclusion,” depicting a 21st-century Soviet Union.

But no, Gorbachev’s program of reform led to loosening Moscow’s control over the periphery led to velvet revolutions and Solidarność and the attempted coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contemplating this sequence of events and all the other possibilities it forestalled leaves one with the same feeling of unease that follows a car crash or being on the receiving end of a chewing-out. Which isn’t to lament those lost presents, but one is left with the recognition that everything, in the end, is up to chance. Who predicted the end of the Soviet Union? Who saw these momentous events coming? And if all other alternative action was an attempt to preserve some version of the status quo, it engenders a kind of paralysis; change is coming so why do anything at all?

You could look at Hong Kong as well, and how its return to China was predicated on the fact that while Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, the “New Territories” from southern Guangdong were only under a 99-year lease (99 years being thought “as good as forever” by the lead British negotiator), the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. That measure of the eternal expired in 1997 – hence the handover that year – after the Thatcher Government determined in the 1980s that continued British sovereignty over Hong Kong unviable without the New Territories. For want of an temporal imagination, the pearl was lost.

The number of branching possibilities, of an unending sequence of slightly different parallel universes is enough to drive anyone insane. And seizing on that one lost opportunity, that minor oversight that’s led to a present crisis… I’d never discourage the study of history – or alternate history –  but dwelling on some of those wanted nails can raise impossible questions. Contemplating the infinite can take us to the edge of madness.

But accompanying this is a reason for optimism: if anything at all is possible, that includes good outcomes, so prudence calls for us to prepare to make the most of opportunities. TO seize the moment. What’s possible right now might not be so tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean a different future isn’t worh imaging. But beyond a broad vision of possibility, it’s critical to imagine the details, the causality. How do we get from here to there? Everything is unsettled; no longer does the arc of history follow some predictable trajectory – for better or worse, our destiny is ours to affect, if not define.

What might have been? What could be?

In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again


Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.


Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

What is “Systems Analysis”?

“Systems analysis,” as a concept, can be difficult to define and pin down. For much of my life, I assumed it was some sort of generic back-office IT function (see, for instance, the hundreds of man-on-the-street “American Voices” interviews in The Onion, which describe respondents in equal measure as ‘unemployed’ or ‘systems analyst’). But given the complexities of almost, well, everything in the modern era, an understanding of the logical underpinnings of systems analysis is critical.

Essentially, single variables cannot be considered in isolation. A new weapons platform or technological development or re-basing movement must be thought of in the context of existing technology, logistics capacity, weather, enemy reaction, enabling capabilities, fixed facilities, power projection, and so on, down an otherwise infinite fractal list of factors.


Dr. Bernard Brodie, RAND Corporation (Wikimedia)

But all this is a long-winded introduction to Bernard Brodie’s hypothetical systems analysis example in Strategy in the Missile Age is one of the best,  most succinct ways of describing just how complex this interplay is. Brodie, of course, had a front-row seat to this effort, as the RAND Corporation was the earliest home to a methodological approach to the field. Beginning on page 381 in the 1967 edition:

Let us consider, for example, the problem of choosing between two kinds of strategic bombers. Each represents in its design an advanced “state of the art,” but each also represents a different concept. In one, which we shall call Bomber A, the designers have sought to maximize range. They have therefore settled for a subsonic top speed in a plane of fairly large size. The designers of Bomber B, on the contrary, have been more impressed with the need for a high dash speed during that part of the sortie which involves penetration of enemy territory, and have built a smaller, shorter-ranged plane capable of a Mach 2 dash for a portion of its flight. Let us assume also that the price of the smaller plane is about two-thirds that of the larger.

Perhaps we can take both types into our inventory, but even then we should have to compare them to determine which we should get in the larger numbers. Let us then pick a certain number of specific targets in enemy territory, perhaps three hundred, and specify the destruction of these targets as the job to be accomplished. Since we know that both types can accomplish this job with complete success if properly supported and handled, our question then becomes: which type can do it for the least money?

We do not ask at this stage which type can do it more reliably, because within limits we can buy reliability with dollars, usually by providing extra units. Some performance characteristics, to be sure, will not permit themselves to be thus translated into dollars-for example, one type of plane can arrive over target somewhat sooner than the other type, and it is not easy to price the value of this advantage but we shall postpone consideration of that and similar factors until later.

Let us assume that Bomber A has a cruising range of 6,000 miles, while Bomber B is capable of only 4,000 miles. This means that Bomber A has to be refueled only on its post-strike return journey, while Bomber B probably has to be refueled once in each direction. This at once tells us something about the number of “compatible” tankers that one has to buy for each type (“compatible” referring to the performance characteristics which enable it to operate smoothly with a particular type of bomber). Up to this point Bomber B has appeared the cheaper plane, at least in terms of initial purchase price, but its greater requirement in tankers actually makes it the more expensive having regard for the whole system. In comparing dollar costs, however, it is pointless to compare merely procurement prices for the two kinds of planes; one has to compare the complete systems, that is to say, the weapons, the vehicles, and the basing, protection, maintenance, and operating costs, and one must consider these costs for each system over a suitably long period of peacetime maintenance, say five years. These considerations involve us also in questions of manpower. We are in fact pricing, over some duration of time, the whole military structure required for each type of bomber.


A B-36 Peacemaker, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler from Carswell AFB, TX en route to the former’s retirement in 1958. The B-52 would long outlive the more advanced Hustler. (Wikimedia)

Now we have the problem of comparing through a process of “operations analysis,” how the two types fare in combat, especially the survival expectancy of each type of plane during penetration. In other words, we have to find out how much the greater speed (and perhaps higher altitude) of Bomber B is worth as protection. If the enemy depends mostly on interceptors, the bomber’s high speed and altitude may help a great deal; if he is depending mostly on guided missiles, they may help relatively little. Thus a great deal depends on how much we know about his present and projected defenses, including the performance characteristics of his major weapons.

If our Bomber A is relying mostly on a low altitude approach to target, which its longer range may just make possible (we are probably thinking in terms of special high efficiency fuels for wartime sorties), it may actually have a better survival expectation than its faster competitor. Also, we know that penetration capability is enhanced by increasing the numbers of bombers penetrating (again, a matter of money) or by sending decoys in lieu of extra bombers to help confuse the enemy’s radar and saturate his defenses. Perhaps we find that the faster plane would outrun the decoys, which again might tend to give it a lower penetration score than one would otherwise expect. But decoys are expensive too, in acquisition costs, basing, and maintenance, and involve additional operating problems. The faster plane may be less accurate in its bombing than the other, which again would involve a requirement for more aircraft and thus more money.

We have given just barely enough to indicate the nature of a typical though relatively simple problem in what has come to be known as “systems analysis.” The central idea is that no weapon can be considered independently of the other weapons and commodities that are used with it, that all endure through some period of time and require men to service them and to be trained in their use, that all these items involve costs, and that therefore relative costs of different systems, as considered against some common standard of function, are basic to the problem of choice between systems. Systems analysis, which brings what is modern to present-day strategic analysis, is mostly a post-World War II development.

The challenges herein are immense, which in part explains the explosion not only of defense research and development but also of the defense bureaucracy as a whole. It’s a sprawling, tangled mass that can in many ways only be understood in relation to itself. But systems analysis is at least an attempt to build that into other assumptions and considerations.

Using this technique is not only a way to compare technologies with like missions; it’s an excellent tool for use in wargame design. This too is in fact an iterative process, as the insights from a wargame itself might reveal further interrelationships, which might then be used to craft a more complex operating environment (or refine the mechanics used to select force lists), and so on ad infinitum.

Practicality aside, Brodie’s writing serves as an excellent primer to what systems analysis entails, and more broadly, to the change in strategic thought and analysis since the end of World War II.